Unorthodox strategies

In preparing for next year, you may be thinking about various strategies and plans. So, this is a good time to address some of the more unorthodox ones.

The use of unorthodox strategies is a key component to conflict and warfare. Sun-Tzu first wrote about the power of the unorthodox, especially mixed with the orthodox. As Sun-Tzu stated in The Art of War, there are really two classes of strategies, the orthodox and unorthodox, yet their flexibility is so great that no one could ever exhaust their possibilities. Many of the earliest great generals were those who defied convention and flouted the traditional modes of war.

One of my favorite historical figures, if he can be so called, is the great samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi was the absolute master of the unorthodox. Two of my favorite examples among the many:

–Musashi arrived late to two prior battles against one rival family, the Yoshiokas. He had previously defeated the father and eldest brother and was now facing his third opponent from that family, the younger brother. In the prior two battles he was hours late. In this battle though, the youngest brother arrived early with a small army hoping to overwhelm Musashi. Expecting Musashi to be late, the army laid down in the grass to rest. Of course, Musashi then jumped out of a tree, having hidden for days, and not only killed the third brother but most of the relaxing soldiers.

–There was an undefeated warrior, Baiken, who used a sickle and a long chain with a steel ball on the end. Musashi wanted to see the weapons in action but Baiken refused, only agreeing to use them in a duel. Baiken used the same strategy in all his duels. He would hurl the ball at his opponent and then charge with the sickle, so that when the opponent was fending off the ball he would kill him with the sickle.

Musashi showed up for the duel with two swords, one long and one short, a tactic that no samurai had tried before. He charged immediately so that Baiken couldn’t throw the ball. When Baiken hesitated, since he wasn’t sure what to do next, Musashi knocked him off balance with the short sword and then killed him with the long one.

Perhaps the greatest master of the unorthodox was Hannibal and again there are many examples of his prowess. Most people know about his use of elephants. However his greatest stroke was in one of his many battles with the Romans. Hannibal wanted to unnerve Roman sentries guarding a pass. So he tied bundles of kindling to the horns of oxen and lit them on fire! The oxen charged the opposing army aflame and bellowing. Since he did this in the dark of night, the Roman sentries were terrified and ran off, giving Hannibal easy access to the Roman army.

I will admit there are plenty of fantasy opponents that I would love to besiege with flaming oxen. There is no shortage of unorthodox strategies in fantasy baseball, though I don’t really see that burning oxen will be to your advantage unless your draft is a barbecue. I have always found it interesting to read about some of these unorthodox fantasy strategies. Here are a few of the superficially plausible ones that I have read about over the years. They were developed by guys in expert leagues to try to get a leg up on other experts.

Sadly I have never seen anyone try them in practice but if you have let me know. Maybe next year I will have to join a low stakes auction league and give one of them a whirl:

1. The Labadini Plan-This is a plan where you spend only $1 per pitcher and spend the rest on offense. If you play in AL or NL only leagues the benefits of this plan may be apparent. By spending all this money on hitting you lock up the hitting categories. You shoot for getting lucky with a few pitchers and trade excess hitting for the rest.

I have never seen anyone execute this strategy. It reflects the fundamental premise that pitching is too variable to spend lots of money on in an auction. If you are in a league where you can get a few cheap pitchers for $1 you may be in luck. This year in my high stakes auction I got Sergio Mitre, Claudio Vargas, Pat Neshek and Edgar Gonzalez for $1. These are good value pitchers in deep leagues. Their value though lies in rounding out a staff, not being your best pitchers.

This plan is really a gimmick strategy. I can envision a team cashing with this strategy, but probably not winning. Your opponents, unless they are fools, will see that you need pitching and you will never be able to make a fair trade. Another issue is the fact that many leagues have innings minimums, and in those leagues this strategy is even more difficult to pull off.

2.The “Bernhard” Plan-Named after Sandra Bernhard because the plan is “so ugly it’s beautiful”(!), this plan requires that in each offensive spot you draft a player that will get 300-499 ABs. The thought is that you minimize the effect of the end of your bench, you do very well in offense by leading the league in at-bats, and you can easily replace guys that are hurt since they won’t be superstars.

The problem of course is that you have to fend for yourself on pitching. This is another strategy that I can see getting into the money but not winning.

3. The Sweeney Plan-In this plan the owner essentially punts HR and RBI as a category. It is a much better plan in 5×5 leagues, or league like my high stakes league that are 8×8. Many leagues now have at-bat requirements that make this plan much harder to pull off. The benefit is that you save money on the guys who are typically most overvalued (a subject for another column), and can spend on pitching.

There are plenty more where these came from–the Over-30 Plan (only draft players over 30), the $20 Budget Plan (no players over $20), the DL-Plan (get guys who were DL’d last year). All of these plans have a common thread-they seek to minimize the effects of luck or the effects of the players that are typically the most variable.

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All of these plans are gimmicks that are designed to take the place of full qualitative and quantitative analysis. In the basic league, fantasy baseball is not a game where these strict rules can defeat any but the weakest opponents. You will do better not using a strict set of rules and instead seeking to exploit your opponents’ mistakes. It is much like poker in that regard. You can reach a certain level by relatively strict application of a set of rules, but to really do well you need to go beyond that.

In non-expert leagues any plan is better than no plan. This is why I can envision these plans getting into the money in non-expert leagues. It will often be the case in many leagues that many owners have little idea about strategy and in these cases even these unorthodox strategies will beat no plan at all.

A different scenario is presented by expert leagues, where these plans may have more merit since you generally can expect other experts to accurately value players, not fall for terrible trades, make the right trades at more or less the right time and generally handle their teams with aplomb.

In the expert situation, the only real difference you may be able to exploit is something unknown and untried. These unorthodox strategies are a good example of the attempt to do so. Fantasy Baseball is about exploiting information that others do not have. If you are against other experts then it is a difficult task indeed to find information they don’t have. So trying something that is the epitome of the unorthodox can be of value. Expert poker players, for example, can and do use a game theory based bluffing system so that their opponents cannot out think them. Against other experts this has great value. But against non-experts that can be exploited you make less money by a rigid rule than by simply trying to out think them. The same principle applies to these unorthodox fantasy baseball strategies.

For the rest of us though, we are better off learning our craft and trying to become an expert. Using these strategies may work, but they will not be optimal for you if you are better than your opponents. You may be able to beat the majority of owners, but likely won’t win if there are some tough opponents in your league.

However, in the vein of becoming an expert the principles behind these strategies are like gold and should always be kept in mind by the Fantasy GM:

1. Pitching is very unpredictable, so don’t overpay for it.
2. Players coming off the DL can be undervalued by many owners.
3. Maximizing at-bats is often a very strong strategy. My own corollary to this is that when in doubt draft batting average. The principle is that often you are better getting a solid veteran performer than taking a whirl on a risk. Often in deeper leagues there is a strong correlation between at-bats and total offensive points.
4. HR and RBI guys are usually overvalued in auctions. This is not to say that true 5-category studs are, but it is the power guys in the next tier down that are often overvalued. Think Vinny Castilla or Hideki Matsui, who went for $30 in my high stakes league auction, even though I released him last year from his contract at $19.

Unless you are in a real expert league, if you take a chance on one of these unorthodox strategies you may be following a strict set of rigid rules rather than having an overall strategic plan. While this may be OK to beat some weaker competitors, it is far better to be the guy lighting oxen on fire or jumping down to attack from a tree.

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