Where's Trace?
March 28, 2005

The hardest thing to do, in just about any endeavor, is to repeat one's successes, especially against a highly competitive field.  Last year, I won AL Tout Wars against possibly the most competitive field of fantasy baseball experts ever assembled.   Except for one new owner, this year's league is exactly the same.  So to repeat as league champ, I will have to overcome three major obstacles.

The first is that any strategic edge is immediately blunted for the champ the following year.  In any highly competitive environment, the competition always closely analyzes the reasons why one team won and they didn't.  Then they either incorporate aspects of the winning strategy into their own, or they adopt it entirely.  To repeat, the winner must either modify his/her strategy to incorparate a new wrinkle or execute the old one better than anyone else.  Either way, the margin for error grows smaller.  Or they can anticipate the new market environment and try to optimize their strategy to take advantage.  The downside is guessing wrong and being left up the proverbial creek.

The second factor is expectations.  Either self-imposed or imposed by others, expections can be a dangerous thing if they breed a mindset of complacency or hubris.  I was asked a number of times this winter, "so now that you won, are you worried that the target is now on you?"  And my answer was always, "Baby, I'm Joey Bishop.  I'm in.  I've won and now I'm forever in the Rat Pack of Tout Wars roto-champions.  From here on out, it doesn't matter what do, I'm in the club.  It's the other guys who now have the pressure to win."   The only thing I have to concern myself with this year is knowing the talent pool.  If I know that and it doesn't really matter what anyone's expectations are.  However, if I don't and think that what I knew last year is good enough for this year, then I'm sunk already.  Hubris has no place in an expert's league.  Well, technically it does... it's called last place.

The third factor is luck.  Like it or not, when it comes to quantifying human endeavors, there are always intangible and/or unpredictable elements that can radically change the outcome.  Given our culture's current mentality and political climate, I know I should say, "oh yeah, I had everything under control.  I knew I was gonna win because of my strategy", but that would be a lie.  Last year, I had a good strategy for what the draft offered, but I also had a little bit of luck working both ways during the season: good luck on my end and my closest competitors having a bit of bad luck.  That may happen again, or it may not.  In 2003, I was the one who had some bad luck and I lost out on winning my first Tout championship by a couple of points.  However, had I been more astute that year I might have won regardless.  Luck is so hard to quantify that my position is that the less you depend on it, the better off you are.

This Year's Draft
Going in, I figured that other owners would either adopt my mid-level strategy from last year or at the very least try to prevent me from executing it.  So I went in with a back-up plan just in case.  The problem is that drafts are unpredictable and it's very easy to get lost in the flow and not figure out where the value is going to be until it's too late to implement the back-up.  The earlier I could figure out what everyone else was doing, the better.

Fortunately, I had the perfect player to open the draft with as a barometer: Johan Santana.  It's no secret that he's one of my favorite players.  Nor is it a secret that he was a significant reason why I won last year.  He's worth about as much as any player in the game and, given his workload and performance to date, he's about as low risk and dependable as any star in the game.  So by throwing him out first, I could find out where people were going to spend their money. 

By most counts, he's worth between $35 and $40 in an AL only 5x5 league.  I nominated him at $30 to see how people reacted.  If they chased his salary up to his percieved value, I would know that the majority would be pursuing players at their percieved value, regardless if they were stars or not, and that I could go ahead and strive to fill my roster with the mid-level players that I usually do.  If they didn't chase, then I would either get him at the bargain price of $30 or someone else would get him at a great price, and I would know that the value in the draft was going to be with star players (who would go for less than their value) and with $1 end game players.  True, letting Santana go especially at a bargain price would be a big sacrifice.  But if it meant gaining $15-$20 worth of value in the middle rounds for a cost of $3-8 on Santana, it would be worth it. 

Just as vital is the price I nominated him at.  Had I thrown out a lower number, I doubt I could ascertain as much information.  For one, $30 seems to be a kind of magic number reserved for only the elite players in the game.  There seems to be a gulf of perception between a $29 player and a $30 player.  I'm not sure why, but in just about every auction I've ever participated or attended, people seem to react to $30 whereas $29 is just another number.  Secondly, nominating him at a lower starting point is too obvious a bargain so I really wouldn't be able to differentiate between what was strategy and what was just a default bid on a grossly underpriced player.  Once the bidding started, it would be impossible to differentiate strategy from passion bidding ("heck, I was willing to go $32, might as well go $34").  Starting at $30 meant that anyone who outbid me had a conscious committment to bidding on stars to full value.  Those who didn't were either the ones who never pay more than $30 for a pitcher, or they were saving their money for mid-level players.  Going in I already knew who hated to pay top dollar for star pitching, so that left me with answers for the rest of the league.

As a non-dairy topping, I decided to give a little intro speech before nominating him, pretty much telling everyone that I wasn't feeling any pressure, that the pressure was actually on them to beat me and that if people were wondering what I was going to do with Santana, they wouldn't have to wait long to find out.  I doubt it had much impact, but if it made people more resolved to stop me from doing what I did last year, all the better.  

When the bidding ended at $31, I had my answers.  True to my prediction, a good number of star players went for well below what I had them pegged at and a large number of mid-level players went for perceived value or higher.  For example, I got Vlad Guerrero and Vernon Wells for $3-5 less than what I had them pegged at and although I didn't get Curt Schilling, Mariano Rivera or Gary Sheffield, they went went for $5 less too.  Conversely, Melvin Mora, Michael Young, Edgar Renteria, Angel Berroa, Alfonso Soriano, Mark Kotsay, Rich Harden and Jeremy Bonderman were among the most notable examples of players who went for at least $5 over what I had them valued at.  For the first thirteen rounds, I felt pretty good. 

One day I hope to execute a draft without a blunder.  This one wasn't it.  Things were going fairly smoothly until Juan Cruz' name came up.  Normally, he's the kind of high upside pitcher I'll pay an extra dollar or two to grab.  But that's a luxury of the mid-level game I usually play.  With a large chunk of my budget allocated by the middle rounds, penurious use of the remaining dollars was important in order to get the best possible talent with the end game bargains.  The difference between a $1 player and a $2 player at that point can be huge.  But for some reason I lost sight of that and obsessed on getting Cruz.  It cost me $7.  Don't get me wrong, I love the guy's talent and I'm pretty confident he can earn $7 even if he doesn't get a save this year.  But at the point I acquired him, I would have been much better off letting him go and spending that extra $6 on outfielders.  Instead of BJ Surhoff and Joe Borchard - two guys I'm not overly confident will get over 250 at bats this season -  I could have picked up Gary Matthews, Grady Sizemore, Gabe Gross or Jay Payton, all guys I like a lot more. The blunder also forced me to look for outfield help in the reserve round rather than pursue additional pitching help.  It also cost me BJ Upton in the opening round of the reserve draft.  I ended up with Delmon Young, so it certainly wasn't a wasted pick as I think he'll see some time this year in the D-Rays outfield, but Upton is closer to making an impact in the majors and would have been very nice insurance in the infield. 

It's hard to gauge how much a mistake costs you when it happens, but it was very clear to me at the end of the draft that it was costly.  Maybe fate will smile on me again and Cruz will end up with the closer's job by mid-season so I have some extra to trade.  Or maybe my team will get off fast and I can trade on the bonus stats.  Regardless, I will have to spend the first couple of months smoothing over the rough spots on the roster rather than cherry-picking depth.  I'm not too concerned as I've had some experience with this the last three years and it's worked out ok for the last two.

One interesting note is that in looking at past winners, particularly Jason Grey who won the previous two years before I did, that a change in the way one plays the game from year to year isn't as daunting nor is it the impediment to repeating as it might seem.  In 2002, Grey won using a mid-level player strategy, filling his roster with solid but unspectacular everyday players just as I did last year.  The following year, mid-level players were at a premium so he gathered up bargains on the high end and in the end game.  Why do I think this important?  Because it shows that strategies only win if they are applied in an environment to take advantage of where the value is.  If people are paying for the stars, then mid-level player is the way to go.  If they aren't and are overpaying for the mid-level guys, then the value is in grabbing stars and filling in the rest of the roster with end game picks.  It's all about finding where the value is.  Hope you found some here and in your drafts.