Ottonewbs: Auction Preparation and Strategy

How we prepared for the Ottoneu auction, and some lessons we learned along the way.

This year, we have created Ottonewbs: The Pitcher List Ottoneu Rookie League. In a previous article, I introduced the league and outlined some of its basic rules as an introduction to Ottoneu. As the name suggests, we are Ottoneu beginners looking to learn the game and to share those discoveries with our readers.

With the league setup organized and the rules understood, it is time to prepare for our auction. For help, I have recruited my league mate, Daniel Port, to share some of the work and research that he and I have done in preparation.


Introductory Reading


After getting a good handle on the league rules and writing the introductory article (link above), my auction preparation began with reading as much as I could about Ottoneu strategy. I began at the Ottoneu Community and searched for all articles tagged “101”. This led me to the Ottoneu Basics category and revealed an article by Trey Braugn called “10 Tips for Ottoneu Rookies.”

Fortunately, my previous work for my introductory article knocked off the first seven tips, but the article provided numerous links to Ottoneu resources and tools. A great resource, unsurprisingly, is the Ottoneu Strategy section at Rotographs. With frequent Ottoneu articles covering a wide variety of topics, there are articles abound. It’s a good place to start going down rabbit holes, as articles have many links to other articles.

The best tool that I found is the Ottoneu Surplus Calculator.  A contributor to the Community Forum named Justin Vibber created a spreadsheet that brings in league data to easily show team salaries, player values, surplus, available auction money, available free agents (and their average salary and value), as well as a way of adding custom player values.

The spreadsheet’s ease of use and the availability of the data makes the tool invaluable, but, as a rookie, the calculator is instructive because it provided insight into some of the key places for further research: Value and Surplus.


Value and Surplus

We know that each team has a $400 budget. The goal, therefore, is to have as much value as possible. This isn’t a new concept or something unique to Ottoneu, but just good fantasy baseball. It is important, though to remember this when heading into the auction. In the excitement of an auction, it can be easy to forget!

Part of my preparation for this Ottoneu league is general auction preparation. I am relatively new to auctions and it is vital that I develop an auction strategy and prepare for the auction as much as possible. Dan Richards wrote a Fantasy 101 article for auctions with some valuable insights:

  1. Find/create a price for every player and do not exceed those prices. If I have Patrick Corbin at $27, I need to get out of the bidding below $27. The lower the better. Look for deals everywhere.
  2. Create tiers and/or value dropoffs. If my value for Patrick Corbin is $27, and the auction bidding is approaching that price, I need to know if there are other players of similar skills and category contributions. If the player nearest in value to Patrick Corbin provides similar stats and has a similar expected cost, I don’t have to worry about not winning the bid for Corbin. However, if those players are already gone, I may need to push Corbin’s bidding. Understanding the player pool is vital.

Assigning players a price and rostering players for less is my goal in the auction and in Ottoneu.

Let’s say that I win Patrick Corbin for $20. I have him valued at $27 and, with luck, my projections are correct and earns $27 (or more) in stats. That’s $7 of profit and my goal is to have more profit than my league mates. There is another benefit to my “value” bid for Corbin: I now have an additional $7 to spend on other players. Getting the additional $7 could help later in the auction or in-season.

An article that was very helpful for this was Trey Baughn’s Ottoneu 101: Production, Salary, Surplus, Value. He defines each clearly, but his definition of value is helpful: “The sum of production and surplus. What a player produces on field, added to the benefits of owning him a specific salary.”

In the above (very dated) example, Mike Trout and Corey Seager have similar “value” even though their salaries and production are very different. It is the surplus that builds value for Seager. Finding players who have excellent production is fine, but getting that production at a low cost is the basis of how I wanted to build my team.

One of the very helpful pieces of information that I have uncovered in my reading is that the goal should be to achieve $550 of value from our $400 budget. League champions are usually around that target and there are numerous ways of reaching that goal. There are a few ways that this can be done in the auction:

  1. Win auctions for less money than I expect them to earn during the season. A few dollars here and there can add up, but an extra $150 isn’t going to be easy.
  2. Maximize player usage in-season by taking advantage of daily rosters.
  3. Get lucky and find breakouts. Examples from 2019 are Ketel Marte, Marcus Semien, Taylor Rodgers, and Brandon Woodruff.

Let’s examine how this can be done.


Understanding the Rules

At this point, we know the rules, but dissecting them a little more is really helpful. To do this, I will use some contributions from fellow Ottonewb, Daniel Port.


Game Limits

There is a games limit for position players and an innings limit for pitchers. How will this impact us in-season?

A “game played” is any game appearance, regardless of whether the player starts or comes into the game for any type of late-game substitution.

Hitters are limited to 162 games for each position (810 for outfield=5*162). This means that we need to maximize production. We need to make sure that we get as close as we can to our 162-game limit. Finishing the season with less at any position can really hurt our chances of winning. We also can’t afford to have a player use one of those 162 games without a maximum number of plate appearances per game (we need to prevent a pinch-hit or a defensive substitution). We also need to capitalize on matchups so that we try our best to get a 3-for-4 day rather than an 0-for-5.

Luckily, Ottoneu has daily lineups. This should allow us to substitute players more easily to take advantage of matchups and platoons. Players like Joc Pederson, Eric Thames, and Ji-Man Choi have massive RHP and LHP splits and are more valuable in a daily league with game limits because we can put them into our lineup against RHPs and leave them benched when facing a left-handed starter. We don’t want poor production if they start, and we really don’t want a late game-pinch hit appearance.  Value can be found with these players.

Daniel had similar thoughts: “I felt like having such a large roster size allowed some flexibility in how I filled certain positions, namely OF. That much depth along with the daily format means that platoons and other part-time players were options. If I could slap together a few of those types of players wouldn’t cost much but would essentially operate as a full-time player but only when getting ABs in their best situations.”

To take advantage of daily lineups and getting the most out of their games played, Daniel focussed on players like Corey Dickerson, Nick Markakis, Jordan Luplow, David Fletcher, Ian Happ, Cesar Hernandez, Hanser Alberto, and Dee Gordon. Daniel will not roster these players every day but will stream them into his lineup whenever they have a good matchup and are starting (therefore getting a better chance at four or more plate appearances).

Pairing players like Ryan Braun and Justin Smoak is a cheap way to get a first baseman or corner infielder that will play for Milwaukee in a situation that is best for them. We, as fantasy managers, can place them into our starting lineup whenever we like their matchups. With luck, they can out-contribute an everyday player for a fraction of the salary.


Innings Limits

In preparing a pitching strategy, the 1500 IP limit is important because I decided that it was essential to lock down some quality innings eaters. That might mean paying up for Aces or by locking down a few of the second-tier arms. An innings cap, essentially, turns the league into a K/9 league and so I wanted to get pitchers who throw a lot of innings and have a high K/9. If we are going to use some of our innings limit, we want to make sure that we get quality production. A pitcher like Jeff Samardzija might help with the 3.52 ERA and 1.11 WHIP he put up in 2019, but he only had 6.95 K/9. Compared to Lucas Giolito’s 3.41 ERA, 1.06 WHIP in 2019, he had an 11.62 K/9 grabbing 88 more strikeouts on the season despite pitching fewer innings than Samardzija.

Giolito’s excellent stats, especially K/9, combined with fewer innings means that we build an innings surplus. Like our earlier example of salary surplus, Giolito’s innings surplus, in comparison to Samardzija’s, saves 4.2 innings (Giolito threw 176.2 innings and Samardzija had 181.1 IP in 2019). We can do that by streaming in another favorable start by an SP in a good matchup or adding innings by an RP to bolster our ratios and add some strikeouts, or even a save.

When it comes to RPs, I made strikeouts per nine an auction goal. High K/9 relievers can be beneficial to teams even if they don’t get saves. Matt Barnes, for instance, had just four saves in 2019, but he struck out 110 batters in 64.1 innings, for a 15.39 K/9. Alex Colome saved 30 games, but had an 8.11 K/9 for just 55 strikeouts in 61 innings. While Colome was contributing in saves, he wasn’t giving the same value per inning in strikeouts as other relievers. There are five active rosters for relievers and it is unlikely that all your relievers will be contributing saves, but high K/9 pitchers with good ratios can really benefit statistical categories for cheap.

Again, Daniel Port and I had similar thoughts on innings limits: “The fact that there is a ceiling on how many games a specific position can accumulate changed how I approached filling important positions namely Starting Pitcher and Relief Pitcher. Given that you have a pretty hard limit of 1,500 IP for all pitchers, I decided that I wanted to make sure that I got the most out of the innings. Awhile back, Fangraphs posted an article that stated the pitching categories most closely tied with winning leagues were strikeouts and wins, so this shifted my focus to starting pitching. I wasn’t necessarily planning to pay up to get a top ten guy but I wanted to try and have my entire starting five be somewhere between top 10 and top 40.”

In the article, The Math of Winning Ottoneu (2015) Trey Braughn believes that the most important numbers are the games and innings limits. Hitting the caps is very important and the best way to do that in the pitching categories is “to think about building your rotation backwards.” If we estimate 65 innings from each of our RPs slots, we have 325 IP gone with 1175 to go. That means 235 IP per roster slot. How easy is it to find a pitcher who throws 235 innings in 2020? Justin Verlander topped baseball with 223 last year. We can either stream pitchers in-and-out of our rosters or establish a strong base of innings with top-tier pitching. Perhaps, a combination of both? I mentioned above the need for high K/9 pitchers. Marco Gonzales threw 203 innings last year but had just 147 strikeouts (a 6.52 K/9). Reaching the innings cap is important, but not at the expense of stats. Obviously, high-strikeout, high-inning pitchers are best; getting them in the auction is a priority.


Budget and Creating a Value


The salary cap is $400, but should I spend the full amount at the auction? Do I set aside money to use in-season? If I do spend my full budget, will that limit me in-season? How should I expect my opponents to budget? What should my hitter/pitcher split be?


Stars and Scrubs vs. Spread the Risk

A helpful article, for me, is Brad Johnson’s Ottonewbs: Advice for Those New to Ottoneu (with my apologies to Brad for finding this article after I named our league).

Johnson advises to “acquire as many expensive star players as possible.” His advice is directed to new players inheriting a failed roster, but I think that it applies to new leagues as well. He says that “rostering expensive players also forces you to be thrifty in future auctions” and that “it’s the $1 to $3 breakouts who create roster value.” As much as adding a player like Adam Eaton (his example) at $18 can be a strong contributor to a team, “even if he has an excellent season, he can’t produce much surplus for you.” For Johnson, paying up for big players and combining them with cheap potential breakouts is best.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to assume a stars-and-scrubs strategy. At least, it appears beneficial to secure some top-tier talent. Obviously, the goal is to find bargains, but not securing some premium production seems like a mistake. As Johnson puts it, “If you focus only on value, you’re going to wind up with a $200 keeper roster with $250 of output.” Put another way, if I get 40 players at $10 all earning $2 more value than I paid, I only get $480 of my $550 goal. I need to get some big results from big players. I could get four players for $40 who all earn $40, or I could roster Arenado for $37, and take shots on three $1 players. If Arenado performs, I could get my $40 of production with three lottery tickets to push me well beyond. If Arenado doesn’t perform, I could still get a windfall from the production of the three others.


Filling my Roster and Categorical Goals

Earlier, I referenced Trey Braugn’s The Math of Winning Ottoneu (2015). Beyond the 22-player active lineup, he suggests nine additional SPs, two RPs, a backup for each of 1B, 2B, 3B, and SS as well as three OFs, leaving four roster spots for prospects. Knowing which roster spots to get is helpful heading into the auction. With a rigid salary cap, managers need to optimize their reserves for streaming at every position.

Braughn also notes the average scores (benchmarks) of league champions from 2015.

Balance, for me, is essential when putting together a team. When building a roster, I always spend a lot of time creating category targets and finding players who can help me meet them.

For this reason, I took some time to review some of last year’s Ottoneu data. Here is what I did:

  1.  I went to the Claim Teams page to find a list of some of the leagues. There I was able to identify some leagues with the same format (Old School 5×5) as ours.
  2.  After writing down the league numbers, I was able to find the standings for that league’s previous years by going to https://ottoneu.fangraphs.com/####/standings, where the #### is the Ottoneu league number.
  3. After finding five league standings and stat totals for each category, I totaled up the categories to give a rough idea of what was needed in each category. This is obviously a small sample size, but my goal was just to get a rough idea of how some leagues finished so that I could create a rough target for each. Here is what I created:

When looking to build a balanced team, I aim for third place in each category. Based on projections, I want players whose stat contributions would total at or above the previous year’s third-place results. Looking quickly, we can see that we have to do better than a strikeout per inning, and approach 100 wins and 100 saves. When choosing pitchers, focusing on this will help simplify matters. Maximizing production while minimizing innings suggests that significant auction capital needs to be spent on top starting pitchers and on relievers that can boost ratios, contribute strikeouts, and gather saves.

Balance isn’t as vital in Ottoneu because trading is permitted. If I build excess stats in any category, I can trade them for stats that I need in a deficient one. Still, having a goal in each category is helpful for me when building a roster.

Daniel Port admits, “I’ve never been great at creating those perfectly balanced, top-4-in-every-category sort of teams right in the draft.” This self-awareness pushes Daniel to “create a team that will finish at the top of a couple of categories and in the middle of the other categories and then my free-agent focus come the start of the season is much more narrow.”

Focussing on winning a few categories and ignoring (not punting) others is a valid strategy in Ottoneu because it allows the owner to adapt mid-draft and to focus on the value given during the auction, rather than pushing prices on players targetted for their categorical contributions. In-season, Daniel will look to fill those deficiencies either in the free-agent pool or through trades.


Final Thoughts


The Ottonewbs managers have been put into a tough position. Not only are they playing in a league format that is new to them, but they are doing so for the public to see. We are all new to Ottoneu, but some are also new to auctions, and some have never played fantasy with other Pitcher List writers. We all entered the auction room not knowing just what we were in for. It’s exciting but stressful!

So as not to tip our strategies to our league mates, this article comes out after the completion of the auction. The auction was streamed live on February 15th and on February 16th on the Pitcher List Twitch channel. Daniel Port and Dave Cherman did a spectacular job hosting the stream, so if you are interested in how we fared and how well we stuck to our plans, be sure to have a look.


Images courtesy of Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Mark McElroy

When I am not watching baseball or writing about fantasy baseball, I can usually be found cycling in and around Victoria, BC. I am a manager at Pitcher List and can be found on Twitter @markmcelroybb.

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