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July 22, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Does Skill Matter?

by Mike Gianella

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One of my favorite questions that I get from fantasy baseball players is along the lines of, “So, what makes you an expert?” Often, this question is asked in a belligerent tone, and is followed by the word “huh.” Some fantasy players think that anyone who has half a brain and can read can win a fantasy baseball league, since it’s mostly luck. Others think that while some skill is involved, more often than not it is luck that determines whether or not you’re going to win the title.

So, which is it? Is skill the reason that some owners walk away with the title or is it mostly luck?

Empirically, this question is difficult to answer. Some fantasy players are more successful than other fantasy players year in and year out. This would suggest that skill is involved, since while winning once can be considered a random event, multiple victories (or top finishes) would suggest a degree of skill. On the other hand, this might not necessarily hold either. A craps player could roll a nine four consecutive times. This doesn’t suggest any kind of skill for rolling nines. While unlikely, it is possible that a fantasy player who wins two or three titles in a row is just as lucky as the guy at the craps tables rolling nothing but nines.

I have played fantasy baseball long enough to know that while some luck is involved, without a strong skill set you are rarely, if ever, going to win. In a league with nothing but beginners, luck might reign supreme. Eventually, though, one or more people in your league will improve and the odds of luck helping will decrease.

Where does skill help in a typical Rotisserie league and—perhaps more importantly—what types of skills should you be trying to cultivate?

Pre-Auction: Developing Your Plan

In a non-keeper league, coming up with a plan primarily amounts to devising a strong set of auction values or draft rankings for your auction or draft. However, in leagues with the same cast of characters year and in year out you should start identifying patterns of behavior in your fellow owners. Poker players often talk about tells that other players have. In fantasy baseball, we have something even better: a historical record of what your opponents do year in and year out. Gathering and using competitive intelligence well is a skill.

In keeper leagues, there are far more moving parts. How strong is your freeze list? You must answer this question not only before your auction but also in the winter, before the trades leading up to the freeze date start in earnest. Your strategy at the auction is going to be different depending on whether or not you have a strong, so-so, or weak freeze list. How good is your team category by category and what does the potential auction pool look like? If you have no saves, you need to know whether it’s better to trade for a closer in March, purchase a closer at your auction in April, or be prepared to dump the category entirely. An owner with a strong skill set knows that there isn’t a “right” answer to this question but rather that it depends entirely upon the league’s circumstances in that particular season.

An owner with a strong skill set isn’t merely interested in building the strongest framework he can possibly build, but building a strong framework for his team based upon the context of the league. Loading up on undervalued power hitters heading into an auction with a glut of power hitters but a paucity of pitching could lead to a second division finish. Going beyond the raw value proposition to strong roster construction is a skill.

Real Life Example

I entered a season with a middling-to-weak freeze list that was hitter heavy. The trade market for pitching was weak. Instead of overpaying for pitching in a trade, I decided on the following plan of action:

  1. Pay $200 for hitting and $60 for pitching
  2. Dump saves
  3. Buy a big-time ace to go along with my solid $10 pitching freeze and get other quality starting pitching via auction or later via trade

Spending a significant amount on hitting on a team that was already strong on offense allowed me to run away with most of the hitting categories. I was able to trade for pitching later and my ace pitched like an ace. I won the league going away.

Auction: Building the Framework

When fantasy baseball was in its infancy, the skilled fantasy owner was the player who had a fundamental understanding of player valuation while everyone else was simply paying the price that felt or sounded right. Now everyone has the same general idea of what the right price is. Since this differentiation is gone, how do you separate yourself from the pack in a tight room?

From a skills standpoint, there are a few answers to this question.

1. To dump or not to dump a category

My answer to this question used to be “yes, you should always be willing to dump a category.” However, this answer was pertinent when I played primarily in home leagues with liberal trading in-season. Non-carryover expert leagues consist primarily of owners who are unwilling to deal unless a trade is to an owner’s obvious advantage. Identifying your league’s trading culture is key to understanding whether or not tossing a category to maximize your value elsewhere is the best play or not.

Another important skill as far as this goes is analyzing your opponents and determining what you think it will take to win this year. I emphasize the words “this year,” because many analysts still recommend taking last year’s winning category totals and applying them broadly to how many points it will take to win your league this year. I say that this is nonsense. If you were deciding whether or not to buy stock in a Fortune 500 company, while you would look at the company’s performance last year, you would also want to look at future trends to determine whether or not it was a good time to buy. The same principle applies in fantasy. In a year where no contender stands out, dumping a category might be a path to victory. In other years, this plan might be a poor one. Developing the analytical ability to understand which path is the right one is definitely a skill.

Real Life Example

This past April, in my old school, AL-only home league, I decided to dump power and play a six-category game. Some of this decision was predicated on the extremely weak freeze list that I had but some of it was because there wasn’t a strong favorite in the league and no team had strong pitching coming into the auction. A no power strategy works best when there isn’t another team dominating the pitching categories. I have held onto first place for most of the season because my analysis proved correct; none of the other contenders had a strong pitching staff coming into the season and my strategy served to prevent any other team from building a strong pitching staff at auction.

2. Adjusting during the auction

In a perfect world, you would be able to buy the players you want at auction at your prices. Whether you are in a start over league or a freeze league, the goal is to buy a strong team across the board that will be competitive in every category.

The reality is that this is seldom possible, particularly if someone else is chasing stats or categories in a manner that doesn’t make sense. The last thing you want to do during an auction is chase a commodity because you “have” to have that commodity. Paying a crazy price for a closer because you have to have a closer is unacceptable if it means that you are diverting so much money from the rest of your team that you are going to be weakened everywhere else. My main idea in any auction I have participated in is not to be doctrinaire. As an example, if saves are going for a fair or somewhat undervalued price, I will buy saves at auction. If saves are too expensive at auction, I will dump saves at auction and try to acquire them later.

It is also important to have the ability to identify when to spend your money. Some fantasy players are fearful of spending too much of their money early or too much of their money late. While I can understand why someone might have reservations about doing this, you have to go where the bargains are, even if you unconventionally wind up spending all of your money early or holding onto a pile of money until the middle or the end of your auction. Developing the discipline not to jump in to the fray because everyone else is doing it is a skill well worth having.

The don’t dump categories rule in a start over league rule flies out the window if the league on the whole is spending wildly on a commodity early. Having the patience not to spend is one thing, but having the ability to identify that crazy spending early is going to lead to significant bargains later is going to put you into a winning position if you can identify this phenomenon as it is happening. Your roster might look strange coming out of the auction but if you are willing to live with a few ill informed owners dismissing your team because it isn’t conventional, you will be better off for it.

Real Life Example

For years in the CBS Analyst expert leagues, owners spent way too much money on hitting in the early rounds while spending market value or slightly under market value on pitching. Many owners were chasing one or two hitters, figuring that they either had to get a top hitter or make sure to spend money so that they wouldn’t have too much money at the end. Identifying an inefficiency in the moment, I spent a significant amount of money on pitching early figuring that big hitting bargains would come later. I came under a fair amount of criticism from other experts in the league for spending $114 on my pitching staff. However, the strategy worked because there were a fair amount of quality everyday hitters available on the cheap because teams overspent early. I was able not only to win the league that year, but to win the league going away.

In-Season: Adjusting to the New Reality

Once the season starts, we usually have a pretty good idea of how well or poorly or plan will come to fruition once the season starts. In an ideal world, everything we did well at the auction would translate into success, we would win the league in a walk, and we wouldn’t need to do anything else except spend six months enjoying the fruits of our offseason labors.

The reality is never this simple. The luck factor that I mentioned above will typically play a factor. An injury or two will put your team into a categorical hole. A player will underperform at a level that will inhibit your team’s ability to compete. Even if that player does bounce back to some degree, he won’t come close to his projected season totals. This isn’t to say that luck won’t play a factor in the other direction either. If you purchased or drafted Jean Segura this year, take a bow. Given his price, you were ahead of the curve right off the bat just with the contributions of one player.

Adjusting to these new realities is key to whether or not the team you built at the auction will be the foundation of a winning team or a second division also-ran. It generally isn’t enough to sit back and rest on what you did on Auction/Draft Day. You have to keep making moves all season long.

The luck factor is more significant in only leagues than mixed leagues. The team that you purchased at auction in an AL or NL-only league is the team that you’re mostly going to have to live with for five months. You might be able to make some trades and once in a while a key free agent can change the complexion of the league, but the auction is key in this type of format.

Besides trading, one of the biggest skill factors in season is taking advantage of your league’s rules when it comes to player pick-ups. Does your league have daily or weekly moves? Are there zero dollar FAAB bids? Can you stash minor leaguers or disabled players on your reserve list.

In leagues with daily moves, you had better not take a day off during the season because a savvy owner is going to grab any promising minor leaguer with a pulse. Leagues with zero dollar FAAB bids change the bidding dynamic, as do leagues with Vickrey bidding rules. If you have the ability to stash minor leaguers, it pays off to pay close attention to the minor leagues and to what teams are saying about their prized prospects.

Regardless of the format, you should always be looking for opportunities to improve your team in season. The results of your acquisitions might be luck oriented, but proper in season planning and roster management is skill based.

Real Life Example

In the CBS league this year, I picked up Nick Franklin, Grant Green, and Josh Phegley as minor leaguers weeks before they were called up to their major league clubs. In all three cases, I tracked their minor league performance, their teams’ organizational depth charts, and any comments their organizations were making about them and decided all three would probably be contributors in 2013.

Conclusions

All of the observations above come with the caveat the luck obviously plays a factor in a team’s road to victory. Six years ago, I won a league in part because a journeyman middle reliever picked up his only win of the year on the last weekend of the season. Ordinarily, this would have been a ho hum fact, but the only reason the reliever was picked up was because he was a cousin of a close friend of a league member. This is an extreme case, but luck obviously plays a factor in any league’s fate. We have all traded for a healthy player who gets hurt five minutes after the trade is completed. Luck runs the other way as well. Who hasn’t picked up a fringy player who winds up becoming a key contributor.

Skill is still vital to winning in any competitive format. Having the ability to perform player valuation isn’t enough. You have to be able to specifically analyze the conditions in your league and figure out how to work any and all angles that you can. You can bet other players in your league are doing this; ignoring this type of analysis is at your own peril.

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

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