When it comes to being successful in fantasy baseball, it’s all about the process. Sigh, I know, “process over results” and all that cliche stuff. But the truth is, the process is behind my success, and it can help you become a better manager, too, if you take the time.
Where to start
You may have heard me say, “I guess based on my projections.” I start with the source data and calculations. I then manipulate the data due to my analyst brain seeing something on video, reading team news/reports and/or player movement and role changes. You can do the same, and I encourage you.
For example, my projections include at-bat and contact rate (and many other factors). However, if I think someone is ready for regression and/or will receive more/less playing time, I will modify the base information. This is the simplest example, as you can add numerous “feel” factors to your analysis.
What you choose to use for your projections may differ. No formula is perfect. I have several data source factors including past performance, playing time, run norms and how sustainable is the league norm variance, various metrics (barrels, expected stats, etc.) and more. With baseball, we can differ on which metrics we feel have the most value and predictability, but I’m always looking to test and learn more with metrics; it is essential to find which ones have a high predictability.
What is a Z-Score and why is it so important?
With baseball, it might seem like ranking would be impossible because how do you determine whether 25 home runs or 25 stolen bases is more valuable? Baseball players are actually very easy to classify accurately if you know how. That’s because baseball rankings are all about statistics, which produce a projected ranking that will be right almost all the time…again, if the projected stats are right in the first place.
There are a few methods, but the one I have found most successful is the Z-Score. If you want an in-depth explanation, there are several sites that explain Z-Score in various uses outside of baseball. Back in 2011, Zach Sanders wrote a three-part piece on FanGraphs simplifying it for baseball, but it can still be a lot to take in, and I’ve even tweaked it a bit myself. That’s how I started, and I’ll do my best to explain it in a more concise and simple version.
Z-Score takes each stat and weights it against replacement/player value. So if player A hits 25 home runs and the average replacement value of home runs is 15, he would have a difference of 10. With 25 stolen bases, player B could have a difference of 15 because the replacement value is lower. It’s more complicated than that, but this is a good starting point.
Z-Score takes the difference in runs, RBIs, home runs, stolen bases, and average and adds them (some may have negative values) to get an overall score. For pitchers, it’s ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, and wins or saves (depending on whether you’re a starter or a reliever). You can change the categories to which are used in your league(s).
Here’s the kicker (#BanKickers): Replacement value is different based on stats and position, and even then you may have to move the target up or down every year. Again, for the simplest comparison, a catcher’s replacement value will be significantly less than an outfielder’s.
I use ADP to help determine what the likely grade help would be and how far to go at a position for replacement values. A perfect example of this would be the home run explosion and the loss of speed. Years ago, stolen base replacement was higher and home runs were lower. Recently, the home run differential has decreased while stolen bases are harder to come by. Sanders’ piece suggests how deep to go in each position, but it’s pretty old now. Again, I think you should adjust the (mobile) goal annually.
Once you have all the Z-Scores, just sort them by score and boom! Now you have rankings by position, overall and combined positions, whatever you choose. You can even rank hitters and pitchers together once you adjust to the 70/30 split, or whatever level you like, between the two.
How do I build a team?
Now let’s talk about the success of the team. Most everyone just wants the secret to accuracy in ratings, but if you just went down the list and always took the BPA (Best Available Player), you’d probably have a team that would struggle to contend. Even if you took the VBD (Values Based Writing) approach, you could easily fall far short in one or two categories.
When I draft, I don’t always pick the highest ranked player, as you need an evaluation of the roster construction. At the end of the season, it doesn’t matter if you get 1 RBI or 40, you still get 12 points in Roto (or 15 for a 15-team league, etc.).
Ignoring roster construction will doom your team early on, so if you’re in Round 10 and already have enough power to contend, it might make more sense to draft a 30-SB threat over a player with a higher Z-Score. This isn’t a new revelation, but many managers aren’t paying attention as the draft unfolds. I have a spreadsheet with my projected totals and track the other teams for comparison (less important, but still a good barometer that can also suggest how managers might lean with their next picks).
• Pay attention to ADP and AAV (Average Auction Value): They’re not perfect, but they’re good barometers for when players typically go off the board and their costs. That way, you know you can expect an extra round if you value a player higher than ADP by a wide margin, or you can dump a player you don’t like and watch others blow up some of their budgets.
• Don’t overreact to spring training. We say this every year, but the amount of usable quantifiable information from spring is very low. Health, a revamped pitching approach, and a tweaked batting stance are a few things that deserve your attention. After all, you can count on one hand how many unheralded spring training draft picks have ended up fantasy relevant, let alone stars, and still have fingers to spare.
• Simulate the draft as much as you can/want/can bear to do it. The more you go through mock drafts (with people who actually care and not 80 percent of the league that auto drafts in Round 8), the more you can get a feel for when you might need to pounce on “your guys” . Also, the NFBC ADP is a good source, going back to the first point and if not much can be mocked.
(Top photo: Rich Story-USA TODAY Sports)