Updated: Jan 17, 2022
I have been playing NFBC Draft Champions (DC) since 2014. What started out as a fun side-hustle to my more important leagues has turned into one of my go-to formats and I am now entering my second season playing them in large volume. Though I have become pretty successful with them, things were ugly in the beginning. A recent walk down memory lane of my DC history prompted this writeup of the lessons I have learned over time, but more specifically from when I first played a large volume of leagues in 2021.
The Early Years
My inaugural season in 2014 was a complete failure. Both of my teams came in last place (a $150 and a $400, oof!). There wasn't much fantasy content talking about Draft Champions strategy back then and I did really stupid things in that first year. I remember drafting a starting lineup and then trying to handcuff every single player with who the replacement would be if that player went down with an injury. Half of my roster was comprised of bench players and AAA scrubs. It was a tough way to learn what is now conventional wisdom in DCs: playing time is king.
Year two was much better. I played a single DC in 2015 and cashed (3rd place). That was a fun year as I rode the final decent wave of Austin Jackson's career. Preventing a stronger finish was too heavy of an emphasis on prospects. That roster featured Matt Olson, Mark Appel, Max Stassi, Tyler Glasnow, and Dalton Pompey. Three of those guys spent no time in the majors; The other two were Max Stassi and Dalton Pompey (Stassi did not become fantasy relevant until 2018 and did not become fantasy useful until 2020. For those who remember, Dalton Pompey was... Dalton Pompey).
I went back up to two teams in 2016 and cashed in one of them (2nd place), though looking back it is clear that I was still winging it. This unserious approach would plague me for several seasons as I cashed in zero of two leagues in 2017, zero of three leagues in 2018, and only one of three leagues in 2019. If you're keeping score, that's a cash rate of 23% in thirteen leagues over six years. No league wins.
Roster Construction Rules
The biggest change I made after the 2019 season was to impose roster construction rules for hitters in my drafts as follows:
Catcher: I want four catchers. Two should be regular starters expected to log heavy place appearances. Ideally, the third will be another back-end regular. The top two should be taken by the time rounds 20-25 are completed and the top three should be taken by rounds 35-40. My fourth catcher should be a backup who I expect to make 200+ plate appearances and carry some kind of tool, whether it be the ability to not kill me in batting average or hit 10 home runs, even if it comes with a Mendoza-like average. The fourth catcher can also be a prospect if I am confident in a call-up and don't spend higher than a 40th round pick on him.
All Non-Catcher Infield Positions: I want three top-to-useful players at every position. I want a front-line starter at each position, a solid backup starting player at each position, and a third player at each position who I expect to log 500+ plate appearances. The front half of the draft needs to be fairly hitter-heavy to make this happen. I prefer to have reliably solid hitters in the lineup and throw the darts at pitchers.
Outfield: I want ten outfielders. seven or eight of them should be solid regular players. Eight or nine should at least be expected to log legitimate platoon time. I also like the backups to be a variety of profiles to help fill needs. One, maybe two (If I truly feel it is justified) can be prospects.
Multi-Position Eligibility: This is important. I emphasize multi-position eligibility, but I do not count each position eligible when filling the above quotas. I simply consider the player to have filled the most convenient of their eligible positions. This makes filling the quotas easier because you can shift players around and filling those last quota spots becomes easier. At the end, I have everything I need, and the ability to shift a bunch of players around is an added benefit.
Creating a Process and Winning
Had COVID-19 not hit, I would have moved forward in 2020 with my new roster construction rules and no other changes, but the pandemic gave me time to work on things I had long wanted to explore. On top of simulating hundreds of seasons in Out of the Park Baseball, I built my own projection system and I built a spreadsheet tool for ranking players in order to take most (not all!) of my own biases out of the equation. I called it "The Objective Ranking of Ballplayers System," or "The ORB." Though early versions of The ORB were flawed, I abandoned traditional "rankings" and went 1,000 players deep with it to draft three of my four DCs and finally pulled out a league win.
Leading up to the 2021 season, I felt emboldened by my first win and that $1,000 of winnings sitting in my NFBC account. After fixing several flaws I identified in The ORB, I went all in and drafted 15 DCs. Starting in November, I hit one after another all the way through the first half of March. It was a blast, and a successful one.
2021 Preparation, Success, and Postmortem
I won three out of fifteen leagues in 2021 and cashed with a 2nd place finish in another. That was enough for a healthy profit, but I had another four teams finish 4th place and another finish 5th. More than half of my 15 teams finished in the top 5. So while I feel good about my performance, another level is clearly attainable, so I held a postmortem on my season and put together a spreadsheet to review how I built my rosters. It tracks how I put together each team in terms of hitter/pitcher split, what I emphasized in the first half and second half of the draft, how many prospects I drafted, and which players drafted in the final ten rounds were actually useful. I'll share it with you:
My takeaway from this postmortem is that the next level of success will come from militant enforcement of self-imposed roster construction rules.
I will draft no more than 27 hitters and no fewer than 23 pitchers. Ideally, my goal on each team is a 26/24 hitter/pitcher split. True, I won a league with 28 hitters and 22 pitchers, but looking at those 4th place finishes, you can see the teams where one or two extra hitters or pitchers might have been enough to move up from 4th to cash. In three out of four 4th place teams, the hitter/pitcher split was either even or it favored pitchers. Those three teams finished 4th on the strength of the pitching. One or two additional active bats likely would have moved them into cash territory.
Picks in The Final 10 Rounds
Few picks in the final 10 rounds proved useful. A few hits here and there with Nicky Lopez, Austin Hedges ("useful" is a low bar), and some of the prospects that hit, but for the most part those picks were wasted on every team. I will continue to draft prospects (subject to the next rule, below), but I will focus maximizing usefulness in the final ten rounds by picking the one type of useful player still in abundance between rounds 40 and 50: relief pitchers. There were often times in 2021 when my starters were unappealing in a given week or I lacked a sufficient number of starters to fill nine slots. I made the mistake of only drafting relievers who I thought would earn saves in 2021, but an extra three or four relief pitchers taken in rounds 40 through 50 instead of dart throw starters and prospects would have been immensely useful. In 2022, I'll have them.
Until this postmortem, I did not realize that I took so many prospects on every team. Though I won a league in which I drafted 10 prospects, I also finished in the bottom third of the other two leagues where I took that many. For 2022, I am limiting each team to five prospects with an emphasis on players who have already debuted. When I look at the prospects who were actually useful on my teams in 2021, it was players like Jesus Sanchez, Luis Garcia, and James Kaprielian who had already appeared in the majors in 2020 and were less likely to be manipulated and jerked around by their teams. It also meant that they were more ready. Maybe this new rule means that I miss out on the Shane McClanahans of the world, but it helps me avoid the 80% of useless prospects I drafted who are not listed on the spreadsheet.
Diversify Rosters Up and Down the Draft
Not illustrated on the postmortem is a rule useful mostly for me and other volume players: Diversify your drafts. I was careful in 2021 to avoid having top 150 players on more than half of my teams, but I drafted back-end players I liked on every team. I joked that Ka'ai Tom and Tyler Ivey were my "good luck charms" as I took them in the final rounds of every draft. Because of that, I essentially drafted 48-man rosters everywhere instead of 50-man rosters. That's an easy error to correct that will make me a better player in 2022.
I had a 20% win rate and a 26% cash rate in 2021. My goal is to beat those numbers and to make a first legitimate run at the overall. See you in the draft room.
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