It’s that time of year again: Auction season is upon us. Over the next four weekends, most leagues that have live-action auctions will be getting together to build rosters, rib the cellar dwellers from the previous year, and copy the strategy of the team that brought home the title. My first auction is this coming Sunday, and I’m sure I will have extra eyes on me as the defending champion—though it’s a keeper league, and it’s not quite the same.
Everyone prepares for their auctions in different ways, from the most important (sources of information, spreadsheets versus printouts) to the things that make an owner comfortable (good luck charm or food/beverage of choice). However, there are 11 things that you should either know or have at your auction before the bidding starts—and I’ve broken them down into two separate sections: The Preparation and The Changing Room. All of the research in the world can’t help you maximize the team you buy in an auction if you don’t have the right tools at your disposal.
1) A Plan (and a Backup Plan)
There are a million different roads you can take in a roto auction. From simple ideas like employing a “stars and scrubs” methodology or spreading the risk/wealth around your entire roster to more complex plans like the LIMA (Low Investment Mound Aces) Plan, there is no wrong way to put a team together. Actually, scrap that. The only wrong way to put a team together is to go into your auction without a plan.
This goes well beyond having a plan with a name. It means knowing what you’re looking for. I don’t like drafting one-category, stolen-base guys, and if I end up taking a Ben Revere or a Juan Pierre, either they were very cheap or something went horribly wrong with my plan. Which leads to the next point: have a backup plan. If you go into the auction knowing you want to get one ace and then fill the rest of your staff with depth, things may just not go according to plan. If you don’t get that $25 ace, do you want to grab two $15 pitchers instead or take one $15 pitcher and reallocate the other $10 to load up on more offense? The more of these outcomes you plan for ahead of time, the more prepared you’ll be when they happen.
2) What It Takes to Win, Categorically Speaking
A marathon runner doesn’t just start running without paying mind to how far he/she has already gone and needs to go. You need to know where you are pretty frequently throughout the marathon to know how best to implement your plan. A fantasy auction is no different (well, minus the exercise). If you’ve bought Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn, that’s great from a stolen-base perspective—but do you know how many more steals you need to be a top team in that category?
When entering an auction for a league that is not in its inaugural season, I always calculate an “effective performance” in any given category. That means an answer to the question, how many points do I need in each category to give me enough overall points for a championship? If it’s a 14-team league, and 110 points has been good for a title in each of the past three seasons, that means a fourth-place finish in each category will get you there. So, I will make sure that I have the average of the fourth-place category finishes from each of the past three years, with the previous season’s number counted twice. That gives me a good baseline of where I need to be categorically, assuming I’m not trying to punt a category right off the bat (which I never recommend doing).
3) Your League Settings
Every league has settings that are worth paying attention to before assigning your values. These range from in-season positional eligibility and active lineup composition to number of bench/DL spots available. If you’re in a league with only one DL spot, throwing an extra dollar on Cory Luebke probably isn’t worth it, since you’re likely to have to burn a bench spot for him. If you’re in a league with low in-season positional eligibility requirements (fewer than five games), maybe Manny Machado gets an extra dollar because of the higher likelihood he gets his shortstop eligibility back. And, if your league has four outfield spots instead of five, or an extra utility spot, some of those auction dollars need to be redistributed across positions.
4) Auction Dynamics from Previous Years
As you can tell just by the difference in the room during expert drafts from one year to the next, all dynamics are subject to change. Some leagues tend to price up their studs, some don’t. Some leagues value closers way too highly, some don’t. Just because the dynamics won’t necessarily be the same from year to year doesn’t mean that it’s a feeble exercise to know what those dynamics are. People, and fantasy owners by extension, are generally subject to the same laws of inertia that the rest of the universe is. If the next big rookie sensations have generally been way overpriced in your league during previous years, it’s still much more likely than not that the same thing will happen again this year. Being aware of this could give you a significant edge in knowing when to throw out players to create advantageous auction dynamics for your team.
5) The Values
Regardless of what your strategy is, entering the draft with comfortable values is a must. Whether you’re a strict bidder or someone who just flies by the seat of his/her pants, having a number you feel is appropriate next to the names on your list is a worthy exercise. And, fortunately for all of us, Mike Gianella puts together a whole bid list for us, and updates it weekly, making it a great place to start. From there, make the adjustments that you see fit for your strategy/league and add in your personal thoughts to make it your own.
What you need to figure out at that point is what the numbers mean to you during the course of the auction. You can either use the numbers as a strict bid list—meaning that it works as a cap for each player that comes out—or you can use them as a Sherpa, helping you navigate your way through. Personally, I fall much more on the bid-list side, but there’s no wrong strategy. If you know you want Carlos Gomez and he’s listed at $15, you just need to know ahead of time whether you’re okay blowing well past that dollar value to get him. Although, in those scenarios, I’d just advocate changing the bid limits on the guys you really want to target.
6) Player Projections
Whether it’s PECOTA or the projections from another fantasy site that you’ve been using for nearly a decade now because you’re superstitious, even though you disagree with a lot of their valuations/projections, bringing player projections with you is a must. And, honestly, they don’t have to be perfect either—it’s just so that you can use them for easy reference during the draft when you’re evaluating your team on the fly. The combination of the category targets and the stats you are acquiring as the draft goes on will allow you to have a real-time view of what you need.
The Changing Room
If you’ve done the first six items on this list, you should be entering the room with a good amount of confidence. It comes from preparation, and although it will get shaken during the draft (it always does, no matter how many times you’ve done it before), the work you’ve done will always balance you back out. A continued lack of confidence can lead to indecision, and that can be your worst enemy in the room—much more so than your opponents.
8) How Your Stats Add Up
While names are flying off the shelf in the auction, you’re going to want to make it as easy as possible on you to see where you stand in this arms race. When you win a player, take that player’s projection and add it into your running team total, allowing you to see where your team’s category projections are compared to the fourth-place totals you set forth earlier. If it only takes 250 homers to finish among the top four in a category, and you’re already at 210 homers as a team with six offensive spots left, you can really focus on value elsewhere. If you don’t, you’ll start to get into the area of diminishing returns.
9) Where Other Owners Need Players
We all keep track of how much cash each owner has left, but keeping track of the other owners’ rosters is extremely important as well. If four of the five teams left with the most money still need a shortstop, the next few eligible guys off the board are likely going to be expensive. So, if you’re trying to get money off the table, look at the teams that have the most money, find out what they need, and try to get them to spend their money to address those holes.
10) How Much Cash is Left in the Room
When I’m in an auction, I’m constantly updating my spreadsheet with actual prices, and this serves two distinct purposes. First off, it lets me track each team’s composition—allowing me to see what positions they have open and how much money they have left to fill them. But another important outcome is that I can track all of the money as it becomes real and see whether the players left on my board should see their prices increase or decrease. It can be distracting to try this if you’re not used to it, but here’s an example:
In a 16-team, $260 budget league, there is a total of $4,160 available to spend during the draft; if you’ve done your bids properly, they should all add up to this total. As money gets spent, it will start changing that $4,160 up or down, depending on whether the prices are above or below your values. If you’re halfway through the draft and that $4,160 has gone up to $4,360, this means your remaining values are too high. So, make a mental note of that and take it into account when bidding.
11) Your Endgame Targets
When you get toward the end of the draft (around the last 50-60 players total), it becomes less of an auction and more of a free-for-all. At this point, I’ll usually stop worrying about prices/values and identify a Plan A and a Plan B for each of the open roster spots that I have. This is where you can really make an impact on your season, and grabbing the right endgame players can be the difference between a championship and a seventh-place finish. Choose wisely and proudly.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now
Say you're starting a keeper league auction with that $4160 cap, but $1800 in projected earnings have been kept on only $1000 in salaries. You now have $3160 in auction funds chasing $2360 in value, and your current inflation is 33.9%. You bring up a player you expect to earn $25 and he's sitting there at $31. Do you bid $32? Probably, because your new bid is only 28% higher than he's expected to earn. If you get him under $34, you've now INCREASED the amount of inflation in the rest of the auction, not decreased it.
I guess you could say: use PFM to replace all of what I said, but it's important to know the "projected earnings" value compared to the inflated value you'll probably have to pay.