Interview: Matthew Berry of ESPN

I recently had the opportunity to speak with fantasy baseball expert Matthew Berry of ESPN—formerly of Rotoworld and Talented Mr. Roto fame. A big thanks to Matthew for taking the time out. He seemed like a really nice guy and was a pleasure to speak with.

Strategy and tactics

I know that most drafts (and auctions) are over, but I wanted to ask you about them anyway. I’ve read that you like to talk a lot at your opponents, that you try to throw them off their game, to force them to make mistakes. How would you describe what you do in this regard?

Matthew said that he makes a concentrated effort to do this during drafts and auctions. He likes to throw his opponents off their game, mess with their rhythm and push their buttons.

He says that, during auctions, he’ll often ask obvious, repetitive questions. He might say, “Oh, who got that player? How much did he go for again? Where did you say he went?” That sort of stuff. He says he’ll often do it at inopportune times for his opponents, perhaps when they are looking at their paperwork to see how much to bid for a player, the player’s stats, etc.

He likes to get people irritated, make fun of them a little bit. He wants them to get defensive, to respond, and to make mistakes. He says that he constantly second-guesses moves that his opponents make, out loud. Maybe someone buys two pitchers in a row. He’ll say something like, “Man, you’re screwing up your offense.” He’ll then say to someone else, “Why didn’t you get him? He’s better than that crappy so-and-so on your team.”

Overall, he says he tries to be funny and amusing, yet annoying.

How do you approach trading? Do you employ any tactics to coax an opponent into making a lopsided trade?

Talk to your opponents, Matthew said. Figure out what they want. He said that he always talks on the phone. As I’ve said in the past, a generic e-mail does not suffice. Not only are you more persuasive and more successful when negotiating on the phone (or, if possible, in person), but you can also gain additional advantages.

On the phone, Matthew listens carefully to his opponent’s voice and tone. He says that, if you listen carefully, you can hear what opponents want in their voice, how they actually feel about a player. It is very difficult to decipher someone’s true feelings when reading an e-mail, but on the phone or in person you can more easily spot bluffs, maybe see that your opponent is willing to give up more than what he currently is offering.

He also says that he never starts negotiations with “these guys are off the table.” Everyone is always available. He says that when someone engages you in trade talks, “they want A-Rod, not Sidney Ponson.” That’s not to say he is willing to trade anyone on his team for the first offer that comes along, just that he’s found it to be far better to start out with everyone available. If he doesn’t get an offer he likes, he’ll just tell the person, “You know, it’s really not enough.” When that happens—which it does more often than not—simply work your way down the roster. “Well, I couldn’t give you Vlad for that, but maybe Hideki Matsui?”

The most enticing players should be made available first. Lure your opponent in.

What was the best trade you ever pulled off?

He was able to get Erik Bedard for Richie Sexson and Shaun Marcum in Tout Wars last year.

He also said that he once got Shaquille O’Neal, while he was in his prime, in a fantasy basketball league for Scottie Pippen, who at that point was a shell of his former self.

Do you have any stories of counter-intelligence in expert leagues like Tout Wars, either used by you, against you, or involving other owners in the league?

Matthew said that counter-intelligence becomes difficult to use once you start playing in expert leagues. When it’s your job to talk about the players you like and don’t like, it’s hard to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. He also implied (and I completely agree) that it would obviously be unethical to use a platform like ESPN to write things you don’t mean simply to fool your leaguemates. He says for these reasons, he’s mostly given up counter-intelligence.

In my leagues this year, I’ve found this to be tricky as well. I can’t very well tell someone that I hate Felix Hernandez, hoping that my opponent will wait on him, when I wrote an article like this about him that I know many of my opponents read. I do think that counter-intelligence has a place in fantasy baseball, though (especially when you’re not a writer), and I think I was able to get creative with it in some of my leagues. Anyway, back to the interview.

What types of strategies do you employ when playing in an expert league that you might not employ in a garden-variety league?

He says that in an expert league, he is far more likely to take risks. He says that “no one remembers second place.” There is no difference between a fifth place finish and an 11th place finish, so why not go for first? Sometimes you’ll win big, other times you’ll lose big. But when losing is all the same anyway, why not?

He also said that you have to get a little lucky in competitive leagues. When everyone knows what they’re doing, being smart can get you near the top, but to actually come in first you need to catch a few breaks. As an example, he said he took Carlos Pena for $1 in AL Tout Wars last year. I’d say that worked out pretty well for him, wouldn’t you?

He says that in garden-variety leagues, he’ll be a little more conservative, take some safer players and more sure things. Then he’ll trust his in-season skills to beat out his opponents.

Players

Who are some of your favorite sleepers this year?

Matthew did an entire column pertaining to this topic. “You Heard Me” is filled with Matthew’s bold predictions. Among them: Rick Ankiel will hit 40 home runs, Xavier Nady will hit 30 home runs, Jeff Keppinger goes at least .300/10/10, Ryan Theriot hits .300+ with 35 steals. Definitely an interesting read.

What was your favorite selection in Tout Wars this year?

Matthew said that he thought winning Vladimir Guerrero for $30 was a good bargain, especially since it was an AL-only league. He also liked Reed Johnson for $1, which is paying dividends early since he’s starting the majority of games for the Cubs. The third guy he mentioned was David Murphy, whom he selected in the reserve round. Murphy is now starting for the Rangers.

Who do you think will be the most valuable player in fantasy baseball this year?

David Wright.

Who do you think came as the best value in drafts and auctions this year?

Matthew answered with Corey Hart almost immediately. He compared Hart to Grady Sizemore, who went several rounds earlier in drafts. He mentioned how, in 2007, Hart had a better average, an equal number of home runs, more RBIs, and almost as many stolen bases and runs despite 123 fewer at-bats.

Miscellaneous

How did you begin writing for ESPN? I remember reading your work at Rotoworld and at the Talented Mr. Roto site, but how did everything with ESPN come about?

Matthew started out by doing fantasy football stuff for a local ESPN affiliate in Los Angeles, 710 ESPN-KSPN-AM. They liked what he was doing and gave him his own two-hour fantasy football show, which led to weekly segments on Cold Pizza, ESPN’s morning sports program. After that, he started appearning on ESPN News, and after making some contacts there, was offered a column for ESPN the Magazine.

He then started talking with ESPN about creating a more formal relationship, at which point he became the fantasy guy for the ESPN Fantasy Show. After that, ESPN offered to bring him on as a full-time guy for its fantasy section, saying that ESPN wanted to make him the Mel Kiper of fantasy. That’s some kind of progression, huh?

Matthew is currently ESPN’s Senior Director of Fantasy. He has a steady stream of written content over there in addition to a Fantasy Focus podcast that he and other ESPN writers do each week.

How do you like working with ESPN

Matthew said he absolutely loves it. He asks how many people can say that they are the fantasy guy for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. He says he’s having a blast.

How many fantasy baseball leagues do you usually play in each year?

He said it’s always different, but that he’s playing in 12 this year.

Do any of the leagues you play in have any special/different/interesting rules or twists?

He says he still plays in two leagues that play “by the book,” using the original rules from the first-ever fantasy baseball league, started by Dan Okrent and Glen Waggoner. These leagues play AL or NL-only, auction format, but most interestingly, don’t use reserve rosters. All players start, and a player can be removed from a starting spot only if he gets injured or is sent to the minors. If you draft a player who bombs, you’re stuck with him.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone who is just beginning to play fantasy baseball competitively, what would it be?

Matthew said that when taking the step up into the realm of competitive fantasy baseball, you need to step up your game. He also said, though, not to be intimidated and to stick to your guns. Even if you happen to be playing with experts, they are human too and occasionally make mistakes.

Concluding thoughts

Again, thanks to Matthew for taking the time out. It was a pleasure talking to him. If you have questions, as always, feel free to shoot me an e-mail. If you’d like to ask Matthew a question, you can find his e-mail over at ESPN.

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