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There's more than one way to play fantasy baseball. While the game may have started out with the premise that players should be able to contribute in multiple categories such as home runs, stolen bases, RBIs and runs scored, wins, saves, ERA and WHIP, that's not the only option at your league's disposal.
As fantasy football has increased in popularity, more and more leagues have taken to using some form of head-to-head points system for fantasy baseball as well. In this kind of scoring format, each player's production is boiled down to a single value. Regardless of exactly how each player earns his points, they all count exactly the same.
While most elite players retain that coveted status regardless of format, playing head-to-head points forces you to take a closer look at players whose value might be vastly different than it is in leagues where you need to worry about individual contributions being spread out over multiple categories.
Ten drafters gathered March 6 for the purpose of seeing what different strategies would emerge as we, the ESPN.com Fantasy team, held our second mock draft of the 2012 season. In first-round order, the participants were as follows: Shawn Cwalinski and Dave Hunter of The Answer Guys, fantasy analysts Tristan H. Cockcroft, fantasy contributor Brian Gramling, myself, fantasy editor Brendan Roberts, fantasy contributor Todd Zola, fantasy analyst Eric Karabell and fantasy editors Pierre Becquey and James Quintong at the tail of the snake.
So let's take a look at how a vastly different set of rules (in this case, ESPN standard points league scoring) changes the draft pecking order with an analysis of our Mock Draft 2.0. To see each team's final draft haul, click here.
No huge surprises at the top of the draft, with usual suspects Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Ryan Braun going off the board with the first three picks. A reminder that for hitters, points are awarded as follows: one point for each total base (a single = 1, double = 2, etc.) as well as one point for each run scored, stolen base, walk and RBI. In addition, a point is subtracted for each strikeout.
It's that deduction for strikeouts that makes Matt Kemp a bit of a question mark at No. 4, in my opinion. After all, we're talking about an average of 155 points lost as a result of whiffs over the past four seasons from the Dodgers outfielder. But Gramling was undeterred: "Kemp says he's aiming for 50 homers and 50 steals in 2012, and has played over 155 games with 600-plus at-bats in each of the past four seasons. That weekly reliability is key for head-to-head leagues." It's a fair point. Players with a history of brittleness need to be selected carefully, given that you need consistent contribution from your lineup all season long in a league in which stats "reset" weekly.
My pick at No. 5 was Jose Bautista. Although Joey Bats struck out 111 times last season, he wasn't really hurt from a points perspective the way Kemp was because he walked even more often -- 132 times in 2011. Bautista was one of only ten players with a walk-to-strikeout rate over 1.00 (minimum 400 at-bats) and when you throw on top of that another expected 40-home run season, he was far too valuable to pass on here.
Let's take a quick look at pitcher scoring in ESPN standard: each out a pitcher records is worth one point, with an extra point awarded for each strikeout. Walks and hits dock you a point apiece, while an earned run gives you a two-point deduction. Additionally, for those considering closers, a save is worth five points.
This season, we've lowered the value of a win from ten points to five to lessen the impact of starting pitchers and level the playing field between hitting and pitching. (You can read more about that decision in my Points League primer. A loss is still worth negative-5, so you do want to be careful of pitchers on teams that lose more than they win; a hard-luck 2-1 loss is still a loss. Still, with half of the 2012 top 20 overall points leaders expected to be starting pitchers, it should come as no surprise that several of them went off the board in Round 2.
I went with Clayton Kershaw, whom I rank slightly ahead of Justin Verlander, though it's pretty much a coin toss. Hunter ended up taking the Tigers ace two picks later, leaving Felix Hernandez to Cwalinski, who seemed to be unconcerned about the fact that the King might not win as much as other pitchers still on the board.
He explains, "Taking Hernandez as my first pitcher was a tough call. I know he is not going to get 20 wins but I look at the skills and I had to take him. I'll gladly take 220 strikeouts and fewer than 70 walks in 230 innings as the foundation for my pitching staff. Plus, it's not like his offense could help him less in 2012." If Cwalinski is right, then perhaps Hernandez's win-loss record will tilt a little more toward wins than it did with last season's 14-14 mark. If he were to hit his ESPN projection of 16-12, that would be a 40-point swing in his favor.
With the next 20 picks, seven more starters went off the board with Zack Greinke going at No. 40 overall. Coincidentally, that was exactly where he went in our Mock 1.0. It seems to me that our drafters were well aware of the increased value of pitchers and the need to make sure you had at least one ace in the fold early in the proceedings. Quintong had this to say about his selection of Lincecum at the end of Round 3: "I was wondering if I would just load up on hitters for my first 4-6 picks then go pitching, but I think I also wanted a potential high-strikeout stud to anchor my staff, so in came 'The Freak.'"
Yet what surprised me was that only Becquey decided to go with the strategy of loading up on more than one of these aces. After all, with no need to worry about team balance, why not simply grab the players who are more likely to get you the most points, regardless of position? Becquey selected Jered Weaver in Round 3, Dan Haren in Round 4 and would then grab Yovani Gallardo in Round 5, creating a formidable rotation.
Also going off the board in these two rounds were six middle infielders, compared with zero such selections in Mock 1.0 at this stage of the draft. The reason is simple: A home run is worth at least six points and as many as nine (four total bases plus a run and however many RBIs). A stolen base is one point.
That completely elevates 15-15 guys at these positions (like Jimmy Rollins, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips) over steal-only guys like Elvis Andrus and Dee Gordon to the point that it makes sense to grab them sooner rather than later.
As for me, after selecting the last remaining first baseman in my upper tier, Mark Teixeira, I took closer Craig Kimbrel in Round 4. Kimbrel may well be the only reliever to finish the season in the top 40 scoring pitchers, and there's a very good chance he ends up in the top 20. There was no way I was waiting any longer to grab him, but I'll have more to say about that when we get to Round 9.
We see lots of corners being grabbed in Rounds 5 and 6, as well as the first two catchers (Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli) of the draft. Santana's value gets a bump as a result of the huge gap between his batting average and his on-base percentage (.112 difference), which is important because walks are just as valuable as singles in points leagues.
Karabell reaches a bit, in my opinion, for David Wright, but even though he recognizes that the third baseman has less value in points leagues due to his BB/K rate, he doesn't let it affect his call here: "I've got Wright in my second round for standard drafts, and while he's not quite worth that here, if you believe in a player you believe in a player. To get him at the end of Round 5 and fill a starting spot seemed generous. Hopefully he can cut those strikeouts some." Billy Butler gets undervalued in 5x5 leagues because his doubles amount to almost nothing. In points leagues, total bases count and two doubles are worth twice as much as a single. Butler is projected to finish in the top 25 in total bases and if only a few of those two-baggers end up clearing the wall, he's going to be a huge points league asset. Even though you have to slot him in at your utility spot, I think it's worth it.
In Round 7, Zola opts for Michael Cuddyer, which is great value. However, he still regrets the pick. "I don't feel I am overvaluing him because of the move to Colorado, but I do feel many are undervaluing him, probably because he was always undervalued and it is a residual effect. But I really wanted both Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro, whom is really favored by this scoring system."
Zola basically guessed wrong, as Becquey snatched up Scutaro in the six-pick stretch before Zola was on the clock again. That will happen, and while there's no way of knowing for sure whether he would have ended up with both had the picks been flipped, had he the chance to do it all again, Zola would have rather gone with Scutaro. "I was scrambling for a shortstop the rest of the draft, whereas if I had taken Scutaro and missed out on Cuddyer, I would have been able to find an outfielder or first baseman much easier."
So let's talk strategy here. After I picked Kimbrel at No. 36, the only other closer to go off the board was Jonathan Papelbon at No. 63, to Cockcroft. A quick look at my picks in these rounds shows where my head is at: Brian Wilson, Huston Street and J.J. Putz, all closers. In a 5x5 league, this would be suicidal, but in a weekly head-to-head points league, it's just good sense. Top closers are likely to have three chances at a save each and every week, and if you have a staff consisting of six or seven of them, that's a chance at perhaps as many as 21 saves in one scoring period, each worth five points. Compare that to a team of ace starters, who will pitch at most twice a week, and rarely more than three times over two consecutive weeks. That's a huge difference in points.
As it turns out, I was not the only person with an eye on this strategy, as I learned after the fact from Cockcroft: "I went into the draft with a specific strategy: take the one 'ace' starter (think a top-10 guy) that I can get at a reasonable rate, pair him with 4-5 closers in the Rounds 8-12 range and spend the entire remainder of the draft addressing the offense. There was only one problem with this plan -- Mass! He employed largely the same strategy except he actually GOT that ace that I didn't in the form of Clayton Kershaw."
With his picks of Drew Storen, John Axford and Joel Hanrahan effectively mirroring mine, it certainly was clear at this point that we were the only ones embracing this philosophy. Becquey went the other route, adding to his already stocked starting staff with Ricky Romero, Chris Carpenter and Ubaldo Jimenez. This strategy certainly can work, but one needs to keep in mind that there is a 12-start cap on your pitching staff each week, so you do have to be careful not to shun relievers altogether.
With all the emphasis on grabbing pitching in a points league, the outfield position gets pushed to the back burner. Evidence of this is clear as players like Desmond Jennings (No. 121, Cwalinski), Jason Heyward (No. 124, Gramling) and Adam Jones (No, 133, Karabell) all go off the board well later in this draft than in Mock 1.0, where all three were gone by pick No. 92. While I end up perfectly happy with my picks of Nick Swisher (a .114 OPS surge) and the potential of 20 home runs up the middle from Rickie Weeks, Jason Kipnis and Buster Posey, other owners finally give in and start to select whatever closers Cockcroft and I had not yet snatched up.
Of course, by this point, many of them probably wondered whether they should even bother. As Karabell put it, "I'm not even sure why I chose Rafael Betancourt. After all, there's no need to worry about saves, and all of my other pitchers are starters, some with upside, some safe." In other words, once all the cows have left the barn, why are we bothering to shut that barn door?
In the remaining rounds, most of the work is to simply fill in the remaining spots in your starting lineup. For me, that meant grabbing Erick Aybar for my shortstop and Coco Crisp as my final outfielder.
With Aybar, I was forced to reach because Cockcroft grabbed Yunel Escobar two picks before me in Round 17. Had I gotten Escobar, I'd have managed to secure two players at the tail end of the top 150 at good value, but overall I'm not too upset with how things shook out. Roberts, on the other hand, had seen players he wanted getting snatched up just before he was under the gun all draft long. By the time he finally decided to pull the trigger, the cupboard had nearly been picked clean. "I really wanted Mark Teixeira to fall to me in Round 3, really could have used Lance Berkman in Round 7 and then Gaby Sanchez in Round 12 see a theme? Yup, I ended with Edwin Encarnacion (Round 20) in my 1B slot. Uggh!"
This is also the time to start considering taking chances on injured players like Ryan Howard, who went to Hunter at pick No. 179. Sure, there's a chance he won't be able to play at all in 2012, but in a weekly head-to-head league, it doesn't matter what his final stat line for the season might be. When he does return to action, he starts on a level playing field from that point forward. If your league has a DL spot, why not stash him there?
Gramling did the same kind of speculating by grabbing free-agent pitcher Roy Oswalt in Round 24, who is unlikely to even sign with a team before the All-Star Break. However, like Manny Ramirez, who is facing a 50-game suspension before he will be allowed to suit up for Oakland and did not get picked, he will be ineligible to be placed in the DL slot. With only three bench spots, that kind of gamble is not to be undertaken lightly, though the move could pay huge dividends down the line if everything falls just right.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here. You can email him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass