Keeper League Strategies

Is Mat Latos a keeper? How about Jason Heyward? Or Steven Strasburg? Nick Punto?

I think most people would say, “yes, yes, yes, no” but truthfully all four players could be a “yes” or “no” depending on the rules of your keeper league. Frankly, any player in baseball from Albert Pujols to Cesar Izturis could be a good or bad keeper depending on the league.

If you are reading this looking for a list of players you should keep for next season, I’m sorry, that just isn’t possible. The best thing I can do is to give you a set of tools to use in order to make the smartest keeper decisions possible, based on the rules of your league.

This leads to the first rule of keeper leagues:

Trust no one.

Fantasy sites and magazines love to tell their readers that “Player X is a great pick for keeper leagues,” or to print a list of the top-100 keepers. Don’t listen to them. It’s not that they don’t know what they are talking about; it’s just that it’s impossible.

Fantasy writers have a hard enough time doling out advice which is relevant across 5×5, 4×4, head-to-head, and all other scoring systems, but it becomes exponentially more difficult when you add in all of the keeper-league variations. Even in two leagues with identical rules, Joey Votto might be a good keeper in one and horrible in the other because of the round in which he was drafted or how much he went for at the auction.

Smart keeper decisions have to be made on a league-by-league, team-by-team basis. It may be an unsatisfying answer, but it’s the truth.

Let’s take a look at different keeper rules and the best strategy for each.

No-salary, no-penalty leagues
These are the most basic keeper leagues. You simply protect the number of players allowed going into next season, regardless of the round in which they were drafted or how much you paid for them at auction. For this type of league, there are two rules to follow.

Rule #1: Never keep a player you can just draft later.
The best proof of this rule is through example. Let’s say you play in a simple one-keeper league. You are trying to pick a keeper between Josh Hamilton and Mike Stanton. While Stanton may be younger and ranked higher on most keeper lists, Hamilton is the best choice here because he will be off the board before Stanton.

Even if Stanton lives up to his Bill James’ 38-homer hype, Hamilton is still the best keeper for next year. Why? Because if you keep Hamilton, you can still likely draft Stanton in the first round of the draft (or later), while the converse is probably not true.

It does not matter if you think Jeremy Hellickson is a future Hall of Famer; only keep him if you know he’ll be gone by your first pick.

Rule #2: The fewer keepers allowed, the less you worry about the future.
The scenario above was in a one-keeper league, but I would continue to be completely myopic with my keeper decisions in most shallow keeper leagues. There is simply too much year-to-year unpredictability to think past next season.

Pablo Sandoval and Justin Upton were touted as two of the best keepers for the 2010 season, but you would have been better off keeping 37-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. In 2011, Domonic Brown and Buster Posey are keeper-league darlings, and they may prove to have a superstar career, but for next season play the percentages and just keep Ichiro.

Let’s look at another example. You want to keep Bryce Harper, knowing that he will likely produce no value in 2011. If your league has three or four keepers, you might have had to drop a player such as Dan Haren, Justin Morneau or Kevin Youkilis in order to keeper Harper. That is a very steep price; you are significantly hurting your chances next year to gamble on a long-term keeper.

Now, if your league has 15 or 20 keepers, the player you dropped instead of Harper might be more like Colby Rasmus, Adam LaRoche, or Ted Lilly. These players will certainly contribute more in 2011 than Harper, but the “cost” of keeping Harper is significantly lower. The more keepers there are, the less costly it is to take chances.

As a rule of thumb, in leagues where you keep less than half of your roster, do not think farther than next season when picking keepers. Only in leagues where you keep half of your roster or more does it become viable to take gambles on young talent.

Auction and draft-pick-cost leagues
In these types of leagues, keepers have different costs associated with them based on how much they went for at auction or the round in which they were drafted. For example, you bought Ryan Zimmerman for $25 at auction, and you could keep him for 2011 at $25 or higher, depending on if the league has an inflation rate. If it were a draft league, maybe you drafted Zimmerman in the third round, and you would have to give up a third-round pick or greater to keep him.

In these types of leagues, there is only one rule to follow: Maximize profit.

Simply put, profit is the difference between the value of the player and the cost of the player. If you expect Dustin Pedroia to produce at a $23 level next year, and you can keep him at $20, then he is expected to net a $3 profit.

Alternatively, if you think Pedroia will produce at a third-round level, and you can keep him for a fifth-round pick, then he is expected to net a two-round profit.

If you have a limited number of keepers, line them up in terms of expected profit from top to bottom (in absolute terms, not percentage), and keep the most profitable players until you hit your limit. It does not matter if that means you are dropping Miguel Cabrera and keeping Dexter Fowler. If Cabrera costs $45 and you can keep Fowler at $2, take Fowler for the profit, and reinvest the difference.

If you can keep as many players as you like, anyone with positive expected profit is a keeper candidate, but never keep a player who you can get back at a lower price at the auction or draft.

Multi-year contract leagues
These are the leagues where you can lock a player into a salary for a certain number of years. These leagues best mirror the structure of Major League Baseball. There are questions of cost, benefit, risk, longevity and control.

For this reason, there are no cute, one-sentence axioms to use as a guidelines. The best way to approach these leagues is like a MLB general manager. You have to project a player’s likely value for multiple seasons forward, weigh that player’s salary, factor in any inflation and decide if the benefit outweighs the cost.

There are, no doubt, numerous keeper-league types not covered in this post. For those, and for general keeper league strategy, the rules to follow are thus:

Trust no one. No one at ESPN, Yahoo, or CBS Sportsline knows the rules of your league.

In shallow leagues, play for this year. There is no reason to try and stockpile talent when you can contend every year.

In cost leagues, keep profit. Pujols might give you profit at $50, but Casey McGehee will give you more at $10.

Never keep a player you can just draft later; or Never keep a player you can get at auction for the same price. If you can draft them later, they aren’t a good keeper.

In dynasty leagues, weigh all of the factors and make the smartest decision.

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Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.
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“In these types of leagues, there is only one rule to follow: Maximize profit.”

It depends on the league. I’m in a 10-team league with 7 keepers that cost their original draft round. I could get a wonderful profit keeping 7 guys in the last seven rounds with ADPs between 50 and 100 (so in other words 13-round profit on each if they all perform as expected). Yet if my opponents aggressively protect their best guys, I’m ending up with a “flat” team with excellent depth but no game-changers. I also find that in a 10-team league, no matter who my opponents keep, it’s easy to use my last 5-6 picks on high upside guys who can be tossed back to the wire if they suck, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on a lot of future keeper opportunity by keeping top guys.

Also when determining profit you have to factor in the keeper rules. Teixeira is a 2nd round keeper in my league. I can keep him with the 11th pick and his ADP is 12. So don’t keep him, right? Well guess what happens in the actual draft if he is not kept. Of the 11 guys ahead of him, 9 get kept. Tex goes as the first or second pick. I still get a useful player at my pick, but the ADP is 25-30. Moreover all the elite 1B are gone. Maybe the guy I kept instead of Tex turns an amazing profit that makes up for the 5 HR, and 25-30 R and RBI it cost me, but I suspect in most scenarios, my team just got less competitive.