We’re calling this lesson a 401 because it’s not going to be a “101” as in, “this is a snake draft and you should do your homework to prepare, fill in the bubble, and turn in your sheets,” but it’s also not a graduate level seminar where we can all sit around in the Socratic method and pontificate each individual inquiry. So a 401 it is.
Some quick ground rules before we dive in.
The target audience is primarily those of you that are in simple points or standard 4×4 or 5×5 rotisserie style fantasy baseball which use the love-it-or-hate-it snake draft to select players. The most common leagues are found on CBS, Yahoo!, and ESPN. And just for any of you 101’ers out there, a snake draft is where you have a draft slot, 1-12 and then it “snakes” back so that the person with the first pick also gets the 24th and the last person gets the 12th, but also the 13th. Rinse, lather, repeat. There are a variety of opinions about what the best draft slot might be but we’re not going to worry about that right now.
I’m going to use my own personal approach from the 2012 draft, and as such, I’ll be referring to players where they were most commonly valued back in March of 2012, not for your 2013 draft. This is designed to serve as a model, not to tell you who to draft this season. There will be a thousand of those articles for you to pour over in the coming weeks. This is also very heavy on the draft preparation side, and not in the “be prepared” vein but in trying to give you some tools to set up in advance that will help you keep a straight head on draft day.
Off we go.
Decide on a projection system you’re comfortable with
As you no doubt know, there are a myriad of projection systems – so many I’m not even going to attempt to list them all here. There are about a dozen or so that are your typical projection systems and then just hundreds of websites that do their own thing. There has been some good work about combining projection systems (10% of one, 30% of another, etc.) that can get you some kind of comfortable approximation of a player by diluting some of the extreme high and low projections into a quasi-mean. If you’re into that, go for it.
But for my purposes, I like to choose a projection system and just use it as my base for simplicity. From there, you can make it your own by making modifications to a player projection based on your own personal preference, intuition, or whatever magic 8 ball is telling you to do. Because you’re going to do that anyway – we all do. The key here is to know when you’ve modified the projection. There are a bazillion player statistics you’re going to look at and what you want is immediate information, not second guessing. I hate looking at a projection on my spreadsheet and wonder, “did I change those steals, because that looks awfully low.” So what I recommend is to bold any statistic that you’ve changed, just so you know that’s your projection.
From there, I always keep space on the right side of my spreadsheet for notes. If I’ve modified a projection, I might say something like “CHONE thinks only 17 home runs, but based on low home run per fly ball rate last year and an abnormally low isolated slugging percentage, I’m saying 24.” Boom, now you have your own inner expert giving you advice on the fly during the madness of the draft.
Create individual tabs by position
This might seem pretty elementary, but having one long list of hitters and pitchers is just a horrible idea. I’ve watched people draft by sorting by position or sorting for the most home runs or strikeouts or whatever and my head wants to explode. You shouldn’t have to manipulate your spreadsheet mid-draft. Do the work in advance and you’ll be happy.
Projection systems are also typically full of errors relative to position eligibility. If you don’t do your diligence, you might wind up with a spreadsheet that doesn’t recognize multiple position eligibility, or worse, you might draft a guy like Kyle Seager  thinking he has 2B eligibility when in fact he didn’t meet the threshold for your system. I’ve also seen projection systems just miss players too. I won’t name names, but there was one last year that completely forgot to include Chris Sale . No kidding.
The positional tabs will help you tremendously as you navigate your draft, it will help you organize your thoughts, and it will help you catch any errors before draft day. What I like to have is a full list of hitters, starters, and relievers, and then an individual tab for every other slot you’ll need on your roster.
Rank your players by position
Also elementary, but bear with me here, because there’s a wrinkle. Rank each player by position, but do not rank them in a list. You’ll sort of do that later. Don’t rank them in order of how you’ll actually draft them but rank them according to their value independent of where they will likely be drafted. So using whatever projection system you’ve arrived at, look at each position and rank them according to wherever you think they belong based on those statistics, or whatever statistics you’d like to plug in given your own rational thought. It’s important to know who you think might be the next in line, but it might be even more important to think you know who the rest of the league thinks is next. The rankings are important, but they interplay with the next piece, average draft position.
I’ve read a lot of death-by-ADP, but I think people simply use it incorrectly. Knowing the average draft position is really essential in a snake draft, but where I suggest you use one projection system for simplicity, you should use two or three different ADP’s.
But there’s a caveat here. Systems like Yahoo and CBS, among others, will show you the average draft position of players but they also have positional ranking. The very important part of those positional rankings is that’s how the players will appear on ”the board” on draft day. This will dramatically impact the average draft position because if some schmo is unprepared and needing a first baseman, nine times out of ten he’s going to take the highest ranking first baseman left even if it’s not the best player available.
So not only do I like to use Mock Draft Central ADP, but I’ll use the ADP and positional ranking of each player at each position (within reason). There’s an obvious interplay between ADP and rank. This will really help you sniff out the players that are true bargains. If you rely only on Mock Draft Central, you might think you have a few nice little sleeper picks only to discover that Yahoo ranked them very high and poof — that plan is shot.
An example from last season of how I like to organize the player, stats, rankings, and notes:
|Jason Kipnis ||77||18||73||16||0.27||164||151||158||Flirtation with 20/20 could be great value pick|
So you have your ranking, you have ADP, and you have your system ranking. Now you can start to see where good values can be found based on who you want in context with where they’re being taken. From there, go to each position and highlight the players that you want to target – both the ones that you want to target because you covet their production but also the ones that you perceive as good values. Edwin Encarnacion  is a nice example. His average rank and ADP put him at around 182. I was still hoping to not have to draft Encarnacion as my starting third baseman, but recognizing there weren’t enough to go around, if I lost out on the six or seven guys I was targeting, then he was my fallback. Here’s a snapshot of the latter group of acceptable third basemen from the spreadsheet:
|Kevin Youkilis ||70||18||69||3||0.275||72||60||61 is too high, but if he slips to 7th or 8th, maybe. Old. Broken.|
|Aramis Ramirez ||77||23||89||1||0.289||74||74||Early season shenanigans a pain|
|Edwin Encarnacion||67||19||66||5||0.259||207||182||Seems like E5 could outperform this, not much diff’t than Youk. He’s your emergency pick|
So you look at those projections, and if you accept them (obviously I thought Youkilis was capable of more, but yeeeeeah) and you’re not getting a whole lot less in Encarnacion a good 100 picks later. So when it came time to decide on a third baseman around the 6th or 7th round, I had other needs to fill, and figured I’d punt until about the 16th and I’d see if E5 could be grabbed a little early. Lucky me.
Rank your top 12 and commit to it
Some people don’t like to rank at all, some people like to rank their top 100. For me, so much changes throughout the draft past your first pick that you need to be way more flexible than being locked into some kind of tier system or rank-order. But eliminate the emotion of the first round and the realization that with the third overall pick you’re just not going to get Mike Trout . Don’t get your heart set on any one player in that top 12 – you just get who you get and don’t throw a fit, to quote my schoolteacher wife. You reduce your own workload that first 10 minutes, or however long it’ll take to get through the first round, and you can just take the next highest ranked person on your top 12. Even if you’ve got Matt Kemp  ranked at #9 and some jackass takes him at #8, you can shrug your shoulders, take whomever you had ranked at #8 and start worrying about your next pick. The less you have to think about that first pick, the better.
Create a “draft strategy” tab
This is where things start to happen in your preparation. This is your war room. This is the place where you’ll spend a good 50% of your time during the draft instead of tabbing back and forth among position rankings to see who you might want to take next. Who you might take next should be mostly mapped out for you already based on your preparation.
Here’s the plan. List out the rounds, however there may be – say, 1-25, down the left hand side. In each corresponding cell, list players that have average draft positions and/or ranks that should place them somewhere in this round and plug them in. Alternatively, if there’s a player you absolutely must have — plug them in a round early, even two rounds early, but note the adp/rank so you know if you’re taking them early without having to go back to your positional tab. This will help you if you want to risk waiting another round if you have a particular need or if a player fell to you unexpectedly. For example:
|2||Ellsbury 12||Longoria 11||Cargo 10||Grandy 21||Pedroia 16||Kinsler 20|
|3||Texy 23||Stanton 25||McCutchen 27||Hamels 32||Zimmerman 33|
|4||Santana 41||Holliday 36||Bruce 51||Jennings 43||Haren 49||Lawrie 45|
Try to ignore the fact that I was once interested in Dan Haren  in the fourth round, and just use this as an example. My first round didn’t include ADP/rank because I’d already had it all written down and it didn’t matter. Maybe the first few rounds aren’t your issue. Maybe it’s staying organized later. Consider a few of the beauties in this list, looking back on my “draft strategy” tab:
|16||Betancourt 164||Motte 171||J. Garcia 166||Bonifacio 174||A. Sanchez 156|
|17||de Aza 169||Dempster 180||Hellickson 183||Scherzer 186|
|18||Soto187||Moose 179||E5 182|
|19||Trumbo 192||Dunn 251||W. Ramos 280|
|20||Sale 232||Liriano 250||Minor 260|
|21||Worley 258||Balfour 293||Bard 267||Y. Alonzo 247|
There are a couple stinkers on there, but I obviously moved guys like Chris Sale, Adam Dunn , Mike Minor , and Grant Balfour  up several rounds where I threw in other names in there just in case they were still hanging around, like Anibal Sanchez  and Mark Trumbo . Regardless, when the 19th round came around, I could scratch down Sale and Minor and get my draft queue prepared in advance.
Write down every pick, by round, as it snakes
If you commit to the “draft strategy” tab, this is the simplest little trick to get yourself organized. So your system doesn’t announce your pick until a half hour before draft time or whatever. No matter. Do this, for every round. Just do it:
|Round 1||Round 2||Round 3|
If you do this for every round, once you find out you’re picking fifth, you can go and select the row starting with five, all the way to the end of your draft, copy and paste that into your draft strategy tab, and you’re starting to map out your whole draft. What I love about doing this is while your early work on the rounds and your strategy is great and it provides a framework for the draft — knowing your actual pick number starts to demonstrate whether or not you’re going to have to reach for a player or not. For instance:
|Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4|
|Bautista||Kinsler 20||McCutchen 27|
|Kemp||Reyes 19||Holliday 36|
|Votto||Stanton 25||Sandoval 39|
So here you can see that by having pick 20 and 29, if I want Giancarlo Stanton , I’m going to have to take him with my 2nd pick. And knowing I have the 44th overall pick, if I want Matt Holliday  or Pablo Sandoval , I’m going to have to pull the trigger early, because they’re likely to be gone by the time it comes back to me. This gets really helpful in the middle rounds where everything can get turned on its head, but if you go in there and plug in the names as the draft is happening, it’ll help make some sense for you.
Don’t have a plan, have a map. Your players are going to get selected, it’s inevitable.
You’ll prepare, you’ll have a list of players that you simply must have, and — shocker — it turns out it’s the same list of players that your opposing managers absolutely must have. So you need to be even more prepared for the unexpected than you really even need to be prepared for the actual draft. As we’re taught in high school debate, prepare a counter argument for every possible argument your opponent might levy. What happens if you lose out on every decent second baseman? What’s your alternative?
The round-by-round picks by draft position above can come in really quite handy when you realize it’s the 11th round and you have no shortstop. Hit your SS tab, see what your plan was, and if there’s a player or two that would be your next in line, then maybe plug them in a round early and let your plan work for you.
Know the breaking points where you can punt positions.
This is one of the most important strategies in a snake draft and it relates directly to the above. You’ve seen this happen before, where a manager realizes there was just a run on players at a position, they panic, and they draft someone way too early. Worse yet, they don’t even draft someone too early, but they just draft a player that’s virtually no better than any other late-to-last round flyer you’d take at a position. This plays into the “ask yourself what you would do if” question that you should be prepared for.
Second base is a nice example from last season. Guys that missed out on Robinson Cano , Dustin Pedroia , and Ian Kinsler  could have freaked out and taken Michael Young  or Dan Uggla , or even Howie Kendrick . If you trust your projections and then use your head, you’d look at second base and realize you could probably wait until the late teen or early 20’s rounds and get the same kind of value that opposing managers got in the 7th or 8th rounds. My notes from last year said if I didn’t get a guy early, just let second base go, and take whoever was left out of Neil Walker , Aaron Hill , Jason Kipnis, or Danny Espinosa . They all had warts in their projections, but their cost was basically a flyer, and frankly, you could take two and hope for the best.
The beauty of figuring this out in advance is you can just kind of “punt” mid-draft. You can ignore second base for about twelve rounds and know you’re going to be just fine. Or at least as fine as a guy without a top-three second baseman can be. But it frees you up to focus on other needs, and having that kind of clarity during a draft can be rather liberating.
Zig when they zag.
I say this a lot, if you’ve read anything that I’ve done. You might be a guy that likes premium pitching and you’ll build an outfield later or you’re a guy that says offense is key and you can put together a staff in the later rounds. That’s super. But the likelihood is someone’s going to make you want to kick a puppy during the draft. They’re going to take your players and they’ll probably take a lot. You absolutely must prepare to go in a different direction than you initially planned for.
Additionally, you might notice that everyone in the league is going offense early on — and that was your plan. But what it’s done is left a pile of spectacular pitchers on the board in rounds you never expected to draft pitchers. The third round, fourth round, etc. Are you going to be forced to take Jay Bruce  two rounds early because there’s nobody else left, or do you want to take Stephen Strasburg ?
Be dynamic during the draft and you’ll wind up with a better team.
Build in the cloud
Build your spreadsheet somewhere in the cloud, like Google Drive or something. Access it anywhere, make notes while you’re on the subway, on the bus, on the can, whatever. I relied on Excel forever because I prefer it, but if I have to be next to my computer every time I have a free minute to look at a position, my preparation suffers.
Have things nearby to throw.
This is kind of figurative and literal all at the same time. I throw crap all the time during a draft. It’s cathartic. But it’s also kind of a remedy to the emotion of the draft where you can throw something and just move on. Second-guessing yourself during a draft is the most counter-productive thing in the world. Asking yourself why you waited to draft player X not only doesn’t bring player X any closer to your squad but only serves to screw your planning for your next two picks. Players come off the board every 90 seconds. Just deal with it. If you need two seconds to throw a hat, then have a collection handy.
Do your draft prep, have a strategy at each position, be prepared for the unexpected, don’t dwell on the last pick. And throw shit. Snake draft 401.