If you’re the type of fantasy baseball player who compiles your own set of player rankings each February, this article isn’t for you. But if you’re the type who still can’t remember the name of that new infielder your favorite team signed to a huge contract in the offseason, and who agreed to join your friends’ league primarily out of politeness, here are 10 tips that may help lead you to victory.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Unknown Players
It’s the most obvious giveaway there is. When you draft Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones and Jason Varitek you might as well announce to the rest of your league that the last time you paid attention to baseball was the 2005 All-Star Game.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. Just take a set of player rankings for the current season and over-compensate for familiarity bias. Derek Jeter and Elvis Andrus are close together statistically on the shortstop list? Go with Andrus, who is younger and has a bigger upside. Take J.P. Arencibia over Jorge Posada, Danny Valencia over Chipper Jones, and so on. You get the point. You’ll probably wind up with a better team, since analysts and other fantasy players are susceptible to familiarity bias, too. Either way, you won’t be broadcasting your ignorance.
9. Avoid Your Favorite Team
The logic here is basically the same as above. If you’re a Braves fan, you’re probably inclined to think Braves players are better than they actually are, relative to the rest of the league. Sure, you could spend hours poring over stats and projections — familiarizing yourself with 29 teams you couldn’t care less about — in order to develop more objective opinions, but who wants to do that? Just embrace your subjectivity and work around it.
8. Not All Positions Are Equal
This might be more of an intermediate-level tip, but it’s still a lot easier than memorizing the strengths and weaknesses of 600 different players. The important principle is that, during a draft, a player is only worth as much as the extent to which his value exceeds the value of the player you could’ve settled for in a later round.
Say each player is valued on a crude $1 to $10 system. Early in the draft, you’re trying to decide between a $9 first baseman and an $8 second baseman. There are also several first basemen valued at $8 and $7, and the next-best second baseman is $5. The first baseman might be the better player, but the second baseman is worth more, because that’s the pick that forces the rest of your league to settle for mediocrity, and you can still get a pretty good first baseman in the next round.
7. Forget About Saves
Unlike everyone else on your roster, closers only contribute significantly to one statistic. Also, it’s a crapshoot. The factors that influence save totals have little to do with the closer’s actual talent, or lack thereof, and a lot to do with a team’s ability to consistently enter the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less, which tends to be rather unpredictable.
This goes for stolen bases too, though a good base-stealer at least has a chance to help you in other categories, like runs and batting average. Just don’t get too excited about a guy projected to steal 30 bases and bat .250.
6. Pay Attention To Non-Traditional Statistics
If you don’t already know, the concept of sabermetrics – and non-traditional statistics in general – is that there are better ways to compare baseball players than the statistics we’ve been using since the 1800s (RBIs, batting average, ERA, etc.). That’s a little like saying there are better ways to travel from New York to L.A. than by horse and buggy.
Since most fantasy leagues use conventional stats, you can use the fancy new ones to your advantage. A lot of them aren’t even that complicated (unless you consider ratios complicated, in which case I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to help). My favorite is K/BB—a pitcher’s ratio of strikeouts to walks – because it’s a reasonably universal indicator of effectiveness. A strikeout pitcher will probably also have a fair amount of walks, and a finesse pitcher won’t have a ton of either, but regardless, if the pitcher you’re looking at doesn’t have a decent K/BB ratio (2.5 or better, if you can afford to be picky), find someone else.
5. Look at Recent Performance
When you’re looking at free agents, check stats from only the last 30 days or so. You don’t want a player who had a great April, but did nothing in May or June — in fact, that’s probably why he’s a free agent in the first place.
The same goes when you look at your own team. You probably don’t want to move a player from your bench to the starting lineup just because he went 3-for-4 with a home run and a few RBIs the day before, but if he’s been outplaying your starter for long enough that it doesn’t seem like a fluke, the change might be justified — even if the starter still has better numbers over the whole season.
4. Find Players Who Play Every Day
By the late rounds of the draft, and continuing through the season, most of the available players will not exactly be the type who’ve firmly entrenched themselves in the starting lineup. They’ll be platoon players who start primarily against left- or right-handed pitchers, or are acting as a temporary injury replacement, or for some other reason could be removed from the lineup at any moment. And there’s nothing wrong with acquiring players like that, except that they’re high-maintenance. You’ll have to constantly check and double-check to make sure they’re still playing.
Instead, when you’re looking at a free agent, check the game log (but only for the last month, as discussed above) to make sure he’s playing almost every day — in other words, the sort of player you can plug into your lineup and not have to think about for a while. Also, when in doubt, go with a switch-hitter (who won’t be part of a righty/lefty platoon), or a player with eligibility at multiple positions (because there’s always a lineup spot for the utility guy).
3. Don’t Miss the Trade Deadline(s)
Two trade deadlines to be aware of: First, the one for your league, which is usually a month or so before the end of the season, and doubles as the point before which you should probably start paying attention if you want to have a shot at making the playoffs.
There’s also the July 31 Major League Baseball trade deadline, which is very relevant if your league is AL- or NL-only. Every year, several players, including a few all-stars, are traded from one league to the other, usually in the last few weeks before the deadline. Depending on your waiver priority — which, if you haven’t been doing anything all year, is probably pretty good — this can be a gold mine. So, if you’re not otherwise occupied during late July, you might want to check every so often for news of pending trades or trades just completed.
2. Don’t Fall For a Lopsided Trade
I know, this is easier said than done, but smart fantasy players look to buy low and sell high, which only works if they can find someone to catch off guard. Be especially wary of any straight-up swap of players who play the same position. Clearly, your fellow owner thinks your player is better than his, and he also believes you don’t realize this, perhaps because your player is off to a slow start, or the other owner’s player has been putting up big numbers and is going to fall back to Earth any day now. If you’ve got Jimmy Rollins, a perennial all-star who may be off to a slow start at shortstop, and another owner offers you Joe Blow, a rookie who’s batting .400 in April, don’t do it.
1. Follow the Herd
Every major fantasy website keeps track of information like the percentage of leagues in which a given player is on a roster, along with the increase or decrease in that percentage over the preceding week or so. These numbers, particularly the latter, are excellent ways to identify the most promising free agents, because, let’s face it, if you’re the kind of fantasy player who finds this article useful, you’re probably not going to be the one who “discovers” the next breakout star before everyone else.
This also applies to your own players. Instead of scouring the news to see if that recent injury or slump presents legitimate cause for alarm, just look at what other fantasy owners are doing. If they’re mostly hanging on to him, you probably should, too. If they can’t get rid of him fast enough, what do you really expect to gain by not following the herd? Either way, the lesson is that there are a lot of people out there selflessly devoting time and effort to fantasy baseball so you don’t have to.
James Sinclair has been playing fantasy baseball since the mid-1990s, and cannot, off the top of his head, remember ever having missed the playoffs. This despite the fact that he is now something of a professional adult, and is increasingly unable to spend much time worrying about fantasy baseball.