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Win the League, Not the Draft

Todd Zola reviews the pros and cons of drafting towards category targets.

At the end of every live draft, inevitably, there is someone showing off their work. “I have 323 homers, 187 steals, 1092 runs and 1113 RBI.”

Really? On March 10? They continue,

“By my numbers, I’m 17 points ahead of the second place team.”

Geez, maybe we should just give you the championship.

Coming into a draft or auction with a predetermined set of category targets is a popular ploy. History shows around 75-80% of the maximum available points will win most rotisserie leagues. For example, in a 12-team, 5x5 league, a complete sweep yields 120 points. Winners usually total between 90 and 95 points, equating to finishing third or fourth in each category. As such, many will use the third-place total from the previous season’s standings as their goal.

Other drafters swear by software guiding their draft or auction. This is more than just bookkeeping. Most programs not only track rosters and budgets in an auction, but they also calculate real time standings and make player recommendations based on the team placing higher in the mythical standings.

Here’s the thing. Your objective should not be to win the draft. It should be to WIN THE LEAGUE!

To be perfectly frank, if you don’t smash your targets, you messed up your draft. The assumption is if you're tracking stats, you must be using projections of some sort. As such, you’re rostering players favored by the projections and by extension, others are choosing the players for which the projections are more bearish. Of course you’re going to blow away your goals. In a 12-team league, chances are all dozen teams met their draft targets, but only one team will win. Huh.

Surpassing targets usually means finishing at the top of the draft standings. Big whoop. Do the standings account for team management? Players like Mike Trout and Aaron Judge are docked playing time in anticipation of an injury. Does the software add in the players occupying the roster spots while your drafted players are on the IL? What about accounting for handling pitching? Most leagues have some level of management where hurlers with tough matchups can be reserved for those with a more favorable opponent. In some weeks, a fantasy manager may opt to deploy a third closer in lieu of an extra starter. Yet, the draft standings only reflect two closers. Plus, the projections encompass all the pitcher’s starts, including those you’re avoiding.

WIN THE LEAGUE, NOT THE DRAFT.

Clearly, this is facilitated in leagues with trading, but the best approach is stocking your roster with as many stats as possible, then letting things play out and managing the categories to maximize rotisserie points. In a 15-team league, finishing fourth across the board will often get it done. Why not finish higher in a few categories while lagging in another? You still accrue the needed 120 points. Drafting towards targets or being guided by placement in artificial standings may result in choosing players adding fewer stats to your totals, but helping you appear better within the drafting software.

WIN THE LEAGUE, NOT THE DRAFT.

In full disclosure, I was one of the first to champion target drafting. Currently, standings from the National Fantasy Baseball Championship’s Main Event are readily available. Twenty years ago, I used my contacts in the high stakes arena to gather the standings of all the leagues, and I was the go-to guy for category targets. People offered to pay me for the information.

After a couple of years, I had an epiphany. I never failed to meet my targets. I never lost a draft. But somehow, I didn’t win very many leagues. I was overly influenced to choose players, especially late in a draft, that would gain the most points in the standings.

To be honest, even after conditioning myself to focus on bullying stats and not bullying the standings, my success increased, but not to the extent I wished. I wish I had more championships under my belt, but I have won Tout Wars and LABR, along with taking down The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational in 2019. This is a competition composed of hundreds of members of the fantasy baseball industry.

I’ve talked about the above many times, often with individuals with a much better track record than mine. The conversation usually goes in one of two ways. Some say they track stats to make sure their team is balanced, particularly between homers and steals. I have no problem with that. I do the same; I just don’t track the numbers. I have been projecting and profiling players since the World Series ended. My method is more intuitive.

The other explanation for using draft software, beyond bookkeeping, is about peace of mind. Here again, I can’t argue. Anything that keeps you in a positive state of mind is a good thing. If tracking stats, or using software increases your comfort level, more power to you.

The message here isn’t to draft strictly off a piece of paper; that’s silly. Just keep the big picture in mind and…

WIN THE LEAGUE, NOT THE DRAFT.

Todd Zola is an award-winning fantasy baseball writer and 2020 inductee into the Fantasy Sports Writers Hall of Fame. He's the content provider for the 2024 Fantasy Baseball Index Draft Kit, available now. To purchase, click HERE.

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