By Eno Sarris
Though it used to be played by a select few uber-nerds tracking stats from the box scores in their local papers in the late seventies, today's fantasy baseball is digital and ubiquitous, at least among MLB fans. And yet those hard-core nerds persevere -- I should know, I'm one of them -- and now clutter the url-waves with their research on expected home run per fly ball rates and in-depth coverage of great backup catchers that might become relevant in your deep dynasty league with a two-catcher setup.
If you are in one of those leagues, you may not need this piece. But every year, I am asked for a boiled down how-to, a strategy guide that doesn't take hours to read or a degree in economics to understand. This is that guide.
Plumb the Depths
There are different levels of preparation. While I might know almost every player on every 40-man roster, you don't need to know that for your family-and-friends ten-team mixed league. At the same time, fantasy baseball is about value, and finding undervalued players. The easiest way to find those guys is to read the depth charts and look for situations where a veteran is on his way out, a rookie is on his way in, or both.
A quick-and-dirty rundown of some interesting playing time battles might produce such sleepers as Adam Eaton, a rookie center fielder in Arizona who could steal you thirty-plus and is the best defensive center fielder in a crowded D-Backs outfield. With veteran Josh Hamilton gone, center field in Texas might produce a cheap fantasy player with a modicum of power and speed if Leonys Martin wins the job. If the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez ends up at third like his glove has been demanding for years, Dee Gordon and his impossible mix of frailty and speed could be a sleeper at short, always a difficult position.
For leagues of a certain depth, you might be interested in the left field situations in both Baltimore and Detroit: should Andy Dirks or Nolan Reimold win those jobs outright, they would both be great bench pieces to own this season. And a little deeper, you have the first base and designated hitter spots in Houston -- Chris Carter (if he beats out Carlos Pena or Brett Wallace) has the most upside there, even if his strikeouts will keep his batting average down.
At the very least, scan some projections done by the respected forecasters in the field. They won't hit on every player, of course, and there's room for your intuition to get involved, but they will give you a sense of what the data says is in store. They are right more than they are wrong.
My favorite projections are those from Steamer at FanGraphs -- those oft-updated numbers include velocity data, and use fan projections for their innings pitched and plate appearance data where possible -- and there are even associated auction values that can give you an idea of where these players should be ranked. But maybe you like ZiPs, whose sobriety might rein in your enthusiasm a bit. Or projections by the OLIVER system or Bill James, because they can be exuberant about rookies.
Root Out the Rooks
This isn't to say that you should avoid rookies entirely. It's just to that they're a bad bet for playing time, and opportunity comes before production in all cases. Chris Cwik had an excellent breakdown of the performance of top prospects as rookies in this year's FanGraphs+, but since it's a premium product that costs all of five bucks, let's just sum it up as such: draft a rookie if you are very very sure of their playing time… and if he's cheap.
But that's not all. Maybe more important, especially if you are a casual baseball fan or even a rabid-but-local fan, is to look at last year's rookies. They've put some adjustments behind them, and are often in a position to improve in their sophomore season. Call them post-hype sleepers.
Here are leaderboards of last year's rookie hitters and freshman pitchers for the sake of thoroughness. Obviously you know who Mike Trout and Yu Darvish are. But interesting rookies from last year that will probably be in bigger roles this year include Todd Frazier, the Reds third baseman that could hit .280 with 20+ home runs; Andrelton Simmons, the shortstop in Atlanta now likely to hit atop the order with .285+ upside with some power and speed; and Josh Rutledge, a hacker with power and speed who's the probable starter in Colorado at second base. Speaking of questionable plate discipline, there's also Starling Marte in Pittsburgh, but you might want to check all of his projections before diving in too deep.
Sleeper sophomore starters include Matt Moore, whose minor league record suggests that he can find the strike zone this year; Jarrod Parker, the Athletic with the filthy changeup; Shelby Miller, the Cardinals' likely fifth starter and top prospect with the big fastball and multiple weapons; and Matt Harvey, who blew batters away for the Mets last year, and has the big fastball, curve and slider to continue to be successful in the face of iffy control. Last year's rookie relievers who you should pay attention to this season include closers Tom Wilhelmsen and Addison Reed, who may be undervalued and have the skills to be elite.
Postpone Picking Pitchers
Okay, they barely get hurt more often (50.5%), but it's clear that they stay hurt longer once they do. Added to this injury-driven risk is a quirk that's less talked about: there are at least six positions you have to fill when it comes to batters. At the most, you have to fill two positions on your pitching staff -- starter and reliever. That just means that, at any time in your draft, your pool of possible picks will always be larger among the pitchers than the hitters at any given position.
There's a lot of debate about what exactly this means, and I personally have had different mantras over the course of my fantasy career. At one point, I didn't pick a starter until the tenth round, and I won many leagues that way. I invested 25% of my auction budget on pitchers in a mock draft recently and came away with Zack Greinke and Jordan Zimmermann atop my staff. These days, I start looking for a starter around the third round, and try to have two pitchers by the tenth. Quantity, at least in each tier of quality, seems to be the way to go. If you get two lesser aces, you don't put all of your eggs in the Justin Verlander basket. That said, if Stephen Strasburg falls to you in the third -- he did in one of my industry drafts -- you might as well go for it. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far. At that point, you already have two stud hitters in the fold and can afford some risk. Just remember to wait as long as you can, and you'll probably do fine.
Calmly Collect Closers
A corollary to "Postpone Picking Pitchers" is "Calmly Collect Closers," if only to annoy with alliteration. There are some closers who are so elite -- Craig Kimbrel for one -- that they offer value on par with your #2 and #3 starting pitchers. Kimbrel strikes out so many batters that he can actually turn your #3 starter into a #2. But that doesn't change the fact that more than a third of opening day closers lose their job due to performance or injury by the end of the season. That doesn't sound like it's worth top dollar.
The asterisk here is that closers are the only players on the field that can net you saves. Relievers get wins, but starters don't get saves. So it's a necessary evil -- unless it's head-to-head, punting the category puts you so far behind the eight ball that it's probably not a great strategy -- and you need to buy your closers. Do the same thing you do with starters. Be calm. Don't rush into a closer because there's a run on. Try to get the last closer in a tier. And do the quantity thing! Four closers in a twelve-team league means you're starving someone of their third closer. And you're set up for the inevitable attrition.
Consider, But Don't Fear, Position Scarcity
You have to get a shortstop. Shortstops hit .256/.310/.375 last year. You have to get a first baseman. First basemen hit .257/.330/.436 last year.
It would be folly to take Jose Reyes in the first round just because you're freaked out about position scarcity, but -- even if his stats will look kind of terrible next to Billy Butler's -- it's probably worth taking him in the second round. So that you don't end up with Ruben Tejada.
Also consider that 12-team leagues aren't that deep, and the 12th-best player at any position is still pretty decent. The twelfth-best shortstop this year is probably Derek Jeter or Erick Aybar, who are decent enough at hitting that you might want to fill all your other positions and just fake it at short. At second base, you might be a little more nervous heading into the season with Howie Kendrick or Omar Infante, though.
So: think about positions. Identify players at each position that you like. Don't get caught starting Omar Infante at second base in your twelve-team league.
Rein In Your Enthusiasm
You might get invites from every baseball fan you know this spring. Before you agree to all of them, consider how much my wife hates me for having 12-15 leagues annually. That many leagues, especially if they're all daily lineups, means you have to spend over an hour every day just servicing your teams -- taking injured players out, making sure starters are starting and all that. Have your wedding to attend? Spend three or four hours the week before trying to set all your lineups, don't -- as I did -- try to sneak away on the day of to make sure your lineups are fine.
Point is, fantasy is great, but you can take it too far. If you do end up joining more than five or six leagues, it might make sense to start thinking about the formats. Make sure a couple of them are weekly leagues, meaning you only have to set the lineup once. Make sure one or two of them are keeper leagues -- they usually have a different pace in terms of trades and competition, as you have to keep an eye on the future at all times. Or! Just don't join 15 leagues. Use me as a cautionary tale.
Remember that the game is supposed to be fun. It is for me now, over a decade after my first league, even as it has become my day job.
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Eno Sarris moved a lot as a kid. His love of baseball, then baseball cards, and finally fantasy baseball helped him make friends at each new stop, which is good because his personality is repugnant. He now manages the fantasy blog for FanGraphs, and his other writings can mostly be found on ESPN,SBN, The Score, and RotoWorld -- or in one place @enosarris.