ROTISSERIE: Too-Few-Keepers Strategy

Auction leagues with liberal keeper rules, including long keeper lists and very deep “Ultra” style reserves and minor-league systems, have many benefits. They especially reward the diligent owner who carefully manages for multi-year success.

But the flip side is that any given season is nearly impossible to win for owners who do not have abundant low-price keepers when they must compete against teams that do.

In leagues with liberal keeper rules, teams with few keepers often go into auctions so far out of contention that it can make sense to “dump at the auction.”  This strategy has two parts: gambling on a whole pile of sub-$3 speculative plays while bidding hyper-aggressively on the available stud players, with the express intention of dumping them as a fast-track to rebuilding.

Doing The Math

Let’s look at a hypothetical 12-team AL-only. Every team has kept players at an average salary of $10, but an average projected value (pVAL) of $15. The key difference is that the four best-positioned teams are freezing 15 players each, the four middle teams are freezing 10 players each, and the four least-well-positioned are freezing only five each.

|-----------Keep-----------|
   Players      Sal      Val   
==========   ======   ======
Best    60   $  600   $  900
Mid     40   $  400   $  600
Least   20   $  200   $  300
----------------------------
Total  120   $1,200   $1,800

Next, calculate the league inflation factor, using the formula
Inflation Factor = (Remaining Salary)/(Remaining Value)

= ($3,120-$1,200)/($3,120-$1,800)
= $1,920/$1,320
= 1.45 (45% inflation)

And finally, apply league inflation to the remaining salary to determine how much pVAL each team can expect to capture at draft, by dividing the league inflation factor into each team's remaining salary. Adding this expected draft pVAL to each team’s frozen value will tell us how much total value each team projects to end up with at the end of the auction:

   |-------To Get------|   Frzn    End
   Players    Sal    Val    Val    Val
   =======   ====   ====   ====   ====
Best     8   $110   $ 76   $225   $301
Mid     13   $160   $110   $150   $260
Least   18   $210   $144   $ 75   $219

Here we see the pernicious double whammy facing teams with few or poor keepers in leagues where some teams have a lot of good keepers: The bests start with more value rostered than the leasts, and the leasts' money advantage is reduced by inflation.

The leasts have a $100 advantage in salary-to-spend at auction, but inflation means $100 in extra auction cash only buys $68 in added value ($144-$76). And that $68 extra is $82 short of the $150 pVAL advantage the bests took into the auction. We see confirmation in the $301-to-$219 final value difference.

As a result, it will be very difficult for the middles, and all but impossible for the leasts, to compete in this league. And because they have no chance with a normal approach to auction, the leasts, in particular, should consider adopting a radically different approach.

Owner Response: Rebuilding Starts With Dump Planning

Every team can adopt multiple methods of rebuilding. The patient way is to slowly and methodically build up a farm system or reserve with adroit scouting and long-term planning. This method will pay long-lasting dividends and should be undertaken by any fantasy owner serious about being regularly competitive.

But that method is long-run, and in most leagues, requires an owner to pay into the prize pool each year with no hope of getting paid. it’s easy to accelerate the process through dumping. And that starts with having assets that other owners will want as the race in the league heats up and narrows to the handful of teams with legitimate shots at the pennant and the cash.

What are those assets? The best players. And since it stands to reasons that many of them will have been frozen going into draft, the few remaining studs will be scarce commodities.

Ordinarily, scarcity drives up prices, and inflation drives them up more. So we’d expect the bests to be aggressive buyers. But they can’t be – they have eight roster spots to fill, they can’t afford want to gamble on risky $1 and $2 endgamers, and they have far less cash-on-hand than the leasts.

Remarkably, many leasts owners forego their cash advantage at draft by trying to build balanced, relatively competitive teams, in the process ignoring that they are starting at huge value disadvantages.

Instead, they should be the ones bidding essentially whatever it takes to roster the prize studs in the auction, because they know they’ll be dumping  studs soon enough anyway, to jump-start rebuilding by acquiring the best teams’ excellent keepers (they must have them; that’s why they’re the best teams) and top prospects.

As well, the leasts should embrace their relative poverty by willingly rostering a huge number of $1 and $2 players – proto-closers, especially for bad MLB teams that might themselves be dumping well-established closers; fourth and fifth OFs and reserve IFs with skills, especially behind outbound free-agents or injury-prone regulars; and fifth and sixth starters.

Most of these speculative plays will not pan out, but they don’t have to. In our example, the leasts have five good keepers already. If they can add four or five more keepers through their auction speculation, one or two through the free-agent pool during the year, they can get up to the full complement with some judicious trades of those prize studs.

League Response: Keeper Rules Adjustments

One issue that arises from all of this is that the auction itself becomes extremely distorted, and much less fun and interesting. At the same time, dump trading grows in importance, which often causes bad blood and ill feeling among team owners, and the likelihood of collusion increases.

Over time, a league will find itself with auctions where stud players never go for reasonable prices, because eventually every rebuilder will see the sense in bidding $80 on the Matt Kemps and Ryan Brauns, with the clear intent of holding the front-runners to ransom in dumping deals.

Many leagues already impose artificial restrictions on dumping activity, most notably with “asterisk” rules about total value in trades and/or in-season salary caps. The problem with these rules is that they prevent the leasts from rebuilding, which can cause those teams to lose interest and eventually leave their leagues.

These keeper-league disparities, and the radical owner responses they should inspire, are systemic issues requiring systemic responses. And the main one for league interested in keeping the auction as the primary source of player acquisition (and owner interest) is:

Reduce the number or aggregate profit of keepers.

It’s pretty well established that the truest tests of owner auction skill are in non-keeper or “redraft” leagues, which require all owners to go into auction armed with no advantage beyond their knowledge and skills.

But keeper leagues are far more popular, and trying to get millions of owners to abandon them is a mug’s game. So instead, leagues might focus on reducing the effect of keepers, by reducing either the maximum number of keepers allowed or capping their profit according to an agreed valuation source.

In our example above, for instance, cutting the maximum keepers from 15 to, say, eight has a profound difference, reducing inflation to 23%, putting the bests and the middles on an even footing, and bringing the leasts to within $21 of the bests in projected total value – close enough to believe they can be competitive without engaging in radical bidding. (There might still be owners willing to try it.)

Similarly, reducing maximum retained player profit to, say, $40 in the example league has the same effect, while also allowing owners to manage their keepers to maximize either number of players kept (probably the wisest choice) or to target certain categories.

Another systemic response is to eliminate or modify any mechanism that allows owners to acquire and keep players at well under their true value. The primary such mechanism is farm drafts and deep “Ultra” reserves that allow owners to acquire young prospects with fixed salaries, usually well under bid value, and to keep them for years at those advantageous salaries.

It’s true that such systems benefit owners who are keen analysts of the MLB entry draft and who follow the minor leagues rigorously. It’s also true that value distortions relating to young players closely mirror “real” baseball, with its salary constraints on players in the early years of their careers.

But the “real baseball” argument is fatuous, unless the fantasy league also adopts the other side of the financial reality of MLB: no salary cap. And it’s also true that getting the best young-player values is largely a matter of luck, like having the first pick in the year when Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper is eligible for draft (often by virtue of the owner having bumbled his way to a last-place finish!), or grabbing a no-name in the ninth round of your farm draft while he’s still in high school and have him turn out to be Mike Trout.

The solution here is relatively easy, even if your league can't or won't adopt the obvious solution of eliminating farm drafts altogether: Raise the starting salaries of these "freebies" so that they are seldom worth keeping, especially long-term.

Conclusion

Fixing issues of competitive imbalance caused by keeper rules will be the result of how badly the owners in a league want to improve competitiveness. Chances are good that, at least in the early going, the resistance will be substantial.

If so, the reasonable response if you can’t compete is to do something different, like the “draft-to-dump” strategy outlined above. When that starts to become the standard practice (and it will), the league will come around and adjust its rules to make the game more fun.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.