What is the most important auction skill?

When it comes to auctions in leagues with tough competition and where the same owners are involved year after year, it is of vital importance that fantasy owners cultivate one skill that is usually overlooked. We are not talking about a general plan or strategy, but about the actual conduct of the auction. What is the most important characteristic needed for success?

Typically many owners consider it to be accurate projections. The problem with projections is that there are not great differences between good sets of projections. Ron Shandler has written that even the simplest systems will be accurate around 65% of the time, and no system will be accurate for another 20-25% of the player population. So what is at issue among various systems is the relatively small remainder.

That is not to say that projections are unimportant, far from it. A good projection set is a necessity. But the fact is that against better competition almost every owner will have good projections. This gives them limited value. My first time in a high stakes league I thought I was in great shape with my Baseball Prospectus book and its projections until I showed up and nine other guys had the same ones.

Another is a good plan in terms of which players to bring up and when. This tactic is of great value in certain particular instances especially late in the auction when dollars are low and small bids can go unchallenged. But overall it will not make a huge difference in your overall results unless you snag that one player you covet late in the day. The effort should always be there, but the end result may or may not happen.

In my view the most important skill to cultivate is one that has an effect in virtually every aspect of auction planning and strategy. In auctions that is the skill of unpredictability. Not only will it bear fruit in every auction its utility is seen in virtually every aspect of an auction.

An auction against tough competition is one of the great joys of fantasy baseball. But success requires a combination of many different skills. As an example of how things can go awry, in my high stakes league there was a team last year that had the best keeper roster (by acclaim) coming into the auction. Not only did the owner have a strong keeper roster with lots of profit already in hand, he had a lot of money available.

What should have been a strong auction and a strong chance at first place rapidly went south almost from the get go. His team eked out a fourth place finish, barely cashing. His auction was a disaster and set the stage for a disappointing season. The cost to him was very high in real dollars as well as in his team’s results.

There are many facets to an auction where you must be unpredictable. The list below is not exhaustive, but I wanted to address a few illustrative scenarios:

1. With regard to bringing up players you often read hoary advice such as “don’t bring up players you want.” While often good advice the flaw should be fairly obvious. If you never bring up a player you want then when you bring up a player your opponents will be confident you will not go the extra dollar. This is especially important in the middle and late rounds.

2. I am often guilty of this one: there are situations where other owners know that I will not typically go for $30 for any starting pitcher and rarely for any player. So when the bidding gets hot and heavy players can often know where I stand. I changed this last year, and went to $30 on a few players, ending up with a $30 Jake Peavy, a $32 Jimmy Rollins and a $35 Carl Crawford. In the future my opponents can not have any certainty as to what I will do, yielding additional profit (I hope).

3. You must make a point to get involved in almost every bid. Even if it is a player you do not want, get in there! Occasionally you will get stuck with a $15 Nick Punto (as I did last year!) but with all of this activity comes the fact that your opponents will have no idea about your overall strategy. If they do not know it they will not be able to stop it.

If you think that owners do not actively try to scuttle the plans of others then you should be involved in tougher leagues to get a flavor for what goes on. In the leagues I am in this is a common occurrence, and some owners make it a badge of honor to disrupt others’ plans. Being involved in lots of bids makes you unpredictable by definition unless your opponents are mind readers. Sam Walker’s wonderful book Fantasyland had some good anecdotes about owner’s trying to disrupt opponents’ plans, by psychology as well as auction bidding.

4. Make sure you are not beholden to your dollar values. If you show up with a certain projection set every year, your more astute opponents will not only notice but will try to use that against you. If you have the Baseball Prospectus book in your possession every year then others will know that you are likely using their projections and will have a good idea of your values (and your strategies). Of course, getting involved in lots of bids as mentioned above will make it very difficult for others to pin you down.

In no way is this list exhaustive. Cultivating unpredictability in all facets of auctions is of great vitality against better opponents. This is simply because the better your opponents the less value the common and typical strategies have. Keeping opponents from knowing your plans is step one to accomplishing them. These examples may not seem significant at first, but if you are in a league with a few tough owners, making sure they cannot scuttle your plans may well be the difference between cashing and failing.

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