Cramming the smart way

The Boy Scouts’ motto is to always be prepared, but we’re not all boy scouts. If you’re one of the many out there who has a draft in a few days but who hasn’t done much in the way of preparation, this article is for you. I’m not going to provide you with a crash course in draft prep but rather some advice on how to spend your limited preparation time most wisely.

I consider myself a good test taker, and because I got that reputation, I was often sought for advice in regard to taking the SAT. Many of those who asked me about it hadn’t really prepared and began freaking out as the test crept up. The first piece of advice I always gave people in that situation is to focus on information and knowledge that you can guarantee you will use. This means focusing on breadth of knowledge instead of depth, and focusing on strategy and familiarizing yourself with scoring systems and such as opposed to trying to cram as much content into your head as possible.

The first instinct many of the frantic students had was to begin studying vocabulary lists, as that was a major piece of many of the SAT review books. Similarly, a frantic fantasy leaguer may be tempted to start reading as many articles as possible, gobbling up any list of “sleepers” his or her Google search pings back. This is exactly the wrong approach. Instead, bring your attention to higher-level issues.

Understand your league scoring and settings
On the SAT, one of the most important things people needed to learn was the math of guessing—when it was to your advantage to do so. In fantasy baseball, one of the first things to acquaint yourself with is your league settings. If you’re not in a traditional 5×5 league, here is your first opportunity to start identifying value. Sometimes, there is categorical imbalance in the settings chosen.

Does your league scoring disproportionately value rate stats? Do you have a very low innings limit? Do you use on-base percentage instead of batting average? Two catchers? These are all opportunities to identify players with enhanced value in your particular league.

Focus on grouping players into tiers
Instead of trying to read in-depth on every player, take a look at ADPs or projected draft prices and try to identify patterns within positions. For example, here are a few patterns I’ve noticed this year. First basemen aren’t as plentiful as often thought, and second base is deeper than people think. Shortstop is very thin, while thid base is top-heavy, but not deep.

Within these positions you will also find additional patterns. Take shortstop, for example. You have a big three, then a handful of fairly similar decent options, and then not much to be excited about, minus a few interesting gambles.

A general rule of thumb by which one can often abide is to avoid being the drafter who breaks the barrier between tiers. If there are five players whose auction value all project to be within four dollars, more often than not, you will get a better bargain buying the second-to-last player in that group than buying the first player in that group. Jeff Gross recently published a series of articles that focuses on breaking players into tiers at each position.

Devise a general strategy
It’s important to approach a draft with a plan. Some of the overall principles guiding your strategy will likely come from any insight you glean from analyzing your league setup. Other principles will be guided by insights derived from taking your bird’s-eye approach to the player pool. Maybe you want to fill your middle infield early. Maybe you don’t like the back-end closer options. Thinking strategically can help force you to turn your opinions into actionable knowledge.

Make cheat sheets for steals and saves
Steals and saves are the two single categories in most limited supply. Make sure you have a list of each team’s projected closer as well as the next-in-lines for the most tenuous situations. Compile a list of players likely to steal 20 or bases. If it gets late in the draft and you find yourself behind in these categories, you should be able to find a cheap player to fill this need. Plus, given the thin supply of these categories, you want to track as they come off the board.

Set some benchmarks
If your league is a repeat league, it should be synched to the previous years’ standings. Look at what it took to win each category the previous season and get a feel for what statistical totals are required to compete in each category.

Understand the type of player you are
Are you quick to wire? Do you have an itchy drop finger? If you don’t think you can’t be the first to act on closer news, you might want to draft more or better closers. If you don’t have a lot of patience, you may not want to draft unproven younger players. Think about how to assemble a team that matches your personality. This is also a way to differentiate similarly priced players on grounds not explicitly tied to having intimate knowledge of their skill sets, spring performance, etc.

Plan to make use of the draft clock
While skill is one side of the production equation, opportunity is the other. If you are in a draft, start anticipating who the highest-ranked available players will be when it’s your turn. Then you can do some quick cramming. Are there injury issues? Is there a plan to shuffle their prior batting order position? Will playing time be an issue?

If you haven’t had a chance to do much research in advance, this is one way to narrow the player pool to those on whom you will likely have to actually make a decision. Many players are not viable options for your team, either because of need or because of what other drafters do. If you spend your cram time reading deeply on a player, it goes for zilch if you wind up never having to make a decision on that particular player.

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