Diamond digest: Keys to drafting a championship fantasy baseball squad

Greetings! To introduce myself briefly, I am an impassioned fantasy baseballer of approximately one decade who has won four of his past five leagues. I may not be fully qualified to write an advice column but I can’t possibly do a worse job than Jim Leyland did managing Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.

Most of my fantasy experience is in 10 or 12-team rotisserie leagues, and the majority of my commentary will be geared toward those formats, though much of what this column discusses will be widely applicable. With that, let’s get to this installment’s topic: Drafts!

The best way to increase your chances of winning with the draft is to tailor your draft strategy to your league settings. It’s important to remember that fantasy baseball is a game with rigid scoring criteria and your picks should reflect that. Spending time familiarizing yourself with your league settings is highly useful. For example, if your league counts wins and strikeouts and doesn’t limit pitching starts, you can add and drop free agents to fill those categories, a ploy known as streaming starters. In a one-catcher, 10-team league, why get a catcher before the final round? Russell Martin should be available and he’s more than adequate. None of the rest will make or break a team either.

The real world and fantasy values of players often diverge, and it’s crucial to draft with the latter rather than the former. Fantasy owners have a cognitive bias that favors players they know well, which will generally be MLB’s best marketed stars and their hometown heroes. If these biases are present in your league mates’ selection patterns, you can outdraft them. Buster Posey is one of the faces of baseball and one of the best catchers in the game. However, in the average ESPN draft he is being selected criminally high at 46.1. He hit below .300 and had 14 home runs last year and those stats are available much later in the draft.

Mock drafts are valuable ways to develop an outline for your draft strategy and to see how other owners will behave on draft day. I usually like to know exactly what I’m looking for with my first three to five picks, as these prominent stars will sculpt how the later rounds should be managed as well.

Shooting for upside, or non-guaranteed potential, in the first few rounds brings unnecessary risk. There are many proven, consistent high producers in these rounds. Missing out on a high-upside player won’t cost you your league in the early rounds as long as you get some reliable production. Trea Turner is the 18th player taken in a typical ESPN league which is much too early. Sure, his ceiling is astronomical, but there is no guarantee he puts up last year’s numbers. His walk rate is too low for a second round pick and he had little power in the minors. If you really want steals from well-rounded players, why not wait for Starling Marte 11 picks later or Jonathan Villar 18 picks later?

The late rounds, particularly in shallower leagues, are the time to reach for upside. These are low-risk picks that are easily replaceable if they don’t pan out. If Joc Pederson has a 30-30 season, that could win you your league. On the flip side, if Trea Turner hits .260 with no power and you take him over Edwin Encarnacion in the second round, you could be screwed.

With regard to hurlers, there are lots of big, high-strikeout arms available late. Additionally, every year there will be a surprise stud like 2015 Jake Arrieta or 2016 Danny Duffy. Invest in a couple of these guys near the end of your draft.

Finally, become acquainted with the injury status of at least the top 100 or so players. Drafting a guy you mistook for being healthy could sink your chances, but using a DL slot on a star returning mid-season could be a value pick later in the draft. Those who drafted Yu Darvish in 2016 know this. Make a plan, stick to it and last but not least: never drink and draft.

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