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When and How Do You Target Sleepers on Draft Day?

A popular buzzword this time of year is "sleeper." Every fantasy baseball writer, podcaster, and radio analyst wants you to know why their sleeper is the one you should be targeting on draft day. Conversely, your league mates hope you've never even heard of their sleeper. As I prepared to write this article, I found myself asking this question: If we are all identifying our sleepers individually, don't we need to decide who they actually are in order to determine when and how to target them in the draft?

I worry that we get too caught up in the idea that a sleeper has to be some relatively unknown player no one is talking about and I wonder if that's an oversimplification. If we adhere too strictly to the thought that a guy has to be flying under everyone's radar, we're inadvertently allowing the fantasy community at large to decide who does and does not qualify as a sleeper. In doing so, we're consequently also allowing the community to subliminally dictate our draft strategy. If we're not in charge of choosing who can be considered a sleeper, we're also not entirely in charge of figuring out the appropriate time to draft one. What we should be doing is deciding for ourselves how we feel about each and every player on the draft board.

I propose doing away with the groupthink that has ruled a player has to fall outside a certain ADP range or level of popularity in order to be categorized as a sleeper. Instead, I offer this definition: A sleeper is a player for whom you individually have significantly higher expectations than the consensus does. If you personally feel that any given player is capable of producing well above his average draft spot or preseason ranking, he is one of your sleepers. With this philosophy in mind, join me as I walk you through the process of targeting players you've identified as your own personal sleepers.

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How Early is Too Early?

A few notes before we begin: Fantasy leagues come in all shapes, sizes, and formats. This discussion will be based on a 12-team redraft league with rotisserie scoring, a snake draft, and 25-man rosters populated by players from both the AL and NL. Also, any ADP references, draft slot scenarios, or players I mention are simply examples. None of this is meant to be interpreted as exactly what to expect at your draft, as all drafts are going to feature their own unique developments along the way. Finally, all ADP information is courtesy of NFBC.

Because I'm framing this discussion around the idea that virtually any player can qualify as a sleeper, I'm technically of the mind that there is no such time as "too early" to target one. We know that our likelihood of landing any one of the players we're aiming at depends largely on our draft spot, as well as what the rest of our league mates do. That said, the first few rounds of a fantasy draft in any sport are not exactly the time to go rogue. I'm fine with diverging from the pack a little early on, but we should avoid excessive reaches.

So the first thing we want to do is come up with our own customized rankings. Even if we don't have the time or the inclination to sift through upwards of 400 players, we should definitely give ourselves a baseline to follow for at least the first 150 or so. Then we can compare our personal rankings to those of whatever site we're using, and also measure them against ADP information. In doing this, we'll be able to pinpoint players we think are ranked too highly, even in the first couple rounds.

For example, are we worried Juan Soto could take a step back without Anthony Rendon hitting in front of him? Are we concerned about the mileage on guys like Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer? Particularly if we're drafting from a late first-round slot, these are important determinations to make. If we're not totally sold on the players in the consensus 10-15 range, maybe we'd prefer Jose Ramirez and Freddie Freeman slightly further down the draft board with our first two picks.

Though they don't fit the conventional definition of "sleepers," we're already taking the first steps toward bucking tradition. We believe Ramirez and Freeman are capable of outperforming a handful of consensus late first-rounders, and we're not afraid to go and get them. After all, they're most certainly not going to be there in Round 3.


The (Un)Importance of ADP

ADP is useful information to have, but it's not important for the reasons everyone seems to think it is. Fantasy owners with an unwillingness to think outside the box view ADP as a guideline of, "This is when I should draft this player." If your league mates operate that way, let them. In the meantime, we'll be using ADP as a guideline on when everyone else thinks they should draft a player. In turn, we can use that to exploit variances in our own rankings.

To put this idea into practice, consider the following scenario. Eloy Jimenez is currently the 18th outfield-eligible player coming off the board with an ADP of 57.71. But let's say we believe he'll finish top-10 among outfielders, and we rank him accordingly. If everyone else also viewed Jimenez as a top-10 outfielder, he'd have an ADP closer to that of Starling Marte (29.68). Instead, he's being drafted nearly 30 picks later, which allows us to attack the middle ground.

Even though we believe Jimenez to be a top-10 positional value, we know we don't have to pay a top-10 positional price. At the same time, we also know about how early we do need to strike in order to make sure he doesn't wind up on someone else's team. An ADP of 57.71 indicates Jimenez is routinely coming off the board near the end of the fifth round; if we're truly committed to him as "our guy," we can steal him in the late fourth.

During the preparation process and the draft itself, we should always be measuring our custom rankings against ADP and site rankings to seek out these advantages.

Before we continue, I have to emphasize that this part of the process is not bulletproof. Many of us play in super-competitive leagues, and not every single one of our league mates is going to blindly follow site rankings or ADP. We're inevitably going to encounter situations where one of our league mates employs a similar line of thinking as us, and we might end up missing out on a couple of our sleepers as a result. The important thing is to trust what we're doing and not let the occasional tough break derail us. More often than not, taking the time to prepare in this manner is going to work out in our favor.


Reaching for Players: Reckless vs. Calculated

I mentioned above that we don't want to "excessively reach" for sleepers in the first couple rounds, but let's discuss that thought as it pertains to the middle of the draft. As the draft progresses, we can afford to take more risks with our selections because we're not passing up on nearly as much certainty in the middle rounds. But when we're weighing these risks, we need to ask ourselves whether they are reckless or calculated.

Sometimes when we evaluate a player's upside, we get so excited over his best-case scenario that we forget to appropriately consider his floor. Let's say we're super-high on Mallex Smith as a sleeper for 2020. Sure, Smith could steal 50 bases and score 100 runs, but what if he never gets on base to begin with? What if the Mariners never get enough going on offense to put Smith in a position to be a productive fantasy player? Smith becomes (or remains) pretty one-dimensional if things don't break right for him in 2020, which makes him a tough guy to justify reaching for at any point in a fantasy draft.

Unless, of course, we find ourselves greatly in need of some stolen bases, in which case we may feel compelled to take a chance on him. Smith's ADP is 150.81, which places him at about the middle of the 12th round. Maybe we get to the 10th and realize we're strapped for steals, so we nab him up early. Now we're virtually guaranteed 40-plus stolen bases as long as he stays healthy all year, but there's a good chance that's all we're getting.

This is a reckless reach, for one key reason: We allowed our roster's perceived shortcomings in one specific category to drive us to reach for a player with a low floor in many others. The odds of our reach for Smith translating into anything more than a lofty steal total aren't very good. We could theoretically have taken someone much safer like Michael Brantley with that pick. One or two reckless reaches aren't going to torpedo our season, but we want to keep these to a minimum.

As we're going through our custom rankings and labeling guys as sleepers, we should notate whether or not reaching for them would be considered calculated or reckless. In doing so, we'll realize it's probably better to just leave one-dimensional or low-floor players where they are in the rankings and scoop them up at the appropriate ADP if the opportunity presents itself.

A quick example of a calculated reach would be a player like Franmil Reyes (ADP 153.63). Reyes is not going to help us much in a category like batting average, and if he steals a base straight-up in 2020 the opposing catcher should have to take a lap mid-game. But say we went heavy on pitching early in our draft and missed out on a lot of the big bats. Reyes' power is such that he could provide us with first-round homer and RBI stats at a 12th-round price, and the Indians' lineup should be productive enough around him to give him a chance to contribute in runs scored as well.

Grabbing Reyes in the late 10th or early 11th, a couple of dozen picks before his ADP, is a calculated reach. If everything comes together for Reyes, his power ceiling is astronomical. And if he doesn't get there, he's still a solid bet to give us a palatable power floor, which is more than we can say for a lot of other players in this range.


Attacking the Final Rounds

In a 25-man-roster league, our rosters should be pretty well-set after Round 18 or so. We shouldn't ignore the need to supplement our starting lineup with bench depth, but the final seven-ish rounds are also where we can afford to get creative and take some serious gambles.

Austin Riley (ADP 286.32) is being taken, on average, in the 23rd round. He's currently set to split time with Johan Camargo at third base in 2020, but who has the higher upside here? If Riley permanently establishes himself as the player we saw during the first month of his 2019 debut, he could be one of the absolute steals of this year's draft. We shouldn't be afraid to grab a guy like Riley several rounds earlier than his ADP in an effort to capitalize on his ceiling. He's not crushing us by occupying a bench spot early in the year, and he could wind up helping us win a championship in the long run.

As we navigate the final rounds of our draft, we should take a balanced approach. Take a run at a young player with upside, then follow that up with a less volatile pick like, say, Masahiro Tanaka (ADP 225.48) or Brian Anderson (ADP 241.17). Then, our bench will be a nice blend of low-risk and high-reward players.


Final Thoughts

By now, I hope you have an idea how you plan to craft your sleeper strategy for 2020 drafts. Before we part, a few final thoughts.

  • I can't stress enough how important it is to come up with your own rankings. Just this week, I did so myself for one of my leagues and discovered that the site's default rankings had Gerrit Cole as the 60th-ranked player on the draft board. While this is an extreme example for which I admittedly have no explanation, the draft comes at you fast once it starts. The last thing you want is for a player you're targeting to slip your mind because you don't see him on the draft board at the juncture where you'd like to take him.
  • Prospects are great sleepers when drafted appropriately, but avoid stacking your roster with too many. Many of them won't see regular playing time early in the season, which means they'll be occupying your bench for awhile. If your bench is cluttered with guys who aren't playing every day, it limits your overall roster flexibility. Plus, it's more difficult for us to convince ourselves to drop prospects because all anyone talks about is how good they're eventually going to be.
  • Remember: Your sleepers are your sleepers. As long as you're taking a disciplined approach to drafting them, who cares what anyone else thinks of your picks? Get the guys you want within the confines of what can be considered responsible drafting, and more often than not you're going to leave your draft feeling pretty good about your team.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope it helps. If you have any fantasy baseball questions, feel free to direct them to me on Twitter: @cjoreillyCLE. Happy draft season, and good luck!

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