MLB.com experts strategize for season-long fantasy success
By Zachary Finkelstein
MLB.com's Fantasy 411 is the most comprehensive resource available for all things fantasy baseball. As draft prep and speculation heated up, four experts -- Fred Zinkie, Zachary Finkelstein, Cory Schwartz and Matthew Leach -- discussed their tactics for success. Get comprehensive daily and traditional fantasy coverage at MLB.com/fantasy, and follow @fantasy411 on Twitter.
To what extent do Spring Training stats influence your decision-making on draft day?
Zinkie: I try to put little emphasis on Spring Training stats. Even for a prospect or for a player recovering from an injury, the sample size is too small. In addition to the sample-size issues, the level of competition in Spring Training is inconsistent. A player could generate strong statistics against a group of competitors who will not populate Opening Day rosters.
Finkelstein: I look to spring stats moreso for rookies than veterans. If you are going to let spring stats inform your decision-making on draft day, you'll want to have a handle on the level of competition your prospective draftees have faced in Grapefruit and Cactus League play.
Schwartz: The general axiom is that spring stats don't matter, so I tend to look more for indicators of player health and opportunity: increased playing time, a more favorable spot in the batting order, a solid starting rotation spot or late-inning relief work. However, recent research by Dan Rosenheck has me looking more closely at changes in rate stats (slugging, strikeout and walk rates) for potential breakout players.
Leach: Stats? Virtually none at all. The only thing I really care about that you can find in Spring Training numbers is health. If a guy is playing, he's probably healthy. There's a notion that a big power spike in spring can be predictive, but even that isn't reliable. Is a guy healthy? And will he be playing regularly? That's about all you can even begin to rely on spring data for, when it comes to fantasy.
Do you have advice for contestants for the Beat the Streak grand prize ($5.6 million)?
Zinkie: Daily preparations should start with looking for high-average hitters who are facing mediocre starters in games that are played in hitter-friendly parks. Those criteria should narrow the options down to a few players, and then a decision can be finalized by looking at splits. In general, avoid players who draw a large volume of walks.
Finkelstein: Find an elite contact hitter with a platoon advantage for that day. Try to avoid someone who could walk multiple times and thus have fewer opportunities to get a hit.
Schwartz: Ignore batter vs. pitcher histories, which have been shown to have little to no future predictive value. Emphasize the best hitters every day, particularly when they have the platoon advantage and/or visit hitters' havens like Coors Field.
Leach: Ignore pitcher-hitter matchups, as tempting as they may be. Look instead at platoon matchups (which, among other things, can help dictate whether someone will start or not), park factors and even weather. But mostly, don't get too cute. Don't outthink yourself; get guys who get base hits.
Zinkie: I believe in Harper, because I expect him to match his 2016 effort and receive more help from his supporting cast. Harper is an exceptional talent who has developed excellent plate discipline. If the rest of the Nats' lineup enjoys better health this season, he could add a lofty RBI total to his other outstanding stats.
Finkelstein: Harper. He won the National League MVP Award last year in unanimous fashion and could see an uptick in RBIs and runs in 2016, as long as the Nationals' lineup enjoys better health. Last year, Washington's lineup saw Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span spend considerable time on the disabled list.
Schwartz: Trout, simply because he's had three straight seasons as a short-list elite player. Harper may indeed be better than Trout this year, but return on investment is just as important at the top of the draft, as is potential upside.
Leach: Can I just have the No. 2 pick instead? I think I like Harper more, because amazing as it is, I think there may be more for him to tap. Trout may be at his ceiling -- his annual-MVP-candidate, HOF-caliber ceiling, don't get me wrong -- while Harper may still have room to add, especially in batting average. But seriously, I'd rather just have the No. 2 pick and not have to decide.
Who will be this year's top breakout player
Zinkie: If he can stay off the disabled list, Drew Smyly could be a mixed-league ace this season. He has been dominant since joining the Rays at the Trade Deadline in 2014.
Schwartz: I'm going all-in this season on Rougned Odor. He struggled terribly to start last year, earning a demotion to Triple-A, but from the date of his recall through the end of the season, he had the third-highest OPS of any second baseman in the Majors. For a relatively small guy, Odor makes very hard contact, and he is in a good lineup in a favorable offensive ballpark. He's not ready for the elite yet, but he should return considerable profit this year.
Leach: This may be cheating, since he was awfully good already, but I absolutely love Mookie Betts. The combination of skills he showed last year, at the age he showed it, was historic. Some of those 42 doubles are likely to start turning into homers. Betts could certainly see a little bump in batting average. I could see the OBP coming up, leading to more runs and steals. Special player.
If you were Commissioner of all fantasy leagues, what's one rule you'd implement globally?
Zinkie: All leagues should have a punishment the following season for owners who do not maintain their active lineup through to the final day. I can live with last-place owners being less active on waivers or in the trade market, but they need to respect their more-successful competitors by fielding a full lineup. The loss of a draft pick could be a good motivator.
Finkelstein: I'd stop the global message-board "Player X is available. Send me trade proposal!" messages. It is a lazy way to start trade talks and, frankly, not in the interests of the owner trading. If the message remains up for a few days, the entire league will know that Player X did not generate strong interest.
Schwartz: If someone can show me a rule that will keep second-division players in non-keeper leagues active throughout the entire season, that's the rule I would implement. There's nothing worse for a re-draft league than having owners of poor teams stop paying attention as the season progresses.
Leach: I might ban trade vetoes. Seriously. At the least, ban them except in really extreme cases cases of impropriety. Somebody wants to make a terrible move? Let 'em.
Generally speaking, what percentage of your draft budget is allocated to hitters (with the remainder going to pitchers)?
Zinkie: In an auction, roughly 65/35. But if the league allows trading, I'm fine with moving off that target. In a draft, a simple plan is to draft hitters in three of the first four rounds and then mostly rotate evenly between hitters and pitchers the rest of the way.
Finkelstein: I am around 65/35. With so many good pitchers in the game today, fantasy owners will have a tough time competing in the arms categories without one or two good studs.
Schwartz: I'm a traditional 70/30 budgeter, sometimes spending up to 72 percent on hitters. Offensive players are simply more reliable and predictable than pitchers, so pitching is where you should shop for bargains and sleepers.
Leach: I'm probably 60/40, which tells you that I'm the biggest non-expert here. I understand the other approach, but I feel like it's awfully tough to fix a bad pitching staff in-season.
Name one advanced stat that every fantasy owner should know and use?
Zinkie: BABIP is an important stat to understand. It helps owners to predict when a player's batting average is likely to increase or decrease in the future. And a change in batting average can impact runs and RBIs. It should be noted that certain players tend to consistently maintain a high or low BABIP, depending on their skill set.
Finkelstein: Expected Fielding Independent Pitching -- commonly referred to as xFIP -- can be a fantastic predictor of future pitching performance. xFIP is predictive because its components are related closely to a pitcher's skill level and, thus, tend to be more sustainable than batted-ball luck or strand rate, which rely on external factors.
Schwartz: With the advent of Statcast™, I'm incorporating exit velocity into my decision making for hitters. This metric correlates very strongly with slugging percentage, so I'm looking for players who had strong EV numbers without great stats, which could indicate a profit opportunity this year.
Leach: I'm with Cory: exit velocity. I know teams pay attention to it, so I do, too.
Schwartz: Like everyone else, I'll try to get Corey Seager on as many teams as possible, but I'll be watching Trea Turner very closely. He hit for extremely high averages in the Minors and was an impact player on the bases, so if he wins the Nationals' everyday shortstop job, he could be a very inexpensive source of increasingly rare steals.
Finkelstein: Seager all way. He's the 64th-best player in MLB.com's Fantasy Player Preview -- fourth overall at shortstop -- despite having fewer than 100 career at-bats in the Majors. Seager has tremendous talent, a strong Minor League track record and a safe job as the Dodgers' shortstop. He could belt 20 homers with a combined RBI/runs total around 150.
Zinkie: Seager will cost a heavy price, so I will choose Tyler Glasnow. The success of rookie hitters last season was unusual, and I prefer to target rookie hurlers. The Pirates tend to do a great job with their pitchers, and they currently have Ryan Vogelsong in the final rotation spot. Glasnow could arrive during May and hit the ground running.
Leach: The honest answer here is Seager, but if everybody says the same thing, that doesn't help you much. So here's another guy I love. Technically, Steven Matz is still a rookie. A rookie with a safe rotation spot on a good team who has already shown he can get it done at the highest level. Yes, health is an enormous question. But Matz's ability is enormous.
When trying to make a fantasy trade, what's one thing every owner should keep in mind?
Zinkie: No player on your roster is off limits. If you want to make the best possible trade for your team, think creatively and be open to all possibilities. Every fantasy asset should be available for the right price.
Finkelstein: Think like the other owner. What does his or her team need? Starting the trade talks with, "Hey, I see your team needs X, and I can offer you Y," is a good way to pique your prospective deal partner's interest.
Schwartz: Insist on getting and giving fair value. Making one-sided deals is a surefire way to run out of trading partners.
Leach: Don't try to win the trade, just try to make your team better. Which kind of echoes what the gentlemen above me are saying. If your team gets better, and you didn't miss an opportunity to do something much better with the assets you are trading, then do it, even if it doesn't look or feel like a "win."
Someone asks you "Why should I start playing fantasy baseball in 2016?" What's your No. 1 reason?
Zinkie: Fantasy baseball is the most fun way to build your knowledge of baseball. Good fantasy players have a great time interacting with their competitors, and they closely follow all 30 teams. By the end of the season, you will have made great connections with other fans, and you will know more about the Majors (and Minors) than ever before.
Finkelstein: Because, really, what feels better than knowing more about baseball than your friends?
Schwartz: It's fun! It's a great way to learn more about more players beyond your favorite team, and it's a great way to create and build friendships.
Leach: Yeah, once again, see above. I play fantasy baseball because I've been doing it for 20-plus years and I'd miss it if I didn't. But if you don't already, then really, it's two simple reasons: one, it's fun; and two, it's a good way to make sure you stay on top of the game.
Fred Zinkie is a senior fantasy writer for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredZinkieMLB. Zachary Finkelstein is MLB.com's Manager of Fantasy Baseball and Content Initiatives. Follow him on Twitter at @Fantasy411. Cory Schwartz is the VP of Stats for MLB.com and a co-host of the Fantasy 411 podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @schwartzstops. Matthew Leach is an Editor for MLB.com and contributor to SportsOnEarth.com. He can be found on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.