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July 14, 2011

Resident Fantasy Genius

Mixed-League Mayhem

by Derek Carty

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Over the past week, Jason Collette has been taking turns examining each of the three Tout Wars leagues: AL-only, NL-only, and mixed. Yesterday, he examined the mixed league, which I participate in. Unfortunately, I’m not having the best year, currently in 12th out of 15. Interestingly, though, I am third in two other high-profile expert leagues—LABR (the League of Alternate Baseball Reality) and CardRunners—priming myself for a run at the championship.

What I find particularly interesting is that LABR is an NL-only league and CardRunners is an AL-only league. Despite doing well in leagues that draw from either league pool, in the league that combines them, I’m flailing. I also struggled in Tout Mixed last year, finishing middle-of-the-pack, but I won a LABR NL championship the year before. What gives?

Aside from chalking it up solely to random variation (which has surely played a part), I thought I’d look at some of the fundamental differences between the AL/NL-only and mixed varieties of fantasy baseball to see if I can find other reasons why I’ve seen such a discrepancy in my performance.

Increased emphasis on drafting
In AL/NL-only leagues, the draft is of the utmost importance. Because these leagues are so deep—LABR NL has 390-man rosters while there are only 400 active players in the National League, including third catchers and mop-up relievers who go unowned—in-season help is scarce on the waiver wire. Anyone who is anyone is owned, including most top prospects. According to Jason’s series, Tout Wars AL owners have derived 94 percent more value from their drafts than mixed-league owners this season, and NL owners have derived 67 percent more value. After all, at the start of the season there are plenty of players with starting jobs (and upside) available on mixed-league waiver wires.

As such, the draft is of the utmost importance in deep leagues. A bad draft will sink your season in either format, but if you manage to have a good draft, you’re far more likely to compete in the AL/NL-only varieties—something I favor.

Decreased emphasis on star players
In AL/NL-only leagues, it’s important to know the entire player pool, since you may need to fill the bottom of your roster with some scrubs. You need to know not only everyone’s skill set, but everyone’s role, competition, and expected playing time as well. If you know enough about these things to fill a roster full of merely full-time players (not even especially good ones, by traditional standards), you are going to compete simply because you’ll accrue enough plate appearances to rank highly in the counting categories.

Conversely, a mixed league is, in many ways, a game of “whose stars are best?” In Tout Wars mixed, the top players are all very expensive and, in my opinion, usually go for far more than they are actually worth. This places undue emphasis on the star players, even more so than already exists due to the shallow player pool. From here, it becomes extremely important to have your star player not pull an Adam Dunn and collapse or a Ryan Zimmermann and get injured—or a Carl Crawford and do both.

It’s also important, of course, for this not to happen in AL/NL-only leagues, but it’s a bit easier in those leagues to spread the risk. In Tout Mixed, you want as much star power as you can get in the draft because you can still get good players for very cheap as a result of the inflation of the star players (for example, Michael Bourn $12, Michael Brantley $1, Lance Berkman $7, David Ortiz $6, Starlin Castro $9, etc.). Additionally, because you can afford only a couple of superstar-type players in AL/NL-only leagues without creating holes in the rest of your roster, it forces you to be more selective about which ones you pick instead of simply taking as many as you can get for your budget in mixed leagues.

Increased emphasis on trading
In deeper leagues where teams have actual holes that need to be filled, trades happen much more often. In Tout Wars mixed this year, 12 trades have been made. In CardRunners AL-only, there have been 40. In LABR NL-only, I’ve made three on my own—25 percent of the total made in Tout Wars. In a deep league, you may be starting, for example, a guy like Greg Dobbs or Matt Downs and have an obvious spot to upgrade. In Tout Wars, though, you may be taking a loss on Bobby Abreu but not feel a need to trade because you’re hoping he’ll come around. No one will want to trade for a struggling player, but if you own him, your best percentage play is to hold onto him because you won’t be able to get much in a trade.

I love trading, and I love being able to trade, especially when lesser players and smaller deals are more feasible. In Tout Wars (and this is pure speculation on my part), I’ve found it harder to make deals, possibly because of the increased emphasis on stars. Lesser players are less fungible because everyone wants stars. People’s opinions differ on lesser players within the context of a mixed league where starting caliber players are freely available on the waiver wire. There will be less interest in a guy like Vladimir Guerrero because you can get Hideki Matsui for free. Even if there is a very real difference between two players like this, the perceived difference is small, making trades involving these kinds of players difficult to make.

Increased emphasis on free agents—sort of
Wait a second… if I’ve said that drafting and trading are more important in AL/NL-only leagues, how can playing the waiver wire be also? Hear me out.

Again, because in order to win Tout Mixed you need at least good (if not borderline star) performance from nearly every position, you’re really just trying to find the players on waivers who will outperform their projection the most—often as a result of nothing more than luck or random variation. 

In AL and NL-only leagues, there are more free agents that will have positive value, especially in the near term. If you can identify players who will receive a decent amount of playing time for at least the near future, you’re going to get some value out of your pickups. And because most AL- and NL-only team rosters have some dead spots, you can afford to churn your roster more than you can in mixed leagues by picking up injury replacements who may only receive playing time for a couple weeks but will be worth more than taking zeroes. In mixed leagues, rosters remain stagnant much more frequently. As a result, active, aggressive owners are rewarded more in deeper formats than in mixed leagues.

In a mixed league, a lot of will-be stars go undrafted because the format is a lot shallower than AL/NL-only leagues. This means there is an increased emphasis on finding the full-season breakouts in April. You need to gamble on players who start the year hot. Even if you know the odds are against any one player truly breaking out this season, some will indeed breakout, and if you don’t pick that player up, someone else will, giving them extra value that will be difficult to overcome if you don’t gamble yourself. But if you don’t hit on your gamble, someone else gets Brennan Boesch and that extra value. Worse yet, though, is that you’ll end up with a guy like Sam Fuld or Jeff Francouer producing a non-star (and quite possibly even a bad) performance in one of your spots for a few weeks—something you can ill afford in a league so heavily dependent on star performance and squeezing every ounce of value out of every starting spot.

After the April rush, however, mixed-league free agent pickups become much less important. Fringe prospect call-ups and injury replacements are virtually irrelevant in mixed leagues—they’re not stars, after all—but in deeper leagues, identifying these kinds of players on waivers is incredibly important. Aside from the random closer change, very few truly impact players become available on mixed-league waivers.

In CardRunners this year, I’ve managed to pick up Casey Kotchman, Jemile Weeks, Ben Revere, Carlos Peguero, Greg Halman, Charlie Furbush (used to acquire Jarrod Saltalamacchia), and Kyle Weiland (recently used to acquire Chris Davis). Peguero, for example, has a .199 batting average with 6 HRs and 19 RBI. While that is completely useless in Tout Wars (it would actually hurt you quite a bit), that has had quite a bit of value in CardRunners (although a better batting average would certainly be nice).

I’m sure there are arguments in favor of this setup, but I’m not a fan. 

Decreased emphasis on breakouts (and variance)
While your roster is the same size in mixed leagues as AL/NL-only leagues, the number of true breakout-type players like Asdrubal Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez are cut in half, making things like roster structure and strategy a bit more important than hoping your breakout picks pan out. And because you’re forced to make a decision on guys like Asdrubal and Anibal before the first game is ever played, these guys aren’t being added to your roster in April during the scramble for lottery tickets—you’re drafting them in the first place because you’ve thoroughly analyzed their situation and think they hold potential.

I would much rather make a decision on all the players that matter on draft day like you are in deep AL/NL-only leagues and then make decisions on the complete surprise players as they pop up in-season.

Concluding thoughts
Of course, there are disadvantages to AL/NL-only leagues and plenty of perfectly reasonable arguments in favor of mixed leagues. In a deep league, for one, a serious injury to one or two of your top players will sink you for sure. In mixed leagues, it’s a little easier to recover since the waiver wire has more than the likes of Rene Tosoni and Landon Powell available to act as replacements. Still, given everything else I’ve discussed, I far prefer AL and NL-only leagues. I love playing in Tout Wars, but as far as enjoyment and, in my opinion, increasing the emphasis on owner skill goes, I far prefer an AL- or NL-only league like LABR or CardRunners.

1 comment has been left for this article.

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