Speaking auction

Yesterday I partook in an auction draft for a league run by Yahoo expert Scott Pianowski in which the other participants were also members of the Friends and Family League for the most part. This was the first truly competitive league that I have been in with an auction draft, so it is mostly an experiment from my perspective.

The league has 13 teams, we started with $260 in our budgets, and there were 25 roster spots to fill. First I’ll start off by sharing my team so you guys can critique it and tell me where I went right and where I went wrong, and on the right is a table I made of the 20 players on whom the most money was spent for your perusal.

C – Russell Martin – $1

+------------------+------+ | Player | Cost | +------------------+------+ | Hanley Ramírez | $53 | | Albert Pujols | $51 | | Tim Lincecum | $43 | | Roy Halladay | $41 | | Álex Rodríguez | $41 | | Ryan Braun | $41 | | Chase Utley | $40 | | Prince Fielder | $40 | | Evan Longoria | $40 | | Miguel Cabrera | $39 | | Ryan Howard | $38 | | Mark Teixeira | $38 | | Troy Tulowitzki | $37 | | Matt Kemp | $36 | | Dan Haren | $35 | | Adrián González | $35 | | Ryan Zimmerman | $33 | | Matt Holliday | $33 | | Justin Upton | $33 | | Félix Hernández | $33 | +------------------+------+

1B – Adam LaRoche – $6
2B – Placido Polanco – $3
3B – Mark Reynolds – $26
SS – Everth Cabrera – $8
MI – Orlando Cabrera – $2
CI – James Loney – $7
OF – Ryan Braun – $41
OF – Adam Lind – $25
OF – Andrew McCutchen – $17
OF – Shane Victorino – $10
Util – Hideki Matsui – $3
Util – Michael Bourn – $6
BN – Chase Headley – $5
BN – Clint Barmes – $2

P – Felix Hernandez – $33
P – Gavin Floyd – $6
P – Jonathan Sanchez – $5
P – Ted Lilly – $3
P – Heath Bell – $14
P – Andrew Bailey – $12
P – Francisco Rodriguez – $10
P – Matt Thornton – $2
P – Daniel Bard – $2
BN – Gio Gonzalez – $3

Instead of focusing on my team though, I want to share my thoughts on auctions in general. First off, fantasy players in general, the “experts” included, are terrible at auctions. Snake drafts have been around awhile and most people have figured them out, but auctions are breaking into internet mainstream for the first time and people’s lack of experience with them is quite evident.

For me, I often found myself thinking of the round equivalent when a player would get drafted in a serpentine draft to determine the relative dollar value of the players. To parallel this to something, it was a lot like learning a new language. If you are learning French and you see the French word “courir” you think “courir translates to run, which means moving quickly on your feet.” While if you are fluent in French and you see “courir,” translating it first to English is unnecessary since you have built an intrinsic association of “courir” to moving quickly with your feet.

In the same way, “Round nine” is something I intrinsically understand because I have done a ridiculous number of snake drafts. I can tell exactly of what caliber a player is if I learn he was picked in Round nine, while telling me he was worth $18 has less meaning to me. As I participate in more and more auctions though, I’m sure I will begin to become more comfortable with them and learn to “speak auction” fluently.

My first observation about auctions is that they require an increased commitment to drafting compared to a standard serpentine draft. When someone misses a snake draft, it is annoying but somewhat tolerable. When just one person is not in the auction, however, multiply that annoyance by 100 times since in your draft room you will have a computer autobidding that bids on every single player until you surpass its programmed dollar limit. Essentially it destroys the auction.

Auctions are also another hour to two longer than their snake draft counterparts, making them quite the exhaustive experience. Plus you are potentially involved in acquiring every single player, so you cannot take as many mental breaks as you can in drafts. Of course, it is hard to stay completely focused for the full four hours or so the auction is in action so a few moments of drifting off are inevitable.

One of the more intriguing dynamics at play during an auction is what I will term your “community responsibility” to pay attention and bid on certain players at times, even when you do not necessarily want them. In theory this should not happen as everyone theoretically has a set price level for each player and the person willing to bid the highest will simply get that player. However, let’s say Jorge Cantu gets nominated and since you already have a third baseman you know you are not going to target Cantu. Instead of paying attention to the auction and bidding up to your theoretical price level for him, you instead focus on something else and expect the other people in the auction to pay attention and keep the prices honest.

For most players you can get away with this but every once a while in the auction I participated, it seemed like all of us simultaneously drifted out while a certain player was nominated and then a player would go for an insanely low price. That’s how you get Denard Span for $7, Raul Ibanez for $6, or even Justin Upton for $33. Some people will consistently rely on everyone else to bid truly on every player, which is unfair to everyone else and causes the auction to not play out fairly.

Overall my biggest gripe with auctions is the high level of commitment, focus, and time they require, but I feel it is apparent auctions are a more desirable drafting format if you do have a group of guys willing to make the commitment. There is a sort of natural beauty to the way auctions work—an evident fairness because every player can potentially be on your team, unlike in drafts where the preset order decides your team’s fate, at least early on. Auctions also allow you to be more creative in the way you construct your roster, allowing for possibly two “first-round-pick” type players or any sort of combination thereafter.

I welcome auctions with open arms into the mainstream fold and think it is great the main fantasy providers now offer them for free. But if you are considering switching your home league to an auction-based draft, make sure everyone is willing to increase their commitment level to the draft because otherwise it will spell disaster.

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  1. KY said...

    I agree as well.  I’ve been doing an NL only auction for 17 years.  The thing I didn’t like about the article was that I think it lacks accurate history.  Rotisserie baseball started it all.  It started with an auction.  The invention of the draft made it simple and less time required as you observed.  And thus more popular and widespread.  But I believe it would be incorrect to say that the auction is not the father of fantasy baseball.

  2. keith said...

    I’ve been a part of a NL only keeper auction league for two years.  This will only be my third auction.  I’m still learning a ton about how to prepare for it.  I’ve found myself less interested in snake drafts although I still participate in them.  I also found out I don’t pay attention to the AL as much anymore either.

  3. Jim Jelak said...

    Been in an AL only Ultra Roto auction since 1987.

    Your advice is dubious. Also, 260 units is correct, but drafting 25 players? Odd.

    Mixed league drafts are to me, a joke and not very challenging. To each his own.

    An auction requires more engagement to play, and the rewards are also greater (IMO).

  4. Jonathan Sher said...

    I have played in auction leagues since 1990, first with a N.L.-only league and more recently an A.L-only league. I much prefer auctions to drafts because the former seems to me much more like running a real ball club:

    (1) You must assign a dollar value to expected performance, something I take seriously. creating a valuation system two decades ago that is essentially a WAR but using data specifically from my leagues.
    (2) You must budget your resources.
    (3) You rise or fall by not only you knowledge of players but of the marketplace in your league, exploiting market inefficiencies and learning to read other owners.

    I prefer auction leagues with many more owners per league—13 is better suited for a single rather than a mixed league. Doing so requires owners to do what most real gm’s do, selecting backups, prospects and marginal starters to fill out a roster.

    I also prefer keeper leagues with deep reserve lists; these enable an owner to build a dynasty by acquiring talent before that talent is realized. As an example, I picked up Justin Smoak before he was drafted by the Rangers, Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon when they were more than a year away from the majors (with Andrus it was two years away), Kendry Morales before he took over as a starter and Zack Greinke and Adam Lind before their breakout seasons.

    Having values assigned to players also makes trading more interesting since it’s not simply a matter of evaluating talent but also about building surplus value. No one argues David Aardsma was a more proven closer last year than Joakim Soria. But last year I traded Soria and a decently-priced Jorge Posada for Aardsma because Aardsma would cost me only $1 in each of the following two years while Soria would cost $26.

    I would love to see more articles on HBT written by experienced auction players. While there’s certainly not as many auction players as draft players, the former tends to be more intensely involved and I think would gravitate to a site that engages them with strategy.

  5. Josh said...

    First, I have to echo that auctions are what really started fantasy baseball.  I cut my teeth on auctions and honestly have always looked with disdain upon draft leagues.

    Second, I disagree that everyone is required to bid up every player to their “actual value.”  Auctions are a great version of the free market where, as Publilius Syrus said, “everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.”

    In fact, it really annoys me when guys price enforce even though they don’t want the player they are bidding on.  It’s one thing to bid on a player who you’re half interested in, but would be willing to roster for the price you’ve bid.  It’s another to be an ass and bid up a player that you know a guy needs hoping that you don’t get caught with the guy.

    One of my favorite things about auctions is that it really exposes players who haven’t evaluated well.  In a snake draft, everyone is basically forced into a rigid price structure.  How can Pujols be overvaled in a draft league?  He’s the best player so let’s take him number one. But in an auction, Pujols can easily be overvalued.  If he goes for $50, there goes 19% of your money on one player.  So in an auction, it is much easier to try and go for a strategy that fills up a balanced roster of $20-10 guys rather than the de facto “stars and scrubs” strategy that snake drafts force you to follow.

    One more thing I love about auctions is that you can follow weird strategies easier.  Like this year I punted HR and RBI going with an all speed/high average team with top pitching.  I can do that in an auction league by out bidding everyone for the speedsters and pitchers.  But in a snake draft, since I’ve really restricted my acceptable player pool, I could conceivably lose out on every single guy I’m targeting before the picks get back to me.

  6. This guy said...

    I think he was mocking the other comments, on what is a very basic (and real) concept. I think you give him too much credit.

  7. KY said...

    Its also simply a false comment.  Nobody above was being that arrogant.  A simple example shows that a draft is a subset of an auction.  If you take your auction prices and sort them from highest dollar to lowest you will get a draft order.  Same players, same roster spots, just placed on teams a different way.  An auction basically makes there be more draft slots to work with.  You have to be able to tell if the next players is twice as good as the previous, or only 1/4 as good.  Pretty much every other snake draft strategy also applies to auctions.  If I feel I can get a similar player for $10 later, I will not spend $20 now is the same as, if I feel I can get X in the 8th round I will not buy X now in the 3rd.  An auction is a more complex version of a draft.

  8. Jason B said...

    I disagree with Josh’s premise as much as I disagree with Paul’s—like Josh, I don’t think owners have any particular responsibility to “bid up a guy” or “price enforce”…if you want to hang back and wait til the last minute to bid, that’s your prerogative.  You just need to realize that if every other owner does the same, Raul Ibanez may go for $6.

    Nor do I get pissed at them for doing so on a guy they don’t even want or can’t use – if they get stuck with them, that’s their own fault, and they run that risk by bidding on the player. That always strikes me as *hilarious* – “I only bid $8 on Mike Adams because I knew he would go to $9!  I didn’t even want the guy!!!”  Always good for a chuckle.

  9. Todd said...

    Ahhh…welcome to the world of the auction. I have been in an all NL auction league since 1987 and can’t imagine doing it any other way. Yes, there is more of a commiment. Yes, it takes more time. Yes, you have to know EVERY player (and I mean every player). But, you also have the option to get a player if you really want them. More skill is involved as you must adjust to the ebb and flow of the draft based on who is left, what your fellow owners need, money, etc. Sure, there is always luck when it comes to Rotoball, but I think skill comes more into play via the auction as opposed to the draft. Some will disagree, but having done it for 24 years…and having played in enough draft fantasy football leagues…its by far the best way to go.

  10. jon said...

    I agree with Todd; auctions are the only way to go.  I’m in two auction leagues and one draft league and it’s difficult for me to take the draft league seriously as there is so much less strategy involved.  However, what takes auction leagues to the next level is when you are in a keeper league.  When you are allowed to keep players from year-to-year the valuations become even more important and you start to really benefit from astute auction picks.  There’s nothing like acquiring Evan Longoria at a low price before his rookie season and then having him on your team for the next multiple years at that bargain price.  The other great benefit of a keeper league is that there are many fewer players to draft each year so the auction doesn’t take as long.  For example, I will be keeping 12 players this year and so will only be acquiring 11.

  11. Greg Tellis said...

    I participate in a NL only auction. You know your stuff. I like how you focused on the middle, waiting for the feeding frenzy to calm.
    You focused on players with upside…hitters moving to hitters’ parks, young players with experience, and those devalued with prejudice like Martin and Lilly. You thought about balance as well.
    The one player I don’t like is Barmes, as he is a batting average risk, will rarely move outside the 8-hole, and is pushed by Eric Young Jr….but, he only cost $2, started hot last year and had a fine spring…also, he fills in at short for Tulow.

    Well done, Greg

  12. Paul Singman said...

    Sorry I’m coming in late here guys, had a busy day. Anyway, rereading the article I can see why most of you interpreted that I said drafts came before auctions. The point I was trying to make is that this is the first year auctions are available for free from the major hosting sites, meaning a lot more casual players will be hosting drafts this year than in the past. So the main conclusion was meant for these casual players letting them know what they are possibly getting themselves into with an auction league. Obviously most of you are not simply casual auction players having participated in auction leagues before I was old enough to know what fantasy baseball was.

    I agree there is a lot of strategy involved in auctions—strategy that remains largely undiscussed (except for of course the gem to “nominate players you do not want to make the other people bid and spend their money on them”)—so I’ll definitely look into that more next season.

    Josh and Jason B, I will retract my statement in the article about your community responsibility to price enforce. I agree that if you don’t want to pay the price there is no reason to bid on the player simply because you may think he’s going under market value. I think it is mostly luck whether your opponents bid on or pass on a certain player in the split-second they have to decide. Sometimes people will later regrettably (and sometimes irrationally) decide not to bid and if that happens on players you are targeting, you can end up with some nice values and I think that is what occurred somewhat in my auction.

  13. Jonathan Sher said...


    I look forward to your column—your comments here reflect my own observations participating in auction leagues.

    (1) I have described auctions as having an element of poker, both for the camaraderie and the need to read other players using what you know about them generally and their particular circumstance.

    (2) The bargains are most prevalent among the class of ballplayer that falls between star and scrub but there is a crucial caveat—some within this group will also have their price inflated by more than anyone else because of positional scarcity and the whims of bidding.  Timing becomes essential.

    (3) Bluffing should be a part of the auction and yesterday in my A.L.-only auction it was. Ours is a keeper league and I entered the auction with a vastly superior keeper list—$107 for 15 players that conservatively were going for more than $250 in A.L.-only auctions without keepers and inflation. My strongest rival, who won the league last year, was acutely aware of this and made a point of trying to drive up the prices on players I bid for, his strategy pushing the price of the best remaining outfielder, Adam Jones, into the stratosphere – he bid Jones up to $50 in a league where Longoria, the best non-keeper, had gone for $47. I bowed out at $50, calling his bluff and draining him of the cash he needed to compete in bidding for other players. I then shifted strategy, picked some value outfielders (Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew and Luke Scott for $47 combined), upgraded my starting pitcher with John Lester and getting a second closer.

    (4) Having just participated in my first mixed league draft, I can say with certainty they are neither a joke nor easy. But I still prefer leagues when there are enough owners and roster slots that one must acquire a fair share of lesser talents—say 24 owners for a mixed league or 12 for one league. Having almost as many owners as there are teams requires those owners to select from a talent pool much like what is available to a real major league GM. That realism is something I enjoy and it’s something that is loss in fantasy leagues where there are so few owners that the talent pool is made up of stars and near-stars and potential stars.

  14. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I’m no auction league vet, but here are a few thoughts anyway.

    1. Auction leagues work, by far, better when they are done in person. If fantasy baseball is, at its core, a social activity largely centered on male bonding (baseball itself is just the vehicle), then few activities can truly accomplish this to the extent that an in-person auction can.

    2. Participating in an auction league is like going to a huge mall on a shopping spree. It’s important not to spend all your money in the first store you walk into (unless it’s Niketown or the Polo Mansion and we’ve Hot-Tub-Time-Machined back to 1995). There’s a lot to be learned about people’s tendencies to manage a budget that can benefit an auction league player. And, my bet is that somebody like Malcolm Gladwell would crack these insights (were he so motivated to investigate) than your generic fantasy expert. My intuition tells me that one place where you might find bargains are the same types of players that go from pick 60-100 in drafts. Lots of people buy wine by price, just looking for a mid-range bottle, but I think the opposite is true in fantasy baseball. The stars and scrubs strategy is kind of hardwired in many participants. Theoretically, where one could make a killing is on a run of upper-mid tier players shortly after others have bought their superstars. Spending fatigue. Again – people serious about auctions should probably read up on consumer behavior trends.

    3. Auction leagues are very much like poker. GMs can go on tilt. You may play a hand (bid on a player) that you normally wouldn’t, because you think you can steal the pot off of circumstance, etc.

    And, along these same lines, you certainly have to think about price enforcing. In fact,

    In fact, it really annoys me when guys price enforce even though they don’t want the player they are bidding on.  It’s one thing to bid on a player who you’re half interested in, but would be willing to roster for the price you’ve bid.  It’s another to be an ass and bid up a player that you know a guy needs hoping that you don’t get caught with the guy.

    This is like saying one shouldn’t bluff in poker. …Less abstractly, even if we aren’t in the market for the same suppliers (players), we are all in the market for the same goods (production), and if I allow you to get your goods at below market price, you will have a market advantage when we open for business (start the season). So, while you need not be the lone price enforcer – and nobody likes to build their team by accident as the result of price enforcement – somebody has to do it.

    4. Mixed league drafts are to me, a joke and not very challenging. To each his own.

    First, what <b>Holier than Cow</i> said. Second, I call sophistry. Or, at the very least, you’re going to have to further define “challenging.” Challenging to one’s self? Perhaps, you have a point. But, as written, and in the context of this discussion, I think the more natural interpretation of “challenging” is a rough synonym for competitive, i.e. it’s very easy for me to master that craft and outperform my opponents. And, with that I disagree wholeheartedly.

    A mixed-league draft may be more simple, but a game’s simplicity can’t be conflated with an absence of difficulty. In fact, in many instances, an activity’s simplicity is actually a large part of its difficulty.

    After all, in a mixed league draft, you have no advantages over your fellow participants and therefore the playing field is even. Further, it is as a system gets more complex that it becomes more possible to exploit others inefficiencies. …Now, you may argue that this is how it is supposed to be, and that is fine – I may agree, but I’m not sure this point is supported by your statement. The point is that if gaps of proficiency exist among your league mates, an auction will only exacerbate them – and that doesn’t make things more challenging, it actually makes them less so.

    The competitive nature of a league is determined by its participants, not by its structure.

    /I should have just written this as a response column, huh… No, I’m gonna have to spit out another thousand words later in the week.

  15. This guy said...

    Holier than cow, nobody is limiting anything. Romanticizing the topic doesn’t make you correct. It takes you from “a guy who replied in haste”, to “genuine moron”.

  16. Holier Than Cow said...

    I believe my comment was satirical, meant to give pause to those that would deride all other forms of fantasy sport that did not include their own chosen flavor.  It was also done in the spirit of good humor, so as not to have the point lost in a mean spirited personal attack.

    One of my favorite aspects of fantasy baseball is that it has an ever multiplying array of formats in which it can be enjoyed.  Through each lens we can find a different way to enjoy the beauty of the sport.  Any attempt to limit the ways we might enjoy this simple yet complicated past-time is unnecessary and, in my opinion, vulgar.

  17. 3FingersBrown said...

    Nice article. I just participated (and wrote about in my own blog) in my first auction draft, 15 teams, NFBC style format that was held on Yahoo and found it an extremely challenging and rewarding experience. Is it easier or harder than a snake draft? Well harder on my back, yes, since I had to spend nearly 6 hours glued to my desk. Harder on my marriage too, since while bidding on Youk, I ignored my wife who was waiting at the door with groceries.

    In my opinion, I would say that it is simpler to value players by a dollar figure, than in a round format. It just makes more sense to in my brain to equate players to dollars. As for the difficulty meter, as Derek said, any inequities in skill between participants are only exacerbated by the move from snake draft to auction.

    As for the team… well Paul, unfortunately I think you have a long year ahead of you. We seemed to have gone similar routes in trying to build balanced teams through finding values. I think however we both erred in spending too much time focusing on value and not simply going after good players. Great so you got Victorino for cheap. He should be cheap, he’s been overvalued for years. You got some cheap upside starters, but I think you could use another solid, dependable arm.

    Derek’s comparison’s to poker are spot on. As a poker player, I found myself price enforcing quite a bit, and early on mostly nominating players I didn’t want in order to drain my opponents bankrolls. I didn’t go for top (or bottom) tier guys for the most part, instead waiting to sneak in and nab guys during periods of spending exhaustion. I shot myself in the foot a few times and got stuck with a couple of guys that weren’t high on my list, but those same guys could provide me nice value.

    Anyway, thanks. I really enjoyed this piece, as well as Derek’s comments. Keep up the great work.

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