Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Simple 'Core Four' draft strategy can help make you a champion

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One of the best parts of fantasy baseball is the fun of drafting your team. The problem is, every draft has its own identity, and though you can go into a draft with your strategy mapped out, something unexpected often happens to force you into Plan B … or C … or D.

  • Detroit Tigers righty Max Scherzer was just 12-11 last year, but he delivered 184 strikeouts for his fantasy owners. Strikeouts, stolen bases, homers and hits are key in the

    By David J. Phillip, AP

    Detroit Tigers righty Max Scherzer was just 12-11 last year, but he delivered 184 strikeouts for his fantasy owners. Strikeouts, stolen bases, homers and hits are key in the "Core Four" draft strategy.

By David J. Phillip, AP

Detroit Tigers righty Max Scherzer was just 12-11 last year, but he delivered 184 strikeouts for his fantasy owners. Strikeouts, stolen bases, homers and hits are key in the "Core Four" draft strategy.

With so much statistical data available, there's the potential for "paralysis by analysis."

And when decisions need to be made quickly, a ton of data is often a bad thing.

In recent years, there seems to be a growing segment of the fantasy industry moving away from chasing precision and instead aiming for a broader target. We've seen it in the popular "tier drafting" strategy in which players at each position are grouped according to their approximate value.

For example, Evan Longoria might be the top overall fantasy third baseman, but if he, David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Alex Rodriguez and maybe even Jose Bautista are fairly close, it's a good idea to target a top-tier shortstop (Hanley Ramirez or Troy Tulowitzki) and wait until later to fill the third-base spot.

I was invited in November to take part in Ron Shandler's annual First Pitch Arizona symposium and sit on a panel that would be discussing draft strategies.

My session was target drafting, and the challenge presented to our group was to come up with a way to filter the player pool to make draft decisions easier.

In preparation, I decided to look at my team in the American League LABR experts league — which I ended up winning. Was there an underlying reason for my success?

One thing that jumped out at me was that I led the 12-team league with 1,756 hits. Only two teams were even close. Not coincidentally, I also had the highest batting average and led the league by a considerable margin in runs. I finished tied for fourth in home runs but ended up winning RBI.

All those hits from Robinson Cano, homers from Paul Konerko and steals from Carl Crawford helped form a well-rounded offense. On the pitching side, a strikeout-heavy staff featuring Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer and several high-impact relievers helped me win ERA and finish third in WHIP.

Sure, having those players stay healthy played a major role, but was there a reason they fit well together? It was worth exploring.

That's how the idea of my "Core Four" drafting strategy was hatched.

The basics of Core Four

Subconsciously, many fantasy players follow the basic principles of Core Four, whether they realize it or not.

In Roto or head-to-head leagues, the successful teams are usually the ones who build a solid base with top talent and can fill their rosters with solid bargains late. One way to streamline the process is to concentrate your high-round or high-dollar picks on players who will anchor your team in four key areas.

In most basic fantasy setups — and we'll take 5x5 leagues as the standard — there's a premium placed on certain stats.

Home runs: Each dinger helps a fantasy team in not only homers, but batting average, runs and RBI. Of the majors' top 23 home run hitters — top 20 and ties — in 2010, 20 of them scored more than 80 runs and 18 had 100 or more RBI.

Hits: Not only do they help in batting average, but they also give a player an opportunity to steal a base and score a run. (Of the majors' top 20 players in hits in 2010, 17 scored more than 80 runs and 14 hit better than .300.)

Stolen bases: They count on their own, and they put a player in better position to score a run. (Of the majors' top 26 in stolen bases last year, 18 scored 80 or more runs.)

Strikeouts:  Obviously, if pitchers keep batters from reaching base, it benefits their ERAs and WHIPs and puts them in better position to win. (Of 2010's top 25 in strikeouts, 18 ranked in the top 25 in 5x5 Roto value.)

What about saves, you ask? Yes, they're not really addressed by the Core Four strategy. But like wins, they're so much a product of circumstance and opportunity that it would only make the concept more complex to try to incorporate them. And the whole idea is to simplify our draft strategy. (But relievers with high strikeout rates are preferable to mediocre starters, whether they get saves or not.)

So, if the idea is to make drafting simpler, why not focus on the things that give a fantasy player the most impact?

Of course, a team can't be built on core-category players only, but by focusing on these four categories early in the draft, fantasy owners can build a solid team and cherry-pick from among the better bargains late in the draft.

Implementing the strategy

If you've gotten to this point and are at least on board with the concept, there are a number of issues that need to be resolved before putting the plan in action.

First, what numbers do you use to determine whether players have the necessary skills to be targeted? Second, how far down your draft list can you go before the number of desirable players dwindles to zero?

No matter what strategy you use, everything starts with a ranking of players by position. (Yes, the best strategy of all is to take advantage of other people's mistakes. So, if everyone forgets that Dustin Pedroia didn't put up his usual stats last season because he missed half of it with a broken foot, then you can't afford to pass him up in the fifth round.)

Once you have your cheat sheet, it's not a bad idea to subdivide each position into tiers. Next, you'll need to identify those players who best represent the skills you need.

I chose the top 20 players in each category because any more than that seemed to dilute the level of excellence I wanted. Using 2010 statistics is a good start, but you might end up overvaluing players who had exceptionally fortunate seasons or undervaluing players who had injury-shortened years.

An even better way to highlight the players to target is use season projections but make sure they come from a trusted source.

The strategy can also be applied to the endgame of your draft by using advanced metrics — such as isolated power (ISO) or linear weighted power index (PX) for home runs, expected batting average (xBA) for hits, speed score (SX) for steals and strikeout rate (K/9 or DOM) for strikeouts.

Players who have these particular skills, even if they don't have a full season's worth of stats to back it up, can be productive picks in the late stages of your draft.

Going into your draft with this extra ammunition — and the ability to use it in a way that's slightly different from your competitors — can help you take advantage of the extra value fantasy leagues place on these core statistics.


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