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The Fantasy Draft: Strategy and Tactics in Serpentine Drafts

One would think that optimal drafting in a serpentine draft format is simple. When it’s your turn, you just take the player with the highest value in your spreadsheet. It turns out that this is not quite true. A few principles:

Mind the Gaps

There is a reason that you should keep your value spreadsheet available during the draft, even though your value-derived rankings should be freely available to you through the draft applet (if you have pre-ranked your players). It is important to know how big a dropoff there is in a given position, so that you can favor players whose value is especially high relative to the next few players on your draft list. For example: you are picking fifth in round one of a twelve team fantasy basketball league, with your next pick coming eighth in the second round, fourteen picks later. You are looking to pick one center and one power forward in the first two rounds. Your valuations of the top available centers are, in order, 200 points, 190 points, 150 points, 140 points, 135 points and 130 points. Your valuations of the top available power forwards are 215 points, 210 points, 208 points, 203 points, 195 points, and 185 points. By strict value you should pick the 215 point power forward. It is very probable that if you do so however, then when your second pick comes you will have to pick a center whose value is 150 points or fewer. If the best center available at that point turns out to be the one worth 140 points, then your two players total 355 points of value in aggregate. If you instead took the 200 point center with your first pick, it is likely that not all of the power forwards on your list will have been selected by the time it makes it back to your second pick. Even if all power forwards on your list are selected except for the one worth 185, your two players will be worth 385 points in aggregate. The key feature of this example is the differing size in the value gaps between these two positions – centers fall off much more quickly in this example than power forwards do, so it is worthwhile to get your center first to safeguard yourself against the otherwise weak pool at that position.

It is important to note that it is not only the gap immediately below the player which is significant – in the example above, the value gap below the top center was a relatively small ten points. The point of this tactic is to predict the quality of player at each position that will be available at your next pick, and to take the player whose value is highest relative to the player at the same position to whom you would have access at your next selection.

It is important to note that when measuring rate of dropoff, you should take into account the fact that you (and other teams) may need a larger number of players at a particular position. For example, it may be that your fantasy baseball team has one slot for a first baseman, and three slots for outfielders. When predicting how fast outfielder value drops off relative to that for first basemen, don’t forget that teams are going to be taking outfielders about three times as frequently.

Watch for the Runs

This is a special case of the Mind the Gaps strategy. There are certain positions that are infamous in fantasy for prompting “runs” on players at that position – like runs on banks or suddenly scarce commodities. The idea is this – let’s consider a position where the best five to ten players are all pretty close in value, but there is a sharp dropoff in the value of players ranked just below that top group. It might not make sense to draft one of those top players, because chances are decent that one of the other, almost equivalent, players will be available at your next pick. However, once one or two of the players in this top group gets selected, that sharp dropoff gets more imminent, and prompts managers to pick them sooner. As more managers pick from that top group, the dropoff gets even more immidiate, giving further encouragement to pick from that top group, until it is gone. The upshot of this is that these players will tend to get picked all at once. In fantasy baseball, relief pitchers are infamous for this kind of treatment. No manager will pick one for a round or two, then one gets selected and suddenly seven out of the subsequent nine picks are relief pitchers. What this means is that when you are calculating whether you should take a relief pitcher or not (or any position where value dropoffs show that basic “plateau” followed by “cliff” structure), you should recognize that this can be a very volatile situation. Don’t necessarily feel safe if there are four or five players available who are close in value and you have another selection after ten more picks.

Watch what managers need

This principle is simple. When trying to figure out what quality of player at different positions will be available to you at your next pick, pay attention to which teams will be drafting before it gets back to you. Those teams’ needs will define who gets selected between your picks. If in a fantasy football draft you are trying to decide between picking a quarterback and a wide receiver, and every team that will be selecting before you pick again already has their starting quarterback, then you should probably choose the wide receiver. The reason is that it is likely that none of those teams will take a quarterback, as they all have greater needs at other positions (including wide receiver). If that happens, then the quarterback pool at your next pick will be unchanged, while the best players available at wide receiver will probably be a little less attractive.

Similarly, if you happen to know that a particular manager likes a particular player or kind of player, don’t be afraid to take that information into account. For example, if your friend is in your fantasy hockey league, and you happen to know that he likes picking good defensemen, or he likes the Red Wings, then when you are trying to figure out who will be left after he selects, you should guess that there will be fewer defensemen or Red Wings available to you (and more goalies and forwards or non-Red-Wings). This principle isn’t a sure fire thing – managers can sometimes be difficult to predict – but you should use every piece of information at your disposal to help you manage your draft.

Never Overdraft a Sleeper

“Sleepers” are players that have the real potential to perform significantly better than people think they will, or at least significantly better than they did last year. Getting a sleeper late in the draft, who turns out to perform like a top pick, is the dream of every fantasy sports manager. The problem is that, as fantasy sports information and advice has become more and more available, everyone hears about the same sleeper picks. Everyone wants to be the smartest and most informed manager, and sometimes managers equate that with being the one who gets the sleepers. Because everyone has a similar sleeper list however, in order to get many of these guys a manager has to pick them fairly early in the draft. Often, in order to get one, a manager will draft a sleeper so high that the pick only makes sense if the player plays to their highest potential – and sleeper picks have associated risk, by definition. Try to draft players you think will be good, but don’t overdraft, and don’t ignore the risk that practically every sleeper pick entails.

Those are the basic strategies of the serpentine draft:

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