For years, the correlation between playing fantasy sports and poker comes to the surface, especially in daily fantasy. However, during snake drafts or auctions, no matter the stakes, perhaps fantasy baseball more closely resembles chess. With due credit to my girlfriend, who requested watching “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, layers of the process and strategy of chess align with my fantasy research, and I’m here to relay the tips and advice I’ve learned.
The name of “The Queen’s Gambit” refers to sacrificing a pawn in hopes of securing the center of the board. If the opponent takes the bait, it allows the white pieces to shift from defense to offense. A key component displayed by chess masters lies in the credo: In order to win, you must avoid losing. No, Yogi Berra did not coin this phrase. After a move on the board, it’s not strategy or winning which remains at the forefront of their thoughts. Chess masters ask, what’s the threat?
During drafts in 2021, the buzz words include a dearth of stolen bases, saves scarcity, and the lack of depth in starting pitching. There’s going to be six-man rotations, openers, and innings limits. Within some of the highest stakes leagues in fantasy baseball, like the Main Event held by the NFBC (National Fantasy Baseball Championship), only one of the top-10 teams started their draft with three straight hitters. According to a top-rated player, Dave McDonald, every team in the top 10 last year targeted at least one if not two starting pitchers among their first three selections.
Toby Guevin coined the term “pocket aces” as a strategy picking two top-tiered pitchers in either the first two rounds or in the second and third rounds in drafts with aplomb last season. Pitching continues to climb the ranks in average draft position amidst the ever-changing environment in the major leagues. While many remain steadfast in their approach of taking hitters early because they’re more reliable, this could complicate things as a draft progresses.
Since “full hand” remains a poker term, there’s still some connection while bridging the first five rounds of a draft to an “opening” in chess. Don’t think there’s an exact way to make a full-hand strategy happen, but as Ryan Bloomfield from Baseball HQ relayed to me, taking three pitchers among one’s first five picks represents the path many took to success last year. Remaining somewhat in your comfort zone, taking at least two pitchers with three hitters among the first five picks can still represent a full-hand approach, so make it a tenable transition.
Why the inflation on pitching? There’s so much gray area heading into 2021 due to the shortened season of ’20 and how it may affect pitchers. An average start last year lasted fewer than five innings on average in the MLB. Starting pitchers made 1,796 starts logging 8,589.2 innings for a 4.8 inning per start average. It’s not just a last-year problem, though:
This creates a ripple effect in ratio statistics for both starting pitchers and relievers alike. Glory days from 2018 subsided with the potential of “juiced” baseballs in ’19, then all the hurdles of starting spring training, stopping, and restarting in July. Securing veteran pitchers with a history of pitching at least 180 innings in the past represents a shrinking commodity, especially when seeking ratio protection (ERA and WHIP).
Forming a strong foundation yields options in drafts. Using NFBC ADP as our guide, here’s how a draft board could look strictly using the top 75 players in a 15-team draft as an exercise. A couple of players switched spots due to one team getting three shortstops, but it’s almost in order using the data from Jan. 1 on:
Of these first 75 picks, there’s 25 starting pitchers (33 percent) of all selections in the first five rounds. Teams also take 16 outfielders and 11 shortstops, meaning these three positions comprise 69.3 percent of the total players among the top 75 in ADP. Taking this a step further, nine of the hypothetical 15 teams reach the full-hand stratagem by getting at least two pitchers. Teams 3, 6 and 15 represent teams with three pitchers and two hitters in the purest sense of the full-hand approach. Team 2 comes closet to mirroring my personal views on how to build a successful team.
Getting Fernando Tatis Jr. to provide power and speed and banking on a rebound season by Jack Flaherty makes for a strong start. Ozzie Albies adds counting statistics at a shallow position, Corbin Burnes is a major pitching breakout candidate, and Luke Voit will provide power. From there, you could take another pitcher on the way back, a closer for saves, an outfielder with pocket steals (10 or more), a catcher, and, well you get the point.
After perusing the rosters, which teams can control the center of the draft? Take a team which aligns with your thinking and identify needs as the draft progresses and the threats to reaching 80th-percentile markers. For instance, in NFBC, here’s targets to aim for:
- · 15-Team Leagues Pitching: 1,428 strikeouts, 90 wins, 75 saves, 3.807 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
- · 12-Team Leagues Pitching: 1,525 strikeouts, 96 wins, 82 saves, 3.74 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
Finding different builds becomes easier when not trying to outsmart the field. Opportunity cost creates a lens when weighing how a player added to the roster affects the outcome. It also leads to preparing for what needs to happen next and at the expense of what. A strong opening, or a full hand, enables a drafter to control the center of a draft with myriad follow-up moves to strengthen the roster. Then, hit your targets in the end game by taking your players ahead of their ADPs or address a need identified as a threat. There’s no such thing as a bad pick which addresses a hole in your roster.
There’s no “drafting for dummies,” but the full-hand strategy, no matter how one deploys it in relation to hitter to pitcher ratio, works as long as there’s at least two of either within the first five choices. Remember to remain a move or two ahead of the room in regards to hitting your marks. A strong opening, controlling the middle, and focusing in the end game yields success.
As famed investor Charlie Munger said: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
Use the full-hand approach as a foundation block to a strong 2021 fantasy season.