PnP Fantasy Baseball: Now with Actual Strategy!

On Eric’s recommendation, I just read Sam Walker’s book Fantasyland, about his madcap pursuit of victory in a league of fantasy baseball experts. On his heroic journey, Walker works to find a balance between the cold, hard numbers and the soft, gooey lives of the individual players. He is a sports journalist with clubhouse access, and he uses that to what advantage he can, against most of the objections of his sabermetrically gifted NASA-analyst employee, as they build a team.

It’s a drama for the times, and even if it’s from 2006 and the names have changed, the debate remains the same. I left feeling as conflicted as ever — also being so into fantasy baseball right now that I’m afraid my head will explode. (Note: I am extending Eric’s recommendation on to you, and I’m sure this won’t be the last you hear of this awesome book.)

Sam Walker, author of Fantasyland

One personalty- framing device of the book is strategy. Who uses it, who doesn’t, how one strategy can foil another, what market inefficiencies hidden talents are out there. The fantasy experts are renowned for their acronymical strategery, from drafting only cheap pitchers (this particular league was auction-based, but the same idea can extend to the draft position) to sticking with established, consistent stars, to chasing in on  the underrated young guns. With every goofy personality, there is a corresponding strategy. As I read and became fascinated with the acrobatics, I realized something: I employ very little significant strategy when I play fantasy baseball, and what little I have has been extremely successful.

I should preface by saying that mine isn’t a very strategic brain. While viewing the big picture looking for revealing trends, I’m often side-tracked by the proverbial passing butterfly, and an hour later I’ve forgotten what it was I was looking for in the first place. This just happened when my brother-in-law asked me to evaluate the overall worth of his old baseball card collection. I opened the trunk, caught of a whiff of old cardboard, and Wilkered away the next few hours poring over the right side of the top layer of cards.

My point being, I don’t surprise myself with my lack of proper fantasy planning. However, a few hours reading Walker’s book and a five hour plane ride across the country proved sufficient ingredients in the crucible to produce some real-life strategic thinking. This will be the year when I approach fantasy drafting with a sense of purpose, with a team point-of-view. I will exploit the prejudices of others; I will Beane them, and I will claim victory.

As Up in the Air and then The Blind Side played on the crappy little screen on the airplane, a mere day after the Oscars no less, I said to myself, “What is a real fantasy baseball strategy?” After I awoke from the hour-long nap that caused, I determined that strategy is finding value in something that others will overlook or ignore, thereby devaluing what they are pursuing (I got a C+ in the only economics course I ever took, FYI). The most valued stat, I figured, was home runs. The opposite of home runs are steals, and the opposite of slugging percentage is batting average. I would employ a strategy that valued steals and singles, and that treated home runs like Nate Silver at a Veterans Committee meeting.

I thumbed through a copy of SportsWeekly’s Fantasy Baseball addition, starring Chone Figgins and X-ing Evan Longoria; starring Brian Roberts and X-ing Adrian Gonzalez.

It was exhilarating.

For years I’ve drafted fantasy teams with that “best available” approach that I’m guessing a lot of amateurs like myself use. I had a sense of who I liked, who I thought would do well and who I had no interest in, but there wasn’t a unified theory. I wasn’t looking for a type of player, just good players. The hope was that this intuitive gathering of talent would result, obviously, in the best team. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t, but ultimately I came out of the draft feeling like I’d just dreamed it and ended up with a list of dudes.

Not so with The Iron Kirtons. That’s the team I just drafted (Kirton is my middle name). They are swift, and small. I drafted them with a special knowledge of particular goals. I was focused in a way that I’d never been before in a fantasy baseball draft. I had particular targets, overlooked by many but with the kind of secret skills that would enable me to dominate the categories where others would lag: runs, batting average, steals. (I went with the old school categories in this league, as they feel kind of classic, and they allow room for a more diverse approach to Rotisserie strategy, which is important when you don’t know what you’re doing).

Because I know that you’re interested, here’s the starting lineup (with pitchers, I went with the usual selection of middle of the road starters in the middle of the draft, not much interesting there):

They won't be saying "Going, Going Chone" anytime soon, and that's fine with me.

C – Yadier Molina, 1B – Joey Votto, 2B – Brian Roberts, 3B – Chone Figgins, SS – Ryan Theriot, OF – Ryan Braun, OF – Carl Crawford, OF – Denard Span, Util – Hunter Pence, Util – Nyjer Morgan, Bench – Placido Polance, Bench – Adrian Beltre, Bench – Felipe Lopez

Yes, I know, it makes me slightly queasy too, this team of slap hitters and burners who are lucky to punch a homer out four or five times a year. But that’s the BEAUTY of it. I figure, if it makes me uncomfortable, that must mean that there’s a vision behind it. And that’s why I enjoyed drafting The Iron Kirton: there was a sense of purpose. I battled sweating palms as I let traditional sluggers pass by (except for 4th overall pick and pretty speedy slugger Braun, and irresistible high average slugger Joey Votto) because I trusted my plan. Whether or not the plan pays off this year, I will have learned something. I will have planned.

Fear us, Yahoo Public League #430362, for we are The Iron Kirton. We will steal. We have a plan.

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