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In 2014, we (Bret Sayre and Mike Gianella) were invited to join the League of Alternative Baseball Reality, or LABR for short, on the mixed-league side. We were humbled, we were honored… and we got our asses kicked, finishing 14th out of 15 teams. We whined about it on Flags Fly Forever (oh boy did we whine), licked our wounds this offseason, and took close look at our approach in 2014 to see if there were any lessons we could carry over from 2014 into 2015.

The Draft

I outlined these “lessons” in a series of fun and exciting bullet points in my LABR recap back in February. I am assuming that you read that article 1,000 times, memorized it, and recited it every day like a religious creed on your way to work, school, or wherever it is you people go during the day. If you didn’t do any of this, I will never forgive you but since I am a nice person here are the bullet points again for your convenience.

Try to get a younger roster with more upside.

Don’t reach past our comfort zone on starting pitchers.

Grab two top-10 closers.

This wasn’t our complete strategy, but rather the elements of our strategy that we wanted to improve upon in 2015. Our core strategy was fairly similar to our plan in 2014. We wanted to start our draft with a solid offense, pick up pitchers later rather than sooner (in particular we did not want to draft a pitcher in the two or three rounds unless an obvious value fell our way), and try to get closers late unless a stud like Aroldis Chapman or Craig Kimbrel slipped. Most of our core strategy remained intact, and for good reason. If you read Jeff Quinton’s column on a regular basis, you know that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in fantasy baseball is overanalyzing your process based on poor results due to factors outside of your control as opposed to poor decision-making. Bret and I believed that while our approach needed some tweaks, that we were mostly victims of bad injury luck in 2014, particularly on the pitching side. Of course, our draft in 2015 would go a long way toward telling us whether or not this theory was correct.

As a result, our draft philosophy didn’t change very much so the type of team we put together didn’t change very much either. Below is the team we drafted in February along with how the players we drafted actually ranked according to the PFM at the end of the season.

Table 1: Baseball Prospectus’ LABR Mixed League Draft Results, 2015

Round

Slot

Player

ADP*

PFM Rank

1

15

Troy Tulowitzki

16

127

2

16

Ian Desmond

18

134

3

45

Justin Upton

30

39

4

46

Albert Pujols

52

41

5

75

Adam Wainwright

51

581

6

76

Charlie Blackmon

70

15

7

105

Gerrit Cole

85

45

8

106

Jake Arrieta

105

5

9

135

Jacob deGrom

111

48

10

136

Lucas Duda

131

147

11

165

Denard Span

176

444

12

166

Wil Myers

156

520

13

195

Chase Headley

218

210

14

196

Brett Lawrie

217

173

15

225

Derek Norris

225

97

16

226

Jered Weaver

197

378

17

255

Curtis Granderson

245

51

18

256

Dexter Fowler

271

65

19

285

Jenrry Mejia

232

719

20

286

Aaron Hill

282

541

21

315

Pat Neshek

446

481

22

316

Jarred Cosart

372

661

23

345

C.J. Wilson

358

318

24

346

Jurickson Profar

422

DNP

25

375

Andrew Heaney

343

352

26

376

Noah Syndergaard

328

140

27

405

Anthony Gose

346

202

28

406

Anthony DeSclafani

600

311

29

435

Welington Castillo

398

166

*NFBC ADP as of February 11, 2015.

This is an imperfect way to analyze how Bret and I did in LABR, but it does offer a decent snapshot of where we got value and where we didn’t. In particular, while some analysts look at each and every pick on a round-by-round basis to ascertain whether or not there was value in the first few rounds, it is more important to figure out if your team picked up enough top shelf value at any point in the auction to be competitive.

By this standard—and by the PFMs reckoning—we drafted six players in the top 50, nine players in the top 100, and 17 players in the top 210. Another way of looking at this is how we did relative to the average value that we “should” have received in each round.

Top 15 Round 1 Value: Arrieta, Blackmon
16-30 Round 2: None
31-45 Round 3: Upton, Pujols, Cole
46-60 Round 4: deGrom, Granderson
61-75 Round 5: Fowler
76-90 Round 6: None
91-105 Round 7: Norris
106-120 Round 8: None
121-135 Round 9: Tulowitzki, Desmond
136-150 Round 10: Syndergaard, Duda
151-165 Round 11: None
166-180 Round 12: Castillo, Lawrie
181-195 Round 13: None
196-210 Round 14: Gose, Headley

Value often isn’t looked at in proportion to league size, but viewing the results of Table 1 this way you can see that Bret and I had a strong draft. We expected Tulo and Desmond to be our anchors, but instead Arrieta and Blackmon were. However, the idea that Tulo and Desmond failed ignores the concept that we did get enough value from those players relative to our entire team. Wainwright disappeared, but this was more than made up for by Cole and deGrom stepping up and providing us with a solid no. 2-3 combination behind Arrieta that exceeded any other team’s pitching staff in the league. Upton and Pujols provided the value that we anticipated, but it was strong showings by Grandy and Fowler (compared to their draft slots) that allowed us to put together the core of such a solid team at the draft. It wasn’t perfect, but with $100 FAAB and the ability to make in-season moves, it didn’t need to be perfect.

As far as our goals went, we nailed the first two. With the exception of Pujols (who did provide value relative to his slot) we picked up plenty of “upside” from players like Fowler and Granderson while not missing on too many players. Yes, there were a few who didn’t work out entirely (Myers jumps out in addition to Span and Wainwright), but there was so much value on our team relative to draft slot that it didn’t matter that much. All we had to do was pick up value on offense with FAAB and we would be fine.

Avoiding starting pitching early also worked out extremely well. Arrieta was the most valuable pitcher in fantasy this year according to the PFM; while we did not expect him to put up the year that he did, his elite season allowed us to simply roll our big three out there and do little on the pitching side in-season. Weaver and Cosart did little for us, but with our big three and Syndergaard, it hardly mattered.

We whiffed on saves in the draft. While this wasn’t optimal, the ability to draft players like Fowler, Grandy, Headley, and Lawrie instead of the risky lower tier closers we would have otherwise drafted in those slots paid off. We were able to pick up saves later, but even if we hadn’t avoiding saves in the auction delivered us the core of team that was already going to be one of the favorites while allowing us to target saves via the trade market.

The saves discussion is an excellent place to segue to Bret, who will discuss our in-season moves and how we did in taking the bones of a draft contender in the attempt to turn it into an end-of-the-season winner. —Mike Gianella

The Season

Nice segue, Mike.

AppleMark

The in-season management of a fantasy team is often the ying to the draft’s yang. It requires different skills, most notably a greater attention to detail without taking the plunge and just flat out overthinking things. On the whole, we acquired only 16 players during the season through free agency and trading. And while that might seem like a pretty low number, considering that there are no $0 bids in LABR and it’s not a very active trading league, it’s probably close to middle of the pack compared to the rest of the league. (In order to make this a non-anecdotal statement, I’d have to do far more research, which, let’s be honest, we both know I’m not doing.)

So to have a little fun with how we managed the team from April through September, I’m going to rank all 16 of our in-season acquisitions from the bottom up. Of course it’s a list. Do you even know me? If you’ve listened to Flags Fly Forever or read Mike’s Expert FAAB column throughout the season, you likely will remember some of the bigger names that reside here, but we’re going to start out with a few trips down memory lane.

16) Jordan Schafer ($6, Week One)

With Denard Span injured to start the season, we grabbed Schafer as our first FAAB acquisition of the season to try and nab 5-7 steals until Span came back. It turns out we fell just 5-7 short of that original target. The speedy outfielder got at bats in the one week we had him active, yet had no steals or no runs and was dropped before the first month of the season ended. We also only ended up spending more FAAB on two other players during the entire season. Ah, memories.

15) Andrew Susac ($1, Week Five)

We ended up in such a strong position at catcher by the end of the season that even I barely remember that we started Susac for five weeks. Five! He played in 13 games, hit for a .161 average, but that’s okay because he scored a whopping three runs and drove in one.

14) Joe Kelly ($2, Week Eight)
13) Ryan Vogelsong ($2, Week 13)
12) Cody Martin ($1, Week Four)

Considering we discussed every move before we made it, I am still surprised that Mike and I had as few disagreements during the 2015 as we did. One of them was on Kelly, who I pushed to get as an upside play. We picked him up for a two-start week and he was terrible. He did end up having some upside, but by the time he ended up back in our lineup it was too late. Vogelsong and Martin both ended up on our roster for a single week, contributing a combined 13 strikeouts and zero wins.

11) Ryan Hanigan ($2, Week One)

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla yogurt. It can fill you when you’re hungry. It’s light on your budget. It should never get you sick. Ryan Hanigan is vanilla yogurt in a two-catcher, 15-team league. We started him the first four weeks of the seasons and he scored 11 runs. He also hit a homer! Sometimes vanilla yogurt can really hit the spot!

10) Aaron Barrett ($1, Week Two)

We got exactly what we paid for here. He never got into the closer’s role (but that was always a very long shot) and he vultured us two wins in four weeks, while adding a 2.79 ERA and 10 strikeouts. With pitching depth an issue at the beginning of the season, it was helpful.

9) Scooter Gennett ($2, Week 13)

Four weeks active with no homers and no steals, but a .281 average and helpful counting stats (10 runs, 8 RBI). That’s a win.

8) Carson Smith ($1, Week 8)

The beginning of our reach for saves (which as Mike covered above, we needed because we completely whiffed on the category at the draft), Smith served as our fourth closer until he lost the job to Tom Wilhelmsen. At 11 saves, he finished fourth on our team in the category.

7) Welington Castillo ($3, Week 10)

This was the re-grab, as we took him in the final round of the February draft. He’d certainly rank higher on this list if we had kept him active during all of his hot streak, but he fell behind two players yet to be named, and only registered seven homers and 28 RBI as an active member of our squad.

6) Aaron Hicks ($1, Week 10)

The tenth week of FAAB pickups was pretty kind to us. Hicks may not have had flashy stats, but he was exactly what we needed when we were down both Wil Myers and Denard Span. In his eight weeks active for us, he homered five times, stole three bases, and racked up 37 R/RBI.

5) Jason Grilli ($44, Week One)

The Atlanta closer likely ends up higher on this list if he didn’t take up so much of our budget, or if he had stayed healthy for the majority of the season. He was exactly what we needed while he was healthy, as he gave us 21 saves and 41 strikeouts before blowing out his Achilles on July 11. His bid, at the time, was a statement that we were not going to let saves get away from us like it did in 2014—and we followed it through, as we finished with nine points in the category.

4) Luke Gregerson (Trade, Week Seven)

Finally, we get to the one trade we made all season. On May 19, we dealt Anthony Gose (who was languishing on our bench at the time, despite a .313 average and five steals) for Gregerson, making him our third closer at the time. Nineteen saves and a 2.61 ERA later, the move was a strong positive for us—not the least of which because Gose would not have added any value to our team given where we finished. He hit .244 and stole 18 bases the rest of the way.

3) Kyle Schwarber ($6, Week 16)

This was our great reason to send Castillo to the bench, regardless of how he was hitting. It’s still shocking that we were able to grab Schwarber for the pittance that we had left in our FAAB budget, and we were well aware of the risks in getting him. In 11 weeks gracing our active lineup, the slugger hit 15 homers, drove in 37 runs and scored 45 himself. It ended up coming with a .225 average because he cratered in September, but that was probably just him trying to fit in with the rest of the team. Also, having Schwarber on this roster just made me happy. I know that’s not a category, but it counts, damn it.

2) AJ Ramos ($2, Week Five)

Grabbing Grilli, trading for Gregerson and nabbing Smith for his brief time as closer were all fine and good, but none of it comes together in the overall category performance if we don’t make the speculative grab of Ramos the week before he got the closer’s role in Miami. We rode the rollercoaster to 32 saves, 67 strikeouts and a 2.59 ERA, and without him on our roster, we lose. No two ways about it.

1) Miguel Sano ($26, Week 14)

Of course, we also lose without Sano. We spent most of June realizing that we needed a big bopper to gain the points we needed in the power categories. We bid on Ben Paulsen and didn’t get him. We bid on Justin Bour and didn’t get him. Those were small potatoes. The first week of July, we found the fireworks we needed to push us in the second half and Sano definitely did not disappoint. His full line in the 13 weeks he spent on our roster was a .267 average with 17 homers, 48 RBI, and 41 runs scored. It’s easy to prorate that because we had him for exactly half of the season, and it’s also easy to see why he was the clear number one on this list. —Bret Sayre

The Ending

Bret: So, Mike, be honest. On a scale of one to 10, how nervous were you to have run out of FAAB before the end of July?

Mike: If I you gave me time to think about an answer, I probably would have said “4,” but if I just blurted one out I would say “7.” I wasn’t panicked about it but given the lack of luck we had all year on the trading front, I figured there was a good chance that the roster we had was the one we were taking home with us. I suspect you were a little more nervous about it than I was.

Bret: That's very likely true. That next morning, I saw the site and my first reaction was "Woohoo Schwarber," but almost immediately my eyes drew to our big $0 on the side of the homepage and i thought "oh god what have we done." In the end, my panic was quelled by my love of Kyle Schwarber, so I was probably around a 7 or so.

This was also before the insane Fred Zinkie push. We were up 23.5 points on the seemingly-always Tout Mixed Auction champion when we made this move. When did you first start to sweat his comeback?

Mike: It’s hard to put my finger on the exact date or moment, but looking back at his climb, it was probably with about five weeks left when I thought that Zinkie could make us sweat this out. We had 127.5 points to his 118 points and while I didn’t think we had that many points to lose, I easily could foresee a scenario where Zinkie could pick up enough points to get to 125 or so. So if everything went right for him and everything went wrong for us, I thought he could win by 2-3 points. And although it won’t show up in the final records because we were ahead at the end of every stat period, Zinkie was in first place for two days or so during Week 24 and two days or so during Week 25. So it wasn’t merely a case of Zinkie making us sweat it out for a day or two. We were miserable for three weeks or so, at least.

Bret: Yea, miserable is a pretty good way to put it. It all culminated when Roberto Osuna blew Marco Estrada's win on Saturday. I thought our chances of winning at that point were around 30-40 percent, and it was the first time I genuinely thought we had a better chance of losing than winning. Which then brings us to the craziness of Sunday. Have you ever been involved in a race this close? And how much gray hair do you think MLB added by scheduling all of the final day's games to be played at once?

Mike: I have been involved in one home league race that was this close in 2011, but never in an expert league have I won and had it come down to the last day or the last game. I forget the exact sequence of events, but it appeared that we were going to lose by half a point before a Charlie Blackmon steal picked us up half a point, a Tyler Clippard win lost Zinkie half a point and Edinson Volquez’s three strikeouts lost Zinkie a full point. All of these things happened late, and while the Blackmon steal was certainly a realistic outcome, the Clippard win and especially the Volquez strikeouts really were a bolt from the blue. We could easily have been on the other side of this conversation on Sunday night.

The 3:00 p.m. ET clump of games added a lot of excitement to the final day, but it also made events hard to follow. We were on a call right before the very end, and I was trying to feed you updates and the simultaneous games made it next to impossible to keep track of everything. The blessing of the day’s events is that my disappointment in “losing” the league probably lasted all of 20 minutes before the Blackmon/Clippard/Volquez events happened almost all at once. So that was a good thing about the big clump of games. In years past, waiting for the final game or handful of games while your team twisted in the wind was painful, particularly if you were rooting for a near impossible outcome.

Bret: We were on the phone when Grandy hit that home run off Blake Treinen to put Clippard in line for the win, as I was at the CVS drive thru picking up a prescription for my son. In related news, I don't think I'm allowed back at that CVS. Also, I'm ordering us either Edinson Volquez or Tyler Clippard shirseys. Which one do you want?

Mike: Clippard, but only if I can wear the specs too.

Bret: This seems like something that should be sold in the Mets team store. If not, I think they're missing a real opportunity here. So who do you think our overall team MVP was this year?

Mike: Without going back and looking at it, my gut says Jake Arrieta. I mean, how could he not be? I know that Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole were also great, but without Arrieta our margin for error in ERA and WHIP would have been razor thin. Plus – and I know, I know, it’s the second stupidest category in fantasy – if Arrieta didn’t put up all those wins, we would have lost at least one point and possibly been in the logjam with the next clump of teams where Zinkie was.

Bret: The pitching triumvirate all came up huge at various points, and for me it's certainly Arrieta on the whole among them, but I wonder how close Blackmon was to being the guy. Without his step forward in thefts, we're not even in that top group in steals–and his contributions everywhere else were important as our offense slumped through September. But yea, it's Arrieta. He's real good.

Also, I'm sorry again about Joe Kelly.

Mike: That’s a strong point about Blackmon, but this again all speaks to how good Fred Zinkie is at this game. LABR Mixed is three years old and Tout Mixed started 15-team format in 2010, and has had two mixed leagues since 2013. Fred’s 123.5 total in LABR this year would have been enough for victory in 10 of those 11 other seasons. We won by the skin of our teeth, but in nearly any other expert format we might have coasted, as we seemed to be coasting in July. A second place finish in this environment would have been nothing to be ashamed about.

Joe Kelly was a miss. But we didn’t miss much this year.

Bret: I thought you were going to apologize for Jered Weaver. 🙁

But yes, a competition worthy of two winners gets one because life is generally unfair and full of strife. We got this one, though, and it feels pretty good.