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2016 marks the 23rd year of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality. Commonly known as LABR for short, this is the longest running and best-known of fantasy expert league in the game. Bret Sayre and I had the privilege of participating in the mixed league draft last month. This past weekend in Arizona, it was the AL and NL-only leagues’ turn. Yesterday, I took a look at the American League results. Today, I will look at the NL-only results. As a reminder, I’m less concerned about individual picks and more looking at the auction

If you want to see how the entire auction shook out, the results can be found here. My analysis is focused on auction trends that will hopefully help you in your own auctions this year. While it is fun to ooooh and aaaah over certain individual picks, it is far more useful to see if there are any significant shifts in expert spending. In my experience, what happens in LABR does have an influence in home league auction(s).

For the most part, the LABR and Tout Wars auctions are fairly predictable from year to year. There is a cap on what any individual player will cost, there are very specific amounts spent within brackets of 10 players, and there is a hitting/pitching split that is close to 69 percent on the hitting side and 31 percent on the pitching side. While there is some minor fluctuation from season to season, the changes on the whole are marginal. You could use most of the LABR and Tout Wars only-leagues as a rough guideline for your home league.

And then there’s Maude!

Um, I mean, and then there’s National League LABR.

Table 1: CBS/LABR/Tout Wars NL Hitting/Pitching Dollar Allocation 2014-2016

League

Year

Hitting %

Pitching %

CBS NL

2016

64.9%

35.1%

CBS NL

2015

66.9%

33.1%

CBS NL

2014

67.0%

33.0%

LABR NL

2016

71.0%

29.0%

LABR NL

2015

71.4%

28.7%

LABR NL

2014

69.6%

30.4%

Tout Wars NL

2015

69.0%

31.0%

Tout Wars NL

2014

68.9%

31.1%

Back in 2014, LABR NL spent money more or less like you would expect an expert league to spend money, dropping around 69-70 percent on hitting and 30-31 percent on pitching. LABR behaved so similarly to Tout Wars that despite the fact that the expert composition in the two leagues was markedly different, you could guess comfortably what each hitter and pitcher would cost and only be off by one or two dollars in the vast majority of cases.

Then in 2015, three things happened that sent LABR NL off on a different path.

First, teams stopped spending big on the players at the top of the player pool. In 2012, six hitters cost $35 or more. In 2013, there were seven. That number dropped to two hitters in 2014 and three in 2015. There was a reluctance by fantasy experts to cross a certain cost threshold, and it wasn’t just limited to the best hitters but had an impact across the board.

Second, there was a fantasy manager with a radical strategy against whom other experts began reacting differently. Doug Dennis of Baseball HQ had always spent $30 or so on his pitching staff, but the rest of the league altered their prices accordingly, spending more on pitching on a team-by-team basis until the league came close to the 69/31 or 70/30 split. In 2015, this changed. The other fantasy experts stopped adjusting their prices (overtly or no) and simply spent the way they wanted to spend. This pushed about $50-60 dollars of money into hitting.

This amount of money doesn’t sound like a lot when all of LABR is taken into account. But when the entire league is taken into account, this is a $4-5 price shift from pitching to hitting per team. This shift made it even odder that LABR was being so conservative at the top of the pile while waiting for a long time to push money into the middle.

That all changed this year.

Table 2: LABR NL Hitter Spending by Tier, 2014-2016

Tier

LABR 2016

LABR 2015

LABR 2014

2015 $

+/-

1-10

353

328

322

$354

-1

11-20

274

268

264

$263

11

21-30

240

240

232

$222

18

31-40

212

226

206

$187

25

41-50

191

196

191

$171

20

51-60

174

179

173

$153

19

61-70

155

164

155

$139

16

71-80

136

146

132

$126

10

81-90

118

118

111

$110

8

91-100

103

97

93

$100

3

101-110

87

83

80

$89

-2

111-120

64

66

72

$72

-8

121-130

43

46

57

$55

-12

131-140

29

34

37

$37

-8

141-150

19

19

20

$17

2

151-160

10

10

11

$4

6

161-168

8

8

8

-$4

12

Totals

2216

2228

2164

$2097

119




After two years where the LABR experts were stingy with their money, they pounced right from the start this year, returning to their more liberal spending ways of 2012 and 2013. Six hitters cost $35 or more, with Andrew McCutchen just missing joining that group with a cool $34 bid.

The comparable 2015 hitters (2015 $ column) earned almost exactly what LABR NL paid the 10 hitters they believe in the most in 2016. Using 2015 earnings as a baseline, the price spike didn’t occur on the 10 most expensive hitters but rather further down the cost spectrum. In particular, there is a significant jump between the 21st and 70th most expensive hitters, where the LABR experts pay $98 more than what the comparable hitter earned in 2015.

You will notice that the +/- column is $119 over, when it should be zero. Some of this is due to rounding; the earnings column for 2015 should equal $2100. However, if LABR is spending $2.216, why doesn’t the earnings column equal $2,216?

This is a terrific question. The answer is that the theoretical amount a league “should” spend is $2,100 on hitters and $1,020 on hitters in a 5×5 format. However, if LABR spends $2,216 on hitters in an SGP valuation model, earnings for LABR NL’s 2016 auctioned hitters will actually be $2,216.

Table 3: LABR NL Hitter Spending by Tier, 2014-2016 (Adjusted)

Tier

LABR 2016

LABR 2015

LABR 2014

2015 $

+/-

1-10

353

328

322

$374

21

11-20

274

268

264

$278

4

21-30

240

240

232

$235

-5

31-40

212

226

206

$197

-15

41-50

191

196

191

$181

-10

51-60

174

179

173

$162

-12

61-70

155

164

155

$147

-8

71-80

136

146

132

$133

-3

81-90

118

118

111

$117

-1

91-100

103

97

93

$106

3

101-110

87

83

80

$94

7

111-120

64

66

72

$76

12

121-130

43

46

57

$58

15

131-140

29

34

37

$40

11

141-150

19

19

20

$19

0

151-160

10

10

11

$4

-6

161-168

8

8

8

-$5

-13

Totals

2216

2228

2164

$2216

0

When you take into account how much money LABR spent overall on hitting, while the NL-only experts pushed their spending up on the best hitters in 2015, they should have spent even more.

Derek Van Riper of RotoWire had the right idea. $40 apiece on Bryce Harper and Paul Goldschmidt might seem foolhardy out of context. Within the context of LABR, however, these prices make sense. Higher hitting prices across the board make the best hitters more valuable (in theory), and since it is proportional, the hitters in the middle and at the bottom don’t quite get the same valuation bump.

It is easy to say this after the fact; it is more difficult to adjust to the realities on the ground in the moment. While a few of the top players cost more (Anthony Rizzo $39, Nolan Arenado $36, Buster Posey $31), there were more than a few players at the top who went for par prices… assuming a $2100 hitter budget. This made hitters like Andrew McCutchen ($34), Kris Bryant ($30), and Charlie Blackmon ($29) relative bargains compared to the hitters who came later.

Some of this is due to the glut of NL teams that are rebuilding (cough, cough, tanking). However, the perceived gap in value between 2015 and 2016 isn’t going to be as significant in only leagues as it would be in mixed. As an example, Freddy Galvis earned $14 in NL-only in 2015, while Ryan Howard earned $13. In real life, a number of National League teams are going to be bad. In fantasy baseball, the parts from those teams could be fairly useful cogs, particularly if those cogs get 550 plate appearances.

Getting back to LABR, since the prices at the top weren’t adjusted for the 71/29 hitting/pitching split, it was the prices in the middle that were pushed up dramatically. Randall Grichuk ($25), Marcell Ozuna ($21), Justin Bour ($21), and Yangervis Solarte ($18) are a few examples of hitters who will have a hard time earning what they were paid, even in the NL’s thin context. In this type of auction environment, I like the idea of Stars and Scrubs, especially on the hitting side.

On the pitching side, the market is betting on a repeat of the top pitching performances from 2015.

Table 4: LABR NL Pitcher Spending by Tier, 2014-2016 (Adjusted)

Tier

LABR 2016

LABR 2015

LABR 2014

2015 $

+/-

1-10

281

253

241

$285

4

11-20

183

171

170

$174

-9

21-30

130

133

136

$144

14

31-40

96

111

109

$117

21

41-50

75

79

91

$86

11

51-60

49

56

73

$60

11

61-70

33

37

54

$38

5

71-80

21

21

33

$22

1

81-90

17

13

20

$12

-5

91-100

10

10

12

-$7

-17

101-108

8

8

8

-$28

-36

Totals

903

892

947

$903

0

As was the case with hitters, while the prices on the top pitchers are higher in LABR than they have been in years past, they do reflect what National League pitchers earned in 2015, even adjusting for LABR’s limited spending on arms. However, compared to what pitchers in the middle cost, there is more chasing of the talent at the top. This is because while pitchers can earn negative money in fantasy, you have to bid at least a dollar on every pitcher.

As a result, while the prices on the top pitchers are technically fair, they’re still high. I don’t have a problem paying $29 for Madison Bumgarner or $27 for Stephen Strasburg, but these prices capture nearly all of the upside of these arms and very little of the downside. Pitchers in the 31-40 tier include arms like James Shields ($9), Shelby Miller ($9), and my favorite bargain of the day, Carlos Martinez ($11). This should not be viewed as binary. There’s nothing wrong with buying an ace at par and then grabbing two or three arms like Shields, Miller, or Martinez to fill out your staff.

Part of the reason there were so many dirt cheap arms in the middle and at the bottom is because two teams allocated very little money to pitching. Dennis followed his usual path, spending $36 on pitching, but he was also joined this year by Steve Moyer of Inside Edge, who spent $35 on his staff. The expert market hasn’t done much to adjust to Dennis in the past; it didn’t adjust to either Dennis or Moyer this year. If you’re in this situation in a league this deep—where you know with 99 percent certainty what your competitors are going to do beforehand—I recommend adjusting before your auction to maximize the value you will get and building your team accordingly.

Another area where LABR NL is radical compared to other leagues is that multiple teams dump saves and completely blow off the category.

Table 5: NL Closer Prices, 2016

Pitcher

CBS

LABR

Kenley Jansen

22

20

Trevor Rosenthal

19

18

Mark Melancon

21

17

Jeurys Familia

21

15

Jonathon Papelbon

17

14

Hector Rondon

19

12

Brad Ziegler

11

10

A.J. Ramos

13

9

Jake McGee

15

9

Santiago Casilla

14

8

Arodys Vizcaino

9

7

David Hernandez

10

5

Fernando Rodney

8

4

Will Smith

7

4

J.J. Hoover

10

2

Total

216

154

CBS spent $190 more on pitching than LABR did, but this doesn’t explain away the difference on closers entirely. CBS spent 20 percent of its pitching budget on closers. LABR spent 17 percent. Three fantasy managers in LABR dumped saves entirely, while a few teams that probably intended to toss saves overboard decided they couldn’t pass on a shot at a potential closer for five dollars or below. No one tried to do what I might have in this situation, which is to grab a top closer like Jansen and then go with two more relief arms for under $6. Six teams have two closers and three teams have one (potentially, assuming pitchers like Hernandez and Smith leave camp with the job). I also like the idea of eschewing a hard-core philosophy of dumping saves and bidding a dollar or two more on someone like Smith or Hoover. In a worst-case scenario, Smith could easily $6 even with zero saves.

It's always easy to sit back days after one of these expert auctions and nitpick. What would my team have looked like had I sat down with the LABR NL experts this past Sunday?

Table 6: Mike Gianella’s “Shadow” LABR NL Team

Pos

Player

Sal

MG

C

Derek Norris

11

14

C

Nick Hundley

12

14

1B

Joey Votto

27

30

2B

Wilmer Flores

2

4

SS

Jose Reyes

13

18

3B

David Wright

13

15

CO

Sean Rodriguez

1

2

MI

Alen Hanson

1

4

OF

Ryan Braun

27

29

OF

Billy Hamilton

21

23

OF

Carlos Gonzalez

25

28

OF

Jon Jay

3

8

OF

Michael Bourn

1

6

UT

Kirk Nieuwenhuis

1

4

P

Mark Melancon

18

21

P

Jeurys Familia

16

21

P

Shelby Miller

14

10

P

Fernando Rodney

5

10

P

Carlos Martinez

12

17

P

James Shields

10

15

P

Julio Teheran

11

13

P

Aaron Nola

7

11

P

Joe Ross

9

11

Totals

260

328

As with the AL, the only manual intervention I made was to stop after purchasing three closers. Had I actually been participating in LABR, I would have avoided Nola and Ross, gone cheap on my last two pitchers, and siphoned the rest of my money toward hitting. In the interest of fairness, I did not manually intervene.

The strength and weakness of the offense would largely depend upon whether or not Jay, Nieuwenhuis, and Bourn could hang on as every day players all season long. 450-500 plate appearances from all three could produce $25-30 in value, but this assumes enough health and production from the trio to pull this trick. Profit from decent NL-only players is easy enough given how thin the player pool is, but the risk if any player disappears entirely is considerable.

As I mentioned above, these are the kind of adjustments I would recommend making before your auction, not on the fly. For LABR, I would shift my bid pricing closer to a 71/29 split (at the moment it is structured as a 69/31 split) and push pricing down on relief pitchers in particular. Another option I would consider is ignoring pricing on the front end, buying an ace like Clayton Kershaw at par, and then building a cheap staff around him. This strategy is easier in Tout Wars than it is in LABR, where you cannot reserve pitchers you purchased at auction if they are on an active major league roster.

Analyzing expert auctions is easy. Performing well in them is another matter entirely. LABR NL offers a specific series of challenges that—as you can see by the mock roster I constructed—makes putting together a strong team potentially difficult.