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August 7, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

A Strategy Example From the Deadline

by Jeff Quinton

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Less specifically, I type words. More specifically, I type words about the theories and concepts that surround fantasy baseball strategy. Every once in a while, it is worthwhile to zoom in a little, to take a look at an actual fantasy baseball example because it allows us to see how these concepts and theories can play out in our leagues. Consequently, I bring you a case study from my NL only keeper league (which also happens to be my favorite league). The trades and non-trades made by the top three teams in my league provide excellent studies on strategy, owner tendencies, competitive response, and trade markets as well as the interactions of all these concepts. Let us get cracking.

The League:
11 team, NL only, 5x5 roto, 15 major league keeper max, 4 minor league keeper max, 12 hitters/9 pitchers/1 utility slot.

The Facts:
Heading into our fantasy baseball league’s trade deadline (last Sunday) the top three teams were fluctuating (as they do in roto) around an 8-10-point separation between first and third. The first-place team had already made a couple of trades and had been entrenched in the top spot for about six weeks. Even after trading Oscar Taveras and a $1 Patrick Corbin, the first-place team probably still held the most tradeable assets in the league and definitely the most among the top three teams. The decision thus became how much of anything should the top three teams sell in order to maximize their chances this year and in the future.

The Factors:

1. Owner Tendencies:
Often, I have typed about the importance of knowing the tendencies of your competition. This was certainly not a problem as each owner has been in the league for at least the last 10 years. The second- and third-place owners both knew the following about the first-place team: (i) he has usually been willing to sell in order to make a run at first and (ii) he has never won the league. The sum of these two factors was that any trade made by the second or third-place team would be rendered moot by a response from the first place team, which brings us to our next factor.

2. Competitive Response:
Per the above, what we had heading into the deadline was a genuine Red Queen effect. If the second and third place teams made trades to go for it (selling long term pieces for short term pieces), then the first place team would simply match their moves by selling its more desirable pieces. In other words, if the second and third place teams chose to go for it, they would ultimately fail to improve their chances of winning this year while diminishing their chances of winning in the future. The simple answer, therefore, is that all teams should stand pat. However, the following:

3. Trade Markets:
In theory, when demand decreases across the board, sellers should lower their prices in order to sell off unusable assets for the future. In theory or not, this actually happened in our league. Selling prices became so low that mid-tier teams started snatching up cheap short-term assets in order to make a run at the money or the first overall pick (the first finish outside of the money and most likely Addison Russell). At this point, it might have actually been worth it for the second or third place team to trade for some short term assets. However, my guess is that the top teams were not being offered the same discounts that the mid-tier teams were being offered; instead, the sellers were probably hoping to recoup a bigger return from those who had more to gain.

The Result:
The first-place team bit on a non-discount offer, sending a mid-first-round minor league pick for an expiring Buster Posey and a potentially keepable Aaron Harang. While it may have been an overpay per strict market conditions, the move did have the advantage of further dis-incentivizing the second- and third-place teams from going for it. This lowered the market demand to the extent that the first place team was able to trade Austin Meadows, instead of Archie Bradley or Jonathan Gray, for an expiring Stephen Strasburg to put the final touches on preparing his team for the stretch run. The other advantage of these moves is that they lowered the chances of the other teams making last minute moves that the first-place team would not be able to respond to. Given all this, the second place team stood pat. The third-place team made a small move for an expiring Everth Cabrera, but this was probably more to ward off the team in fourth than to make a run at first.

Ultimately, I thought all of the teams played this well. The first-place team did not surrender Bradley, Gray, Javier Baez (its most prized possession), or any major league keepers, and it still added impact pieces that should significantly increase its chances of winning. The second- and third-place teams did well in not wasting impact future assets on a battle they probably could not win.

The losers here (and still I was not involved in all of these trade talks, so I cannot be certain) are the sellers. By not giving the top teams the same discounts as the mid-tier teams, the sellers, who are looking to compete in future seasons, did little to get the top teams to sacrifice future pieces. In defense of the sellers (which includes me), the top teams were pretty savvy, and were probably simply not willing to move any impact future pieces.

This was not the most action packed fantasy baseball trade deadline I have ever witnessed; however it did provide many an interesting takeaways. Beyond what has been previously stated, I will leave you with the two final takeaways. First, it is important to understand your role and others’ roles in the market. If the moves of a single team can significantly shift supply or demand, then we need to take those impacts into account. Secondly, the better we know our opponents the better we can make strategic decisions. By knowing how each league-mate would likely behave at the deadline, each of the top three owners was able to make better strategic decisions. Lastly, in critically thinking about strategy at the deadline, we can improve our decision making at future deadlines.

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

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Premium Article Minor League Update: G... (08/07)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Lea... (08/04)
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