Path to winning one of the most competitive fantasy baseball leagues: Two draft strategies and a little luck

To win a tough fantasy baseball league, you need to be both lucky and good. And that was certainly the case with my 2020 NL Tout Wars team, which came away with a narrow victory over a tough field that included second-place finisher Steve Gardner.

The salary cap draft took place in March, which feels like five years ago. I felt good about my initial roster, as I followed two of my standard rules:

  1. Make my biggest hitting investments on five-category contributors. I allocated more than $30 on Trevor Story and Fernando Tatis Jr., who both delivered on expectations to rank among the league leaders in both homers and swipes. Also, a significant part of my draft budget was used to acquire the services of Tommy Edman, Avisail Garcia and Dansby Swanson, who were coming off seasons in which they flashed a diverse skill set.

  2. Don’t skimp on starting pitching. I landed Yu Darvish with a $24 salary, betting that his dominant 2019 second half would carry forward to 2020. I combined Darvish with Patrick Corbin (who I traded away prior to Opening Day), Zac Gallen (hooray) and Madison Bumgarner (whoops). Willing to punt saves, I didn’t select anyone who possessed a closer’s role. I know that save-punting is a bad strategy in large contests, but there is nothing wrong with the strategy in standard leagues.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 23: Yu Darvish #11 of the Chicago Cubs  throws a pitch during the third inning of a game against the Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field on August 23, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
Anyone who had Yu Darvish on their fantasy baseball squad in 2020 got a four-category ace. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

My team got off to a successful start and spent most of the season among the top-3 clubs. Todd Zola held first place for much of the initial weeks, and then I took over the lead for most of September. But Gardner kept lurking……

A strong start caused me to hold most of my FAB for September, which returned mixed results. Grabbing Ian Anderson was a great move, while using my FAB hammer at the Trade Deadline on Mike Clevinger (Remember, this is an NL League) didn’t go as well as I planned. If I’m being honest, I thought I had this league won around September 10. I was leading the league and had just added Clevinger. Everything was set up for me to pull away. But in fantasy baseball, things are rarely simple. The second-last week was a total disaster for me. My team produced two homers and a .235 OBP over that seven-day span. Additionally, Clevinger was scratched from a start, which helped Steve to push ahead of me in the strikeouts category. By the time the dust settled, I went into the final week trailing Steve by a significant margin. Mentally, I was starting to prepare myself for finishing second.

But things turned around dramatically during the season’s final days. Steve’s final stanza resembled my struggles the week before, with his team scuffling in every offensive category. And my team quickly got back on track, with the exception of Clevinger, who burned me for the second straight week.

After a handful of sleepless nights, the 2020 NL Tout Title came down to the final day of the season. Although many categories, involving many teams, were still up for grabs, I could mostly narrow the battle down to Seth Lugo vs. Drew Smyly. And frankly, I liked Steve’s chances. Lugo had to that point posted solid ratios (3.82 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) while collecting three wins and a trio of saves. And the righty was set to face a Nationals lineup that was hours away from going home for the winter. But Smyly, who I grabbed in the reserve round way back in March and held all season, had his own appeal after accumulating 28 strikeouts in his previous four outings. In the end, Lugo had arguably the worst outing of his career and Smyly came up with10 punchouts.

Did I get a little lucky? To quote Napoleon Dynamite “heck, yes”. The 2020 title could have just as easily gone to Steve, who belongs on the shortest lists of the best fantasy baseball managers in the industry. But I’ll still take this win and enjoy it, and victories are hard to come by at this level.

Thank you to all four members of the Tout LLC. for their efforts in organizing this contest during such a tumultuous time. Hopefully MLB returns to normal in 2021, but the true test of any good manager is to roll with the punches along the way, and we certainly learned that lesson this year.

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