13 fantasy baseball tips I used to win Tout Wars’ mixed auction

After six years of seemingly either falling just short of a title, or finishing near the basement or subterranean – maybe there was one year of an in-between result – I finally reached a professional goal in 2018, bringing home my first Tout Wars expert-league title in the mixed auction.

I’m not aiming to make this into a “look at how great I did in one league” summary, though it always pays to take lessons from any victory or defeat.

We should look at any trophy-winning season in two parts: (1) dissecting your players’ performance, and (2) examining whether the strategy that got you there was valid or mostly good fortune.

But first … the Yoo-Hoo.

(Here’s a history lesson for the uninformed.)

Over to the fun stuff: Here are the final standings.

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Love that fellow RotoWirers Derek VanRiper and Jeff Zimmerman also finished in the top four. In fact, we all sat near the same corner of the auction tables setup. (Since the defending champion always has the first throw at the auction, I’m guessing people will suddenly be a lot nicer to me next March simply to get the advantage of sitting to my left and being able to nominate players sooner.)

I was fortunate enough to have led this league since late May. As you can see, I pulled off the rare distinction of a first-place preseason projection (via OnRoto’s fun Draft Day Roster projection) and finish.

I did feel pretty good coming out of the draft, but I typically do my best to squash any ridiculously premature joy. “Too good to be true”, I always think.

Alas, I’ll be getting my own item on the menu at Foley’s, the best sports bar in New York, in next March’s predraft party. (Send me your suggestions on what food I should choose.)

Using the RotoWire Draft Software was a huge help, of course, but I’ll throw in a caveat: I don’t devoutly ascribe to the “you must finish in first place” in the final standings projections. Sometimes, to round out your roster, you need to take chances on upside, which isn’t always reflected in the black-and-white standings your program spits out via the hard projections.

Paraphrasing what Chris Liss said in one of his podcasts, player stat projections merely represent a necessary baseline on which we can build or subtract, depending on our intuition.

Which players helped me bring home the trophy?

I call these my “T-shirt” players. Going to the annual Baseball HQ First Pitch Forums baseball symposium in Phoenix every November (it’s sold out this year — try 2019!), you’ll often see attendees sporting the jerseys/sherseys of those who led them to glory.

My T-shirt candidates from draft day:

  • Blake Snell ($6 on auction day): Arguably the AL Cy Young
  • Javier Baez ($6): The long-awaited breakout … broke out.
  • Miles Mikolas ($6): I lived off his batted-ball suffocation all season.
  • Michael Brantley ($1): I was shocked no one went $2, but it was late in the draft.
  • Eddie Rosario ($3): Though he cratered in the second half, his ridiculous first-half pace was a big help.

Think I’m leaning Snell.

(I also won J.D. Martinez for $33 when many elites were going for at least $10 more – his lack of stolen bases scared people off. Still, he’s not in the running. After all, I refuse to buy or wear a Red Sox shirt.)

Waiver Wire Wins

  • Bud Norris ($126 in FAAB, 4/15)
  • Kyle Freeland ($66, 5/14, before eventually trading him for returning Rich Hill)
  • Hector Rondon ($66, 6/10)
  • Stephen Piscotty ($56, 6/17)
  • Wily Peralta ($13, 7/2)
  • Jeremy Jeffress ($26, 8/13 – after a failed turn following $78, 4/9)

Others: Ian Kinsler ($3); Jose Urena ($1) 

Notice I lucked out in the saves category to complement Aroldis Chapman, even after stumbling with Jeffress early: Try to get ahead in the chase for this stat as much as possible. Caught Freeland and Piscotty before they broke out, as well.

Where did I go wrong?

  • Draft buys: Madison Bumgarner ($29), Brian Dozier ($28), Wil Myers ($25), Yoan Moncada ($16)
  • Dropping Zack Wheeler, Jurickson Profar and Willy Adams – along with trading Joey Gallo — not long before each caught earth-scorching fire

You can still dance around missteps. Of course, general “everyone stays healthy” aside — which absolutely helped me take this league — fantasy managers can position themselves for good fortune in several ways.

Here are some important things I kept in mind through this whole process:

Auction prep

1. If you have the time, do your own player projections – at least of those players you’re stuck on.

I returned to doing the deep-dive version this past preseason after taking a few years off – and it made a huge difference.

If you can’t, get an idea of how each position is divvied up. Where can you find discounted players? Which positions require more urgency to target?

2. Know your rules and scoring system.

Basic but necessary: Tailor your plan to where you can manipulate loopholes in the settings, how your league may value certain players and more. Of course, in OBP games like this, you want players who walk more often.

During auction

3. Establish the prices for top-end players as soon as possible.

Nominate Mike Trout, Max Scherzer, Craig Kimbrel, Gary Sancheze, etc. early to set the top end of the price structure for each position. That way, you can do a quick gauge on whether subsequent markets are logical – and make appropriate bids along the way, depending on the standard deviation.

This way, you can gain a valuable perspective on what it’ll take to work through each position. I’m not averse to investing in any of these big fish, but I typically don’t in this 15-team mixer.

4. Buy players in waves.

Don’t overspend early (losing all control of bargain hunting) or save all your money until the end (you’ll wind up overinvesting on uncertain commodities).

Buying a few resources at a time — and taking the time afterward to reset the market in your favor — gives you an edge. Spend up for floor. Let sleepers come to you later.

This takes time — auctions can take three hours or longer, after all — but here’s one way to do that …

5. Nominate similar players/stats to those you’ve won ASAP.

Get your piece, and make someone else pay to catch up. Shoving duplicate resources to your opponents frees up money for you to address your other needs by improving your position on the money board.

6. Follow the DDSB rule with your core players.

Here’s one I’ve added to my plan in light of recent major-league trends.

Stolen bases are dwindling, and one strategy heavily used this past year was to do everything possible to get one-category contributors like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton.

However, those singular assets leave their bidders short on other categories — especially if they chewed up a hunk of their budget. While power is abundant, that’s a major disadvantage from Day 1.

To zag against the zigs, I started my core by targeting as many players with double-digit-stolen-base (DDSB) potential within a five-category baseline as possible. They didn’t have to be spectacular speedsters, but they had to contribute at least a handful.

I landed A.J. Pollock ($16), Javier Baez (who outperformed even my expectations), Wil Myers, Yoan Moncada ($16), Chris Taylor ($12) and (cashing in on what I thought was a pipe dream) Michael Brantley.

I generally knock at least $1 off the projected price of anyone who isn’t in the conversation for this topic and add $1 to players with that power-speed potential. It’s a useful tiebreaker, too.

7. Aim for profit with starting pitchers in rotisserie leagues.

This corrected my major mistake from 2017, when I spent over $80 on my top four starters here.

I did buy a baseline No. 1 with MadBum. Just one, though. I still think it’s important to have one guy who centers around quality starts, eating innings, etc. Of course, head-to-head/points leagues rely heavily on SP success, so this tip probably doesn’t work as well there.

However, given the volatility of nearly every SP tier in this era of exponential offensive growth, why overinvest and expect too high a floor from a starting pitcher – especially in an era when super bullpens are capping the game-by-game upside of mediocre hurlers?

In that vein …

8. I’m not saying punt strikeouts – but in many leagues, it might not need the draft-day attention we think it does.

With major-league action averaging 8.48 strikeouts per game last year – the highest ever recorded in 148 seasons on the books, according to Baseball Reference, and having increased every season since 2008 – it’s becoming easier than ever to catch up in the whiff column, whether K’s come from starters or — in a time when there are more multi-inning bullpen arms worth using in deep mixed leagues – those super, and even useful, RPs.

As our colleague Todd Zola has preached for as long as I can remember, this is why it’s vital to maintain at least non-harmful ERAs and WHIPs. As innings gradually build, anyone struggling in those categories could be buried by midsummer, often before they realize it, because they’ll need to exceed normal SP expectations just to catch up. With streaming becoming more difficult than almost ever, I don’t want that fight.

The Josh Haders and Chad Greens are becoming more valuable than ever. Use those relievers who can go two innings and erase many SP evils as often as possible. I used a 5 SP/4 RP for many weeks in this league to make sure I maintained that balance, and I eventually gained eight of 15 rotisserie points while preserving other more urgent categories.

Just like there’s always money in the banana stand, there’s always strikeouts on a mixed-league waiver wire.

(Take this with a grain of salt for the 12-team or shallower mixed leagues. It’s probably easier to make up ground in those, where quality SP options are more abundant.)

9. Save extra topper dollars for the later stages to choose your breakout or game-breaking bargain bids.

Hi there, Snell, Mikolas, Jose Berrios ($12) and Michael Wacha ($6), who helped buoy my pitching staff while Bumgarner healed; and Baez, Brantley and Rosario.

On that note …

10. Wait as long as possible to nominate players you like.

Your competitors will assuredly use this step at least several times to ruin your version of the plan. Preferably, however, when your exercise gets closer to the end when you control the board or at least have enough flexibility to make a calculated move, you can use a dominating position to lock your favorites onto your roster.

Inseason management

11. Avoid punting any category — but if needed, plan on knowing which you can short.

The flow of standings after a month should reveal the start of your plan. From there, do your best to judge where your biggest need(s) will be. I decided to ease up on strikeouts and OBP when I fell behind early. I then moved to overload on home runs and stolen bases while keeping my pitching ratios pristine. Eventually, I was able to buy strikeouts to keep a big overall lead:

12. Trade to reallocate surplus resources to opponents who can help you.

This might be more difficult to do if your league doesn’t offer an incentive for everyone to pay attention. (This is why having incentive to keep everyone competitive helps.)

Luckily for me, Tout Wars penalizes owners who finish below a certain standings threshold, so everyone played as strongly as they can through to the end to avoid losing FAAB money in 2019.

I used some owners’ desire to merely seek a better finish to block the teams ranked directly behind me from moving up in certain categories – one being stolen bases. I knew Jonathan Villar’s opportunity with the Orioles would be a big one, but I thought I had enough stolen bases to move him to get strikeouts.

So I traded with an owner who needed steals and received Luis Castillo. Villar helped my trade partner move up in stolen bases – and even surpass me into first place. Though I hated to lose the rotisserie point, it kept my more dangerous competitors from moving up in a fashion dangerous to me. Mission accomplished.

13. Judge your players’ future production and use it to your benefit.

Making the call on if/when to buy, sell, hold or short a player is one of the biggest things I’ve learned in recent seasons.

Catching a player before liftoff can lead to a huge profit. On the flip side, think about whether a player is already at peak stock price and you should unload him before his market crashes.

It might involve being a little early on the trend, so there’ll probably be bumps. But insight and anticipation are key steps toward winning a six-month contest.