MASTER NOTES: Using experts' drafts

The experts’ draft season is underway. Earlier this week, USA Today hosted the 3rd annual LABR Mixed League Straight Draft, about five weeks after the Fantasy Sports Trade Association held its 13-team mixed event. The LABR auctions will be held at the start of March, and the Tout Wars mixed draft and three auctions a few weeks later.

Many fantasy players pore over these draft results like cave dwellers anxiously reviewing the entrails of goats, searching for signs of what is to come.

But making the best use of expert drafts is difficult and could even lead the unwary owner astray.

Let’s look at some of the caveats about the experts drafts:

  • First, they take place way ahead of Opening Day, which means way ahead of most real-world drafts. This is a hugely important factor. When the LABR mixed draft was held, exactly two teams had even sent pitchers and catchers to camp.

And if the Dodgers and Diamondbacks weren’t opening in Australia, no team would have had anyone at camp, except maybe the custodial staff. When we say a guy is swinging a mean stick in camp, we don’t want the stick in question to have a mophead on the end. This is an issue, especially in the early rounds, because it encourages the experts to lean towards players with established roles, and to avoid or downgrade players competing for jobs.

As well, drafts can be hugely affected by news. Grant Balfour went 222nd at FSTA, when he was still an unsigned gamble. At LABR, where they knew Balfour would be closing in Tampa, he was grabbed 146th during a closer run.

Similarly, Danny Farquhar went 197th at FSTA, when he was still the closer in Seattle, while Fernando Rodney went 252nd as a gamble. Fast-forward to LABR: Rodney has the closer’s job and a 178th draft slot, up 74 slots. Farquhar? A 179-slot drop to a reserve pick at LABR.

Matt Kemp fell 40 spots between FSTA and LABR on the news that he will likely not start the season. But Kole Calhoun’s stock rose 87 slots when the Angels said he would start the year in RF.

  • Second, the expert drafts go “chalk” most of the way, especially at the top. Comparing the first 377 players at LABR with all 377 at FSTA, we found 348 were drafted in both leagues. Of those, half were within 19 draft slots between the two drafts, and 26% were within eight slots—about half a round difference.

If we look just at the 49 players who made the top three rounds in either league, fully half were within six slots, and 80% were within 12 slots. Only seven of these top players were 15 or more slots apart.

  • Third, the experts often have ulterior motives for adopting particular draft strategies or tactics. Almost every expert in these leagues is involved in the fantasy-baseball media. That means they have blank web pages or podcast time to fill. And one way to fill the endless maw is to participate in drafts and then write about why you did what you did, especially if it’s unusual.

Writing why you took Robinson Cano with the sixth overall pick makes for uninteresting copy, but explaining why you took Clayton Kershaw or Bryce Harper will perk up some readers’ eyeballs.

Ditto for adopting some offbeat strategy. Ron Shandler of got some good mileage a couple of years ago by punting BA at a Tout Wars draft. Larry Labadini tried a $9 pitching staff and caused enough of a hullabaloo that he ended up with the idea being named after him.

  • Finally, every draft is different. Just looking at where a player went in various drafts, or for what auction price, underplays the importance of what else was going on. In one draft, the second-tier starters or top closers or middle infielders or base-stealers dribble out and follow the value model. But in another draft, someone (maybe trying an offbeat strategy) grabs two of them at the Round 4-to-5 wheel and starts a run that promotes those player types by 20 slots each.

Draft dynamics are even more impactful in auctions, because of the enormous added variability caused by the interplay between teams as they try to balance slots, positions, dollars and category needs.

None of this means that owners should just ignore experts’ drafts, though we know many owners do. Watching a player zoom up or plummet down in a draft can be a valuable indicator that we need to find out more about him. Any time you see a player going well above or below where you'd expect can likewise offer an opportunity for your own follow-up analysis.

And the experts’ comments about their draft picks and strategies can offer excellent insight into trends and strategies, from expert-level players who have spent a lot of time thinking about them.

So by all means, tune into the LABR and Tout drafts, follow them live online, or read the many recaps afterwards. Just remember that any other draft is not going to be exactly the same as your draft, and adjust how you use the information accordingly.

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