Keys to Fantasy Baseball Draft Success

Want to win your fantasy baseball league? Whether you are in a roto or head to head league, most leagues are largely won or lost during the opening draft. You definitely do need to work the waiver wire and swing trades during the season, but without establishing prime value with your drafted roster it's very hard to recover and build a winning team after a poor draft with post-draft moves. It's possible but difficult in a league with 12 or fewer teams, but virtually impossible in a league with 14-20 teams, since the waiver wire talent is so thin post-draft.

You don't need to do weeks of research or build massive spreadsheets to win your draft, but there are many things you can do before and during the draft to maximize your chances at setting the table for a top finish or playoff run. Below is an exhaustive list of tips to help you rock your draft and, in turn, your league. They apply for both roto and head to head leagues.

SHOW UP ON DRAFT DAY

Needless to say, if you're doing a live draft absolutely make sure you are available to participate live. Auto-drafted teams will always leave you with several holes on your roster along with a glut of players at a position that do you no good. Plus trades to your benefit often don't pan out as you'd like. Make sure you're in full control of the composition of your starting roster.

GREAT TEAMS PLAY 9 INNINGS, AND GREAT FANTASY OWNERS SHOW UP FOR EVERY ROUND

The key to drafting a great team is not who you get at the top but who you draft after the first 3-4 rounds, how your last 15-20 picks suitably complement each other (I like to brag that my best teams are built in rounds 18-23). A lot of managers mistakenly take a throw-away attitude towards the final few rounds, maybe even leaving them to auto-draft.

Key players will get hurt and there will be many days where you can't use your stud but still need someone to slot in that day from the bench, so those guys you draft at the end are going to be those guys you have to play when your studs can't go.

Be the dork that's still paying attention in round 20 and swiping a sneaky-good sleeper to fill out that bench. Don't leave the draft until you have personally made your final pick.

AND TO MAKE SURE YOU CAN DO THAT, BUILD A TOTAL DRAFT BOARD

Make sure you prepare a fantasy draft board that allows you to make an informed pick up to the final round, and build you a quality bench with players you can count on.

Consult at least one projection system before your draft, and perhaps download the data to an Excel or OpenOffice spreadsheet if you can. I recommend Steamer, which is freely offered by Fangraphs. Popular systems include ZIPS and Oliver, but they are often erratic in various ways with how accurately they project performance. Steamer may not be the most accurate in any one category, but they tend to be fairly accurate across the board and tend to be more consistent year after year.

THE GUYS THAT WILL WIN YOUR LEAGUE FALL INTO TWO CATEGORIES

Focus on drafting two types of players: 1) Players projected to do above average in multiple categories overall, and 2) positions of scarcity (spots where there tend to be few quality players to go around, e.g. closers, shortstops, catchers). Try to figure out the top guys at positions of scarcity and where they might get drafted.

Your best fantasy bets will often not be spectacular hitters, but solid hitters who produce well in multiple categories. Guys like Ben Zobrist aren't blowaway stars but they are above average in runs, HR, RBI and stolen bases, and bolster your team's relative value at most of all of the five hitting categories.

An easy way to track the guys who do well across all positions is to sort your projection list for each position and list the top 20 guys for each league stat. If you see guys show up more than twice, those are guys you want to get.

We'll get more into positions of scarcity later, but if you get good players at these hard to fill positions, you'll get more productivity out of these spots than other fantasy teams scrambling to find anyone of use to play those spots, giving you the in-season edge.

KNOW WHERE GUYS ARE EXPECTED TO GET DRAFTED

Any league interface that provides overall player ratings gives you an easy way to determine where a player might get drafted. Take that ranking and divide by the number of teams in your league. Add 1, and that's roughly the round where that player is likely to get picked. Use this as a guide to figure out where to draft key players you want.

For example, a guy rated 60th overall will probably go by the 6th round of a 12 team league's draft (60 players divided by 12 picks per round = 5. 5+1 = 6 rounds). So if you're in a 12 team league and you want that player, you should probably draft him by the 4th or 5th round.

KNOW WHO IS ACTUALLY GOING TO GET PLAYING TIME

Also consult depth chart projections (e.g. Fangraphs or MLB Depth Charts). Know who is injured or not assured of making the team. Avoid wasting a pick on marginal players. Focus on guys you know are absolutely sure of playing.

... BUT GUYS WHO ARE HURT COULD HELP YOU (THE GOOD BUT INJURED PLAYER EXCEPTION)

If a good player is injured + will start the season on the DL but will likely return early in the season, if your league gives you a disabled list spot, and if you know you can pick up a suitable replacement for that position on the waiver wire... it's okay to draft the player, put him on the DL and pick up a replacement off the waiver wire to fill out the bench. You can then drop the weak link when the injured player returns.

That said, make sure you do this for players who will return earlier in the season rather than later. If he's going to miss the first month of the season, he might be worth a flyer if you project he'll kick ass once he's back. If he's out until the summer, forget it. It's mostly a waste if the player misses half the season or more since you won't get much out of him (if anything at all), plus he's taking up a valuable DL spot you may need if one of your other players get injured.

CLOSERS, CATCHERS AND SHORTSTOPS ARE HARD TO COME BY. DRAFT THEM SOONER RATHER THAN LATER.

During the draft, absolutely make sure to grab a quality player at a positions of scarcity so that they will not be an issue for you. Typical scarcity positions are catcher, shortstop and closer.

Closers are especially important in that they are the only players that help your Saves category. Getting two is a very good idea, and if you have to burn early/mid round picks to reach and get two closers then do so. The number of catchers who are more of an aid than a drain on your numbers is in the single digits, so you'll want to grab one before you're left picking between so-so hitting catchers like Kurt Suzuki and A.J. Ellis.

Know when these scarce guys tend to go and snag one before then. Top closer Craig Kimbrel often goes as early as the 3rd round in many 12 team leagues, and most closers will disappear between rounds 5-8. It's a very good idea to lock up one or both your RP slots before the draft reaches this point.

For catchers, using a 2nd-4th round pick on a good one like Buster Posey or Joe Mauer is not a bad idea. You'll also want to pick up a 2nd quality catcher like Alex Avila or Salvador Perez for your bench, which not only helps you when you can't play the top guy, but leaves one fewer quality catcher available for the rest of the league.

Ditto shortstops. You'll probably want to get a decent one in the first five rounds, and hope you can lock up a 2nd one for your bench before the middle rounds.

THE ONLY TWO STATS YOU SHOULD MAKE A POINT TO DRAFT FOR: SAVES AND STOLEN BASES

Akin to the need to get closers, the two stats where productive players are hardest to find are saves and stolen bases. Any pitcher can produce solid ERA/WHIP or sneak a win here and there, and any regular hitter can help your AVG when deployed well. The league is full of run and RBI producers. Guys who can hit double digit HR or rack up strikeouts are all over a 12 team league's waiver wire. But there aren't many regular base stealers (many teams don't run much, and those who do usually leave it to one leadoff guy), and every team has no more than one regular closer racking up saves.

You make sure to get a closer or two because they are specialists who help your saves category. Likewise, try to get one or two stolen base specialists, guys who may be mostly poor in the other hitting categories but are terrific base stealers. At the least, try to get some solid hitters who are also projected to steal 10-20 bases and give you some productivity there.

That said, often SB specialists score more runs than average, and hit for a higher average than others (which is a big reason they bat leadoff)... so they can also at least help those key aspects.

TWO POSITIONS YOU CAN WAIT ON TO DRAFT

Two positions that often have a glut of quality players are outfield and starting pitcher. Tend to wait until the middle rounds to fill these spots, while using your top picks to get quality players at more scarce positions.

Obvious exception: You have one of the top 5 picks and an absolute star hitter like Mike Trout is available. Obviously, don't let this be an excuse not to get the star hitter.

STAR PITCHERS ARE OVERRATED. DON'T BURN YOUR FIRST OR SECOND PICK ON ONE.

Star pitchers are vastly overrated relative to other available quality pitchers in mid/late rounds. They often don't offer more than 2-3 extra strikeouts in a week or a little boost in wins, ERA and WHIP, plus pitchers frequently get hurt (losing a 1st round pick to Tommy John Surgery is a massive blow to your team's value).

Let someone else burn their 1st or 2nd rounder on Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez. The middle tier pitchers won't give you much less than the top tier pitchers (some might even produce better than some of the marquee names), but there are much larger differences between top tier, middle tier and bottom tier hitters at each position. Use your early picks to fill those hitting needs first.

IN FACT, DRAFT ALL YOUR NEEDED HITTERS BEFORE THE FINAL FEW ROUNDS

The one position worth saving for the final rounds, no matter how big or small your league: Starting pitcher. The selection of players at any other position will usually be reduced to part timers, bench players and other non-contributors. But there will always be a wide selection of pitchers expected to work every five days left in the final draft rounds, even in a deep 20 team league. Try to fill out everything else before the final 2-3 rounds, and use those final picks to round out your pitching staff. In fact, those later rounds are often full of sleepers, mid/back rotation arms who get elevated due to injuries and struggles ahead of them, last all season and end up being one of the most unexpectedly productive players in the season.

"I CAN'T DECIDE WHO TO PICK BETWEEN TWO PLAYERS! HELP!"

If in doubt between picking two hitters at the same position during the draft, get the hitter who's projected to hit more home runs. Duh, right? ONLY do this if in doubt, however. Anyone who scours projections and past performances will find that the top hitters aren't necessarily the top HR hitters (Miguel Cabrera aside). Many HR hitters tend to be inconsistent hitters and can hurt you in other categories like AVG and runs. The best overall hitters for your team will often have decent but unspectacular HR projections (15-20 HR). They'll more than make up for it by collectively bolstering your other categories.

"OKAY, BUT WHAT ABOUT IF I CAN'T DECIDE BETWEEN TWO PITCHERS?"

Along with waiting until later to draft pitchers, generally lean more towards starting pitchers who walk few batters than towards high strikeout pitchers. Walks are what lead to ERA-bloating runs, plus fewer walks means less of a hit to your WHIP. High strikeout guys may help your K totals a bit more, but many fireballers also have control problems that bloat their ERA/WHIP due to walks and home runs.

"OKAY, I SEE SEVERAL OF THESE GUYS AND I CAN'T DECIDE AMONG THEM. WHO IS MOST LIKELY TO DO THE BEST JOB?"

More pitching draft advice for the later rounds: Lean towards 1) Back of rotation guys on good teams, since they will have a better chance of getting wins and padding that stat for you. Also look for 2) guys who play home games in pitchers parks (e.g. Oakland, San Diego, LA Dodgers, Seattle, Minnesota). These pitchers may not post big strikeout numbers or tons of wins (note the majority of those teams aren't good), but their WHIP and ERA will typically be lower thanks to the difficult offensive environments.

GUYS WHO CAN PLAY MULTIPLE SLOTS ARE VALUABLE BENCH GUYS

Make sure you have at least two hitters that can slot at multiple infield positions (or OF guys who also slot at other positions). Many weeks will feature one or two days where many teams are off, and it helps to have guys who can slot at many different positions rather than one so you can be assured that everyone available can play those days and help pad your stats. Multi position players are also helpful when you want to take advantage of certain matchups: They make your roster more adjustable and decreases the likelihood that you'll be blocked from playing someone that can help you on a given day since his position is already filled by another productive regular.

OKAY, IF I DO ALL OF THIS I'LL WIN MY LEAGUE OR MY MONEY BACK, RIGHT?

Right! Good thing you didn't pay anything to read this, right? ;)

Seriously though, I admit I can't make any promises, especially since a lot happens once your league begins play. But if you follow the above principles, chances are pretty good you're going to be one of your league's championship contenders. You will have a deep and productive team built by a thoughtful draft with no wasted picks. You will have far fewer problems running your team during the season, as other owners scramble to improve their roster, stream pitchers to pad their pitching stats, or get guys in the lineup. Do the work early, and it'll save you work later.


Good luck!

© 2014 Steven Gomez

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