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There are lies we “experts” tell when it comes to expert leagues. One of these lies is that while we want to win an expert league, it’s okay not to do so, since expert leagues are tougher than “home” leagues. While the competition definitely is tougher, it doesn’t quell the desire to win. We all say genteel things about our opponents when we lose and offer our congratulations to the victor, but we all want to win.

A companion lie to the idea that luck reigns supreme in fantasy expert leagues is the idea that all fantasy experts are created equal. The first place team might have a better draft or auction than the 12th-place team, but in any given year the first place fantasy expert can finish last and the last place expert can finish first. There is perhaps some truth to the idea that luck plays even more of a factor than skill in these contests, but there are some experts who are tougher to beat than others.

On the National League side of Tout Wars, Tristan Cockcroft of ESPN has cast his shadow over the rest of the league like the legend of Paul Bunyan did over the 19th century American Midwest. Not only did Cockcroft win three consecutive titles from 2012-2014, he did so going away each and every time, winning by 14, 10.5, and 14.5 points in those three victorious campaigns. Not only that, but in those three years, Cockcroft was never out of first place at any point later than July 27th. None of these wins were by narrow margins of victory that you could point to, shrug, and write off to mere luck. No, Cockcroft is damn good at this.

2015 was my sixth year competing in Tout Wars, one of the two highest-profile fantasy baseball expert leagues there is (the other being the League of Alternate Baseball Reality, or LABR). For my first five years in Tout, I approached the NL-only auction more or less the same way, with a philosophy that could simply be described as “go where the value takes you.” The result of this approach was a mixed bag. I finished third, ninth, 10th, second, and fifth (out of 13 teams from 2010-2012 and 12 teams in 2014). While I had a couple of good years, I also had a couple of bad ones. More importantly, I still had not won. In addition to my valuation strength, I felt that I had to do what some other experts advise against (and what I have advised against doing in the past) and adjust parts of my strategy specifically due to an opponent.

In short, I’d have to go after Cockcroft.

Cockcroft’s reign of terror included an ill-fated attempt to replace U.S. currency with “Cockcroft Dollars.”

After studying Cockcroft’s success, I devised a plan that was more specific than anything I had come up with in any of my five years prior in Tout Wars. I didn’t necessarily have a list of goals, but I wanted to achieve the following:

AT THE AUCTION

Compete across all 10 categories: One of my biggest problems in Tout Wars was that while I had purchased some solid teams in the past, I almost always wound up with a projected roster that fell short in at least one category. It is possible to win without competing in every category, but in a league that doesn’t trade much, it makes it next to impossible to win if anything goes wrong.

Build a balanced offense: This had less to do with vague precepts like “avoiding a player who costs more than $30” and more to do with making sure to get some kind of production out of all 14 offensive slots on my team. I wouldn’t shy away from a Stars and Scrubs offense if prices were soft on the top players early, but I wanted to make sure the players on the back end of my roster were starters. 500-600 plate appearances from a subpar everyday player in a mono-league format trump the limited potential of a bench player who only plays 1-2 days a week.

Look for upside but do so wisely: The word “upside” gets bandied about fantasy so much that it has lost all of its meaning, but I wanted to attempt to get one or two players who I believed would be in the majors at some point in 2015 and provide significant impact in the second half.

Target a specific player and sit next to Cockcroft: I went into great detail about this in my March recap, but I wanted to either build my pitching staff around Clayton Kershaw or make sure someone else paid $41 or more for him. I also wanted to control more of the flow of the auction than usual. Last year’s winner gets to nominate the first player, but otherwise you can sit wherever you want.

Most of my plan worked.

Table 1: Mike Gianella’s Tout Wars National League Auction

Pos

Player

Salary

C

Wilin Rosario

$12

C

Devin Mesoraco

$17

1B

Paul Goldschmidt

$37

2B

Freddy Galvis

$1

SS

Jhonny Peralta

$15

3B

Yangervis Solarte

$3

CO

Lucas Duda

$21

MI

Adeiny Hechavarria

$2

OF

Carlos Gonzalez

$27

OF

Ben Revere

$18

OF

Michael Taylor

$4

OF

Yasmany Tomas

$12

UT

Peter Bourjos

$1

SW

Kelly Johnson

$1

P

Andrew Cashner

$11

P

Doug Fister

$13

P

LaTroy Hawkins

$3

P

Clayton Kershaw

$37

P

Tim Lincecum

$1

P

Addison Reed

$10

P

Hyun-jin Ryu

$11

P

Noah Syndergaard

$2

P

Travis Wood

$1

Reserve

Tyler Matzek

Reserve

Neil Ramirez

Reserve

Matt Reynolds

Reserve

Addison Russell

Yes, I missed on some individual players. Mesoraco and Ryu’s injuries were a disaster. I assumed Rosario would become a super sub if he didn’t catch regularly for Colorado but instead he barely played and was later demoted to the minors. Doug Fister was terrible and Andrew Cashner wasn’t much better. My closers were cheap but they both lost their jobs early. By no means was it a perfect auction.

But looking at this way is a pointless exercise in hindsight. I did what I set out to do on the whole, which was to buy a balanced offense, buy a team that would be competitive in all 10 categories (the failures with Hawkins and Reed aside), and to get players like Russell and Syndergaard who could possibly deliver in the second half of the season.

As it turned out, my team was the best team coming out of the auction.

Table 2: Auction Standings, Tout Wars National League

Even with the complete sinkhole at catcher, the offense I purchased was still terrific. Fifty out of 60 points on offense was excellent, and only Melnick did a better job purchasing an offense at the auction. Players like Galvis and Hechavarria did exactly what I needed/wanted them to do: provide value despite the fact that their stat lines looked underwhelming and wouldn’t do much good in anything but in an NL-only league. The real headline, though, was that the stars I bought delivered. Goldschmidt faded post-All-Star but was enough of a force (particularly in an on-base percentage league) that he carried the team. And Gonzalez came on like gangbusters (gangbusters, I tells ya!) after hitting four home runs through June 1st to lead my team and give me an advantage in power that would carry me all season long.

The pitching wasn’t quite as strong as I hoped it would be, but Kershaw forgave the multiple errors I made on the pitching side (pretty much every pitcher I purchased outside of Kershaw and Syndergaard didn’t work out). My staff needed work nearly all season long, but having Kershaw as an anchor allowed me to cycle players in and out liberally, which would work to my advantage later.

This was all well and good, but having the best auction wasn’t enough, particularly against Cockcroft. In my analysis of Cockcroft’s success, I noticed that as well as he did during his incredible three-year run, his success wasn’t merely because of what he did during the auction.

Table 3: Tristan Cockcroft Auction Results, Tout Wars NL, 2012-2015

Year

Points

Place

Points Out of 1st

2015

72.0

3rd

13.0

2014

84.5

3rd

1.5

2013

75.0

4th

4.5

2012

104.0*

1st

(14)

*Tout Wars NL was a 13-team league in 2012

I don’t drag these data out to bury Cockcroft but rather to praise him. To have three consecutive auctions where the most significant gap between Cockcroft and first place was a mere 4.5 points is a testament to how good he is at this game. However, the reality is that while Cockcroft’s auctions were very good, they didn’t make him invincible.

What I wanted to avoid was a repeat of 2013 and 2014 when the team that came out of the auction with the best team didn’t win. In addition to my auction strategies, I had a few goals for my in-season roster management as well.

DURING THE SEASON

(Continue to) compete across all 10 categories: This did not mean that I would allocate all of my resources toward all 10 categories at all costs, but as long as I could realistically compete across the board, I would.

Stream, stream, stream: I knew that pitchers like Lincecum and Wood might not last the entire season, so I would make an effort to play the free agent pool for matchups. I preferred this to trading for starting pitchers.

Stash, stash, stash: Something Cockcroft did that was such a crucial part to his success was stashing minor leaguers a couple of weeks before their inevitable call-up. I wanted to make sure that I blocked him from doing this at every opportunity.

Trade with other teams with Cockcroft in mind: I couldn’t block him in every trade, but I would try to preemptively block Cockcroft from making trades if I had the opportunity.

The first goal was hampered immediately when both Hawkins and Reed lost their jobs in short order. I didn’t think I had much of a chance in saves after this happened, but my early pickup of A.J. Ramos gave me a closer after Steve Cishek lost the job for the Marlins. This positioned me to make my first trade, and I picked up Jason Grilli for Hechavarria. The balance I had across the board on offense allowed me to trade a steady but unspectacular performer like Hechavarria for a closer.

With two closers in tow, I could now focus on my next weakness, which was my starting pitching behind Kershaw. Neither Cashner nor Fister was any good, so I needed help. Syndergaard was terrific after I activated him on May 11th, but I didn’t feel like two starters and excessive prayer was a useful strategy. The two pitchers I picked up off of the wire were Jeremy Hellickson (on May 18th) and Jorge De La Rosa (on June 8th). With enough depth in my rotation, I was able to stream the duo very effectively. I almost never used either pitcher for two consecutive weeks and picked up serviceable if not great numbers from both. Once Kershaw got past his early season slump/bad ERA luck, this gave me some additional pitching points and did enough to replace the anticipated output from the disappointing Cashner and the injured Fister.

Stashing players is an inexact science, and it is always a matter of trying to find the right matches for your team. Jeff Francoeur was decent enough early, but the players who helped me out the most were Russell, Stephen Piscotty, and Aaron Nola. Russell was picked up on reserve at the auction, but his early call up did so much for my team that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention him here. It allowed me to flip Hechavarria in the aforementioned Grilli deal but more importantly he added so much in the counting categories that the losses of my catchers wasn’t nearly as devastating as it might have been. Nola was yet another arm who added solid innings behind Kershaw that weren’t great but didn’t need to be because of Kershaw.

If there was one place where my strategy didn’t work particularly well it was trying to exert control over the trade market. Aside from the Grilli trade, my two other trades did not work out particularly well.

August 10th: In an effort to try to trade for wins, I flipped Russell and Hellickson for Shelby Miller. This was toward the beginning of Miller’s losing streak and as you have probably heard by now this didn’t work out. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “he who trades offense for pitcher wins in fantasy baseball deserves neither.”

August 24th: I had an opportunity to make a big push in saves, so I flipped Syndergaard and two middle relievers for Mark Melancon, Francisco Rodriguez, and Brad Ziegler. I got my saves, but I may have been better off with Thor’s ERA and WHIP.

As successful as my season was on the whole, Cockcroft still was within two points as late as August 23rd. I was the first team in Tout Wars NL since 2011 to be in first place as late as August besides Cockcroft, but that wasn’t really enough. I wanted to win, and it still seemed like Cockcroft was at the very least going to make the league competitive.

As it turned out, I didn’t really gain much ground but it didn’t matter as Cockcroft’s team slipped badly. Kershaw pitched like the Cy Young candidate he often is, but Cockcroft’s duo of Max Scherzer and Johnny Cueto stumbled down the stretch. Instead of maintaining or even gaining in ERA and WHIP, Cockcroft lost ground. He then had to try to push for everything across the board in pitching, including wins. This seldom works out, but I cannot blame him for trying; I would have done the same in his position. The result was that instead of feeling the heat of an intense, last second charge, I was able to maintain a 5-10 point lead for the remainder of the season. The final day saw me with a 14-point-win, but the final week saw me up as little as 5.5 points; the league was definitely closer than the final tally indicated.

Prior to the beginning of the season, I felt like the way I was doing things was enough to win, and that eventually I would win if luck went my way. While luck certainly did play a factor in my victory, the targeted effort I made at the beginning of the season most definitely elevated my level of play. As I got closer and closer to victory, I could see that as much as luck plays a factor in any victory, that there is a reason that people like Cockcroft, Larry Schechter, and Fred Zinkie win title after title after title. Luck has something to do with it, of course, but there is also something to be said for skill. In previous years, I didn’t have enough of either. This year, I had a great combination of both, and it helped me win one of the toughest leagues there is.

Thanks to everyone in NL Tout Wars for providing such an incredible level of competition, this year and every year. Thanks in particular to Lawr Michaels, Peter Kreutzer, Ron Shandler, and Jeff Erickson for all of the work you do to make Tout Wars such a fun and exciting event every year. I also want to thank the entire Baseball Prospectus fantasy team for providing the high level of content that makes our site one of the best in the industry, George Bissell, J.P. Breen, Ben Carsley, Matt Collins, Keith Cromer, Craig Goldstein, JJ Jansons, Wilson Karaman, Jeff Quinton, Bret Sayre, Nick Shlain, and Greg Wellemeyer aren’t merely contributors to Baseball Prospectus, but also an invaluable resource that I used week in and week out to help push me to this title. I wouldn’t be here without the information in The Stash List, the tidbits in The Free Agent Watch, or the invaluable analysis in the many Fantasy Freestyles, as well as other articles. Thank you so much for all the work you do each and every week. This success belongs not just to me but to our entire team.

I can’t wait to defend my title next year, and I can’t believe I have the privilege and joy of writing those words. See you in 2016.

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sam19041
10/05
Congratulations, Mike. And thanks for sharing your insights throughout the season.
MikeGianella
10/05
Thanks!
arlo4321
10/05
Congrats Mike. Fantasy nerds like us enjoy the breakdown of a season. Also have to say that this was my first year as a full member of BP, and coincidentally won my 15-team keeper league for the first time! I cannot point to any specific piece of advice right now that led to a winning transaction, but having BP’s perspective in my ear come weekly pick-up and deadline trade time, I felt like I had a wise friend steering me in the right direction all season long. Great work...now to see if an unprecedented solid ‘place’ can be garnered with a weak lineup and depleted draft picks going forward.
phin82
10/05
That was a fun read. It was nice to see the perspective and attention to detail that you brought to the table and that were truly necessary to your winning the title. Awesome article and great season Mike. It seems much deserved. Congratulations.
lowguppy
10/05
Congrats Mike. Been listening to the podcast all year and I remember things were looking bleak for you in late May. I'm more of a fan of these postmortems than most. I especially like dissecting how an auction strategy worked out. I'm not in any auction baseball leagues, but I applied a lot of what you've talked about regarding player valuation and auction dynamics to a fairly serious Hockey league I joined this year.
maxcat21
10/05
Congrats and thanks for the strategy breakdown, a good read!
jfranco77
10/06
Let me add my congrats. To win with a pitching staff that looked like that coming out of auction is a great accomplishment.
andrewdeeble
10/06
Too bad Shelby finally getting a W on the season's last day didn't play into your title grab. When you acquired him he wasn't really at the beginning of a losing streak...he had already gone nearly 3 months since his last win!