The Verdict: snake versus auction draft

In 2012, fantasy baseball leagues are infinitely customizable. Do you want keeper or non-keeper? Mixed league or AL/NL only? Roto or points? The list goes on. These are all important choices to make, but they are ancillary to the most significant choice: draft style. Deciding what style the draft will be is critical a fantasy baseball player’s strategy. There are two choices, and each one will have a lasting impact on your league.

The old school standard method of drafting is called a snake or serpentine draft. In this format, teams draft in descending order in the first round and reverse order in the second. The last team in the predetermined order will have two consecutive draft picks, and the team with the first overall pick must wait the longest time to get his/her second pick. Then, that team will have the first pick in the third round and the draft continues down the order again.

The idea behind this draft style is to have each team average the same draft position. There is no industry-wide empirical data to illustrate the success rate of teams that draft at the beginning or end. However, I can use the league where I have been commissioner since 1999 for some guidance. Only one of the 13 previous winners of the Old Bridge Fantasy Baseball League has drafted first. More than half of the champions have drafted between nine and 12. That is obviously a small representation of the success rate in a snake draft, but after 13 years, it is fair to draw some conclusions.

In contrast, the other style of fantasy baseball draft is an auction. This has become much more popular over the last decade as many fantasy experts and consultants have stated their preference for it. Each team is given a budget of fantasy dollars to spend on players to create a roster. Similar to snake drafts, there is a pre-arranged draft order. However, instead of selecting players and adding them to your roster, teams nominate a player to be put up for bidding. The team that nominates a player automatically makes the first bid so that if no one else bids, that team wins the player. Because of this, there is a lot of strategy behind selecting a player to nominate.

Obviously the best players will cost the most money. Teams must make critical decisions on how to allocate their budget because they have an entire roster to fill with a finite amount of money. Once a player is nominated, a time clock will start and each team can make a bid for that player. When a new bid is made, the clock resets again—usually to ten seconds. Once that clock expires without a new bid, the team with the highest bid wins that player.

There is no doubt that the auction draft is more dramatic and arguably more exciting. People can plan and strategize more effectively beforehand. Additionally, every team is essentially on an even playing field because everyone has access to all of the best players. It may not be wise, but one team can outbid everyone else on the top two or three players and stack their roster. The downside is that they would be left without enough money to fill the rest of their roster with viable options.

As with everything else in fantasy baseball, it comes down to a matter of preference. If you have never done an auction draft, it is something you should experience. The best bet is to find a free public league and try an auction in that environment.

But there is also something special and fun about the old school snake drafts. You can effectively strategize if you know the draft order well ahead of time and if you learn enough about the drafting tendencies of fellow league members. However, randomness and unpredictability reign supreme in snake drafts.

There are merits and benefits to both. It all depends on what your preferences are. But whichever you choose will have a profound impact on how you strategize and on team you draft.

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  1. Al Gellin said...

    The original concept of fantasy baseball (Rotisserie) was based on an auction draft, so I would argue that auction is really the “old school” method. It seems to me that snake drafting has become more popular in recent years. Regarding draft position, I have been in snake draft league for 27 years (yes, before it was fashionable!) and teams drafting first have won the league 6 times and teams drafting last have won 2 times (the number of teams in the league has varied of the years from 6 to 11; we currently have 8).

  2. Bruce said...

    Actually, an auction is the “old school standard method of drafting”; it was the draft style of the first Roto league, and the only style for some years. (I started playing in the late 1980s and never even HEARD of a league using a snake draft until the early 1990s.) Snakes have become the standard because they’re a bit easier to manage and to plan for, but they were a later concept in fantasy.

    Needless to say, I prefer auction drafts, though snake drafts have their pluses, as well.

  3. williamt said...

    Nice post. But what about a straight draft? It’s odd that all professional sports use a simple straight up and down draft, while it’s rarely even considered for fantasy drafts. The straight draft in sports is meant to penalize last year’s winners and give a boost to last year’s losers. I think that this is a worthy fantasy goal as well.

    We adopted a straight draft in our fantasy baseball league for this year. We’ll see how it works out.
    Thanks, Bill

  4. dan said...


    Pro sports use a straight draft cuz they’re not starting from nothing. In the same way, a snake draft makes more sense for the FIRST year of any fantasy league that has a draft.

    A straight draft does make more sense in keeper leagues when it’s NOT the initial year.

  5. williamt said...

    Hi Dan,

    True enough. That’s a difference between fantasy and pro leagues.

    As in the blog post, we noticed that late-drafting teams seemed to thrive in our league as well. Two possible reasons for this: 1) The winning owners are better. There is no or little penalty for drafting at the end of a snake draft, so they continue to do well, or 2) There may be an advantage to drafting two players in succession or near-succession.

    And some less-logical, messy fantasy reality… some owners are more into it then others. You might say, “So be it” and let them win year after year. Shoot, I might say that too. But it’s sometimes hard to keep a league going/healthy without a measure of parity in it.

    We’re not in our first year, nor are we a keeper league. Our straight draft will be a new thing for us, so I’ll post the results of our experiment in a few years. Ha!
    Thanks, Bill

  6. Michael A. Stein said...

    Yes the original rotisserie baseball league were based on auctions.  I found that snake drafts were predominant when I started getting into fantasy baseball and football leagues back in the late 1980’s.  Granted I was under 10 years old back then, but I didn’t know anyone that did auction drafts.  Most of the magazines and fantasy information available did not include auction dollar values back in the day either. 

    Regardless, there are merits to both types of drafts.  I agree with what was said about straight drafts in specific instances.  But generally, it is snake or auction.  They are both exciting in their own ways and people should try them both if they never have done one of them.

  7. David Wade said...

    In my opinion, and in the long run, the auction draft favors those who know what their doing while the snake draft somewhat protects those who don’t. 

    A friend and I were talking recently and he made the point that someone can’t really screw up a snake draft on the day of the draft.  Sure, you can select the consensus number one pick and then watch him tear his ACL on the first weekend of the season.  But- that’s not your fault, that’s just bad luck.

    Barring the bad luck, anyone with a few bucks can buy a magazine with player rankings.  (Or, better yet, buy THT Forecasts and have a real advantage).  Anyway, with a realiable list of rankings, it would seem difficult for someone to really derail their team on draft day.  The only problem that jumps out would be if someone made their own decision to pick six closers in a row, or 5 second basemen, for instance.

    So, the point remains that, assuming at least some fantasy baseball acumen, even a poor fantasy baseball manager can walk away with a good team if he or she simply picks the best player available at their slot.

    It ain’t that way in an auction.  If you can’t identify undervalued players, or at least be able to identify and purchase those who are valued properly, you are going to struggle.

    You have to not only research the players, but try to identify the best way to allocate your funds in order to build the best team you can. 

    Now, the act of bidding itself is arguably a skill, and one that doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s familiarity with good players to target in fantasy baseball. 

    However, as a guy who had Jose Reyes and tried to run up the bidding on Hanley Ramirez, only to get stuck with the latter by accident, let me say that one’s bidding skills can bite them in the ass soemetimes as well.

  8. DShea said...

    In our keeper league (10 players), we switched from snake to a normal draft (last place gets first pick each round) because we want to give every advantage to teams to re-tool quickly and keep interest high.  I think it works much better than snake for that purpose.

  9. steveknj said...

    I was just coming here to say that Auction drafts were the “old school method” and have been that way since the first one back in the mid 70s.  I think draft leagues have become more en vogue because they are the predominant method for online fantasy baseball sites such as ESPN or Yahoo. I have done both auction (live) and draft (online) and much prefer the strategy of an auction, especially when it’s being done among friends.

    BTW, is your league in Old Bridge NJ?

  10. Kevin said...

    I’m with Dave Sammy. The comments section has fare more material than the post itself, which is essentially “Draft or Auction: Discuss!”

  11. David Wade said...

    Al Gellin- Yes, you have to identify position scarcity in a snake draft.  But, you also have to address it in an auction.  Yes, auction values are listed in magazines just as snake draft postional rankings are.  However, it’s been my experience that each auction has its own personality and the values in a magazine do not protect a beginner. 

    In a snake draft, you get that player when it’s your turn unless you’ve passed out at that time.  As Johnny said in the comment right above mine, beginners can make the mistake of winning early and hamstringing themselves late.  Conversely, if they fail to pull the trigger in key situations, they may find themselves spending 20.00 on a crappy player because they don’t have a 1B and are one of a couple of guys that actually have money left at the end.

    I don’t mean to rip the snake in two, it really is “easier” than an auction.

  12. David Wade said...


    Nice post- I will say that while there is a great deal of symmetry in published auction values, that also makes it possible for a more skilled player to identify players that my overperform their consensus value.

    Of course, this is where something like (Spoiler- this will be a plug for a THT product) THT Forecasts comes in handy, since the user can customize it to their league and to their own ideal roster construction.

    But really, whether you buy something like that or just come up with your own personalized valuations, I believe it’s easier to find exploitable differences than it is to find sleepers in a snake draft.

  13. Johnny said...

    I’m in a long running league that has snaked from the beginning, but I got a mistress “another league” last year with an auction draft, and the auction is far more fun, but is probably not for noobs.  Noobs tend to overbid for the top tier guys and the lastest next big thing, while the experienced owners usually wait till the Noobs are geting low on cash and pounce on the next tier, spreading their $ evenly so that no one injury decimates the entire team.

  14. Al Gellin said...

    In response to David Wades’s comments: In my opinion, snake drafting is a lot more nuanced than auction drafting and not as simple as your characterization of just picking the best player off a list when it’s your turn. In fact, one can say the same about auctions: bring a list with how much each player is expected to earn and that’s your maximum bid and if you do that, you’ll put together a pretty good team. Well, we all know that’s not true in auctions and it’s also not true in snake drafts. For example, the best player available may be a hitter but with the last three picks elite starters and there’s only one more left, it’s hard not to pick the starter over the hitter who’s ranked higher. Or there’s position scarcity at 3B and there’s only one really good option at 3B before there’s a big drop in production. Do you take the third baseman not ranked as high as the best player available? These are the kinds of questions that get asked with every pick. Regarding undervalued players, in a snake draft you also have to identify these players but instead of a $1 player at the end of the auction, we’re talking about a player selected in a late round who far exceeds everyones’ expectations. A snake draft is slower, which gives you the opportunity to evaluate your own roster and your opponent’s to try to make the best selection available instead of just picking the best player off a list. I’m not arguing that snake drafts are better than auctions. In fact, I joined an (in person) auction league last year and it was a blast. I also did an online auction a few years ago and really enjoyed it, too, but my experience (noted above) has been in snake drafting and I wanted to provide the other point of view.

  15. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Ok, Kevin and Dave, so… discuss.


    I would make two points. One is that there’s a lot of information symmetry out there, so it’s not all that much more difficult to get auction value dollars out of a book than it is to get snake draft pre-ranks. I mean, even Yahoo pre-ranks players in auctions with default dollar values. One of the main differences in the formats though is that the auction moves much more quickly – though it takes longer – and each owner has to make way more decisions than the snake draft owner. In an auction, you pretty much have to decide if you want every player that’s nominated and at what price. An auction is like going the the supermarket with the idea of cooking a wonderful meal from scratch – you can make anything, so many choices. A snake draft is like going out to eat and ordering off a menu.

    But, the other thing that’s important to keep in mind is that while the auction may favor the wisest player, that also means it magnifies the skill gaps in owners. I know a lot of people who have wound up with poor league experiences because they, being among the more skilled owners in the groups, changed the league to a more complex design when the overall skill level of the owner base couldn’t support the advanced features. The result the ruination of the competitive dynamic of the league, uber stratification, and rampant dissatisfaction.

    I like to consider picking your league structure like going to the gym. It doesn’t do you any good to try to pick up the heaviest weight in the place because the jacked up guy who just got off the bench was lifting it and may be looking at you. The goal is to give yourself a good workout that is sustainable, challenging but do-able, makes you feel satisfied at the end, and enables your progression to greater challenges.

    Of course, this is all theoretical, I’m about as competent in a gym as A.C. Green in a strip club. (I bet you thought I was going to go Tebow there, but I strive past the low-hanging fruit.)

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