Auction Strategy and Strategies

An auction is still an auction. No matter your settings or your belief system, an auction requires a number of fantasy managers to sit down and bid fake money to buy real players for their fake teams. And so there are aspects of preparation that are common to all auctions — thence the first part of the title.

And then, once you have the basics down, it’s time to start considering the nuance. How will you divvy the money between your position players and your pitchers? What sort of player talent distribution will you favor? When do you throw guys you like? And guys you don’t? That’s where the ‘strategies’ come in.

Either way, let’s get going. We’ll start with the stuff that every auction manager should do. And then we’ll give you the options you should consider once you have the basics down.

Get yourself some auction values.
If you are reading this, you’ll soon have yourself some auction values. Those numbers will be provided by Zach Sanders’ system of fantasy evaluation. These basic values should work well for your standard leagues — we have twelve-team mixed and AL- and NL-only values, as well as some values for leagues that use OBP. Gather them off the leaderboard for projections, put them in a spreadsheet, and feel free to move your favorite players up a buck or two if you want to customize the values.

But don’t go too nuts on the ad hoc personalization, as you’ll be doing so without a framework. Really what you want to do to in order to personalize your own values is follow Sander’s footsteps, with your own projections. Perhaps you like the optimism of Bill James tempered by the realism of ZiPs. You could mash those two projections together, and then start on the Sanders’ path. That requires setting a replacement level for each position in each statistical category, and then using standard deviations above that replacement level to value each player’s work in each facet of the game.

There are a few things you should be aware of while doing this. First, remember to test your values internally. Once you are done, check the auction values for the top x players, where x = all roster slots, added up. The value of those players should line up with your budgets. Not everyone spends all their money in the auction room, but you should proceed as if they would. Because they should.

And you should also be aware of the changing face of baseball. Stolen bases are slowly on the rise, and you may want to skew your projections to represent that change on some level, assuming the projection systems don’t catch the sport-wide change. Courtesy Zach Sanders, the average home runs and stolen base totals for above-fantasy-replacement-level players:


These are small changes, perhaps not worth getting worried about, but it does point to a slight reduction in value in stolen bases — there are more of them.

Once you’ve picked projections, corrected for macro trends, and then calculated your fantasy above replacement level value of your own, you’ll have your own values. Which you need, or you’ll be flying blind.

Outline a budget before the draft.
This is as important as having auction values, because every auction requires some thought about the team as a whole before you go into the draft.

Each position is a universe by itself. If you take the league average line and put Average McAverageson at each position, you can see how strong the positions are, relatively. Zach Sanders did this, and the interaction between shortstops and catchers in the recent years might be interesting to you:


Depending on how you read this, you might take a different strategy, but that’s for the next section. The most important thing is that you decide how much you generally want to spend at each position, and then create a budget that looks something like this:

Position / Name / Budget

Fill in the budget category so that it adds up to your full budget number before the draft. This means that you are targeting certain players to fit your team at a certain price. That means you’ll also be confident that you have a plan in place.

As you draft players, but the actual number in the budget column. If you have an auto-sum on, you can see what happened to your plan in real time. If you overspent in one place, you have to take money away from another position. If you got a value somewhere, you can disperse the money somewhere else to get a better player.

Either way, you’re tracking your team plan as it happens. Which is important so that you don’t end up with $1 players at tricky positions.

Practice at least once. It can be a bear — auctions take six-plus hours on the regular. If you aren’t sure you can pony up that kind of time expenditure without a league to show for it, join an extra league with lower stakes so that you can have some practice. If that doesn’t even work for you, read about mock auctions. Like ours. That’s the least you can do.

Stars and Scrubs
This is the tried and true of the auction strategies out there. You spend for two or three top talents, and then you scrimp at the bottom. The benefits are that you can get two first-rounders, for example. And then a lot of final-rounders to make up for it. The risks of this strategy is that you have a good portion of your budget tied up in fewer players. Last year, for example, I spent $45 on Albert Pujols and $29 for Roy Halladay in my own mini version of stars and scrubs — I don’t usually spend more than $40 on a hitter, or anywhere close to $30 on a pitcher — and it turned out pretty badly. I still ended up fourth in that league (Blog Wars), but looking back on that auction (I also spent $17 on Dee Gordon and Jon Lester, and $19 on Brian McCann), I have no idea how that happened. If you push the needle past $50 to get a single player, you’ve wrapped up over 19% of your budget on one slot, and you’re an injury away from a first-round hole. This year, you might pick up Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Justin Verlander, and then try to fill the rest of your roster with the $130 or so dollars you have left.

Values and Values Alone
In this strategy, you may not actually have a position-by-position budget. Or you wouldn’t have a strong budget that you were going to follow. Because you’d be following your auction values and merely winning auctions that gave you surplus value. Then again, even if you go this route, it helps to have a budget in place, because you’ll still need a shortstop, even if all your value picks were in the outfield. This requires strength of will — you’ll need to ignore the impetus to get caught up in the fun of an auction and spend more money than your sheet says you should on a player you like. In other words, you probably won’t end up with Giancarlo Stanton. And you might not end up with a player at the tippy top of the draft — very few auction value sheets I’ve ever seen produce values over $45, and yet many auctions feature a $50 player.

Spread The Risk
This might be how I generally describe my strategy. I’d rather have three second rounders than two first-rounders and a final-rounder, to give you a snake draft analogy. Second rounders usually have first-round upside, and the mere fact that you have more quantity means you have spread your risk around to more players. This year, you might target bounce backs from Ian Kinsler, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria, and hope that two of the three hit as first-rounders on a second-round price. But you don’t need to put all that risk into your picks — mixing it up with a Josh Hamilton, David Price or Adrian Beltre could work too. It’s better than counting on Jeff Keppinger to do anything at all for your team.

Ron Shandler coined the term — Low Investment Mound Aces — to describe a strategy that focuses on acquiring hitters and leaves less for the pitchers. Industry consensus has settled in with a budget mix that gives pitchers around 25-30% of the budget. That makes sense because pitchers are harder to project, get hurt more often, and stay hurt longer, and also because your roster demands you get six different kinds of position players, and yet only two kinds of pitchers. In the mock, I spent 25% on the dime, and I felt pretty good about a staff that boasted Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Shelby Miller, Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, Brandon Beachy, Casey Kelly, Joel Hanrahan and Steve Cishek in a 14-team league. Paul Sporer spent 35% and boasted a more exciting Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Yu Darvish, Homer Bailey and Jason Motte atop his staff, but still had a less exciting back end of Trevor Cahill, John Danks and Jeff Niemann.

The $2 Bench
I love doing this. If you slot in $2 for each of your bench slots, you leave yourself a lot of late-auction flexibility. Not only can you scoop players that everyone else was hoping to score as a $1 player, but you can even spend some of those extra dollars on a real value that just slipped too late in the draft. It’s another way of forcing you to look for values early on, because your $2 bench will steal budget dollars from your top-end slots. In the mock, this strategy helped me snag the $5 Shelby Miller, $2 Nolan Reimold, and $2 Casey Kelly. It also made it so that I left $2 on the table, but that’s not a terrible number. It’s a risk though — you may find you pushed too much money too far into the draft.

Punt a Category

It’s very hard to punt a category and win in a rotisserie league. A ‘1’ in a category means you’re at least 11 behind someone there, and that is hard to make up unless you dominate the other cats. But in head-to-head leagues, punting can really work. And the deeper your head-to-head league, the more of an advantage you can gain from doing so. Imagine punting batting average, as Howard Bender tried to imagine recently — Curtis Granderson, Rickie Weeks, Danny Espinosa, Pedro Alvarez, Cameron Maybin, Josh Reddick all become great players for you. The risk here is that your bad batting averages don’t get put atop lineups and don’t get on base much, and then suddenly you’re behind in runs and RBI too.

The Bounce-Backers

This can be a strategy in auction or snakes, but players coming off bad years are sure to be undervalued in the auction. Jeff Zimmerman used this strategy to snag Justin Upton, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Ian Kennedy in the RotoGraphs Mock snake draft. Again, the risks are obvious. Sometimes a bad year is aging finally degrading a player’s skills noticeably, and the bounce back is not so exciting.

Throw Away
“Throwing” a player — putting someone up for auction — is an interesting moment. You can try to throw a player you don’t want in order to flush some money into the market, and you probably should do this to some extent. But do it too much, and you’ve announced your intention to not take place in the auction of that player. Removing yourself as competition will make it easier for someone else to get that player for less than market price… which might actually make that player a bargain even if you didn’t want him. Also… at some point you need to throw a $1 player that you actually want to win. So you can’t just throw away everyone the whole way through. There’s also a slight risk that you spend too much of your attention thinking about players you don’t want, and players you do want slip from your nomination queue until it’s too late.

So, now you have a strategy and you can pick from the strategies. Good luck auctioning!

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

8 Responses to “Auction Strategy and Strategies”

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  1. hemmobosscher says:

    “If you push the needle past $50 to get a single player, you’ve wrapped up over 8% of your budget on one slot”

    Shouldn’t that be +- 19%? I am assuming it’s out of $260?

    Great article btw!

  2. brisco says:

    Ottoneu team budgets are $400 😉

  3. Eno Sarris says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    @hemmobosscher — thanks! fixed!

  4. Eno Sarris says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    @brisco — I don’t understand! I wrote this for general consumption. I love my ottoneu leagues.

  5. Carlester says:

    When are AL/NL-only auction values coming out? Or are they already posted somewhere? If so, I’m an idiot, but please advise where.

  6. Mark says:

    I registered with hopes of finding 2013 auction value projections in a standard 5×5, $260 roto league. Where in this mess can I find this? I could care less about “ottoneu”

  7. Eno Sarris says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    @carlester Monday! We has to wait for a suitable projection system to be ready.

    @mark My article was about standard leagues and auction values go on the projections leaderboards Monday.

  8. rsavits says:

    How would you deal with closer inflation? I don’t know how it is in Ottoneu but I’m in an NL-only keeper auction league and “guys who get saves” is almost a completely different, third category from hitters and other pitchers. Every evaluation system I’ve seen seems to undervalue closers in relation to what they go for year after year in my league.