Fantasy Strategy: Winning Without Picking First
By Larry Manch
What is your fantasy strategy if your team is low in the draft order? Are you one that gives up if your team picked last or you don’t have a good draft? How do you stay competitive throughout the season?
“I’m picking last. How can I have a good team?”
The fallacy in some fantasy players’ thinking is that if you don’t pick first or very early, you can’t have a good team. Being among the first teams to pick in the draft is an advantage, however the season does not end with the conclusion of the draft. Don’t be the owner that quits because you’re picking last – you still have as good a shot as anyone to win the championship.
You do not have to be a baseball expert to do well in fantasy baseball. You assemble a good team by doing basic homework prior to the draft, and you remain competitive by paying attention throughout the season.
“My wife will kill me if I play fantasy baseball again. She says I spend too much time on it.”
You don’t have to spend every waking moment agonizing over your team. A good fantasy strategy keeps the wife happy and your team competitive.
Spend some pre-draft time checking prior year’s stats and figure out which players are steady points men. It’s not only the mega-stars like Clayton Kershaw or Miguel Cabrera. Sometimes you find guys like Anthony Rendon, Michael Cuddyer, or Charlie Blackmon – men that aren’t as well known, but have become solid points men. These are the players that play every day and hit well enough to rack up points. They may not be spectacular, but they will help keep your team in games every week.
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Be wary of injury prone players. You have to decide: do I have a roster spot for Troy Tulowitzki when he gets hurt and is out for a month or more? It’s not a question of if Tulowitzki will spend time on the DL; it’s a question of how many times, and for how long. When Tulo plays, he is among baseball’s best hitters. Before you make him your first pick, you need to know that he has not played more than 150 games in a season since 2009. Yes, he hit .340 in 2014 with 21 home runs, however he only played 91 games.
It is also helpful to have a look at your league’s list of undroppable players before the draft. It’s not always easy to find, but it’s there somewhere – the list of players that you are not allowed to release. You could be stuck with a marquee player that suffers an injury serious enough to place him on the 60 day disabled list or longer. You need to decide if it’s worth the risk to draft players that you cannot drop if they get hurt and/or don’t produce as expected.
Look for unexpected gems, such as minor league prospects. A couple of years ago, I was home sick one day and watching MLB Network. Someone mentioned that the Dodgers were getting ready to call up their young phenom – an outfielder named Yasiel Puig. I had never heard of him, but the guys on MLB raved about him, so I picked him up for my team. Puig went on a tear, became a regular on the Dodgers, and contributed to my league championship that season. You never know when some young, untested player may suddenly become a valuable fantasy asset.
Once the season begins, all you really need to do is spend a few minutes each day checking what is happening around the leagues. Did one of your players get hurt? How long is he expected to be out? Can you afford to put him on the bench while he’s out and temporarily replace him, or do you need to drop him altogether? It depends on how much he contributes to your team and how long he’s going to be out of his real team’s lineup. If it’s only a minor injury, and he is a steady points contributor, then you probably want to keep him and find someone to play while your regular guy is out. Otherwise, drop him and pick up a long term replacement.
In any case, look for replacements that play regularly on their real team, and hopefully, guys that are hitting. Baseball players often go on hot (or cold) streaks at the plate. If you can catch someone while they’re hitting, you obviously boost your chances of winning. Whether you keep that player or not depends on what they do and how you play your hunches.
A perfect example is what happened last season with Charlie Blackmon. He was an unexpected star, including a 6-hit performance in early April, so I picked him up. He hit well for several weeks, but I was sure he would cool off. As a part time player in parts of three previous seasons, Charlie didn’t have much of a track record, so I dropped him after he went hitless in a short stretch. That turned out to be a major mistake on my part, as he went on to have a solid season, and it goes to show that fantasy baseball is a guessing game. I should have been more patient with Blackmon, but I felt he was finished, and I had to move on with someone else.
My hunch with Puig worked out well, but the opposite happened with Blackmon. It’s the way things work in real life sports and in fantasy sports.
Two-start pitchers are another part of fantasy strategy in most leagues. Juggling pitchers so you have a maximum number of guys capable of quality starts gives you opportunities to win. You have to know that a man that pitches twice in one week will only pitch once the following week. I tend to swap pitchers out to keep a maximum number of starts every week. Obviously, I’m not going to drop top starters like Kershaw or Felix Hernandez (they’re undroppable anyway), so those guys may pitch even with one start, or they may sit on the bench in favor of another good pitcher with two starts. My roster is always pitcher heavy, so I can juggle them around and start guys with two starts whenever possible.
Relief pitchers that will rack up saves will score a lot of points for you. On the other hand, don’t forget that sometimes, pitchers that qualify as starters and relievers both, can come in handy when they have two starts. Keep those guys in mind; they can help you, but it’s a trade off. A good closer may have three or four save opportunities in a week – or, if his team’s starters are pitching well, he may have zero save chances.
Designated hitters may be great in real baseball, but I steer clear of them in fantasy baseball. My feeling is there isn’t enough room on my roster for one-dimensional players. I need some flexibility to cover for injured players I don’t want to drop and for pitchers I will need next week for two starts.
Picking early in the draft does not guarantee a winning season. The team that wins is usually the team using the best fantasy strategy throughout the season, regardless of draft order or quality of the draft. You don’t have to spend hours every week during the season to keep your team competitive, but paying attention a few minutes each day ensures your team will be up to date.
The bottom line for fantasy sports is to have fun. Don’t let it rule your life, but don’t let the rest of the league down by giving up on your team, even if you’re in last place. Spend a little time each week to keep your lineup fresh and your team as competitive as possible (while still keeping your home life happy).
For more on Astros fantasy baseball, check out Eric Huysman’s excellent series of fantasy articles on Climbing Tal’s Hill.