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The Long Game: Keeper Auction Strategy Tips

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

Keeper Auction Strategy Tips

Fantasy baseball has come a long way since Okrent and the boys got the whole thing started back in '79. Strategies for putting together the best roster have been devised, refined, then discarded as the competition adjusted and new strategies were needed. Few primers on various auction strategies, however, pay much attention to keeper leagues and how the particular demands of that setup affect those strategies. This article is an attempt to fill that gap, and hopefully get owners to think about aspects of their auction that they might not have considered before.

Stars and Scrubs versus Balanced Construction – The Eternal Debate

In broad terms, there are essentially two main styles of roster construction in auction leagues. Stars and Scrubs mean you spend the bulk of your money on big-name established stars to anchor your roster, and then plug the holes with cheap players. Balanced construction is more or less the opposite approach, and involved spreading your auction dollars around more evenly in an effort to make sure your roster has no weak spots, and can better withstand an injury or two.

Most owners prefer one style over the other, and if you keep the same group of owners together for a while you get to know those preferences. But in keeper leagues those preferences are just as likely to reveal themselves in an owner's protected list, even if you've never been to the table with them. An owner who keeps a bunch of players in the high single digit to the teens salary range has pretty much already committed themselves to a balanced approach, as they won't have the resources to spend big money on more than one or maybe two players. On the other hand, an owner who protects nothing but players making chump change (or, more rarely, cheap players plus one or two expensive studs at about their market value) already has their 'scrubs' in place, and you know they've probably kept their powder dry to try and bring down the biggest names available.

Which approach is better, though? Well, that depends on your definition of 'better'. Certainly if you're fortunate enough to have a large group of keepers who have legitimate value but are getting paid in the $1 to $5 range, your auction strategy is almost immaterial, as you've got a huge head start on your league mates. Most of the time, though, you won't be so lucky, and your keepers will be a mix of cheap guys of marginal value, more expensive guys turning a modest profit, and one or two core studs making far less than they are worth. In such cases it's important to remember that you, and every other owner, have two complementary but not necessarily simpatico goals in mind: winning this year, and winning down the road. The first decision you have to make, before you sit down at the auction table, is deciding which of those goals is going to take precedence, and that means being ruthlessly honest with yourself on how strong your keeper core actually is.

Once all the protected lists get released, do some quick math and figure out a) who has the most projected earnings from their keepers, and b) who has the most projected profit from their keepers. If you're among the leaders in either group, you've got a legitimate shot at winning and should play for this year. If you lag far behind in both earnings and profit, though, it's probably best to put your championship dreams on hold and play for next year.

If you think you're in the hunt for this season, you need to maximize your return from your auction dollars, and that probably means a more balanced approach. It's behind their paywall so linking it might not help most folks, but Baseball Prospectus' Mike Gianella did a study a few weeks ago looking at the ROI (Return on Investment) of players in different salary ranges over the last three years of LABR auctions. It shouldn't be surprising, but in general the higher the price tag on a player, the lower their ROI. Hitters making $30 or more didn't even return eighty cents on the dollar, while hitters in the $10-$14 range almost earned their money back on average, and dollar days hitters earned many times their salaries. In keeper leagues, of course, this effect is exacerbated as inflation drives up the prices of the most expensive players, while end game players are left untouched. 20% inflation doesn't turn a $1 player into a $1.20 player, after all. Instead, all those nickels and dimes get saved up and thrown at the big boys.

On the flip side, if you're looking to the future, stars and scrubs is the way to go. First off, the stars you get will be among the best trade bait you have, and should net nice returns in keepers once you finally decide to pack it in for the year. And of course, the more cheap endgame lottery tickets you pick up, the better your odds of finding core keepers for next year's title run.

There's one more wrinkle to consider, though, and that's league depth. In shallower leagues, like 12 team mixed formats, replacement level in the free agent pool is so high that you have very little to lose if your endgame picks don't pan out. You should still be looking for the best values if you're playing for this year, but you can afford to be a little less balanced and a little more flexible if you get caught up in a couple of bidding wars, and you should always keep a couple of spot open in the auction endgame to swing for the fences with cheap, high-upside targets (depending on your league rules, these are typically players such as rookies who may not have regular jobs, setup men behind iffy closers, etc). Conversely, if you're in a deep, 12 team single league format, an endgame dollar player who turns out to be a complete bust could be very difficult to replace, which should encourage you to be a lot more cautious in your auction strategy if you think this is your year.

Pitcher Prices and the LIMA Effect

You'll notice that the ROIs listed above are specifically for hitters. When it comes to pitcher salaries and values, things get a lot muddier. The study found that while pitchers who went for $20 or more had an ROI of just under $0.90 (almost as good as the $10-$14 pitchers, in fact), hurlers in the $15-$19 range truly made their owners want to hurl, barely making back seventy cents on the dollar. Endgame buys still had ROIs comparable to hitters.

What that sounds like, of course, is an invitation to go LIMA. The LIMA plan innovated by Ron Shandler a couple of decades ago basically says that you should spend most of your money on a stacked, bulletproof offense that can survive some bad luck, buy a closer or two to shore you up in saves, and then pick up a bunch of cheap arms with ill-defined roles who meet certain statistical criteria in the hopes that their skill sets will earn them better, more valuable jobs. Lance Lynn would be the LIMA poster boy from last year, and Johan Santana's name is already enshrined in the LIMA Hall of Fame. It's a stars and scrubs strategy where the stars are almost all on offense, and the scrubs are the bulk of your pitching staff.

There's just one problem: the statistical benchmarks LIMA recommends you target (basically, strike a lot of guys out without walking too many while keeping the ball in the park) are now the standard by which everyone judges pitchers. Back in the days when Jack McDowell and Pat Hentgen were winning Cy Youngs, and wins and ERA were seen as all that matters, those ideas were revolutionary. Today, in the wake of Three True Outcomes and BABIP, a $1 bid on a "no-name" pitcher with a 10.0 K/9 rate that would have produced crickets in the past now draws plenty of unwanted attention.

So where does that leave you in a keeper league auction? To me, it suggests stars and scrubs all the way on your pitching staff. The top names, the established aces and brand name closers, are by and large safe investments, and there's still a little profit to be found in the endgame, even if the best picks are no longer quite as cheap as they used to be. Where you don't want to get stuck is in the middle, settling for guys who have a wart or two. The former aces with injury question marks, closers who have only had the job for a year or so, the overhyped youngsters... these are the players who kill you, and end up earning far less than you pay them. Of course, as everyone at your auction table gradually comes to the same realization, the salaries of the stars will keep rising and the bidding wars for those prized "sleepers" will get more intense, and the landscape of the market will shift again. Same as it ever was.

The other advantage of stars and scrubs, of course, is in landing those cheaper pitchers who then become the core of next year's staff. If fantasy baseball makes for good poker analogies (and it does) then keeper leagues are the draw poker of fantasy baseball. Every year you get dealt a hand, keep the pocket pairs and discard the rest, and given the risk and uncertainty inherent in pitching values it becomes more and more crucial to your success to find and keep those pocket pairs.

Dealing With Scarcity

Another common auction strategy is to focus on scarcity, whether positional or categorical. The theory here is that the players available late at deeper positions like the outfield are far more productive than the last couple of catchers or shortstops, so you want to spend your resources at those scarce positions to ensure you don't get stuck with the true dregs of the auction. Focusing on categories follows the same course. While there will be plenty of players at the end of the auction who can hit double digit home runs, or have regular rotation spots and can supply double digit wins with 100+ strikeouts, the number of players who can make an impact in steals or saves is much smaller, so you should make sure to cover yourself in those categories by spending big.

While that approach has some value in redraft leagues, using it in keeper leagues ignores the fact that whenever possible, you want cheap, productive players at those scarce positions (or who produce in those scarce categories). A $5 catcher who wins a starting role midseason or $3 reliever who gets a shot to close is potentially far more valuable than a $5 outfielder or $3 starter bought in the same phase of the auction. If you focus all your attention on paying top dollar for established players at those spots, though, you necessarily pass up the chance to roster next year's keepers.

It's a tough tightrope to walk, and your exact league setup plays a big role in how successfully you tiptoe along it. A league with a deep bench and the option to keep reserve players at affordable prices can allow you to have your cake and eat it too, as you can spend auction dollars on the stars and scoop up scarcity lottery tickets for your bench. But in more restrictive formats, you're probably going to have to choose one or the other, and as with your overall auction strategy where you are in the success cycle (going for the win, or building for the future) should be the deciding factor.