Nomination Strategy Guide

Regular readers probably know by now that my favorite part of fantasy baseball is the meta-game. That’s also the biggest reason why I enjoy auction drafts more than snake drafts. Generally speaking, the more strategic options that are available, the more I like a league. Nomination strategy can swing a draft for or against you, and it’s rarely analyzed from a theoretical or data-centric perspective – probably because it’s difficult to control in a predictable manner. Nevertheless, this post will discuss some theoretical nomination techniques and when/why/how to use them.

I first wrote about auction draft strategy prior to the 2011 season with this beginners’ guide. I had an update post since then, but it seems to have disappeared from the internet (I can find offsite references to it, but not the actual article). The beginners’ guide is still useful for newbies, but I’m not a beginner and probably neither are you. That article posited five strategies:

  1. Never nominate a player you want
  2. Sometimes nominate a player you want (after establishing #1)
  3. Nominate players only you want
  4. Trick rivals into bidding for no value players (if others are price enforcing #3)
  5. Bid on everyone, win few

I think those headings convey enough information, you can read the article for more. Those five are a good place to start, but let’s break things down by scenario. Most people focus on their bidding strategy and player valuations, so it’s possible to counter your rivals with nominations.

Scenario #1 – Hyper-Aggressive Bidding

And I’m talking from the outset. The Yahoo draft that I botched the other day was like this. When your rivals are bidding like crazy on the top names, there aren’t many ways to zig. Sometimes, leagues will go nuts with the top 15 or so and then calm down, but usually there’s a prolonged orgy of spending until everyone is out of money.

There are two concerns to balance in this scenario – maximizing value per dollar spent and actually spending all of your budget. It’s easy to ride out the storm and emerge when everyone is out of money, but that can take deceptively long. You might be looking at Starlin Castro as your big ticket item. Worse, you either won’t spend all of your budget, or you’ll spend it wastefully.

The best way to deal with crazy bidding is to put forward your value picks. Ostensibly, they’re your value picks because you have a higher price on them than the market. Two things could happen here – you might win the player near your targeted price or you might incite a bidding war. Both are positive outcomes.

If you switch to this plan early enough and nominate players who are far from the top of the draft board, your rivals may hesitate to bid. If Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, and Eric Hosmer are the top 1B targets left on the board, someone may think twice about bidding on Jose Abreu. While you could miss out on your favorite targets, you’ll probably find that reliable, boring veterans start going very cheaply in the mid-rounds. They’ll probably help your team more than your breakout candidates.

I went into that Yahoo draft planning to win Miguel Cabrera with my first overall nomination. I’ve found that the first pick usually offers a small discount since owners aren’t quite settled in yet. When spending got past the $60 I had budgeted, I let him go. I then observed several other high caliber players go for more than I expected. I only needed a CI after keeping Chris Davis and my fallback plan was Abreu. I should have put him forward early to see if I could sneak him off the board. What I actually did was wait until someone else nominated him near the end, and he went for $26.

Like with all strategies, you should adjust as needed. Maybe put your third best value pick forward first to see how the other owners respond. If he comes through at a reasonable price, rinse and repeat with your second favorite.

Scenario #2: Slow Start Draft

It’s not common, but sometimes auction drafts start off slowly. Some leagues have many owners who like to nominate third tier players first in the hopes that some elite player will be underpriced later in the draft. I’ve never really seen that strategy work, there’s always more than two owners with enough money left to bid on top talent. If anything, it can hurt multiple teams as they retain budget to win Ryan Braun with the 160th pick and pass on other useful players. The best cases are flawed players like Josh Hamilton who owners might pass on anyway.

In these sorts of drafts, owners will soon realize that they have a lot of money left, so you have a short window to take advantage. Thankfully, it only takes a couple picks to identify if your leaguemates are being collectively timid. Once you see that there’s an early draft tendency to underpay, it’s time to wade in and flex some muscles. I’ve had drafts where I snatched up players like Carlos Santana, Chris Sale, and Craig Kimbrel with picks four, five, and six for $60 total.

While the good times roll, nominate some top second tier players and go for the win. Once your rivals start to react by spending more, ease off the throttle. Because you’ve been winning good players at a good value, you can still join the bidding for any stars that are left on the board.

Scenario #3a: Position Runs

This season, I’ve noticed that saves are costing a lot of money – probably because there are a few hyper-elite relievers in the league that are worth every penny if they stay healthy. I’ve observed that the standard fare like Joe Nathan, Sergio Romo, and Casey Janssen become overpriced due to position inflation. When they are nominated in proximity to the top relievers, an anchoring effect may be keeping their price high. If you see Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, and Aroldis Chapman nominated over a six pick stretch, throw one of those second tier closers and watch him go for more than he should. Just don’t forget that you need closers too and might have to overpay for Greg Holland if you want anything reliable.

You can also use your nominations to create a scarcity problem, but that’s harder than it sounds. Generally, you also need to be willing to win more players than you need at a position to force any kind of craziness.

Scenario #3b: The Other Side of Position Runs

If you’re still looking for a specific position late in the draft, you may find that there are only a few playable options left. It’s time to play supply and demand. We know that supply is light, so the first thing to do is check your rivals’ rosters. If you need a third baseman, how many others need one? Do they need CI, UTIL, or a backup? If there is still plenty of demand at the position, then you may just need to grit your teeth and either overpay for the best player left or punt the position entirely. Hopefully, other teams have already filled their requirements, leaving you with an uncontested pick. If you’re unsure, maybe try nominating the second best player left and see who comes snapping. That can be dangerous because multiple owners might be waiting for a specific guy.

Other Self-Evident Strategies

  1. Nominate overrated players
  2. Nominate popular sleepers and prospects
  3. Punt a nomination – pick any player who will go for more than $1
  4. Nominate top setup men early

Numbers one and two are similar strategies. People tend to spend too much money on players coming off a big season. Other overpriced players tend to be young and/or widely discussed on sites like RotoGraphs. One thing that I’ve learned from mocking with my colleagues is that we all have very similar targeted player lists.

Number three is useful if you don’t have a specific strategy lined up for your next pick. Number four is the easiest method to clog your rivals’ rosters. The endowment effect could even coax them into suboptimal roster management down the line.

Parting Thoughts

The above represent a few common scenarios where nomination strategy can work to your advantage. Any strategy comes with a lot of uncertainty and can backfire. That risk puts the onus on having a flexible draft plan. As always, this guide is hardly definitive, so let’s talk more in the comments. Tomorrow we’ll either expand on this topic or talk about my favorite White Sox sleeper. It depends on how I feel.




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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, MLB Trade Rumors, and The Fake Baseball. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

39 Responses to “Nomination Strategy Guide”

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  1. mtolson10 says:

    When doing mock auction drafts, have you found a useful site? I have tried on ESPN, but it seems like everyone bails after 10 picks so am left just bidding against the computer, which I don’t get any value out of.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      One of the job perks is that I can get into private mocks just about whenever I want. I think I’ve done maybe 2 this season where I felt like any owner was fooling around. Testing unusual strategies, sure, but they’ve earnestly tried to “win” the draft.

      Public mocks are going to be mostly crap. Unfortunately, I don’t have any advice on getting into the good ones. You could try contacting Howard Bender.

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    • philthebluntman says:

      Instead of doing a mock join some free leagues for practice. Most owners actually finish the drafts on those.

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  2. scotman144 says:

    If you make yourself a custom league $ inflation calculator and slavishly update won bids to keep the # moving you can track when to price enforce vs. actually try to win bids. If there’s less $ available to be bid out there than aggregate $ value left on your sheet it’s time to buy! Buy! Buy!

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      I did that once…I don’t put enough money on the line for me to do that again.

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      • Jay29 says:

        Weird. I built it once and just copy over the excel sheet every year. Requires no effort anymore.

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      • scotman144 says:

        This is probably less important in a re-draft where even very irrational bidding shouldn’t move the league-wide $bid/$talent balance too far.

        However; in a keeper auction format where the majority of keepers are kept at below market-value prices you’ll see the auction flooded with surplus funds. If the format is sufficiently deep enough there is very likely ~1.2x bid $ available / $ talent available.

        It’s very wise to throw out the top unkept guys and price enforce up to your projected $ values and then watch the inflated dollars hit the table past those prices. Hopefully the inflation from well valued keepers eventually gets absorbed into overbids and you can clean up the next tier after the sticker shock of 20% inflation takes effect and some over-exuberant teams have $39 Jose Bautista and $2.30 left to spend per roster spot left.

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      • Jay29 says:

        @scotman144, so if you’ve got 20% inflation, making a $40 player inflated to $48, how much are you paying for that player?

        In my opinion, you have to isolate the auction from any other values you’re aware of, and bid within that market, so even though you wouldn’t pay >$40 for that guy before keepers, he is now worth up to $48 with inflation.

        In my experience, this is how my league “treats” inflation: first couple studs that are nominated will go a couple bucks over their uninflated value (hence below the inflated value), but then people will, consciously or not, realize they have money to burn and pay over inflated value for the next tier. This leads to a lot of value to be had in the middle tiers ($10-20), or, if you’re lucky, you’ve grabbed Trout or Miggy for $50 before others pay $46-48 for McCutchen, Goldschmidt, etc.

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      • Andrew A says:

        @Jay29 2 times
        1) I’m assuming he meant updating his spreadsheet during the draft was too time consuming, making the draft feel more like a job rather than entertainment

        2)Definitely treat the inflated value as the correct value, that’s exactly what it’s meant for.

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    • DoubleJ says:

      Rotolab has a built in running inflation calculator.

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  3. John says:

    There comes a point near the middle of the auction when I’ve found it absolutely necessary to begin nominating guys I’m comfortable with owning for $1. This isn’t the end game where people are dealing with limited budgets, but typically after the top 100 or 125 or so are off the board and the names just aren’t sexy. It’s like everyone sort of takes a time out to re-evaluate their budget, their roster and who’s left. Decent bargains can be had if you realize this lull is coming. More than once I’ve thrown a name out there assuming someone would take him for $2, $3, $4 and all of a sudden I own the guy. Not the end of the world, but I’d have thrown out someone I wanted if I had seen it coming.

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  4. rsavits says:

    My league kills me because it’s full of smart guys who are generally divided into thirds: the spend immediately guys, the go-for-value-in-the-middle, and the hold-cash-and-hope-someone-slips-through guys.

    No matter where you choose to spend your money, you’re going to get into a bidding war with one or two other players. The actual deals are few and far between.

    So far the biggest concern for me has been the Starlin Castro scenario, balancing deals with accumulating actual talent. I think so far (auction is on-going) the guys who’ve spent up front are coming out with the strongest rosters despite extended $1 end games.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      The best strategy is just going to come down to your league depth. If there’s balance like that and it’s a standard 12 team deep roster or shallower, then the best strategy will always be aggression. As the league gets deeper, there becomes more and more value in managing your budget carefully.

      For example, if I punted on my last catcher in my hypothetical league, who would I be spending $1 on, Devin Mesoraco or Wil Nieves? The further you get towards Nieves, the more it makes sense to have $5 around for Mesoraco.

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    • jiveballer says:

      I’d try nominating tertiary guys like Alexi Ramirez or cheap “sleepers” like Khris Davis to see if you can get all of the groups bidding on the same player.

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  5. Psychedelic says:

    Does this strategy change at all when doing an offline slow auction? Like I’m currently doing one where everyone nominates a player all at once, and the player is won after 24 hours have passed since the last bid. It seems people have more time to think about what they are doing making it a little more tricky. Also, what do you do when you realize everyone seems to be working with drastically different values then you have?

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      There is definitely a different strategic element here. I can’t speak to a good strategy without experiencing it myself.

      As for your rivals having different valuations than you, it just depends on what you know about them and how predictable those differences are. There might be opportunities to leverage those differences, but I can’t tell you for sure from my perspective.

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      • Psychedelic says:

        Ok ya I was really just wondering in a general sort of way.

        And the way I’ve been able to tackle the differences in values is basically just applying your “bid on everything” and “never nominate anyone you want” strategies. It’s allowed me to get a feel for where people are valuing guys since this is out first year doing a redraft auction together and come away with some pretty good values. My team hasn’t really turned out like I thought it would be it worked out about as good as I could’ve hoped, minimizing risk and taking shots on cheaper guys I think will out produce their prices. Appreciate the article definitely applicable in my auction at least and so I would assume most other auctions as well.

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  6. Jays Fan says:

    Hey Brad. Thanks for doing this post. The nomination aspect is definitely one of the things I like analyzing the most in preparing for an auction. So let me ask you this; I’m in an AL-only league and I know to an almost certainty that the first round of players coming off the board at my auction will go for obscene amounts (Miggy / Darvish / Felix / Verlander / Longoria / Cano / etc.). I want no part of these bidding wars, but what I do want, is Brad Miller. Based on my keepers and overall strategy, I have identified Miller as the key piece to my success. So knowing that everyone will be gearing up to drop big dollars at the start of the auction, should I call a mid-tier player like Miller with my first selection? Based on your experience and what I have mentioned above, could I walk away with him at a bargain or do I risk jacking up his value? Any guidance you can provide is greatly appreciated.

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    • Andrew A says:

      some of this depends on what the league thinks about you. If they view you as a smart guy, someone who knows the best sleepers, people will start bidding on guys they think you’re interested in.

      If you can go under the radar, maybe that works. But I know if a mid tier guy gets nominated in the first round, the owner wants him cheap

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        Building off Andrew’s response, you might be out of luck targeting Miller. He’s a very popular “sleeper,” that could elicit some unexpectedly crazy bidding. some key questions:

        How much can you afford to pay for him?
        Will he be cheaper early or late?

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      • Ruphus T. Firefly says:

        Seems to me you better make sure to have a good plan B. If your whole strategy hinges on one guy, you’re in trouble.

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      • jiveballer says:

        And it only takes one other manager that values your guy equally to drive up the price. Nominating a player you really want early on is nothing but a gamble.

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    • jruby says:

      When Brad said “Other overpriced players tend to be young and/or widely discussed on sites like RotoGraphs,” Miller was the first name that popped into my head. I have no idea if he’s actually overpriced in auctions, but the fact that he’s #9 FG consensus and #21 SS taken in yahoo snakes makes him seems like exactly the kind of guy that people who are doing slightly more sophisticated auctions are going to all be waiting to pounce on.

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  7. equist says:

    I’m in an 18 team $260 keeper auction league and I’m thinking about keeping $11 Hardy, $10 Miller and $10 Villar as SS, MI and UL. The price is kind of steep, but I like the idea of messing up the auction. Am I overthinking this?

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  8. Andrew A says:

    I liked the article. Any chance you could go beyond nomination strategy and go to bidding strategy: How to bid without people knowing you want the player, how to act like you really want the player…whether its the timing of the bid, how you act, what you say…I don’t know if it is a practical article to write but it would be fun to read

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      I really couldn’t say anything useful here. To give you valuable advice, I’d need a lot of data on bidding behavior and honestly I have trouble picturing where to start.

      I like $2-bidding when I’m trying to put a bid away, but I have no data suggesting that it works. I get overbid a lot, but then the bidding goes on another $5, so I guess I just picked the wrong spot.

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    • jiveballer says:

      I don’t look at a fantasy auction like a game of poker, but if bluffing is useful in your league (must be in-person?) then an effective nominating strategy would be randomness.

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  9. dscott says:

    The two guys that finished 1st and 2nd in my league last year pretty much scrapped pitching. We play in a 5×5 rotisserie league with only 10 guys. The first place team spent a total of $27 dollars out of their $260 on pitching, only roll away with the league. There is a ton of pitching depth out there, and I might adopt this strategy. My plan last year was opposite, to have a stud pitching staff, but i screwed it up right away when I chickened out on overpaying for Kershaw.

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  10. troy says:

    Many auction leagues have keepers with inflation. Assuming you are keeping players at value, say Carpenter for $5 or Puig for $3, it must be a good strategy to nominate positions you have filled on the cheap. The pool is already thinner based on your keepers and you want others to spend theory budget where you have a discounted player in that slot. Is my thinking wrong here? Maybe its more important if your keeper is in a scarce position, say closer, short stop, or 2b than SP or OF.

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    • Jesse says:

      This seems like a great idea. You want to create overbidding because of scarcity, and you do that by nominating people from positions you already have filled from either keepers or the draft. Presumably, each person who is drafted should that position higher priced going forward, at least in people’s minds. In redrafts I sometimes do this by taking two top 1B or something and stick one at my corner spot, hoping that I’m going to force someone else to reach for a first basemen. Does it usually work? No, but if it works one out of every ten times… yeah I’m wasting my time there. But I like the idea in an auction much more because you don’t actually have to draft the guy to create the perceived scarcity.

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  11. Jonathan Sher says:

    A few other strategies I have found useful:

    (1) Nominate players in positions you don’t need to fill. While rules generally prohibit owners from nominating a position that is already filled, there are two scenarios when this is possible:

    a. Pitching – With 9 roster spots for pitchers, the truth is you only need one or two elite starting pitchers, another three to five solid pitchers that offer either consistency or upside, and one or two spots for a closer or potential closer. So you can have your allotment of elite or solid starters or closers/potential closers while still having open pitching roster spots. For example, if I have two closers/potential closers with no real plan or need to add a third, I may nominate remaining closers in the hope they are bid up and drain the budget of one of my rivals. Another example, one I used last year, when I had Darvish and Moore as stud keepers, Straily and Hultzen as reserve keepers and Miguel Gonzalez and Tommy Milone as solid keepers. While Hultzen would later get hurt and Milone under-perform, I entered the auction only needing to target a single solid starter. So I nominated the remaining stud starters and watched rivals drain their budgets; when it came time for me to bid on positions of need, I landed quote a few players at reasonable prices as some rivals exited bidding sooner than if they had more money,

    b. Players who qualify at multiple positions. Let’s say you have a player who qualifies as both a first baseman and outfielder. Then you fill two other corner spots. You intend to use the 1B/OF as a 1B because you need stolen bases and there are simply far more outfielders who offer that. So pencil that player into an outfield spot and nominate the slugging corners you don’t need so rivals spend their budgets. That waters down the bidding when speed outfielders come up.

    (2) Be aware that certain owners will bid you up to prevent you from getting a player of value, especially if they perceive you as a threat to win because of your keeper list. If you expect a particular owner to target you in this manner, anticipate which players he would have a tendency to most over-bid, nominate the player, push it to the stratosphere and let him have the player.

    (3) End game strategy: Carefully track which positions must be filled by rivals who can outbid you with their remaining budget. Nominate players who hold some attraction in an effort to get those rivals to exhaust those slots before a key target comes off the board. The goal is to place yourself in a position than you can later nominate a key target knowing that the only owners who have bigger budgets left have already filled those positions.

    (4) Don’t only consider who you nominate but also how much you bid, especially during the end game. If I am only going ti have one rival to outbid and I have more money, if my rival can spend a maximum of $4, I will not nominate the player at $1 just so my rival can bid $4 and I get pushed to bidding $5; Instead, I’ll simply bid $4 and save a buck that may be useful later.

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    • tz says:

      (3) is one of my favorites. And (4) is always useful unless you’ve had an unusually timid auction with many owners hanging on to excess $

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  12. Cuck City says:

    I think I’ll stick to my strategy of only nominating Closers and Relievers.

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  13. Dynasty Leaguer says:

    Favorite auction strategy: Nominate the known sleepers. Total oxymoron, I know. Everybody has the same sleepers. These are all players everybody is better on increased performance. Guys like Abreu, B.Hamilton, Salazar are some of the popular ones this year. Watch everybody overspend and there’s value to be had later on boring old pigeons like Matt Holliday.

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  14. Bird in hand says:

    Have been doing football adn baseball auctions for over 5 years, online and in person. My absolute biggest takeaway is do not wait too long to spend, i.e. the Starlin Castro example in the article. The early nominations will be almost exlusively studs and if you dont buy one they are gone, leaving you with Jay Bruce as your best player. I also find the studs are actually good values in a sense, yes they are expensive but only a couple studs will truly incite bidding wars. Avoid the bidding wars and buy correctly priced studs and then try to save on your mid-lower tier players. In a group of savvy auction participants there will be very few actual underpriced players, most of the savvy people wont get in crazy bidding wars, more like $5 over which for studs is not an issue. If you spend $5 over on mid or lower players that is an issue. WOuldnt you rather spend the extra $5 on trout than jay bruce?

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  15. ABSkippers says:

    So I’m taking 2 IF keepers into my auction this year, and I was thinking about a strategy of trying to lock up my other 2 starting IF’s (not including C, CI, or MI), and then using all my nominations after that trying to create those sorts of cliffs where people start crazily overpaying for a mediocre player because he’s the last acceptable option at the position. My experience has always been that those situations are when the most auction money gets wasted, and obviously it’s easier to create that sort of cliff at an IF position than OF or P. Have you tried something like this before or otherwise have thoughts?

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