Fantasy fluff the right stuff

I never thought I would be caught. I had been so careful to cover my tracks, only logging on when I thought she was asleep and erasing the incriminating history when I was done. After two decades of being faithful to my first love, I was restless, but not reckless.

When the phone call came, I could hear the hurt in her voice and I knew I was in trouble. “I though I had married someone who shared my traditional values—I can’t believe you’re seeing someone else.”

I stammered, tried to compose a plausible alibi, but she would have none of it. She had seen me all those late nights sneaking off to my my new-found attraction.

“I want the truth,” she yelled!

“You can’t handle the truth,” I thought . . . but I told her.

For half my life I had been faithful to one type of fantasy baseball based on the book that inspired a lot of us in the 1980’s written by Daniel Okrent and friends who coined the term rotisserie baseball at a formative gathering at a New York City restaurant—La Rotisserie Française. Our leagues used auction to mimic free markets with salary constraints and enough owners that we would struggle to fill our rosters with talent, forcing most teams to take risks and settle for mediocrity some places to afford excellence elsewhere. Rules were structured in such a way as to limit roster moves to no more than once a week. The leagues allowed keepers so owners could build for today or tomorrow. All these rules serve one over-arching goal: To make the experience of playing fantasy baseball much like running a real baseball team.

But after 20 years of realism, I was ready for an escape. And when a different sort of fantasy league flashed her lashes at me, I resisted for as long as I could, but in the end, I was too weak. There she stood, dressed in nothing but a snake draft and the promise of a wealth of choices that just weren’t possible with a traditional gal. There would be only 14 owners for a mixed-team league and the only limit on roster moves was the strength and speed of your typing finger, of, if you are more adept than me, your typing fingers.

Five months have passed since that fateful night when I threw caution and tradition to the wind. I’ve learned a lot about my new mistress, my old sweetheart and even myself. But the two most salient lessons are this:

(1) Deep auction leagues are more realistic.
(2) Sometimes realism sucks.

When real baseball teams lose a good player to injury, there is not often another stud waiting to take his place. The same holds true in deep auction leagues, a brutish fact that’s been driven home again and again in my Can12 A.L league. Spending chunks of time in the disabled list have been Kelly Shoppach, Mike Cameron, Derek Holland, Hector Rondon, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Montgomery, Kendry Morales, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt Weiters, Michael Saunders, Alex Rodriguez and JJ Putz. Two of my key acquisitions joined them: Connor Jackson and Jacoby Ellsbury, who surfaced long enough to tease me with four steals in one game before re-joining my dragoon of disabled.

I covered my first loss, Shoppach, by spending way too much of our free agent budget on John Jaso and tried to replace Cameron and Choo with Jackson, but there was little I could do as injuries mounted.

By comparison, losing players in my shallower draft league has actually been kind of fun: There’s enough surplus talent that when one player goes down it the replacement choices are varied and interesting. Brett Anderson goes down twice so I picked up Gavin Floyd, Brett Cecil and Wandy Rodriguez. Magglio Ordonez is lost so I pick up Andres Torres. In recent weeks I lost Nelson Cruz, Carlos Gonzalez and ARod in short order, so needing runs and batting average, I picked up Jose Tabata, Coco Crisp and Neil Walker.

No major league team enjoys that depth of talent or the ability to trade for it, though I guess you could make the case for the latter with the New York Yankees. It’s not at all realistic.

But it is fun.

It also provokes a number of strategies on draft day:

(1) The more shallow the league, the better it is to take risk on players with high ceilings who might fail because of injury or because their performance hasn’t caught up to their skills. In a deep league, those risks are fraught with risk. If a player crashes you are very likely riding with him down the elevator shaft. But in a shallow league, when an elevator falls, simply get off and catch another player on the way up.

(2) The availability of good players make it more likely rival owners will prematurely cast out talent which you can then scoop up. In my draft league you could assemble a pretty good starting staff just from cast-offs in April and May: Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Phil Hughes, Gavin Floyd, Brett Cecil, and Wandy Rodriguez—I picked up Hughes in April, Floyd in June and Cecil and Rodriguez in July.

(3) Daily roster moves also makes it easy to churn players for counting stats, especially starting pitchers.

(4) It’s less crucial in a shallow league to draft for a balance since there will be ample means to shift priorities. In a deep auction league you generally must trade to shore up weaknesses and that leave your future in the hands of rival owners in your league.

(5) While you are less dependent on trades in a shallow league, a shrewd owner may find it easier to pull one off since he is not limited to the player on his own roster when trying to make a swap. Earlier this year I was looking to move Mark Reynolds because he was killing my batting average and was ready to dump Brian Matusz because it seemed clear he was at least a few months away from turning the corner. I approached a rival whom I knew had the misfortune of being a die-hard Orioles fan and in desperate need of home runs and RBI. I wanted Ryan Braun. He wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger. A few days later, Pedro Alvarez was called up and I claimed him within minutes. Adding him to the package cemented the deal.

(6) Generally avoid taking pitchers in the middle rounds because the crap shoot’s not a whole lot better than the late rounds and there will be un-drafted talent that will perform well. In our league, among the 11 owners who actively managed their teams, more than half of starting pitchers taken in rounds 10 to 15 were dropped before the All-Star break. After round 15 there was good talent including Mat Latos, Clay Buchholz, Francisco Liriano, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Stephen Strasburg, Brandon Arroyo, Shawn Marcum, Diasuke Matsuzaki, Ted Lilly and CJ Wilson. I largely avoid taking pitchers in early rounds too—I I took none in the first five rounds and two of my first three taken didn’t pan out: Javier Vasquez mostly bombed and Anderson missed most of the season due to injuries.

My new flame has been fun—I’ve quite enjoyed my shallow draft league and for many of the reasons it isn’t realistic. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been in first place for most of the time since early-June and have opened up a sizable lead as we head toward season’s end. But I think it’s more than that. I love the fact that frustrations and setbacks can be short-lived.

I realize, of course, that one can play in a deep draft league or a shallow auction league but I think the reverse is more often the case: Draft leagues are more apt to attract casual fantasy fans who don’t want to know the names of major league backups or a prospect list that goes deeper than a top-10. Playing both for the first time had been an eye-opener.

How about you? Have you played in both deep and shallow leagues, auctions as well as drafts? Do you prefer one over the other? Why?

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  1. Mitch said...

    I think I agree with you. I’ve been in a deep, competitive, “realistic” keeper league for years. I have 4 pitchers on my team that are effectively useless but each week when I scour the scrap-heap, there is nothing. This and the effort required to make moves keeps me from doing much roster doctoring at all anymore so I just hope my current players don’t stink too much.

    I’m in another league I joined as a favor to a friend and am having much more fun (yes I’m in first place). It’s a standard, shallow 5×5 head to head league. What’s fun is with the wealth of talent available I can analyze my opponent and adjust my roster daily as I target specific categories. As you said when someone goes down, it’s actually fun to go find a replacement (that will be ready tomorrow) instead of seriously considering adding Willie Bloomquist to my team for a week. I feel a little guilty for liking this league much more than my “serious” one. Two drawbacks are no cash prize, and there are only about 5 active teams.

    Reality is indeed overrated.

  2. KY said...

    I agree.  I would like a shallow leagues more if they would limit the roster moves to Sunday nights too.  And to use a bid system or a waiver claim system based on standings.  Set your lineup and and roster for the week and live with it.  The whole, ‘who can be at the computer 24/7’ thing is not very fun to me.

  3. Pat said...

    I like the article. I have some disagreement about point 6. While I think it is a good idea to fill out alot of your pitching staff in the later rounds, I think it is smart to grab several SP in the early-middling rounds.

    1.If you draft too many late round SP you put alot of risk on your team. If you drafted AJ Burrent and Kazmir, you have put yourself in a hole. You would eventually dropped them, but you still have their stats for the 1st several starts. For every Buchholz you draft, you are probably going to get a couple duds. I think it is better to draft a few SP earlier to help balance out the risk.

    2.The guys you pick up are at a risk not too keep it up. For example, Phil Hughes. Say you picked him up after his 3 April stats. Since then he has had a 4.42 ERA 1.30 WHIP in 126 innings. In a shallow league, those numbers are terrible.

    In sum, I think it is a very good stragegy to wait on SP, but I think it is more worthwhile to grab a few SP to create a solid base.

    That being said, I think this stragegy is more useful in h2h leagues because the stats don’t carry over week to week. It still hurts, but you don’t have to make up for the bad outings for the rest of the year.

  4. Phil said...

    My main league is a snake draft keeper.  We keep top two round picks, one round protected pick for 2 years, and one free agent pick-up for two years.  It’s been going for 5 years now, and it is a good mix of a few hardcore players and casual players, but it always keeps the casual guys coming back b/c they know they have a core to start with. 

    Auctions in baseball take way too long, and are way too in depth for most people, especially finding 10-12 friends to keep up on it.  Dynasty leagues are also the same way.  I am a hardcore player but it is only b/c work allows it.  Most people I know don’t have a job where they can check fantasy or read websites/blogs daily.

    In any event good article, i quite enjoyed it.

  5. JB (the original) said...

    I typically wait on pitchers to the later rounds as well, but got the 1st pick in a 14 team league and with so many guys going between picks (snake draft), I had to go with some “value” picks for safety.
    And it would have worked well if,
    Beckett didn’t suck hard and go on the DL
    Jurrjens didn’t moderately blow and go on the DL
    Wandy didn’t suck hard until July.

    It was like the perfect storm of pitching that should have been good, heck if only 2 of them would have been average for the season….

  6. Jonathan Sher said...

    JB –  What rounds did you snag Beckett, Wandy and Jurrjen? In our league the first two went in the 7th round, the last in the 9th round. Which pitchers did you pick up in the later rounds?

  7. JB (the original) said...

    Beckett-last pick of the 6th (84th)
    Wandy-last pick of the 8th (112th)
    Jurrjens-last pick of the 10th (140th)
    J. Weaver-first pick of the 11th (141st)
    Shields-first pick of the 13th (169th)
    J. Sanchez-first pick of the 15th (197th)
    D. Holland-last pick of the 18th (252nd)
    Masterson-first pick of the 21st (281)

    I started with Hanley, Zimmerman, Cano, K. Morales, Ethier. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Pujols would hold up with the elbow, and the stress of a contract year, plus more qual. 1B than SS available)

    Losing Morales really hurt as there were basically no 1B left to count on.  So I traded Cano and Zimm for V-Mart, Utley, and Figgins.  Then V-mart and Utley promptly got DL’d.

    Lots of tough luck pitching too.  I’ve got like 110 quality starts, but only like 60 wins.

  8. Pat said...

    Thanks for clarifying about the SP. I like the stragegy The stragegy works perfect if you can time SP.

    Hughes worked out for you because you mostly timed his starts right and he has got progressivley worse througout the year. It does take some skill to time the starts right so it is worthwhile to use this stragegy.

    It is harder to time the good starts when an unknown guy like hughes has 2 good starts and 2 bad ones as oppossed to a good april and may and bad rest of the year or vice versa.

    Usually, with someone likes Hughes in a shallow league, you miss out of a few good starts because you need to see the guy pitch well before picking him up.

    On the other hand, while the top SP have been disapointing, the same can be said about the top 10 hitters.

    Using ESPN rankings:
    Pujols – held his value
    Hanley – underperforming
    A-Rod- way underperforming even before he got hurt
    Braun – underperforming
    Utley- way underperoming before he got hurt
    Kemp – way underperformed
    Fielder- Way underperformed
    Crawford- Held value
    cabera- Overperformed
    Texiera- uderperfomed

    I think drafting SP early in shallow comes down to personal perference. In general, hitters are more consisent in that they will perform closer to their ranking on both the upside and the downside. Pitchers are more volitle in that there are more guys like Ubaldo, Johnson who way overperfom there draft day value, while there are more guys like Vazquez, beckett who way underperform their value.

  9. Jonathan Sher said...

    Mitch – Well said!

    KY – I find it a challenge too to find a league that precisely meets my needs and interests. I felt the same way about daily moves before I joined my current draft league and even at the start of the season. But as the season has progressed, it’s become clear what needs I should target and how I could uses daily roster moves to my advantage. That focus has made the daily moves more enjoyable. Here’s an example: The league has what is a first for me, a maximum number of innings- 1,250. If your team reaches the cap, your pitching stats from thereon don’t count. I frankly hadn’t noticed the cap of its implication until the beginning of August, when I saw that I was on a pac to reach the cap three or four weeks before the end of the season. Since then I trimmed my starting staff and have used my starters much more selectively, using them when they have a better chance to excel and win, considering factors such as day versus might games, strength of the opponents offense, ballpark effects and the strength of the opposing pitcher. Doing this has cost me a few gems but I also haven’t had a bad staring game in weeks.

    Pat -

    I wasn’t as clear as I should have been about staring pitching; while I would be reluctant to take one in the first five rounds, I do think it makes sense to grab a couple in rounds six through nine (in our 14-owner league; round slots will be different when there are fewer or more owners) and then fill out the rotation with later picks. In our league in the first three rounds six pitchers were taken and three have disappointed: Lincecum, Greinke and Haren (we use traditional stats) while King Felix is short of wins.

    My ratio of studs to dud in the late rounds was even: I picked up Latos and Sanchez but also Chris Young and Brian Matusz. Young was hurt so he didn’t hurt me with bad games but Matusz certainly did. If you have too many like Matusz, you could find yourself in a big hole, but in my case, the hole was small and the fix easy. I’m going to see if I kept my prep sheets in which I jotted down pitchers to target late; my sense if about half panned out well.

    Most of the pitchers I picked off waivers were pitching poorly — at least as measured with traditional stats —I picked them because their underlying stats and record made regression likely. Hughes was an exception – he was dumped by an owner who was impatient because Hughes didn’t pitch the first two weeks because the Yanks didn’t yet need a five-man rotation. He had a stellar May as well as April and continued to win in June though his stats suffered. I’ve mostly benched him the past month so his overall stats for me are 15 wins, 1.21 WHIP (both excellent), 113 K in 134 innings (good) and 3.93 ERA, which is middling.

    In sum, I agree with you that it is wise to take a few pitchers before the end-game – where we might part ways is how much earlier.

    Phil – I’m curious how your extra time and interests translate into results. How have you done in your league? I have a friend/colleague who knows more about hockey than just about anyone I know (and this is Canada so that says a lot). He does well in some sorts of leagues but not others—he gets killed in the office pool each year constructing teams to fit within salary cap because he is too aggressive seeking breakouts in a league structure that mostly award actual performance rather than improvement.

    I look forward to our auctions even though I know objectively that my performance in auctions has lagged my performance in other areas (trades, free agent pickups, roster management). It’s the lack of flexibility after the auction that I find frustrating.

    Joe –
    Coming from you, that means a lot to me – I’ve been lucky to have some great editors and you certainly continue that trend.

  10. Pochucker said...

    I have been playing FB for over twenty years—played all forms. I believe I am in the ultimate fun but deadly serious league for last 8yrs.
      12T h2h mixed league weekly changes semi keeper
    (one player drafted in 10th rd or later or FA can be kept for following yr only)
      2 divisions semi balanced schedule play your division 3 times other division once
    3 teams from each division make playoffs , 6 playoff qualifiers form one division following year non qualifiers the other division—insures 3 new playoff qualifiers every year.
    Roster is 25 players plus 3 dl spots
    Roster is C,1B,2B,3B,SS,LF,CF,RF,MI,CI,U,DH 5SP,2RP +6man bench
    Specific OF positions are great for thinning player pool.

    Playoffs are one week for 2/3 in each div with bye for reg season div champs , then two week playoffs for div champs and championship rd. Two weeks help lower the luck factor a bit and insures there is little pitcher streaming in playoffs .

    We play for some decent cash—150 bucks up front entry fee + $1 for every pick up $2 for every trade transaction pool is between $450-$550 each yralone.

  11. Pat said...

    I have not looked deeply into it but I know last year Pujols, Braun, Hanley, and Utley were better. Just from memory I think this year is worse than normal.

    I perfer going after hitters myself but there are also alot of good hitting options available later in the draft and on the wire in these leagues. It aslo depends how many of each postion you need to fill.

    Hughes is perfect fit for your situation. Could not ask for anyone better, because uusally guys who only pitch 5 inninngs don’t get the W.

    Punting in h2h: I play in alot of h2h leagues and generally I don’t punt, but as Pochucker said you can adjust your team based on who you are playing.

    Also, sometimes in injuries/ underperformance dictates that is is smart to punt a catergory. Say you drafted Sizemore and Ellsbury. It is probably more productive to forget about the steals and focus on the other 4 stats.

    In theory, if you can punt a stat sucessfully it helps you out alot. Say you punt BA. Normally, Dunn is a top 50 hitter, but since you don’t care about BA he is top 20 hitter to your team. You will lose BA every week but you should win 3 of the remaning 4 hitting catergories giving up 3-2 edge on hitting. Since you can draft guys like, dunn, pena, later, you can focus on getting good pitching.

    The real problem is aquiring all the right people.

  12. JB (the original) said...

    Easy there, I’m in 2nd place and still have a shot at 1st, but you’re right, if I had had slightly better luck injury-wise I’d be running away with it this year.  But I think injuries to top players have really been high overall this year for everyone, or does it just seem that way?

  13. Jonathan Sher said...

    JB – I feel your pain. I have Morales too in my auction league and my starting pitchers have also had a lot of quality starts in which they lost. Better luck next year.

    Pat -

    Excellent point about how so many first round hitters have also under-performed. I noticed the same thing and I wonder how that compared to first round performance in previous years.

    I do think the fact pitching performance is more volatile gives an objective edge to owners who focus on hitters early regardless of personal preferences.

    One other point about Hughes: His mediocre pitching right now dovetails nicely with my needs. My second-place rival has a slight edge on me in wins because I am closer to the 1,250 innings limit for pitchers. So a five-inning win is more beneficial to me than a nine-inning win. In Hughes last 8 starts, he has won five times and always pitching between 5 and 6 innings, including tonight. He has consistently given up 2 or 3 runs in those starts, which slightly hurts my ERA, but stat-wise wins are more critical to me now. I didn’t plan for that, mind you, but it has been helpful.

    Pochucker – I haven’t tried head-to-head yet; I’ll have to give it a shot next year. Do you find that you tend to punt certain stat categories and focus on others? I like the way your league resets the divisions each year. I wonder if it would be interesting to try to mix roto and head-to-head; use roto to establish regular league standing, then head-to-head in the playoffs.

  14. Pochucker said...

      Just revisited this years Baseball Forecaster—in it is article on injuries 2009. Of top 12 by ADP 5players spent one or more stints on dl(actually was 5 of top ten) and 14 of top 24(including Mannys susp).

  15. Jonathan Sher said...

    Pat and Pochucker -

    Thanks for sharing tips on h2h; I look forward to trying next year.

    Pat and JB -

    There should be a straight forward way to measure if this year first-rounders and top picks generally under-performed more than those in recent years; perhaps using the offensive side of WAR. I’ll see what I can do. I could do the same with D.L. stints.

    JB -

    Our seasons seem like close cousins. I thought I would run away this year too in my auction league and instead am scrapping to keep in second with first place nowhere in sight. That’s been more disappointing for me than years in which I barely finished in the money because of the chasm between expectations and results and the role freak injuries have played.

  16. Pochucker said...

      I dont punt any categories when I draft but in h2h depending on team Im playing I might only put one closer in and use another SP instead or if team can over power me in SB ill make sure I bench couple speed guys and go for power trying to force them to change lineup.
    Thats the beauty of h2h.

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