"What he can do, better than anyone else at this table, is talk."
That's a quote about me from Sam Walker in the best-selling book "FantasyLand." You're welcome for the plug, Sam. Least I can do since I crushed you last year in Tout Wars like Gallagher abusing a watermelon. (Sure, it's an insanely old reference. Still younger than Sam's outfield was.)
For the uninitiated, Tout Wars is an expert's baseball league and it uses an auction to determine who gets which players. It's the truest form of fantasy skill. Everyone gets a shot at every player, unlike a draft, where only one guy is getting a chance to select A-Rod.
It's also, quite simply, the best day of the year. There's nothing better than a fantasy auction.
"Berry knows how to work a room: setting the tone, reading the flow, projecting confidence, and, when necessary, picking someone apart with a clever barb. The result is an arsenal of draft-table trash talk that, even when tinged with humor, can be highly effective at crucial moments."
Thanks, Sam. Remind me to send you a DVD of The Bronx is Burning, an ESPN Original Series. I wrote a version of the following auction tips for our Fantasy Football magazine, but it's even more relevant for baseball, and not just because I get reuse Sam's quotes about how amazing I am at the auction table.
So how can you be like the TMR? Other than by starting to lose your hair or to talk about yourself in the third person? Start with this understanding: Completely unlike with a draft, auction strategy means being alert and having a strategy on every player, even those you don't want.
Now, does this mean you need to have a strategy on every player before the auction? No, and in fact, if you do, I'd tell you it's a mistake.
Every auction is unique. I have always wanted to do an auction and then as soon as we were done, throw everything out and redo the auction with the exact same players and player pool. I'm convinced it'd be almost entirely different.
So you need to be loose. Have an overall strategy, have some guys you'd like to target and some you want to avoid, but you never know what others will pay, where your bargains will be, when it will be time to pounce and when you need to stand back.
The one thing you need to be able to do is quickly evaluate every player. When someone throws out Bobby Abreu, you need to know how much you are willing to pay for him. And how much you are willing to pay for him will probably change based on how the auction is going and what your team is looking like. If it's at the end of the auction and you've found yourself with a lot of power-hitting free swingers, Bobby's steals, runs and high average will be more valuable to you than if you find yourself in the middle of an auction with Ichiro Suzuki and Hanley Ramirez already on your squad, ya dig?
Now, if you don't want a player, you do want a good amount of money spent on that player by someone else. So I like to goose the pot by reading stats.
"Did Eric Byrnes really have 50 steals last year?" I might say. Then I might turn to the guy next to me and, just loud enough for everyone else to hear, act all impressed and state something obvious, like, "that's a lot, isn't it?" People tend to react quickly to a name and not numbers in an auction. Remind them of the numbers.
Unless the number aren't any good. In that case, say something that reminds them of the value. "Yeah, no reason to bid on Kevin Mench now that he's back in Texas. Wait for an outfielder who plays in Petco. Much better."
The truth is you can find a stat or comment that says whatever you want about a player. Whether you want to pump a guy up or bring him down, you can always find something that helps underline your point and undermine your opponents.
The important part of this is, after you talk someone up, go ahead and be in on the bidding, possibly even rostering him. It's a little like pretending you are bluffing but then showing your cards early on in poker. If you talk someone up early and then end up with him, you'll keep folks off-balance instead of letting them on that you're just saying things even you don't believe in order to inflate their value.
I like to reference the price of other players, especially if they went for more than they should. "Dude, if A.J. Burnett is worth $16, what's someone with two healthy shoulders worth?"
I like to make sure everyone is aware of a backup closer. "You really gonna let Scott get Fuentes for his Corpas?" is the kind of thing I'll say to the guy with the most money left any time the situation presents itself. Yeah, I'm a lot of fun.
Berry's rules of auction drafting
Some of these I've discussed in my Draft Day Manifesto, but I've put them here so you have it all in front of you.
So, as you might have guessed, my first rule of auction drafting: Talk isn't cheap for your opponents. Dominating an auction is all about rhythm; keeping your own, and disrupting everyone else's. Make people second-guess themselves and think too much. That's really what all my trash talk is about; disrupting everyone's rhythm and making folks think too much. You don't have to dress in a full-blown Wookie costume, which, my hand to God, I have actually seen once, but you do need to do what you can to throw people off their game.
Throw out a young, hyped player early. The Utleys and Wrights will be thrown out soon enough. But the first guy I'm throwing out this year is Francisco Liriano. He'll go for at least $5 more than he should because he's sexy and everyone has money at that point. That extra $5 off the table will be helpful come much later in the auction.
If you find yourself getting screwed out of a position, don't panic! If second basemen are going for way too much, just relax. Instead of overpaying for a guy like Mark Grudzielanek just to have a warm body, buy another third baseman or a closer, even if you already have two. Or get a stud shortstop. Give yourself something to trade for a guy. You can trade your extra third baseman to the guy who got stuck with Hank Blalock and will soon come to hate him as much as you do.
You need to track every team in the league. Ideally, you can use a draft program or a spreadsheet that subtracts the amount of each player from the total amount each team has for auction. As the auction progresses, you are going to want to be able to know who everyone has, which positions they have filled, what they still need and how much money they have left. Knowing someone still needs a second catcher and only has $3 left will allow you to say, "Kurt Suzuki, $3," and then laugh evilly, rubbing your hands together and making your eyes all crazy. That really freaks people out.
Every single auction is different, but they all have a few things in common: There will be a time when players go for less than they should. Recognizing that time, and making sure you have the money to control that part of the auction, is crucial. The way you do this is not tying yourself to any one player. If you head into an auction with an "I have to have so and so" attitude, you're dead, much like Sam Walker is this year. Hah! Thought I forgot about him, didn't you? Well, you can't forget -- about any move that has been made in the auction. You need to pay attention to every detail. If you think it sounds like a chess match or a poker game, you're starting to get the idea.
This is why you group your players according to value. Personally, I like the values here in this draft kit, but whatever you use to value athletes, make sure you can know what a player's value is at a glance, what your needs are and what you will pay for the player.
What is important to do is to mark up your own list. Take your master player list and group players who are of similar ability. Say you take your list of first basemen in the NL. Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder are the cream of the crop. Mark Teixeira, Lance Berkman Derrek Lee and Adrian Gonzalez are the next tier. Then there is a very solid tier with some upside, like Todd Helton, James Loney, Adam LaRoche and Carlos Delgado. Then it's a drop off to the next level, where there are a bunch of guys with some sort of question mark. (Conor Jackson has no power, Joey Votto is still young, etc.) So one of those guys will be good for a corner infield slot. But for your big-stud first baseman, you decide, OK, I'm not getting a first baseman on a lower tier than, say, Gonzalez.
So during the auction, you see Pujols, Howard, Fielder and Berkman all get bought. But instead of freaking out, you look at your little sheet and see Lee, Teixeira and Gonzalez are still available. You'll be fine, and don't need to jump in and spend too much for one of those guys.
For those in longtime auction leagues, something my friend Tim likes to do is bring last year's roster with him. So say someone throws out Miguel Cabrera. Tim looks at last year's roster and sees one guy had him at $36. Tim thinks -- and I agree with him -- that the guy who owned him last year will go up to $36 to get him back. This is especially true in keeper leagues; how many times have you said to yourself, "Aw, hell, I'll throw him back, see if I can get him cheaper. If not, I can still pay $36 to get him back"? So Tim will bid that guy up to $36. It's not a strategy for the weak of heart -- you can get stuck. But worse-case scenario, you're stuck with Miguel Cabrera. Not the worst thing in the world. And if successful, you can take a lot of money off the table. For the players you do get, write down the name of the last guy who bid on him. That will come in handy later when you're looking for trade partners.
I like to have up to the minute depth charts when I walk into an auction. At the end of a long day, when you're filling out your last few roster spots, a quick glance will show you some guys who are starting or have a shot at solid playing time. Remember, if you're not on the field, you can't score. That's a motto I use in my personal life, incidentally.
The longer the auction goes -- and it will go long -- the more people get antsy and stop paying attention. This is when you need to be your sharpest. This is when the cheap guys come in. This is when you get the $1 Carlos Pena. This is when you win or lose your league. Not by paying $45 for David Wright.
Decide how many $1 players you are willing to have. For example, I'll look at my empty roster and say, "I'm OK with three $1 middle relievers in an NL-only league." So, once I know this, I know that I have $257 for 20 players ($12.85 per player), not $260 for 23 ($11.30 per). And that's a big difference, especially as you get further into an auction.
Finally, remember the obvious stuff: Ideally your pitchers are in the NL and have good bullpens and offense behind them; never pay big money for saves; you must leave the auction with speed; and Sam Walker once paid $12 for Big Fat Sidney Ponson. That last one has nothing to do with auction strategy, I just like reminding folks of that.