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It is only a few players into your 2014 NL-only fantasy auction and you are already unhappy with how the auction has progressed. It isn’t because you panicked and overspent on a player or two early but rather because everyone else is buying players and you’re still sitting on the sidelines, waiting to hit your spot. The problem is that you’re reaching the point of the auction at which you have to fill your top offensive slot with a $30-plus player and they’re almost entirely gone. You don’t want to pay $35 for Hanley Ramirez, but the only alternative left is David Wright, and you have a bad feeling about him this year.

For some fantasy players, this scenario might not sound familiar. However, if you use a tiered approach to auctions, it is entirely possible that you can get trapped in a scenario where you feel like you have to overpay a player or two in order to fill out your “tiers” on offense.

If you are not familiar with the tiered approach, here is an example of how this approach might work using my NL-only bid values from last year.

Table 1: Tier Spending Recommendation

Hitter Tier

Recommended
Price

Pitcher Tier

Recommended

Price

1

$32

1

$23

2

$26

2

$15

3

$23

3

$13

4

$20

4

$11

5

$17

5

$8

6

$14

6

$5

7

$12

7

$3

8

$10

8

$2

9

$8

9

$1

10

$6

11

$5

12

$3

13

$2

14

$1

Totals

$179

$81

The “recommended prices” use my bid limits from last March’s Baseball Prospectus, take the median price from each bracket of 12 players, and break them into 14 “tiers.” I rounded up and down in a couple of cases in order to fit into the standard $260 budget, but for the most part had do to very little tinkering in order to make the numbers work. The $179/$81 split is modeled to fit how the expert leagues have generally spent their money the last few years, and comes very close to how LABR and Tout Wars did in fact spend their cash in 2014.

So far, so good. At first glance, this appears like a reasonable way to plan and prepare for an auction, particularly if you are a believer in purchasing a balanced squad. Using this method, there is an excellent chance you would be able to get the players you need to anchor your team while also having some cheap slots at the end of the auction to get some fliers who might turn into much more.

The problem is that while this sounds great in theory, in practice human beings typically don’t behave the way we anticipate they will behave 100% of the time. “Tiering” (which isn’t a word, but I will use repeatedly over the course of this article much to your annoyance if you are a grammarian who likes to point out mistakes in the comments section) often fails to take into account the reality that we are not auctioning against 11 other people who see things exactly as we do.

There are a few problems I have seen other fantasy players encounter with the tiered approach. Listed below are just a few of them.

1. The One That Got Away
The price for your best hitter is a median price, so this means that there is a good chance there are five or six hitters who you believe have more potential value than your median bid limit. Your raw bid limit on Andrew McCutchen is $37, even though your plan is to try and spend $32 on your best player. McCutchen is called out early and the bidding stops at $34. What should you do? The auctioneer says, “Going once. Going twice” and you… freeze. McCutchen goes for $34. You’re a little annoyed, but you’re not fazed. There are plenty of others players on the board at this early stage, and while you let McCutchen slip $3 under your price, you’ll probably get someone you like a little cheaper.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out this way for you at the auction. Whether it is because the room genuinely disliked McCutchen or because of a hangover effect, all of the other stars at the auction get chased. You wind up spending $32 on Hanley Ramirez. This is okay. It is your tier price, after all, and you have Ramirez listed at $32 on your sheet. Still, there is something that doesn’t sit right about this with you for the rest of the afternoon. You could have had McCutchen for $2 under your bid price (or at least pushed him to $1 under your price). Instead, you wound up with a player you didn’t want as much because you were beholden to a number on your sheet.

2. Several Players at the Top Go Cheap
This is similar to the first example above, except instead of feeling bad because you didn’t get a bargain with the player in your tier, you are able to procure a similar or perhaps even better bargain when you buy your first player. However, then you find yourself in a situation where you feel trapped because you already bought the player you were “supposed” to buy in your tier.

Last year’s LABR NL auction offered a terrific example of how this can happen and how if you are too doctrinaire about your tiers you can put yourself in a terrible position.

Table 2: Top 12 Salaries, LABR NL 2014

Rank

Player

Price

My Bid

+/-

Purchased By

1

Carlos Gonzalez

36

34

-2

Roto Experts

2t

Clayton Kershaw

35

35

0

MLB.com

2t

Andrew McCutchen

35

37

2

USA Today

4t

Ryan Braun

33

33

0

Rotowire

4t

Paul Goldschmidt

33

36

3

Rotowire

6t

Carlos Gomez

32

32

0

Fantasy Alarm

6t

Bryce Harper

32

32

0

NFBC/Stats

6t

Joey Votto

32

32

0

Sandlot Shrink

9

Hanley Ramirez

31

32

1

NFBC/Stats

10

Hunter Pence

29

28

-1

Roto Experts

11t

Billy Hamilton

28

26

-2

Yahoo!

11t

Troy Tulowitzki

28

31

3

NFBC/Stats

These were the 12 most-expensive players purchased in LABR NL in last year’s auction. There were a few overpriced players in my opinion, but the top tier in the auction was dominated by par prices with some bargains sprinkled in as well.

Notice that while there are 12 players in this group, only eight owners take the plunge on one of the big money players in the auction. While I might not agree with all of the prices, if Lenny Melnick of Roto Experts believed that Gonzalez and Pence were bargains at their prices last year, it was right for him to take the plunge on both players. Melnick’s investment on Gonzalez flopped, but he won LABR last year, in large part thanks to the fact that Pence’s contributions took some of the sting out of Gonzalez’s terrible season.

I’m not a doctrinaire Stars and Scrubs advocate (in fact, I have argued in the past for buying a balanced team without $30 players) but if I do like a price on a player in the top tier I will pounce. This logic shouldn’t be simply limited to one player either. Using the prices above, if I had purchased Goldschmidt at $34 why would I stop at $26 on Tulowitzki if I thought he was worth $31? Worrying about going four dollars over my slot at the beginning of the auction and missing out on a potential bargain doesn’t make sense. It makes even less sense in an auction like this, because chances are good that if the room plays tight early, owners are going to overspend either in the middle, at the end, or in both instances.

3. Several Players at the Top Are Way Too Expensive
This phenomenon can work in the other direction as well. In less seasoned auction start-ups, owners sometimes see $260 next to their team name on their draft sheets and get trigger happy at the beginning of the auction and spend money because they don’t want to be left with “too much money” to spend. This is a fallacy; if you have budgeted correctly and the league is overspending early, eventually the bargains will come. But some people can’t help themselves, panic, and overspend as a result.

Expert leagues aren’t necessarily immune to this phenomenon. This happened in the CBS NL expert league last year. Unlike LABR, the spending was aggressive out of the gate.

Table 3: Top 12 Salaries, CBS NL 2014

Rank

Player

Price

My Bid

+/-

Purchased By

1

Paul Goldschmidt

41

36

-5

Fake Teams

2

Andrew McCutchen

40

37

-3

CBS Melchior

3

Clayton Kershaw

37

35

-2

Fake Teams

4

Carlos Gonzalez

36

34

-2

Rotowire

5t

Bryce Harper

34

32

-2

Patton – Ponebshek

5t

Hanley Ramirez

34

32

-2

CBS DiFino

5t

Joey Votto

34

32

-2

Rotowire

8t

Freddie Freeman

32

27

-5

Mastersball – Carey

8t

Carlos Gomez

32

32

0

Mastersball – Kreush

8t

Troy Tulowitzki

32

31

-1

Patton – Ponebshek

8t

David Wright

32

30

-2

CBS Melchior

12

Adam Wainwright

31

25

-6

CBS Melchior

I could spend the next few paragraphs talking about Al Melchior’s $100 investment on three players. But Al has his own platform, so go ahead and ask him if you’re genuinely curious. I am wondering less about the teams that purchased two or more players on this list and more about the teams that only purchased one player. By my accounting, the early going in CBS was a terrible time to purchase a player. Gomez was a par purchase in my estimation; everyone else was a mild loss or a big one.

This isn’t to say that everyone in the room agreed with me. It’s more likely that the room believed my prices were too conservative and that I should have jumped in sooner. Perhaps Nando DiFino and Ryan Carey were jumping for joy at Hanley at $34 and Freeman at $32.

This was their business, not mine. Why would I pay par or worse on a player simply because everyone else was doing it? Worse yet, why would I get into a bidding war over a player in a lower tier simply because I missed out on these players and “had” to fill a slot? Why would I push Yasiel Puig to $31 (my price: $26) or Stephen Strasburg to $30 ($26) if I thought those prices were garbage?

In the end I waited and waited and waited until I bought my first player—Matt Holliday—at $24. I managed to fill out my team with seven players in the $14-19 price range. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get players in some kind of magical slot. The important thing was that I was able to buy a quality team at bargain prices across the board, and a team that was competitive in CBS all season long.

And this summarizes what is wrong with tiering.

4. Who Really Bleeping Cares?
The fallacy behind a tiered player approach is that it blindly accepts that the best way to build a roster is by buying players in certain cost brackets in every single auction. It might very well be the best approach in some auctions, but the reality is that it depends entirely on what happens during your auction.

If you can grab Mike Trout and Jose Abreu for a combined $64 in your auction next year you should do that, tiers be dammed. On the other hand, if Trout and Abreu go for a combined $90, there is a good chance that your league is crazy and you shouldn’t own either one. There is no good reason to get wrapped up in how your team is built from a player-by-player cost standpoint.

I have had successful auctions where I purchased two $40 players and have had successful auctions where my highest paid player cost $27. Even if you are liberal enough to shift away from your tier price during an auction, tiering still puts you in a position where you are making needless adjustments. Buying a $40 player and then fumbling with a mental calculation to remove eight dollars’ worth of salary from your other tiers is time you could be spending during the auction considering other players on the board, analyzing your team’s categorical strengths and weaknesses, and maybe even thinking about what your opponents are doing. You are adding a needless step to your auction process that hampers your flexibility if your auction has low or high prices early.

Valuation is important, and entering your auction with a good valuation foundation remains a key component to your fantasy team’s success or failure. But insisting on sticking with a tiered approach that limits your options during an auction is a poor strategy. There are many different paths to victory, and none of them are paved using methodical player-by-player price points. You have to take the value where and when it comes, and not cheat yourself in the moment by letting a bargain pass by just because you have to get someone in the “correct” tier.

Thank you for reading

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swarmee
12/16
"Grammarian" isn't a word either. I prefer "grammar czar." ;-)
adrock
12/16
Oh, 'grammarian' is totally a word. You'd know that if you were a grammarian. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/grammarian

Great article--your last paragraph sums it up. I'd never thought to use strict tiers in terms of purchase price--for me it's a valuation tool.

Strong valuations combined with flexibility and decisiveness provide a big advantage in auctions--other owners won't always act the way you want or you think they should--as long as you can adjust your strategy and target talented players at the right prices, you'll be in good shape.
adrock
12/16
I've been in the same auction pool for 15 years. In exactly 1 of those 15 years have I been able to get all of my tiered pre-draft targets at the prices I wanted--every other year has required some degree of adjusting along the way.
ndparks
12/16
I believe very few people actually auction in this fashion. First, there are too many tiers (14? Really?). Second, I believe people set tiers inclusive of positional eligibility. The plan as outlined seems very rigid. I would think there would be fewer Tiers. I generally set mine at $5 increments and then $30+ - when you approach exhausting a tier, you need to look at the top of the next tier to see what is available as that would influence your bidding. Tiers/pricing should also be adjusted depending on the type of league. If it is a free drop league, then the skew of player prices will be different than if free agents are scarce (like if pickups only for injuries and FA's are "linked"). In free drop leagues, I'd say go a few extra bucks to get your guy, since the top players seem to go for more and there end up being lots of guys undervalued under $10. If low/no free agents, you need stronger adherence to a strict budget/price plan.
MikeGianella
12/16
I don't agree with it either, but several web sites/magazines have advocated this approach. I'm not creating a strawman out of whole cloth.
Dodger300
12/16
If the likes of William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov are allowed to invent new words from old ones, so are you.

Tiering stands.

Now the trick is for it to be assimilated into the general lexicon.
timjrohr
12/16
I agree with you, both in theory and in practice. But you've also said many times that we have to spend our money. Scenario #3 creates the risk that if you pass on all the overpriced studs and keep waiting for the bargains, you'll fill your team out with a bunch of $5 bargains, all of whom earn $10. That's nice, but that's only a $230 team. You need players who will fill the stat lines.

At what point in an auction can this risk become a reality? Or, if we exercise self-control and stay aware, will the bargains start coming early enough that such a situation won't occur?
niffoc44
12/16
I think that if you've correctly set up your prices for players (accounting for inflation in keeper leagues), and you bid on players up to your bid limit then this shouldn't happen, at least not to the extent you're suggesting.
MikeGianella
12/16
I wrote about this at my blog (and I think you were one of the early readers), but it would probably be a good follow up. Basically, you have to pay par for one or two players at some point in an extreme situation to ensure you spend your money, but you still don't want to overpay just to fit a tier.
sfrischbp
12/17
I am a linguist by trade and am happy to inform you that you are welcome to make up new words, especially in the way you have done (productive use of morphology, we would call it). To many of us, that is the point of language. Grammarians are stupid. ;)