Fantasy 101: The 10 Commandments of Dynasty Drafts
For those of you who play poker, here’s an analogy about the difference between single-season redraft and dynasty fantasy baseball leagues:
Single-season redraft leagues are like poker tournaments. There is a limited time amount (most tournaments are done in a matter of hours, while redraft leagues are only for one season) and there has to be a clear winner at the end. To win in a limited amount of time, you’re going to have to get good cards (players) and also get very lucky (go up against guys who have almost as good of hands as you to maximize your earning potential). If you lose, don’t worry, you’ve just lost this one tournament. You can start over and play another one.
Dynasty leagues, on the other hand, are like playing cash games. Time is no longer defined in hours and minutes but in weeks/months/years. As in dynasty leagues, in cash games, you can accumulate assets and bring them with you to the next table. You can be up and down from one table to the next, one day to the next, one year to the next. In the end there usually isn’t a clear-cut winner. Most of you have won a little or lost a little and only seasoned players can tell who is better.
Both are skill games. You must have different strategies in tournament poker and cash games. In fact, they are almost completely different games, but still, both are called poker. This is the same for fantasy baseball. More skill is required to play in cash games (or in our case, dynasty baseball) because when you have more time and less skill, luck tends to even out and the weaker players usually cannot continue to play if they continue to lose. The stakes are higher in dynasty leagues/cash games. If you make a mistake in a poker tournament (or redraft league) you will probably lose, but you get to start over fresh next time. If you make a mistake in a cash game, you could wipe out your bank account.
And if you don’t play poker, you just learned something.
That said, even if you are completely new to dynasty leagues, here are 10 commandments to help you get prepared for your draft.
1 — DRAFT TO AVOID REGRET
If you take anything away from this piece, it is to pick the guys you want to spend the next few years with.
The last thing you want to feel after any fantasy draft is that your roster doesn’t contain the players you want. That is especially true in a dynasty league, because like Katy Perry or Tom Arnold, you’re stuck with Russell Brand or Rosanne Barr for life—unless you can find a creative way out of it. Yet that happens all too often because managers repeatedly make one simple mistake: They wait on the players they want, thinking they’ll be available the next round.
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: It’s the fifth round of your draft. All you can really think about is that you want Chris Paddack. The Padres young ace is a good pick in the fourth round, so why not pick him now? I’ll tell you why: because he’s a great pick in the fifth round! So you draft Adalberto Mondesi instead and wait. Then someone else picks Paddack! You’re stuck contemplating how much you’d get laughed at if you offered the other guy Mondesi for Paddack straight up.
The strategy of trying to pick the player you want right before someone else does—or to get him at the lowest possible price—makes sense only in yearly redraft leagues. In those leagues, two things win championships: (1) Not losing value in the picks you made and (2) Those short gains in a player outperforming that low pick in a single season. And when evaluating players for one season, there is a lot less discrepancy than evaluating the value of players over five or seven years because that value is compounded annually.
Winning championships in dynasty leagues is about getting the players you want before someone else gets them. That means you will have to reach for a younger player because you believe in him more than most. Does that mean you pick Keston Hiura in the first round of a dynasty draft because you really want him? No. It means if the third/fourth round is here and Hiura is atop your draft board, but it’s possible he might fall to the fourth round, you pick Hiura. In dynasty drafts, you are making a longer investment in all your players. You should pick the players you want because you’ll potentially be stuck with them for years. Otherwise, you’ll have a team full of players you didn’t really want, and you’ll be overpaying for the ones you do by trying to trade for them.
2 — KNOW WHO IS AVAILABLE
It seems stupid, I know, but you’d be surprised how many dynasty league drafts have the following conversation:
Manager 1: “Round 3, Pick 3: Wander Franco”
Manager 2: “Wait…we can pick prospects in this draft? I thought we were having a prospect draft too!”
Commissioner: “You can pick them in this draft too. Looks like Manager 1 gets him.”
Or how about this one:
Manager 1: “Round 20, Pick 8: Spencer Torkelson”
Manager 2: “Wait…we can pick college players????”
Commissioner: “I didn’t say we couldn’t. I guess Manager 1 gets Torkelson.”
You can approach this in two ways: (1) Ask questions before the draft begins to help the commissioner define the draft pool, or (2) Assume that everyone is available and pick accordingly. No. 2 is my favorite strategy because if you prepare as if everyone is available, you’ll be more prepared than everybody else, and you’ll be the one that gets to push the limits.
3 — KNOW YOUR LEAGUE’S RULES
Not every dynasty league has the same rules about:
- The difference between a prospect and a player.
- How many prospects you can keep on your roster.
- If your league has a prospect minor league roster.
- Whether you can draft prospects in your dynasty league draft.
- Contracts and/or salary cap.
- Whether international signings count as players or prospects.
Know who are the youngest players eligible for your draft. In a dynasty format, youth itself is valuable. That said, there will be prospects in a dynasty league draft who have yet to play a game in the majors getting picked before last season’s All-Stars.
Just about every manager in your league will take the same view at the beginning: learn the rules and how to bend them as you go. Don’t be the same as them. Know the ins and outs of the rules. You want to go into your league knowing how you plan to use the rules to your advantage and craft a strategy highlighting potential points of exploitation.
4 — DRAFT TO YOUR STRENGTHS
Do you have more prospect knowledge than anyone else in your league? Then use that by letting all the other managers use their early picks going through Fangraphs’ Top 100 list while you wait to use your prospect picks down the road, thereby having better MLB talent right away while grabbing prospects with just as high of a ceiling later on in the draft.
How do you know if you have more prospect knowledge than the other managers in your league? They are looking at Fangraphs’ Top 100 for this year. You know who probably will and won’t be on that list next year. I’m not saying you’ll be able to write the list for them, but if you’re informed enough to be able to make educated guesses on who will be in the top 100 in 12 months, you’re more informed than most of your league.
If you know nothing about prospects, you should probably use a couple picks early to get some of the top guys (Casey Mize/Jesus Luzardo/Luis Robert/Gavin Lux)—lessening the risk of having prospects.
When drafting in dynasty, accentuate your strengths.
5 — CONSIDER AGE AS MORE THAN ONE NUMBER
Age matters a lot in dynasty leagues—in the right context. I’m 37, and if I lived in the middle ages, I’d be dead by now. Fifteen years ago, being a 37-year-old MLB All-Star was a fairly common thing. Times have changed. Cost-controlled contracts keep a steady stream of young stars moving through MLB. That said, there are some factors to consider when you are determining how long a player will be able to continue production as he ages. Below is a table showing the average age of the top 15 performers of each standard 5×5 category in 2018:
|Average Age of Top 15||29||28||28||29||27|
As probably would be expected, speed is the statistic that ages the worst because it has the lowest average age for a top contributor. What does that tell us? That speedsters who have few other skills should be picked lower because what they are good at does not last, as opposed to other skills. It is difficult to find a player who is around 25 to carry your team in on-base percentage or RBI, so if you have a chance to find such a player (Jose Ramirez), he should rank extraordinarily high. Also, if you find a player—excuse me—if you find THE player who ranks in the top 12 in all categories and is younger than the average age of each, you should pick him. What I’m saying is: Pick Ramirez.
|Average Age of Top 15||27||29||29||30||28|
As far as pitching goes, the story is the same. The top contributors tend to be in what is the tail end of their primes (28-30). This is certainly true of WHIP and ERA, which are the hardest to maintain. What this means is that if you want to win, you’re likely going to need some 29 or 30-year-old pitchers. Getting young hurlers who can contribute to these categories is rare and should be valued as such. I must say that I was surprised to see the wins average age so low, considering most pitchers younger than 25 are on some kind of innings limit, making it hard to accumulate wins either because of shortened starts or skips in the rotation. The age of saves shows a bias for another time in the majors that affects fantasy: Closers should be experienced. It’s almost a pay-your-dues situation that relievers, even if they perform very well, have to endure to eventually become the closer. So once again, if you can find a closer younger than 25, you have a rare commodity.
This last table shows the average age of the top 15 players in each position receiving the most at-bats (or top 30 innings pitched for starting pitchers). Now, this may not contain the top 15 performers in each position, but what this shows us is most teams are still starting mostly players at the tail end of their primes in almost half of the positions. Catcher, for example, is extremely thin right now in the majors, with really five to eight options who can help you every day—and maybe two of them are younger than 28. If you have one of these catchers, hold onto him like grim death and have no qualms with riding until he falls apart. Catcher is not a position that you are likely to find a young stud. And if you do, never let him go until he retires. Shortstop, on the other hand, is a position where teams have a revolving door of young starters and prospects. It also means that once a player hits the end of his prime, he’s moving off the position. Draft accordingly.
6 — ASSESS THE VALUE OF YOUTH DURING THE DRAFT
You’ll have some managers in your dynasty draft who are skeptical of prospects, and some are full of managers who want nothing more than to be the one who “discovered” Wander Franco (even though he was signed three years ago). There is likely to be a majority of one type or the other. That will dictate the value of youth. If you have more managers who consider themselves prospect connoisseurs, youth will the single most deciding factor of player value in your league. If youth isn’t a premium, you can mop prospects while everyone else is laughing at you for picking “pipe dreams.”
The point is that you likely won’t know which way your league is going to go until Franco is picked. If it’s in the first round, youth is at a premium.
7 — WIN NOW/WIN LATER
Alright, let’s get to it. How do you decide if you want to win now or win later? Well, here is a primer about that very topic that both I and Ryan Fickes debate about. My two cents are this: Only in very few situations should employ a “win now” strategy. Situation 1: If you notice that players in their mid-to-late primes are being tremendously undervalued, then, by all means, go for it. Situation 2: If you are a sadist and want to make it harder on yourself. It’s hard to win consistently enough in a dynasty league to find it thoroughly enjoyable. Baseball is random enough and now you are playing for a specific and close time window to win before having to rebuild. There will be a bunch of managers who take a middle ground with some prospects and some current top older players. If age isn’t really being undervalued, the likely difference between your roster and theirs for this season is two or three good players—all of whom are probably 30+ and more prone to injury. If a couple of those guys get injured, your odds of winning in the one or two years you narrowed down to win get significantly worse and your whole draft strategy goes down the toilet.
This isn’t an argument for employing a “win later” strategy either. There is something to be said about maintaining a winning roster. If you know enough about prospects and current players that you can maintain a team that makes the playoffs nearly every year, you should draft that way. These extreme draft strategies can be fun, but you know what else is fun: making the playoffs every year.
8 — IGNORE DEFENSE
Nobody is memorizing fielding metrics as part of their draft strategy, because defense has no value in virtually any fantasy league. But have you ever wondered why all the top prospect lists and MLB Draft rankings are filled with shortstops and catchers? Because they all bake in how hard those positions are to field and add that to the overall value. Learn to spot when a young player is ranked high because of a combination of his bat and his defense and properly rate him for yourself—which is to say: Rank him lower. A perfect example of this is Atlanta Braves fielding whiz Cristian Pache. He’s young, he’s athletic, and he’s an improving hitter. Unfortunately, so far he has lacked the kind of dynamic bat that is generally associated with his player/prospect status (top 10 in most prospect standings). Fantasy-wise, there should be no reason he is compared with Seattle Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who is not as athletic but a much more dynamic bat with a better track record, despite not reaching as high of a minor league level yet. Still, as the season inches closer, more people will be asking: “Who should I draft: Pache or Rodriguez?”
Take a look at the difference in minor league numbers:
Even though Rodriguez has only been as high as High-A and Pache is in Triple-A, the numbers are clear. Rodriguez has more power, better patience, and better contact. He has been better than Pache at each level they’ve both played so far—at least in all skills that are fantasy-relevant.
To be clear: Pache is a fantastic prospect, and in real-life baseball, he could be a better one than Rodriguez. His bat might end up growing to be the equivalent to Rodriguez too, but it’s certainly not there now. And if you eliminate defense, this shouldn’t be a debate.
9 — DRAFT TALENT, IGNORE ROLE & TEAM
Basically, this means draft Shohei Ohtani. There isn’t a player more talented than him. He has a higher ceiling than anybody. Yes, Acuna is better right now, but Ohtani could theoretically be a top 10 pitcher and hitter in his best year.
What I’m saying is players change situations all the time, whether it’s by trade or free agency. If you believe a player has the ability to be great but you’re concerned about the ballpark he plays in, you’re not evaluating a player in the dynasty league context correctly. Drafting players because of temporary position flexibility (such as Anthony Rizzo’s second base eligibility in 2018), temporary home field (such as Trevor Story in 2019, who plays at Coors Field but begins arbitration in 2020 with Brendan Rodgers behind him), or in a pitcher’s case—temporary lack of run support (Jake deGrom), is shortsighted and puts you in a position to only properly value a player for 2019 while completely missing his value for the rest of time. Which would you rather be right about?
10 — DRAFT THE BEST RELIEVERS
Draft the best hitters too—and the best base stealers. I know, like many of these commandment titles, this one sounds stupid—until you read The Curious Case of Delosh Betader. Yet, this is one of the more difficult switches when managers go from redraft leagues to dynasty leagues. Even if your league counts saves as a category, do not make the mistake of taking average or replacement-level closers over elite setup men or elite middle relievers. In a dynasty league, you need to be patient with relievers. If they are lights out, they will likely become a closer one day. There is no need to suffer through a closer with a 4.00 ERA who gets saves but kills you in everything else when you can get a quality reliever who will help you with the peripheral stats (ERA, WHIP, K/9) along the way before eventually closing games.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)