The first serious fantasy baseball league I ever played in was the Billy Almon Brown Graduate league, an AL-only 4×4 Rotisserie League that started at Brown University in 1987, but by the time I joined in 1996, it had become somewhat geographically spread out due to the inevitable diaspora of former students finding jobs and making their way in parts of the world that weren’t close to their university. The auction that year was in New York City, at the apartment of a Columbia University professor who wasn’t in the league but was letting us use it for the auction. Because of my relative youth and immaturity, I was intimidated by the Ivy League trappings and résumés of the members of the league, which made me want to prove that I belonged.
As often happens when you’re new to a keeper league, I inherited a team that was putrid. I’m not going to regale you with Exciting Tales of A Freeze List from 1996, but the previous manager of my team went full throttle in 1995 and traded away the future in exchange for expiring contracts and expensive players. I had a handful of decent freezes, but I did not have enough to compete with teams that threw in the towel early the previous year and loaded up with young, cost-controlled talent. The assumption everyone made was that I would draft a team to compete in 1997 and throw in the towel early.
This philosophy, which is common in keeper or dynasty leagues, both was and is an anathema to me. I hate losing, hate giving up on any season, and especially hate giving up before the season has even started. I found out later that day that on the taxi ride from LaGuardia Airport to the auction, three league members were already talking this-year-for-next-year trades. This made my blood boil. I understood the idea of packing it in when all hope was lost and that finishing ninth solely to avoid the shame of finishing last was dumb. But I was going to at least try.
To wrap up this already far-too-long introduction, I took a team with almost no keepers and came within two-and-a-half points of first place by engineering The Sweeney Plan. I added a vintage Kenny Lofton to a slightly underpriced Chuck Knoblauch, and I then drafted a bunch of $1 hitters who were fast. I added loads of pitching to my already-decent pitching freezes. I won batting average, steals, wins, and saves easily; finished dead last in home runs and RBI; and only lost the league because I couldn’t quite finish at the top in ERA and WHIP.
I bring up this story not to remind you that I’ve been doing this for a long time and that I’m an old fart, but because for the first time since its inception in 1998, Tout Wars decided to abolish its minimum innings requirement. I looked at the volatile pitching landscape in the American League, examined the feasibility of maxing out in eight categories while finishing dead last in the other two, and decided why the hell not? Rob Leibowitz of Roto Heaven, last year’s Tout Wars AL winner, finished with 100 points. Smarter readers might point out that finishing first in eight categories and last in two is good for a 98-point finish and wouldn’t have beaten Rob last year. The counterpoint to this is that finishing first in eight categories flattens the top of the standings (everyone else “loses” eight points on offense, saves, ERA, and WHIP and “gains” two points in home runs and RBI). It isn’t bulletproof. The biggest drawback to any category optimization plan is that teams playing for all 10 categories theoretically have no ceiling. I could hit all my targets and lose to a 120-point team.
I wanted to try this strategy for two reasons:
- Pitching has become even more volatile and unpredictable.
It’s easy enough in a mixed league to draft a couple of front-line pitchers, churn arms in the middle and at the bottom all season long, and still finish at or near the top in pitching. The margin of error in mono leagues has always been narrow, and with more starting pitchers facing stricter innings caps and averaging fewer innings per start, threading the eye of the proverbial needle has become even more difficult.
- I like exploiting loopholes.
I tried this strategy in my home league in 1996, in part, because I wanted to be competitive, but I saw a large loophole. The removal of the innings cap in Tout Wars seemed easy to exploit, in part because no one else seemed to have noticed the rule change over the winter. I asked my BP colleague Jon Hegglund and our BP President Bret Sayre (and fellow Tout Warriors) about trying this strategy, and both were unaware of the change. Trying something like this is a little easier if no one sees it coming.
Part II: The Plan
In addition to making my customary bid-limit adjustments for Tout Wars’ OBP format (traditional Roto uses AVG), I needed to decide how much to budget toward hitting and pitching, as well as building category targets. In order to execute this strategy well, I needed to buy two front-line closers. I budgeted $34 for the closers and then slotted $1 for my other seven pitchers. This left me with $219 to spend on offense. The average team in Tout usually spends $175-180 on offense, so this gave me an advantage—even if I didn’t spend wisely. But to maximize points of offense, I needed to be mindful of category targets. That’s where The AX came in.
I took this year’s LABR AL auction results and plugged them into The AX. Yes, this meant figuring out how a fantasy league I’m not in performed at auction. I used this as a baseline instead of last year’s results because projection models are conservative. Plugging any 2020 projection system into 2019’s baselines would paint a misleading picture. My targets based on LABR’s auction results in late February were:
314 home runs
110 stolen bases
Because LABR uses AVG, it didn’t make sense to use LABR as my OBP guideline. Instead, I used Tout’s 2019 leading OBP of .340 as my target. More than any other category, OBP is the one on which you cannot skimp if you’re trying to build an eight-category juggernaut. It is possible to leverage free agency or trades to improve in every other category, but if you buy a middle-of-the-pack OBP team, moving up is difficult if not impossible.
To this end, my strategy revolved around Mike Trout. Injuries have sapped Trout’s fantasy value somewhat the last three seasons, but even so, he cleared 600 plate appearances in both 2018 and 2019, and OBP propelled him to a $43 season last year and a $49 season in 2018. Adding Trout’s projected .441 OBP and 630 plate appearances to my roster meant that I needed my other 13 hitters, on average, to post a .330 OBP. If I didn’t buy Trout, it would be more difficult to justify adding subpar OBP hitters to my team, if needed, so Trout was a near must. I would pay up to $55 for him. My Plan B was Alex Bregman at $40. I didn’t have a Plan C. Maybe I would have played it straight and tried in all 10 categories if the room went all out for Trout and Bregman.
But after eight players in whom I wasn’t interested were nominated and purchased by other teams, Trout was called out at $50. I said $51, was bid up again and said $53. Trout was mine, and I was on my way.
Here’s what came next:
Round 2: José Altuve $28
Twenty-eight dollars was right around my bid limit. I was OK with the price, but in the mock scenarios that I ran for my team before the auction when I got Trout, I avoided paying more than $25 for any other player. However, since my plan was to spend $220 on offense, I didn’t want to get too cute and turn away too many acceptable prices, particularly on players who were OBP positive.
Round 3: George Springer $29
And just like that I had three players for $110, or about half the money that I planned to spend on offense. I was a little concerned, but the advantage of having such a strong OBP start is that it gave me more flexibility to add some somewhat weaker OBP hitters later. Another way I could have gone in this round was to bid more on Gary Sánchez ($16) or Adalberto Mondesí ($27). I shied away from both players because, at this point, my laser-focus was on OBP. This would be something that I might come to regret at the end of the day.
Round 5: Roberto Osuna $19, Carlos Correa $19
Oh yeah, that’s right, you need closers to make this plan work. Aroldis Chapman was the first closer off the board at $20, and while I hemmed and hawed at Osuna’s price, I also didn’t want to wait too long and wind up chasing saves later if the room got too aggressive on the mid-tier options. I needed first-rate closers in ERA/WHIP for this plan to work.
Correa is the first player I bought on whom I was significantly higher than The AX. My bid limit for him was $24, while The AX had him at $20.60. PECOTA’s projection is relatively tepid on Correa compared to other models, but even PECOTA’s relatively soft projection sees Correa as an OBP-positive hitter.
Round 6: Liam Hendriks $16
I pushed one dollar past my planned closer spending and locked down another premium stopper.
There were some cheaper closers later, and another approach that I could have taken was to buy three closers for $33-35 total. But as I’ve mentioned before, ERA and WHIP were a vital component to this strategy, and I was trying to reduce my margin for error. There was a bidding war on Ken Giles two rounds later because he was the last top-flight closer on the board, and he went for $22. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t overthink this.
Round 8: Joey Gallo $26
I had a $29 bid limit on Gallo in OBP. The AX had him much lower, at $23. I bring this up because Ramón Laureano was purchased one player earlier, also at $26 (my bid limit was $22). I like Gallo much better than Laureano in OBP leagues. However, given my need for speed, I might have been better off with Laureano.
Round 11: Roberto Pérez $3
So, let’s talk about catchers.
I didn’t have a plan when it came to catchers. I passed on Sánchez and had the penultimate bids on both Yasmani Grandal ($21) and Mitch Garver ($18) earlier in the auction. Amazingly enough, a total of 20 catchers were already rostered when Pérez was nominated. I wasn’t targeting him. I was at the point where I was looking at my roster and realized: (a) I would need at least one mostly everyday catcher to get enough counting stats across the board, and (b) I could start drafting hitters below my .330 OBP target because I had already loaded up my team with so many strong OBP targets.
Round 12: Nomar Mazara $11
I wasn’t expecting to get him and am not a fan, but in the last three seasons Mazara has earned between $14-15. He’s safe at this price. He’s a bargain, even if this disappointing version of him is what we’re going to get, but if the thumb injury that he has been playing through for the last year and a half is what has been holding Mazara back, he could be a bargain.
Round 14: Gio Urshela $8
Kevin Jebens’ write up on Urshela last November sold me on the fact that he is legit. At this price, Urshela can regress to a league-average hitter and still be a bargain. The Yankees are committed to Urshela’s defense at third, so Miguel Andújar won’t supplant Urshela, barring an injury or a complete fall off by Gio.
Round 15: Michael Chavis $7
Chavis hit well in the first half before a left AC joint sprain sapped his production in August and ended his season later that month. The .332 OBP that Chavis posted before the All-Star break, with plenty of power, is a more realistic barometer than his overall line. I dig the power and think that he’ll get plenty of playing time for a Red Sox team seeking versatility.
Round 16: Dee Gordon $7. Mark Canha $16
My lack of speed earlier in the auction forced me to buy Gordon, a one-dimensional speedster who might not get enough at-bats to steal the bases that I need from him. He’s also better in AVG leagues; in OBP Gordon is a drag in the category. I’m not expecting him to return to his 60-steal peak (although that would be nice), but 30 steals or close to it is what I’m going to need to be competitive in the category.
Canha was one of my targets and the last player on the board who was worth a big bid. He’s also first-base eligible in Tout (15 game requirements), which mattered in an auction that saw corners flying off the board at high prices. All Canha needs to do in 2020 is repeat his counting stats from 2019 across a full season to be a bargain.
Round 18: JaCoby Jones $5, Sergio Romo $1
As was the case with Gordon, Jones wasn’t a player I wanted, but my lack of overall speed forced me into this buy. He’s fast and the Tigers haven’t been afraid to lead him off, but Jones’ mediocre offensive skills could push him to the bench, even though he has the upper hand in center field over Victor Reyes.
Romo was the first of my seven non-closer relievers. Lather, rinse, repeat. At this point I can probably just skip ahead to my last eight players.
My non-closer relievers were the seven best relievers based on The AX’s projection, combined with my valuation formulas from 2019 for AL-only. It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll get any points in wins, but buying relievers on good teams and hoping that one or two of them gets eight wins gives me an outside chance of sneaking two or three points in the category.
Candelario and Pérez closed out my offense and put me above all my category targets, except stolen bases.
Table 2: Baseball Prospectus Targets for Tout Wars AL-only Auction and Results
I included my saves and ERA/WHIP targets here just for giggles. My non-closers won’t combine for 33 saves, at least not in the way that The AX is projecting. One of my non-closers could take over as a closer in the first month of the season. Osuna or Hendriks aren’t invincible or inevitable; both could lose their jobs, and I might need to scramble. As far as ERA and WHIP go, if Osuna and Hendriks are fine, I might dump the rest of my bullpen quickly and finish with 160 innings with great ratios. I don’t need to hang on to bad relievers for any reason whatsoever. Getting 38 points on pitching with no innings requirement should be easy enough, even if Osuna or Hendriks stink on ice. I have six months to plug-and-play and a lot of freedom thanks to the lack of an innings requirement.
Offense is where I might not have enough. I wish that I had more of an OBP cushion, as I found myself buying more and more sub-par OBP players just so I could meet the other category targets. And my stolen base projection is generous if Gordon isn’t a starter and doesn’t get enough plate appearances. PECOTA isn’t projecting a full season for Gordon, but I do need at least 400 plate appearances and 25-30 steals.
Nevertheless, I put myself in a position to succeed, even if that success comes with a narrower margin for error. Category dumps are fun because they’re challenging. Whether this works or not is another story. But assuming we have a season at all this year, it will be fun to see how this novel strategy plays out.
Thank you for reading
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