So, let’s be real. This is the best fantasy time of the year. I know all the amateurs are really into Fantasy Football, but this is where the real jock-nerd geniuses come to shine. I say this for a couple of reasons. 1) Football involves much more chance than any other game. It’s just true. There are more injuries and a smaller sample size (16 games; 15 not including week 17). You could lose your first and second round picks in the first game of the season and never recover, no matter how much preparation you put into it. 2) Everybody loves football. Not everybody has the attention span for other sports, so only the dudes who really know their stuff join in on the other games. And finally, 3) Baseball is a game absolutely meant for numbers crunching. This is what gives Matthew Berry that little grin that’s always on his face–he knows that no matter how socially awkward he may be nobody can take away the numbers that codify his little fantasy reality.
But I’m going to make this much simpler than Berry does. If you haven’t seen his work, it’s a little like advanced calculus meets Dungeons and Dragons wrapped in a sports game. To say he’s a little into numbers is like saying that Napoleon was a little into politics, or Dennys Reyes is a little into food. The guy loves his stats, but I said I’m going to do this differently–sans obsequious numbers. So without further ado, here is how you are going to win your fantasy baseball league.
Step 1: Pay Attention
No seriously. If you don’t pay attention, then don’t even join a league. You make it stupid for the rest of us, especially come pennant chase time when somebody is playing you and wins 20-0 because none of your pitchers are healthy or in the majors. Stop that. Now, the question is how much attention do you need to pay? The more, the better obviously, but I have a very simple rule. Check in once a day. 5 minutes. That’s all. Some days there’s more to check on, but most days that will be sufficient to set your lineup–not just for today but for the next 3-4 days. Obviously, there will come days when you can’t check in at all. Those times you need to plan ahead, set your lineup for a week, figure out which pitchers should be pitching which days. Really, it’s not that hard.
Step 2: Draft Safe
Amateurs and lazy people try to win their league in the draft. You are not that kind of person. Instead, you are going to try to win the league on the waiver wire, trading block and by setting your lineup intelligently. So, here are a few draft day principles. Don’t take too many chances. Don’t load your team up with guys who are often injured, but also don’t load up on sleepers, bounce-back candidates, or other sexy names. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t draft them, just do so in moderation. In a 25-man roster you should be aiming for 1-2 rookie/up-and-comers, 2-3 sleepers, 1-2 bounce-back candidates and maybe 1 sexy name. Other than that, you should draft for value. You’re going to get a few really nice players either way if you’re drafting a traditional snake-style draft. Unsexy names always go for less value, but those are the guys you want. Guys who are a few years past their prime; guys who are consistent but don’t have a huge ceiling. This is where you shall live. Call your team the Derek Jeter All Stars. As a caveat, if your draft is an auction, make sure you get a couple of very good (top 20) players, because you are going to win the league on the waiver wire but you need a couple of rocks to hold down the fort. After you have those studs, follow up with the earlier steps and draft for value.
Step 3: Know Your League
This is probably the most underrated thing you can do. For example, I’m in a league this year that is 10×10 head-to-head, which seems fairly normal, except it has the following pitching stat categories: IP, W, L, SHO, SV, R, ER, BB, K, ERA, and WHIP.
If that doesn’t look suspicious to you then look again. By the way, the minimum innings requirement for this league is 6 per week. Still don’t see it? Let me help you out. In this list, the following categories are going to be determined positively by your starting pitchers: IP, W, SHO, K. Meanwhile, the following categories are going to be hurt by your starting pitchers: L, R, ER, BB. Not to mention that SHO are extremely rare (even for great pitchers), and ERA and WHIP are worse for starters than for relievers. Furthermore, this league rosters 2 SP, 2 RP and 4 generic P spots. Here’s a test: What should I have done?
Answer: Draft closers. Lots of them. In fact, punt starting pitchers entirely. They are a waste. I drafted seven closers, to go with 2 stud starting pitchers (Lee and Price). Then I got a couple of other starters to play matchups. I feel as if the league is already won and we haven’t started. I’m going to finish every week up 7-4 in pitching. And maybe I can snag a SHO or two along the way.
Not every league is as strange as this, but they all have their quirks. Know the categories and know your roster spots, especially in pitching which varies much more from league to league. End of story.
Step 4: Don’t Panic
So, when Dan Uggla starts out 1-30 in April you’re going to start harboring all sorts of ill will toward your player. Bench him, but DO NOT trade him. Resist the urge to sell low unless you have good reason to believe nothing is going to change.
Step 5: Be a Waiver Maven
You are going to own the waiver wire. Make it your bitch. But in order to do this you need to know how to use it. Have in mind before the season starts who your players to drop will be–this should be 1-2 guys who you like but don’t love (hopefully the last couple of guys you draft… which come to think of it is all the more reason not to stash rookies and prospects at the end of the draft). Then, when you see somebody have a huge game that first week of the season, pounce. The first week of the year is so crucial you should probably just quit your job and watch every game online…. or, failing that, check in the morning after and bring up the stats for the last 7 days (this stat calculator, which is available on every fantasy league site I know of, is your friend–learn it, love it). You are looking for guys who hit a couple of HR or, even better, stole a couple of bases. Don’t go crazy, but invest in one or two guys in the first week. Ideally, save a place on your bench for these guys to see if they are a flash in the pan before inserting them in your lineup. By the way, it’s exactly one million times better if the guys you are picking up are catchers or middle infielders–especially if that is a position of need (which it always is).
But, now here’s the important part, you need to become less and less enthusiastic about day-to-day performance as the season goes along. If your guy who homered three times on opening week goes 5-30 with 0 HR over the next week then consider dropping him and check out guys who’ve had a better average over the last 14 days (this is really my favorite sortable stat category, 14 days is a good period of time). If a guy homers twice in a game in July but he was batting .212 and had 2 HR up to that point maybe make a note, but hold your mouse and do not click. You need to know when to snap up a guy and when not to. If he is 32 years old and has never had a great season then it’s pretty darn unlikely he’s going to start now (Apologies to Russell Branyon, circa 2009). It’s an art, but one that is not impossible to learn.
Step 6: Trade often
It’s human nature to want to hold on to what you have, but you are smarter than the other guys and even if you aren’t, the season will eventually sap resources out of certain areas of your lineup, rotation or bullpen. Those holes can be filled with other teams’ players. For example, let’s say you have six stud OF but you can only play 4 between your OF and Util slots. Then, why in God’s name do you still have six stud outfielders? Trade. Now. Better yet, you have two stud 2B and one is serving as your Utility man. Get rid of one of them now; you even have some leverage. Somebody in your league would give up his left nut for that guy.
There are two kinds of trades you should be interested in: 1) Position of need for different position of need (you give up a position you have a lot of for a position you need more), and 2) Great player for multiple good players. The second of these are far more interesting–and also far more important. If you end up with a lot of depth, turn your good players into one great player. If you are lacking in depth, turn your great player into several good ones. It’s just smart. No matter how good Ryan Braun is, having Carlos Lee and Josh Willingham alongside him is nowhere near as good as trading Braun for two OF of the likes of Jay Bruce and Shane Victorino to go with a player like Dee Gordan (for example)–something like this is certainly an option, especially if the other guy has a backup SS that’s playable and an extra OF on the bench (and who doesn’t?). [At this point, please note I am talking to guys in a 12-team league. If you’re playing with 8 guys, hold on to your studs. But those leagues aren’t nearly as much fun for just that reason. NOTE: If you’re playing in Jordan’s awesome 20-team league, then these trades are even more snazzy and fun… 30 team league… well, you get the picture.]
Step 7: It’s a long season
OK, this isn’t a step at all. But you need to remember that there will be ups and downs. Trending better and better is the goal, slowly improving your roster. This is another call to pay attention and be a waiver maven–in case you forgot.
Step 8: Win at all costs
Unless it’s a keeper league you can’t take it with you. Sell guys who aren’t performing anymore, drop guys who are injured with a couple of weeks left in the season. Drop starting pitchers and pick up new ones if your league allows it. Win. Win. Win. There is no substitute for it. You need to eke every point out of every week. If you can lose 14-6 instead of 15-5 one week, then do it! I won both of my leagues two years ago by finishing in ties in the final week and winning on tiebreakers. A win is a win.
Now go do it.