August 25, 2017
Find Your Process
I live in a Philadelphia suburb, so for years I have heard the words “trust the process” repeated ad infinitum. This pertains to , of course, and the multi-year rebuilding plan engineered by former general manager Sam Hinkie. We don’t often think of it in these terms, but in fantasy baseball we too should be guided by a process. However, I often find that too many of us are not, instead chasing the latest trend or wasting our time studying information that is not particularly useful.
Below is a brief guide of what we should and shouldn’t be focusing on when making decisions that impact our teams, both in redraft and keeper leagues.
Wrong—Trying to identify trends based on the most recent draft
This is a frequent practice, most commonly when analysts attempt to look retrospectively at draft results. “Elite starting pitchers are more/less reliable this year” is a popular claim that makes the rounds nearly every season, and is once again circulating this August. Trends around any group of players seldom move as much as we perceive they do. To use the starting pitcher example above, in 2017, 11 of the top 25 drafted pitchers in NFBC are currently in the Top 25 overall. In 2016, it was 12. Positive or poor results for one team in a league (often yours) are frequently conflated with a “trend” when there is no “there” there. This commonly happens with relief pitchers as well. You might dislike purchasing relievers, but their rate of success/failure generally stays the same.
Right—Digging into current valuation
Instead of using the starting point of “starting pitchers are less reliable,” begin instead by looking at what pitchers earned in 2017 versus 2016. The same process can be applied to hitters overall, relief pitchers, hitters at a specific position, etc. Not much changes from season to season, but if you are going to find a new trend, this is where you are going to find it. In earlier fantasy freestyles, I have examined how relievers might be more valuable than starting pitchers and how stolen bases might have even more value going forward than you might think), but all of this is derived from player earnings, not what happened in NFBC or industry drafts months ago.
Wrong—Obsessing solely over ADP
I’m not completely against looking at ADP as a barometer of where players are being drafted. But ADP is generally a product of conventional wisdom and what the crowds are doing. There is some useful information to be gleaned here, particularly where your own biases might be significantly overvaluing or undervaluing a player. For the most part, you want to trust your valuation first and worry about ADP later. In the early rounds of a draft if you are 10-15 slots below where ADP sits, chances are good you won’t be drafting that player. This is fine, and not worth overanalyzing. If your valuation foundation is sound, you will build a good team, even if you are drafting players “too early” or missing out on players “everyone else likes.”
Right—Knowing your league/opponents
In expert leagues and highly competitive home leagues knowing your league is far more important than knowing what ADP or the average market (auction) price is. Even fantasy managers who don’t use ADP or published bid limits have a general idea of what not only the top players are worth but what nearly every player in the pool should cost. Differentiating your bids by a dollar or two or your ADP by 20-30 slots can help, but what helps even more is knowing that your league’s relief market is usually soft or that steals always come at a premium. If your league spends more liberally on the top players than the “expert” leagues do, you will need to make an adjustment to how your league operates.
Wrong—Relying on retrospective, individual player analysis
I love articles that talk about what a pitcher is doing differently, or how a hitter has adjusted his swing to improve his process. But while these articles are entertaining, they do not provide me with actionable information. An article about Aaron Judge on June 15 dissecting his new approach and what he is doing now is great information. But unless I can travel back in time and talk my idiot February self into buying Judge, it doesn’t help me going forward. What I really need is data that will help me going forward to make sure I get the next Judge. The problem is that while we have more data at our disposal than ever, it has not parlayed into improved prospective analysis for players across the board. This is especially true in fantasy baseball.
Right—Recognizing that most player analysis isn’t a differentiator
Because we all have the same access to player data, it takes away most of the advantage we have when it comes to constructing our bidding or drafting strategies. There was a consensus on James Paxton coming into 2017. As a result, we all were willing to pay the same price, give or take a round or two. Taking a victory lap on Paxton is fine, but if you ae going to do this you had better admit you were off on Lance McCullers as well. Every fantasy “expert” hits on some picks and misses and others but I have yet to see an analyst who is consistently better at prognostication year in and year out.
Wrong—There is a “right” way to construct/manage your team
In fantasy baseball, beware of the analyst who tells you there is a winning strategy that is foolproof in every league. Common examples of this kind of advice include:
• “Always spend $200 or more on hitting.”
• “Don’t draft a hitter in the first six or seven rounds of your auction.”
• “Don’t dump saves or stolen bases.”
• “Don’t make trades until May 15 or later.”
There is some validity to all of these concepts in theory. In practice, there are situations where spending $160 on your offense, plunking $35 down on a staff ace, or drafting Billy Hamilton in the second round could make sense.
Right—Work all of the angles
This advice applies more in keeper leagues than in redraft leagues, but in both cases, you should be willing and able to attempt to exploit any advantages your opponents are willing to give. Does most of your league have a distaste for paying for saves? That’s great; make sure to buy two or three cheap closers and capitalize. Is it easy to acquire starting pitchers during the season because of your league’s rules? Excellent: spend less on pitching at auction and pack your team with hitting. There always are going to be a few people in your league who will simply try to build their teams in a conventional manner and refuse to think outside of the box. Capitalize as often as you can.
Right—Winning is more important than category balance
One peeve of mine is when someone says you cannot throw a category overboard because it is impossible to win this way. While I generally try to compete in all 10 categories in a 5x5 Roto league, this doesn’t mean that I am afraid to adjust if things are going badly in a category. I’m perfectly fine trading someone like Jarrod Dyson even if he is my only speed guy if it will gain me five or more points overall in the standings. I have no problem adding a bad pitcher if I believe I can take the ERA/WHIP hit and need strikeouts desperately. This is simple advice, but too often it is not followed.
Many of the points above are league dependent. Your instincts and playing style are more important than my theories if you can apply them consistently and effectively to your league and should become part of your Process. More than anything else, you want to make sure that you don’t get trapped in a philosophy that prevents you from doing whatever is necessary to improve your team and win your league. If you tell yourself you can't ever dump saves, allocate your FAAB a certain way, or carry a dead spot at catcher because it “just isn't done,” you are painting yourself into a corner. Even worse, your savvier opponents will quickly figure out all things that you "can" or "can't" do and will act accordingly.
You want to be knowledgeable about metrics and ADP. But neither of these points are key to winning your leagues, so you do not want to obsess over them. Reviewing player valuation, league tendencies, and strategic advantages are more important, and they are underutilized by most. If you can build this into your own process, you will build yourself a foundation that will make you a formidable opponent.
Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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