Drafts are usually the highlight of the fantasy season. We spend the cold, dark off-season preparing and we emerge in the spring to draft a team that will consume us for the season. More than 75% of stats are acquired on draft day, so it is vital that fantasy owners try to maximize their draft success. With that said, a miss on draft day won’t sink your season, but it does take a lot to dig out of a draft-day hole. Here is what you need to know to succeed in your snake drafts and to build a quality squad.
Pre-Draft League Preparation
It seems overly simplistic to tell a fantasy owner that they need to read the rules before the draft. Most, if not all, of your pre-draft preparation, relies on knowing what the league rules are and knowing what is and is not allowed in your league, but still, managers will be unfamiliar with even the most basic of league rules.
Expect one of your competitors during the draft to ask a question like, “What are the player position eligibility requirements in this league? How many outfielders do we get? Are we playing with an MI and CI? How many catcher spots?” You must know these answers before the draft or you are not preparing correctly. Knowing the league rules is the most vital part of draft prep and it is amazing how often people don’t know them.
Be sure to take note of:
-The number of games for a player to become eligible at a position. This article gives some helpful background on that.
-The number of roster spots including reserves/bench, Injured List, and Minors (or N/A).
-The number of players needed at each position.
-How frequently can managers make roster changes (daily, weekly, bi-weekly, etc).
-How many transactions are you allowed per scoring period?
-Is trading allowed? Are there veto requirements?
-How are players added/dropped in-season (daily, weekly, quickest)?
-What is the scoring system (Rotisserie, Points, Head-to-Head)?
-What are the scoring categories?
-Are there minimum/maximum games/innings requirements?
-What are the fees/prizes for the league?
-Is this a redraft, keeper, or dynasty league and what are the keeper requirements?
It may be boring and tedious to go through the rules and regulations, but take the time to do so before you start your prep. Contact the commissioner well before the draft if you have any questions, or have suggestions for rule changes. Sometimes commissioners are amenable to changes that might improve the league and make it more fun. If there is something that will make the league better, suggest it with adequate time for discussion and implementation. For more information about some of the topics raised, look for more Fantasy 101 articles.
Type of League
Know what the league scoring is: roto (rotisserie), points, or head-to-head (H2H). Player valuation is very different depending on the type of league. To learn the qualities of different leagues and the differences between them, be sure to check out other Fantasy 101 articles like: Myles Nelsons’ “Basic League Set-up Article” and his “Fantasy 101: Introduction to Fantasy Baseball.” These articles can help you find the league that is right for you.
There are resources that can help you find the league that is right for you. There are many league-hosting sites that will all service any league/format. Yahoo! and ESPN cater to smaller redraft leagues (10 and 12-teamers) and CBS and Fantrax focus on larger leagues and dynasty formats. Be aware that most hosting sites are free, but may charge a league fee depending on league settings.
Fantasy baseball leagues can vary widely on roster spots. League sites have different default roster setups, and commissioners will have the ability to change the number of roster spots depending on their preferences.
The number of roster spots is important because it indicates the depth of the league and the necessary knowledge of the player pool. Multiply the number of active and reserve roster spots by the number of teams in the league to get the number of drafted players which should give you a rough idea at how many players you will need to know.
A shallow 10-team, 23-roster spot league will go 230 players deep, whereas a 15-team, 27-roster spot league is 405 players deep. Drafts are often won and lost in the middle and late rounds and knowing the player pool fully for your league depth is essential. Be sure your player knowledge is deep enough to extend beyond the minimum roster depth.
Know what active positions need to be filled. It seems too easy, but it makes a big difference to strategy. Let’s assume a 15-team league. If we are playing with two catcher slots on the active roster, that means that at least 30 catchers will be drafted. If we have five outfielder spots, that’s 75 outfield-eligible players who will be drafted into active outfield spots. Your player knowledge has to reach to that level, at least. Is there a utility position used? If so, how many? What are the eligibility requirements for each position?
Often times, commissioners will replace one of the catcher slots with a second utility slot. This makes a big difference to a draft strategy because the replacement level for catcher rises dramatically. There is a big difference between the 15th ranked catcher and the 30th!
Also, when it comes to positions, be sure to know what the league’s positional eligibility rules are. Multi-positional players can be helpful; for example, a second baseman who can also play outfield makes your roster more flexible.
Let’s consider a typical situation. You have drafted Ketel Marte and Ozzie Albies. Albies is your primary 2B and you have Marte (who also qualifies at 2B) at OF. Let’s say that Albies misses time with an injury; instead of picking up a weak second baseman from the wire, a manager can move Marte into the 2B roster spot and find a replacement outfielder who could be of much higher ability than a replacement-level 2B.
Positional eligibility is based on games played at each position in the previous year. Players can gain eligibility in-season, so be aware of how many games it takes for players to earn an additional position designation. Just because a player doesn’t have specific eligibility now doesn’t mean he won’t get it based on where he’s set to play in the coming season.
Which categories are used in this league? The most common league categories are BA, HR, R, RBI, SB, W, ERA, K, SV, and WHIP. These five hitting and five pitching categories are referred to as standard 5×5.
Again, it may seem overly simplistic to point out that fantasy managers need to know what categories are used in the league, but be sure that you know. There is a big difference if Batting Average has been replaced with On-Base Percentage, or Wins have been replaced with Quality Starts (QS).
A player like Bryce Harper posted a .260 BA in 2019, but a .372 OBP. If your league includes OBP instead of BA as a category, Bryce Harper is significantly more valuable. If your league uses QS instead of wins, false starters like Ryan Yarbrough lose value. You would also be shocked to find out how many managers don’t know the league’s scoring categories when drafting. Don’t be that manager.
Know when you set your lineup. Is it daily, twice-weekly, weekly, or something else? Player-value will be determined by the flexibility of lineup lock. Daily lineups are the most flexible and managers can easily swap players in and out of their lineups depending on matchups, park, weather, etc. Weekly leagues are the least flexible and this can be problematic for managers.
Let’s consider Rich Hill. Hill has much more value in a daily league because we know that he is good enough to start every time he pitches, but because he is often injured we might not know if he will or will not make an expected start. In a weekly league, he could be scheduled to pitch on Thursday, but we don’t feel good about whether something will come up before his start that will prevent him from pitching.
We don’t want to fill a roster spot with a player who isn’t accumulating stats. Playing time is king and players who play regularly in the starting lineup are the most valuable. Drafting players that are appropriate to the lineup setting will reduce in-season headaches.
Shohei Ohtani is an interesting player because he is a two-way player (pitcher and everyday hitter). His value changes drastically between the different lineup lock settings. Be sure to know how your league hosting site deals with two-way players (Michael Lorenzen, Brendan McKay). Quality pitchers and quality hitters can be much more valuable if they can be swapped daily in and out of both hitting and pitching slots. In weekly lineup locks, managers usually have to choose using these players as either hitter or pitchers and drastically decreases their value.
Does your league have IL slots or not? If it does, how many? If IL slots are unlimited, then feel free to draft injured players and find replacements late in the draft or from the free agent pool after the draft. This is ideal but isn’t very common. More than likely, your league will limit the number of IL slots to three or fewer.
This becomes tremendously difficult in-season because managers will have numerous injuries and will have to face tough roster decisions. Let’s say that your team has three reserve/bench slots and two IL slots, what happens when you have six (or more!) players on the IL? Is it better to have an injured player in an active roster spot or drop a player on the IL for healthy replacement from the wire?
The value of injured players in the draft will depend on the number of IL slots available on managers’ rosters. Drafting one or two injured players is fine, but they should be drafted at a discount. Drafting many players with limited IL slots, no matter what the discount, is inadvisable because it makes in-season management difficult.
Draft order matters. Depending on the quality of the player pool, managers may have many different preferences.
Inherently, draft order impacts a manager’s wait between picks. Managers at the ends of the draft will have to wait longer between picks than those in the middle. Long waits have two impacts: one, managers may worry that their targets will be drafted before their next pick and may have to draft their favorite players earlier; and two, managers could miss out on any draft runs (saves, catchers, speed).
Draft runs are sections of the draft when a position or category is drafted in clusters. Saves/Closers is the most common draft run. Usually managers will “play chicken” before drafting a closer. Once the first closer is drafted, it is common for other managers to pick up a closer knowing that if they don’t, there might not be a quality option when the draft returns in the next round.
One of the ways to try to avoid a draft run is to be mindful of the rosters of other teams. If you are deciding between two players that you like, it can be helpful to monitor the teams of other managers to consider the players that they might need. If they need the same thing you do, perhaps you should grab what you need before your competitors take your targets.
One of the advantages of drafting at the ends of draft (the wheel), of course, is that managers can easily pair players. Short gaps between picks can facilitate the pairing of players with a combination of skills, or allow a manager to double-tap two strong players at the same position or category strength (two aces, two catchers, two closers, etc.).
League hosting sites will provide commissioners with options for draft order creation. Most will randomly choose a draft order. Kentucky Derby Style, however, is a method of creating a draft order that allows players to rank their preferred draft spot. Each manager ranks all their draft spot preferences from first to worst.
The commissioner then randomly chooses a selection order. The first manager name drawn gets their first-ranked preference. For each remaining manager name drawn, the manager gets their highest-ranked preference that is still available, and so forth through all managers. KDS can provide managers with a little more impact on their draft position preference.
In school, I never did well on tests, but did well on my in-class work. I prefer slow drafts. A slow draft with long draft windows allows me to focus on my team, explore the player pool, and dig into a player during a draft. Most drafts are 30-90 seconds per pick and don’t give managers too much time to prepare between picks or when they are on the clock. The less time between picks, the more time you need to prepare ahead of the draft to ensure that you have a plan and are ready to draft.
Some managers thrive with the pressure of a tight pick window. They don’t like waiting between picks and just want to get the draft moving. Everyone has their preference and, if possible, join a league that benefits your draft-speed preference. It is much more fun when you are picking players in a draft that suits you.
Pre-Draft Prep: Understanding the Player Pool
It can be helpful to create positional ranks. Most casual fantasy players will come into a draft without adequate prep and will rely on the hosting site’s player ranks and projections. This is an opportunity for a manager who is prepared.
Ranks have everything to do with replacement level. Let’s say that you are in a 12-team one-catcher league, what is the replacement level for catchers? It is unlikely that a manager will draft more than one catcher, so the replacement level is the 13th-ranked catcher. Any player on the waiver wire will do as a replacement beyond the top 12 that are rostered. The goal of ranking players is to put all players in order from replacement level up to the best contributing player.
Ranking players can be a helpful exercise because it provides managers with a deep knowledge of the player pool, but also can differentiate targets from the other managers in your league (especially if your ranks differ from the hosting site’s ranks). For example, last year, Cody Bellinger was drafted as the sixth first basemen in standard 5×5 roto leagues on Yahoo! behind Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Whit Merrifield, and Rhys Hoskins.
Bellinger drastically overperformed all those players and provided a ton of value. If a manager had correctly ranked Bellinger higher, they would have earned a ton of value. The value of creating your own league-specific ranks is especially evident when the hosting site’s ranks and projections are poor, outdated, or don’t apply to your league rules.
Be sure that any ranks you are using are specific to the league’s scoring settings. Using the rankings for your league settings is vital because players can have wildly different value in different scoring settings.
There is some debate about the value of tiers; some love them and others hate them. Grouping players of equal skill can be helpful because there are so many decisions that have to be made during the draft. Sometimes it can be easier to interchange players in similar skills tiers.
For example, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom are often considered the top tier of starting pitchers. If my goal in a draft is to draft a top starter, I could target any of those pitchers and choose the one that falls to me. The pitcher doesn’t matter; I just want one of them.
Sometimes managers use tier-based drafting. Let’s say that we are trying to decide between shortstop A and outfielder B. There are three shortstops remaining in my shortstop tier 3 and just one outfielder remaining in my outfielder tier 5. Even though the shortstop might be ranked higher, draft the final outfielder in the tier and, with luck, one of the three shortstops will be available for your next pick.
The main shortcoming of tiers is that they don’t address category needs. Within a tier, there can be players who contribute very differently to the league’s scoring categories. While tiers will group many players together based on overall skill, it might be more valuable to tier together players who can contribute in specific categories. This may not be tiering as much as it is targeting. At different parts of the draft, targeting specific categories can be helpful.
If in the early parts of my draft, I have taken players who might not contribute to batting average, in later rounds, it is possible to take players who can help contribute in batting average. By tiering categories, it is possible to find players, at all parts of the draft, who can help build stats in any deficient categories.
Average Draft Position isn’t a difficult concept, but using it effectively can be tricky. The NFBC is usually the standard for the creation of an ADP, but most hosting sites will have their own ADP based on the draft results of leagues played on their platform. Players are ranked according to an average of where they are chosen. Simple.
Using ADP can be more difficult. Some players never use it and just draft the players they like and don’t worry about when they are drafted. This is a concept that should be emphasized: draft your guy. Be reasonable, but if you really like a player, draft him.
If we use our previous example, Cody Bellinger should have been drafted in the first round, because he earned first-round stats. We don’t, of course, want to draft Bellinger in the first round, because we don’t have to (his 2019 NCFB Main Event ADP was 40 with a high of 32 and a low of 49).
If, somehow, you knew for certain that Bellinger was going to perform as he did in 2019, you didn’t have to draft him in the first round but could draft him somewhere around pick 40 overall. If you knew that Lucas Giolito was going to be the 73rd overall player (according to the Razzball Player Rater), there was no reason to draft him in the fifth round when his ADP was 455th overall. Instead, if you love both players draft them earlier than ADP but use ADP to your advantage to get an idea of where “the crowd” values players in a draft.
Using ADP can be vital to a manager’s success. It can be a game of chicken, but it can also pay huge rewards. We know that many players will be overvalued and many will be undervalued. ADP showed that Bellinger was undervalued in drafts. Look for players who are undervalued by ADP and target those players in your drafts. When using ADP:
- Make sure that the ADP that you are using is pulled from many different drafts. The more drafts the better because it should smooth out any outliers.
- Make sure that the ADP information is up-to-date. Using an ADP that stretches from November to March is less useful than a more current ADP because player and team situations change.
- Know the ADP of your draft platform. If Yahoo has significant aberrations in ADP from other sites, make note of those before your draft so you can take advantage.
- ADP should match your league rules and settings as closely as possible. Player value varies greatly between leagues and settings.
Consider also the tendencies of your league mates when it comes to ADP. Let’s say that you love Jack Flaherty and his ADP is 61. If you have a huge Cardinals fan in your league, you may have to push Flaherty earlier in the draft because there is a good chance that your Cardinals super-fan will love him too.
Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs created an excellent spreadsheet that can be used to calculate, based on ADP, the chances that a player will be available in a particular round. He uses the standard deviation created by an ADP and his spreadsheet is a great resource if you are having trouble drafting players too early or missing out on players you wanted because you waited too long. This tool works best if you are in a slow draft because it can take time to use.
In the early rounds of the draft, it is important to draft players with a safe floor. It is vital in the first few rounds that players perform at or near their draft value. The last thing that a manager wants is to have a first-round pick that underperforms. Your first-round pick needs to earn close to first-round value. It is tremendously damaging if he earns twelfth-round value.
Drafts are about accumulating stats and building value, so early-round picks need to earn the big bucks that they cost or it is difficult to build the stats that we need to win.
There are plenty of opportunities for high-ceiling players later in the draft. Players who break out and reach their full potential can be difference-makers for your team and are league-winners. Let’s consider Marcus Semien. Semien was drafted 214th in NFBC Main Event drafts last season. He ended up as the 21st overall player according to the ESPN Player Rater. In a 15-team league, Semien was drafted in the 14th round but earned second-round value.
Semien, however, was drafted in the #2EarlyMocks at pick 118. His draft cost has jumped to the ninth round. Semien’s cost has increased, but has his floor? Has his ceiling risen? The risk for the fantasy manager has changed dramatically.
At 214th overall, Semien’s floor is easily achievable and there was potential for more, but at 118, Semien must exceed his floor and approach his ceiling for a second straight year. It is possible, but not assured.
This is all to say that when we draft players, we want them to do well, but there is a range of possible outcomes from the player’s expected floor to their anticipated ceiling. When we draft players in a round that that matches their floor, we have a great potential to earn value, but if we draft them in a round that matches their ceiling, the player absolutely must achieve that lofty expectation or we lose value. Because the cost is high in the early rounds, draft players with a high floor, and because the cost is low in the middle and late rounds, it is okay to chase ceiling because, if the player doesn’t perform, it hasn’t cost us very much.
Creating a Draft Strategy
By the time your draft arrives, you should be prepped and ready to go. You should have an excellent understanding of the league rules, and the player pool. We have forgotten something that is essential: a plan!
Luckily, you are reading this before your draft. Though we haven’t created a plan overtly, our prep work has already done most of the work already. By understanding all the intricacies of the league’s setup, and by studying the player pool, we already should have a good base. I can’t tell you what your plan should be; that’s something that is unique to every fantasy manager. Here are some considerations that can help you craft your plan.
1) What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?
It is important to be brutally honest with yourself. When it comes to managing a fantasy baseball team, you need to understand what you do well and what you struggle with (in fantasy baseball!). If you are a pitching expert and feel like you can find good pitchers late, then focus on hitters early in the draft and use your strength to draft your staff in the mid-late rounds.
If you hate trying to find closers off the waiver wire, then consider drafting a stud closer or two. If you feel like your teams always struggle in the batting average category, make it a priority to draft high batting average players. Use what you have learned in previous seasons to reflect on your team management skills. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a fantasy manager can help build a strong plan.
2) Which positions are shallow and which are deep?
This comes from a good understanding of the player pool. Knowing that shortstop is deep might be helpful because it is a position that you can fill later in the draft.
If you feel that first base is shallow, be sure to make it a priority early in the draft. Knowing the players and targeting positions at different parts of the draft is part of creating a plan.
3) Which categories are easy to find and which categories are scarce?
Based on your understanding of the player pool, which categories are going to be your priority? When should you address these categories and with which players? You need to have a plan to address all the categories, but some stats are going to be more difficult than others to acquire.
Be sure to consider the scarce categories and address them early. Similarly, don’t overvalue easy-to-find categories that could be found late in the draft for far less draft capital.
4) What are the tendencies of your league?
Sometimes we play in leagues with people we know or have been in the same league for numerous years. We have some history with the other managers and the league rules, and we can create a plan knowing how others might behave.
If one of your buddies loves drafting speedy lead-off hitters, then be sure to address runs and stolen bases before he takes them. If another manager always drafts two top closers, then you had better plan to draft them before she does. Sometimes, we won’t have the luxury of knowing our competitors, but leagues with similar rules and roster slots can provide some insight.
5) Start at the end
Drafts are usually not won in the first five rounds. The best path to a successful season is through the middle and late rounds. You should have targets late for all categories, and some players that you love and can target in middle and late rounds.
When you identify some late-round contributors, then build your team knowing that you can find some category juice for cheap. If you have a deep sleeper that you love and that you think will help in a category, then focus on other categories earlier in the draft. Extensive knowledge of the player pool and some key targets throughout the entire draft will help build a well-rounded team.
Create a Backup Plan
I separated this point because I wanted to draw attention to just how important it is. Your plan may fail. Other players might have the same plan or might have the same targets as you do. What happens when the player you love is drafted by another manager? You need to have a backup plan or two (or seven) to deal with the, inevitable, curveballs that will be thrown at you during the draft.
1) Target is drafted by someone else.
If another manager snipes your pick, be sure to have a similar player that you can take instead, or a player, or players, who can contribute in the same categories as your top target.
2) A category is scarce.
If you find that a category is scarce because other managers have made it a priority and taken the top contributors, be sure to use your player knowledge to bump up a late-round contributor. Don’t get too aggressive, but the guy you wanted for batting average in the 15th round might have to be drafted in the 13th. This is okay, as long as the player can still earn value.
3) Value drops to you.
Sometimes players that you never thought would be available will drop to you. If there is value in a player, take it. Finding value is the name of the game and a player dropping can be unexpected, but you need to be able to adjust. Don’t get stuck following a plan and be ready to adjust to what the draft gives you. If you have Anthony Rendon as the 14th best player, and he is available to you at pick 29, don’t hesitate to alter your plan.
4) A position is gone.
If there is a run on a position, don’t panic. There are always options. They may not be the ideal option in a perfect world, but there are always players that are usable. If there is a run on closers and you miss out on an elite saves option, you will simply have to adjust to target saves later. Keep in mind, that while closers were being drafted by other managers, value at other positions and categories becomes available and you should capitalize.
Every draft has its own unique challenges. Being flexible and adjusting your plan will help you cope with those challenges.
There are a few minor things to consider…
Familiarize yourself with the draft hosting platform and the draft room. Make sure your computer can perform well on the website or in the software. Check your internet connection. Do this before the draft. If there are any issues, solve them before draft day. Have a backup available. Technology failure on draft day can ruin a draft and ruin your hard work, so take the time to make sure everything works. Setting a draft order is helpful in case you miss a pick due to a technology failure. Build your queue before your pick so, if you get auto-drafted, you always get a player that you want.
Get a good night’s sleep. Being well-rested for a draft can be the best path to success. Avoid distractions during the draft. If you have children, plan for a babysitter, or a visit to Grandpa’s house. Be sure to devote a few hours to the draft without anything else going on. Put it in your day planner and don’t multitask. There is too much going on in a draft to be distracted. Tell your spouse/partner when your drafts are so that they can plan to help you, if needed; or leave you in peace.
Avoid alcohol during the draft. There is a lot going on and having a few pops complicates things. There will be plenty of time after the draft for celebration. Stick with water, you need a clear head.
Have a paper backup of your player lists and important notes. If you can’t access your files for some reason, be sure to have them printed on paper.
Just like the pre-draft preparation, we need to be prepared to perform at the draft table. Don’t forget to take care of yourself and the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the draft. Also, please remember that fantasy baseball is what we do in our spare time and is our hobby, so have fun!
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)