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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tout Wars Mixed 2011, Part II: Going to the Well Early and Often

The Tout Wars auctions were held this March in the beautiful New York headquarters of MLB Advanced Media, atop the Chelsea Market, overlooking the Hudson River.  MLBAM is responsible for the maintenance of the wildly successful and, as well as contributing to the MLB Network, now in its third season.  Their offices are befittingly sleek and state-of-the-art, but not free of the tendency towards corny fanboyism which seems a requisite for the baseball-obsessed.  The decor tends towards red, white, and blue.  There's enough figurines and signed memorabilia to make an Applebee's manager envious.  The central conference room forgoes the corporate chic of sharp lines, plate glass, steel, and leather for corrugated pine and aluminum.  From the outside it looks a little like an inverted waffle cone.

Inside, on this particular morning, it was crowded.  Fifteen participants in the Mixed League auction were joined by an auctioneer, several Baseball HQ employees, and a variety of interested observers, including fantasy baseball celebs like Ron Shandler and Lawr Michaels.  As you might expect, there were nearly as many screens as people.  In addition to a 50-inch flatscreen which adorned the front of the conference room, on which the official results were being entered, each participant had a laptop, as well as, in many cases, a Blackberry.  The final minutes of draft preparation produced a clicking cacophony.  Several owners put the finishing touches on customized draft software which, from what I could tell, as the draft unfolded, automatically updated their pricing structures to compensate for increasing positional scarcities and cycles of inflation and deflation.  Fancy stuff.

Thirteen people were crowded around the table at the center of the room, amidst them a nest of adapters, ethernet cables, auxiliary mice, and power strips.  Against the far wall, two apparent luddites rested their elbows on the small table they shared and looked on, seemingly bemused.  Nando Di Fino of the Wall Street Journal and Gene McCaffrey of Wise Guy Baseball chose to manage their auctions using that classic technology, pen and paper.  Coincidently, they both also went with a classic strategy, familiar to most as "studs and scrubs."

Nando, a stubbly, gregarious, and newlywed twenty-something treated McCaffrey, a grizzled fantasy veteran whose work is frequently spoken of in the hushed tones of acolytes, with the appropriate reverence.  Afterwards he told me McCaffrey's presence was perhaps his favorite aspect of the day.  As the auction proceeded, a copy of Wise Guy Baseball 2011 circulated the outer rim of the room and was perused with considerable interest.  But, respect did not keep Nando from bidding aggressively on many of the same players as McCaffrey in the early going, as both were extremely active.  By the time the first break came around, five rounds into a twenty-nine round auction, both McCaffrey and Di Fino had spent more than $200, far more than anybody using a computer.  Here's what they had to show for it:

Nando Di Fino:

1B Mark Teixeira $37
3B Evan Longoria $36
OF Josh Hamilton $29
SP Felix Hernandez $28
2B Dan Uggla $27
SP Jered Weaver $18
SP Zack Greinke $18
2B Chase Utley $11

Gene McCaffrey:

1B Adrian Gonzalez $37
2B Robinson Cano $31
SP Cliff Lee $23
SP Josh Johnson $20
RP Brian Wilson $20
OF Colby Rasmus $16
SP Matt Cain $15
SP Chris Carpenter $14
C Matt Wieters $10

I'll touch on their specific choices a little later, but for now I'll merely observe that each netted at least two players who would likely be "first-rounders" if this were a standard snake draft.  Also, in a year when the conventional wisdom was to "wait on pitching," because frontline pitchers are more plentiful following the so-called "year of the pitcher," both team have at least a trio of Aces.

Di Fino says, "I wasn't crazy about players in the middle rounds.  I liked a lot of second/third round type players, than liked a lot of 14-20th round players.  I just didn't care for the players in between.  There were literally two sheets in the middle of my draft pack that had no highlighted names.  Just a bunch at the start and a bunch at the end."

Obviously, at an auction, you can't predict when players will come off the board quite as effectively as you can at a draft, but it is still true that the best players usually go early.  In Tout Wars Mixed, only one player went for $30 or more after the first break.  Five rounds later, nobody was willing to spend as much as $20 on any one player, as pretty much all the premium talent was gone.

McCaffrey argues that mixed league auctions don't abide by a consistent, "rational" pricing structure, because there are so many more or less replacement level players available at the bottom of the player pool.  The depth of the player pool doesn't mean, as many players believe, that you should save money because there will still be big-league regulars and mid-range talent available in the late rounds, but rather you should be willing to bid even higher on uncommon talent and consistent production, because several decent players will simply "fall to you" at the end of an auction.

As you can see, though the tenor of their explanations is different, their rationales are pretty similar.  Both McCaffrey and Di Fino sat quietly through much of the middle of the auction.  Though they had the fullest rosters after five rounds of nominations, both were still unfinished we the auction reached round 25.  The players which "fell to them," costing $1 apiece, looked like this:

Di Fino:

C Jeff Mathis
C Chris Snyder
1B Matt LaPorta
1B Justin Smoak
OF Jonny Gomes
SP Brandon Webb
RP Joel Peralta


C Josh Thole
1B/OF Garrett Jones
2B Freddy Sanchez
OF Seth Smith
SP Brandon Beachy

While you may not get excited about any of the above, all of the position players begin the season with guaranteed playing time and several, especially Smoak, LaPorta, Beachy, and Smith have considerable upside.  It's very hard to predict that Smith or Gomes, playing nearly everyday in good lineups and hitters parks, will be worth substantially less than Jason Kubel ($11), Bobby Abreu ($10), Raul Ibanez ($6), and Nate McClouth ($6).

Though their strategies were similar, the early returns are very different.  Nando was willing to roll the dice on injury-risks with high upside.  To be fair, it's way too early to judge any team accurately, but Nando's D.L. is damn full with Longoria, Hamilton, Greinke, Utley, Webb, and Manny Ramirez all shelved.  McCaffrey on the other hand has had some good luck.  His lynchpins, Cano and Gonzalez, have picked up right where they left off.  Pablo Sandoval has started strong, as has Carlos Quentin, following down years.  The routinely unexceptional Seth Smith has been on fire.  Alexi Ogando and Brandon Beachy both made their teams' rotations, somewhat unexpectedly.

Is he lucky or good?  I'd bet on the latter.

Coming Soon...Interview and Analysis with Scott Swanay, The Fantasy Sherpa.


Mike Gianella said...

Did we get to say hello? I was sitting next to Gene for a while but mainly observing.

Gene McCaffrey said...

Hippeaux - Thank you for the compliments and this great piece. You nailed the spirit and the thinking of the thing. I wouldn't call it Stars & Scrubs though, more like Stars and Regulars and LH Platooners. I must tell you that in addition (subtraction) to no laptop, I didn't even have a price list. Well, I sez to myself, if there is no rational pricing structure, put your money where your mouth is and don't price them. So instead I ranked them, the way I do at the NFBC (which is the real experts' league BTW). Rank them, and be aware of the distinctions within the rankings. If you do that, and you never overpay for mediocrity, you can't be stopped from getting a good team in a mixed league.

PS Hippeaux do I know you? I'd like to.