The butterfly effect

Often, I use this column simply to think through the implications of a certain strategy or decision. Simply trying to impart pieces of advice is of limited value to me and to you, but stimulating interest in one’s thought process is very valuable, even if you wind up in a different place than I do.

It is important to remember that every decision you make when building your team exists within so many unique contexts that much of what you’ve read in terms of “advice” becomes virtually irrelevant. That’s the paradox of fantasy sports advice.

On the one hand, I could simply publish one column every offseason: an exhaustive ranked list of players, which would essentially answer all questions about my opinions and encompass 95 percent of the material covered by the thousands of words I spill into the (near-)weekly columns I compose. This sounds like a panacea for both your appetite for information and my desire for more naps. Yet, such an exercise is the least helpful thing I could possibly do for our readers.

I was looking at early-season ADP rankings with the intent of putting together a pretty vanilla column about players who are beginning to appear overvalued and those who might be slipping under the radar.

It was in the context of this activity that I stumbled upon an early ADP of 149 for Adam Wainwright. I was all set to jot his name down for inclusion in the column. I planned to say that while there is certainly risk with the former bona fide ace, I would be comfortable taking that risk earlier than pick 149, given the potential reward.

But then I thought about that proclamation in the context of my standard mixed-league snake draft strategy and realized that decision is a lot more complicated in practice. So, I then decided it would be more valuable to write about the internal conversation this proposition and seeming contradiction spawned.

In a nutshell, my default strategy for drafting mixed-league starters is as follows. Ignore the absolute best of the best and try to nab one of the last remaining players from the top tier of pitchers (maybe top 10-12).

Sometimes I think there’s a player (or two) who is actually almost top tier but isn’t grouped there. If this player sticks around, say, two rounds after the last consensus ace is drafted, I’ll double down on a store-brand ace. If not, I’m unlikely to draft my second starter within the top 100 picks.

Depending on whether I got the second pitcher, I’ll start drafting my next pair of pitchers a bit earlier or later, but in general, I’ll look to get two or three solid guys with upside between picks 100 and 175. Remember, these are very general benchmarks. At least the first two of these pitchers should be reliable enough that I’m confident they’ll stick in my rotation all year. All should have some upside.

After I have the core four, it’s all about upside. I’ll draft a lot of starters late because there’s a greater chance for breakout among starting pitchers than hitters. Some of these guys may not last a month on my team, but that’s okay, because if I hit big on one and find another who sticks on my roster most of the year, I’m way ahead.

In a vacuum, my opinion on Wainwright at 149 is that, with Matt Garza going at 139, in Wainwright you have the better team and the handicap. In that vacuum, I ask why not Wainwright at 135, or 120? I wouldn’t exactly shy away from those odds, either.

Back outside the vacuum though, I’m realizing that it’s not uncommon for me to be selecting my second starter at pick 120, and that while I can afford some variance in expected performance from my second starter in exchange for upside, I’m not sure it’s prudent to extend the amount of variance I’m willing to accept in this proposition to include the full gamut of possibilities attached to a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery.

If I want to gamble on Wainwright and commit enough to doing so to ensure I snare him, I’m going to have to deviate a bit from my standard strategy to support this initiative. It is at this point when you test the mettle of your opinion.

If I’m only moderately excited about taking this gamble, then Wainwright is simply a potential opportunity, and he goes on the list of other players I view similarly. If I’m gung ho about Wainwright, then acquiring him becomes a strategic imperative. It is okay to make this kind of decision, but you must evaluate how committing to that decision will impact what you will have to do throughout the rest of your draft to ensure your needs are met and risk level isn’t disproportionate.

The allure of a player coming off injury is that the fear of re-injury or persistent damage skews his price so low that the chance and benefit of a successful comeback is woefully under-priced. But, it is important to remember—and is often ignored—that the heights of potential profit don’t do anything to decrease the chance of a disastrous outcome.

That is, just because Wainwright has a better chance to be great than lesser pitchers returning from injury, that does mean that he has any lesser chance of being a total flop because he wasn’t ready to return, or because he re-injures himself. So, you still have to insure yourself against the floor, no matter how high the ceiling.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

How would I do that?

There are many possibilities to alter your draft strategy, but let’s concentrate on one idea for this exercise. One thing I might do is force myself to take a second pitcher in the top 100, basically to shoehorn the strategy I use sometimes into action even if it is not perfectly opportune. Then I would probably take another pitcher within the two rounds following my pick of Wainwright around the 125 slot.

Each draft pick has an associated opportunity cost, so I also have to start thinking about what I’ve sacrificed to take that other starter in the second half of the top hundred.

Knowing my own strategy, one asset I might be sacrificing with such a pick could be the one rock-solid, upper-crust closer, around which I usually try to build my saves crew. So, perhaps this means when chasing saves, I have to go from a plan of one elite closer, one mid-tier closer, and then guys with short resumes—but jobs and strikeout prowess—to two mid-tier closers and slightly adjusted back-end bullpen strategy, as well.

Of course, I could go on to hypothesize further and more subtle ways implementing one strategic imperative could impact my draft, but I think the point is clear.

You needn’t fully diagram the impact a decision that carries a unique risk profile or nontraditional roster construction dynamic (like filling your utility spot within the first few rounds) makes on every round, especially because your draft will not play out exactly as you hypothesize anyway. But, it is important to think through the ripple effects of your potential strategic decisions, especially when they deviate from the norm.

If I could be sure readers take away one nugget from this article, it is this: It’s a bad idea to simply swap out the selection of one player with a clearly defined and necessary role for another player who is assigned that same role, but who has an entirely different risk profile, while maintaining your pre-existing strategy for every other round.

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Interesting, my pitcher strategy is very similar. I dont believe in taking pitchers early. I rank the first 14 or so pitchers who I wouldnt mind be my staff ace with and actuall target couple in the 10-14range.   Now this is my list so many times pitchers that are ranked in that group by others do not appear on my list. This strategy allows me to to go as deep as 8th rd before I take my 1st pitcher.   Now last yr didnt go as smoothly as I liked. I got Haren as last pick of 6th rd… Read more »
mark f
mark f

Do you think that teams would handle 30 year olds (heading into a 2-year contract) coming back from Tommy John surgery differently than they may handle a 24 year old with 4 years of relative cost certainty ahead of him?

I would view him as less risky coming back from TJ surgery than I did Jordan Zimmermann.



I couldn’t disagree with the pitching draft strategy you are using or where you have Wainwright valued.  By the time March drafts roll around, we will know where Wainwright is in his recovery, and I am convinced he will be stronger than expected.  The team considered pitching him in the playoffs, meaning he is getting a regular Winter workout.

I project Wainwright will go in the top 100, and on my board, he will be in the top 75, of course, I am the guy taking 3-4 pitchers in the top 100 picks, which is a completely different strategy from yours.

Derek Ambrosino
Derek Ambrosino


I’m only going off of where the market, with very limited “data” in, has been valuing Wainwright thus far. Perhaps he makes a bigger leap as spring training begins. I don’t know. But, may main points are about a comprehensive risk-management strategy across your entire roster, and less about Wainwright’s specific and predicted draft day ADP.


That’s a good question. I guess my roundabout answer is that if Wainwright appears to be back around his previous level of efficacy, I don’t see the Cards limiting him for purely cautious reasons.