Value Based Drafting Primer (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

It’s impossible to win a fantasy baseball league behind just one breakout selection. While some analysts will tout specific strategies as shortcuts to success, these concepts carry a razor-thin margin of error that won’t work against skilled competition.

You can’t blindly back into a fantasy baseball title, especially in rotisserie leagues that eliminate the fickleness of a head-to-head postseason. If you want to come out on top, you need a well-rounding squad that yields as much value as possible.

This is a fancy way of saying, “Draft the best team.” Cool tip, but how does one meet that goal?

You can throw a bunch of high-reward darts and hope some hit the bulls-eye. Sure, take a couple of chances later in the draft. Before that, however, grab the best players, no matter how unexciting they seem.

While everyone else loads up on too many trendy sleepers and boom-or-bust talents, compile draft-day values. It may seem boring, but this simple approach will steer well-managed fantasy squads to championship contention.

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Set Rankings/Dollar Values

Of course, it’s impossible to draft for value without establishing values.

Know where all relevant players stand on your board before drafting. While our Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) provide an excellent starting point since they combine opinions from multiple analysts, it’s a good idea to create your own. That’s especially true if your league uses unconventional categories and rules.

Also, consider assigning players specific dollar values. Even if not conducting an auction, this helps better identify everyone’s precise worth. This seems like an arduous task, but you can once again outsource for assistance via our Auction Calculator. FanGraphs also has one customizable for different league sizes, scoring systems, and projection systems.

Deciding whether to draft a third baseman slotted No. 96 in your rankings or a starter ranked No. 107 is an abstract decision in a vacuum. Yet it’d be easier to forgo the more needed pitcher for the hitter if he’s projected to earn $6 more, whereas you could address a weaker rotation if the pitcher is worth just $1 or $2 less.

Take Best Available Early … Then Adjust for Need

Don’t fret about roster-construction too much in the early rounds. Start your draft by securing the best players possible, and then build a balanced team around them.

In Round 12, it’s perfectly acceptable — and often necessary — to go against your overall rankings to take someone more suited to help your current squad. In Round 2, you shouldn’t jump down the list. If Bryce Harper drops to the late-second round, take him even if you already selected a star outfielder with a top-five pick.

Unless your rules demand a unique course of action, don’t let a strategy dictate your early decisions. Take whichever reliable studs the draft gives you in the first few rounds. Then react accordingly later. You’ll want more mid-draft sluggers if opening with Trea Turner, but you’ll have to chip away at stolen bases if Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rendon are two of your cornerstones.

Eventually, the time will come to bite the bullet and take a catcher and some relief pitchers. Unless an elite option falls to a reasonable market rate (and don’t count on that happening), don’t press the issue early. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should punt the difficult positions either. Even if he’s not the best player available, it could pay to pluck Christian Vazquez at what you deem a profitable draft slot if all other backstops were going far above your evaluations.

Now more than ever, the laws of supply and demand are striking early. Stolen bases are down across baseball, and it’s tougher than ever to acquire affordable speedsters capable of contributing anywhere else. Five-category studs are certainly desirable, but it’s also poor business to avoid a Rendon who delivers everywhere else.

That’s not the only scarcity issue drafters must address immediately in 2021 drafts.

What About Pitching?

Taking starting pitchers in the opening rounds was once viewed the same way as reaching for a quarterback in fantasy football leagues. Now, since there are fewer durable aces with full inning workloads, they’re gradually becoming the running back instead. A whopping 11 aces have an average draft position (ADP) inside the top-30 picks of NFBC drafts conducted since December 1.

As long as they’re the best option on your board, don’t be afraid to take Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, or Shane Bieber with your first or second selection. If all pitchers are getting priced up, it pays to snag the cream of the crop. FanGraphs’ Ariel Cohen made a strong case for this strategy two years ago.

However, the trouble lies in reaching for the less reliable — but still costly — second tier led by Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, and Max Scherzer. Taking either of them in the second round seems like a clear case of overpaying for positional scarcity, so see which other starter falls to a more reasonable going rate.

This rapid inflation might merely be a byproduct of NFBC’s deeper leagues and high-stakes contests. The price on pitching may not skyrocket as much in a casual home league, so don’t panic and feel you need three starters in the first five rounds. That said, you’ll probably have to adjust your evaluations and grab one or two if these trends stick throughout the spring.

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Don’t Be Afraid of a DH

As baseball evolves, the fantasy baseball landscape must adjust. That’s clear in the percolating pitching market, but one constant has remained untouched.

Nelson Cruz is always an outrageous bargain.

Per NFBC archives, the veteran slugger had a 98.98 ADP in 2019 and 77.18 ADP last season. Only Mike Trout netted a higher wOBA during those two seasons.

The jig is up, as drafters are finally giving Cruz the respect he deserves with an early 2021 ADP of … 98.52.

To be fair — to be fairrr — the 40-year-old remains unsigned as of this writing. He’s still too good to not find the home, even if the National League doesn’t preserve the universal DH installed last year. Unlike the NL, just about all fantasy managers are guaranteed a utility spot where they can deploy Cruz.

Was one of your leaguemates smart enough to jump his ADP by a full three or full rounds? Because of 2020’s shortened season, most leagues will contain more utility-only hitters likely to fall through the cracks. J.D. Martinez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Franmil Reyes join Cruz as DHs more than capable of leading the majors in home runs. That utility spot is there for a reason. Use it.

ADP Doesn’t Always Signal Value

This is often my biggest drafting pitfall. I often lean too heavily on ADP as a crutch to point me in the right direction in pursuit of value. If the market slots a player at pick No. 150, I can’t resist him 40 picks later, even if I’m not his biggest fan.

There’s certainly some credence to this approach, especially when identifying extreme discrepancies with ADP data (or rankings) from a source you trust. But if your personal projections, rankings, or even gut tell you that player fell for a reason, listen. You definitely don’t want to base your decisions solely on the host site’s ADP and ranks. Instead, use those to avoid reaching too high for a target — i.e., don’t take Cruz in the third round when he’ll probably be available in the sixth or later.

Going off the consensus can minimize risk and re-direct you to a safer route. However, it’s OK to take the road less traveled from time to time. By putting in the work with pre-draft evaluations, you’ll turn these potentially fool-hardy reaches into calculated gambits.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy baseball or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Baseball 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with our Sabermetrics Glossary or head to more advanced strategy – like How to Make Custom Fantasy Baseball Rankings with Microsoft Excel – to learn more.

Andrew Gould is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Andrew, check out his archive and follow him @andrewgould4.