NFBC: Draft prep/strategy for 12-tm Online Championship (OC)

The 12-team format known as the Online Championship (OC) over at NFBC has been my preferred contest for several years now. It is imperative that one’s approach is less risk-averse than your standard satellite league since it is a national competition consisting of over 150 leagues that compete for a $100,000 overall prize. Balance among the standard 5x5 categories is certainly a primary goal, but there is very little "playing it safe" when you are competing against 2,000 other teams. As is the case with any draft, establishing a solid base with your first few picks are important to help set the table for risky / higher upside picks later in your draft. In addition to pinpointing market inefficiencies throughout teen and later rounds, targeting hitters and pitchers with upside is key to competing in the OC.

Over the last three seasons, I have won seven of 14 OC league titles and placed in the top 25 overall twice. The price point of $350 entry is reasonable considering the large payouts for the overall race. These drafts are akin to cracking open a can of Pringles—once you pop, you can’t stop—and you want to draft another, and another. Preparing for your draft is almost as important as the draft itself and there is some homework to be done before the clock starts ticking with the first pick.

Tiering and KDS Adjustment
Most of us who have played in the OC rarely delve in blindly. We know the basics. Establishing tiers at each position and recognizing the drop-off within each tier is crucial. No one with fantasy experience is going to drop 350 dollars and draft straight off the ADP without regard to where the tier drop-offs are. At this point, we should have a good feel for the depth at each position. We know that catchers have a steep drop-off after the big three (Posey, Lucroy, Sanchez), that first base is shallower than usual, and that third base is loaded. Most of us are following spring training news, have some semblance of understanding about where certain guys will hit in lineups, and which players are competing for positions and roster spots. Understanding tiers and positional drop-offs is vital to our in-draft success.

One of the unique differentiators with NFBC is the fact that we have some control over our draft position because of KDS (Kentucky Derby Style). KDS offers an opportunity to set our preferred order of first-round pick among picks one through 12 before the actual draft order is randomly selected. If you feel that Paul Goldschmidt, Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado won’t be significant statistical drop-offs from Mookie Betts this season, perhaps you would prefer to set pick six above pick two knowing that you’ll be getting an earlier second round pick (pick 2.06 instead of pick 2.11). Of course, much of this analysis involves figuring out who your options would be at 2.06 as opposed to 2.11. If your ideal start is to secure a top-five SP like Madison Bumgarner or Noah Syndergaard in the second round, then it behooves you to set pick six ahead of pick two in your KDS preferences—especially if Bryant versus Betts is inconsequential to you.

What this exercise leads to—and what the meat of this analysis is attempting to convey—is that we must loosely approximate our ideal start through the first four rounds based on current ADP. Setting KDS strictly based on who we think will fall to us in the first two rounds is shortsighted. Moreover, projecting just a bit deeper into the draft gives us some idea about who our team’s SP1 will be. Anchoring our ratios and strikeouts with ace starting pitchers is especially vital in the OC. There will be exceptions, but most NFBC players are not going to want to wait until the sixth round for a less dependable option like Carlos Martinez to anchor our staff. In fact, Clayton Kershaw has long been a staple among some of the top 50 overall ranked OC teams at the end of the past two seasons. We have also seen Kershaw drafted among the first three picks more often in the OC over the past couple of weeks. If you want start your draft with Kershaw, you’ll likely have to leave the second pick as your second KDS choice.

Of course, setting KDS does not guarantee you’ll get your first, second or even third choice since the order is automated once owners set their preferences. In this 12-team format, and depending on the season and options available, some NFBC owners prefer to start at the backend wheel (pick 11 or 12). This ensures that they get two of the top 15 picks overall—a viable strategy for those of us who don’t foresee a large drop-off between late first rounders like Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson in comparison to mid-first rounders like Arenado and Bryant. However, much of our backend wheel preference circles back to our comfort level with the options at the end of the third round and beginning of the fourth. If your plan from the eleventh pick is to take the two best hitters, we have to feel comfortable with the starting pitcher options that fall to pick 3.11 or 4.02. Drafting at or around the wheel is preferred by some seasoned veterans. But it also puts us in position to be shut out of an ace in rounds three and four in 2016 drafts or to miss out on positional runs (closers) or category runs (stolen bases).

Since most of us can more easily project year-end stats for the top 50 overall players and have preferences among those players, it only makes sense to run scenarios for our first four rounds to figure out what our ideal start to a draft would be.

Prepping the Pre-Rankings page
One of the biggest advantages one can have over the competition is a souped-up pre-rankings list within the NFBC OC league page. I always make sure to tweak the pre-rankings list so that I am not using the same default rankings that NFBC provides (and that my competitors are using). Since I typically draft a few OC teams over the course of late February and all through March, the list is a constant work-in-progress. It’s an ever-evolving document that I upload into my next league’s pre-rankings and continue to tweak before a new draft as my opinions on players evolve and as spring training helps provide more clarity. Moreover, many draft-worthy players who would be targets within these 30 rounds are buried deep down the default list. It’s easier to miss a draft-worthy player if you’re just working off some other rankings site and they are not listed in the NFBC pre-ranking in some range of their ADP.

Sure, you may have amazing draft software, are using NFBC’s ADP list or have a master list that you have printed out specifically for the draft. But having your own pre-draft list loaded directly into the draft room helps reduce in-draft indecision and second-guessing since it’s a list that you created. Especially when you’re working under the stress of a ticking clock. You can group similar players within the same round—and not too far off from their actual ADP. For example, if you’re happy with any of Taijuan Walker, Jharrel Cotton, Ivan Nova or Ian Kennedy in the 20th round (in the range of 230 and 250 overall) as your SP5, then you would simply group them together. Nova’s ADP is in the 270s, but if we feel he is comparable to Walker, Cotton or Kennedy, we should have no problem bumping him up two rounds if the other options are no longer there. Especially since ADP matters less and less the deeper you get into your draft.

Though our pre-rankings list is a straight 360 players (the total player pool drafted), consecutively ranked overall, it’s common sense to factor positional tiers and not just pick players off the top of your list. Grouping similar players by position within your overall list allows us to more easily make those split-second draft decisions.

Attacking Stolen Bases
Counting categories like stolen bases and home runs are more easily projectable than ratios (ERA, WHIP) and average. Hence, they are an easier category to attack in FAAB if you’re hanging in the middle of the pack around the All-Star break. Of course, we want to do what we can to address it during the draft and avoid having to fill deficiencies later, but injuries, slumps and demotions are a part of the game.

First off, you want to have a good feel for the SB pool and decide if you want to attack with a balanced approach (several guys with pop who also steal 12-20) or if you want to go after the Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Jarrod Dyson types. The latter is riskier since so much of your projected steals are built in to one or two players and we’re on our knees praying to the roto gods when Hamilton grabs his hamstring after a slide to second base in an early April game.

So much of our strategy is predicated upon how the first couple of rounds go. If you’re lucky enough to start with Nolan Arenado and Anthony Rizzo in an OC (I’ve seen it happen) then grab Nelson Cruz in the fourth round, you’re already behind the eight-ball with stolen bases and perhaps make a good case for yourself to take Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton in the fifth or sixth. That team solidified a nice base of power and a punch-less speedster fits your team like a glove. A manager who starts with say Trea Turner and Charlie Blackmon from the backend wheel would be foolish to take Hamilton or Gordon given that they started their draft without a power base.

In the Online Championship last season, 155 was the target stolen base number for your starting lineup for folks who finished in the top 20 percentile of all teams in 2016. 170 bags would have put you in the top 10%. You can add up your projected steals as you go (conservatively, of course) and if you feel you are way off the mark, then you’re likely in good position to target someone like Mallex Smith or the winner of battle between Travis Jankowski and Manuel Margot.

Personally, I’ve worked with both strategies and prefer the extreme SB guys with teams where I have extreme power hitters (Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis) who also happen to hurt your batting average. You hear all the time that “you can always find steals late” in your drafts, but that is different season by season. Not to mention that you don’t have a guarantee that leaguemates won’t be chasing steals late too and beat you to them. Last year, so many of the significant contributions to the overall SB pool came from guys who were drafted very late (Jonathan Villar) or were added via FAAB (Rajai Davis, Hernan Gomez, Jankowski). And we can’t rely on something similar happening again this year. So we work with what’s in front of us, let our first few picks be our guide and decide which way we are attacking.

One strategy that worked for me in a recent OC was taking Hamilton in the sixth round on a team that felt loaded in power through the first five rounds (two SPs though, of course). Though I may not have many shares this season on other teams, he felt like a perfect fit. What I did was double-down with Jarrod Dyson in the 17th as a sort of insurance plan—and it’s a strategy that I think can work this season. Dyson could potentially lead the majors in stolen bases if he gets full-time opportunity leading off for the Mariners this year. And having Dyson and Hamilton alone for a full productive season could win you the SB category by themselves. Since I was able to load up power throughout the draft (along with a couple other 10-15 SB guys) and had taken Hamilton earlier, I didn’t mind taking another punch-less player in Dyson. If I’m projecting Dyson for 44 and Hamilton for 60, I can assume my SB category won’t die outright if Hamilton took an extensive trip to the DL. There’s always a trade-off with your other categories (namely HR, RBI and possibly BA) by playing both speedsters in your lineup full time. But if you’ve double-downed on power enough to cover Dyson and Hamilton’s near-zeroes in the power categories, then you’re doing it right.

The NFBC Online Championship has been my bread and butter for years and continues to be the format I’m most comfortable with and successful in. Now that we have some prep tools and strategies to work with, let’s see how your drafts go. Next month, we’ll jump into the wonderful world of FAAB (free agent acquisition budget) which is one of three keys of maintenance that can help guide our teams to the top of the leaderboard.

Feel free to send feedback  (vsedler@gmail, Twitter: RotoGut) to let me know if the prep tools discussed above were helpful in any way.

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