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Last month, I discussed how I successfully executed my plan in Tout Wars. Today, I am going to take a deeper dive into my approach, with an emphasis on how using player valuation helped me to succeed last year.

Prior to 2015, my approach tended to focus far more heavily on player valuation than on anything else. This may sound common and mundane, particularly in expert leagues, but one of the most surprising things I have discovered about playing in expert leagues is that most experts don’t rely on player valuation as much as I do. The majority of experts I have talked to about this do use player valuation to some degree but tend to favor roster construction over valuation and frequently base their decisions on a balanced roster model over player valuation. There is even a smaller cadre of experts who don’t use valuation at all, and rather go by instinct (some would say gut) to make decisions during their auctions or drafts.

In my first expert-league auction in 2008, I was able to win simply by adhering to valuation without worrying very much about roster construction. The fantasy managers in these leagues were more experienced with shallower, draft-format leagues and had a limited concept of player valuation if they even had one at all. As a result, I could construct an atypical fantasy roster with deficiencies in multiple categories but dominate so thoroughly in most categories that it didn’t matter if I, say, finished last in saves or stolen bases.

When I started playing in Tout Wars in 2010, it changed the game for me. While it was still true that most fantasy managers weren’t as valuation-centric as I was, most of them did have a fundamental grasp of valuation. As a result, my advantage was significantly curtailed. Furthermore, using a strict valuation approach in a league like this was akin to being a knowledgeable poker player who never bluffs. You might pull in some big wins your first few times around the table when someone bets heavily thinking that you are bluffing but eventually you will either win only small pots or lose when someone with an even better hand simply keeps betting against you.

What follows below is a look at how my player purchases in Tout Wars were guided not merely by a rigid valuation process but also by the way other fantasy managers value players and build their rosters, as well as how each purchase could not only potentially return a profit but also maximize my roster’s return across all 10 categories in a 5×5 league.

Clayton Kershaw $37 (my bid $42)
The risk of investing $30 or more in any pitcher is significant, as an injury or poor performance can sabotage your team and end your season. Furthermore, while the 2015 version of Jake Arrieta was an extreme example, it was very likely that someone else in the league was going to get back a greater profit on a $25+ earner than I was on Kershaw. However, this buy was a money-in-the-bank proposition more than anything else. Kershaw was the only pitcher in the National League to crack $30 in earnings from 2012-2014 and the only pitcher to earn $40 or more from 2013-2014. Only R.A. Dickey (2012), Adam Wainwright (2013-2014), and Johnny Cueto (2014) had earned $30 or more in a single season over that period. My bid recognized that I could take a loss if Kershaw had a down season but that a “poor” $30 season was worth overpaying for as a worst-case scenario.

Paul Goldschmidt $37 ($39)
The difference in valuation in batting average leagues and on-base percentage leagues has worked significantly to my advantage in Tout Wars since the league switched to this format in 2014, as a lot of fantasy managers don’t adjust properly for the extreme valuation swings in the category. Goldschmidt earned $24 in NL-only, 5×5 AVG formats but earned $27 in OBP formats, despite missing a fair amount of time due to injury. My hope was that a full season of Goldy would come close to the $46 he earned in OBP formats in 2013, and that he would be an anchor on offense that would permit me to survive a mistake or two elsewhere.

Devin Mesoraco $17 ($22)
Mesoraco’s injury made him a big bust, but the takeaway from a valuation perspective is not to fear catchers. Mesoraco’s injury was a freakish, unlikely occurrence that had nothing to do with his prior profile.

Ben Revere $18 ($21)
Revere is an example of a player who is undervalued because he “only” contributes in stolen bases, ignoring the fact that the other value he does provide—even in OBP leagues— is useful. This is where a valuation-centric approach places an appropriate price on a player even if he is deficient in multiple categories.

Lucas Duda $21 ($24)
In shallower leagues, a streaky player like Duda can be maddening (it is painful to have days or weeks of little or no production on your roster while players in the free agent pool are performing) but in NL-only, slow and steady often wins the race. I was willing to patiently ride out Duda’s slumps, knowing that I would be rewarded with something in the range of 25 home runs with a solid on-base percentage as well.

Carlos Gonzalez $27 ($29)
In the past I have shied away from high risk/high reward players, but I decided in 2015 to take a handful of gambles. Cargo was my most significant gamble. He earned $30 in OBP leagues in 2013 despite accruing a mere 391 at bats and while I figured the steals were not coming back I rolled the dice that the power would. Because Cargo was only a three-category contributor he failed to turn a profit, but Goldy as an anchor meant that I could make a stats play here and not merely a profit-oriented one.

Yasmany Tomas $12 ($16)
Tomas was a Gonzalez-lite play in terms of the upside, but the more important valuation principle at work was the understanding of Tomas’ downside. Unless the Diamondbacks buried him completely, Tomas’ floor appeared to be as a $10-12 player. I was slightly off (he earned nine dollars in OBP formats), but understanding valuation principles made this an acceptable risk.

Jhonny Peralta $15 ($17)
Peralta is a boring, reliable option up the middle who gets absolutely no love in most of the expert leagues. Again, the idea behind Peralta was that I was looking for stats, not value. If this is beginning to sound like a theme, it is because some of my later purchases will make clear why stats mattered more during this phase of the auction.

Addison Reed $10 ($12)
So much variance is attached to closers that I would rather pay $10 for a low end stopper than pay $15-20 for a second-tier option. Both can fail, and I strongly prefer to invest those extra $5-10 elsewhere than on a closer who could lose the job. Reed didn’t work out, but as a $4 earner in 2015, he wasn’t a complete zero.

Doug Fister $13 ($15)
Andrew Cashner $11 ($14)
If I am unhappy with any aspect of my auction in retrospect, it was with how I allocated money on my starting pitchers behind Kershaw. This has less to do with the idea that I overpaid for these pitchers (Fister earned $21 in 2014 while Cashner earned $12 in 123 1/3 innings) but rather the idea that with Kershaw in the fold I should have spent less money on the back end of my staff and taken more risks. Spending $89 on your staff when Kershaw is your ace is far from ideal.

Michael Taylor $4 ($6)
I was extremely happy with this purchase. I guessed correctly that Denard Span would miss significant time and even though Taylor was a flawed real-life player that he would earn as a fantasy commodity. I could have turned a profit on this buy if Taylor had picked up half of the plate appearances he actually did.

Wilin Rosario $12 ($15)
This didn’t work out, but the bid was predicated on the assumption that Rosario would play enough around the diamond in Colorado to return $10-12 at a tough position to fill in NL-only, two-catcher leagues. He did not do so, but prior to his demotion in August the possibility remained. Even though the results didn’t work out, I do not regret the decision.

Hyun-Jin Ryu $11 ($15)
This bid was too aggressive given the back-and-forth news on Ryu’s shoulder in late March (even though the last nugget of news hours before the Tout Wars auction was positive). Again, this ties back into the poor decision making process of building a staff behind Kershaw. If I do decide to purchase Kershaw again in 2016, my pitching staff will look very different.

LaTroy Hawkins $3 ($6)
Hawkins not working out as the Rockies’ closer was almost as predictable as the sun rising in the east, but at three dollars the risk was virtually nil.

Adeiny Hechavarria $2 ($3)
Yangervis Solarte $3 ($5)
Freddy Galvis $1 ($2)
Remember all of that talk earlier about how I was looking for stats and not profits? Knowledge of my competitors in Tout Wars is why I could afford to take this approach. Even in an NL-only league where free agent replacements are few and far between, fantasy managers tend to prefer lottery tickets in the endgame over boring, reliable, everyday options. While all three players did exceed my expectations, I did anticipate purchasing at least $18-24 worth of statistics from this trio at $6. Maybe I got “lucky” that all three earned at least $10, but knowing what the earnings baseline was for all three players mattered a great deal.

Tim Lincecum $1 ($3)
Noah Syndergaard $2 ($8)
Travis Wood $1 ($3)
Kelly Johnson $1 ($3)
Peter Bourjos $1 ($4)
The endgame in deep fantasy leagues is typically pure speculation, but my valuations aren’t derived strictly in a vacuum. Neither Lincecum nor Wood worked out, but at these prices the idea of gambling on streamer-worthy pitchers to plug in as my fifth starter behind Kershaw was fine. Syndergaard wound up becoming my no. 2 starter, and more than making up for the deficiencies behind Kershaw. Johnson and Bourjos were both endgame stabs in the dark, and once again displayed my preference for veteran endgame gambles as opposed to rookies. Johnson worked out and Bourjos didn’t, but the takeaway here is that rookie gambles aren’t necessarily better or more optimal than veteran ones.

I projected profit for my team across the board, but it is extremely rare that a fantasy team can optimize its valuation 100%.

Table 1: Mike Gianella NL-Only Tout Wars 2015 Auction Roster

Pos

Player

$

Sal

+/-

My Bid

C

Devin Mesoraco

$0

17

-17

22

C

Wilin Rosario

$4

12

-8

15

1B

Paul Goldschmidt

$49

37

12

39

2B

Freddy Galvis

$11

1

10

2

SS

Jhonny Peralta

$16

15

1

17

3B

Yangervis Solarte

$13

3

10

5

CO

Lucas Duda

$21

21

0

24

MI

Adeiny Hechavarria

$10

2

8

3

OF

Carlos Gonzalez

$26

27

-1

29

OF

Ben Revere

$23

18

5

21

OF

Yasmany Tomas

$9

12

-3

16

OF

Michael Taylor

$13

4

9

6

UT

Peter Bourjos

$4

1

3

4

SW

Kelly Johnson

$10

1

9

3

P

Clayton Kershaw

$42

37

5

42

P

Doug Fister

$2

13

-11

15

P

Andrew Cashner

$2

11

-9

14

P

Hyun-Jin Ryu

$0

11

-11

15

P

Addison Reed

$4

10

-6

12

P

LaTroy Hawkins

$4

3

1

6

P

Noah Syndergaard

$18

2

16

8

P

Tim Lincecum

$2

1

1

3

P

Travis Wood

$8

1

7

3

TOTALS

$291

260

31

324

HITTERS

$209

$171

38

206

PITCHERS

$82

$89

-7

118

While the temptation to drill down and analyze wins and losses on a player-by-player basis is strong, it is far more useful to look at how valuation allowed me to build a solid team and create a success experience. While Mesoraco was a failure, the knowledge that Goldschmidt could be an anchor player afforded me wiggle room on at least one mistake. The awareness that players like Solarte, Hechavarria, and Galvis could be double-digit earners also raised my team’s floor. I missed on a few individual players, but on the whole I managed to buy $209 worth of statistics on offense.

While I took a loss on the pitching side, the proposition that Kershaw would prove to be an ace was correct. Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke also earned over $40, but the important takeaway here was that Kershaw papered over a pitching staff that was riddled with poor performances. Knowing that Kershaw was such a reliable earner allowed me to take risk after risk on the pitching side during the season, which I eventually parlayed into a reliable streaming duo of Jorge De La Rosa and Jeremy Hellickson to replace Lincecum and Wood.

Valuation auctions are often incorrectly and improperly viewed as a poor way to achieve your roster construction goals and win your league. Many fantasy managers start out by building category targets and then spending based on these targets. While this can work, a frenetic bidding war in a specific category can leave a fantasy manager scrambling to procure stats everywhere else. My bid limits are constructed with roster construction in mind. As a result, I am able to make adjustments on the fly and recognize that there isn’t a “correct” approach in terms of an individual player ceiling or dollars allocated per player. The reality is that while a valuation approach is often viewed as rigid, a categorical approach can be just as rigid if applied improperly. If done correctly, valuation auctioning not only allows for flexibility, but also permits rapid, on-the-fly adjustments if you have an understanding of how much wiggle room you could have based on potential profit and loss.