MASTER NOTES: Spying

My draft is here, and as usual I’m late in preparing. I had a fantasy-baseball friend in my first home league who decided to stop playing because he had a young family and a growing career to tend. He used to say he’d get back into Roto when he retired, because he’d have more time. I kept playing, and it’s weeks like this that make me think maybe he made the right decision.

I play in only one league, the Tout Wars AL-only. One advantage of playing in an experts’ league is that some of my Tout opponents play in multiple leagues, which lets me “spy” on them—get a little insight into what they think about certain players and, maybe, an idea of their intentions for the draft—hit/pitch split, Stars and Scrubs vs. Spread the Risk, endgame targets, that sort of thing. (If you have any access to your opponents’ rosters in public leagues, check them out.) I used to feel bad about doing this surveillance, and I hoped Edward Snowden wouldn’t reveal my dastardly machinations, but I lost that worry the year I laid out my Tout draft plan in detail in this space, and when I walked into the draft room, one of my opponents thanked me for the intel. We’re all doing it.

Anyway, three of my Tout opponents—Larry Schechter, Lawr Michaels and the Glenn Colton/Rick Wolf partnership—were in the recent LABR-AL draft, so I did a little double-naught investigatin’ to spot some trends. Since they might read this column or listen to it on the BHQ Radio podcast, I won’t say what I noted about any of them in particular, nor how I will respond. But the league is also full of terrific fantasy players, including Tristan Cockroft, Steve Gardner, Mike Gianella, and HQ’s own Dave Adler, whose auctions are always worth studying. Learn from the best, I always say.

Here are some things I noticed:

The overall hit-pitch split was 69-31, which is pretty normal and seems to reflect both Tout Wars history and most other experts’ drafts I’ve been creeping on, er, observing. The range of splits among the individual LABR teams was from 63-37 on the low end to 80-20 at the high, while my Tout opponents’ splits ranged from 67-33 to 75-25. I still might go with a different split personally, but I’ve set the splits on the HQ Custom Draft Guide (CDG) and RotoLab drafting software to that 69-31 mark. I feel like I want to know what the “real” values are for the purpose of competitive bidding.

I also wanted to see how the value tiering worked. Like the split, it was pretty chalky. Overall, 96 players (35% of the total) went for $5 or less, including 36 (13%) who were dollar endgamers. Two-thirds of the hitters were bought for between $2 and $20, with a relatively smooth dispersal across that range. Only five hitters went for $35+: Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa and Manny Machado.

Pitchers were even more evenly distributed down the salary scale—but only after huge spending on the “big two,” with Chris Sale going for $38 and Corey Kluber a buck less at $37. The remaining pitchers clustered around a $6 median, with two-thirds costing $2 to $15. Plenty of workable starters were bought in the $15-$18 range, including Dallas Keuchel, David Price and Jose Berrios. Also Shohei Ohtani, who won’t be getting any bids from me. Still, there will be good hunting in that tier, and in the $9-$13 tier, which included decent arms like Dylan Bundy, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton and Rick Porcello. My three Tout opponents led the league in buying $1 pitchers, grabbing 10 out of the 16 “buck babies,” mostly endgame starters like Ian Kennedy. Each of them also took just two $1 hitters.

The LABR drafters spent more extravagantly on closers than I expected. Of the top 30 most expensive players, ten were closers, including Craig Kimbrel ($25), Aroldis Chapman ($22), Roberto Osuna ($21), Edwin Diaz ($20) and Cody Allen ($18). Any strategy based on low-cost closers will be forced into less palatable options like Fernando Rodney and his handcuff Addison Reed ($7 each), Alex Claudio ($4, which was actually a buck cheaper than penmate Keone Kela), and Joakim Soria.

I also wondered where the potential profits and losses came. I compared the auction prices to the CDG output (at 69/31) to see which players showed surpluses and which had deficits. As I expected given the overall excellence of the drafters, neither the profits nor the losses were really significant. The median difference was about -$1, and two thirds of the outcomes fell between +$4 and -$4.

The big profit among the hitters was Curtis Granderson (OF, TOR), whose $10 projected value was bought for just $3. I’m assuming this was in the latter part of the auction. Other notable names among the profitmakers: Denard Span ($1 salary, +$8 profit), Matt Joyce ($5, +$7), Joe Mauer ($11, +$7), and Josh Reddick ($9, +$15).

Among the losers, the biggest bust by CDG projections was Machado, whom BHQ projects to a $21 season—a $14 loss on his $35 bid. Other big overbids included Khris Davis, a $17 projection who cost $28, and -$10 projected busts like Nick Castellanos, who cost $25; Joey Gallo, $28 in a BA league; Jonathan Schoop, $23; and Matt Chapman, $22.

Among pitchers, the big gains accrued mostly to LIMA relievers like Mychal Givens, Nate Jones and Will Harris (all +$6 profits on bids of $2 to $4). Starters were less likely to project a profit, with Josh Tomlin, a $1 endgamer projected to $9 value, leading the way. One starter, Drew Pomeranz, was +$4 on a $5 bid, and there was a handful of $3 SP profits: Felix Hernandez, at a $3 salary; Lance Lynn, $3; and Ervin Santana, at $6.

The pitcher busts were led by Lance McCullers, who fetched a $15 bid but projects to $4, an $11 loss. Four $9 losers included Chris Archer, a $23 salary; Kevin Gausman, $14, Ohtani, at $18; and Sale, whose $38 bid projects to return nine dollars less.

It’s a lot of info to sift through and to incorporate into planning. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure the information even is actionable. The profit-loss data are based on projections, which are notoriously variable. And so much of auction pricing depends on context—positional needs, category needs, available cash, and personal preference, especially in the mid-game. I think pricing will tend to be more predictive in at the top and the bottom of the price curve.

But still, the data were interesting, and I’ll leave you with one piece of info that intrigues me: Out of the 25 hitters bought for $25 or more, 22 projected to lose money. (The exceptions: Trout, at $42; Aaron Judge, at $26; and Edwin Encarnacion, also at $26.) By contrast, in the $10-$14 salary range, half of the hitters make profits. I’m just sayin’.


Click here to subscribe

  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.