Sun Tzu and the Art of Rotisserie War (by Paul Ladd)
First things first, read the damn rules. You’ve played for years, even decades. But unless you live under a rock, every league plays by different rules. Make sure you know them. Some overpower bullpens, where there are no innings minimums and ratios rule. Some overpower the value of prospects or have no automatic callups. Some limit the value of prospects by limiting their service time or escalate contacts quickly. Some use different offensive ratios and no minimum at-bats. Those that play in offshoots of other leagues, will have a huge advantage over those who don’t. Read the rules, ask questions, ask for examples and explanations. Ask them about the advantages and disadvantages, what strategies have worked/failed in the past?
No matter how much research you think you do, someone is doing more. Even in a $50 league, most of your competitors have pulled down all the active rosters, all the remaining free agents, sorted them, projected #’s and available categories, plugged everyone into a pivot table or workbook or database and has a basic idea if they’re competing or rebuilding. Which team is playing for now? Rebuilding? What are each teams strengths, tendencies and weaknesses?
Inflation can and will fuck up the best laid plans for draft day. An average salary of $16 can sometimes mean 10 guys at $32 and 10 guys at $1. Good players can go twice their value and bargains will be found in the low end of the market. Marginal players can go twice their value in overinflated markets. If you’re rebuilding you don’t want a bidding war for Max Scherzer unless you’re going to compete soon and he’s your anchor. Recognize that if you really want a player you may have to go over his projected cost. It’s not the end of the world. If you draft a bunch of mediocre guys at mediocre salaries, you’re going to have a mediocre team.
An auction is a different beast than a snake draft. Owners get caught up in the bidding. Position scarcity will drive up prices. Mistakes will be made. Trying to find value is even more important than filling categories. The team that wins will be the team that puts up the most value, and you can always trade from a strength. The team that is best prepared is often the team that has the best auction.
What are other team’s weaknesses going into the auction? Do they need a position light on talent? Exploit it. Nominate guys you don’t need, but others do. Force them to spend, as early as possible, as often as possible. Be a honeybadger. The earlier you bring em up, the more expensive they’ll be. Don’t nominate someone you want until you have to.
Other owners aren’t stupid. While there might be a few odd trades during a year, most of your fellow owners are proud, do their homework, and aren’t video game composites that can be easily exploited. Many played ball, most have an obsessive love for baseball with an overlap of statistics, and all play because they feel they’re expert enough to compete against like-minded people. Try not to insult them. Be able to explain a trade offer and negotiate in good faith.
When trading, what does the other owner want? Need? Are they obsessive about 1st round picks, dangle yours. Overvalue their talent, then try to make a smaller trade and keep the avenues open for another day. If they have a fondness for pitching, then trade your pitchers. Do they only draft shortstops, then offer them another, or try to get one of theirs. Do they covet speed? Figure out what they want, then offer them what they want if possible. You just want incremental advantages, you don’t have to kill anyone. Make a plan. Can you get any perceived value, any pot odds, that make it worth the risk? What needs are you addressing? If the trade doesn’t help you, why do it? If the trade doesn’t help the other owner, why would they do it?
If you accept a trade and owners start grousing someone got taken, put up a trade poll for a deal. Ask the league opinion, it will better inform you of the league temperature. If you come out on the short end, did you actively shop a player? Did you feel you got fair market value at the time? What changed? What is one year of a $75 player, compared to prospects with years of cheap control?
Know where your team is at compared to every other team in the league. I’ve seen owners take over teams and say, yeah, I know those guys! You need an objective assessment of your team compared to the rest. You may find that your “good” team is maybe the 9th best team going into the draft, there are 10 others teams with significant cap room, you’ve inherited a farm decimated by miscalculations. Can this team compete for a title? If not, perhaps a rebuild is in order.
Rebuild or compete. No half measures, Walt. You play for a title or build towards one. No one wants to finish 8th every season. Look at your team objectively. What’s the average point total to win the league? What category totals do you need to project in the top 3-4 in each category? What are your team’s projections compared to others? What’s available on draft day – and do you have the cap space to buy talent compared to the other owners? What is your average $ per player kept, compared to other owners? What can they spend? What are their obvious needs?
If you’re competing for now, be willing and ready to sell your soul. Invest your time in looking at the poorly performing teams and deciding when to ask them about their expiring contracts or underperforming assets. Make sure you have something to offer their future, for your win today. If you have farm talent, you’ll be trading it. In fact, the best reason a competing team should work so hard on the minors draft is to have farm kids to trade to win now. Over and over. Always Be Selling. Be willing to grind. How do some of these teams become dynasties? They constantly work to improve their team. If you’re not willing to work, someone else will. The only thing worse than losing is coming in 2nd when you could’ve improved your team and didn’t.
If you’re rebuilding, invest your time on farming. Build a comprehensive list of everyone’s farm assets and have grades on them. Color code it if need be. You will be trying to upgrade your farm, turn it from Red to Yellow to Green. Get a comprehensive list of what minor league talent is available in the draft. Trade for more draft picks and farm talent. Keep churning.
Look to draft major league players at midprice or lower. The high price guys are hard to move because of the salaries. You want affordable guys you can keep as bridges or trade bait, and low prices guys that can add value above their cost. You want to sell off expiring contracts, or contracts with limited time. Play the waiver wire each week, every week. Keep pulling that waiver slot handle and try to get pieces you can trade to contenders for draft picks. Look for arms that could close, the junk bonds of the baseball market.
Contracts…understand what they mean. Some leagues have no contracts, while others are as complicated as the real world. Are they dollars, or millions of dollars? What is the soft cap/hard cap? Penalties?
Research – How many sites does everyone check religiously for data, innuendo, team updates, depth charts…etc? Or twitter feeds? That’s just keeping up for the Major League draft. What about the minors? I went from 40 man Ultra Leagues to a 20 team league with 50 minor league players per team. Who’s ready to research the top 1000 players in the minors? J2 signings from the year previous? Each week sites are updating prospect rankings, and most of your competitors are aggregating rankings from numerous places.
Know how many of your competitors feel they have scouting chops? More than you think. Or have analytics and programming skills that leave your meager spreadsheet work in the dust? Maybe half. But this isn’t work to your competitors, and you shouldn’t feel it’s work as well. You don’t have to be a superstar, but you do have to have a plan and commit to it. Dynasty leagues are dynasties for a reason. This isn’t your family league, fantasy football draft in a bar. This is a 10 month a year endeavor (it does seem to lull during fantasy football). There is nothing like the buzz and optimism of an auction, except winning a banner.