Fantasy Baseball Roundtable: Player evaluation or strategy?

This week, it’s The Hardball Times Fantasy’s turn to host the Fantasy Baseball Roundtable. My question to the participants:

What do you think has a greater impact on one’s ability to win a fantasy baseball league: player evaluation or strategy?

Tim Dierkes — RotoAuthority

Player evaluation. If you are adept at picking players, it will easily cover up most strategy errors. You can’t win with bad players but can win with questionable strategy (like drafting a bunch of pitchers early or ignoring position scarcity). If you have the right players, the only real strategy is who to start on a given day. Usually you can look at the rosters of each team at season’s end and just by eyeballing tell who won the league. It’s easy for a radical strategy to backfire and ruin your season. The simplest strategy, creating a balanced team, will usually be fine.

Commish — Fantasy Baseball Geeks

You can make a case for both and my response will touch on each, but for the purpose of this question I will say strategy is most important. My goal entering all drafts is to load up on hitting early (or using a lot of my budget in auction) with a major focus on players that contribute to all 5 categories and do not hurt you in others. There is a 100% chance that I would pay more for Carlos Beltran than Ryan Howard as a current example. There are usually a group of arms that I target for “my ace” that will be on the board much later, but have the talent to rise into the elite. King Felix, Matt Cain, or Verlander would be an example of that for this year. I usually draft a bunch of these players and hope that collectively they can match up with someone that paid for Lincecum in the second round. Names like Yo Gallardo, Kershaw, Garza, Myers, Scherzer, and even Smoltz. Last, but not least I do not pay for saves. The 9th inning duties are the most volatile and spending early on them is a recipe for disaster. This is my personal strategy, but in the end it does come down to talent evaluation that makes it possible. I feel that I can find value in pitchers later (talent ready to rise) that allows my strategy to work. Hitters are more predicable and less injury prone, so for me it has been very successful over the years.

Patrick Cain — Fantasy Baseball blog

Strategy is more important. And with that I a mean, the ability to think on your feet, be flexible and take advantages as they come your way. Player evaluation was probably a lot more important a number of years ago, but now there are readily available, free forecasts that are really good. That basically puts everyone on the same level for predicting stats. There are also are great sites, like those hosted by many members of this league, that will help you fill in the gaps where that formulas may go astray.

Brett Greenfield — Fantasy Phenoms

I think player evaluation has the biggest impact when it comes to winning your league. Knowing who to target and who not to are the most important factors. I may have a certain strategy such as not drafting a catcher early, but knowing who Chris Ianetta is and when to draft him is more important.

If research is done and analysis is compiled, you are able to build your team from the bottom up. Examples of players from last year that could have been drafted in rounds 20 or later include Nate McLouth, Zack Greinke, Jair Jurrjens and Edinson Volquez. No strategy can find those kinds of players, but extensive player evaluation can.

Know each team’s starting lineup, rotation and closing situation. Lastly, evaluate each team’s “sixth man,” such as an Emilio Bonifacio. Being aware of a team’s depth chart can pay dividends in the longrun if an injury or poor play became a factor for a starter.

Jon WilliamsRotoExperts

Both proper player evaluation and good strategy are important to long-term success in fantasy baseball. However, a good strategy usually trumps player evaluation. This is because a good strategy will shrink the player pool. This is what successful strategies such as Ron Shandler’s L.I.M.A. and Portfolio 3 plans attempt to do. After the auction, player evaluation increases in importance but the player pool continues to be smaller if the strategy is preserved.

Rudy Gamble — Razzball

I think for 10 and 12 team mixed leagues that player evaluation and roster management trump strategy. It pains me to say it since I love draft strategy but there are too many free agents out there. In an NL-only or AL-only league, I think draft strategy plays a bigger role but, even then, I can’t say it trumps player evaluation. I’d say they feed off one another since you need player evaluation to identify the draft bargains that make a strategy successful. Perhaps the only format where strategy may trump player valuation is a head-to-head league where you can use strategy to outmaneuver your competitors.

Mike Podhorzer — FantasyPros911

I feel quite strongly that player evaluation is more important than strategy for winning a fantasy league. At the end of the day, winning a fantasy league boils down to accumulating the most value on your team for the entirety of the season (for the most part, total team value has a high correlation to the standings, but it’s not perfect). If you had completely perfect projections, I think that it would be nearly impossible to not win your league, and certainly you’d be guaranteed to finish in the money at worst. However, there is only so far a solid strategy could take you. You still need to have as accurate projections as possible and know how to properly value them. Simply put, I see strong player evaluation skills as vital to a winning fantasy player, whereas a good strategy might be nice to have and provide some benefit, but is not truly necessary.

In fact, I typically play my leagues pretty much straight up. I can’t even really describe any strategy I’ve used because all I do is try to leave the draft with the most value on my team by never targeting anyone and acquiring as many players at as large a discount to my value as possible, while hopefully spending my entire budget. I’m not sure that should even be considered a strategy, so a successful player could go “strategyless” and still perform well. I don’t think you could say the same for a fantasy player lacking player evaluation skills.

Derek Carty — The Hardball Times

Well, since the majority of the guys answered “player evaluation,” I’ll lean the other way and say “strategy”. Years ago, player evaluation was undoubtedly more important than it is today. Nowadays, everyone has access to a number of free projection systems, all of which have roughly the same level of predictive accuracy. Because of this, the marginal gains in player evaluation can be very slim in a competitive league (take note that in a weaker league, player evaluation likely trumps strategy). Therefore, the marginal gains for a superior strategist can supersede these player evaluation gains.

I do think there is an exception to this, however. While projection systems have an inherent ceiling, a barrier that can never be surpassed, it is still possible to gain a competitive advantage on your opponents in the area of player evaluation. While there is no marginal value in being the same as everyone else, there is a great deal of value in being different than everyone else, even if the cumulative projective accuracy of your methods are equivalent.

As an example (which is a strictly hypothetical one), if everyone thinks that Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and David Wright are the top four players to be drafted and you think that Stephen Drew belongs in that group, that is enormously valuable information (assuming that your system for determining this has the same level of accuracy as your opponents’). While everyone will be breaking even by taking Hanley and crew, you’ll be taking an equivalent player rounds later.

I’m not suggesting that Drew is actually a top four pick by any means, but if you have a system that says he is, and on the whole that system is just as accurate as the more traditional ones, you will be at a huge advantage. You will be able to derive greater fantasy value from that system since there will be a greater discrepancy between your values and market values.

As regular readers know, being equally or more accurate while also being different is something I actively try to do here at THT Fantasy with things like CAPS (Context Neutral Pitching Statistics) and True Home Runs.

Concluding thoughts

That wraps up this week’s roundtable. If you guys have any thoughts on this issue, please feel free to use the comment section to make them known.

Unrelated note: Mock Draft Central expert mock draft

As an aside, I’ll be participating in another Mock Draft Central expert mock draft tomorrow night at 8 PM EST. I didn’t want to use a whole post just to announce this, but to those of you who are interested, please feel free to stop by tomorrow and watch the draft unfold, ask questions, etc.

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  1. Tim Dierkes said...

    Are we trying to determine what’s more important for most people or just those who play in hyper-competitive leagues?  The majority of fantasy baseball players are still not using good projections.  They’re just grabbing a random magazine.  By the way getting hardcore into fantasy baseball ruined the magazines for me.  I used to love those.

  2. bpasinko said...

    I got one of ‘those’ this year because I was bored at the train station, total garbage.  They have a mock draft that’s from November and terrible projections.  They don’t tell you any formula or system they use for them, you get the impression a couple guys go yea Delgado is gonna hit 40 this year, write that down!!

  3. Derek Carty said...

    I left it vague for everyone to sort of interpret themselves.  I agree that many leagues still have people who aren’t using good projections, and in leagues like those I agree that good player evaluation – even if that means simply looking at Marcels – trumps strategy.  I will always play in at least one league like this so that I can relate to readers who are in those kinds of leagues.

  4. dan said...

    If we accept that “everyone has access to a number of free projection systems, all of which have roughly the same level of predictive accuracy” then doesn’t it follow that everyone has access to a number of free draft strategies?  I mean, surely if you’re the kind of person who knows of and seeks out Marcel/CHONE/ZiPS/whathaveyou, you’d be reading the Dierkes’ and Carty’s of the world too, no?  And at least from what comes across my monitor, it seems like year after year, these strategies are becoming more and more similar, presumably as inefficient ones are weeded out.  Are there actually reputable fantasy analysts promoting taking closers early or ignoring peripherals?

    And then, if we accept this (which by all means you are free to not do), does the question not become a much simpler chicken/egg question?  Optimal strategy inherently relies on proper evaluation, or else things like LIMA and 10-20 Steal Guys aren’t helpful at all.  On the flip side, with optimal evaluation, any strategy is available to use, and indeed will make those strategies even more successful.  This would be similar to Mr. Podhorzer’s answer, and seems somewhat undeniable to me.

    I know it’s a bit, shall we say, semantic, to boil it down this way, and as such takes the fun and debate out of the question.  But if we’re really answering it, I’m not sure it’s disputable: without the evaluation, the strategy becomes worthless.  Now, as I said at the beginning (or didn’t say, I suppose), if you think everyone’s evaluation methods are reasonably similar yet strategies differ significantly, then ok; strategy becomes the trump card.  I just don’t believe that to be the case.

  5. Inkook said...

    Depends on the following 3 factors in order of impact: The skill level of your league, the depth and your time horizon.

    The higher the skill level of the owners, the higher the weighting on strategy.

    The deeper your league is, the higher the weighting on player evaluation.

    The longer the time horizon (1 year vs dynasty league for example) the higher the weighting on strategy.

    Ideally, you’d like to find a league that provides good balance across all 3 factors.

  6. Rudy Gamble said...

    Dan -
    Agreed that Marcel/CHONE/ZiPS projections are only known to hardcore baseball / fantasy baseball fans.  While sites like ours, Tim’s, this one etc. will reference these sources (or create premium projections like THT), the bigger sites like ESPN or Y! won’t expose the average online player to these projections.

    In my analysis this year of Marcel/CHONE/ZiPS (and some feedback from their creators), I found a exploitable flaw.  The player AB/IP for these systems is generally overestimated as it is not tied to projected playing time.  You can get an edge by converting this data into rates (e.g., HR/AB) and using updated AB/IP either through your own projections (leveraging public depth chart info) or those of a site like Baseball Prospectus (fantasy subscription – PECOTA has same issues as Marcel/CHONE/ZiPS) and re-projecting the totals.  Changing someone like Wieters from 600 Plate Appearnces (PECOTA) to 400 (latest BP) will dramatically reduce the value of the counting stats.

    Tim -
    Totally ruined those magazines.

    Last point…no doubt that drafting 5 category guys is desirable but there aren’t many out there.  There’s a definite bias towards HR/SB guys – especially those that are weak in R, RBI, and/or AVG.  In leagues like this, I can see 3-category players being undervalued.  There’s no reason every player on your team needs to be balanced as long as your team is.

  7. rodney said...

    I think player evaluation is the most important. Yeah, having a good strategy for a draft can help but…stratagies are wrapped around player evaluation when it comes down to it. How do you determine what player fits best for your strategy?… Player evauluation is the key.

    …and just to add a quick note… if you have access to Bill James and Baseballl Prospectus’ projections spreadsheet for this upcoming season…average those two together and you have what I think are a very good set of projections. I’ve found Bill James’ player forecast to be on the high side and BP on the low side. I think its a perfect fit.

  8. Alex Zelvin said...

    The answer to the question really depends what kind of league you play in.  In weekly transactions leagues I think player evaluation is a reasonable answer.  Any leagues with daily transactions, strategy is far more important.  And in formats where you can turn over your entire roster every day, the ability to take projections and adjust for the context of that day’s game is 99% of winning.

  9. Sam Samson said...

    I suppose there can come a point where if the majority of fantasy experts are advocating loading up on hitters through the early rounds and then considering SPs afterwards – and most really are – that more and more drafters will do exactly that.  That’s going to make it possible to acquire top SP talent later and later, and at some point the smart play becomes to look to draft that talent.  It’s almost a moneyball analysis – get what’s not being valued as much as it should be. 

    I’m not drafting CC Sabathia in rounds 1 or 2 but if he’s there in 4/5 then that’s a great use of a pick – but people who have absorbed the ‘hitters early’ fantasy experts’ orthodoxy might not see this in time.

    So everybody, repeat after me – “I will not draft a starting pitcher before round 7.  I will not draft a starting pitcher before round 7.  I will not draft… .”  Strategy every time, baby.

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