I don’t think I’ve ever nervously checked my roster more on the final day of the season than I did with this Tout Wars team. This was my fourth season in the mixed auction. The first three were strong showings and consistent, but not what I wanted. The level of competition is through the roof, and my best had only gotten me two fifth-place finishes and one sixth-place finish. I was not shy when it came to talking about how badly I wanted this one. I had won Tout X back in 2015, but that was 10 teams and it was the first (and only) year of the format, so while I got my face on the funny money, the traditional auctions are just different. A bunch of paper bags and glares from my wife later, I finally was able to say it out loud. It was as amazing as I had imagined.
If you’re looking for a column dedicated solely to all the great decisions I made on the road to the 2019 Tout Wars Mixed Auction title, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sure, it’s fun to write for the confident self-appreciator, but as someone who is very much not cut from that cloth, it just sounds exhausting and like something I’d never want to read. So we’ve got a slightly different lede here for my retrospective.
We think back on our fantasy successes and recognize the shrewd auction buys, waiver-wire pickups, and trades that led to them. That time you picked up Mike Trout in FAAB during his rookie season and he led you to a title. That time you traded for Justin Verlander when he was languishing in his pre-second-act Detroit days, before he rediscovered the magic. They exist and they shouldn’t be discounted as memories that make you proud. But the things you forget along the way are even more important as reminders that when you win a fantasy league (even one as tough as Tout Wars is), there is no shortage of things you f**ked up along the way. And it’s not just learning from mistakes. It’s knowing that everyone makes bad decisions over the course of the year—they just shouldn’t dry up your confidence to make the next one.
Next time you feel shitty about something you did in your league, take a look back at this list. I promise that you won’t feel as bad (and these are just the 10 biggest ones):
- At the auction, my most expensive pitching-buy was Trevor Bauer at $30. Bauer did clear 250 strikeouts, but it was pretty ugly at times. Plus, it’s not like the off-the-field stuff made me feel better about rostering him.
- It didn’t get much better after that. My next two most costly pitchers were Edwin Díaz ($21) and Germán Márquez ($19). Again, strikeouts were not the problem (and 25 saves are 25 saves), but neither of those calls got me any closer to the podium. They also wreaked havoc on my ratios.
- Behind Edwin Díaz, the two choices I made for potential saves were Seranthony Domínguez and A.J. Minter. It’s like the “name a mid-00’s Orioles pitching prospect” game, but set in the modern day NL East. I thought they’d each make their way to approximately 25 saves, and you can use the extremely Ron Howard voice as much as you want on this—they didn’t.
- My OF3, OF4 and OF5 from the auction combined to hit .210/.291/.309 across just 353 at-bats. One was a season mostly lost to injury (Justin Upton). One was a season of just miserable performance (Billy Hamilton). One literally didn’t register an at-bat for his team before I dropped him because they hate him and had to sign Daniel Descalso in the offseason (Ian Happ).
- I FAAB’d Ian Kennedy in early April for $31. And finally dropped him on May 20 to make room for my slew of pickups that week, including Antonio Senzatela. Kennedy got me one save; however, he went on to get 29 more for someone else, while Senzatela left me with a 21.60 ERA and a bad case of whiplash.
- The same week I picked up Kennedy, I also picked up Ryan Yarbrough, watched him throw up an 8.10 ERA for my team, and dropped him on May 13 in order to make room for Iván Nova, who had a slightly better but still brutal 7.08 ERA in his time destroying my ratios. After Yarbrough was dropped, he was a top-30 starter the rest of the season, winning nine games and posting a 3.60 ERA and 0.95 WHIP.
- I FAAB’d Emilio Pagán in early June and released him two weeks later to make room for Aaron Bummer, which feels about appropriate. Pagán got no saves for me, but he did go on to get 20 for someone else, while I would go on to release Bummer after five innings across two weeks.
- Not only did I purchase Michael Wacha at the auction, but I also added him twice off the waiver wire. Some habits, like thinking he still has a modicum of upside, are hard to break. He made nine starts for my team, leaving a 5.36 ERA and 1.76 WHIP in his wake.
- I spent $232 of my FAAB on Brendan Rodgers, who registered just two extra-base hits before he hit the IL in July with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
- I went through 11 total catchers during the season. Yes, you read that number right. Eleven. I bought Mike Zunino at the auction, eventually released him, then added him again via FAAB and then released him again. I also bought Francisco Mejía, which would have been fine if I’d gotten more than 200 PA from him. The rest of the rag-tag bunch was Alex Avila, Austin Barnes, Welington Castillo, Zack Collins, Tyler Flowers, Yan Gomes, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Stephen Vogt, and Matt Wieters. All 11 of them combined to hit .212/.285/.369 with 21 HR and 72 RBI for my team. That’s a whole lot of shuffling for starkly below-average production, even by catcher standards.
If you don’t have a good sense of my naturally self-depreciating nature, you certainly do now. There is a point I’m trying to make here, though, by going through all of this—aside from the “no matter how good of a season you have, you’ll still miss plenty of times” one. And it ties back to making a plan and sticking to it.
I went into the auction side of it in my recap from March, but now we can look through this stuff via the lens of how these things actually worked out. The three things on which I looked back fondly before anyone started accumulating statistics were as follows: (1) my willingness to spend big on stars I felt were worthy; (2) my patience for values in the mid-game; and (3) leveraging my gut more in the end-game.
The first is boring. I valued Mike Trout at a price that I knew I’d likely get him. I did, and he was great. He didn’t quite hit his .455 OBP projection, but he topped baseball in the category and ramped his power up to new highs (though the steals lagged behind). J.D. Martinez was good, but he took a step back from his 2017-2018 peak. Bauer and Díaz, unfortunately, were covered in the previous section.
The value section of the auction (players priced between $15 and $20) saw a few things come to pass. Here’s what I wrote about my SP2 and SP3 at the time:
[Germán] Márquez and [Clayton] Kershaw both have the potential to be $30 earners in mixed leagues this year, and in some ways there’s more safety in numbers than in safety itself. I like the odds of one of them getting there better than some of the pitchers who went singularly in the $34-36 range.
In the end, Kershaw held up his end of the bargain and outperformed more than half of the SP1s taken in March on his way to another great season, even if he came up just shy of that $30 valuation.
The last half of the auction, however, was where I made my biggest shift. It’s where I ended up getting my best results. Here’s what I wrote about my plan from March:
The place I had generally gone wayward was in making the assumption that the players in the $5-15 range were notably better than the ones who ended up in the $1-3 range—and because of my typical strategy, it has to be the group on the whole because I tend to be relatively player agnostic in that range during the auction. In reality, the difference is small enough to not be worth saving any money for values that show up, so I saw about 5-6 players who were undervalued based on my spreadsheet by around $5-6 each come up towards the middle of the auction, and a 2018 version of myself probably had enough cash to grab most of them. Yet, the 2019 version watched and waited for a small handful of players I was not agnostic about and the endgame that was to follow.
This was far more successful for me on the hitting side than the pitching side, where my only notable hit was a $1 Brandon Woodruff. Offensively, I spent $21 total on Pete Alonso, Josh Bell, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, Eduardo Escobar, and Ryan McMahon. That group combined to hit 161 of my 377 homers and accounted for 505 of my 1179 RBI (we’ll get into why those numbers seem lower than they should be later). But, uhh, that’ll do. I came away more excited about my late-auction picks, and it turns out that one year of data says that I should trust my gut a little more than I typically do.
But the theory behind some of this extends into the regular season as well. I set out to be more aggressive with my FAAB bidding in 2019, and that materialized in two different ways. One, I wasn’t afraid to drop big bids on players in whom I believed. Two, I wanted to act more quickly and decisively as a general rule of thumb on the waiver wire.
Let’s start with the first. The $384 bid I won on Austin Riley was the largest I have successfully made in my Tout Wars Mixed history (my raw bid for Juan Soto was actually slightly bigger last year, but sadly I lost out on that one). And while his OBP left plenty to be desired, Trout gave me the cushion I needed to roll the Braves third-baseman-turned-left-fielder out there confidently for a couple of months while he hit 14 homers and drove in 40 runs. Let’s just say that worked out a little better than the Brendan Rodgers bid (my second highest).
The second piece was much more important, and honestly it was probably the biggest contributor to my winning the league. The Yarbrough add didn’t end up working out for me because I didn’t hold onto him long enough, but I also dropped $47 on Lucas Giolito after his first start of the season. I had seen a few innings of his first start on March 31, and he just looked different—with his pedigree as a prospect, I got as aggressive as I thought I needed to be. I was shuffling in and out of potential closers most of the season because the ones I got at auction weren’t helping, so even though I let go of Kennedy and Pagán too early, Carlos Martínez and Seth Lugo ended being important pieces, as I got just enough support all around to climb to the middle of the pack in saves.
And while closers were the most plentiful of the potentially small hits that I took in a current week in order for a potential big payoff later in the season, they weren’t the most important. On May 13, I took a dead spot on offense for the scoring period in order to pick up Yordan Álvarez for $1. From the time he got the call up to Houston on June 9 (well, the day after, as I couldn’t activate him until June 10) to the end of the season, he was arguably my most valuable hitter, smashing 26 homers, driving in 76, and tallying an incredible .411 on-base percentage. He was crushing it in Triple-A, and I’ve always been high on him from a dynasty perspective. I’d be lying, however, if I said I saw that coming.
But it wasn’t just the individual names—it was the opportunities. In my 2018 Tout Wars Mixed season, I rostered a total of 59 players. This year, that jumped to 74. I think the aggressiveness and the churn really helped me to build the roster I needed, and it gave me more options at various points of the season. (Though to be fair, some of that jump also had to do with the strategy in the auction that put me in a position to give up on some of my low-end players more quickly—another benefit, I would say.)
Finally, I made three trades during the season, but two of them were extremely insignificant. One was certainly not. And the beauty of it all is that it was both a trade without which I wouldn’t have been able to win the league and it ended up being exactly what both of us wanted it to be. I had jumped out to an aggressive lead in homers and RBI, which gave me the ability to deal from my excess in order to improve my pitching. On the evening of June 14, I traded Pete Alonso and Sean Manaea to Ron Shandler for Gerrit Cole, Jake Lamb, and $50 in FAAB. At the time of the trade, Gerrit Cole was sitting on a 6-5 record with a bloated 3.67 ERA, but he had a 0.99 WHIP and (more importantly) his 2.90 DRA portended better days ahead. This is just one of many reasons why I love our Deserved stats, by the way. I still had Cole valued as a top-three starter the rest of the way, and he definitely exceeded those expectations by going 14-0 with a 1.63 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 186 strikeouts. He quite literally carried my entire pitching staff to the finish line, including nailing down one last win on the final day of the season to give me an extra half-point. Meanwhile, Alonso hit 30 homers for Ron and surrounded that power with a strong OBP and counting stats. He got what he set out for as well.
That is a good natural segue into what happened in September. I had held the lead through most of August, but I was in a virtual tie with Scott Swanay as the calendar turned, with Brent Hershey hot on both of our tails. Mike Trout played his last game of the season on September 7, and the following day I was in second place, three points back. Josh Bell then played his last game of the season on September 13 and little did I know that Lucas Giolito had made his last start of the year the day prior. My active roster was on life support, but I was fortunate that I’d built up a lot of cushion in HR, RBI, and strikeouts—which lessened some of that blow.
Even with that, I clawed back, and it was a struggle to the very last day. For at least half of the closing weekend, I was fully convinced that Scott was going to end up pulling this out. I was battling Zach Steinhorn for a point in runs that I’d held for months, and Ron Shandler for an ERA point he had leapfrogged me to gain. In the end, I held on by the skin of my teeth—the final three-point margin greatly understates the tightness of the standings. And, finally, at 8pm once all the games were finally over, I let my kids do this to me:
I’ve spilled a lot of words already here (probably too many), but I’ve spent so many of these auction and season recaps talking about having a plan and sticking to that plan. And yes, I did have a plan. That said, the most important lesson I took away from this season is that I need to do a better job of listening to my gut without toppling over the valuation-based approach that I have. Using it to inform rather than to drive.
We all read tons of fantasy content, and a lot of it is really good with incredibly sharp analysis, including (cheap plug) all of the great resources we have here at Baseball Prospectus. But it’s your team, and all of the sleepers and macro analysis won’t make you happy if you don’t believe in it personally. Plus, it’s more fun that way. So take that analysis and sprinkle it on like spices in a good Bolognese sauce, but don’t let it be the meat. You should be the meat. (Also, note to self: do not write while hungry.)
As always, none of this would have been possible without the support of everyone involved in running Tout Wars: Ron Shandler, Peter Kreutzer, Jeff Erickson, Todd Zola, and Brian Walton. It’s an incredibly tall task to run one league as smoothly as they do, let alone six. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got five months until I need to decide what menu item I want for next year’s party, and I plan to take all of this time to think about it.
Thank you for reading
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