Fantasy Baseball Roundtable: Auction tactics and gamesmanship

by Todd Zola, on March 19, 2012 @ 10:25:46 PDT


Going once, going twice, SOLD!

When it comes to fantasy baseball, there is nothing quite like a live auction. Today, the esteemed knights are going to share some of the tricks and tactics they have developed upon having years of experience in the format.

Let's talk auction. What are some of your favorite plays at the draft table, not so much strategies to construct your team, but more along the lines of gamesmanship? How do you determine who to throw out for bid? Do you price enforce? Any particular tricks with your bidding patterns?

Perry Van Hook gets us rolling:

Well to go backwards on your question one thing that is very important in leagues you play in regularly is to NOT have bidding patterns. If you had them your competition would learn them and use them against you. At my auction drafts the opponents never know whether I am in the bidding to get the player but had to drop out on price or valuation or whether I wanted them to think I wanted the player. That also is key with nominations - easy to say nominate players who you don't want but you think will get a lot of monies off the table (and it works) - but if that is all you do early in auctions your league mates will know that. Vary your approaches to nominations and bidding and you will be better off for it. Use the Gene McCaffrey of Wiseguys Baseball's favorite ploy of very early in the auction throwing out a player you would really like to have if the price is right but you really want to have. Later in the auction you might be in a bidding war over them - early you are just getting market price. But again don't do that every time. An early nomination of a catcher you would be fine with for a buck will often throw others off the tempo of just bidding on the expensive players in the first few rounds.

Tim Heaney inquires:

Benevolent Lord Zola, why doth thou ask this the week before Tout Wars when I compete in the same league as my colleague?

In most auctions I avoid the Stars and Scrubs policy, but answering your question about gamesmanship, I aim to vary the category, so to speak, of the players I nominate - players I think I can nab on the cheap because they're not studs and big-name assets that I want no part of that will suck a bunch of money out early on.

Houston Astros RP Wilton Lopez
Lopez: a sweet throw early

I rarely participate in price enforcing; it would have to be someone I wouldn't mind having at the enforcement price, but that usually becomes too rich a game to play with my approach. Avoid bidding on a player you don't want at a price that would foul up your plan, for example, enforcing a top SP when you only wanted to spend a limited amount on the position. What if you get stuck with him when getting caught in a game? This game happens either with players who'll drain a bunch of funds or overhyped midrange guys, so this direction often burns the person jumping in. I've heard the term "bargain police" thrown around. Don't volunteer; let someone else do that job.

Oh, and even with my fleeting thoughts of sneaking sleepers past the pack early, when you get to the middle- and end-games, wait as long as possible to call out your favorites. At that point, if you're cash-strapped, try to nominate players you don't need and you know you'll be topped on, so the money field becomes slightly more even.

I'll concur with Perry's point of adjusting on the fly, too, based on market fluctuations.

Nick Minnix is in accordance:

Can't disagree with Perry, I'd guess that one benefit of your bid and throw patterns is that you can deceive your opponents, but otherwise, it's safe to try to be unpredictable. I'm guessing that my opponents would know more than I do about whether I have any perceivable patterns. I don't think about it much, though. I try to be in the moment. I decide if I want to give a false impression that I'm interested right then and there on a player, by jumping it a few bucks, and I decide if I'm interested in a player right then and there by jumping it a couple of bucks. There is value in establishing patterns and then going in a completely different direction, too.

I'm not sure who posited this theory (not sure how universally it's accepted, but I'm in agreement). Basically, it goes: In humans' efforts to mimic random behavior, they tend to behave in an orderly manner. People who are conscious of, say, their attempts to choose random spots on a dartboard tend to pick spots that are somewhat evenly spaced out. Obviously, it doesn't create ideal predictability, but I think only in rare instances (maybe?) or (perhaps) with rare people can anything be truly random.

So, on that note, I guess just avoid always doing everything the same way is my advice. That gets old for you, too.

If a top player at a position goes for more than I expected, sometimes I'll try to throw out another one to hope he goes for a similar amount, before people realize that maybe the price is too much. Like, arbitrarily, Roy Halladay goes for 40 bucks, just way too rich for any pitcher for me, but if at least two people were willing to pay it for Doc, if I'm up in the next couple, I'll throw Tim Lincecum or Clayton Kershaw and hope the "if Halladay is worth $40, this guy is worth at least $35" syndrome sets in with a couple of guys. Not saying that pitcher isn't worth it, but he certainly isn't worth that much to me.

And it helps just to pay attention. I think that's where some people go wrong most, especially in auctions. I'm not saying you need to suck the fun out of it, and each player has his or her own way of defining fun. I don't like to lose, and I sure as hell like to win, so it's not fun for me if my team sucks. I come into an auction prepared, and I'm focused on that, not a game on the tube or something else. When I've done online auctions, in particular, it's easy to tell who's more into it and who's not. It's fun to chat, too, but mostly I want a good team, and I want to learn from the experience if it doesn't go as well as I'd hoped. That's a difference you see (and expect to see) in an auction in LABR and Tout, and that's just my style. If the competition isn't as important to you as it would be to me, there's nothing wrong with that. Neither of us will have anything to complain about when the baseball season ends.

Brian Walton, short and sweet:

One approach is to increase scarcity at positions you have filled early by throwing out other players at those positions. The idea would be to get others to spend on a position at which you are (relatively) set.

When the other bidders are aware you have a home team that you follow most closely, it is especially important to vary your bidding strategy for that teamís players. If the others at the draft table think you favor those players, make sure you throw out a few from that club you do not want.

As others already noted, force yourself to mix up your bidding pattern if necessary to avoid being predictable.

Nick Minnix adds:

Yes, I like Brian's tactic to prompt spending on players at positions you've already filled. RE: price enforcing, I'm like Tim, I probably won't do it unless I'm willing to own the player at my next bid. Along those lines, I wouldn't worry about someone getting a generally perceived bargain, especially if you don't consider it much of a bargain.

Ryan Carey concurs:

I agree with tossing out positions you've filled early to drain money when you can. Another tactic, along these lines, can be to throw out the highest rated player at a scarce position (2B, SS) or a closer to set the market vaue early on. Something I like to do is throw out over-hyped players in the early rounds. For example, in my CBS Auction, I tossed out Yu Darvish in Rd 1 and sure enough he went for $18. Injury risk players can sometimes make for sneaky nominations. Everyone is afraid to bid and sometimes you can end up with a nice bargain.

Lawr Michaels adds his two cents:

Well, for the most part Perry said it all: never let anyone know what you are doing. Even if it is a pattern, try to hide it.

And, there is some truth to creating scarcity with nominations, though you have to be careful. It is easy to get stuck nominating a player where say you have two backstops, but utility is open. Nominate Yorvit Torrealba for a buck thinking someone will bid two, and sometimes you eat Yorvit, and worse, lose your utility spot and the bidding and flexibility that go with.

I am a huge proponent of what Perry refers to as the McCaffrey method. I have long done this, in fact my second nomination at LABR a couple of weeks back was Wilton Lopez. I nominated for a buck and got him for a buck. But, I knew he would be fine as a middle reliever, and if not that I could replace him easily anyway. And, instead of having 24 spots to fill for $260, I then only had 23 for $259, raising the average I could spend on each future player.

I try to let other folks nominate the guys I want, but not always (again, just so they won't know what I am thinking). I tend to wait out the first handful of rounds if I can and let some money be spent and at that point the bidding stabilizes and quiets down some. That is when I like to start buying guys and nominating guys I want.

The trick is to not spend too much early--then spend between rounds 6 and 20, then keep a little reserve so you can control the end game, but without getting caught in any future bidding wars. Meaning fill your basic roster and go for pitchers and utility and outfield and corner/middle infield spots with your final purchases.

However, the bottom line is NEVER let a bargain get past you.

Perry Van Hook finishes us off with:

In the end game, have a few more dollars than you do open spots so you can trump the bids of everyone else that only has $1 to spend per player - the power of $2.

Lord Zolaís Wrap-Up

Auction tactics are a funny thing. There is nothing that works every time. It is a matter of timing and who else at the table might like a player or have a certain need. Someone may slip Wilton Lopez through for a buck, but the next guy that tries to sneak through an innocuous middle reliever may be bid up. One of the keys is not to assume something is or is not the case based on a single nomination.

I just want to say a quick word on price enforcing. If you are willing to roster the player if you are stuck with him, you are not price enforcing, you are bidding up a player you are willing to roster at that price. Price enforcing is bidding on someone you DON'T want, but are anticipating someone else going higher in an effort to make them spend a couple more bucks. I actually do price enforce and rarely, if ever get burned. You really have to know your opponents. That said, I do not recommend true price enforcing unless you have a real feel for your opponents.

I also have a slightly different take on the whole mixing it up principle. I actually agree with Nickís point about trying so hard not to have a pattern that you have a pattern, and it is usually because you exaggerate the emotion so much it becomes a tell. I actually do something a little different. What I do is try to have an obvious pattern for a stretch, then switch it up into another obvious patter, then a third. There are times when I will have three different opponents tell me they thought they figured out what I was doing but I fooled them, usually when they get caught price enforcing a guy they thought I wanted.

Which actually segues into another point - a lot of the discussion has to do with keeping you opponents off your guy. The easiest way to do that is not to have that many guys you "want." I want guys that help my team and are hopefully a bit undervalued so I can put more talent on my roster. Of course, there are guys I like more than others, but inherent in that is I like them more than others. If someone wants to bid me up on a guy they think I want that they donít want, I am more than happy to disappoint them.

Perhaps my favorite tactic is the jump bid. By this, I donít mean jumping Albert Pujols from $5 to $30. I mean jumping a guy you want more than $1, but not to your final value. This is especially effective early when people are still getting used to their sheets and how to find their players. My theory is I donít want to give my opponents time to think, because the more you think, the more likely you are to bid. If you are unsure about if you want to bid, you usually donít bid. If I have a guy at 20-something and he is crawling by ones, Iíll jump from say $13 to $17. My opponents are using the time the bid is crawling to find the player and make a decision. I want to minimize their decision time. The other similar tactic is bidding to the nines as there is a psychological factor about going past, like from $19 to $20 or $20 to $30. This is the same reason gas prices end in 9/10 - it seems cheaper.

Along the lines of not allowing my opponent to think, I donít mess around with the going once, going twice and jumping in. I bid right away as that again reduces the time my competitors have, and if they have any doubt, the will usually drop out. Think about it: what often happens after the "going twice" sneak in with a bid? The table reacts, oohs and ahhs and the other guy has more time to think.

Iíll wrap up with another pet peeve of mine like the notion about price enforcing. The idea of making a nomination to "get money off the table." Gang, money is coming off. The whole notion of throwing out Matt Kemp to get money off the table is a little silly. In a typical auction, there is over $3,000 to be spent and you just got someone to spend $45 on Matt Kemp - congratulation, great job. That said, many of my astute knights alluded to what should be done and that is always have a purpose for every nomination, over and above getting money off the table. Use the nomination to gauge the market on a position. Maybe you want a closer and want to have an idea what you will need to spend. Table Mariano Rivera and see what it is going to take for a top closer and adjust your budget accordingly. Maybe you are deciding if you want to take a chance on Kendrys Morales. Toss out Justin Morneau to gauge the level of risk aversion at the table. Because, trust me, no matter what you do, money is going to come off the table.

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About Todd Zola,

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at and, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums. Fantasy Baseball

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