Baseball in 2020 was accompanied by a sizable asterisk, and the fantasy version of the game was no different. As the long year dragged on and on, the 2021 season was too far way to envision, but many of us in the fantasy baseball community hoped that we would be able to convene in person for our industry (expert) leagues the way we always had in the past. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
March 6, 2021 marked my sixth year in LABR NL or AL (the League of Alternative Baseball Reality) but the first time where the experience was entirely virtual. I figured it would be challenging, but I had no idea what to expect, as I wasn’t sure how much experience others in the virtual room had with remote drafting. For years, I have participated in an industry salary-cap draft run by CBS for both AL- and NL-only. This gave me a comfort level with a virtual setting and bidding that others might not possess.
It was impossible to predict how this significant change would affect the league, but something I always noticed in CBS was that the bidding on the top players was far more aggressive than in LABR. While some of this aggressive behavior had to do with the lack of mono-league experience among the CBS competitors, I wondered how much of the difference was tied to an online environment in which the bidding can jump quickly if multiple bids are placed at the same time. I typically adjust my prices slightly higher on the top players in the CBS leagues, so I wouldn’t be left chasing too many players in the middle and—even worse—leaving money behind at the end.
I also thought about doing this for LABR. For the most part, though, I let my published bids stand. I didn’t want to accidentally get caught with a Stars and Scrubs team that was past my bid valuations based on an artificial adjustment. If my team was my typically boring and balanced squad, then so be it.
[extreme Jane Eyre voice] Reader, I wound up with a Stars and Scrubs team.
The night after the LABR NL salary-cap draft, I co-hosted a live video chat covering the LABR AL salary-cap draft as part of Baseball HQ’s First Pitch event. My co-host was Derek Van Riper of The Athletic, who was also in LABR NL. He asked me about what happened on Saturday. He wanted to know whether I had planned to go Stars and Scrubs from the get-go.
The answer was, and always is, no.
I tend to build either imbalanced or balanced squads with not much middle ground on either side, and I think even among other analysts there is a misunderstanding about how I construct my teams because their approach is different, and along the following lines:
“I need ‘x’ amount of offense, ‘y’ amount of pitching, so I need to spend $180 on hitters and $80 on pitchers to achieve this goal. I will target one ace for $25-30, three mid-tier arms including a closer for a combined $40, and then try to fill out cheaply on the back end. On offense, I will grab two $30 anchors and seek as much balance otherwise as possible. I will get two $1 catchers.”
This approach can work, but it ignores the reality that a salary-cap draft is governed by market forces. If you plan to spend $2 on two catchers and believe J.T. Realmuto is worth $23, but the bidding stops at $15, should you bid? The clear answer: “Absolutely, yes, what the heck are you waiting for?!” While I cannot read minds—and literally couldn’t see faces or gauge body language—I suspect that many of my competitors bid conservatively in the early going because they were locked into these types of schemas.
It’s also quite possible that the virtual draft room led to conservative bidding because some bids didn’t take. Early on, my bid button locked when I tried bidding on Pete Alonso, and he went for what I thought was a nice bargain. After that, I didn’t take any chances. I kept bidding on players if they were at least $3 below my published bid price. With few exceptions, this is what I do almost every year in these industry leagues. It’s not subtle nor is it a secret. What usually happens is that everyone bids -1, par (even), or over on almost every player, and I must start bidding $1 below or par on a couple of players so I don’t leave my imaginary cash on the faux table. I still pack a decent amount of value on my team, but it’s a challenge.
Stars and Scrubs is easier in its way because all the value arrives early, and I don’t have to worry about spending all my money.
Just like that I was off to the races, with $107 allocated to three players in the first round.
I wasn’t actively planning to get one of the top NL hitters (along with Ronald Acuña, Trea Turner, Fernando Tatís, Jr., and Juan Soto). When Acuña, Tatís, and Turner came out of the chute early and went to other teams, I thought Betts would also sail past my price. But he stopped at $40, which is as high as I would have gone, and he became my offensive centerpiece. Even if he doesn’t come to close to 40 home runs or 30 steals, he is a five-category superstar in his prime.
In addition, deGrom wasn’t exactly a target, but I was willing to go to $41 and wanted him badly. He has been head-and-shoulders above the pack. Even in an NL pitcher pool that is deeper than the AL’s, deGrom stands far above the rest of the pack. Buehler might have been a mistake, given some of the cheap pitching prices that came after. But a two-ace strategy can work well if you manage the rest of your staff adroitly.
It wasn’t truly a Stars and Scrubs team, and that is hardly surprising. There was a clump of players priced between $27-35 who cost just about the right amount. In a different environment, I would have pushed at least one of them up another dollar, but I could already see the way the room was breaking. Someone else will get bargains when spending is conservative, and you can’t catch ‘em all.
Once I got Buehler, I committed to not spending more than $10 on another pitcher. This was painful, to say the least, as several bargains flew by. However, historically speaking, $10-19 arms in mono leagues tend to have a higher failure rate than $20-plus starters, so it’s important to remember that our preseason prices are often flat-out wrong. Don’t get wrapped up in who is or isn’t getting a perceived bargain.
If I had kept pushing and pushing on pitching, or even if I had put a higher cap on my pitching budget at $100 instead of $83, I would have struggled to put together an offensive core. That was the imperative for the rest of the day. This group of hitters gave me a solid base of power (behind Betts). I know that some people don’t like spending on catchers, but getting this sort of volume from Realmuto at a position where at-bats are at a premium works to my advantage with this type of team. Blackmon should be an AVG anchor.
After Blackmon, I had $64 to spend on 16 players. Sad! This is where many fantasy managers will pump the brakes in the hopes that they can find some balance and not be forced to fill in with “too many” $1 players. I’ve done this in the past and have found that eventually you let even more bargains go by and then need to overpay for your “balance,” negating your valuation advantage and still leaving yourself with too many holes.
This was it. After this trio, I had $18 left for six hitters and seven pitchers. I wanted to go dollar derby on my pitching staff and pick up a bunch of arms on reserve (I’ll explain why below), which would leave me with $11 for my six remaining hitters if I followed through.
Part IV –The Void
Myers was the 100th player out of 276 in the salary-cap portion of the evening. Unless someone really slipped at this point, I would be out of the bidding for a long time. And I was. I went 120 players—or 10 full rounds—before my next buy.
Did I lose out? My valuations say no.
Table 1: Round-by-Round Projected Gains/Losses, LABR NL 2021
The first 12 players nominated are Round 1, the next 12 (13-24) are Round 2, etc. The “projected value” is directly from my bid limits. The value and salary columns are not equal because some players with a $2 bid limit (or higher) were not selected.
When I added Myers, the room was at +58. This wasn’t the peak moment of the day (that came earlier in the seventh round, when Craig Kimbrel went for $10), and the virtual room wasn’t done underspending until near the end of the 12th round, when Brandon Nimmo went $1 under my $11 bid limit and the room was at +61. But what goes up must come down. I knew that at some point the room was going to start overspending. I could have passed on Myers and/or McCutchen and hoped that I could squeeze a few superior bargains onto my team later. But while threading the needle like this can work, it often doesn’t. Predicting when the room will compensate is next to impossible.
The collapse started with the last player nominated at the end of the 12th round and didn’t end until Van Riper bought Brendan Rodgers for $13 near the beginning of the 19th round. A total of 76 players went for $87 over my bid prices. Again, this isn’t a linear progression—a few players were bargains—but in a general sense this wasn’t where you wanted to be sitting on a pile of cash.
Not only that, but there were also bargains coming at the end. That’s right, there was an overcorrection, as teams went from being scared to spend their money early to scared that they wouldn’t be able to get enough value on their teams at the end. When there is underspending in a salary-cap draft, this phenomenon is common, as teams race to overpay to get stats.
You can find the round-by-round bids, along with my bid limits, in this attached spreadsheet.
I was wise to stay out of this end of the pool, even though the results at the end don’t look pretty. If you have a weak constitution, you might want to stop reading now and call it a day.
Part V: The End, Finally
19.4: Sean Doolittle $1
19.5: Daniel Bard $4
20.2: Todd Frazier $1
21.1: Isan Díaz $2
21.4: David Peterson $2
21.10: Erik González $1
23.1: Adrian Houser $1
23.4 Josh Rojas $1
23.7 Chad Kuhl $1
23.9 Albert Almora $1
23.10 Luis Urías $1
23.11 Johnny Cueto $1
23.12 Andrew Miller $1
One thing I’ve noticed about Stars and Scrubs write-ups is that they tend to be overly optimistic about the players on the back end of the roster. I’m not going to make that mistake. I won’t paint you a happy picture. This is an ugly assemblage of players to round out a roster, and with two or three notable exceptions, I would prefer to have better players. I was glad to pair two closer stabs in Doolittle and Bard. Doolittle’s primary competition in the ninth in Cincinnati is Amir Garrett and Lucas Sims, who are both battling injuries, while Bard has officially been named the closer in Colorado. Although I don’t need both to get saves all year, they hopefully give me a running start in the category, and I can sneak 4-5 points for my $5 investment.
The average fantasy team in a 12-team NL-only has 10 regulars, which means my hope is that three of the seven players I drafted emerge as starters. Díaz and Rojas are my best hopes in this regard, which leaves me a little thinner on offense than I’d prefer.
The plan with starting pitchers is to churn and burn. I don’t need all four of my $1 starters to work out, but if two of them are even serviceable, positive earners, it will go a long way. My reserve list tied into the strategy.
LABR -only leagues have a quirky rule where you cannot reserve active major leaguers unless they are taken in the reserve phase of the draft. Freeland and Senzatela are road plays for good matchups. Lester and Arrieta’s careers are in the gloaming, but again I don’t need aces, just decent SP4s or SP5s to round out my staff. I’ll be mixing-and-matching all year long and actively churning pitchers on the waiver wire.
Shaw was a lucky break. He was taken for $3 in the active phase by another team, but after the fact it turned out that his buyer didn’t have any space at corner infield or utility. I happily scooped him up with the second overall reserve pick. Between Shaw and Urias, I hope that I have the Brewers starting third baseman. That would give me 10 offensive starters, which is about what you want in an -only league.
You can keep players who go to the AL later in the season if they are on an NL team’s roster on draft day. Vogelbach is a fun flier; if he’s traded to the AL, he could be someone’s starting DH. If not, he was the 347th name called out in a 348-player NL-only league. No harm, no foul.
I’ll be honest, even though I know, philosophically speaking, that teams like this can work, I hate coming out of salary-cap drafts with so little balance. And while I rarely go this route, I have been successful using this method. In the 11 years since I’ve been doing this as an “expert,” I have finished in third (Tout Wars NL 2010), second (Tout Wars NL 2013), first (Tout Wars NL 2015), and fourth (LABR AL 2018) with this approach. You don’t need all your cheap $1-$3 players to return positive value, just a few.
Thanks as always to Steve Gardner of USA Today for the invitation to play in LABR, and to all of my competitors and friends. Looking forward to the season. Next year, I’m looking forward to doing this in person.
You can find the complete results of the LABR NL salary-cap draft here.
Thank you for reading
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