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The 'secrets' of a five-time champ

As Count from Sesame Street would say, "That's one, two, three, four, five experts league titles!" ESPN Illustration

I am not a great storyteller.

My jokes are not standup material; they're more of the peanut gallery variety.

And I'm not good at writing intros for a massive, all-encompassing fantasy baseball advice column.

What I am, and what I'm proud to be, is a proven winner in this joyful hobby we call fantasy baseball.

My editor suggested I go all Nuke LaLoosh and "announce my presence with authority," and so that's what I shall do: I've won five experts league titles, two in the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and the past three years -- yes, I'm the three-time defending champ -- in Tout Wars. That's five titles against the best minds and most successful players this business has to offer.

So why does this matter to you? Because I'm here to tell you how I did it, my secrets, my strategy, a hodgepodge of actionable suggestions for stages of the draft-prep and draft-day processes. It's all yours for the amazingly low price of free.

What you do with it is up to you. What follows covers a process that is six months in length to some, six minutes to others, and ranges from the intermediate to the advanced player, covering a variety of different styles of play. No matter your preference, this is here to help you win your league, and now that's what you shall do. A la LaLoosh, I've just grooved my fastball; now it's time for you to hit it out of the park (but don't be like that guy on "Bull Durham" ... run, dummy!).

Time to win your league ...

You heard me: You're going to win your league.

Go ahead, laugh, roll your eyes, whatever. Then read it again and say it with me: I am going to win my league.

Mindset is paramount. What are you playing fantasy baseball for? For fun? OK, that's fine; that's important. To pass the time until football? Also fine, though this probably isn't the column for you. The answer I'm looking for is win. You are playing fantasy baseball to win.

I play in nearly a dozen leagues each year but typically prioritize three: The aforementioned LABR and Tout Wars leagues and a local points-based league with friends that I've participated in for 17 years. Winning was my mindset in all three of those leagues last season, and I finished fifth, first and first, respectively, in them.

The optimist might say, "Two out of three ain't bad," while the pessimist would say, "You didn't win the third, violating your own first rule!"

That's fair, but as you'll next learn, all that's within your control is the mindset ... results are nonguaranteed, but a proper mindset maximizes your odds.

No one can predict anything ...

Baseball is a series of individual outcomes, spread across seasons of more than 2,000 games, 20,000 innings and 150,000 plays (and those are conservative numbers). That's a substantial number of opportunities for fluky things to happen, many of which can add up.

If you want play-specific evidence, none is better than this: Oct. 7, Clayton Kershaw, the eventual National League Cy Young winner and author of one of the best pitching seasons thus far in the millennium, and his Los Angeles Dodgers clung to a 2-0 lead entering the bottom of the seventh inning, his team a mere nine outs away from forcing a decisive Game 5 in its NL Division Series matchup against the St. Louis Cardinals. Three batters later, Kershaw served up what would wind up being the series-clinching home run to Matt Adams, a left-handed batter (Kershaw, as you presumably know, is left-handed), and the pitch was a curveball.

In case that doesn't immediately register for you, consider this: Kershaw's curveball has been routinely hailed as one of the most lethal individual pitches in baseball, and in his seven-year big league career leading up to that pitch, he had never afforded a left-handed batter a home run off a curveball. From 2012-14, in fact, Kershaw completed an at-bat against a left-handed hitter with a curveball 87 times. Forty-five of those times, the hitter struck out.

Adams, meanwhile, had entered the day as a .147 lifetime hitter against off-speed pitches (including curveballs), and had struck out in 41 of 105 plate appearances that had ended with one (again, playoffs included).

Such unexpected occurrences of that extreme variety might even out over the course of those 2,000-plus games, but even from the seasonal angle, fluky happenings are abound. From 2014 alone, you had:

Prince Fielder, who started 874 of his team's 875 scheduled games between Sept. 4, 2008, and May 16, 2014, 18 more than any other player, missed 120 Texas Rangers games due to surgery for cervical fusion of the C5 and C6 disks in his neck, conducted 11 days after his impressive streak of good health ended.

Nelson Cruz, a slugger who had six DL stints on his resume, was fresh off a 50-game suspension for PED implications and had remained on the 2013-14 free-agent market until six days after his signing team, the Baltimore Orioles, had its full squads in spring training camp, proceeded to lead the majors in home runs (40) and play in 159 games.

• At the age of just 21 years and 289 days , Jose Fernandez, who had made only 10 starts of more than 100 pitches and only one of more than 110 at the major league level, succumbed to season-ending Tommy John surgery on May 16.

Francisco Rodriguez, a pitcher deemed so unlikely to be fantasy-relevant that he was the 314th player selected in the National League edition of Tout Wars, was unexpectedly tabbed the Milwaukee Brewers' closer on Opening Day, and he would finish the season with the fifth-most saves in baseball.

And that's merely four examples of extreme, unexpected events that can ruin fantasy baseball planning. These are the outcomes you must set aside, unwanted noise that threatens to crack your mindset.

Here's the truth about the predicting game: One cannot possibly be correct more than 66.7 percent of the time, or two of every three picks. If in some season you are, you're extremely lucky and should consider moving to Vegas.

Take it from an on-field approach: Since the expansion of the schedule to 162 games in 1961 (albeit only in the American League that year; the NL made the switch in 1962), only five teams have won more than two-thirds of their games, the 1961 and 1998 New York Yankees, 1969 and 1970 Baltimore Orioles, and 2001 Seattle Mariners. Care to guess why? It's that on any given night, fluky things happen that can influence a game's outcome, things that keep even the most talented teams from exceeding the two-thirds threshold. Heck, only 12 teams since 1961 have lost more than two-thirds of their games, three of them inaugural-season expansion teams, showing how even a bad team usually falls into a minimum 54 wins just by going through the motions.

Frankly, depending upon the style of league in which you play, even 60 percent accuracy might suffice. I set a high bar for myself: 65 percent.

So we're clear on this: That 65 percent pertains to all that reside within the realm of reasonable predictability. Predicting events such as Adams' homer or K-Rod's saves total have a far greater failure rate, as you're about to find out.

Hey, I'm going to be wrong at times.

Translating those odds into fantasy prognostication, I -- any everybody else, for that matter -- should never expect to be right more often than 65 percent of the time on rankings and resulting draft picks.

That means a lot of bad calls.

It's also a lot of good ones.

To illustrate the point, I re-examined my published, final-set-of-the-spring overall rankings for each of the past four seasons. These encompass the four sets that live perpetually online: 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. Accountability is important, and besides, you can learn from your mistakes.

I compared these raw, overall top 250 rankings to those seasons' final Player Rater results, and the results are telling:

That 63.7 percent success rate projecting the draft-worthy pool -- "Total" under "Top 250 rank/top 250 finish" -- supports my 65 percent aim. Meanwhile, I've gotten approximately 33 percent of my player valuations almost spot-on, "Finished within 50 spots," meaning the Player Rater finish and my rankings were within that many spots.

"Ranked, and broke out" is an interesting find. This group represents anyone who finished outside the Player Rater's top 250 the previous year -- i.e. outside the draft-worthy pool -- whom I ranked within my top 250 in the season in question, and the number of those who finished within 75 spots of my ranking. Approximately one of every three of these effective "breakout player" predictions have paid off. Again, this illustrates the level of difficulty projecting the unlikeliest outcomes.

Now, these numbers might not strike you as high success rates. You judge, but I let my record speak for itself and can guarantee you that no individual will have numbers substantially greater than that.

But, to be clear, never be afraid to disagree with me, if you see value in a player that I don't (or vice versa). Appreciating these numbers is recognizing within yourself the ability to only project the draft-worthy pool with within 65 percent accuracy, only get your draft values spot-on 30-35 percent of the time, and only nail your breakout predictions 30-35 percent of the time.

That's the reality of the game.

Some of your picks will reside outside my 65 percent (or 30-35). Just the same, some of mine will reside outside of yours.

And that is why it needs to be your team.

Everyone regresses ... but what, really, is regression?

Regression has been a fantasy baseball buzzword during the past decade, but it's often misleading: Many interpret it as "returning to a player's former, less valuable state."

We're better off calling it regression toward the mean, because that's the lesson valuable to fantasy baseball. Players whose past-year performances (example: 2014) were markedly out of character compared with their prior years (example: 2011-13) should, in theory, be closer to said prior-years average in the upcoming year. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but at least from a judging-the-odds perspective, it's usually your safest bet.

I ran a five-year Player Rater analysis to illustrate this, and I'll spare you the nitty-gritty mathematics. Suffice to say that I collected more than 500 examples of players who enjoyed substantial swings in value -- more than 100 ranking spots, and only the meaningful names -- from one year to the next, and examined what these players did in their follow-up campaigns. This goes in a Year 1-Year 2-Year 3 pattern (example: 2011-2012-2013), with Year 2 representing the season the player showed significant improvement. My findings:

• Completely regressed (back to Year 1 ranking or beyond it): 25 percent.
• Regressed at least 75 percent of the way: 34 percent.
• Regressed at least halfway: 43 percent.
• Regressed at least 25 percent of the way: 54 percent.
• Continued to decline: 18 percent.
• Improved again: 11 percent.

It's a wide array, and the fact that there were more players to extend their prior-year trend -- as in, continued to improve or decline -- than completely regress (29 percent to 25 percent) represents as much encouragement as concern for 2014 surgers Carlos Carrasco, Kolten Wong and Dellin Betances.

But to take it from the perspective of extreme swings, consider this: Forty-four players went from outside the Player Rater top 250 (the mixed league-relevant pool) in one year to inside the top 50 the next, and only 21 of them remained within the top 50 in the third year. That group, incidentally, averaged a 133-spot drop on the Player Rater, and that average excludes the two of them who didn't play the follow-up year (Billy Wagner retired, Jason Motte was injured).

Eleven players made this into-the-top-50 jump in 2014: Johnny Cueto, Jose Abreu, Dee Gordon, Anthony Rendon, Charlie Blackmon, Ben Revere, Albert Pujols, Billy Hamilton, Corey Dickerson, Matt Kemp and Josh Harrison.

Can you guess which five -- that's the rate at which past years' players did so -- will fall out of the top 50 in 2014? Better yet, do you feel as comfortable drafting some of them knowing that 133-spot average drop-off by their predecessors?

If you've got a good feel on their individual skill sets, by all means, take a stand. But let those numbers keep you grounded; it's risky business declaring the career year a new trend, just as it's foolish to totally discard the player coming off the one-year disaster. Never assume the repeat, not without compelling data or a good reason.

Simply put: When in doubt, bet the average.

Tristan's winter calendar

Now that you have a firmer read on the odds, and their importance to fantasy baseball, let's get to draft preparation.

Longtime readers have surely heard me utter the phrase: There is no fantasy baseball "offseason."

The fantasy baseball season is an almost-exactly 180-day, six-month marathon encompassing half the calendar. The other six months represent the draft-prep period, when news influences player value frequently, generally no less often than one major happening per week. These tidbits accumulate during those six months, and it is your prerogative as to the pace you choose to absorb them. In a sense, draft prep is the term paper you're assigned on the first day of English 101, and draft day is the distant deadline for said term paper.

Just as with that college term paper, you can elect a fantasy baseball offseason -- ah, the lure of parties and procrastination -- and attempt to cram those six months' research into the minutes leading up to your deadline. I won't tell you it's an incorrect approach. I'll merely tell you that you need to pick a pace that works for you, understanding that there are consequences to shortcutting.

Let's break down my offseason tasks into calendar form so you can freely shuffle your scheduling or shortcut tasks if need be:

October: Rest, review and revel in playoff baseball

Let's be realistic, the vast majority of us play both fantasy baseball and fantasy football, and fantasy football -- especially the draft portion of it -- comes at an extremely inconvenient time for us baseballers. Even for me, a full-time writer of both sports, what might've been 75 hours of a week's time absorbing baseball dips to maybe 50 or even 35 during the peak draft weeks in August and early September. (One has to sleep, even if only for an hour or three, you know.) Some of you, especially the out-of-contention folks, might've let that number dip to zero. October is therefore an ideal time to rest. If you didn't shift your focus, then review. And for those of you who revel in playoff baseball, then enjoy the meaningful games from a pure fan's perspective.

But that does not mean that one reveling in the playoffs takes its happenings to heart. Fifteen games of Mike Moustakas greatness does not a star make; it certainly does not outweigh the 514-game career sample preceding it.

For those now playing catch-up, Draft Kit columns such as my "Kings of Command," "Park Factors" and "Next Level 2015" will assist you in terms of 2014 season review.

November: Winter player analysis

At this stage, I'm dissecting every piece of a player's raw ability plus statistical performance, jotting notes on every likely-to-be-fantasy-relevant player for the upcoming season.

For example, everyone knows that Michael Brantley enjoyed a substantial breakthrough in 2014, finishing fourth overall on our Player Rater, but what they might not know is why he did so: He paced all hitters in hard-contact line drives (81), and he exhibited a markedly more aggressive approach, particularly on pitches on the inner third of the plate (especially fastballs in that zone), where he had a slugging percentage (.661) nearly double that from 2012-13 (.332). Brantley's revised approach explains his breakthrough, and alleviates much of the fear of regression, and that's why he's generously ranked as my No. 23 player.

Similar notes are sprinkled throughout my Draft Kit columns, including many of them in my upcoming "Tristan's Facts to Know" column. And if you have a specific player inquiry, you can always hunt me down via social media. Don't worry; I'm friendly!

December: Embracing change

This bleeds into November, especially this winter, and often into January and February too, just as November's player analysis process often bleeds into December and January. This is when much of the Hot Stove action occurs, usually coinciding with the MLB winter meetings. It is the time to identify who went where and analyze what it means, such as Russell Martin's move from Pittsburgh to Toronto resulting in his leaving one of the game's worst ballparks for right-handed power to one of its best.

This step is best encapsulated in my Draft Kit "Offseason Movement" column.

January: Projections (if applicable) and rankings

Granted, I published and have been updating my top 250 rankings since the season ended, but this is the offseason stage at which those crystallize, mainly because this is typically the point at which player transactions begin to slow. I'd say a good rule of thumb is that the day Jamey Wright signs his annual minor league contract is the day to start, except that in 2014 Wright broke a string of eight consecutive Opening Day rosters made while on minor league deals (2006-13) -- he was inked to a major league deal for 2014 -- and he's still a free agent today.

For shortcutters, these resources are easily found in our Draft Kit, and I'd strongly recommend examining ours as your starting point, if you must take a shortcut somewhere. But please liberally make your own adjustments based on your own player opinions; otherwise, it's really our team, not yours.

February: Tracking spring updates and identifying players to watch.

The earliest pitchers-and-catchers reporting date this season is Feb. 18, and all players are scheduled in camp no later than Feb. 27. Presumably at or after the former date, and certainly before the latter, you'll begin to see a constant flow of player updates, at which point you'll want this page bookmarked: ESPN Fantasy Player News.

This marks the stage at which your playing-time projections crystallize, but it's also one of the more dangerous points of the offseason for letting your expectations get the best of you. For instance, you'll see/hear plenty of "I'm in the best shape of my life" quotes in the papers. But when is the last time a player entered camp and declared, "Boy, I feel awful this year," or something similar to that? We've already heard one such optimistic declaration by a player in January, when Dustin Pedroia, fresh off September surgery to relieve a torn tendon in his wrist, declared himself "ready and motivated like never before."

As a player fresh off an injury, Pedroia's comments perhaps matter ... but perhaps they don't. Either way, these are the February developments I'm tracking, covered in my upcoming "Spring training watch list."

March: Tracking draft trends and watching spring games

Addressing the latter first, the most dangerous aspect of the draft-prep process is investing heavily in spring training game results. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues provide hints more than they do answers to your player-specific questions, and spring statistics themselves are largely useless. Cases in point: The aforementioned Moustakas was a 2014 spring sensation, hitting four home runs with a spring-best 18 RBIs and a third-ranked 1.290 OPS, but that and his playoff success served thick, delicious bread to a nothing sandwich that was his fantasy year (the regular season). Meanwhile, the pitcher who posted the spring's highest ERA (9.20), while affording hitters a .317 batting average, was eventual NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

Feel free to cite spring stats when there are hints of skill changes involved: A pitcher with an unusually high K-to-walk ratio might have made a tweak or added a new pitch, though it's still important to remember it's a small sample. Most times, it has nothing to do with the statistics themselves. This spring, Matt Harvey is fresh off Tommy John surgery, and spring games will give us a firm read on his post-injury velocity. Wil Myers needs to show us he's better able to square up the ball. And what kind of hitter is Ryan Braun now, anyway?

As for draft trends, March is the time that ADP (average draft position) takes greater form. Two handy ADP exercises: 1) Frequently examine the "7-day trend" column to determine market changes; they won't always mirror the opinions of your league's ownership, but they're a good starting point. And 2) Compare the ADPs at least once -- preferably somewhat close to your draft -- to your personal rankings to compare your opinions to the market as a whole and identify outliers. That's not to say that ADPs should influence changes in your rankings, but if you have Corey Kluber ranked as your 58th starting pitcher, as I did a year ago, and see that ADP -- ours as well as other industry sources -- has him ranked 93rd, that's a potential ace up your sleeve.

I'll have a weekly rankings adjustments column in March to keep you up to date with these types of things.

Cheat sheet time!

No rational fantasy owner attends his or her draft without a cheat sheet. This isn't eighth-grade history, you know. In fact, I'd send you to the principal's office if you don't use a cheat sheet.

Whether it's hardcopy or digital, simplistic or detailed, make sure you organize a player list for easy tracking during your draft. We provide plenty of these in the Draft Kit for all styles of play. I'm the hardcopy/detailed type; I'll bring a laptop, but I reserve that for roster tracking and emergency research, not to mention it's easier to cross off names by hand than it is to find/replace and delete them (plus minimizes mistaken deletions or catastrophic system crashes).

My cheat sheet separates players into positions and has the following columns, adjusted for league format when applicable: Player name, team, dollar value, dollars earned the previous year, basic projections (usually Rotisserie 5x5) and a column simply called "Notes."

Whether your league functions as an auction or a draft, dollar values are a valuable resource for both. For one, they're excellent at helping separate players into value tiers -- grouping players of the same position into comparably valued blocks, illustrating scarcity (or lack thereof) -- and they're also good at helping compare value across positions so you can properly gauge whether Jose Altuve or Victor Martinez is the correct pick right now.

Calculating dollar values ties to the projections; as in, you can't set good dollar values without good projections. We at ESPN Fantasy have a Custom Dollar Value Generator that'll do the work for you. I enter my league's specifications, and the Generator spits out the results, which I then re-examine to make any necessary adjustments due to differing personal opinion. Or if you're truly hardcore -- I admit I often am with this process -- you could craft your own projections and enter them into a dollar value calculator. Some have created their own, and I'm sure creative Googlers might be able to find one to assist in the task.

That said, I can't speak to other resources' accuracy; I stand behind our Generator, have used it for every league I've played in since it was introduced -- even if only as a starting point for some formats -- and don't entirely trust any resource except it and my own calculation system.

Every dollar must be accounted for. There should never, ever be more total dollars earned by all players than there are available dollars at the auction table (and again, this also applies to draft format). That means that in a league of 12 teams with $260 auction budgets, the total dollars on your sheet must add up to $3,120, not a penny more or less.

The key to projections: They're basically your best guess at the player's most probable seasonal stat line. Among the mistakes people make with projections are: A) treating them as gospel, assuming they're the one and only one potential outcome, B) taking an all-too-optimistic approach, as if to only predict a player's best-case scenario (which has a fairly low probability of occurring), and/or C) failing to adjust for factors such as role, ballpark or fluky outcomes. If you're so bold as to try your own projections, or even if you're using ours and making minor tweaks of your own, remember this: The goal is to predict the player's median stat line should he play 100 seasons, varying from best- to worst-case scenario.

Finally, "Notes" might seem self-explanatory, but it has a wrinkle. I limit them to one line and two inches of space per player, and only use the column for absolutely essential information, things that I need to remember at the draft table but don't want to waste effort memorizing. Some examples:

• For Troy Tulowitzki: "PT projection has extremely wide range; maybe under-projecting by $8?"
• For Bryce Harper: "1st nom (nomination). Will either inspire overbid, or timid-early-bidding trend nets bargain."
• For Brandon Belt: "If no 1B yet, buy him, b/c 1B gets increasingly ugly past here."
• For Jenrry Mejia, in my aforementioned points-based league that uses SP/RP designations: "SP-eligible, so added value."
• For Arismendy Alcantara: "Nominate air-es-MEN-dee al-CAHN-truh dramatically, to seem like I really want the guy."

But Tristan, where's the points-league advice?!

I hear you, I hear you.

And I hinted at it with my Mejia note above, which is the first discussion topic regarding points leagues: How your league handles pitchers -- are they all one position or separated into starters and relievers, and how many are you allowed of each? -- is important in formulating your strategy.

Relievers, after all, tend to score fewer fantasy points than starting pitchers, but their appeal is the ability to pitch each and every night. This makes them handy fallback options in weekly leagues, when you have a starting pitcher with a single matchup against either a loaded lineup or pitching in a hitter-friendly ballpark. In daily formats, closers also help plug roster holes, especially handy contributors for those pacing in starts-capped leagues.

Many points-based leagues have differing scoring systems -- there isn't one "universal" format -- but almost all of the points-based leagues in which I've played weigh strikeouts most heavily. In my local such league, the 13 pitchers to strike out 200-plus batters finished first through ninth, 11th, 12th, 17th and 22nd in total points. At 17 was Jeff Samardzija (darned wins!) and at 22 was Ian Kennedy (highest WHIP of anyone in the top 25).

Buy K's, K's and more K's in this setup. After all, it's a skill a pitcher entirely controls, one of the very few for which that is true.

On the hitting side, buy home runs, obviously. It's almost always a minimum six-point play: Four for the homer itself, one for the RBI, one for the run. In my points league last season, the 11 players to hit 30 or more home runs finished first through third, sixth, eighth, ninth, 26th, 29th, 31st, 37th and 46th. Chris Carter was that last one, but he batted just .227 with a .308 on-base percentage.

Speaking of Carter, whether strikeouts score negative points has a bearing on your strategy. He's an attractive pick in leagues in which strikeouts aren't penalized, but he might be barely draftable in a 10-team mixed league if they're a minus-1. Carter, Oswaldo Arcia, Javier Baez, Jay Bruce, Marlon Byrd, Chris Davis, George Springer, Ryan Howard, Mark Trumbo and Justin Upton are all noticeably less valuable in such a format.

I like to chase two hitting traits in points leagues: First is walks. Brian Dozier, Freddie Freeman, Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Santana tend to be more valuable here than in Rotisserie.

The other is high-in-the-order, ironman types. Plate appearances reign supreme in a points league; it's no coincidence that the 14 players to amass 650-plus PAs despite a sub-.750 OPS all finished among the top 100 in points in that league.

But while we're on the topic of strategy ...

Strategize! Or should you?

Strategizing might be the most overrated angle to fantasy baseball; so many funky, often-cleverly-named strategies have been invented then utilized with initially successful results over the years that people now tend to think a sneaky strategy is a prerequisite to winning.

Your strategy is simple: Draft value.

It's ridiculously facile yet supremely insightful. You want as much bang for your buck as possible, but there's rarely ever a preset pattern to how you do it. But what did you think I was going to say? Did you think I'd be like that British pitchman in the Oxiclean commercials -- his name is Anthony Sullivan, by the way -- raise my decibel level and shout, "You'll love the new 'clout' -- contact lefties on underdog teams -- strategy! Now with 20 percent more Ben Revere!"

That makes the projections, rankings and cheat-sheet processes supremely important, and the least wise step to shortcut. Your dollar values need to be yours, they need to be good, and they need to be neatly outlined on your cheat sheet. When you're done, I need to be able to ask you, "How do you value Kole Calhoun?" And you need to reply, within seconds, "He's my No. 16 outfielder, 47th overall, and in this mixed league he's a $19.63 player." Always use cents, if you can. And then you add, "Sixty-seventh in your rankings, 22nd among outfielders? Pffft. What do you know?"

Gee thanks, but nice work on detailing your valuations.

I won't rule out the possibility that once your cheat sheet is done, you'll unearth a common thread between players you're hoping to draft. So let's quickly go over a few of the notable ones you could consider:

Streaming your starting pitchers: This is the wisest thing you can do if you play in a shallow, daily mixed league with a high (or no) cap on total starts for the season. A streaming strategy involves keeping only the truly elite starting pitchers on your roster, but using all of your other roster spots to pick up starters with attractive matchups on a given day, only to cut those pitchers and add new ones with attractive matchups tomorrow. The idea is to beat your competition by guaranteeing a higher volume of counting stats -- wins, saves and strikeouts -- while hoping to keep your ratios competitive.

As with points leagues, closers are especially handy in leagues with rules that encourage streaming; it is not uncommon to see all of them get selected 3-5 rounds earlier in drafts. After all, the only roster-worthy pitchers in daily leagues with no start caps are about the top 20-30 starters, plus all 30 closers. If your league uses nine pitching spots, that's only 50-60 owned at a given time.

The Labadini Plan: Named after Larry Labadini, who tried it in LABR in 1996 -- I'm told he finished fourth but just eight Rotisserie points out of first -- this dictates that you spend $251 of your $260 auction dollars on hitters, reserving minimum $1 bids for each of your nine pitchers. In an ESPN standard league draft, this would be the equivalent of selecting 13 consecutive hitters to begin your draft, then 12 consecutive pitchers to round it out (you'd want the three bench-spot picks to be pitchers for streaming purposes).

With the glut of quality pitching in today's game, the Labadini Plan seemingly has more merit than in the past. The counterargument, however, is that there are considerably more available metrics today to reduce your chances of getting a $1 steal than there were in 1996; the $1 options in an AL- or NL-only leagues are often going to wind up being unwanted innings-eaters or situational middle relievers, such as Roberto Hernandez, Kyle Kendrick and Jerry Blevins.

Modified Labadini: It's like the Labadini Plan, except that in this, you capitalize upon the recent belief that it's foolish to take any starting pitcher in the first round, and select Clayton Kershaw with your first pick, then 13 consecutive hitters, followed by 11 consecutive pitchers. This provides you an "anchor" -- and a tremendous one at that -- to lead your staff, diminishing the demand to nail 4-5 of your $1 picks, and it gives you a chance to pull off some sneaky ERA/WHIP Rotisserie point maneuvering (think minimum innings, lots of relievers).

In an auction, this requires buying Kershaw, unless exorbitantly expensive, then nothing but $1 pitchers for your other eight spots. It's a more advisable strategy in our ESPN standard game, where pitchers such as Kevin Gausman, Danny Salazar, Derek Holland, Jonathon Niese and Clay Buchholz might all still be available during the final rounds, all of them possessing greater profit potential than the aforementioned Hernandez or Kendrick.

LIMA Plan: Invented by Ron Shandler and a play off the name of one-time 20-game winner Jose Lima -- yes, Jose Lima really did win 21 games one season -- LIMA stands for "Low Investment Mound Aces," which is a bargain-shopping approach to pitching. In an auction with a $260 cap, you'd spend $60 on pitching, roughly $20-30 of that on an elite closer. In a draft format, this might be akin to taking one of the elite closers in the sixth to eighth rounds, a starting pitcher between the sixth and 10th, then waiting on pitching until late.

As LIMA is founded upon pitching bargains with underlying skills -- my "Kings of Command" column utilizes similar theory -- it is a more difficult plan to undertake nowadays. Still, it's the equivalent of the "wait on pitching" comment you'll hear or read frequently.

As an aside, be aware that in the fantasy sense these days, pitchers are a lot like quarterbacks. These days there are a lot of productive ones, but that doesn't simply mean you can wait on them. "Waiting" requires knowing the correct ones to pick at discount rates. Those who take a haphazard approach to drafting lower-tier pitchers -- just as would be true with football quarterbacks -- will find themselves with many holes to patch, and slim hope of patching them.

Punting categories: Um, don't do it.

I know that sounds odd coming from a guy who won his 2013 Tout Wars National League championship doing just that, punting batting average. But as a blanket piece of advice, it's correct, considering the complexity of the strategy relative to your chances of effectively executing it. Punting is fantasy baseball's version of the trick play; you maximize its usefulness by doing it when people aren't expecting it. Otherwise, you're Rip Sewell with your eephus pitch facing Ted Williams in the 1946 All-Star Game.

I punted batting average in 2013 only because I had insight on a pair of players I knew I valued substantially more than anyone else, Paul Goldschmidt and Carlos Gomez, and I recognized that a common thread between them was a likelihood of a low batting average. In this example, punting wasn't me adopting a crazy strategy, then picking the players to build around it; it was picking the players who pointed me to a strategy built around my two leading men. You can read more about that plan and why it worked here.

If you do decide to punt, know two things: One, punting is punting; there is no such thing as "kinda punting." If you decide to punt saves, you shuffle all your saves resources into other categories ... and I mean trading or avoiding all such contributors. The entire point of the strategy is to deliberately score the minimum Rotisserie points in that category in order to maximize your chances at a maximum score in every other. Two, if you're going to punt, the most common misconception is that saves and then stolen bases are the two wisest categories to choose, in that order. The problem is that both categories rely on player skills that can influence other categories; saves-getters often help in ERA and WHIP, while speedsters contribute in runs scored.

If you must punt a category, I recommend punting the categories most influenced by "luck" or team factors: Batting average and then wins would be my first two recommendations, because even a deliberate punting strategy could result in unexpectedly good luck that nets you a few token points at zero cost (see Gomez's 2013 batting average).

Draft day: It's mostly the mindset

Find your comfort zone.

Draft day is about converting minutes, hours, days or -- I'd certainly hope -- weeks or months of painstaking preparation into an action plan. There needs to be a definitive break between this preparation period and the draft itself; if you cannot separate the two, then you're doing it wrong.

If that break period is the walk to the computer room for your online draft, or the walk, drive or lengthy plane trip to your live draft, so be it.

If it's a fine dinner of chicken Parmesan followed by a good night's sleep, then your normal daily routine save for a quick scroll through the player news to ensure that none of your desired targets broke his leg -- my preferred practice -- hey, that's fine, too.

As for the draft ... If you feel you need to sit in a specific place at the draft, do it, even if that means getting there early to secure said seat.

There's a danger in getting there seconds beforehand. For instance, I once was forced to take the only remaining seat in the house, the other half of a love seat with its springs shot in the center, next to my competition for "draft's stockiest man." Needless to say, comfort wasn't king.

If you want a specific snack or meal before, during or after the draft, even if different than any of those provided, by all means get it.

For example, it is a rule of mine that anytime I'm in Manhattan, I get a slice of New York pizza. I lived in Florida for three years; it took me three hours there to realize how much I missed it. So, for each of the past four years that Tout Wars has been held in Manhattan, I've gotten my mandatory slice, including in 2014 when it required sneaking out for it as a mid-afternoon snack, despite knowing full well that the evening's festivities provided dinner. Again, comfort zone.

Bring your cheat sheet and/or laptop, as the two things you'll want to do mid-draft are cross off names and track rosters, whether via pen or keyboard. I prefer a laptop with a spreadsheet tracking every roster plus auction prices (which admittedly has more bells and whistles than that).

Tracking the rosters is critical, because it helps you determine your competition's needs, and in an auction, remaining dollars. As for crossing off names, besides the obvious prevention of being "that guy" who picks a player who was previously taken, it helps show which positions have the most and least talent remaining. If it's an auction, use a pencil; it's wise to lightly cross off a name, but note the sale price of that player so you can quickly compare sale prices to players remaining within the same tier.

As an auction proceeds, remember to buy value. Every player on your cheat sheet should've been properly priced to the point that you'd be prepared to buy anyone, if the cost is right. I try to keep everyone at or beneath my listed values, but for certain preferred targets, I'd be willing to pay a bit more.

Be aggressive! So many auction advice columns over the years have used the cliched line, "Don't show up for the first hour," meaning don't buy anyone in the first few rounds. Now we're to the point that so many people do that that some of the best bargains tend to be in the early stages. I've probably been in a half-dozen auctions in the past three seasons in which the best bargain of the entire auction was actually the first buy.

As a draft proceeds, try to stick to a "best available player" approach, but mind your position and categorical balance. Some of the greatest mistakes owners make are getting cornered into taking Danny Santana in the ninth round because they went first basemen in two of the first three rounds, only to watch a slew of better speedsters and middle infielders go in Rounds 4-8. You don't want to be the team having to chase low-ceiling speedsters such as Denard Span, Michael Bourn and Angel Pagan and/or low-ceiling middle infielders such as Asdrubal Cabrera and Josh Rutledge the entire second half of the draft.

That doesn't mean to reach for higher-tier types, taking them 2-3 rounds early. It means to keep a plan in mind for each category and position, so you're never stuck scrambling for bland, lower-tier players you know little about.

Stay focused, all the way through.

Many of the best bargains can be found in those latter stages, when owners are fatigued, sometimes thinking about the next thing on their schedules. This is where tracking the rosters comes in handy. If you realize with three rounds to go that only you and one other team still needs a corner infielder, and that it's your pick, with six other selections on the turn before you pick again, both of your picks before that other team, then you don't need to pick the corner infielder now. You can take that player the next round and take the pitcher now, which is especially smart if the six picks between you are likely to be pitchers.

See it through to the end, and when you're done, say it again, even if only in your head: I'm going to win.