April will be here before you know it, and I'm sure you've personally studied projections up and down. You've looked at ADPs. You think you know where the inefficiencies are: where guys are being drafted too early, and the bargains you're planning to pick up later on. But drafting is a HUGE part of your success, and it's a completely different skill from your research and player evaluation. The trouble is, you probably don't get to do it enough to really improve.
For me, fantasy baseball became a major gaming outlet after online poker went away. In Poker, you can play millions of hands in a year (I once played 500,000 hands in a little over a year). You get TONS of reps. There are so many opportunities to make mistakes and learn. In the same way that you can know ADPs of certain players, I can go in knowing the odds for certain hands. But it's adapting to the situation and adjusting your strategy based on the information available that separates good players from bad ones. That's a skill you can only develop with experience.
So think about your own experience with drafting fantasy baseball. Even if you're playing a few leagues per year, how many lifetime reps can you possibly have? I bet it's well under 100. I personally only play in one league a year, and playing since 2005 (skipping last year for new daddyhood) means I've only drafted a fantasy baseball team eight times in my life. That's a painfully small amount of experience, stretched over nearly a decade, within which to analyze mistakes and learn from them.
Unfortunately, mock drafts are only so effective when it comes to getting into the flow of draft day: people are trying new things, they're distracted, and with nothing on the line, no one is playing up to their best. It's better than nothing, but it's certainly far from ideal.
So how do we improve our draft strategies? Draft reports. If you can get an honest walkthrough of another draft, then you CAN essentially get more reps. Any bad pick you make reverberates down through the rest of your choices, and each can mean the difference between dominating at the end of the year, or crapping out. I'm hoping that a thorough review of my draft this year will inspire others to do the same, and as a community we can learn from each other's experiences.
I've been playing at Al O'Harra's Fantasy Sports 'R Us Keeper Leagues for the last five years, and I ighly recommend them. The money involved brings in good players, and the payouts keep people active for the whole season. The format looks like this:
Standard 5x5 Roto; keep 12 players at end of year; each league lasts five years.
Offense: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, MI, CI, 5 OF, U
Pitching: Nine pitchers
Bench: Five Players
This year, I played in an extended draft, where we each had six hours to make a pick (and the clock turned off at night). The draft lasted about a week, giving us more time to research and analyze. I definitely prefer this format, and I hope that it becomes more popular with time.
Also note this draft took place just before the start of Spring Training.
My Strategy Going In
Get power early. Power from good sources can be hard come by in later rounds, so my goal was to make sure I got plenty of it in the early rounds. Ideally, the power comes with a five- or four-category player.
Snag at least one reliable "ace" starter, and follow up picking a second-tier pitcher with excellent potential to be an ace (Wainwright, Darvish, Scherzer). I will explain later why this was a poor idea; the short version is, pitchers like the three I mentioned are going much earlier than expected.
Ignore position scarcity, obtain value. I was looking to get the best player possible in every round, rather than trying to get an edge with a better 2B or SS. For example, this means I'm not taking Buster Posey at all, or Troy Tulowitzki (or Dustin Pedroia, or Ian Kinsler, etc). I'm also the kind of player who is very comfortable trading to fill needs during the season, so if I'm coming up short in one area, I feel confident I can fix that-- and if you're looking to trade, you want to make sure your team has strong overall assets to deal from.
Granted, it's not a set-in-stone rule: some players like Cano and Reyes provide value that would be excellent from any position on the field, and they provide you strength when you slot them in at middle infield. But overall, I went in looking to get the best assets available in every round, and trying not to stress "I need to fill position X now!" Sadly, I don't think I followed this quite as well as I had hoped.
Go with the flow of the draft. Based on ADPs, my general strategy was to take power, then pitching, then the best value I could find based on what was available, then speed and middle infielders. This is based on what the draft gives you as it progresses, and how you can build around your needs based on that.
For the sake of making this an easier read, I'm listing only the relevant players taken after each pick to provide context. If you know general ADPs, you should be able to fill in the gaps for the picks that I've not explicitly mentioned.
Relevant players picked earlier: Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen
Going into the draft, I expected Stanton would be my pick here. I want power early, and leading the National League in slugging at age 22 is crazy value with potential for an even higher ceiling. Being in a keeper league, I doubt you can place a better bet on consistent home runs for the next few years. I may have considered taking Harper over Stanton (I think .275/30/20 is a perfectly reasonable projection for this year), but probably not McCutchen whose high BABIP gives me some concern when it comes to the anchor for my team. With both those guys off the board by my pick #7, the decision was much easier.
Two points of consideration are worthy of mention here: First, the main knock on Stanton this year is the lineup that'll be around him. It's bad, but it's not Houston Astros bad. Their projected lineup has two veteran guys in Pierre and Polanco who can get on base at around a .330 clip, and Major-League capable (or close to it) players hitting behind Stanton in Morrison and Ruggiano. With a Spring Training roster featuring Chone Figgins, Chris Coglan, Casey Kotchman and Kevin Kouzmanoff fighting for jobs, there are enough guys on the roster right now who have had Major League experience that I'd imagine a few of them will stick. Don't get me wrong: the Marlins offense is still horrid in the real world, and they will come in last place in the NL East. But Stanton isn't going out there with total automatic outs around him, and I think he'll have enough support to do his thing. Another particularly fun fact on this subject: last year with no men on base, Stanton hit .316/.354/.704 with 26 HR.
A second point of consideration: Robinson Cano is the other player I considered taking here, and I wouldn't fault someone for going that route. With .300/30-HR production, you're getting close to elite 1B production out of your 2B spot. But I decided to go with Stanton because what he offers is unique and valuable: easy potential to lead the league in HR without killing your BA like Adam Dunn or Mark Reynolds. I also feel that outfield is relatively thin this year with so many platoon situations, and I know I can get a 2B that I'm perfectly happy with later on in the draft . There is no way I find any other player in baseball who provides what Stanton brings to the table, period.
Relevant players taken after: Robinson Cano, Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Jose Reyes, Justin Verlander
Pujols, Votto and Fielder are considered the top three 1B this year, with a reasonable dropoff soon after. Out of those three, I went into the draft liking Fielder the most for two reasons: his power is consistent, and you can rely on him to play every day.
If this is real baseball, I easily prefer Votto thanks to his OBP. But I don't feel confident he will bring the kind of power I'm looking for this early in the draft. Pujols has been trending downward the last three seasons, and while he's still fantastic, at his age it's not a risk I want to take (especially in a keeper league). With Fielder, I know what I'm getting: a basement of 30-HR production, with something closer to 40 certainly not out of the question in his second year hitting in the American League. If I were picking somewhere around #10 in the first round and Stanton was gone, Fielder probably would have been my first-round pick.
The other player I considered taking here was Carlos Gonzales. Personally, I feel he's a bit overdrafted, and I'd be surprised if he's in the first round on ADPs next year. His ceiling is high 20s in HR and SB, but I think that's about as good as it's going to get. Given that he gets injured every year, it's not a risk I want to take this early-- the reward just doesn't match what might happen if he goes on the DL for a longer stretch. If want to go that route and gamble risk for reward, it's probably better to take Hamilton instead where at least for your risk you're looking at a potential 40-HR season with a BA around .300 that'll carry you to a championship.
Relevant players taken after: Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez, David Price, Cole Hamels, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman.
Worth noting: five starting pitchers already off the board through two rounds: Kershaw, Strasburg, Verlander, Price and Hamels.
I would have loved to take a Jose Reyes, Jason Heyward or Yoenis Cespedes in this spot, and get a guy who could contribute in four or five categories. With those options off the table, I'm not comfortable taking Adam Jones here, though I did give it a lot of thought. He's certainly not going to hurt your team by any means, but I expect the stolen bases will decline as he gets older, and his first 30-HR season was last year. There's a general feeling in the fantasy community that Jones may have peaked at this point at age 27, and that feels about right to me: I don't see him suddenly busting out high-30 HRs, or hitting .300.
Then, you've got Jay Bruce. A guy who has reliable power that has shown steady growth since age 21, and hit 34 HR last year at age 25. Being in a keeper league makes that youth a lot more appealing too. I like that he has a very realistic 40-HR ceiling, and plays in a strong lineup in an excellent hitters' park where RBI opportunities will be plentiful. Given that I missed out on a quality five-category squad at this point, my strategy shifted to cleaning up on heavy power with these first three picks, knowing I can pick up stolen bases much later.
It's worth mentioning that Josh Hamilton was still available here, but he's the kind of player I'm going to avoid. Between the injury risk, his hacking approach at the plate and switching out of Arlington, there's enough concern. I want steady production this early in the draft, and I feel I get that with Bruce. There's a chance Hamilton puts up MVP numbers, but there's also a chance he's hurt for a significant portion of the season, or starts to decline. I know what I'm getting with Bruce, and while the ceiling may not be as high as Hamilton's, I'm a lot more comfortable with the floor.
King Felix was still on the board at this point too, but my strategy coming in was to look for pitchers in Rounds 4, 5 or 6. In retrospect, seeing how quickly good pitching went off the board, Felix may have been the right pick, at least in a non-keeper draft. Still, starting my team with three guys who have excellent power and upside (two under age 26) makes me feel pretty good about starting to branch out into other areas.
Relevant players taken after: Josh Hamilton, Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez, Billy Butler, Adam Jones, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke, Adam Wainright, Craig Kimbrel.
The bad news this round was that a whole bunch of pitchers I would have been happy to take here were all gone. The great news was that Adrian Beltre managed to fall into my lap. Thanks to his consistent .300/30 seasons, he's widely considered the best 3B option after Cabrera this year, and I've even see him go in the first round of a few expert drafts. With third base being so thin this year, I was extremely happy to pick him up so late. Besides, Yu Darvish is the first pitcher I went in wanting to grab in Round 5, and Madison Bumgarner is still out there too. Plenty of pitching left!
Relevant players taken after: Yu Darvish, Madison Bumgarner, Curtis Granderson, Jose Altuve, Allan Craig.
So much for that idea.
Maybe it's because I was in a draft with serious players, but either way, I think the cat is out of the bag with guys like Darvish, Bumgarner and Altuve (who I didn't expect to go this early, but it's somewhat understandable). I know that I need a pitcher now before the rest of the good ones go, and Sabathia is left as the best guy who is most likely to perform as an ace. He's an older pitcher, but the next best option for keeper reasons would be Scherzer or Gio Gonzalez. I would like to win this year, and as much as I like Scherzer (and think Gio is a good pick), Sabathia is more reliable and has done it before.
Relevant players taken after: Ian Desmond, Chris Sale, Jason Kipnis, Max Scherzer, BJ Upton, Kris Medlen, Gio Gonzalez
Top-tier pitching is leaving fast, and Dickey is just about the last guy with a good chance to throw 200 quality innings with 200 K and a good WHIP/ERA to go with it. Also on the older side, but this is an easy pick for me. With two aces locked up (granted, older ones), I can now go about filling out the rest of my team, and revisit starters a few rounds later depending on who's available.
At this point in the draft, I feel pretty good: I've got tons of power, and two pitchers capable of producing at a fantasy ace level. Things are going according to plan.
Relevant players taken after: Ben Zobrist, Johnny Cueto, Yovanni Gallardo, Mat Latos, Roy Halladay, Elvis Andrus
Check back the next couple of days for Parts 2 and 3 to see where the draft goes from here...