A COVID-19 draft strategy

“The central dilemma in journalism is that you don’t know what you don’t know,” is a quote from Bob Woodward, the famed investigative reporter who helped break the Watergate coverup story almost 50 years ago. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld borrowed the quote and applied it to questions about terrorism intelligence. The quote is also apropos to the 2020 baseball season.

Last week, I wrote about undervalued pitchers being drafted in later rounds (ADP 200 plus). In that column, I alluded to a draft strategy where you pick up a couple of stud starting pitchers early and then wait on acquiring the others. This would especially be an effective strategy if others in your league are taking pitchers early and leaving good position players behind in their wake.

This week, I’m going to turn to a broader topic – an effective strategy in a short season overshadowed by COVID-19.  Some are calling 2020 the Sprint Season. We have one-third of a season compared to the full season, so your regular-season strategy for fantasy baseball won’t work. The season was delayed by the pandemic, but I can’t find anyone writing about the impact of the virus itself.

I have scoured the internet looking for an article or column about a strategy incorporating COVID-19 risk. The reason I can’t find one is probably because we don’t know what we don’t know. We do know that MLB completed the intake coronavirus testing required for players, an eight-day process that yielded a total of 66 positive results (58 players) out of 3,740 tests (1.8 percent).

But there are two important things we don’t know. First, we don’t know how long a player who tested positive will be off the field after the regular season starts. Second, we don’t know how many other players are not going to play this season because of the risk. There have been only a handful of players who have already opted out two weeks before the delayed start of the regular season.

I drafted two teams before the league shut things down in March. Suffice it to say, I would have a different draft strategy today, but I’m not sure what it would be. The wild card again is COVID. Would I draft Mike Trout, ADP 1, who says he still might opt out? Would I draft Juan Soto, ADP 12, who is in quarantine now since he was exposed to someone with the virus and might be positive?

What about Freddie Freeman, ADP 16, who is positive and is sick? Would I draft him? I can tell you that I would not draft him unless there was a discount. If Freeman was still available in the fourth round, I would probably take a chance, but we don’t know how long Freeman is going to be out, or if he will even play at all. If he does decide to play, what kind of shape will he be in to start the season?

Another player who tested positive is D.J. LeMahieu, ADP 57. But LeMahieu is reportedly asymptomatic, so he might bounce back faster. If you want to do your pre-draft homework, find out whether players who tested positive are sick, like Freeman, or asymptomatic, like LeMahieu. This is especially true if you are considering drafting any player early because of the opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is a term I am familiar with after having worked for 30 years in financial services. Opportunity cost is defined as “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”  This is the “cost” incurred by the buyer, who is not enjoying the benefit associated with the best alternative choice he/she could have made instead of the choice made.

Let’s go back to the case of Mike Trout to illustrate this point. In this example, you take Trout first in your draft. You could have drafted Ronald Acuna, Jr., Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, or Gerrit Cole. If Trout decides not to play this year because of the risk of contracting the virus, you lose out on the fantasy production of the player you would have drafted if you passed on Trout.

So, we have the players who have tested positive, but what about the players who haven’t reported to camp, or might opt out? There’s a rather large subset of players in the second group. Starling Marte, ADP  28, still hasn’t reported in Arizona and rumor has it that he’s tested positive.  Yordan Alvarez, ADP 38, last year’s rookie sensation, still hasn’t reported to the Astros.

Marte and Alvarez aren’t the only players in the ADP top 50 that are in the MIA group. Austin Meadows, ADP 45, was on hand for the Rays first practice a week ago but then disappeared. No one has disclosed where Meadows went, or if it has anything to do with a positive test. I am unfortunate enough to have both Alvarez and Meadows on the same fantasy team I drafted five months ago.

There are a number of other players who aren’t on the field yet. In addition to Marte, Alvarez and Meadows, there are at least four more in the ADP top 100. Tyler Glasnow, Yoan Moncada, Joey Gallo and Kenley Jansen. Gallo has been tested three times. Two of those tests came back negative, but one was positive. League rules mandate a player have two negative tests in a row to be cleared for play.

If you’re preparing to draft, you have to know all of this information and then you need to modify your draft strategy based on it. But there’s even a problem right now getting the information. I have spent a couple of hours looking for updates today on players – especially the MIA group – and there hasn’t seen any updates. I blame this on the media because I have no one else to blame.

When you have as much information as you can find on players, there’s a next step to devising your strategy. You need to determine how much risk you’re willing to take with your picks. Will you draft Trout with your first pick, realizing he’s already on the record stating that he might opt out? Will you draft Soto, hoping he will emerge from isolation and test negative for COVID-19?

My experience is that not all fantasy players have an appetite for risk. For example, last September, my brother-in-law passed on Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 pick in our fantasy football draft. Elliott was holding out at that point, and Jack didn’t want to risk his first-round pick. Drafting in the fifth spot, I took Elliott. It was a calculated risk on my part, based on a belief that he would sign (and he did).

If you’re a safety player, you would probably avoid Trout, Soto and Freeman entirely. But the reality is that all three players come with a different level of risk. Trout, with the least risk, comes with the biggest opportunity cost. Soto has less risk than Freeman because he hasn’t tested positive yet. Freeman has the most risk of the three (by far). You are taking a risk on him, and you should expect a discount.

In summary, you need to have a COVID-19 draft strategy if you’re drafting anytime between now and the beginning of the regular season. The more information you have, the better you will do in your draft. You need to determine your appetite for risk and draft accordingly. The risk of drafting a player who has an uncertain status diminishes as the draft progresses into later rounds. Good luck!

Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter.

 

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