Fantasy 101: Drafting

Myles Nelson gives his top tips to dominating your draft.


The draft is arguably the single most important event when it comes to your team’s level of success. How you draft will shape your team, create your strengths and weaknesses, and set the tone for the rest of the fantasy season. You’ll want to come into the draft prepared. Make sure before you draft you do your research, so you don’t draft a guy who’s still a free agent, or is injured and might be on the shelf for the first three months of the season. On the positive side of it, do your research so that you can be the guy to draft the breakout hitter in the 18th round and brag about it for the whole rest of the year. You definitely want to leave your draft with a feeling of pride for the amazing team you’ve assembled.

One thing to remember is that while the draft is important, you don’t win or lose the season based on how everyone feels about your team right away. The games still need to be played, and you still have a team to manage for the whole rest of the season. So even if you feel a little down at the end of the day because freaking Dave picked your favorite sleeper right before you had the chance to (if you’re reading this Dave, Delino Deshields was supposed to be mine!), don’t worry too much about it. Fantasy baseball is a long season, and there is plenty of time for you to win your league. But you want to get started out on the right foot, and that’s why you’re here. So let’s dive into some of the best tips to keep in mind on draft day.

Have a Plan

I cannot stress the importance of this enough, in order to have a successful draft, you need to have some sort of a plan heading into the draft. It doesn’t have to be the most well-defined plan, but you need at least a guideline when you are beginning your draft. Do you want to make sure you get elite pitching? Then you need to know your targets and be ready to pay up for them. Think you can find saves easily enough on the waiver wire? Then let other people draft the high-end closers and focus on getting value elsewhere. If you are going to punt a category, do so thoughtfully. It’s one thing to ignore stolen bases in the draft, but if you want to maximize the impact of punting steals, then you need to think about it as getting the most you can in the other hitting categories when you draft players. The important point here is to put the time and thought into creating a plan, and putting together some sort of guideline so that when your draft starts, you are ready to execute.

My suggestion on how to put together a draft plan is to actually start backward. Instead of thinking about what top-level talent you want, think about where you can find value at the end of the draft. Personally, I think there are plenty of power and speed options in the middle and late rounds of the draft, but it’s very hard to find productive batting average late. So since I know that I’ll be targeting guys like Delino Deshields and Mallex Smith for speed, or Jay Bruce and Justin Bour for power, that means I need to think about getting guys who hit for average early. That means knowing I’d rather go after J.D. Martinez over Cody Bellinger, or Nelson Cruz over Justin Upton. Let’s say you particularly like some of the late round starting pitching options, and think that chasing their upside is worth the risk. For your draft strategy, you may want to anchor your rotation with one or two studs in the first five rounds, and then skip starting pitchers for the next ten rounds or so. Use this time to bolster your lineup and make sure you are set there, as that should be where your advantage is on draft day. While everyone else is grabbing the starting pitchers you are skipping, you should be making sure you have a great lineup. Then you can take your high upside starting pitchers late, and if everything works out for you, you’ll be the best team on both sides of the ball.

Be Prepared to Abandon Your Draft Strategy

This is actually much harder than it sounds, and it already sounds a little difficult. You worked so hard on your draft strategy, and you identified a handful of catchers after ADP 200 that you really like. But Gary Sanchez is plummeting in your draft and he’s available to you at the end of the third round. This is the type of moment where you have to be prepared to take all that draft prep you did to identify your sleepers at catcher, and just grab the elite player. The value is simply too good at that draft position to pass up on that player. It could be even bigger than just one position or one player. Let’s say you wanted to go relief pitcher heavy and think that you can find a competitive advantage by having multiple top 5 closers. But you start seeing closers fly off the board way earlier than you were expecting, and all of a sudden the top 5 closers were taken and you didn’t even have a chance to grab one. You might panic and grab the next best closer so that you can stick to your strategy, but that’d be the wrong thing to do. The best thing you can do when you see a certain position start flying off the board is go the other direction. Everyone took relief pitchers in round 5? You grab a hitter and wait confidently knowing teams won’t be looking to take closers two rounds in a row. You can sit back and grab a mid-tier closer in round 8. You have to be willing to toss out the script.

I’ll give you one real example from one of my leagues this year. I had this idea in my head that I would grab one of the top 4 aces, and then be able to go hitter-heavy for a few rounds before grabbing my second starter, probably in round 5 or 6. There were a lot of hitters in rounds 2 through 5 that I liked, and I felt that I’d be more comfortable grabbing a top starting pitcher and then a bunch of hitters. But when the draft started, I was randomly assigned the first pick. I couldn’t pass up on Mike Trout or Jose Altuve to grab Clayton Kershaw. The value just didn’t make sense. So I immediately took my plan and tweaked it around, and instead took a pitcher at the end of rounds 3 and 5. If I had taken Kershaw at the top of round 1, I would have passed up on some amazing hitting production that I couldn’t find anywhere else in the draft. I wasn’t going to get my super-ace, but I could make up that difference later. I couldn’t make up the difference of not having Trout/Altuve.

Tailor Your Draft Prep to Your League

This is one of those tips where it sounds like complete common sense, and yet it is probably the most overlooked part of preparing for a draft. We all know how our draft prep typically goes, we look around the internet for rankings articles, read blurbs, make our own base rankings (usually not complete, just a list of targets or guys we want to avoid), and then go into the draft ready to dominate. However, those rankings you read online are almost always based on a standard 5×5 H2H set up. Then, when your draft is over, you realize you are playing in an OBP league and not a batting average league, and completely dismissing Joey Gallo might cost you more severely than you expected. Maybe you play in a league with more categories, and IP and QS are the additional pitching categories. Now your heavy reliever strategy isn’t looking too good anymore, is it?

Before you do any draft prep whatsoever, you need to study your league settings. Understand what all the categories are, and how the different categories will affect player valuation. For H2H leagues, is it multiple wins per week, or is it one win per week? If it’s just one win per week (where the owner who wins the majority of the categories gets the win for that week), then punting just became a much more viable strategy. If you are in a points league, how are the points set up? Sometimes pitching becomes much more valuable in points leagues.

Once you understand how your league is set up, then you can understand the lens through which to view all the draft prep you read out there. Maybe you read a really compelling article about how Jose Altuve should be the 1st pick in the draft. If you play in a league that uses OBP or OPS instead of AVG, that article should be disregarded. But if you play in a league that added hits as an additional category, then Altuve becomes even more valuable at the top. Maybe you play in a league with a starts limit per week to prevent streaming. Then you need to understand the value of elite starting pitching, as you can’t combat that by just loading up on quantity over quality. There are so many different league set-ups out there, but the most important thing you can do to make sure you win your draft is truly understand your league’s settings and how they affect you.

High Floor Early, High Ceiling Late

This tip is actually pretty simple, as it comes down to risk management. At the beginning of the draft, you have the most to lose by having a draft pick not work out well. Yes, Noah Syndergaard could be the #1 starting pitcher this year. He also could be the #150 if he can’t stay healthy. If you draft him and he does get hurt, then you might have missed out on getting top 10 SP production with someone like Zack Greinke in the same round. I know how high Trea Turner has been going in drafts, but if he doesn’t play a full season, or doesn’t play at the same insane level he has in two short stints thus far, that pick won’t look so good when you could have picked someone like Bryce Harper or Paul Goldschmidt.

On the flip side, it doesn’t hurt so bad when you take those type of lottery tickets late. Hey, you really like prospect Gleybar Torres and think he’ll be the cheap solution for you at SS. Then the Yankees trade for Brandon Drury and it’s looking more like Torres won’t break camp as a starter for the Yankees, but guess what? The guys you passed on in the draft to get Torres were looking more like Jake Odorizzi and Randal Grichuk. You’re not missing out on much at that point in the draft.

I completely understand how tantalizing it is to draft guys like Syndergaard and Turner early on in the draft. I’m not telling you not to draft them. What I am saying is understand the risk management aspect of the draft. Be willing to take risks late, even wild lottery tickets as the downside isn’t too much. Early on, take calculated risks. If you take Syndergaard, think about taking a more stable name for your second starting pitcher. It’s easy to get caught up in chasing ceiling early, just make sure you anchor yourself as well.

Don’t Always Draft the Shiny New Toy

I can’t blame everyone for loving them some Rhys Lightning (Rhys Hoskins). I’m a huge Hoskins believer and I think he’s going to be a star in this league. Steamer has projected him to post a strong statline of 84 runs, 37 home runs, 97 RBI, and a .263 batting average. That seems like completely reasonable numbers, and I wouldn’t mind taking that in the middle of the 4th round, where he’s currently going. But he only has 212 plate appearances at the MLB level. To put that in perspective, Jeff Francouer posted a 1.019 OPS in his first 192 plate appearances, and we all know what happened to him after that magical rookie season. Anything can happen at this point in Hoskins career. So while you could take him around the 45th pick, you could also wait a full round and grab a guy who has averaged the following statline over the past three seasons: 96 runs, 40 home runs, 115 RBI, and a .266 batting average. That’s a better number in every single category, and that’s actual production that Edwin Encarnacion has put up over the last three years. If you take the worst numbers he’s posted in each of those categories over that same time period, you’d end up with a line of 94 runs, 38 home runs, 107 RBI, and .258/.357/.504. That’s an .861 OPS being his absolute worst over nearly 2000 plate appearances.

Let’s look at another example. Byron Buxton is another hitter going in the same range that Hoskins is going, and for good reason. He’s a young OF with a good prospect pedigree, he’s capable of posting a 25-25 season, and he had an insane hot streak that lasted a little over a month last year, showing the type of player he could potentially be. Steamer projects him to score 73 runs, mash 20 home runs, post 70 RBI, swipe 21 bags and hit .256. That’s a little conservative, so let’s get electric here, like Buxton himself. Let’s push him to more of an 80/25/80/30/.265 statline, which I think is more in line with what people are hoping for with Buxton. You could take that around pick 53, or you could wait more than 30 picks and grab Lorenzo Cain with a pick somewhere in the 80s. Over the last three seasons, he has averaged 81 runs, 13 home runs, 59 RBI, 23 stolen bases, and a .299 batting average, and that is with missing 60 games in 2016. He’s going from cavernous Kaufmann Stadium to the more homer-friendly Miller Park, and he’ll be batting leadoff for a potent Brewers lineup that includes Christian YelichTravis Shaw, and Ryan Braun/Domingo Santana batting behind him. I don’t think it’s out of the question to project Lorenzo Cain to put up 90 runs, 15 home runs, 60 RBI, 25 stolen bases, and a .290 batting average. Would I rather have Buxton in a vacuum? Sure. Would I pay a three-round premium for him, especially when there’s absolutely no guarantee he reaches his ceiling, and his floor is much lower than Cain’s floor? Not a chance.

Like with every tip you’ll see this week, the lesson here isn’t black and white. You shouldn’t come away from this feeling like you need to avoid Hoskins, Buxton, or anyone else that is young and being drafted higher because of that. As long as you recognize where you can get similar value for cheaper, you can make a balanced draft plan that allows both for upside and stability. If you end up picking Hoskins at 1B, then perhaps you’ll want to balance that out with the higher floor of Cain three rounds later than picking Buxton next.

Get the Guy You Believe In

At the end of the day, fantasy baseball is supposed to be fun. You can follow all the tips, all the rules, all the expert advice out there, but you have to enjoy playing the game, or else what’s the point in doing it? We stressed commitment earlier this week, and it’s a real problem in a sport that lasts six months long and requires pretty much daily maintenance. The easiest way to stay committed and enjoy this game is to get the players you believe in. You think Buxton and Syndergaard are going to return top 5 OF/SP value? Draft them! You think Cain’s a bum who won’t perform in Milwaukee this year? Don’t draft him! There’s no worse feeling than going against your gut to grab a player everyone else is telling you to get, and watching him fail while the player you wanted flourishes elsewhere. Fantasy baseball is only as fun as you make it, and that means sometimes planting your flag and reaching for a guy that you really like. So what if everyone else makes fun of you for drafting the guy you really like? If he performs, you’ll feel like a genius and everyone else will bow down to you. If not, oh well, at least you didn’t have to find out how much it would hurt to watch him succeed for someone else’s team.

More than anything else, fantasy baseball is a game, and we should all have fun playing it. Don’t get too caught up in all the rules out there, and get the players you want to get. It doesn’t do anyone any good if you aren’t having fun playing the game.

Myles Nelson

VP Operations. Creator of the PL Wacky Leagues (Blind Draft, Grand Theft, WorstBall).

5 responses to “Fantasy 101: Drafting”

  1. James says:

    I’ve done only Auctions for 3 decades. Yesterday was my first Draft, in an NL only 10 teamer. Wish your article had come out 2 days earlier. I especially like the high floor early and high ceiling late, plus crafting your middle rounds backwards from what value should be there in the crap shoot at the end. Fine article.

  2. Steven says:

    I understand Deshields is hyped because of playing time. He went for $10 in our auction draft. I got Bradley Zimmer for $1. Albies went for $14, while I got Margot for $6. I think my players should perform close to those guys in total value. Thoughts?

    • Myles Nelson says:

      The biggest downgrade I see here is that Albies and DeShields could both hit for solid averages whereas Zimmer most likely won’t hit for higher than .250. Margot is fine, I think he’s the safest player of this group and most likely to hit 30 steals out of everyone. One of the main reasons why I really like DeShields though is that insane upside, I think he could eclipse 50 steals, putting him in with the elites of the category, guys like Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Trea Turner.

      To put it simply, I like the players you got at their prices. The ceiling is much higher for DeShields and Albies, which is why they went for more, but I wouldn’t be surprised either if Margot/Zimmer outperform DeShields/Albies this year.

  3. Ben Chang says:

    You took Trout #1, right?

  4. J.C. Mosier says:

    Great point on risk management, but I especially like your last point. If I don’t like my team, then why am I doing this?

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