Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Drafts Are A Jigsaw Puzzle

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Craig Kimbrel

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

When going through fantasy baseball drafts, whether they are snake or auction formats, it’s important to keep this in mind: a draft has to tell a story.

Draft day is the second-most important day of the fantasy baseball season – the first being the day you mathematically lock down first place in your league – because your draft will be the single biggest determinant of your ability to succeed this season. There was a good article written recently by Todd Zola over at Fantasy Alarm talking about the difference between winning a draft and winning a league. Basically – and these are early results – that as little as two-thirds of your final stats will be from the players you drafted, the rest the result of trades or free agency. On average, about three-quarters of a typical fantasy baseball team’s final totals will be from the draft, the rest is up to in-season management.

Mr. Zola is dead on when he says winning the draft is irrelevant, it’s about winning the league. Once the draft is over, there’s a lot of work to be done. That said, if you bomb a draft (and we’ve all done it), there’s not much hope of winning. So you have to make your team make sense at the draft so you’re not swimming upstream all season.

Imagine a fantasy team as a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to fit with the next as it is being assembled or else the picture won’t be clear. Here are a few bits of advice that have helped me in the past.

Have a Plan A and a Plan B

Last week I wrote about choking away a mock draft I did that was hosted by Baseball Prospectus because lack of a clear backup plan. After things didn’t go the way I anticipated early, it fell apart later on.

Without a backup plan, you can lose a season at the draft so anticipate where the problems will be:

  • One draft strategy would be targeting five category outfielders early. They might not bring super-elite totals anywhere, but stability everywhere. However, if your draw happens to be the 14th pick in a 15-team draft and these types of guys are all targeted early, leaving productive infielders left on the board. What’s the comfort level of, say, Carlos Gomez and Yasiel Puig at 14 and 17? Five category outfielders, sure, but are those two guys who should be the core of a fantasy team? It doesn’t make sense to reach for lesser players to fill a predetermined plan if there are players like Robinson Cano or Prince Fielder on the board. At that point, the initial plan has changed and the team takes another direction. Not knowing where to go if the draft plan changes is an easy way to get nowhere. So have a plan, then have another one if that one gets blown up. If you plan to go power-heavy early, know where to go if your targets are off the board. If you plan to go pitching early (I wouldn’t, but hey), know where to go if the top aces are gone by the 10th pick.

Punting Categories and Best Player Available

There has been a lot written on punting categories and two good ones come from Howard Bender of FanGraphs: this one on how punting hurts your teams and this one on how to do it right. I’m of the mind that punting is a bad idea because, as Mr. Bender points out, it’s giving away points before the season even starts and there’s an opportunity cost attached that’s easy to overlook with regards to elite ratios.

Another problem with punting categories is that you’re eliminating players from the draft pool regardless of their skill level. Any fantasy draft is a hunt for value and eliminating players from the player pool diminishes the opportunities to find value. Punting saves would take guys like Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen off the draft board. If those guys fall to the sixth, seventh, eighth round of drafts, is continuing to pass up this value worth it, again, to draft lesser players to fit a predetermined plan?

As a rule of thumb, I draft no less than seven hitters in the first ten rounds in order to build the core of a team. But drafting the best player available is almost always the way to go (within reason, don’t draft five third basemen in your first 10 picks). Usually, those players just happen to be hitters for me. But if you’re punting categories, you’re eliminating players and if you eliminate players, by definition, you won’t necessarily be able to draft the best player available. Keeping better talent off your roster is an easy way to ensure a losing season.

Category Fillers

It’s well and good not punting categories, but knowing who can fill out categories is a must. Most drafts are at least 23 rounds deep and at a certain point, five-category players become four-category players, then three, then two. Those players who can only fill out a few categories – Chris Carter and Everth Cabrera come to mind – are less valuable overall but are valuable in filling out categories in which you’re deficient. Missing speed? Cabrera and Jonathan Villar are good places to start. Need power? Carter and Ryan Howard should be on the radar. Having a handy list of deeper picks that can fill different categories avoids wasting the latter part of the draft.

It doesn’t need to be an extensive list, but having five or six deep picks for batting average, stolen bases, and home runs will help round out your team. Fellow XN writer Josh Collacchi has started a series on sleepers by position (C, 1B, 2B, 3B).

Having a back-up plan, avoiding punting categories, and knowing the depth players for specific categories will help develop a picture for your team as the draft wears on. Having no direction, eliminating value opportunities from the player pool and wasting the back end of the draft will leave the jigsaw puzzle disassembled and the picture a mess.

Michael Clifford was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada and is a graduate of the Unviersity of New Brunswick. He writes about fantasy hockey and baseball for XNSports and FantasyTrade411.com. He can be reached on Twitter @SlimCliffy for any fantasy hockey questions.
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