Rotisserie (roto) is the most common scoring format in fantasy baseball. Usually, for better or worse, the categories of AVG, HR, R, RBI, SB, W, ERA, K, SV, and WHIP are used (commonly referred to as 5×5). Commissioners have the option of choosing whichever categories they wish when creating the league. The categories used are important for valuing players but not as important to draft strategy.
Roto is a scoring system that allocates points to each team based on their final season rank in each statistical category in the league. If your team finishes first in the league in home runs, you earn the maximum number of points (based on how many teams are in the league), and if your team finishes last in the league in ERA, your team will earn the minimum number of points. All teams are given an overall score based on their finish in all the categories. The team with the most overall points wins! For more information about the kinds of fantasy leagues and the differences between them, read the Fantasy 101 article, “Introduction to Fantasy Baseball.”
What are some of the strategies that are important for drafts in roto leagues? What things do managers need to know before heading into a roto draft?
How to Get Category Stats
The only thing that matters for winning fantasy baseball is accumulating stats. The perfect fantasy player is one that accumulates elite statistics in all hitting or pitching categories. Unfortunately, those players are rare, but the goal of the draft is to piece together players who can, as a team, put up excellent stats and help you win your league.
At this early point, we should consider a change of mindset. Instead of considering players and drafting a team of players we like, we need to consider our real goal: winning categories by accumulating stats. Think about gaining stats and earning points in categories. This will help eliminate bias and help avoid the pitfalls of fandom coloring how we play fantasy. The only thing a fantasy manager cares about is how to get category stats.
The trick is to find stats, at all stages of the draft, that can positively contribute to all league categories. It is imperative that managers know when and where they can acquire contributions to all categories in the early, middle, and late rounds. Also, managers must know when categories dry up. For example, if you think that you won’t be able to find stolen bases in the 15th-21st rounds, then be sure to use earlier picks to secure steals. This is especially important if a manager has a difficult decision between players earlier in the draft; it might be wise to choose the player who contributes in the more difficult to acquire stat, or plays at the shallower position.
In an ideal world, we would draft all the players we love and easily put together an incredible team. The problem is that we play with other people who have the same goal and the same player targets. Knowing category contributors in all phases of a draft can help a manager adjust if their plan falls apart early in a draft. Be sure to have multiple options and plans that can be implemented when your key targets are drafted by your league mates. For more information about creating a draft plan, read the Fantasy 101 article “How to Manage Your Drafts: Draft Prep.”
The name of the game in fantasy baseball drafting is value. In a typical league, the goal is to draft $320 worth of player value from $260 of draft capital. How do we do that? The simplest way is to draft players who outperform (earn more value) their draft cost. Here is a breakdown of the cost per round of each player in a 15-team league, based on work from Mastersball’s Todd Zola:
These roster spot values are “average dollars earned since 2010 for each draft spot in a hypothetical ‘perfect’ draft, where each player is selected based on their end-of-season earnings.” Each pick in the draft costs a portion of the $260 “budget” that a manager has for drafting. It is vital to draft players in the appropriate round regardless of how well we think they might perform. In the article “Snake Draft Strategies,” I discuss using Average Draft Position (ADP) to draft players at the appropriate part of drafts.
In NFBC Main Event drafts last year, Bellinger had an ADP of 40 (high 32, low 49). The cost of drafting a player like Cody Bellinger in a 15-team league was about the third round. Third-round picks, historically, have a cost of $23, but Bellinger earned $41, according to Rotowire’s Earned Auction Value. That’s a nice $18 profit. The goal with each pick in each round should be turning a profit. It doesn’t have to be a large one, but every player in every round should earn more value than his draft-day cost. This is how managers can meet their target of $320 of value with just $260 of capital. This is how managers win leagues.
Occasionally, you will see players drafted far too early. In a recent mock draft, Marcus Semien was drafted in the second round. When taking a player in the second round, their cost is $27, and in 2020, Semien might earn the $30 he did in 2019. This would be a $3 profit, so not a terrible pick. The problem with the pick is that Semien’s ADP in the #2EarlyMocks was 118. Even if we love Marcus Semien and bump up his ADP to 90th overall, he becomes a 6th round pick (in a 15-team league). A sixth-rounder’s cost is $16. If Semien earns $30 again, he has provided $14 of profit. The goal should be to maximize profit with every pick. ADP is a tool that can help managers maximize profit. Don’t be seduced by ADP, because leaving a target for the “optimal round” can be a dangerous game of chicken. If you want someone, go draft him. But be reasonable.
ADP is also important because drafting players at an appropriate round allows for some margin for error. Let’s say that Semien plays exactly the same way he did in 2019, but misses time with an injury. Instead of accumulating stats for the 162 games he did in 2019, he earns stats for 135 games. His performance per game is exactly the same, but instead of earning $30, he only earns $25. Drafting him in the second round is a $3 loss, but drafting him in the sixth would still give a profit of $9. We would also get production from a replacement while Semien was absent from our active lineup.
It is important to have a goal for every category. The easiest way to find that goal is to look at the league’s previous results. How did the season stat totals break down last year? The more years of a league’s history that can be used to determine the winner in each category, the better. Ensure that the league rules were the same in all years and are the same in the current season. Differences in league settings can impact category results.
If you are joining a league for the first time, use results from a league with the same lineup settings and league rules. While it won’t account for managers’ tendencies, it can give a good idea about what stats it takes to win each category.
The goal in the draft should be to get whatever the previous year’s third-place total was (or close to it). The number doesn’t have to be exact. In one of my 12-team leagues last year, the third-place finishes in each category were: 388 HR, 1203 R, 1157 RBI, 139 SB, 96 W, 107 SV, 1,621 K. These will be my targets for each counting category.
During the draft, total up each counting category to give you an idea of how close you are to each target. This is best done in a spreadsheet or could be done on paper. Here is the table I use:
|Name||Pos.||HR||HR Proj.||Total HR||SB||SB Proj.||Total SB||R||R Proj.||Total R||RBI||RBI Proj.||Total RBI|
|Name||Pos.||K||K Projected||K Total||W||W Projected||W Total||SV||SV Projected||SV Total|
I list each roster slot, and then divide the category target by the number of roster slots. When I draft a player, I write them into the roster slot and use projections to tally up each category. This allows me to keep track of my projected totals and gives me an idea about how balanced my draft is and where I need to focus my statistical focus later in the draft.
If, for instance, I notice that I should have about 835 runs by my 9th hitting roster slot and I only have 650, I need to focus on drafting players that can score runs until I get closer to my category goal. This is important because there is no point in building an excess in any one category. You earn the same number of roto points if you win a category by one as you do if you win that category by 45. The extra 44 counting stats are wasted and could be better served by being put into another category. If I notice that by the 9th round I have 310 home runs, and my goal is 270, I can ease off in the home run category and look to draft statistics in other categories that may be deficient.
This draft tracking tool will allow you to create a balanced draft and one that should allow a manager to compete in every counting category. This is essential if your league does not allow trades. If you are in a trading league and you have a surplus in-season, it can be helpful to trade from a category of strength to bolster a category of weakness. A surplus can be categorical or positional. For in-season trading information, check out the Fantasy 101 article “How to Trade the Right Way.”
What about the ratio categories? Ratio categories are very difficult to calculate quickly in the draft because the number of innings pitched and at-bats can differ so dramatically between players. Ideally, we could calculate this, and a more complex spreadsheet can be created to do so, but for the purposes of ensuring balance in drafts, counting stats are adequate. Be aware, however, of this inefficiency in this draft tracking tool and keep a mental note of ratio categories so that you don’t end up with a team full of ratio dead weight. If you wish, add additional columns for ratio statistics so that you can eyeball where your ratios are with the knowledge that they aren’t exactly accurate.
Punting is the complete disregard for a category in drafts. The goal in punting is an acknowledgment that a manager will intentionally finish last in a category by not investing any draft capital into that category. If a manager is punting saves, the goal isn’t to finish last with 29 saves, but to finish last with 0 saves. Instead of investing in saves, the manager invests in other categories with the goal of building so much strength in the other stats that they will overcome the shortcomings in the one punted category.
The common punting categories are stolen bases, saves, and batting average. It is inadvisable to punt other categories, because the interconnected nature of certain categories makes it difficult to limit the damage to that single category. It is also inadvisable to punt more than one category, because taking a last-place finish in more than one category creates a deficit that is too much to overcome. Punting is a valid strategy in a standalone league, but is not advised in an overall competition.
One of the key differences in strategy between Roto and Head-to-Head (H2H) is that punting is a much more valid option in H2H leagues. In roto, it is more difficult to win when punting a category, because earning just one roto point for a last-place finish is so difficult to overcome. In H2H, if you punt batting average, there will be weeks when your players are hot (or your opponent’s hitters are cold) and you win the batting average category. Punting in roto is an automatic last-place finish.
Many managers do not punt a category, but are simply ambivalent toward it. Ignoring a category is not punting. If a manager decides to adopt a strategy of ignoring a (typically punted) category like batting average, they do not want to finish last, but are not going to go out of their way to draft batting average. Instead of avoiding low-average players, a manager might ignore the low batting average from players who provide elite stats in other categories. Ideally, these low batting average players will come at a draft discount, because they may actively hurt the batting average category even though they may excel in other categories.
When ignoring a category like batting average, a manager might end up getting players who hit well and end up contributing to the ignored stat. Joey Gallo is a perfect example of a player who is valuable to a manager ignoring batting average. When healthy, Gallo will provide excellent home runs, RBI, and runs. He has a career .212 average, but what happens when he hits .253 as he did in his 70 games in 2019? Ignoring a category doesn’t resign an owner to a distant last-place finish in a category; we still want to get some points in the category. Managers just don’t invest draft capital into that category, but instead focus on other categories. With luck, a player might surprise us, and any improvement is a bonus.
In a league that allows trading, a manager could punt a category in the draft and might trade surplus for the punted category in-season. What if we have a huge lead in HR, R, and RBI and have built a surplus? We could trade some of those statistics to build our stats in the category we punted/ignored as long as there is a good chance that we could gain points in that category. If you got a surprise performance from your players in a punted/ignored category, then consider if it is possible to gain ground in that category. If you believe that you can gain roto points in the punted category by adding stats to it, then it is okay to pivot and pull from a strong category and put resources into a weaker category. We have to be flexible in our pursuit of roto points.
Before the draft, identify which categories will be difficult to find. Let’s consider some current MLB trends.
1) Stolen bases are down league-wide. In 2019, there were 2280 stolen bases in the league, down from 2474 in 2018 (in 2010, MLB recorded 2959 stolen bases). Last year, 21 players stole more than 20 bases, eight players stole more than 30, and a mere three players stole more than 40 bases.
2) Saves were often gathered by committee. Fewer teams had a dedicated closer who would close out games. Shut-down relievers were called into games earlier to shut down the heart of the order in a key situation rather than to get the final three outs. More players earned saves, but only one pitcher had more than 40 saves on the season (Kirby Yates netted 41). I will be discussing saves later in this article, but for an exploration of the state of saves in MLB and how we should draft them, check out Alex Fast’s article “Going Deep: We’re Drafting Saves Wrong.”
3) Home runs and strikeouts were at an all-time high. While it isn’t scarcity per se, MLB has seen an increase in power and strikeouts. As a result, the bar for those categories has risen, and fantasy owners who don’t prioritize those categories risk falling behind.
Consider how you will address categorical scarcity when you are evaluating players and creating a plan for your draft. Here are some ways you can do that:
1) Prioritize players who contribute to scarce categories. This can be done by drafting elite scarce-category contributors early or by ensuring that all players drafted contribute in all categories. Pairing Mallex Smith and Nelson Cruz would provide a speed-power combo from two sources to give about 45 home runs and 45 stolen bases. You could match their stats if you combine two players who can each hit about 23 home runs and 23 stolen bases (Starling Marte and Yasiel Puig).
There is a downside to drafting a category specialist. If we put all our steals hopes into the performance of one or two players, we expose our team to risk. What happens if our steals source doesn’t run or gets injured? Our stolen bases category would suffer immensely if Mallex Smith doesn’t perform well. Dee Gordon, for instance, was moved to the bottom of the lineup and only stole 22 bases in 2019. A manager can put all their eggs in a couple of baskets or spread the risk. Your tolerance for risk should guide your decision.
2) Have targets at all stages of the draft for all categories. Elite players are categorical monsters, but there are many players who can provide excellent contributions in the middle and late rounds. When you are prepping for your drafts, identify players who can provide categorical juice throughout the draft. The best way to do this is to search the projections leaderboards by category and look for players who stand out.
When we look at the stolen base leaders in 2019, a few names pop out: Elvis Andrus, Danny Santana, Amed Rosario, Kevin Newman, and Shin-Soo Choo. All these players stole more than 15 bases. They stand out also because their ADPs were post-150 overall. Once we identify a player who can contribute in steals and players we can get after the tenth round, we can examine how they might contribute to other categories. All hit more than 12 home runs, and all had 60+ runs and RBI. These are players who can become targets for us. Let’s compare the stat lines of Ozzie Albies and Shin-Soo Choo:
|ADP||Player||Hits||At-Bats||AVG||HR||R||RBI||SB||Round ADP||Razzball $||Round Value||Profit|
Albies and Choo are not equal, but based on the numbers that they put up in 2019, they are comparable fantasy contributors. What is most interesting is their draft cost. There is a 13-round difference for identical numbers in home runs and stolen bases. Choo doesn’t provide the same average contribution and falls 25 RBI short, but he can provide excellent production late. Other players in the Albies range of 2019 ADP were Mike Clevinger (58), Stephen Strasburg (59) and Jack Flaherty (60), whereas the pitchers available around Shin-Soo Choo were Jesus Luzardo (259), Alex Reyes (261), and Matt Strahm (262). While Albies is an excellent player, imagine drafting Strasburg and Choo instead of Albies and Strahm! You should know players who can help build categories throughout all stages of the draft.
3) Have specialists late. In the late parts of the draft, it is incredibly difficult to find across-the-board fantasy contributors. Those players were drafted much earlier! When you look at your balanced draft-tracking tool, you may discover that you are low in a particular category. Be sure that you draft the players that you have identified as targets for that category.
When you attack the player pool this way, you will discern the categories that are scarce, and you can set up a plan for earlier rounds with this in mind. By exploring the player pool thoroughly, you can create a draft plan that can not only prioritize the players who contribute in scarce categories (as in #1), but you can also have a group of category boosters that can support the categories you may have de-emphasized early.
In my article on snake draft strategies, I looked at Standings Gain Points (SGP) and advocate that managers create a valuation/ranking system using SGP. The main reason to do this is that it accounts for positional scarcity by valuing players based on replacement level for each roster position. A replacement-level player at second base might contribute 21 HR, 55 R, 60 RBI, for example, but a replacement-level shortstop might contribute 24 HR, 60 R, and 68 RBI. When evaluating players using SGP, scarcity of position is included in draft value. SGP also allows managers to easily rank and compare players across all positions whether they are hitters or pitchers.
There may be positions that are deeper or shallower than others. Have a look at the player pool for each position and decide where you feel comfortable drawing the line between a draftable and an undraftable player for each position. Which positions have the most depth? Which positions start to look ugly sooner?
To answer these questions, your league setup needs consideration. How many roster spots need to be filled on your team? How many bench spots do you have? One of the questions that you should be ready to answer before the draft is this: How many players at each position will, realistically, be drafted, and what is the quality of player that will not be drafted? Is there a position that has stronger replacement players on the waiver wire? Is there a position where the quality of free agent players is so poor that you would shudder to roster them? Are you going to use a 2B or SS for your middle-infield spot? Are you going to use a 1B or 3B for your corner-infield spot?
There was once a time when shortstop was the most shallow position; now it is, arguably, the deepest. Catcher is, by far, the most shallow position, but second base, first base, and outfield can drop in quality quickly. Consider when in the draft you are going to attack each position and with which players. Having a plan for addressing each position is important in drafts and you should have numerous targets at different parts of the draft.
Mock drafts can be valuable to help a manager learn about the quality of the player pool at each position. In the On the Corner podcast, Nick Pollack has been discussing the PLMocks and the picks of each participant. He is taking the opportunity to understand the thresholds for when managers need to target positions. He has lamented, often, that second base is a weak category and managers need to make sure that they have a plan for second base in the early rounds of drafts. Waiting too long to draft a second baseman can hurt your team, so managers should take knowledge gained from mocks into their drafts to prioritize a scarce position, or have a plan to address it.
Mock drafts with random strangers are often unhelpful, because managers don’t take them seriously, or are auto-drafted. Looking at mock drafts from industry “experts” is a good alternative. Take time to evaluate the drafts of writers you trust to investigate strategies that managers have used to build their team. This can also help in understanding the player pool talent drop-offs for each roster position.
Catcher is a difficult position to fill, especially in two-catcher leagues. There are, unsurprisingly, two main strategies for drafting catchers in a two-catcher league: Draft catchers early or draft catchers late.
Some managers will never draft catchers early. They don’t like the position and don’t like the production of the catchers in the player pool. They wait until the middle and late rounds to cobble together a pair of players at replacement level, if they are lucky. If you are planning to do so, be ready to churn catchers throughout the season. Pitcher List’s Dave Cherman has a weekly article on catchers that provides excellent insight into which catchers have good matchups for the week and catchers who may be playing well. With luck, a manager can find a catcher on the wire that remains on their team and contributes. If not, just churn weekly based on matchups.
The alternative is to spend draft capital on two catchers early. The theory is that the gap between the fifth-best catcher and the thirtieth-best catcher is so dramatic that it is worth the expense. The gap between the 5th and the 30th best first baseman, for example, is significantly smaller. Consider the following example:
Each group represents a strategy for a two-catcher league: one, draft catchers early; and two, wait and draft catchers late. These ADPs are from 2019 drafts from FantasyPros.com. Two managers drafted players in similar rounds and I have used their earned stats from the 2019 season. Clearly, the team drafting catchers early built the better team. The numbers speak for themselves.
With this tweak in the example, the team drafting catchers late built the better team, but a lot had to go right. They managed to draft Bellinger 39th overall, and he earned first-round value. Omar Narvaez was a nice late-round selection, but he had a breakout season with regular playing time. Other catchers drafted in that part of the draft were Austin Barnes (321), Isiah Kiner-Falefa (339), and Brian McCann (360); choosing them would not have yielded such a rosy result. Keep in mind, too, when looking at these examples is the significantly different draft costs. Some players are a few picks earlier and some are a few rounds earlier. Even with the table slanted in favor of Team Late Catchers, the numbers are not egregiously different.
Saves are a category that is, in my opinion, one of the riskiest, and has become much tougher in the last few years. I remember a time when every team had a closer who would come into the game in a save situation and lock the game down. Now, more teams are relying on numerous pitchers to close out games. Teams bring in their bullpen’s best pitcher when the situation warrants it, no matter the inning. Saves, as a result, are being earned by more and more pitchers, but there are fewer elite closers earning top stats in the saves category.
Strategy for saves is diametric: Pay up for elite closers early in the draft, or draft saves late (AKA: Never. Pay. For. Saves).
Paying for saves is expensive. In 2019, the top five relief pitchers, by 2019 ADP, were drafted in the 50th-85th overall range (Edwin Diaz 50, Blake Treinen 62, Aroldis Chapman 70, Kenley Jansen 71, and Brad Hand 81); that’s between the fourth and sixth round (between $20 and $16 in draft capital). From that group, according to the Razzball Player Rater, only Chapman ($16.90), and Hand ($16.10) earned more than $16.
Closers are volatile. Many will lose their role during the season for a variety of reasons: injury, poor performance, trade, loss of manager’s confidence, better performance by another reliever, etc. This volatility can impact all closers, regardless of how established they are in the role. Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen are excellent examples of relief pitchers who struggled in 2019 after stellar results in 2018, and were drafted early in fantasy. Drafting closers early is a perfectly reasonable strategy, but it has risks. On draft day, how do we know which closers will bust?
The other option, of course, is to draft relievers in the late rounds. There are three main forms that this could take:
- Drafting a closer on a poor team that won’t get many saves (Ken Giles, Jose Leclerc, Keone Kela, Joe Jimenez).
- Drafting a poor pitcher with the role on a poor team that won’t get many saves (Mychal Givens, Jairo Diaz, Sam Tuivailala).
- Drafting the best pitcher in a team’s bullpen who doesn’t have the closer’s role, but may step in if the established closer struggles or changes teams (Seth Lugo, Archie Bradley, Dellin Betances).
These pitchers come with significantly reduced costs and there is the possibility of a windfall. Remember, there is also the option of playing the waiver wire for saves. For active managers, this might be the best strategy, as they can use their engagement to pick up closers throughout the season ahead of other league mates. Hansel Robles, Liam Hendriks, Taylor Rogers, Ian Kennedy, and Hector Neris all earned more than 20 saves, and most, if not all, could have gone undrafted in 2019 drafts. The Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) cost of drafting relievers who become closers can be very high, so budget accordingly, or look to add them before they take the role. Cobbling together the saves category can be done, but it isn’t for everyone. It takes a lot of work and can be frustrating to have to scour the wire for potential closers whose skills may be unimpressive, while at the same time knowing that blowups can destroy your ratio categories.
Further Reading: Arien Cohen’s “The Case for a Second-Tier Closer.”
Further Reading: Alex Fast’s “Going Deep: We’re Drafting Saves Wrong.”
Have a plan for drafts before draft day. When it comes to roto strategy, there is a lot to think about, and a lot of decisions that need to be made before sitting down at the draft table. It is vital to build a team that can accumulate stats in all categories. What makes our game so much fun is the huge variety of ways that managers can craft a team to gather those stats. What is most interesting is that it is up to you to decide the path you choose. Use these suggestions, but be sure to adapt them to your own interests and skills to create a plan that works best for you.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)