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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Matt Olson
Matt Olson

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.


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