(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. It has been updated for 2023 where applicable.)
Let's begin with advice that would've made my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Kadish, cringe: On this metaphorical "final exam" that is fantasy baseball's draft day, cheat!
Extending the metaphor, if draft day carries a similarly hefty weight in determining your team's seasonal outcome as exam day does to your course's final grade, why wouldn't you want to maximize your chances at success? By all means, cheat, cheat, CHEAT!
Developing your cheat sheet is the most critical part of your draft-day preparation process, and unlike in school, you're more than welcome to bring one along. Rote memorization grants no benefit here. This is one of the many real-world situations where research and organization skills are instead paramount.
First, let's get to the strange phenomenon regarding cheat sheets. There's an inverse proportionality, in that the more fantasy baseball knowledge you possess, the less detailed you need your cheat sheet to be. In my experience, however, the less experienced players are the ones who seem to take a more casual approach to cheat sheet development, while advanced players create them with greater detail.
If you're just getting started with this game and intend to win in Year 1, don't slip into this common pitfall.
Cheat sheet basics
The above reflection is not meant to criticize newcomers to this grand fantasy baseball game, nor to ostracize those who play in more casual leagues or who might not have time to put in the painstaking level of detail that advanced players might. You alone can properly gauge the amount of time you can invest in your fantasy baseball league, and you alone can judge the level of preparedness you desire.
Just understand this: The odds will favor the most prepared.
For those only getting started with fantasy baseball, we provide a wide array of cheat sheets, which you can use as either a starting point for your own draft-day preparation and cheat sheet structuring or as your cheat sheet itself. You can find ESPN's "Cheat Sheet Central" right here, with links to printable, one-stop-shopping PDFs for all sorts of league formats, including ESPN's head-to-head points, head-to-head categories, traditional roto, 10- and 12-team and AL- and NL-only leagues.
First off, let's explain the purpose of the cheat sheet, since it's not the precise equal to the "answer key" in the aforementioned final exam metaphor. For fantasy sports purposes, your cheat sheet contains an organized list of all the information you'll need to make quick, accurate decisions on draft day, whether at the table live or within an online draft room.
It can take many forms but, in essence, it's a list of players organized in either an overall ranking order or broken down into separate categories, most commonly organized into positions. That's a bit different from the final exam, where you're throwing concepts onto the sheet without foreknowledge of the included topics. The fantasy cheat sheet is designed with precise knowledge of your league type, draft format, league settings and the like. It's like getting the final exam questions in advance, so as to customize a cheat sheet which is "perfect" for its application.
Focusing on ESPN's NL-only, position-by-position cheat sheet, let's take a closer look at what's involved: Players are divided up into ranked lists within all of their eligible positions for 2023. Wilmer Flores, who qualifies at first base, second base and third base, is listed 13th among first basemen, 16th among second basemen and 10th among third basemen, with his other eligible positions indicated in parentheses (rankings all as of Jan. 12). Players are listed with both their valuation ranking within said position and their overall ranking in parentheses, so Flores' No. 120 overall ranking is indicated along with his positional ranks. Marcus Stroman of the Chicago Cubs, by comparison, is the No. 37 starting pitcher and No. 126 overall player.
Players are listed with their current teams -- or "FA" if they remain free agents, who in many AL- or NL-only leagues are still considered to be eligible selections (though check your league's rules to ensure that is the case in yours) -- and with a dollar valuation in whole-dollar amounts, based on a $260 team salary cap, 12 teams and a roto roster structure that includes two catchers.
For those unfamiliar with the salary-cap draft system, how to calculate dollar values or their importance in cheat sheet structuring, you can check back to Part 3 of my Playbook series, which discusses these in detail. To summarize here, I always advise crafting dollar-value sets for each of your drafts, whether salary-cap or snake-draft format, in order to more easily separate tiers of players and determine the valuation distances between players within the same position. The inclusion of the overall ranking does help with this in the ESPN cheat sheets. I do prefer that dollar values be calculated to include cents, however.
With such a cheat sheet, and a snake-draft league format, its utility is simple: You cross off names as they're selected, leaving you a list of remaining, available players for when your next turn arrives. For an overall-rankings cheat sheet, such as Eric Karabell's top 300 overall categorical roto league version, crossing off names makes it easy to determine the best overall selection independent of position. I prefer to have and update both the overall and position-by-position versions, in order to tell whether a certain position might be thinning out more quickly, elevating the top-ranked remaining player at that spot to the most obvious next pick.
In a salary-cap draft -- and, again, you can refer back to Playbook Part 3, which discusses those in greater detail -- the key difference with the cheat sheets is that I prefer to "cross out" names with a deeper-color highlighter pen (blue, for example), then jot down the player's sale price next to what I had on the cheat sheet itself. This way, if a certain position, or simply all hitters versus all pitchers, seem to be deviating further from the listed prices than at other spots, it's easier to notice and adjust on the fly.
Taking your cheat sheet to the next level
Again, how much detail you put into your cheat sheet is entirely up to you.
If you're looking to customize your cheat sheet, however, or if you simply prefer to reorganize the information we provide on ESPN's editions, this section is for you. While I stand firmly behind the many versions we provide -- mine are, after all, drawn off my own personal rankings -- I do prefer, always and for every single league in which I participate, to draft my own printed copies.
To get started, you'll need to first craft your own set of player rankings. Ideally, you'd begin by creating your own player projections, from which you'd then be able to calculate a specific player valuation for every eligible player in your league pool. The projection is important, not only for calculating those values but also for inclusion on your final cheat sheet.
If you'd rather not spend the time, you can collect ESPN's projections and player valuations by entering your league's specifications into the Fantasy Baseball Custom Dollar Value Generator, our handy tool that will be available in the coming days. Once the Generator comes online, use the "Print" button once you've entered your specs into it.
If you're interested in developing your own projections but are unclear how to start, consider reading up on some of the methods devised by our own Todd Zola, who created the engine by which ESPN projections are calculated, or Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system, discussed in this 2015 column. As mentioned within, one of the easiest ways to get your own start with the projections process is to begin by replicating the MARCEL projection system, which takes the past three seasons' worth of data and weights the most recent one most heavily -- in this case, five times the weight for 2022, four times for 2021 and three times for 2020, with those totals then divided by 12 (five plus four plus three) to reach a single-year, 2023 projection. Of course, with the abbreviated 2020 season, you can freely tinker with the weights. As I am more willing to forgive performances from the pandemic-influenced 2020, I recommend using 4.05 as the weight for 2020, and dividing your totals from 2020-22 by 10.5. Using the 4.05 weight, without prorating the 60-game statistics, gives the 2020 season roughly one-third the weight of 2021, while also nonzero, which feels right to me. It's a season that has some, yet only minimal, relevancy to projecting forward.
Again: That's merely my opinion on how much to weight 2020. Feel free to experiment with the weights until you find an outcome that makes you most comfortable.
A few more recommendations of my own: Always collect minor-league data, applying an appropriate league-weighted equivalency -- some deep web searching should direct you to Minor League Equivalencies that you could use in place of calculating your own -- and feel free to alter the seasonal weights depending upon your own opinions of the player or if you felt certain circumstances might've excessively influenced his overall result, such as Justin Verlander's 2021 that was entirely lost to Tommy John surgery, an absence that now seems to unduly punish him in any MARCEL-like projection.
Once you've ranked and projected your players, it's time to sort them into their eligible positions. Check your league's settings first, as some leagues have more stringent rules for position eligibility than others, but in ESPN standard leagues, a player requires 20 games to qualify at a field position, five starts to qualify as a starting pitcher and eight relief appearances to qualify as a relief pitcher. In the event that a player fell short of those minimums, again be sure to check your league's settings, as some leagues include minor and other professional leagues' games played data in those cases, while ESPN's defaults (in general) to the most-played position for major leaguers and the single most-played position for those in the minors and other professional leagues.
In my experience, the most useful cheat sheet separates players into these positions with each on a separate page, and with each player listed among all of his eligible positions. This makes it easiest to flip between pages to evaluate individual positions quickly, while keeping the typeface at a readable size.
On each page, I list the following, column by column: The player's name, his team, his other eligible positions (or all eligible positions if an overall rankings/values page), dollar value including cents, a space to write down the winning auction bid (if that format, otherwise not needed) and his basic projection, including all categories specific to the league in question. The reason for the projection's inclusion is that, in the event of a categorical need in the mid-to-late portion of your draft or auction, it's easier to scan for top performers in that category with the numbers already listed.
The final, optional column to include is one I call simply "Notes," which is self-explanatory but provides an opportunity to indicate anything you might need to remember about the player while at the draft table. For a few examples of notes I've included on my own, here were some from my cheat sheet from my 2020 League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) AL-only auction, conducted Feb. 29 of that year:
For Gerrit Cole: "Pitching strategy A dictates bid Cole to $40, consider $41, then go cheap for the rest of the rotation."
For Shane Bieber, Charlie Morton and Lucas Giolito, bracketed into the same SP tier: "If the Cole quest fails, one of these is a mandatory buy."
For Austin Allen: "Ideal $1 catcher option, go $2 if someone throws a $1 bid first." (Sadly, I failed to convert on this one.)
For Matt Magill: "Projected committee will keep his price low, but I like him way more than his competition."
For Rafael Devers: "No one's going to price him even $30, but he's got a $35-plus ceiling for 2020.
The key here, as you can see with the cheat sheets we offer on ESPN's pages, is organization. You want everything to be as legible as possible, for easy reading, scanning and locating desired information at any moment of the draft. If you need to bump up the font size and have more pages or a larger sheet -- if you've got access to a tabloid-sized printer (that's 11 by 17 inches), for example -- by all means do so. If it's easier for you to sift through multiple pages with the cheat sheets printed on card stock instead of standard printer paper, again, do so.
OK, my cheat sheet is ready. How do I use it?
Besides the obvious, noted above, regarding crossing out and/or marking players with a highlighter where appropriate, your cheat sheet serves a critical purpose in keeping your draft-day plans in order.
As the draft progresses, you should be constantly scouring, revising and reviewing your cheat sheet, with the hopes of finding hidden value at any stage. The fantasy manager with the best cheat sheet will almost never hesitate with a selection anytime he or she is on the clock, and in fact can easily identify the 3-5 optimal picks with each turn. Pay attention at all stages and always cross off selected players.
This is one area where having a "Notes" field on your cheat sheet can help. As you cross off names, some names will rise to the top, with some more obvious upcoming selections than others. In my own drafts, I'm frequently noting prospective picks, or desired auction targets in those formats, and a good way to jot those down is to mark them in the "Notes" field -- or, if you don't include it, at least next to his price or his name -- with either a "next" or "X" or just a dot, if need be, whatever acknowledgement works best for you. That way, you can quickly locate these 3-5 candidates when your turn arrives.
Another way such a field can help is by identifying less desired draft targets who continue to slide in your draft. If you've played fantasy baseball for any length of time, surely you're familiar with that phenomenon where a highly ranked player within the ESPN draft room continues to linger there at the top of the available player list well beyond the rankings number next to his name.
A free agent like Jurickson Profar, a veteran player like Charlie Blackmon or a coming-off-major-injury pitcher like Chris Sale might best fit the description. If you've provided yourself a space for notes, it's a good idea to, when you see this happen, jot down precisely how far you'd allow the player to slide before he'd be an absolute must with one of your selections. That prevents any prospect of group mentality, where you join the crowd in avoiding the player so as not to look like the one making the mistake of selecting him -- and very often it causes someone else to get that player and inspires a feeling of regret within you.
An additional way the "Notes" field might help mid-draft: In the event of positional (or categorical) runs, it's a good place to jot down notes of discount-rate players you might be able to get late while avoiding getting in on the run -- a trap that often causes people to overpay for players -- in the earlier rounds. For example, as the catcher pool brings with it this perception of being extremely thin on talent, I'd anticipate many leagues might address it sooner than is my comfort level. I'm likely to put notes next to the names of William Contreras, Danny Jansen, Cal Raleigh and Gabriel Moreno, as all four are bargain targets that I'll want to get later on if there is an early run on catchers.
Stay focused -- that's why you've got a cheat sheet!
Don't, don't, don't deviate from your cheat sheet, at least not significantly.
If you've put the requisite time and research into preparing your cheat sheet, your draft-day plans are all entirely laid out for you. In the midst of a draft, the excitement of the moment has a way of influencing your decision-making. This is precisely why you've got a plan laid out for you in black and white (or another color, if you preferred to print your cheat sheet in purple typeface, for instance).
As hinted a moment ago, don't allow yourself to get caught up in position runs. If, say, Salvador Perez, Sean Murphy, Keibert Ruiz and Willson Contreras fly off the board in Rounds 13-14 of your mixed-league draft, don't race to grab the aforementioned William Contreras with your very next pick, fearful that there won't be any catchers left in the later rounds. That's the very reason for the advice to jot down bargain candidate names on your cheat sheet -- and I gave you four to be safe at that spot -- in the event you cannot find any, then you'll know it's time to strike. Make sure you consider the best values at every position at all times, though, and don't simply follow the crowd.
Don't change your own rankings mid-draft either. There'll certainly be points during the draft where you begin to doubt your own cheat sheet, but to repeat, there's a reason you put in the effort in advance, and that considerably greater time invested carries far greater weight than your split-second instincts at the draft table. That said, if you merely printed out one of our ESPN cheat sheets without giving your own differing opinions on players a second thought, feel free to deviate from what's listed where applicable. Only you know how much your draft-day materials reflect your own true opinions on player values.
Make your cheat sheet detailed and make it right! It's your best path to a league championship.
The next inning of the Playbook pushes us the series past "official game" territory, as we progress beyond draft-day strategy and discuss successful strategies managing your in-season roster. Stay tuned!