Handling a Timid Auction

Last week over the course of two nights, the Second FanGraphs staff league held our annual auction. As always, I entered with a simple strategy – stay calm, nab the one or two big names you need, but mostly let the rest of the league cash out early, and clean up with sleepers and guys who slip through the cracks.

That didn’t work out so well this time. You can see the way the auction went here. If you scroll through far enough, you’ll see that those sleepers didn’t sleep and the guys falling through the cracks didn’t fall that far. An overabundance of caution led to moderate early prices and too much cash to spend later. So what’s an owner to do?

The primary reason this happened is because there is some groupthink at work in this league. Every owner in the league is a FanGraphs writer and while that doesn’t mean we think exactly the same, or that we don’t challenge each other, we do often start from a similar premise and do share a lot of baseball values. When you add the fact that this is a points league – meaning that no one needed steals or power or saves or Ks more than anyone else – there was a lot of overlap in valuation and strategy and the result was that we all tried to wait out the same sleepers.

Somehow this meant that top talent went cheap ($29 Prince Fielder, anyone?) in a lot of cases, while many guys I expected to go cheap did not ($9 Gregory Polanco? $10 Khris Davis?). And this threw my auction into a tizzy. At the end, I walked out with a team I like that looks nothing like what I expected.

But what is valuable for you is how to learn from this and what to do when your auction gets timid and no one is spending the big bucks early. I see two strategies, and I took the second (although not because I think it is best).

The strategy I took was to save my cash to find the right discounts. I grabbed a pile of players who could provide value but have questions around them. In this league, prospects were going high, so I actually looked at playing time questions. I needed depth in MI so I grabbed both Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks, along with Chris Owings. I needed OF help, so Corey Dickerson found a spot on my roster.

I also targeted players who could create trade value for me. Pre-auction, I was very happy with my Wilson Ramos/Yan Gomes combo, but adding Devin Mesoraco puts me in a good position to have a catcher to trade. If Ike Davis can pan out, Adam Lind or Brandon Belt would be expendable. I had Nick Castellanos as Josh Donaldson/OF insurance, but added Matt Davidson, potentially allowing me to move another 3B at some point.

The strategy I maybe SHOULD have taken was to quickly note the low prices and buy early. I didn’t need a 1B, but a $30 Prince Fielder would have looked awfully nice. I wasn’t planning to spend a ton on relievers, but a $22 Craig Kimbrel may have been worth it. The problem I ran into is that it took me too long to see what was happening. I somehow missed how much cash everyone had left, even after the big names went off the board early.

The reality is, both of these approaches can work – the key is recognizing what is happening in the auction and adjusting accordingly. Come in with a plan, but be prepared to scrap it. Your plan should be built based on a particular spending environment, and if the actual auction doesn’t match your projections, then your projections need to change.

I was slow to adapt, and so instead of adding James Shields and Carlos Gonzalez, I ended up with Matt Holliday, a slew of young pitchers with potential, and flyers that could turn into trade chips. If things break the right way, this strategy could be the better long-term play, but in the meantime it will lead to a lot of anxiety.

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26 Responses to “Handling a Timid Auction”

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  1. Chris says:

    We had the same thing happen in our draft the other day. Almost everybody ended up leaving money on the table because we were waiting for each other to jump. A couple big stars went for huge prices, but there were a lot of bargains on second tier guys that I think a lot of us wish we would have jumped on instead of waiting for deals late.

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  2. Brad Johnson says:

    I went and spent big on Joey Votto in this draft (over $40) only to have that Fielder bid immediately follow him. Unfortunately, I already had Wright and Cabrera on my roster, so I didn’t think I should bid. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have Fielder or Votto available for trade right now. So in addition to what Chad mentioned, I also learned that it’s worth biding on a star player if they’re a huge bargain, even if you don’t have a spot for them.

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    • Chad Young says:

      Not sure I agree with this: “even if you don’t have a spot for them.” If I had a $30 Prince, a $20 Pujols, and a $23 Cain (or even two of those three), I would not have a $31 Holliday, and while a $31 Holliday is, in a vacuum, less of a deal than a $30 Prince, that would have been bad for my roster construction. I have Goldy at 1B and a Belt/Lind platoon for cheap at Util. Prince at Util would be better, sure, but not enough to make up for having to start Choice, Castellanos, or Dickerson in the OF. Prince-Castellanos is not nearly as good as Holliday-Belt/Lind. I always make sure I leave spots open on my team for a deal here or there, but you have to make sure you optimize your roster construction.

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  3. Chicago Mark says:

    Bummer on this Chad. I don’t know how many leagues/drafts you participate in. But the draft is the one, most important day I look forward to. It ain’t easy to change in mid-stream. Better luck on the next draft.

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  4. repper says:

    This is currently happening in my keeper league slow auction.

    I luckily saw this early and nabbed a 32$ Prince Fielder and David Wright (our auction cap is 320$) and take an 18$ flier on Jose Abreu. Meanwhile later in the draft Josh Hamilton and Pablo Sandoval went for 30$.

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    • Andrew A says:

      yikes. Nice going. One of my first tips in an auction draft is to keep a running tally of how much the league is overspending or underspending and adjust accordingly. I don’t see why this type of thinking isn’t more prevalent.

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  5. Rico says:

    I notice a lot of expert drafts (but not this one) where the elite hitting talent will go for 20% more than custom auction values would typically dictate. Ie, Miguel Cabrera custom auction value of $50 will sell for closer to $60. I’ve run solver in excel and frequently it will indicate that even for a sale price of well higher than custom auction value dictates, you should be buying elite talent early and filling up on cheap players later. I feel like there should be an article written on this subject. Because logistically, if you tell me my choices are Miggy goes to another team or I pay $60, I prefer paying the overpriced amount in my drafts simply out of avoidance of “excess funds pressure”. Frankly, I’ve never seen a draft where the elite talent went for so much money that I got sick deals on $20-$30 players. More frequently, I see people leave auctions with excess fund and spending $10 on $1 sleepers.

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    • Chad Young says:

      I have gone into auctions where I felt I needed just one or two pieces and that I was going to spend whatever it took to get the BEST possible pieces and that has worked out ok, at times, but often at the expense of any future my team hoped to have. The difference between the $1 sleepers and prospects and the $5 sleepers and prospects is often quite significant. The key is finding balance. A $50 Miggy for $60? Sure. But for $70? I’ve made that mistake and I’ll pass in the future.

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  6. Adam says:

    This is an excellent point, and one that isn’t expressed very much in the auction advice literature. I’ve been in an auction league with the same folks for few years now, and for some reason, everyone seems to be a little gun-shy for the first couple nominations. While the commonly accepted nomination strategy early in auctions is to nominate players you feel are overvalued and let everyone bid them up, in this league, I’ve had quite a bit of luck nominating top level talent and getting a small bargain. After the first few top shelf guys are off the table relatively cheaply, everyone starts battling it out for the rest of the premium talent, for example, Ryan Zimmerman went for just a few dollars less than David Wright last year as three guys felt they desperately needed a third baseman.

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  7. gee's up, hoes down says:

    In a timid auction, I like to nominate near elites before the big guns at the position come up. Beltre before Cabrera, Cliff Lee before Kershaw, Jones before Trout, etc. If everyone is holding their dollars for the best players, you can often get a big discount.

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  8. Chickensoup says:

    Seems like you had a weird way of trying to do a points auction….

    1: make projections on players
    2: convert projections to points
    3: find out the points/dollar value (total points in your projected draft pool/total dollars of owners)
    4: assign a dollar value to each player
    5: figure out the most likely places to get discounts as targets and players to nominate
    6: do the draft, don’t go over value on players, don’t bother caring if it’s a hitter or pitcher, maybe bump catchers up slightly but otherwise don’t pay a premium for positions, look for discounts

    I can’t see a logical reason to not follow that formula. Doing this accounts for both extremes of drafts and the in between. If top talent is going for $5 more per player then cheaper guys have to go for less and you get a larger discount. If expensive players go for less than value you can get a couple for under your personal value which is what your goal is while others have to overpay for worse players. If players early are going for (+/- $1) value then the big guys are fine to buy but mostly waiting for discounts to come is your goal.

    Setting a price point and obtaining values is the name of the game IMO. Going into a draft with a strategy other than get as many discounts as possible regardless of the player means you just don’t trust your projections. Sleepers are just players you project to be better than their generally available projections.

    Sorry if this came off as rude but the whole strategy you attempted to employ seems illogical. Over the long haul you will lose a higher percentage of your leagues going this route. You should basically be in on every player for the first like 10 rounds up to a certain discount point (can be different for every draft, but set a min discount for price ranges like $30-40 is a $1 discount minimum so you would bid up to $35 for a $36 player). Waiting to spend money because you want the “sleepers” will screw you more often than not IMO.

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    • DowntownChico says:

      I agree with you ChickenSoup. The situation Chad describes shouldn’t impact your drafting strategy.

      This is how I prevent missing good deals in auction draft:

      1) I get a dollar value for each player. This is oversimplified, but can be as simple or as complicated as you choose.

      2) I make a new simplified spreadsheet that has 7 columns (A separate sheet for each position and ALWAYS mark your tiers). The middle column is the dollar value I assigned each player.

      Column 1: 70% of player value
      Column 2: 80% of player value
      Column 3: 90% of player value
      Column 4: projected player value
      Column 5: 110% of player value
      Column 6: 120% of player value
      Column 7: 130% of player value

      3) During the draft, I will bid on any player up to 70% value (There’s no shame in getting a player at ~80% his value, either). This requires trusting your projections. By doing this, I’m never missing out on a cheap deal.

      I highlight the price that each player is drafted at. This gives you a good idea of how your prices compare to the competition. For example, all the C in my league were going for 120%+ what my valuations said. After a few were taken, I felt comfortable paying up to 100% of my prices, since this would still be a discount compared to what the field was paying.

      You may be forced to spend over 100% in some cases (like when there’s a huge dropoff in projected points at a position; i.e. tiers) by waiting for a deal to come. That’s okay, because you will have saved the necessary funds to make a run at a player when you absolutely need to.

      A side affect of employing this strategy is you are keeping the competition “honest”. No one else is getting a player for half-price, because you know a deal when you see it.

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      • Chad Young says:

        Positions matter a lot. I came into the draft, as I mentioned to Brad above, with Goldy and 1B and Belt/Lind platooning at util. I am extremely happy with that set up. Prince at $29 is maybe 70% of what I think he is worth, but his value to me is relative to the rest of my roster and my needs. I had some bad luck this year where the guys who went cheapest were the 1B guys that I didn’t have a spot for. And yes, I could have taken Prince and benched my util platoon, but then I have to trade for an OF. Instead, I had to pass on some of the early steals, watch a couple of the OF get bid up, and end up with a decently priced Holliday.

        The reality is, you can trust your projections all you want, but you have to adjust to what the league is spending and doing. If you don’t you may be able to build an underpriced team, but not necessarily one that will win. In this case, I was very happy with the price I paid for Holliday compared to some of the alternatives, but so much money was saved elsewhere that I missed out on the cheaper pieces I wanted because they went for more than I was willing to spend on them.

        In other words, I more or less did what you said – I set my prices, bid on guys I wanted until they got to be too expensive, and it didn’t work out ideally. It isn’t terrible, but had I followed your plan, I would now have a team with like 4 or 5 1B, a terrible OF, and no pitching depth. And that would have been worse. Your plan is spot on except that you have to find the right players to fill out your roster, not just any roster.

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      • Jonathan Sher says:


        I think you may be misreading DowntownChico’s advice which boils down to this:

        (1) It is a mistake to assume either that the auction will be one in which owners bid aggressively early or are passive and wait for bargains. It is wiser to assume nothing and prepare for either possibility, especially in a league with seasoned and competent owners.

        (2) To prepare for either possibility you must come up with a system that both assigns value to players and tracks to what extend players are being bought for less, more or about the expected. This enables you to quickly respond and to fine-tune that response to fill your specific roster needs.

        In addition, since I’m in a traditional roto league with keepers, I track roster balance by projecting what I need in all categories to win the league 80-90% of the time and adjust the balance as I acquire players.

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      • DowntownChico says:

        @ Chad & @ Sher

        Chad, you hit on an excellent point, which I didn’t bring up. You have to follow your budget. In your case, your budget for 1st baseman and Utility players going into the draft was $0 or close to it. Obviously, you’re not going to put in a $30 bid for Fielder, regardless of the “savings”, beacuse your budget won’t allow it.

        But, as Sher points out, it’s not about buying every single deal you see in the auction. It’s about knowing a good deal that comes at the beginning of the draft, before knowing how the competition is valuing players. And, as the draft progresses, understanding how your valuations at each position compare with the market.

        For example, let’s say every 1B is going for 70% of your valuations. You picked up one of the first ones, because you weren’t caught off guard. You’re not going to bid on every subsequent 1B that comes up, just because they are at 70% of your valuations. Your budget won’t allow it. But, since you weren’t caught off guard, you picked up one of the better 1B at the same discounted value as everyone else, without having to wait for the market to form. (Paying 70% for $30 value saves you $9. Paying 70% for $15 value saves you $4.5.)

        You won’t know how the competition is going to spend their budget, but that shouldn’t prevent you from seeing a good deal early on in the draft.

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    • Plunger says:

      Thank you listing Larry Schechter’s strategy fish soup.

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      • Chickensoup says:

        You mean logic? I’ve been using it for a long time for football leagues primarily because I could never get my roto values to line up in baseball for mixed leagues so I had to averaged numbers which don’t really tell you much.

        For points leagues in baseball (like fantasy football) the Schecter plan is the only logical move. Other methods of auctions at one point or another basically say that 1point from player x is worth more than from player y, which is obviously false. A point has a certain dollar value and your max price should not deviate. You don’t have to have any pocket strategy besides that and you will win more often than random chance would give.

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  9. buddyglass says:

    As someone who’s never participated in an auction draft before (always snake) here’s the strategy I’d use:

    1. Evaluate each player and assign him a dollar value prior to the draft. This is strictly based on your estimate of his production and doesn’t take into account how other managers may rate his value.

    2. At any point in the draft, call the status of your cash on hand “even”, “under” or “over”. If you draft a player at exactly his adjusted value (see #3 below) then you stay “even”. If you overpay then you’re now “under” by the amount you overpaid. If you underpay then you’re “over” by the amount you underpaid.

    3. Inflate or deflate your original valuations after each draft pick based on whether your cash on hand is “even”, “under” or “over”. If you have a deficit of cash then everybody’s valuation gets adjusted down. If you have a surplus then everybody gets adjusted up.

    4. For any given player, be willing to bid up to your (adjusted) valuation but not over.

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    • buddyglass says:

      Curiosity question: are auction drafts ever “secret”? i.e. each manager submits an undisclosed bid for each player, as they come up for auction, and the high bid wins? With no back and forth? Or would that be too boring?

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    • Chickensoup says:

      Why would you overpay for a player? In points leagues that’s saying that, for instance, 1 point from Miguel Cabrera is worth more than 1 point from Brett Lawrie, which it’s not. Overpaying is a big no no. If the goal is to get as many points as you can from a $260 budget, the only way to get the most is to underpay consistantly

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      • jiveballer says:

        It varies depending on the depth of the league and the transaction rules, but the way to get the most points is to concentrate as much production into as few roster spots as possible. If you believe in a strict “points is points” linearity of value then the top 300 players would be worth roughly $5-$15 each; good luck winning without any players worth more than $15.

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  10. Belle of the League says:

    To answer your question, yes, secret auction drafts exist. I believe they are referred to as “blind auctions”. Some website might handle them, but usually they are e-mail and sent to the league manager. They take forever.
    Our keeper league does have weekly blind auctions for free agents.

    @chickensoup-You’re right 1 point from Miggy=1 point from Lawrie, but I expect that Miggy will probably generate at least 200-250 more of them.
    There are lot of replacement level players who will put up 300-350 points over the course of season. You won’t overpay, but a team of them wouldn’t win our league.
    The relative value of a player in a points league depends on the scoring system. Ours is non-standard and looks at more than the usual counting stats.
    The system that has worked for me (and I won our keeper league as well as a few standard point leagues last season) is to rate a player based on how many points he’s likely to produce over a replacement value player at each position.
    There are some positions that after you get past a couple of elite players, you’ve got another level where there are plenty of similar producers and shouldn’t overpay for any of them, but as Chad pointed out, you need to fill the holes in your team’s roster to outperform the other teams not just look at $/point….and if you participate in a keeper league, you have another level of strategy because you are looking at the “potential” long term value of a player, not just this season.

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  11. Rico says:

    Any argument that you should not overpay, even for a dollar is a terrible argument. Take a good projected auction values, say from Rotochamp or whoever. Input that into excel and add the average auction price paid (average auction value AAV) from ESPN or Yahoo. Run solver. If you don’t know how to do this, you should learn because it will immediately show you what you’re missing. Which is that even if you manually ramp up prices for certain players beyond their projected auction values, such as Miggy, they will still be the optimized solution to maximizing your overall projected auction values (PAV).

    The reason for this boils down to the “juicy” values as I call them. Last year Cuddyer for example was projected for $18 but his AAV was $1. He was listed as a $1 player in ESPN. This means that for the most part, you’re going to get him for $1, perhaps $2-4 depending on how things shape up. There were many other players who projected for >$10 and yet were AAV of $1. This 10:1 value (or $18:1) value is obviously wonderful and a way better way of spending a dollar than the $60 you pay for Miggy’s $50 projected or the 70% PAV you pay in examples above for any player. The trouble you run into if you want a bunch of juicy values is that you can’t spend your $260 budget on them because they all tend to be cheap. There are no $60 players you can get for $6. So what solver does for you is show you how best to full up on your “meat” players (typically players >$25 in AAV) while still being able to generate great value from the juicy players such as Cuddyer 2013.

    As an aside, this is why you see elite hitters going for 20% more than their PAV in expert drafts. Going into an auction with a fair value for Miggy and then wondering why you never get him and assuming it’s because everyone else is wrong is laughable. If you drafted against even respectable, let alone elite managers, they’d take Miggy for fair value + 5-20% all day long. The reason is that there are tons of guys similar to Cuddyer 2013 for whom you can get for $1 at the end of your draft.

    I did a draft last year where I got Braun, Miggy, and Trout 1 2 3 in an auction for maybe 5% on average over their PAV. I was still able to price enforce all the mid tier talent, guys like Jay Bruce and Felix Hernandez. My opponents also did the same thing. There were 11 other teams who needed guys like Jay Bruce and Felix Hernandez and nobody sold for even 10% less than PAV. I still ended up with Cuddyer, Cobb, Tejeran, other $1 sleepers and great values at the end of the draft.

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