Cockcroft's fantasy baseball playbook

Ronald Acuna Jr. hit 41 home runs and stole 37 bases as a 21-year-old last season. Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

Perfect your process, and don't sweat the results.

Fantasy baseball is a glorious, six-month marathon, a typical season spanning roughly 2,430 games, 21,800 innings or 185,000 results of individual batter-pitcher matchups. That is a massive sample size with which random variance can grab hold.

For two great examples of this, look no further than the 2019 Oakland Athletics' roster, where Khris Davis, who played 150-153 games with a major league-leading 133 home runs while batting exactly .247 (when rounded to three digits) in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018, lost eight weeks to the injured list and batted only .189/.273/.304 with a 27.7% strikeout rate in 65 games after suffering a hip contusion as a result of running into an outfield wall last May 8.

Davis' example illustrates the broad-ranging ramifications of random occurrences, while his teammate, Mike Fiers, illustrates their impact upon small samples. Fiers, if you recall, threw a no-hitter last May 7 -- the day before Davis' injury -- after having entered the game sporting a 6.81 ERA in his first eight starts.

These unexpected results represent the "noise" that successful fantasy baseball managers need to ignore, unfortunate bounces that have no bearing on the decision-making process. Frankly, we have no right to expect a damned thing from our fantasy baseball teams. We can only align the pieces in the best way to maximize our championship hopes, but then we need good fortune to put us over the top.

That's not to discount the potential lessons to be learned from our mistakes -- and those come from both victory and defeat -- but the point is that no matter the outcome, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to the process.

I attribute my process to having won five experts league titles, which included three consecutive Tout Wars championships from 2012 to '14 and two LABR titles (2002 and 2008), as well as several runner-up finishes in either league since.

Come join me on this wonderful, wacky journey.

I'm going to be wrong sometimes, and so are you!

Accounting for those unfortunate bounces, a fantasy baseball manager effectively has no right to expect success much more often than 60-65% of the time. In my experience, that's the target range. Exceed it, and you'll probably win your league and might in fact run away with your victory. Fall short, and you might need to revisit your approach.

One way I can illustrate this is to recount my own track record evaluating players. As I often do in this space, I compared my rankings from each of the past five seasons to the final Player Rater results in those years, which you can see in the chart below. The first two columns show the number of players I ranked within the top 250 overall (the "roster-worthy" pool for ESPN standard leagues) who finished within that group, while the final two columns show the number of players whom I projected right on target, meaning finishing within 50 spots of my ranking.

That 63% number reflects the degree of variance you should expect with your own teams, which also illustrates the aforementioned success rate as well as the amount of in-season roster management you'll need to do in order to shore up roster shortcomings. My high-water marks for these were 65% (2012) and 40% (2013), two of my Tout Wars championship seasons, which again shows how much of the chores in those campaigns involved in-season roster management.

The 34% number, meanwhile, shows how much you should be relying on your bold predictions paying off. While it's admirable to go out on a limb with every pick, locking yourself into only one, fixed outcome puts you at much greater risk of failure. Flexibility is paramount, which we'll get to in the draft-day approach section.

Again using my own track record to illustrate, let's pull some of last year's "Bold predictions." Here are five key predictions I got exactly right:

  • Rafael Devers will hit 30-plus homers and finish higher on the Player Rater than both Miguel Andujar and Matt Chapman.

  • Josh Donaldson will hit 30 home runs on his way to running away with the National League's Comeback Player of the Year award.

  • Austin Meadows will break through in a big way, filling all five traditional Rotisserie categories on his way to a top-25 outfielder finish on the Player Rater.

  • Jorge Soler will bat at least .260 with 25 home runs. (Talk about an understatement; Soler nearly doubled that home run prediction.)

  • Brandon Woodruff will lead the Milwaukee Brewers in strikeouts.

Conversely, here are five predictions I got horribly, horribly wrong:

  • The Marlins will place more pitchers among the Player Rater's top 75 fantasy starting pitchers than will the Atlanta Braves. (The Braves placed four -- Mike Soroka, Shane Greene, Max Fried and Luke Jackson. The Marlins? Zero.)

  • Trevor Bauer will win the American League's Cy Young Award.

  • Trevor Rosenthal will save more games than Sean Doolittle. (Rosenthal failed to retire any of the first 10 batters he faced, and had a 22.74 ERA in his 12 Nationals appearances.)

  • Byron Buxton will finally enjoy the 20-homer, 30-steal season that so many had predicted from him since he was made the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft.

  • Giancarlo Stanton will hit at least 50 home runs.

Sense a common thread? Each of these predictions represented a strong opinion of mine with supporting evidence of the players' skills as its foundation. The failures aren't there to scare you off from taking a stand; they're merely there to keep your predictions grounded in reality. But if you're to truly separate yourself from the competition, you're going to need similarly bold calls in order to identify values.

Don't fall prey to 'position scarcity'

It wasn't long ago that fantasy baseball managers aggressively drafted middle infielders, under the belief that the two positions included, second base and shortstop, dried up in talent more rapidly than the others. First base, by comparison, was considered exceedingly deep, and one at which to wait.

No longer.

Judging by 2019 returns, shortstop was actually the richest fantasy position, though the differential between it and some of the others wasn't significant enough to mount a position-scarcity case. To illustrate, let's use Player Rater data, and specifically the "score" with which we grade each player. One of the Rater's benefits is that it doesn't weight for positional impact, meaning that 20 home runs for a catcher is scored the same as 20 home runs for a third baseman.

The chart below breaks down value earned by players at each position last season, totaling those Player Rater scores for all who qualified at each spot. To explain the categories, "Starters' Earnings" is the total score by each of the top 10 catchers, top 15 at each infield position (for these purposes, let's assume five apiece at first and third base comprise corner infield, and the same for second base and shortstop at middle infield), top 50 outfielders, top 60 starting pitchers and top 30 relief pitchers. "Average Player" is the average, per-player score among the aforementioned groups, "Positive Earners" are the total number of players at each position who had a positive score and "Premium Players" are those who earned a premium score -- we'll use 7.50 for this, as roughly 50-70 players per year ever get to that threshold -- at each position.

Catcher, obviously, is the weakest position in fantasy baseball by far, which you might've guessed considering it had the worst positional batting rates of any non-pitcher spot (.238/.309/.408) across the majors. But before you theorize that grabbing a top catcher is therefore imperative, consider this: last year's No. 1 catcher, J.T. Realmuto, finished with a worse Player Rater grade than the No. 16 shortstop (Fernando Tatis Jr.), the No. 15 relief pitcher (Alex Colome) or even the No. 9 first baseman (Anthony Rizzo). Catchers simply don't provide you close to enough production -- nor the playing time amounts needed to drive huge counting numbers (RBIs and runs especially) -- to warrant selecting ahead of even middling picks at the other positions.

While the catcher position did enjoy a bit of an uptick in both on-field and fantasy production in 2018, another key takeaway was that many of 2019's most profitable for our purposes were players whom no one saw doing so. Two of the top 10 positional finishers went almost entirely undrafted in ESPN leagues (No. 4 Mitch Garver and No. 8 Omar Narvaez), as did five of the top 20 (add Nos. 15 Tom Murphy, 17 Carson Kelly and 19 Josh Phegley), while 14 of the top 25 positional finishers were players who weren't even selected among its top 25 picks during the preseason.

That certainly supports a get-your-catcher-at-draft's-end strategy in 10-team standard (and potentially even 12-team) ESPN leagues.

As for the impact of those shortstops, this wasn't a one-year trend. Collecting 2018 Player Rater data, the shortstop position also had the high marks with an 8.28 per-player average score and eight premium players, and to contrast, first base had the low field-position numbers with 6.06 and 2 in those categories. You'd have to go back to 2017 before you'd find a season where shortstop fell into the "position scarcity" column -- it had the low mark as far as its per-player average -- but even in that season, second base graded one of the deepest.

Those trends support the middle infield spots as equally deep, if not deeper, to any of the other field positions. That shouldn't come as any shock: Of the 10 shortstops who placed among the position's top 15 on the Player Rater as well as in my current positional top 15 for 2020, eight will begin the season age 27 or younger. The position has also seen a recent influx of talent, including under-24 players Tatis, Gleyber Torres and Bo Bichette, all of whom make outstanding top-10 cases.

First base, by comparison, is probably as thin as it has ever been this century. Only 11 qualify for my top 100 overall, two of whom will play elsewhere in the field regularly this year (DJ LeMahieu and Max Muncy). Of those 11, five will begin the season age 30 or older and only Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso and Matt Olson, among those who look like true franchise chips, are age 25 or younger.

Now, these trends do have a way of shifting from season to season, often dramatically -- see the 2017-18 comment above -- but there's no more compelling evidence to not put any sort of positional weight into your draft-day plans, at least not in shallow mixed or standard leagues. Address shortstop as aggressively as you would outfield, and unless the price is right (or you're in a two-catcher league), wait on your backstop.

But to you dynasty-league managers: It might be a good idea to think about your long-term plans at first base, considering the current talent pool.

What was up with the baseball?

In case you hadn't heard, Major League Baseball set a single-season record for home runs in 2019, with 6,776.

We also saw the most home runs hit by a single team (Minnesota Twins, 307), allowed by a single team (Baltimore Orioles, 305), the most hit in a single month (August, 1,228) and the most 30-homer hitters (58, or nine more than in any prior year). One thing was clear: The baseball itself was springier than ever, at least until the postseason, when what was a 3.6% percent home run rate during the regular season dipped to 3.4%.

So what are we to expect in 2020? The answer is unclear, and it probably won't be so until the regular season -- or after the point we can address it in our drafts -- considering last year's spring training power returns provided minimal hints that such a power explosion was on the horizon. The league's spring training home run rate in 2019 was 3.2%, only slightly elevated from the 3.0% 2018 regular-season rate.

But keep this in mind: A rising tide lifts all boats.

The value of a single home run in 2019 was the lowest it has been in any season since 2001, which was the height of the steroid era. It took 41 homers for a top-10 finish in the category last season. By comparison, 32 homers earned a top-10 finish just five seasons earlier, the point at which an individual home run was the most valuable it has been this century. It might've been more important to address homers in 2019 than ever before simply to keep pace in the category, but they were also a much more abundant resource on the fantasy market. To use a cross-sport example, homers to 2019 were what quarterbacks have become in fantasy football.

Here was the greater takeaway: The stolen base became scarcer in 2019 than its ever been during the rotisserie era. The 2,281 totaled were the fewest since the 1994 strike year -- and you read that right, in a season shortened by more than one-third due to a strike, there were only 23 fewer steals than we saw in 2019 -- and the fewest in any non-interrupted season since 1973.

Fifteen steals in 2019, in fact, were worth more by Player Rater measures than 30 home runs, and last season was the first this century in which those weights were so extreme in that direction. Nine players enjoyed 20/20 seasons, spot on to the per-year average of those this century, but only 21 players stole as many as 20 bases, which was again the fewest since 1973. Power/speed players carried a substantial advantage in 2019 to any year that preceded it, and that's an angle to exploit at the draft table.

This means that you want the sluggers who can chip in a handful of stolen bases: Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, George Springer and Javier Baez are the types who can help you piece together the category while still driving your home run totals.

You should also scour the Statcast Sprint Speed leaderboard for potential values in the category: Tyler O'Neill, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Scott Kingery and Avisail Garcia are all players who graded much better than you might think.

Cheating is OK!

It's a taboo word this year, after the sign-stealing revelations regarding the Astros (and potentially other teams), but in fantasy baseball, there's no shame in cheating.

A cheat sheet is the most essential ingredient to your draft-day success, and you shouldn't short-cut it. Pick your format: Hard copy or digital, basic or painstakingly detailed, large type or four-point Zapf Chancery that abuses your retinas, but make this the most critical step in your draft preparation.

We provide you several simple options, which you can use as the entirety of your draft-day materials, or as a starting point to your own version: You can download our cheat sheets for several formats from here, or site rankings from here, but my favorite tool of all is the Custom Dollar Value Generator, which will allow you to enter your league's specifications to get a customized set of rankings and dollar values based off ESPN's projections. I utilize the latter for every league in which I play, even if I make my own adjustments to it to suit my own player preferences.

Given the choice, I'll take a hard copy cheat sheet with plenty of detail. Oh, I'll have my laptop with me at any draft or auction, but that's there to help track my competition's roster and available budget, not to mention serve as a backup in the event I need to search my cheat sheet. I prefer the printed sheet to the digital copy, though, because it's easier to navigate the entirety of the player pool, quickly crossing off names and jotting down notes, than it is to highlight lines, delete names or type in notes.

Besides, there's another problem inherent with computers: the risk of crash and data loss, which would be catastrophic mid-draft.

My cheat sheets separate players into their eligible positions (and listed among all of their eligible positions), with one position per page, and contain the following columns: Player name, team, dollar value, dollars earned the previous year, dollars paid the previous year (if applicable), basic projections (generally the categories counted by the league) and a column simply titled "Notes."

Always include dollar values on your cheat sheet, regardless of whether your league is auction or draft format, and always price players in both dollars and cents rather than rounded to the nearest dollar. If this seems too time-consuming, again, remember that the Custom Dollar Value Generator can do that work for you. The reason for this is that placing a specific price on a player helps you quickly identify value tiers within a position. For example, a $19.46 priced Fernando Tatis Jr. is going to stand out more when compared to a $16.78 Javier Baez than if you had them $19 and $17, and knowing the extent of that gap when faced with only a few moments to make a decision within that particular position might make a world of difference.

Projections are a critical step in the draft-day preparation process, so feel free to manually adjust any you see fit after you run your league's specs through our Dollar Generator. If you're truly hardcore -- as I am and I always go this route -- craft your own projections and enter them into a dollar value calculator (or create your own, which you can with a little Excel knowledge and Google search creativity).

When creating your own dollar values, remember to account for every dollar available in your auction. This means that if you play in a 10-team league that uses a $260 cap -- that's the recommended amount I'd use if your league uses a draft format, as it is the most common amount used across the fantasy baseball industry -- your total player prices must equal $2,600.

Determine the percentage of your total budget you plan to spend on hitters and pitchers beforehand, which can come down to personal preference. Most leagues will spend roughly 65-70% on hitting as a whole, with experts leagues being notorious for having a higher percentage spent on hitting and more casual leagues tending to spend more on pitching. In the 2019 LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) experts league, the AL-only league spent 68.0% of its funds on hitting, the NL-only 69.2%. We use 65% as the default in the Dollar Generator, but I'd suggest 68% as a good starting point.

One note: If you use 68%, then in addition to your total players equaling $2,600 in value in the previous example, your hitters must also total $1,768 in value.

The dollars earned/dollars paid columns from the previous year also serve as handy reference points mid-draft/auction. If you've got a hold of last year's results -- this is always a good idea in long-standing leagues with minimal manager turnover -- one tip is to write the name of the winning manager next to the player's price or draft round, because it could signal that manager's affinity for the player, which is something you might be able to use in a bidding war.

As for the "Notes" column, this is a great place to jot down quick reference points for during your draft: strategic and/or nomination plans, high-ceiling or low-floor players, last-ditch targets at a certain position, players you know an opponent might overvalue, reminders or anything else. But keep them short! It's not the time to restart your draft preparation when sitting at the table.

Some examples of my notes for this year:

  • For Jose Altuve: " 'Cheaters' discount too extreme. Scoop up everywhere if still there beyond 30th pick."

  • For Fernando Tatis Jr.: "NFBC ADP soared into top 15 in February. Key early nomination."

  • For Josh Bell: "Note: Bet I can get him two rounds later than this."

  • For Joc Pederson: "Final 1B-eligible before talent level falls off cliff."

  • For Diego Castillo and Michael Lorenzen (my local points league with SP/RP designations): "Closer-capable and with SP eligibility. Stash in reserve rounds.

  • For Will Smith: "Protect investment; only bid if Mark Melancon comes at reasonable handcuff rate."

  • For Garrett Hampson: "Favorite bargain speedster. Could add SS to the eligibility mix."

  • For Luis Arraez: "Good late-round AVG target if weak in category."

Tristan's winter calendar

I'm a realist.

You probably play fantasy football, or fantasy basketball, or fantasy hockey, or perhaps all three (which is great!). The early phases of the baseball offseason might not feel like the right time to prepare, with those other priorities. Still, there's always someone out there who is thinking baseball 365 days a year, and it's why I write, every year, that such a thing as the "offseason" doesn't exist.

The less you do in the six months between Opening Day and the regular-season finale, the more you'll need to do in the days leading up to your draft. Did pulling an all-nighter to cram for that final exam during your school days work out well?

Here are the steps I take during the offseason, with my own schedule for them. Feel free to adjust them as you wish to meet your scheduling demands, but make sure to address any of the key elements.

October: Rest (a week or so), review, revel in playoff baseball. What lessons might you have learned from the most recent season? It's best to examine those while they're still fresh in your mind.

November: Winter player analysis, as it's the best time of year to do initial player research, before players begin changing teams on a frequent basis, so that you're ready to react and adjust for those moves. 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" -- hence the column title. This file is the most important ingredient for my championship quests.

December: Transaction reactions, though this can also span into November, January and February.

January: Projections (if applicable) and rankings. Yes, I traditionally publish my first set of next-season's rankings at the conclusion of the previous season, 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 roles begin to come into focus.

February: Track spring news and identify players you'll be watching. One place to get updates is our ESPN Fantasy Player News feed. But don't get caught up in the annual rash of mid-February "I'm in the best shape of my life" comments from players.

March: Track draft trends, watch spring games and finalize draft sheets. Don't get caught up in spring stats, though, as many 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. The only relevant spring stats 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.

Mid-March is also the time that ADPs (Average Draft Position) firm up. It's always a good idea to check seven-day trends 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.

Draft value, value, value.

Don't get cute on draft day.

Some people believe you need a creative strategy in order to win your fantasy baseball league, but most such strategies force an angle that minimizes your chances of maximizing the value of your roster. Here's the best strategy: Draft value. Period.

This is why process is so important. If you did your homework and have detailed projections, rankings and dollar values, drafting value is easy. It's your team. You can bring someone else's cheat sheet to the draft -- even ours -- but then you're selecting ESPN's ideal fantasy baseball team. If you don't agree with something we've written, then change it!

In an auction, try to get every player for no more than your 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. A player like Adalberto Mondesi, who is as likely to win the league's stolen-base title by more than 20 as he is to miss 50 games while on the injured list, might warrant a bid in excess if you're in need in the category. With the exception of examples like Mondesi, or the very best players in the game, don't overbid. Remember, if you put the requisite research into your player prices, then there's no reason to stray far from them at the auction table.

In a draft, try not to dig more than one to two 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 -- the lure of a position run is often a trap -- but there's no reason to draft Matt Chapman to a team as your DH/utility when you took Rafael Devers and Jose Ramirez in the earlier rounds, not if Carlos Correa is on the board and it's the seventh round. The same applies to stolen bases, where you're in the greatest danger of getting cornered into having to overspend on single-category speedsters like Jarrod Dyson, Dee Gordon or Mallex Smith.

The late rounds are where you'll often find the greatest bargains, especially since in many drafts, it's the stage when some of your competition is most likely to be focusing attention on post-draft activities. Hey, we're all human. Grab an extra cup of coffee, stay focused and invest the same amount of attention to your 25th-round pick as to your first-rounder. That goes for auctions, too, where people often forget -- or worse, don't care -- about their roster needs or budgeting in the endgame.

Consistency, focus and readiness are central to your process.

From there, luck grabs hold, and with just a little of it, you'll get the right result: a league championship.

Best of luck to you this season.