Being Prepared

Sadly, the fantasy baseball season is starting to wane, as some owners now turn their attention to football. Heathens! Football drafts are coming up, even though the baseball season still has almost two months left! In many instances, thoughts turn to next year for those not involved in football. If you are thinking about next year in baseball, one thing to think about now is how to spend your offseason, and what needs to do to be done to be prepared.

Right when I first started my blog, I was asked by a co-owner about my preparation for my high stakes league auction. You can find advice on preparation all over the fantasy world in all types of fantasy games; generally the advice is something like “to win you must be prepared,” but rarely is there any specific advice, a problem that is endemic to fantasy sports—the lack of specific advice in favor of general rules or cliches. Many fantasy baseball players play other fantasy games or sports, and this advice will help in all types of fantasy contests.

1. Projections. These are a necessity but of relatively limited value against good competitors. Why? Because they are relatively easy to obtain, all good players will have good projections and there are only marginal differences between the best ones. Getting stuck on projections and dollar values, and especially when you use them as a ceiling for bidding or as the key determining factor in drafting, is a trap.

Fantasy baseball is not a game of who can get the most accurate projections; it is about exploiting others’ errors of judgment and exploiting the differences in actual and perceived value. This is one of the key core principles of fantasy baseball; it is less true in other fantasy sports games like football, but still valid. Baseball allows this principle to be exploited to the fullest due to the long season, and the variations in value over a daily six month season. Projections are important since they are the basis for the determination of value. Of much more importance is how they are used.

2. Study. Bobby Knight said, probably while throwing a chair, that most people have the will to win, but few have the will to prepare to win. It takes a lot of study to win, especially in tougher or deep leagues. Most fantasy players play in some version of a 10 or 12 team mixed league, myself included. Even in these, where preparation is not too difficult, it is clear that some have no idea what they are doing.

Two years ago, one owner in my mixed league drafted Mark Mulder with his first wraparound pick in the second round (#13 overall). In the reserve rounds this year, I picked up James Shields and Joe Blanton. Virtually no one in the league knew who Shields was. One owner drafted a whole bunch of minor league prospects, even though he could have used these roster spots to stockpile pitchers to maximize his two-start pitchers. Some poor sap (me) even drafted Jake Westbrook.

In tougher leagues it is a different ballgame altogether. My high stakes league is sufficiently deep that in a given week there can be less than 30 hitters total available in the free agent pool. What does it take to be prepared in a league like this? At a minimum I think it takes at least one hour of auction or draft preparation for each roster spot, and probably more. If a name is brought up in a draft or the auction that I don’t recognize and I have to look him up in a book to identify him, I am disappointed. One year, it was the very first player to be brought up (Boof Bonser of all people, when he was not yet in A-ball in 2001).

In my high stakes league, for example, there are at least five owners (out of 11) who make their own projections, and one even uses modeling to prepare for the auction! These guys are doing far more than 60 hours of preparation. One even took a week-long vacation to prep full-time the week before the auction.

You can tell who knows what they are doing and who doesn’t very easily. At the end of the draft or auction is a guy scrambling for choices? Does he take five minutes in deciding whether to bid $5 on Fernando Cabrera? Does he draft Fox Mulder instead of Mark Mulder???

3. A plan. This should be obvious but most players never plan beyond more than “I will follow my budget and spend 70% on hitting and 30% on pitching, etc.” A good plan should include a specific objective for each roster spot. My team usually has at least four or five separate contingency plans, planning for depletion of the different positions. If pitchers go over value and go quickly, we have plan A; if it is outfielders then it is Plan B, and so on. Multiple plans and scenarios allow us to respond to whatever craziness the auction or draft brings.

4. An auction strategy. If you play in auction leagues, what I am referring to here is how you will bring up players and how you will deceive your opponents. The basic “strategy” is that one tries to drain money at positions they don’t need, and then wait for bargains. You can read this in virtually every fantasy sports book ever written. But this hoary advice will get you in trouble against players who will take advantage of this.

In my auction this year there was rampant inflation early, and people were not prepared, leaving them with lots of money left over. This meant large inflation late in the auction also. Those who didn’t see this coming had a tough time. Why? Because they assumed that there would be bargains late, according to the basic strategy. There were none. Having calculated the inflation beforehand, my co-owner and I anticipated that this would happen and prepared accordingly. We obtained most of our players in the middle of the auction.

Two years ago in an auction, our second year in the league, my team auctioned five of the first nine players brought up. It is often said that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”, and this is especially true in auctions against good opponents.

Normally you try to wait for bargains, but occasionally the bargains come right out of the box, depending on what the other owners have planned. We jumped in early and adjusted our plan because other owners let it happen, choosing instead to wait on their money. That is not to say they were wrong for doing so of course, it is just a matter of strategy and planning. It is a fine strategy if you have lots of money in a keeper league, or if you are starting from scratch. But if you have a middling amount of money a better plan is needed.

The key is flexibility. You must adapt to what is happening in front of you. And you must be tricky. One strategy, that we picked up from John Benson, is to have a deceit sheet that you will make visible to those who would try to look at your cheat sheets. This can be any title you wish, from “Breakout Candidates” to something completely off the wall like “Ch per AB integer matrix.” It should contain the names of a few players you don’t want. Add to it players you have auctioned and leave it in a place where others will glance at it. Then bring up the guys you don’t want, but bid on all of them.

If you are getting ready for fantasy football, feel free to adapt this advice. But don’t ignore your baseball team; the season is far from over!

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

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