Did you take the rest of your league to school this fantasy baseball season—or were you the one getting schooled?

Either way, this question is worth considering: What did you learn?

Sure, winning is still the name of the game in fantasy baseball—and congrats if you’re on the verge of locking up your league over the season’s final days—but every year also serves as a learning experience that shapes how we play the game going forward.

To that end, here are five key fantasy lessons that come straight out of 2013 and can be applied toward 2014. These takeaways apply to every owner, but for those who didn’t win this time around, they’re all the more important.

Because the goal is still to go from getting schooled to head of the class.


Lesson No. 1: Don’t Start with Top Starters

In order of average draft position (ADP), these were the top 10 starting pitchers, according to ESPN Fantasy Baseball: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee and Gio Gonzalez.

What sticks out from this group is that only three—Kershaw, Hernandez and Lee—actually performed up to their preseason draft position. That means the other seven were more or less disappointments, and considering you had to use an extremely high draft pick (or spend a lot of auction money) on them, that 30 percent success rate is just not worthwhile.

Pitching is as deep as it has ever been since fantasy baseball has been popular over the past decade-and-a-half, so there’s really no reason to make a play for one of the top-tier aces, especially when you’re better off using that second-, third- or fourth-round choice on a big-time hitter instead.

If you still don’t buy into this approach, here are the next 10 starters per ESPN’s ADP: Yu Darvish, Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, R.A. Dickey, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos.

Of that bunch, only Sabathia, Dickey and Cueto failed to pitch like a capable fantasy No. 1, and in case you didn’t notice, that’s a 70 percent success rate—the exact opposite ratio from the first 10 SPs.

By the way, notice who wasn’t mentioned? Only the likes of Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Hisashi Iwakuma, Anibal Sanchez and Mike Minor, all of whom turned in SP 1-type seasons, too—at a much lower cost of acquisition.


Lesson No. 2: Buy In to Breakout Hitters

With pitching as dominant and deep as it is, hitting on hitters is even more necessary these days.

Anyone can select the cream of the crop—the Miguel Cabreras and Mike Trouts in the first few picks or the Edwin Encarnacions and Adrian Beltres a round or two later—but where owners can really make hay is by targeting younger hitters who broke out, but didn’t necessarily reach their full potential.

These are players who have been around for a year or two (or more) and often still have a question mark or three surrounding them the following spring (i.e. injury concerns, strikeout problems, uncertain playing time), which means they come at more of a discount than they should.

The owner who gambles on the right one(s) gets rewarded handsomely. For example, from this year, think: Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Gomez, Freddie Freeman and Jason Kipnis, each of whom had their first noteworthy campaign in 2012 and then busted into the fantasy elite this year.

As for a few names, who could go this good-to-great route in 2014? Manny Machado (if healthy), Domonic Brown, Matt Adams, Brandon Belt, Anthony Rizzo, Leonys Martin, Kyle Seager, Daniel Murphy, Wilson Ramos and Will Venable.


Lesson No. 3: Rookies Can Be Relied On

Some owners like the tried and true, the veterans whom they can count on—and that’s a perfectly fine approach. But an owner who shuns first-year players because they’re too unknown and/or unreliable would have missed out this season on—deep breath!—Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Julio Teheran, Gerrit Cole and Wil Myers, to name a few.

To name a few more? Dan Straily, Tony Cingrani, Jedd Gyorko, Chris Archer, Evan Gattis, Zack Wheeler and the aforementioned Adams. And those in deeper leagues certainly found ways to make use of, say, Martin Perez, Sonny Gray, Michael Wacha, Darin Ruf, Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis and even Oswaldo Arcia, too.

While it’s not recommended to draft, or even roster, too many youngsters until they prove themselves at the big-league level, once they do, there’s a lot of upside to be had. Tried and true can get the job done, but so can new and improving.


Lesson No. 4: Know the No-Names and Retreads

Every year, there are a handful (or more) of players who either come from out of nowhere or back from the proverbial dead to make themselves fantasy relevant. In 2012, we saw this from Norichika Aoki, Josh Reddick, Lance Lynn, Alejandro De Aza, Chris Tillman, Everth Cabrera and even someone like Mike Fiers.

This year’s bundle includes Josh Donaldson, Patrick Corbin, Francisco Liriano, Chris Johnson, Jim Henderson, Brian Dozier, Daniel Nava and, yes, Marlon Byrd.

The keys to spotting this type of player—if there is one, that is—come in identifying those who have moved to teams and/or ballparks that better fit their abilities, those who are in line for an opportunity at regular PT or those who were one-time solid prospects who, somehow, fell by the wayside.

The point? You have to get to know these guys—and be ready to pick them up—quickly once they start showing signs of making an impact, because every homer, steal, run, win, save and strikeout counts, no matter where you find it.


Lesson No. 5: When in Doubt, Go Young

In case you haven’t noticed by this point in the class, baseball has turned into much more of a young man’s game than it was only a few years ago when players were still capable of putting up big seasons into their mid-to-late 30s.

This has more than just a little bit to do with the fact that since penalties and suspensions were implemented in the mid-2000s, taking performance-enhancing drugs (and even greenies) became a much, much bigger risk to a player’s career, reputation and bank account than ever before.

Without that extra boost such substances afforded players in the latter stages of their careers, it’s becoming harder and harder to hang on and remain productive.

Certainly, there are still plenty of oldies-but-goodies out there—Cliff Lee, David Ortiz, Michael Cuddyer, Bartolo Colon, Alfonso Soriano and Joe Nathan come to mind—so players with a “3” as the first digit in their age shouldn’t altogether be avoided or ignored.

But a quick peek at ESPN Fantasy Baseball’s Player Rater for hitters and pitchers proves just how much youth is being served.

To wit, among the top 50 hitters, only 17 were in their age-30 season or older in 2013, and many of those were exactly 30, like Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Shin-Soo Choo and Encarnacion. Of the top 50 pitchers, only 16 were in their age-30 season this year.

Many times, it’s better to take a chance on youth and upside and miss rather than cling to the diminishing hope that Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Aramis Ramirez or Roy Halladay can do it for just one more year.

In other words, go for the potential of the climb, not the drop off the cliff, which might just mean taking Mike Trout over Miguel Cabrera with the first overall pick in 2014.


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