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The Playbook: Secrets of a five-time champion

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How to prep your fantasy baseball cheat sheet (0:52)

Tristan H. Cockcroft offers advice on how to best prepare for your fantasy baseball draft. (0:52)

It's about the process, not the results.

Baseball is an engrossing, yet sometimes downright maddening game, full of twists and turns that challenge our wits. To illustrate, let's flash back four-plus months:

New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia had his team two outs away from winning Game 1 of the 2015 World Series before Alex Gordon hit a 97 mph fastball over the center-field fence to tie the score 4-4; the Kansas City Royals would eventually win in extra innings. Now, blown saves by closers aren't entirely unexpected, but in this case, Familia had been a perfect 21-for-21 in saves with a 0.92 ERA in his previous 38 appearances. In addition, not one of Familia's 520 previous fastballs thrown clocked 97 mph or faster had been hit out of the park. Since Sept. 1, 2014, opponents were batting .200 off those pitches and made hard contact against them only eight times.

Right process, wrong result. It happens.

Individual events like these ring home the truth about baseball prognostication: No one has a right to expect a damned thing.

We'll delve deeper into how random variance influences baseball results later, but for now, the upshot is that you can only control your process -- effectively the metaphorical equivalent of moving your chess pieces into striking position -- and it is imperative that you do so to maximize your odds of success. And that's true whether you're Mets manager Terry Collins pushing those World Series game-strategy buttons or a fantasy baseball owner preparing for your 2016 draft.

I attribute a fine-tuned process to having won five experts league titles, which included three consecutive Tout Wars championships from 2012-14. Unfortunately, the quadru-peat wasn't meant to be; I finished in second place in 2015.

That's not to take anything away from what was a positive result -- second place isn't a bad spot in which to be -- and it's certainly not to take anything away from what was a stellar season by the league champion, Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus, who won with a commanding 14-point lead. Gianella earned his title with an ironclad process of his own, a trait he shares with the vast majority of fantasy baseball title winners over the years. The point is that you set up your team to maximize its odds, then cross your fingers tightly and hope the breaks you need fall your way.

Personally, I blame Max Scherzer and Johnny Cueto's sluggish second halves for the result. (I'm only partly kidding.)

On Oct. 5, I began my 2016 process. Little has changed; carefully calculated process needs no overhaul. That said, there are always small improvements to be made.

So let's get started.

I am going to win my league.

Go ahead, laugh, roll your eyes, point out my own admission that I did not win in the aforementioned Tout Wars example. Again, the result is irrelevant to the cause; the process -- which in this case is your mindset -- is paramount. If you scoff at this section, enjoy your sixth-place finish, or if you're extremely lucky, rest on the laurels of your fortunate title and enjoy your lax approach that'll result in an inevitable sixth-place finish in 2017.

You will not win -- or certainly will not be a perennial contender -- until you say these seven words, out loud, right now: I am going to win my league.

This statement, and the decision tied to it, is your entire purpose for playing.

Fun? OK, that's fine, and it's important. Boredom? Peer pressure? Passing the time until football? They're all potential reasons, but if these are what drive you, then this isn't the column for you. You're here to win, and Step 1 in this process is adopting the singular mindset to do so.

Back to that thought: No one has a right to expect a damned thing.

Step 2 is understanding the fact that even an entirely flawless process doesn't guarantee a perfect result.

Random variance is a part of the game, and those unexpected events can add up over the course of what's roughly 2,430 games, more than 21,000 innings and 180,000 individual plays. Whether it's a single play, like the Familia example; or a single game, such as Felix Hernandez serving up eight runs in a third of an inning last June 12, despite entering that day ranked among the top 15 pitchers in wins, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts; or a single season, such as starting pitcher Adam Wainwright suffering a torn Achilles tendon in April that limited him to only seven regular-season appearances -- these events can have devastating effects on even a perfect plan.

These are the outcomes to ignore, the "noise" that threatens to shake your focus. The truth about the predicting game is that no one should ever expect to be correct at a rate significantly greater than 60 percent. Three out of every five tries. You are to shrug off the Familia, Hernandez or Wainwright result. You cannot control them.

Hey, I'm going to get some wrong, too.

Frankly, that 60 percent rate might be enough to win your league. But I set an aggressive bar for myself and I suggest you do too: 65 percent.

While that means a lot of bad calls, it also means a lot more good ones.

Just as I did a year ago, I analyzed my 2015 rankings compared to the results at season's end -- we'll use the Player Rater for the latter measure -- to get a handle on how realistic this goal is. The first two columns are the percentage of "draft-worthy" players who justified that status in a standard ESPN mixed league; the next two show the rate of almost perfectly projecting (within 50 spots) the player's value; and the final two represent players who finished outside the "draft-worthy" pool in 2014, were ranked within that group entering 2015 and finished within 75 spots of my ranking.

Besides establishing my track record for correct picks, this data also serves as a bar for what you can expect from your predictions.

My 63.8 percent success rate projecting the draft pool falls within the range of my 65 percent goal of correct calls. Even swinging that rate in either direction by 5 percent means that, of your draft-day commodities, you really have no right to expect much more than 60 percent of your production to come from your draft-day roster. That speaks volumes about how much in-season management influences your final result.

In addition, take note of that 34.1 percent success rate on breakout picks. One of the pitfalls that frequently swallows up even the most astute fantasy owners is to put too great a percentage of one's investment in higher-risk, potential "breakthrough" candidates. With barely better than a one-out-of-three success rate -- and that's mine, which might be higher than average -- your odds of failure on these picks is considerably greater. For every Shelby Miller, there's both a Rusney Castillo and Jorge Soler.

This season, you most certainly do not want to be charging through your middle rounds selecting Addison Russell, Taijuan Walker, Steven Matz, Byung Ho Park, Randal Grichuk, Raisel Iglesias and Carlos Rodon in succession (in whatever order), because despite how exciting that team might sound, it's also giving you a team with a substantial amount of risk, in which even two or three bad breaks could ruin you.

Where did my Tout Wars season go wrong?

Never, ever ignore a critical lesson to be learned from the previous season, however small it might be.

Though my process was good, it wasn't completely flawless, and this ties into the previous point. The fantasy baseball community -- writers, bloggers, podcasters, TV analysts, even fantasy owners -- are all too quick to adhere labels to things: "Kevin Pillar is 'This Year's A.J. Pollock'!" "Wil Myers is a major breakout candidate!" "No way would I draft Ryan Braun!"

While such statements are helpful for the way in which they illustrate how wide a player's range of outcomes -- this is more commonly what we call "upside" and "downside" -- they also do a great disservice as far as estimating a player's worth at the draft table. They're much more likely to fool you into believing this overly optimistic or pessimistic portrait of a player, causing you to improperly value him.

I've made more than my own share, and last season, one squeezed itself too deep into my subconscious as I was finalizing my draft sheets: "Yasiel Puig will win the National League's Most Valuable Player award."

Unfortunately, this caused me to overvalue Puig at $30 -- easily $3-4 more than I should've -- which precipitated my final and winning bid of $29 when I should have let him go at $28. The result of this was my having to chase stolen bases for the remainder of the auction, including making my next-biggest mistake, letting Ben Revere go for $18 -- $2 less than I had him listed -- as I attempted to preserve funds. It was the one fault in the process that became a glaring misstep early in the year. Had I put more stock in the fantasy baseball community's general consensus of Puig's value, I'd have been better off.

That's why I routinely compare my own projections to at least three other models, with the aim being to isolate the outliers in order to individually examine whether it's caused by a biased projection or simply a player with the aforementioned wide range of outcomes.

Two widely available projection models are ZiPS, Dan Szymborski's system, and the Steamer projection model commonly found on FanGraphs. Even if you have general ideas of what statistics you expect from a player, it's a smart move to compare your expectations to our ESPN staff projections as well as other available projections.

Remember, the idea is to identify every player's most likely outcome, and rank/price him off of that. As I often say, bet the average.

By all means, CHEAT!

Nothing is more critical to your success than your cheat sheet. I've played in hundreds of leagues that drafted live, every one of them sharing a common bond: The eventual league champion always used some sort of customized cheat sheet.

Whether it's a hardcopy version or digital, basic or detailed, make this an essential ingredient of your preparation process. We provide these for all sorts of league styles in our Draft Kit, but for the best result, edit them for your own preferences.

I'm generally the hardcopy/detailed type. I'll bring a laptop in order to track my competition's rosters and available budget, but it's a lot easier to maneuver the player pool with a printed copy. Crossing out players by hand is a much neater process than deleting lines, and you don't run the risk of catastrophic crashes and lost data.

My cheat sheets always separate players into their eligible positions, one position per page (multi-eligible players included at every one of their positions), and always contains the following columns: player name, team, dollar value, dollars earned the previous year, dollars paid the previous year (if applicable), basic projections and a column simply titled "Notes."

I include dollar values on my cheat sheets regardless of whether the league is auction or draft format. They serve several purposes, even in the latter: Placing a specific worth on a player helps you more easily determine value tiers within a particular position, as well as identifying scarcity within that position; it helps when comparing the better value between two players at different positions; and in later rounds, isolates players who might have substantially greater value than the remainder of that position's pool. For example, with a dollar value attached, one could more easily tell that Round 13 is the ideal time to select Mike Moustakas, because there's a significant drop-off after him among third basemen, whereas one could wait for 6-7 similarly valued first basemen who remain available at that stage of the draft.

Projections are paramount in creating dollar values. Thankfully, we've got a Custom Dollar Value GeneratorInsider that does the dirty work for you. Enter your league's specifications and the Generator spits out results for every player, which I then adjust to fit any differing opinions I might have. If you're truly hard-core -- and I often am and go this route instead -- craft your own set of projections and enter them into a dollar value calculator (or better yet, create your own). They exist; if you're handy with search engines, you shouldn't have too much trouble.

That said, I stand behind the accuracy of our Generator, and it is a tool I have used for every single league in which I have played since its creation. At the bare minimum, it is an excellent starting point, and when I am generating my final dollar values, I trust only it and my own calculation system.

If creating your own dollar values, remember that every dollar must be accounted for. This means that in a 10-team league that uses a $260 cap -- that's the recommended amount I'd use even if your league uses a draft, as it is fairly common across all fantasy baseball auction leagues -- the total number of dollars spent on your cheat sheet must total $2,600, spread out over the number of players to be selected. Adjust those numbers to the specs of your league.

Use cents. Calculating dollar values to the nearest penny not only shows the proximity of two players' worth, it differentiates between closely valued pairs. It's a good way to identify value tiers at a position while ranking players within said tier. It's more work, so if you must take short cuts, that's your prerogative, but it's worth it.

Be sure to determine the percentage of your total budget you plan to spend on hitters and pitchers. The majority of leagues will spend roughly 65-70 percent on hitting, with the nature of your league influencing; experts leagues are notorious for being more conservative spending on pitching, while more casual leagues tend to reside on the opposite side of the scale. If you choose 68 percent, which I'd call a pretty fair across-the-board number, make sure that your hitters' total dollar values sum $1,768 in the previous 10-team, $260-cap example -- no more, no less.

Finally, a word about the "Notes": While they're self-explanatory, they also serve a key function. Here's where you can jot down strategic plans, reminders or, most importantly, comments about players who have a wider range of expected outcomes than average. Last season, my "Notes" included my Tout Wars strategy to make the auction's first nomination my No. 2-priced starting pitcher, Max Scherzer, for $30, in the hopes of either landing him for that or $32, or letting him go while setting a reasonable bar for Clayton Kershaw (I projected he'd cost roughly $5 more). Keep these as brief as possible.

Some examples for this year:

  • For Elvis Andrus (American League-only sheet): "After him, shortstop value plummets."

  • For Blake Swihart (standard): "Last-ditch, C-upside play, if rest of league drafts them aggressively."

  • For Drew Pomeranz and Aaron Sanchez (local points league with SP/RP designations): "Best saves stashes with SP eligibility."

  • For Stephen Strasburg: "Might be undervaluing by $5-6, but injury history says bid as conservatively as possible."

  • For Todd Frazier: "If not first nom [nomination], make it quick, to get read on price points for 'big-5' 3B."

Does position scarcity exist?

Between the mention of tiers within positions and drop-off in value, I'm teasing another pitfall in fantasy baseball: position scarcity.

Position scarcity might be the greatest source of wasted draft-day resources, second at worst behind "chasing upside." We look at our staff No. 15-ranked shortstop, Ketel Marte, and then our No. 15-ranked first baseman, Mark Teixeira, players separated by more than 80 spots in our overall rankings, and say, "Boy is shortstop weak."

While that's a fair characterization about the shortstop position entering 2016, it's also a mediocre way of judging position scarcity, and a route to vastly overvaluing so-so players who simply happen to qualify at shortstop.

A better way of judging the relative depth (or lack thereof) at a position is to run all your projections through a dollar valuation system with their eligible positions stripped. Then, re-apply the positions, separate players into their respective spots and examine how much of that position's pool falls "beneath replacement level," meaning a negative dollar value earned, or how much has a positive value despite falling beneath the draftable range (say, the No. 51 outfielder and beyond in a standard league).

Using ESPN's projections, here's a snapshot of each hitting position:

  • Catcher: $20.42 in negative earnings (five players), top three worth $12.15 on average

  • First base: $3.18 wasted (two players), top three worth $34.04

  • Second base: $7.21 in negative earnings (five players), top three worth $21.42

  • Third base: $3.67 wasted (two players), top three worth $32.41

  • Shortstop: $2.35 in negative earnings (two players), top three worth $18.24

  • Outfield: $23.13 wasted (10 players), top three worth $37.84

What this means is that five of the catchers required to be drafted in an ESPN standard league will cost you roughly $4 in negative production each; that's how many of the catchers that must be rostered will actually drag down your team's numbers, and it's a significant amount. But that's no surprise: Catchers typically tally fewer plate appearances than hitters at any other position, and presumably because of the defensive wear and tear of the position, a top catcher provides you significantly less value than any other position. So what should you do?

The last thing you want to do is boost Kyle Schwarber's value from $9-11 in a standard mixed league to $15-17 simply in avoidance of players detrimental to your roster; you're potentially throwing resources at a player who has many more flaws than one who might cost even a few dollars less at a deeper position.

Granted, you'll need to increase those five negative-earning catchers' price tags to at least $1 -- the minimum bid in most auction leagues -- while lowering the positive earners among outfielders to $0, but before you rush to grant catcher and shortstop an extra $50 in total budget apiece while shortchanging outfielders $100, don't be too hasty. At best, position scarcity might only mean an additional $1-3, that applied generally only to the premium talent at those positions, and at best maybe only $6-10 total.

In other words, if Carlos Correa's projected ESPN stat line prices out at $26 in my valuation system with him eligible to play anywhere, then Correa the shortstop shouldn't be valued at any more than $28-29 ... which is precisely why if you run our standard rules through our Generator, Correa is priced exactly $28.

Note that second base, not shortstop, is actually the weakest position accounting for all draft-worthy starters at that position. Still, the numbers show that the significant difference between the two positions is the larger differential between a top second baseman and the last one worth drafting; shortstops are more tightly packed.

Tristan's winter calendar

There's no such thing as a fantasy baseball offseason.

The competitive portion (read: the regular season), is a roughly 180-day, six-month marathon with minimal respite. The other (roughly) half of the calendar represents draft-prep season, during which time the news constantly influences player value, generally with no fewer than one major happening per week and often several dozen during the peak of the Hot Stove season (usually leading into and/or coinciding with the winter meetings). These "happenings" accumulate during this six-month period, and it is your choice how frequently you wish to absorb them and make the necessary adjustments to your draft sheets.

I've used the metaphor before but it's apt: Draft prep is the term paper you're assigned on Day 1 of English 101, and draft day is the distant deadline for said paper. You can cram if you wish, first enjoying your own personal fantasy baseball offseason -- procrastination rocks! -- then attempting to compress six months' worth of research into a matter of hours (or minutes) before your draft. I'm not telling you not to do that; you know better than I what study habits work best for you.

Here's my winter process.

October: Rest (2-3 days), review and revel in playoff baseball.

Being realistic, the vast majority of us play fantasy football, a sport that arrives at a most inconvenient time for fantasy baseballers. To a lesser extent, fantasy hockey, with an opening night often within a couple days of baseball's regular-season conclusion, also falls into this department. Even for a full-time fantasy baseball and fantasy football writer such as myself, what might've been 75 hours' attention on the former during the season's early stages must dip to 50 or perhaps even 25 during the peak fantasy football draft weeks of late August and early September. Some fantasy baseball owners, especially those already out of contention, allow that number to dip to zero. That's why October -- a few weeks into the fantasy football season, when trades and add/drops are your focus -- is an ideal time to rest (for those who didn't fully tune out), review (for those who did) and enjoy the excitement of playoff baseball.

November: Winter player analysis.

This is the best time of year to do initial player research, once all the games, including the playoffs, are in the books. During this stage, I'm examining every possible piece of a player's skill set and statistical performance seeking an edge, jotting down notes on every possibly relevant player for the upcoming season into a file I call my "Playbook." (The "Playbook," incidentally, is actually 75 percent player notes. I consider it the most important ingredient for my championship quests.)

For example, this research stage was where I discovered Miguel Sano's extreme difficulty against sliders, which is a red flag to me that he hasn't entirely adapted to big league pitching and might yet face additional adjustments. A telling stat: From the date of Sano's big league debut on July 2 forward, he took 70 called strikes on sliders, most in the majors, as strong evidence as any that his pitch recognition needs some work.

December: Transaction reaction.

This sometimes bleeds into November and often into January and February as well, though to a lesser degree in the latter two months, just as the winter player analysis process can extend backward into October while always continuing until Opening Day. But it's December during which we're most often to witness the greatest volume of player transactions because of mid-month's annual winter meetings and the flurry of activity that falls between them and Christmas. It's an excellent time to do a roundup of all the significant transactions and adjust your player values accordingly. For example, Jeff Samardzija's arrival in San Francisco represented just about the best-case landing spot for him, because what was a significant issue for him last season was affording a high rate of fly balls to right field. AT&T Park, as you might know, has the most forgiving right-field fence measurements in the game.

January: Projections (if applicable) and rankings.

Yes, I traditionally publish my first set of next season's rankings during the month of September, then keep them updated regularly throughout the offseason, but January is the month during which these rankings crystallize. This is a stage of the winter during which transactions tend to slow, and it's also the month during which we hold our Fantasy Baseball Summit, during which time I'll get to hear many different staff opinions that could further educate some of my own player thoughts.

February: Track spring news and identify your "I dunno" players.

With spring training underway, it's a good idea to quickly craft your list of players you'd like to track, whether it's watching live games or merely reading beat reporters' stories about their progress. One place to quickly keep track of your players' news is our ESPN Fantasy Player News feed.

What you don't want to get caught up in is the annual rash of mid-February "I'm in the best shape of my life" comments from players. Instead, what you're looking for is information on Devin Mesoraco's health, the New York Mets' outfield construction (does Michael Conforto play every day?) and whether Joc Pederson has corrected the issues that plagued him during the second half of last season.

March: Track draft trends, watch spring games and finalize draft sheets.

Spring games can be another pitfall, or at least the statistical portion of them are. Remember, many spring stats are accrued against low-level minor league competition, players who have no chance whatsoever of gracing a major league roster in that given year, or perhaps in the next one either. There's no greater example of this than Mike Zunino's seven home runs, .352 batting average and .852 slugging percentage last season. This is why I like the Baseball-Reference.com spring statistics pages so much, because they include a grade for the quality of competition a player faced in the given spring. No player who played a significant amount of time last season earned a grade close to 10, and most had grades barely better than eight, which is the effective equivalent of facing Triple-A competition every day.

Spring stats are only relevant when they illustrate a specific skills change by the player. For example, strikeout-to-walk ratios might matter for pitchers, if they're vastly different from their past years' numbers, as they could indicate a change in either pitch selection, velocity or movement. A pitcher such as Justin Verlander, meanwhile, might be worth tracking for a few starts to see whether his small uptick in average fastball velocity late last season extends into this year.

Mid-March is also the time that ADPs (average draft position) firm up as live draft results are compiled. It's always a good idea to check the "7-day trend" column to identify market changes, and it's wise as well to collect the ADP data as a whole and compare it to your own cheat sheet to find outliers. For example, Stephen Piscotty's ADP will almost assuredly rank 200th or later, but in my rankings I grade him at least four rounds better. I know I've got good odds of acquiring him, but I might even be able to wait a little longer to draft him than where I valued him.

I can't stress it enough: value, value, value.

When it comes to draft day, don't get cute.

You're going to hear oodles of creative strategies as you prepare for your draft, and the vast majority of them are noise. Here's the best strategy: Draft value.

This is what makes your process paramount. If you've done all your homework in terms of projections, rankings and dollar values, this is the easy part. It's the reason you want to make your player values yours, rather than someone else's cheat sheet brought to the draft. Ours are a great starting point, but if you draft simply off our sheets, you're selecting ESPN's ideal fantasy baseball team. If you don't agree with something we've written, feel free to change it. Hey, it's your team.

In an auction, this means trying to get every player for no more than my listed price, while aggressively pursuing any player up until $1-2 beneath his price, with some exceptions depending upon how wide his potential range of outcomes. Don't overbid, except for the very best players in the game, and even then, if you've crafted a proper projection, then there's no reason to exceed your price points.

In a draft, try not to dig more than 1-2 rounds beneath your highest available players except in instances of positions becoming more rapidly scarce. Again, if you've valued players properly, you shouldn't stray too far from your sheet, but there's no reason to draft Freddie Freeman to a team as your DH/utility when you took Anthony Rizzo and Edwin Encarnacion in the first two rounds, not if Corey Seager is the last top-five shortstop on the board and it's the sixth round. The same applies to stolen bases, where you're in the greatest danger of getting cornered into having to spend mid-to-late round picks on low-ceiling, middling-speedsters like Rajai Davis, Jean Segura or Jarrod Dyson.

It's those late-round picks that are often the source of the best bargains, especially because in many drafts, that's the stage when your competition is most likely to be focusing attention on the next thing in his/her schedule. We're human; we tire. Grab an extra cup of coffee and remain as focused on your 25th-round pick as your first-rounder.

It's that consistency, focus and readiness that is central to your process.

And with a little luck, you're going to get the right result: a league championship.