If you’re one of those people who follows the plethora of sports that Razzball covers, you would have seen my RazzBowl Guidebook on the football side this past fall. In that series, I studied the reams of data produced by the NFC to understand how roster composition and draft strategy would help my fantasy sports results. So I did some homework, used Rudy’s rankings, and had a little bit of luck. The results? I finished the 2020 Fantasy Football year as the champion of the DataForce Charity League, where I defeated 12 of the best and brightest minds on the fantasy football circuit. I wrote about that experience in this article detailing how to win an industry fantasy football league. Now, let’s do the same for the RazzSlam, and hopefully we can get you — yes, you! — your first win in an industry fantasy baseball tournament.
First things first: I’m looking at starting pitching in this article. Why? Because that’s what I do best. Start with your strengths, right? Second things second: here’s the 2021 RazzSlam signup if you haven’t already done that.
Today we’re going to look at the following:
- How the top teams in the 2020 RazzSlam drafted pitching
- The effect of drafting “pocket aces” (starting the draft with two pitchers)
- Best practices for your RazzSlam draft
The Best 2020 RazzSlam Teams
RazzSlam 2020 was, of course, a wild event, given that the outbreak of the coronavirus delayed the start of the MLB season by three months. The RazzSlam managers drafted during the initial outbreak, and managers finished before MLB announced the very long delay in the season startup. So, the caveat for this entire article comes with the fact that many managers that drafted in March would not have picked the same team had they drafted in June, closer to the start of the MLB season. However, we work with the data that we have, and everybody was on the same draft schedule, so it’s a fair enough approximation of what kind of teams win this kind of tournament. The principles are familiar and you’ve seen them on RazzBall for the past decade: don’t overload on pitching.
Let’s introduce the top two finishers: The Champion, Ray Butler of Prospects 365! And the runner-up, Derek “The Injury Tools Guy” Rhoads. It’s fair to say that each of these managers are “industry,” and they are well-studied in winning industry fantasy baseball tournaments.
And to make sure that Razzball is held accountable, I’m going to compare them to the top three Razzball finishers, Dan Richards (#8 overall), Son (#16), and Rudy Gamble (#23). Let’s see the first five picks on each team
|Ray Butler||Derek Rhoads||Dan Richards||Son||Rudy Gamble|
|Round 1||Cody Bellinger||Mike Trout||Gerrit Cole||Francisco Lindor||Francisco Lindor|
|Round 2||Max Scherzer||Pete Alonso||Anthony Rendon||J.D. Martinez||Rafael Devers|
|Round 3||Charlie Blackmon||Rafael Devers||Aaron Judge||George Springer||George Springer|
|Round 4||DJ LeMahieu||J.T. Realmuto||Adalberto Mondesi||Anthony Rizzo||Charlie Blackmon|
|Round 5||Nelson Cruz||Charlie Blackmon||Jose Abreu||Manny Machado||Manny Machado|
OK! What have we learned here? Let’s break out the bullet points:
- Each manager mostly took hitters. In fact, there’s only 2 pitchers out of 25 players up there. Ray Butler took Max Scherzer in the second round, and then didn’t take another starter until Dinelson Lamet in Round 11. In other words, he filled out his primary hitter/reliever roster before drafting another starting pitcher, which is similar to the advice I give in my article about How to Play Fantasy Baseball. Personally, *I* wouldn’t wait that long between starting pitchers, but I finished 80th in the competition (still good for a top 40% finish!), and Ray is the guy you want to emulate.
- Dan Richards did start with Gerrit Cole in the first round. However, his next starter came with Lance Lynn in Round 10. More on Gerrit Cole in a minute.
- Three of the sample teams took no pitchers in the first five rounds and finished in the top 25. Many more teams did this as well, I’m just not focusing on them right now.
- Ray Butler won the league with two pitchers in the first 11 rounds (Max Scherzer and Dinelson Lamet) and two closers in the eighth and ninth rounds (Roberto Osuna and Liam Hendriks). Derek Rhoads finished second by taking his first pitcher in round 6 (Trevor Bauer) and his second pitcher in round 8 (Brandon Woodruff), two closers in Liam Hendriks (round 10) and Taylor Rogers (round 12), and his third starter Max Fried in round 13. So, once he started taking pitchers, he acted quickly, taking five pitchers in seven rounds.
Now, because I don’t want to shove a bunch of tables at you, I’ll quickly summarize some trends that happened among the top 10 players in the 2020 RazzSlam:
- 4 out of the top 10 teams drafted a pitcher in the first round. However, out of the top 10 teams, only Rob Sherwood took two pitchers in the first five rounds: Gerrit Cole (round 1) and Shane Bieber (round 4).
- In fact, Gerrit Cole was the only first round pitcher taken by a top 10 team.
- None of the top 5 teams took a pitcher in the first round.
- Jacob deGrom in the first round earned Aaron Cummings an 11th place finish, the highest of anybody taking deGrom in the first round.
Let’s expand this a bit and take a look at the popular theory of “Pocket Aces.”
“Pocket Aces” is the practice of taking two starters to open your draft. The concept is that the elite starters are so rare that you’re maximizing your capture of points on a scarce position. However, the evidence doesn’t bear out that it’s a regularly effective practice because it’s so hard to do it right. Last year, the top 3 pitchers taken in drafts — Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Justin Verlander — finished below SP6 (and Verlander basically didn’t rank due to injury). Top top finishes from pitchers came from those outside the top 10 SP: Shane Bieber, Yu Darvish, and Trevor Bauer. You can look at the 2020 Razzball Player Rater to find all of the player finishes.
No team finishing in the top 40 of the 2020 RazzSlam had “pocket aces.” Andy Singleton had the highest finish of a team with “nearly” pocket aces, after drafting Walker Buehler in round 2 and Shane Bieber in round 3. He finished 22nd overall, but was nearly 600 points behind Ray Butler’s winning team. In perspective, he finished with 90% of the points that Ray Butler captured. Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and coronavirus transmission, right?
I want to make you a better fantasy baseball player, so I’m giving you this information, even though it makes it harder for us [waves hands around] to draft against you: don’t draft pitchers at a premium. What’s more, don’t draft pocket aces.
Certainly there will be times where pocket aces will win a fantasy league. Every deck of cards can get shuffled and deal a winning hand a million bajillion ways, right? Now imagine that deck of 52 cards replaced with 700 major leaguers. So many possibilities! There’s simply no perfect way to draft a team. However, you have the ability to browse the deck of cards and choose the setup that you think will best improve your chances of winning.
Your job as a fantasy player is to utilize the methods and strategies that will make it easier for your team to capture the most amount of points, rather than making it easier for other teams to take advantage of your draft mistakes. When you leave quality hitters on the table, it enables other players to take advantage of the metaphorical deck of cards in front of them.
Let’s demonstrate this by using a fantasy football example. Our 2019 RazzBowl winner, Mike Beers, was gifted running back Dalvin Cook by his inattentive leaguemates. Cook had an ADP of 14 in 2019 and the popular conception of “first round talent, but injury concern.” His leaguemates passed on Cook over and over again while taking players with less upside and less guaranteed playing time. Beers drafted Cook with the 24th pick — the latest in the competition by far — which enabled him to take a “Robust RB” approach, which is the easiest way to construct a roster for capturing upside points in fantasy football. I talk about these situations in my 2019 RazzBowl Guidebook, and my primer on Robust RB Strategy. In other words, Mike Beers could enact a strategy using the metaphorical cards left in front of him on the table: while other fantasy managers were trying their best to grab obscure cards to make a straight flush — which they eventually failed at — Mike took the 3-of-a-kind that was sitting right on the table. 17 weeks later, Beers won the tournament and garnered the accolades of the internet.
Let’s transfer back to baseball now. When you draft two pitchers immediately in fantasy baseball, it leaves players with guaranteed playing time and upside hitting on the table for other managers to take advantage of. When you give industry sharks good players, it compounds the damage because they are able to be more flexible in their roster construction throughout the draft and take more upside options. Mike Beers is the best ball expert for RotoViz, and handing him Dalvin Cook nearly a round past his ADP enabled him to take upside players later, which resulted in his championship run.
So, let’s take a look at how Ray Butler took advantage of his room.
RazzSlam Draft Best Practices
Ray Butler had one of the toughest draft rooms in the 2020 RazzSlam: his league featured the legendary Scott Pianowski (finished 30th overall in the 2020 RazzSlam), 2020 Tout Wars winner Ariel Cohen (finished 17th overall in the 2020 RazzSlam), and #8 overall RazzSlam finisher Dan Richards. Whew! If you’re thinking the champ took the crown because he had weak competition, you’d be absolutely wrong. 4 of the top 30 players in the 2020 RazzSlam tournament — including 2 of the top 10 teams — emerged from that league!
Certainly some luck in injuries played in Ray’s favor, but his shrewd drafting of pitchers was probably the biggest factor in his victory. Let’s take a look at his starting pitcher choices:
|SP1||Max Scherzer (2.09)|
|SP2||Dinelson Lamet (11.04)|
|SP3||Julio Urias (15.04)|
|SP4||Andrew Heaney (17.04)|
|SP5||Dylan Bundy (21.04)|
|SP6||Josh James (22.09)|
First off, you can see that Ray was still drafting almost entirely hitters for the first 20 rounds: 14 hitters to 4 starting pitchers (he had 2 closers as well).
He took a “value” elite SP in Max Scherzer in the second round. Scherzer had a tough finish to 2019, and many pundits devalued him in favor of other players in 2020. Managers continued to draft Justin Verlander — who was older than Scherzer and coming off surgery — before Scherzer, which was a risk. Verlander ultimately missed the 2020 season after undergoing more surgery, and Scherzer finished as SP36 after some injuries and struggles of his own. Still, given that Scherzer was taken at a significant discount to the other early round pitchers, his return on investment was acceptable.
Dinelson Lamet was the difference maker on Ray’s team. Lamet finished 2020 as SP7, and the 11th round draft cost proved to be exceptional value. Lamet was Grey’s #27 SP on his rankings for 2020 Fantasy Baseball Starting Pitchers, which was significantly higher than the SP40 position where Lamet was drafted by the masses. For the readers who are new to fantasy baseball, here’s the lesson to be learned: you don’t need to draft those upside pitchers super-early; instead, you take advantage of the “discount” in their draft cost by waiting until approximately their Average Draft Position (ADP). Ray took Lamet with the 124th pick of the draft, which was slightly earlier than his ADP of 133. The 27th SP off the board in 2020 was typically Corey Kluber, who went at pick 95. So instead of getting Kluber — a veteran pitcher who was rehabilitating from a broken arm — Ray drafted Roberto Osuna, Liam Hendriks, Tim Anderson, and then Dinelson Lamet. Three of those players hit, with Lamet finishing as SP7, Hendriks finishing as the 4th overall pitcher (RP1 overall), and Anderson finished as a top 30 player as well. By waiting for his second starting pitcher, Ray picked up extraordinary value for his team.
Julio Urias, Andrew Heaney, and Dylan Bundy proved to be excellent choices as well, finishing SP57, SP61, and SP17 respectively. Butler took Dylan Bundy with the 244th pick overall and was rewarded with the 17th best pitcher for 2020 fantasy baseball. Did Bundy come out of nowhere? Was Ray Butler completely lucky? Nope. Razzball’s Son — who is third ranked on the TGFBI multi-year leaderboard and finished the 2020 RazzSlam in 16th place — wrote this 2020 Dylan Bundy Fantasy Outlook last year.
Only one team — Rob Sherwood, who finished 6th — went “heavy” on starters and finished in the top 10. Rob took Gerrit Cole in the first round, with Shane Bieber in the 4th and Patrick Corbin in the 6th. Overall, he took 7 starting pitchers in the top 20 (compared to Ray Butler’s 4 pitchers). Derek Rhoads also took 7 pitchers, although they were divided by 6 starters and 1 closer.
There’s always more than one way to shuffle a deck of cards and win. However, there are better and more effective ways to stack the deck such that your hand is stronger compared to your opponents. In fantasy baseball, one of the ways to effectively stack the deck is to take hitters earlier than pitchers. Ray Butler modeled this example in the 2020 RazzSlam, where he took hitters at a 3.5:1 ratio to starting pitchers in the first 20 rounds. He finished the tournament with a healthy 2% lead in points over Derek Rhoads, his nearest competition. By focusing on upside sleeper arms in the later rounds, Butler captured the most amount of points in the RazzSlam, defeating a field of 216 other players, which included both fans and some of the greatest fantasy baseball minds in the business. If you want to succeed in fantasy baseball, learn from the examples of the masters.
Aye, you made it this far, didn’t ya. EverywhereBlair is, well, located at home right now. He’s a historian and lover of prog-metal. He enjoys a good sipping rum. When he’s not churning data and making fan fiction about Grey and Donkey Teeth, you can find him dreaming of shirtless pictures of Lance Lynn on Twitter @Everywhereblair.