A post mortem on a head to head league draft strategy

Since most head to head leagues are in the playoffs this is a good time for a post mortem to address draft strategies and how the can be executed or flubbed. Here is a comparison of two draft strategies.

A co-contributor to my blog at The Fantasy Baseball Generals and I compete in a head to head mixed league. He and I had somewhat different draft strategies, but ended up in a virtual tie for the points championship in our mixed league. I was winning until the penultimate day of the year, and lost the overall points title (but not the head to head championship thankfully!) by less than 30 points out of 7300 total.

My co-contributor (Matt) won the overall points total championship (the actual league championship is in the playoffs), and we finished one-two overall in the league by record also so we both have byes in the first round. We both had different draft strategies as I will discuss below.

The mixed league we are in started three years ago. In year one Matt again won the points title and I won the overall championship. This year it is very similar. Sadly, my team floundered last year as my ill-fated draft of Randy Johnson in an early round sealed my fate. If only I had someone who could go back in time and help me.

Which brings me to this post. Generally, most owners in the league draft pitchers in the first five rounds and many draft four or five pitchers in the first ten. I eschewed that strategy this year for an all hitting strategy in the first five rounds (I went with two pitchers in the first three rounds last year and got hammered), and only drafted one pitcher in the first seven. Matt went with two pitchers in the first six rounds and three in the first seven. This is as many as can be taken in the first seven rounds without being reckless. Teams that draft more than this almost never win a league, or at least the one I have been in during my 20 years of fantasy baseball, and their best finish is usually as a playoff team and no better. Here are our picks in the first ten rounds:

Round Matt Pat
1 Alfonso Soriano Chase Utley
2 Lance Berkman Vladimir Guerrero
3 Jimmy Rollins Garrett Atkins
4 Josh Beckett Hanley Ramirez
5 Jermaine Dye Prince Fielder
6 Matt Cain CC Sabathia
7 Chris Young Curtis Granderson
8 AJ Burnett BJ Ryan
9 Billy Wagner Dave Bush
10 Rickie Weeks Jim Thome

What can be gleaned from this? The first thing that jumps out at me is the fact that many believe that you have to be lucky in drafting to win these head-to-head leagues. I have heard this sentiment many times, and there is some truth to it. You can win if you get lucky. But you don’t have to get lucky to win. We both had some bad luck and clearly we both flubbed a few picks.

Matt had five picks out of ten that are arguably/definitely flubs, at least in terms of where they were drafted: Cain, Dye, Soriano, Weeks and Berkman. I was marginally better. I flubbed Atkins, Thome, Bush, Ryan. At least Ryan flubbed because of injury. Getting Fielder and Hanley Ramirez softened the blow. Not quite as much as a rollicking threesome with Yunjin Kim and Evangeline Lilly, but it’s close.

Where my strategy paid dividends was in the next few rounds. Here are my picks in rounds 11-15:

Round 11: Kelvim Escobar
Round 12: Javier Vazquez
Round 13: Ryan Freel
Round 14: Ian Snell
Round 15: Brad Lidge.

Freel and Lidge were OK and not great picks but can be excused at this stage of a fantasy draft. After all Lidge was not in the top 170 picks. He hasn’t been worthless however. I was counting on getting a few undervalued pitchers in these rounds and that strategy worked like a charm. Escobar has been a Cy Young candidate and Vazquez and Snell have both been very solid, Vazquez more so.

Snell has generated 448 points and Vazquez 531. As a comparison:

Pitcher Round Points
Roy Oswalt 3 548
Carlos Zambrano 3 491
Daisuke Matsuzaka 4 527
Felix Hernandez 4 409
Ben Sheets 4 406
John Smoltz 5 546
Matt Cain 6 436
Jered Weaver 6 363
Scott Kazmir 7 499
Curt Schilling 7 316
Barry Zito 7 379
Dontrelle Willis 7 319

My entire draft strategy this year was based on targeting guys who had pitched better than their actual earned run averages showed last year. Every pitcher that I drafted, save none, fit this criteria when comparing actual era with various expected era metrics. This is a strategy that will usually work well in mixed leagues. Many of the owners won’t have this information so it is of tremendous value. It not only opens your eyes to hidden gems like Vazquez but also allows you to get value out of those later round picks. Only 16 players are active each week so these rounds are away to fill out your starters with guys who have great potential.

Part two of my strategy was to draft nothing but pitchers after the 16th round (namely after my active roster was filled).

My picks in these rounds: Adam Loewen, James Shields, Jose Valverde, Claudio Vargas, Zack Greinke and Shawn Hill. I did waste a pick on one of my formerly favorite players, Carlos Quentin. Shields and Valverde have been tremendous, the rest mediocre to injured. Greinke was cut long ago.

This strategy depends on a few key principles:

1. Pitching can always be found in later rounds. But…
2. You must do the work to find them. Judgment and experience matter more than having the stats. There are probably a hundred pitchers who fit my criteria. Choosing the right ones is a matter of hard work, judgment and experience.
3. Always draft hitters in the first five rounds. This is a good way to mitigate risk. A lesson I learned last year in spades.

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What can you expect with these strategies? Matt’s pitching heavy(ier) strategy yielded 5 weeks where he scored the most points in the league. I only had one such week. On the other hand, the hitting strategy will yield a much more consistent scoring distribution. In a head to head league this is important since you will be in contention for a win every week if you have the right hitters. These hitters essentially allow you to bank a certain amount of points that will always be higher than your opponents’ in the long run, assuming you choose the right hitters of course!

As you can see, both strategies work. This is true in fantasy baseball in many instances. There are a few different strategies that can work. Proper execution of them is the key. You needn’t be perfect, just better than most of the others in your league in your selections. This is just for the draft of course; roster management during the season is just as crucial. Both Matt and I were able to cover some bad draft picks by effective roster management. For example, when B.J. Ryan got hurt I picked up Al Reyes on the free agent wire, and in early May jettisoned Atkins for Ryan Zimmerman.

My foray into a pitching heavy strategy last year, with a seventh place finish was and is a good lesson for me. The pitching strategy can work if things go right but there is a lot more risk involved. You will have more huge point weeks than with a hitting strategy since those weeks where your aces get two starts will rack up the points.

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I eschewed that strategy this year for an all hitting strategy in the first five rounds (I went with two pitchers in the first three rounds last year and got hammered), and only drafted one pitcher in the first seven. Matt went with two pitchers in the first six rounds and three in the first seven…..Blackjack Online