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Friday 23rd Feb 2018

Know your league’s rules. It is a very simplistic message, already obvious to all. Yet, even industry people lose sight of it sometimes. Even those who write columns about rules.

As I type this, the Colorado Rockies are playing the best baseball in the National League, as evidenced by their 14-6, .700 record. They are carrying a four-game winning streak and have earned identical home and road 7-3 marks.

The Rockies pitching staff, a group most wise fantasy owners are conditioned to avoid, has logged a cumulative 3.61 ERA, second in the NL only to the vaunted arms of the New York Mets.

In this young season to date, I have rostered three of Colorado’s starting pitchers in NL LABR, the League of Alternative Baseball Reality. Given the above success of the team, and their pitching in particular, it should be good news, right?

Not so. As we are so often reminded, fantasy is not the same as reality.

You see, I picked the wrong three Rockies arms in which to invest.

In no small part due to these bad decisions, I am dead last in the league in both ERA and WHIP, despite my team being ranked seventh overall. Where did I go so wrong so quickly?

I am hardly the only industry analyst who felt Jon Gray was on the verge of a breakout season - to the point I was willing to place the winning bid of $9 back on March 5 in Phoenix. Unfortunately, Gray made three no-decision starts before suffering a stress fracture in his foot, originally thought to be a toe injury, which has put him on the shelf for at least a month.

On draft day, chasing value, I pushed my luck a bit by going $3 on Tyler Anderson. At that point, I was going off the lefty’s solid 2016, during which he posted a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts. His spring training went on to be ok (4.08 ERA) – with nothing that prepared me for his ugly start to the regular season – a 7.32 ERA through four starts.

I cut Anderson for a setup reliever this week and undoubtedly waited too long. On the other hand, one might wonder if I am guilty of early-season panic, but I prefer to consider it self-preservation.

My third Rockies hurler, rookie Kyle Freeland, tempted fantasy owners with six innings of one-run ball at Dodger Stadium in his MLB debut on April 7. I rushed out and bid $2, at least as happy to throw failed Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez over the side. By then, Gomez’ ERA was 15.00, but hey, I got one save.

Freeland’s second outing, the first on my roster, delivered the cold, hard reality check. Still on the road, against the tanking (er, rebuilding) San Diego Padres, the lefty was hammered for six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings, a lusty 11.57 ERA. Immediately, off my roster he went in Week 3. Since then, Freeland has thrown 11 innings, allowing just one earned run. Yet, he remains on the NL LABR waiver wire. That says something.

Even if a pattern of sometimes pitching well could emerge that would have enabled me to consider streaming Anderson and/or Freeland, that avenue is blocked. The practice of streaming pitchers is not allowed in LABR. The only way to bench and keep a player is if he is injured or sent to the minor leagues.

Although I knew this rule coming in to the draft, I never thought Anderson’s performance would degrade so badly so quickly. So far, Freeland has three good outings to just one bad, but the fact that the ugly one stained my record has served as a painful reminder of the downside of chasing wins.

Well, those habits are hard to lose completely. This week, I tried to pick up Phillies rookie starter Josh Elfin, but my $2 bid fell just short, on a tiebreaker. It is just as well. Despite now going with four starters and five relievers, I will probably be better off with Cardinals reliever Matt Bowman, anyway.

My message is a simple one. Don’t chase lower-odds scenarios hoping to force fit the big score. Be satisfied with smaller incremental moves rather than trying to create a big bang – unless you are pretty confident that the guy you are after is going to come through.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

Understanding your league rules - as well as unwritten practices - can pay off.

This past week, a combination of stalling on my part and a fortunate trap door opening enabled me to secure a FAAB rebate on an injured player who looked to be out for the season, but had not yet been placed on the disabled list.

Late in the National League Tout Wars draft - held in late March after I had been to both Arizona and Florida to catch as many spring training games as possible - I threw out Phillies starter Clay Buchholz for a dollar and got crickets. After all, most at the table had probably been burned once or more during his prior life with the Boston Red Sox.

In making my dollar bid, I rationalized the choice by noting that Buchholz’ Grapefruit League ERA was just 2/3 of a run worse that staff “ace” Jeremy Hellickson, all the while ignoring the fact the actual numbers were 6.63 and 5.92 respectively.

Given the reality of the situation, I just could not bear to start Buchholz this season. That proved wise after he flamed out to a 12.71 ERA through two starts. But by keeping him, I left myself with no in-week flexibility.

Tout allows mid-week substitutions, so when Junior Guerra went down on Opening Day, I could have replaced him the next day. However, Buchholz was my only reserve and I could not bring myself to activate him. (In all honesty, I created this limitation myself because I used three of my four reserve spots on minor league prospects, but that is a different story for another day.)

Just before I was going to finalize my decision to cut Buchholz, he was injured. The injury occurred last Tuesday, so I was fine to hold him for a few days until I could pick up a $10 FAAB rebate. However, five days later, the Phillies had still not placed him on the disabled list, the requirement for a FAAB claim.

As the weekly deadline approached, Buchholz was still in limbo. His injury appeared to be severe, a torn flexor tendon, yet the team had not made its roster move. I was in a bind, as I needed to get Colorado’s Tyler Anderson (8.59 ERA) out of my lineup with starts ahead this week against the Dodgers and Nationals.

But I had no one to plug in without acquiring a pitcher via the weekly free agent bidding process. I decided to go for it and if I had to burn my $10 FAAB reclaim and drop Buchholz before he went on the DL, so be it.

I had a way to buy myself more time, though. Tout allows free agent bids to be placed on Sunday night without contingent releases being defined. Owners are allowed until Monday’s first pitch to make their rosters right.

During the day on Monday, an opening was created for me when the Marlins designated Tyler Moore for assignment. The bad news is that he was my corner infielder. The good news is that I could temporarily fill his spot with one of my minor league stashes, Cody Bellinger. I made Moore my immediate drop, enabling me to hold onto Buchholz and bench Anderson as well.

Sure enough, on day seven, the Phils finally put Buchholz on the DL. Though the move was retroactive to April 15, it did not help me, as my weekly deadline had passed. In the new week, I released him and put in my claim, with $10 coming back to me after next week’s FAAB bidding, per league rule.

I will get zero stats from Bellinger this week (unless the unlikely occurs and he is called up), but now that Buchholz is out of my life, I can acquire a replacement corner infielder next weekend and move the Dodgers prospect back to my bench.

Hey, it is only $10, but that could be the difference later on between winning and losing a key free agent bid. I was able to get my money back by being patient and creative as well as fortunate.

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

Having not carried three sons into this world as my wife did, I can only report on post-partum depression from the other side of the marriage equation. However, I had been experiencing a fantasy baseball version of those feelings this very week.

Instead of being delighted by the first week of Major League play and energized by the first round of free agent bidding in my various leagues, I find that I badly missed the excitement brought on through my March drafts. That was both from the actual selecting of players as well as the camaraderie of friends and league competitors.

What snapped me out of my doldrums was the notification of the start of Tout Wars Daily competition for 2017. But this is a different kind of daily game. It is a monthly and annual one, as well, all rolled together.

As I have discussed before, there are multiple reasons I have not jumped into standard DFS play with both feet. The most important is that I refuse to be mediocre - and being among the best does not occur by accident. Hard work is required and that takes time I do not have to allocate to DFS.

Another reason is that I get little satisfaction beating anonymous screen names. I highly value the competition against friends, whether from the industry or personal life.

Finally, money is nice, but it is not why I play.

Again in 2017, my colleagues from Tout Wars are sponsoring this season-long tournament, Tout Daily. It is a bit of a misnomer, as our competition is just one day per week. Each Friday, we will set a lineup for the day and our results will be one-fourth of the month’s scoring.

The top three scorers in each four-week period, from a pool that consists of three or four dozen competitors, will receive a ticket for the finals. Following the fifth four-week contest, those who have earned tickets receive entry to the one-week Tout Daily Championship.

In 2016, I performed well in the marathon only to fall disappointingly short in the final sprint. During the five four-week contests, I had earned two entries in the finals, tying two others with multiple berths.

Though there was nothing other than bragging rights attached, I just missed amassing the top total score over all 20 weekly contests. On a base of 1060 points over the season, I finished second by a minuscule 1.03 points to fast-finishing Todd Zola, my Mastersball partner.

Ultimately, in the finals, I fell short of winner Patrick Davitt of BaseballHQ, finishing fourth and eighth, respectively, among the 15 entries from 12 entrants. In an indication of how close the battle was, my fourth-place lineup was just 5.66 points behind Davitt.

I am delighted to participate again in 2017. In fact, even though there is cash involved, to be honest, I would put the same emphasis into winning for free.

I encourage all of you to approach your season-long league competitors and start a one-day per week DFS league. Whether it follows the Tout Daily format or one of your own choosing does not matter.

If you are looking for an easier way to stick your virtual toe in the water, we have the ideal vehicle! Our own Lord Zola plans to announce a Tout Daily-like free competition for Mastersball members. Watch the site for more information in the upcoming days on details and get ready to join us. You will not regret it!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

We all know superstition is a big part of professional baseball, whether Wade Boggs’ pre-game meal of chicken or Pedro Cerrano’s voodoo doll Jobu from “Major League”.

Who is to say we fantasy players don’t have our own idiosyncrasies?

This came to mind with the 2017 Major League season just a few days old. In an e-mail exchange with my partner Lawr Michaels, he made a joke that spurred this article.

The two-time American League Tout Wars champion wistfully noted that both his Tout Wars and LABR squads were in first place. For that reason, Michaels wished the season could end right there.

My reply was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I admitted that I purposely had not yet checked the standings in any of my leagues. Lawr was disgusted with my answer while being unapologetic for his focus on the standings - even before any MLB team had gotten through its rotation a single time.

The reason is a logical one. After all, by its very name, the game is about fantasy, not reality. Michaels sees this as the one place in his world where he can obsess with no real impact or ramifications.

“Ugh. I cannot not look,” he said. “Fantasy is where I am allowed no self-control and all the second guessing I want. Just ideally nowhere else in life.”

Later on, he clarified his view.

“I am pretty clear the early results mean nothing,” Michaels said. “However, I like playing deep tough formats, and every day of play and every at-bat matters, so I certainly track the play of all my rosters carefully, especially early in the season to see if my guys look like they have jobs.

“But, I have always loved looking at box scores and lines and transactions, so really, checking my players and teams is just an offshoot of that fascination. At least that is the rationalization/excuse I have,” he concluded.

In my case, it isn’t that I am superstitious about looking at the standings. I just don’t want to get fixated on it so soon. Of course, I bid on and acquired players in the first free agent periods in all leagues to plug gaps.

I do, however, subscribe to the theory to give one’s drafted players a chance to produce. The time-honored tradition of sitting down over Memorial Day weekend to take stock of the roster is one I agree with.

That doesn’t mean that one can sleep on emerging free agents and not be poised to jump on mistakes by others.

I am still stinging over an unintended assist I gave Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus on route to his NL Tout victory in 2015. On draft day, I had spent a few bucks on Jeremy Hellickson, as the right-hander moved to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Through mid-May, Hellickson was lugging around a 5.92 ERA and taking my Tout hopes down with him. Disgusted, I cut him loose. Gianella swooped in and from there through the remainder of the season, his new acquisition posted a 4.17 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 93 strikeouts in 108 innings. It probably was not the season-maker or breaker, but it was the kind of mistake one remembers in a failed year.

Wondering if my reluctance to start standings-watching this soon is a complete anomaly, I asked the view of my Mastersball peers. Here are some of the replies.

For Todd Zola, there are administrative requirements to be on top of.

“I neither avoid nor check,” he replied. “If I see the standings as a matter of course, I'll look but I don't go to the scoring site just to check out the standings.

“I've moved a couple leagues over to a new commissioner service, so I'm monitoring to make sure it's doing what it's supposed to be doing, but short of that, it's all about replacing injured players and upgrading reserves, if possible,” Zola concluded.

Pasko Varnica is planning a major trip soon and thinks he could be distracted.

“Interesting. I thought about this very subject today,“ he said. “I asked myself why I am not checking the standings as I usually do. I concluded that it's probably because my upcoming trip is keeping my mind away from baseball.

“Here is my view: with such a small sample, many games postponed and such, I am more interested in individual performance up to now than the totals of standings. And specifically, my pitchers' performance. Are the basics, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts been fine in their first game? If so, then my team is ok,” Varnica noted.

Patrick Wisniewski’s league has a format that demands patience.

“I started doing this kind of stuff in my early 20's, when I used to live and die by the daily results,” he said. “As I've gotten older, I’ve learned patience is the key in baseball and to not waste all my moves by Memorial Day. My work league has a moves cap of 50, extended to 70 this year. Now I try to go to the 4th of July.”

Usage patterns and roles are first and foremost on Marc Meltzer’s mind.

“I am paying attention to the early season games to see how players on my team are being used,” he said. “Between potential platoon guys and wanna-be closers and making sure guys I am counting on are in the right situations.

“I don't really care about the specific league standings. I am also assessing my starting pitching with a close eye on waiver wire for guys who might have been overlooked on draft day,” Meltzer said.

Zach Steinhorn closes with an especially wise piece of advice.

“Although I'd be lying if I said that I ignore the standings entirely during the first few weeks (who doesn't like seeing their team gain 25 points in one day?), the standings really mean very little,” he said.

“I spend a lot more time studying box scores and identifying potential waiver wire pickups that could help to address a positional or categorical weakness that concerned me coming out of the draft. I also think it's important to resist the urge to make panic trades in April,” Steinhorn said.

So there you have it. Some good advice to focus on the basics early in the season, maybe even a harmless peek at the standings. But the time for wholesale changes, trade talk and wheeling and dealing should still be in the future.

Give your team a chance to deliver on the promise it showed you on draft day!

Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

This past weekend was the culmination of the annual industry draft season with Tout Wars, held in New York City. I am back for 2017 with the goal of winning my second National League-only title against some very challenging competitors, including defending champion Todd Zola of Mastersball.

I am not going into a player-by-player analysis of my draft. Since I don’t find it all that interesting to recap myself, I am guessing it would not be too enlightening to you, either. (However, you can reference all of the Tout drafts via this Google doc.)

Not unlike many of your leagues, perhaps, most of the NL Tout participants have been at this for many years. Couple that with their strong knowledge of the player base and the fact that a number of industry leagues in which we participate have already been held, it means there really are not that many secrets.

In fact, one of my industry friends told me that because I had already drafted a team in NL LABR, my 2017 strategy, player and pricing preferences were known.

That was not the case. For example, I went with one of the top catchers in Tout, Willson Contreras, for $16, after spending just half of that combined on my catchers in LABR. That required me to spend less on one of my outfielders in Tout. There was some risk here because the under-$10 outfield pool was thin.

Even if that was not the situation, I always try to keep enough cash at the end to avoid dollar days. The main reason is that I want to be able to get the best players in the end game without being repeatedly picked off by others. Of course, as in everything, moderation is needed or one could end up leaving cash (and stats) on the table.

In the late part of the draft, I was pleased to acquire Michael Saunders ($7) and Andrew Toles ($6) to complete my outfield. This part of my plan worked especially well as I had $3 remaining for my final player, which I successfully bid on who I consider the best power prospect who should come up this season, Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers.

Looking back, one wouldn’t have learned much about my supposed favored players. I have just five common names across both Tout and LABR and none are what I consider core players – Jose Reyes ($14), David Peralta ($16) and Toles along with pitchers Jon Gray ($13) and Tyler Anderson ($2).

While there are always players I like better than others, there is no one I would pursue at all costs. For example, I had hoped to acquire Carlos Martinez to anchor my staff, but I backed out of the bidding when it became clear I would have to pay at least $27 and perhaps even more.

My primary strategy is to establish a core group of players from among a group of candidates and then look for value the rest of the way. I do not come in with the intention to punt any categories, though my OBP may require intervention.

Another tenet I follow is to avoid the peak-price players (generally over $30). Even so, my core as drafted is solid. They include a steals leader, Dee Gordon ($26), an OBP and power threat in Christian Yelich ($28), an ace in Jake Arrieta ($22) and a top closer in Mark Melancon ($20). This gives me a good start at a balanced performance.

Another important factor in an only-league is to maximize counting stats. On offense, that means getting 14 players with clear starting jobs. Finding hitters via waivers in-season who can contribute can be quite challenging. On the pitching side, I go starter-heavy. I may have to jettison one or two down the line, but my experience is that setup men with good ratios are always available on the waiver wire.

From a budget perspective, I came in with a general plan as to how much I would spend for each position based on potential target players, but use that as a guideline rather than a strict rule. In terms of hitting-pitching balance, I planned for a $182-$78 split and ended up at $185-$75. The league average was $183-$77. However, two of my colleagues were at the opposite extremes.

Defending champion Zola went heavy on pitching, spending $103 on arms, while Phil Hertz of BaseballHQ allocated $201 for offense. I asked each about their respective strategies.

Zola did not plan for this mix, but went where he saw value, keeping a mind toward trading later. (I did the same thing in acquiring steals.)

“I spent an extra $15-$20 on pitching which can be accounted for in two areas: Madison Bumgarner and a third closer,” Zola said. “I budgeted about $20 for my staff anchor, but when MadBum came in a few bucks under where I expected him to land (bought at $29), I decided to take that and not risk the next tier selling higher than expected. The plan at that time was to take away $10 from the rest of the staff, but it obviously didn't work out that way.

“The third closer was taking what the market gave me. I already had Seung Hwan Oh and Raisel Iglesias. After buying Iglesias, my thinking was to nominate every remaining saves candidate so no one would go really cheap. Then I realized if someone does go cheap, why shouldn't I be the recipient?

“There's obviously trading and it's really hard to get a surplus in a category from which to deal. Maybe I have more confidence that Brandon Maurer fends off Carter Capps, but if proven correct, I have a commodity to deal. If no one else trusts Maurer to hold the job, I can even deal Oh and compete in saves with just Iglesias and Maurer,” Zola concluded.

Hertz came in with a plan and executed it.

“I used ‘total control drafting’ in that I decided in advance to spend $205-210 on hitting and $50-55 on pitching,” Hertz said. “I targeted several players, notably Kris Bryant ($37), Billy Hamilton ($26) and Freddie Freeman ($39), as guys I wanted to build my team around. I also decided to neglect catching and in all likelihood saves.

“Regarding Hamilton, I decided that I would get him early -- he was the second guy I threw out -- and if successful, then I could pretty much 'ignore' speed the rest of the draft. I actually got him for less than I budgeted, which allowed me to go higher than my budget on Freeman.

“On the pitching side, my plan was to get two mid-tier starters, two or three upside starters, and then some guys who had a shot at closing at some point this year. I thought that would cost me $50-55. I spent a little more, in part because I wound up with three second tier guys (although one is Steven Matz and that money might be a waste).

“I was also very happy with the upside options I wound up with, including Wily Peralta in the reserve rounds. On the save side, I got what I wanted -- indeed right now I'm projected to get four points in saves, since three other owners wound up with even less in that realm than I,” said Hertz.

So there you have it – a look into how I approached the NL Tout draft as well as a view of two peers who had very different approaches. May you apply that which can help you and ignore the rest. No matter what, here is hoping you have successful drafts this spring!


Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter @B_Walton.

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