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“He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

Auction in the time of COVID-19. It’s a strange world that we are living in right now, and the unknowns continue to pile up. There are always variables when you sit down at an auction, and we knew what a lot of them would be a month ago: What kind of ball would we see in the majors this year? How much do we devalue Astros hitters based on either how successful you thought their cheating scheme was or what the psychological effects of the fallout might be? When will Player X return from his spring training injury?

Yet, there is one question that we’re all wholly unprepared for as a community and seems crazy to have to answer: How do you build a fantasy baseball team for 2020 if you don’t know when the season will start?

First, there are the simple answers. We don’t care very much about injuries that were going to cause players to miss all or most of April (or even extending out to mid-May), since the season is unlikely to start before early June. We will be slightly more bearish around prospects because the shortened season will more than likely impact how much time they spend in the majors.

Then, there are the more complex and subjective questions to answer. How does a potential 100-game season impact our auction strategy overall? Should we be paying more for the studs? Should we be gambling more on high-variance players? These are foreign questions to us as fantasy baseball participants, but where you fall on their answers could change your outlook on how you allocate your spending. Personally, I increased my prices heading into the auction on the top 50 or so players and expanded my dollar-days bucket, and in Tout Wars it certainly seemed like I was not alone on that front. (It made me feel better about my strategy since I have a ton of respect for all the other owners in the room.)

Of course, a lot has changed in just the few days since the auction happened. You wouldn’t choose to fish from a speeding boat, but if you all have speeding boats, at least everyone is at the same disadvantage. We know even less about when or whether there will be a season every day, and I/we certainly understand that fantasy baseball gets less and less important with each passing hour. Yet, we still have auctions and drafts that will take place over the next week or two, and we all still need some good distractions. 

So, here’s an overview of how my experience with the Tout Wars Mixed Auction went this year:

From a practical standpoint, it can be challenging going from an in-person auction environment to one that takes place online. When you’re in a room where nothing else is happening, it’s easier to maintain focus. When you’re in your house in reasonably tight quarters with your family, it’s harder. I leaned into it a little, and my daughter sat with me for roughly the first half hour of the auction because she seemed interested (she’s nine and very into math problems so my hope is she’ll be playing with me in a few years), which was great. Though she did continually ask me why I didn’t buy every player that came up after asking me if said player was good. Eventually, she’d had enough, but I was joined at the end by a slightly less talkative family member:

From a technological standpoint, if you’re not used to drafting via online auction software, there are a few things that you should be testing ahead of time, if at all possible. See how much time there will be for you to nominate players and to bid once the dollars start flying. See how close you can cut it to time running out before you place a bid, as the last thing you want is to find out that when you hit the button to bid with a second left, there’s enough of a delay that it doesn’t register. If you’re running everything off one computer, make sure that your screen is set up, so you can see your research and the auction at the same time. Try not to flip back and forth if you can avoid it—printing out valuations/lists or running them off a different device is a much better option. Keep your nomination queue reasonably full, so you don’t have to scramble. Be realistic. You may want to have a fully fleshed-out plan of who you want to nominate and why when you’re in the room, but it may not be worth the brainpower when you’re juggling everything online.

As for the team, I had three goals: nominate and purchase Mike Trout right out of the gate (I had the first nomination as the 2019 winner); spend early/often; and (like I also did in LABR) avoid the middle-tier pitchers.

***

“But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacity for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.”

Let me take a step back. I never go into an auction saying that I need to get a particular player. I take a value-based approach and set reasonable prices for everyone that I stay around or within during the auction, and I recalibrate on the fly. That said, I had a price of $63 set for Trout, who I was extremely confident would not go for that much. Given it’s an OBP league, he’s far and away the best player available in the auction, and as long as the number for which I purchased him started with a five, I’d be very happy. The fact that it also ended in a five was even better.

Although my price for Trout was in line with my expectation, what surprised me most was the lack of separation at the top among the top hitters. There were four hitters who went for $50 or more:

On-base percentage is not the answer to everything in OBP leagues, but the gap between Trout and the next-best player in the category is substantial. Per PECOTA, Trout is projected for a .441 OBP, which is 37-points higher than the second-highest projection (Alex Bregman at .404). He may not be a great bet to steal 20 bases again, but just imagine how insane the projections would be if he were.

***

“The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not. He distrusted those who did not—when they strayed from the straight and narrow it was something so unusual for them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it.”

Mixed league auctions are divided into those who spend and those who do not. Of course, that doesn’t make either group right; it just boils down to trust in their individual strengths. Despite wanting to spend more early, however, I saw 32 players get thrown out after Mike Trout without my ending up with a single one of them. I came closer on some than others. Here’s a full list of the players who ended up going for within $2 of my prices (in parentheses):

Everyone else was well outside my range, and based on how the remainder of the auction went, I was glad to not have pushed my prices on the players above. 

The more interesting phenomenon usually comes when the values with which you arrive are tested, and that often occurs when you start to break into groups or tiers that are fresh in the auction. In particular, the two that I found most interesting were the aces and the catchers. The more confidence you have in your valuations, the more likely you are to break in and grab the first or second name at what you believe to be good value, rather than waiting on the rest of the tier. There’s a lot of advice out there about tiering players and waiting until you’re nearing the end of a tier to pounce, but while that’s good draft advice, it’s awful auction advice. 

The perfect example of this was with the first two pitchers thrown out. Gerrit Cole was the second player thrown out, after Trout, and went for $40. A reasonable price. How many of the participants bidding on Cole hung back and said, “There’s another elite ace on the board in Jacob deGrom, so I’m not gonna go crazy on Cole?” Turns out it was too many, as deGrom went for $50 just nine players later. There was a similar pattern with the next tier down. I thought that there was a clear next three among aces this year in Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander—all relatively similar in value. Verlander came out first and went for $32, while Buehler and Scherzer went for $36 and $35, respectively, afterwards.

Where I got involved from a purchasing standpoint was the next group, and this was the order in which they came out:

Pitcher BS Price Sell Price Player Thrown
Shane Bieber 27 27 34th overall
Chris Paddack 15 22 36th overall
Jack Flaherty 29 30 39th overall
Mike Clevinger 30 28 40th overall
Blake Snell 19 20 42nd overall
Stephen Strasburg 25 28 44th overall
Luis Castillo 21 29 47th overall
Aaron Nola 17 25 58th overall
Patrick Corbin 23 29 60th overall

The two bolded players were the ones with whom I ended up, and it’s a good thing, too. There weren’t very many high-end pitchers who went for par beyond that point. In fact, the only two pitchers who ended up going for less than my price after Corbin were Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer. While I like both of them, I’m happier with the better one-two punch of Bieber and Clevinger.

Catchers, on the other hand, were sort of the opposite. I liked the values I got at the time, but the values continued to be there throughout the auction. This table looks a little different than the one above:

Catcher BS Price Sell Price Player Thrown
J.T. Realmuto 24 24 19th overall
Yasmani Grandal 30 23 38th overall
Gary Sánchez 23 19 53rd overall
Willson Contreras 21 14 72nd overall
Mitch Garver 16 17 109th overall
Will Smith 13 10 151st overall
Carson Kelly 7 8 152nd overall
Wilson Ramos 9 6 173rd overall

Again, this is not ideal, but it can certainly happen when the values are there early. Catchers and closers are the two places where you’re most likely to see it, but I can take solace in knowing that even though the two catchers I bought (bolded here as well) weren’t as good of values as I thought they might be, I was still able to lock it in and avoid taking the risk later.

In terms of the pitchers, I did exactly what I set out to do. Although it will take a little to work to evolve into a full staff with which I’m happy, the opportunity is there via the upside of the ones I did purchase, as well as the future pitchers I might roster that will start out on the waiver wire. After locking in two aces for $55, I spent $21 on a pair of closers and $9 on my remaining five starters. It was a little more extreme of an approach than I took last year, but it worked out for me pretty well then. One of my $1 pitchers at last year’s auction was Brandon Woodruff, and in the first FAAB cycle I added Lucas Giolito. I don’t expect that kind of success every year, but those two weren’t close to the only names that were added from free agency to make an impact on teams.

***

“Why do you insist on talking about what does not exist?”

The auction continued to progress, and it continued to feel strange, as we were drafting for a future that was so unclear. In seeing how the early prices got so high on both hitters and pitchers, it was very obvious that there would be a soft underbelly in the auction. It ended up being softer than I had ever seen before in my years of participating in this league. Many other of the participants were able to take advantage of this, a number of them more so than myself because I had limited funds (I was down to $108 left after I purchased my first five players). Still, I got a few really strong bargains myself.

At the time Victor Robles came out, a total of 95 players into the auction, I was teetering on the edge of dumping steals altogether. There was a lot of OBP and power left on the board and limited stolen-base options, so if Robles got up into the 20s, it was pretty likely that I was going to follow that path. Yet the bidding stopped at $18, and I made my move into the speed game. Tim Anderson followed at $13, and despite it being an OBP league, that price is still quite a bargain for someone who should go 20/20 (if we were playing a full season).

All in all, it was certainly a different kind of Tout Mixed auction, and all of the credit for getting us set up goes to the group that runs the organization: Ron Shandler, Peter Kreutzer, Jeff Erickson, Todd Zola, and Brian Walton. The fact that they were able to move us from an in-person to an online auction within a matter of a couple of days, including setting up a trial run so we could get accustomed to using Fantrax, was incredible. And while it was disappointing not to be able to see everyone last weekend and order the burger with my name on it with money that had my face on it, it was clearly the right decision.

Many other fantasy leagues will have to make that same decision over the coming week or two, and I truly hope that everyone takes the omnipresent advice of all medical experts out there and either hold your drafts and auctions online or postpone them until just before the season is actually going to start. There is plenty of adequate technology these days. No fantasy league should be drafting in person until the recommendations on group gatherings are changed. It’s not worth the risk to you or your families.

I hope everyone is staying both safe and sane in this trying time. We are all in this together in so many ways, and our entire community here yearns for the return of both normalcy and baseball. 

Here is my final Tout Wars Mixed Auction team. Here’s hoping that there’s enough of a baseball season to see whether it was a good auction or not:

C – Yasmani Grandal ($23), Gary Sánchez ($19)
1B – Mark Canha ($3)
2B – Brandon Lowe ($3)
SS – Tim Anderson ($13)
3B – Yoán Moncada ($18)
CI – Miguel Sanó ($14)
MI – Robinson Canó ($2)
OF – Mike Trout ($55), Victor Robles ($18), Nick Senzel ($2), Trent Grisham ($2), Ryan Braun ($1)
UT – Miguel Andújar ($2)

SP – Mike Clevinger ($28), Shane Bieber ($27), Caleb Smith ($2), Yonny Chirinos ($2), Jon Gray ($2), Reynaldo Lopez ($2), Aaron Civale ($1)
RP – Ken Giles ($12), Hansel Robles ($9)

Reserves: Travis Shaw, Mitch Haniger, Nathan Eovaldi, Aníbal Sánchez, Jarred Kelenic, Griffin Canning

For the full results, go here.

Thank you for reading

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Anthony Worrall
3/21
Nice team Bret , love that you have 3 Cleveland hurlers on your team, GO INDIANS!!, whenever that may be :)
Bret Sayre
3/22
Thanks, Anthony!
DONALD MCCOWN
3/23
That is one helluva team, Bret. Great job. Auction or....straight draft - that's a competitive team you can be pleased with going to battle with.