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September 30, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Interview with Tout Wars NL Champ Steve Gardner

by Jason Collette

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At the end of every season, something I have always found helpful is to talk to the people who won their leagues to see how it all came together for them. Over the next couple of weeks, I will interview each of the three winners from Tout Wars to see what their secrets for success were in hopes that you can apply some of that wisdom to your own pursuit of 2012 fantasy success. The first interview was with USA Today’s Steve Gardner, who won the NL-only league by 8.5 points.

BP: In your latest article in your USA Today column, you mention the Core Four Strategy that you have been working on for the last year. Lay out that plan for our readers here who may not be familiar with your work?
The Core Four strategy is something that was developed in the wake of last year's AL LABR race. I ended up winning the league and leading in several categories, including batting average, runs, and RBI. What stood out to me even more was that I also had significantly more hits than any other team. I think we've all known—either consciously or subconsciously—that the categories, especially in hitting, are interdependent, so if your player hits a home run, it also helps you in average, runs scored, and RBI. But in the standard roto format, hits seemed to be an undervalued currency. No one really looks at them that closely, but they're obviously the key to winning batting average and a gateway to the opportunity to steal bases and score runs.

The Core Four Strategy just helped me simplify what I felt made up a successful team and broke it down into four "core" stats: hits, home runs, stolen bases and for pitchers, strikeouts (or strikeout rate). Get a solid base in those areas and because of the overlap in the 5x5 categories, the players' skill sets should give you a decent amount of coverage across the board. The one area it didn't work so well is in wins, but that's a crapshoot anyway.

This season in Tout Wars was the first time I really made it a point to put Core Four to the test on draft day. As a result, I targeted Matt Kemp, Mike Stanton, and Ryan Zimmerman as cornerstones on offense because of their high rankings in those core categories (Adam LaRoche was too, but we know how that worked out).

BP: You dominated the offensive side of the league in a manner I don’t recall seeing in the NL Tout Wars league, finishing with 63 out of 65 possible points. Having both Matt Kemp and Mike Stanton certainly helped, but how crucial was a $14 Mike Morse to the success of your offense?
No question Mike Morse was a major part of my success this season. He was another guy I circled before the draft. I got a chance to see him in person late last season and every time up, it seemed like he hit the ball hard somewhere. He had a great September, and I thought he had a great opportunity for regular playing time in 2011. After getting him for what I felt was a bargain at $10 in the NL LABR draft a couple weeks earlier, I thought I'd be able to get him for around that in Tout. The bidding went a little higher, but being late in the draft and with options dwindling for that outfield slot, I went to $14.

Needless to say, I didn't expect 31 homers and 95 RBI, especially after he struggled early in the season. But if he doesn't start hitting as well as he did after that, I don't know if my team would have had enough offense to go all the way.

BP: I see a 70/30 split as your end result from your draft. Was that split part of your pre-draft plan? Do you believe in having a hard framework for that part of your draft plan at the auction table, or should owners be willing to be flexible as the dynamics of an auction play out?
I think it's extremely helpful to have a plan going in. My plan usually starts with a 70/30 split, and I like to break it down even further into expected dollar amounts for each group of players: $50 for starting 1B/3B, $63 for three OF, $50 for three top starters, etc. With that said, you have to be able to react to the dynamics of the draft room. If there's a run at a position or if there's an excellent bargain out there, you have to be able to react first and adjust your budget to accommodate it. But I've also learned from experience that you have to be aware of the repercussions of diverting from your original plan. If you add money in one area, you have to take it away from somewhere else. If not, you end up being a spectator in the end game, which is where having a few extra dollars can mean the difference between solid contributors and zeros for those final roster spots.

BP: You hedged your bets with your Heath Bell investment by acquiring both Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson at the draft for $3 each. In fact, you made no other primary closer purchases on draft day. How strongly do you believe in protecting your top closer investments?
The Bell-Adams-Gregerson trio was something that developed on the fly. First of all, I believe in skills, and all three of them have excellent skill sets. I actually budgeted for two mid-range closers and wasn't really considering Bell. But when Carlos Marmol and Brian Wilson went for around $20 and the bidding on Bell stopped in that range, I jumped in. With my closer budget nearly gone, I went an extra dollar to get Adams to back up Bell. With Bell being a free agent at the end of the year—and a possible trade chip at the deadline—it was perhaps more important to get Adams than it might be to get another team's backup closer. And if Adams was a setup man all year, his excellent ratios and K rate were going to help me anyway. That was the idea with Gregerson too. Plus, I knew Bell would at least keep me competitive in saves and give me an opportunity to trade for them later if I needed them (or trade him away and punt the category).

BP: Jorge De La Rosa did not profit for you as a low end starting pitcher investment, but the $1 spent on Cory Luebke worked out very well for you with strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. Did you see anything in Luebke in your draft prep that made him a target in dollar days? If so, what was it?
I was in roster-filling territory when I picked up Luebke for a buck. I wish I could say I had him pegged for a big year, but I can't. But I did have him on my board as someone to consider late. All I had to go on was a three-start audition last year in which he had 18 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings. The strikeout rate was attractive, as was the idea of getting someone who pitches in San Diego. Even if he didn't have a spot in the rotation, he seemed like he was worth bringing up for a dollar there at the end. Fortunately, no one went to $2. (Then again, Ryan Webb was my other $1 pitcher …)

I was actually really excited about getting De La Rosa for $5. Too bad that didn't work out.

BP: Speaking of dollar days, there are varying schools of thought there. Are you a believer in never letting others control your draft action by avoiding dollar days as long as possible or do you have enough confidence in your end game skills to run the risk of ending up with 5 $1 players on your team?
I may have answered that question a little in No. 5. I like to have at least some cash on hand to at least be a player in the end game, but if there are guys I want to go the extra buck for during the draft, I'm not going to pass on them just to make sure I have money left at the end. One of the worst feelings at a draft is the one you have when you have all this extra money late and no one left to spend it on. I don't mind a $1 pitcher or two because I figure they're probably going to be replaced during the season anyway if they don't pan out, but if I have a couple of $2 hitters on my roster at the end (by trumping someone else's $1 throw) then I usually feel like I saved the right amount.

BP: You had more relievers on your team than starting pitchers and yet finished third in strikeouts while winning both WHIP and ERA. What did you do within the season to adjust for what appeared to be a lack of strikeouts coming out of the draft?
That's a very good observation. After De La Rosa went down, strikeouts were a major concern, especially since K's are part of the Core Four. That may have been due to the $14 I wasn't planning on spending on Matt Garza but did anyway when I was trying to price-enforce. That meant taking a cheaper reliever in a starter's spot. At the All-Star break, I was next-to-last in K's. The excellence of Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, and, yes, Garza helped give me a solid base in the ratio categories (but not so much in wins) so that when Luebke moved into the rotation, I was able to gain some ground in K's without killing my ERA and WHIP.

I definitely knew I needed one more starter for the second half and was planning on dealing someone like Stanton to get a solid starter who could help. That strategy changed at the July 31 deadline, though, when I was able to add Edwin Jackson.

BP: FAAB: Spend it early or hold it until the trade deadline?
In single-league formats this deep, there usually isn't a whole lot out there on the waiver wire. Even though I advocate going after free agents you think can help you early, I didn't really see anyone I wanted to pay a significant amount for. However, I do think you can act early without spending a whole lot. For instance, I picked up Santiago Casilla for $3 and Aaron Miles for $0 in the first two weeks, and they stayed on my roster all year. My biggest "splurges" were Wilson Ramos ($6) in April to fill an open spot at catcher and Chris Nelson ($6) in early June.

I kept most of my FAAB dollars in the bank for a long time. What allowed me to be in the driver's seat when the trade deadline rolled around were the season-ending injuries for De La Rosa and LaRoche that gave me $24 back.

BP: What was your best FAAB move of the season?
Among my FAAB pickups, Casilla and Miles helped out from the start. Brian Bogusevic and Bryan LaHair were great late-season $0 additions. But having enough money to go up to $83 on Edwin Jackson after the trade deadline may have been the key to my season. I was desperately in need of strikeouts, and there were plenty of standings points available. I was second-to-last in strikeouts when I picked him up, and getting him gave me enough of a boost that I didn't have to trade someone like Stanton to move up in K's. His 47 strikeouts alone were worth three points in the standings.

BP: Trades: What was the best deal you made within the season and what was the best deal you didn’t make either because you declined it or the other owner did?
There wasn't a whole lot of trade activity league-wide. The one major deal I made was with Phil Hertz in which I gave up Will Venable and a red-hot-at-the-time Michael Martinez for Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada, and $7 FAAB. I was tied with Tristan Cockcroft at the time for the most FAAB, and even though I really don't like being able to trade FAAB dollars, I made the deal—mostly so I could move ahead of him and get Jackson. The fortunate thing about it was the additional playing time Duda began to receive after Carlos Beltran was traded. When Phil and I were going back and forth (by text message as I was finishing a rare round of golf), we were looking to add one player from his side to the deal to fill out the roster spots … he said something like, "My worst two hitters are XXX and Duda." Fortunately, I took Duda over the other player, who I can't even remember now.

The best deal I didn't make was the one to pick up another starting pitcher. There wasn't any formal offer ever on the table, but there were e-mails sent out that pitchers like Clayton Kershaw could be had for the right price.

BP: Auction Day: last three things you do before leaving your house or hotel?
Auction day … hmmm. I don't know that there's a whole lot of insight to be gained from my draft day routine. I suppose No. 1 is to make sure I have all my stuff together and leave for the draft in plenty of time. The one thing I absolutely hate is to feel rushed on draft day. I like to get to the draft early and set things up the way I want them. It doesn't hurt to get a bottle of water or a snack to take along so that you're not worrying about anything else at the table. Third, just pray that you've done everything you can to be prepared when it's go time.

BP: Auction table: Do you break out the laptop or the paper notes? Advantage to either?
I like to have something on paper, just because it somehow makes me feel comfortable. Unless there's a big draft board, I usually keep the other teams' rosters (and remaining budgets) by hand. But it's just become too easy to keep track of my team on a spreadsheet, so I'll bring my laptop along with me. The computer helps most in readjusting your budget and keeping track of where you stand in terms of category targets. As much as I loved crossing off names on a single-sheet draft list, I don't think I could go back now.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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On the Beat: A Date Wh... (09/29)
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