Fantasy Baseball: 4 Hard Lessons the 2020 Season Taught Us

Fantasy baseball was a sprint of epic proportions. What can we learn as we build towards 2021?

Fantasy baseball was exhausting this year.

It was an absolutely wild, crazy, 10-week sprint that required your attention to be hyper focused. Sprinkled in was the fear of COVID-19, causing mass injured list stints for the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals and a host of other positive (and false positive) tests across the board.

There were things I got right, but more importantly, as you evaluate yourself as both an analyst and player, it's perhaps most important to own and dive into what you got wrong. I was very candid that my pitching strategy was completely revamped in 2020, and it worked. But there were still many things that I need to improve upon.

Over at the NFBC, I was absolutely dreadful both in an Online Championship team that I co-owned with my brother-in-law (9th place league finish out of 12 teams, 656th overall) and a 13th-place finish in a Main Event Qualifier (out of 15 teams). There's major room for improvement. Here are some takeaways for me and how I plan to continue evolving as a fantasy baseball player for next season.

Wait to Draft Your Catcher(s)

For the first time in a very long time, the obvious top choice at catcher in J.T. Realmuto finished far and away as the number one catcher at the position.

But after that, the position was a freaking bloody mess. Check out the top-10 catchers (assuming you are playing in a two-catcher format) according to the ESPN player rater, and their average draft position (ADP):

Name Finish ADP
J.T. Realmuto 1st 1st (46.09)
Salvador Perez 2nd 7th (153.04)
Travis d'Arnaud 3rd 16th (242.76)
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 4th 35th (559.34)
Christian Vazquez 5th 9th (193.26)
Willson Contreras 6th 5th (112.09)
Will Smith 7th 6th (150.42)
Austin Nola 8th 41st (604.16)
Yasmani Grandal 9th 3rd (95.07)
James McCann 10th 24th (364.78)

These values are truly staggering. While guys such as Perez (who was absolutely absurd coming off of Tommy John), Vazquez, Contreras, and Smith were solid, there were a few names on this list who were free -- meaning, these were waiver wire adds in a 12-team format that you didn't even need to draft.

It's a hefty price of draft day capital you have to spend to acquire some of these folks, and this ignores the absolute bombs you rostered in players such as Mitch Garver, Gary Sanchez and Wilson Ramos, who punished your rosters.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa is an interesting test case to understand. He kept catcher eligibility and will lose it for 2021 due to a lack of games played, but savvy owners exploited that loophole and enjoyed his solid season and his eight stolen bases.

Consider waiting on this position and filling up other positions as you go along.

Drafting Closers Early Is a Foolish Exercise

If you can nail the reliever market, you will undoubtedly hold a massive advantage compared to your fellow competitors. The scary part is if you miss, it's almost devastating to your roster construction.

If we look at the top five pitchers according to saves, outside of the Houston Astros' closer, Ryan Pressly, it's pretty simple, right?

Name Saves ADP
Brad Hand 16 119.48
Liam Hendriks 14 102.33
Josh Hader 13 56.64
Ryan Pressly 12 442.74
Alex Colome 12 162.68

Certainly, that's one view point. But that ignores the following guys who were free and all finished in the top-20 for saves in 2020: Trevor Rosenthal: 11 saves (undrafted), Mark Melancon: 11 saves (226.39), Daniel Hudson: 10 saves (349.65), Matt Barnes: 9 saves (undrafted), Zach Britton: 8 saves (undrafted), Jeremy Jeffress: 8 saves (undrafted), Anthony Bass: 7 saves (undrafted), Greg Holland: 6 saves (undrafted).

It's a category that counts for one-fifth of our overall rotisserie score, and yet it's highly volatile -- perhaps the most of any position. As Alex Fast noted at The Pitcher List, we are drafting this position wrong. Between the positional turnover, the smarter usage of relievers by managers in high leverage situations, and just a lack of consistent work, it's hard nailing this spot.

My fatal flaw in the Main Event Qualifier I discussed in the introduction was that I invested too heavily in relief pitchers. I drafted Josh Hader at pick 48, and while he was solid, he wasn't the same old Hader. To draft him that early, he can't just be good -- he has to be elite -- and Hader was not that. Next, inside the top-160, I rostered Joe Jimenez and Ken Giles, and they were both disasters. Giles ultimately tried to come back from a flexor strain before shutting down (and undergoing the knife), and Jimenez was a train wreck. I was cooked.

Considering there are so many available relief options on the waiver wire (and the above list ignores the greatness of a dude like St. Louisan Devin Williams, too), while this can admittedly be a frightening proposition, perhaps it's best to invest in a few relief arms in the middle rounds and pause on high level equity.

Keep Tabs on Multi-Position Eligible Players

This is an unforgotten item to keep in the back of your minds, but it's one I lose sight of often. It doesn't necessarily mean that folks playing multiple positions should rocket up your lists, but they should absolutely hold a tiebreaker in many spots.

And this doesn't mean players such as Realmuto, who can play first base or catcher: this is really focused on the guys who have both middle and corner infield eligibility or guys who can play both the infield and the outfield.

Players such as Ketel Marte, super stud DJ LeMahieu (first, second, and third!), Max Muncy (who suffered from an absurdly low batting average on balls in play), Jeff McNeil, Mike Moustakas, Eduardo Escobar, Cavan Biggio, and Dylan Moore are all players who deserve a long look as you prep for 2021.

Adhere to Your Speed Limits

Just like relievers, stolen bases are absolutely terrifying to chase. It's awful. It forces you, especially if you play in an NFBC-style competition with an overall component, to push players up in your drafts who you likely would not normally target that early.

Take a peek at some of the players who are known primarily for their speed and what kind of return they provided. These players are some of the top-ranked projected thieves using Ariel Cohen's ATC Projections over at FanGraphs: Adalberto Mondesi (ADP: 40.82, projected steals: 18, actual steals: 24), Mallex Smith (193.15, 15, 2), Jonathan Villar (46.97, 13, 16), Victor Robles (75.73, 12, 4), Garrett Hampson (185.41, 9, 6), Elvis Andrus (146.00, 9, 0).

This is really interesting to break down. Mondesi looked like an absolute bust and then was absolutely bonkers down the stretch, likely winning you your league title if you rostered him. The Royal swiped a ridiculous 14 bases in the last month of the season, but it's worth pointing out he owned a sad .710 OPS. Will the real Mondesi please stand up?

Villar was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, and overall, he was a solid player. The speed was what you paid for, but the problem is he murdered you in every other category, hitting only .232 with 2 homers and an ugly 13 runs scored.

Smith was outrighted to the alternate site. He was a horrific player and really hurt you, especially if you constructed a team around his projected steal total.

Robles carried major warning signs as he hits the ball very softly. According to MLB's Baseball Savant, he ranks nearly among the worst of the worst in terms of barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and exit velocity. Not great, Bob.

Andrus was hurt, and he has been a valuable player, but 2020 was a disaster for him and the Texas Rangers. They were atrocious offensively, and Andrus' absence probably added to that.

Let's Find Ways to Get Better

As a season-long player, it's obvious that there's many ways to improve, myself included. These are perhaps the four biggest things that stood out to me for my own teams, as draft prep never stops, and 2021 and early mock drafts have already started.

Next up, let's look at things that went right and how those can be utilized for 2021.