Baseball fans everywhere rejoiced on Monday as the big trucks left Boston for Florida, signaling the onset of Spring Training. While pitchers and catchers do not need to report for another 36 hours, one aspect of the baseball season is already among us.
That’s right. It’s fantasy baseball time again. For those of you who are like me and insist of participating in as many fantasy leagues as possible, this is the team of year when we start to pour over PECOTA projections, when we start to keep our eyes tuned to the news on Rotoworld, and when we look out for injury rumors coming out of Spring Training. (Anyone want to take your chances on Carl Pavano? Anyone?)
To prepare for fantasy baseball, I would like to present some of my tips for your draft. I don’t want to rank the players yet. It’s still too early to determine the back end of most cheat sheets (although Andrew at Firebrand did an excellent job with that today). We haven’t seen who is injured, who has aged, and who is going to fill in certain positions for many times.
Instead, I want to give you a few insights into your draft. These are general tips for organizing your draft. Before we get going, I should offer you one caveat. I have never won any of my fantasy leagues. In those I care about, I have done fairly well. I have one second place finish with one group of friends, and in my uber-competitive league, I’ve finished third three straight seasons. (Thanks to Yahoo’s new handy-dandy Fantasy Sports Profiles for that trip down memory lane.) So if you are putting serious money on your league, don’t take my advice. Really.
1. Forget about saves early on – One of the biggest draft day mistakes I see year after year comes when an over-eager manager picks a closer as the 8th pick of the draft. Last year, if I recall correctly, Eric Gagne was taken in the first round in one of my league’s drafts. Suffice it to say, that pick didn’t pan out.
Saves are one of the most over-rated fantasy stats. Think about a closer’s contribution to your team. This is a pitcher who will throw somewhere between 60 and 80 innings. Sure, the very best closers may strike out a lot of guys in those innings, but their ERA contributions and strike out contributions will be negligible compared to starters throwing 220 innings. In essence, closers will help you in one category and one category only: saves. And when you look at the saves leaderboards from 2005, funny things happen.
It’s easy to pick up mediocre closers later on than it is to find top-notch starters and position players in later drafts. Use your early picks to maximize stats across the board. Fine-tune your deficiencies in later rounds.
2. Pay attention to your league’s categories – Only 13 players stole 30 or more bases this past season, and it’s easy for one player to run away with stolen bases as a category. The stolen base has become a point of contention among fantasy owners. Some leagues have opted to eschew the stolen base while others maintain that the stolen base is an integral part of baseball and fantasy baseball. This debate has raged in my league for the better part of two seasons now.
Before you draft, pay careful attention to your league’s categories. On its surface, this is a fairly obvious remainder. But it is amazing how many people forget about this and grab Carl Crawford in the 11th pick when stolen bases are not a counting stat. Guys like Carl Crawford and Chone Figgins lose much of their fantasy value when stolen bases are discarded. Others like Jose Reyes and Juan Pierre – low OBP hitters with little power – may not even be picked up until the very end of the draft if stolen bases aren’t counted.
While I don’t necessarily advocate dropping the stat, make sure when you draft that it will be counting in your league.
3. Leaving wins in the past – While Cy Young voters still value the win, many fantasy baseball players have come to recognize that wins do not adequately evaluate a pitcher’s performance. In many cases, a team’s victory is as much a result of offense as it is pitching. Take Roger Clemens in 2005.
Last season, Clemens threw 211 innings, giving up just 151 hits while striking out 185 and pitching to an ERA of 1.87. Yet he won just 13 games because of a sub-par offense. The Astros were shut up, shut down, and generally unable to muster enough offense to plate runs when Clemens pitched.
As a result, the Rocket’s value in win-dependent leagues suffered. While he was arguably one of the best fantasy pitchers of the season last year in every other stat, he wouldn’t help your team’s win cause.
Roger is not alone in this regard. Good pitchers on mediocre teams – Johan Santana, Ben Sheets – won’t get the wins you need to lead the category. That’s why I’ve advocated eliminating wins as a fantasy stat. While this goes against traditional fantasy grounds, a league without wins more accurately reflects individual performances and gives value back to pitchers who excel in pitching without an All Star offense behind them.
4. Beware the allure of Red Sox and Yankees – My final point today takes us to the I-95 rivalry. It is always tempting to grab as many Yankees and Red Sox as possible early on. Those teams are bound to be among the offensive leaders in baseball. But buyer beware! Some fantasy strongholds on these two days may be turning from stud to dud.
In particular, I’m thinking about Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek. While two of the offensive leaders behind the plate for a long time, the two are no spring chickens, and this year, they should fall further on your depth charts. Posada turns 35 in August, and he is coming off of his worst offensive season. His OBP saw a .050-point drop. Varitek too suffered a late-season slide, and at age 34, he is well past the peak for backstops.
Instead of this two stalwarts, take a look at the kids. Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, and the Marlins’ Josh Willingham will probably be the stand-outs at catcher this season. While Posada and Varitek will still back a punch now and then, their days as stand-out fantasy players are in the past.
So go forth and create your draft sheets. And as you do so, I hope you’ll keep some of my thoughts for fantasy drafts in mind. As snow melts across the northeast, it’s a great time of year for baseball fans.