Thursday, Sep 5th
Monday, Sep 9th

Best Ball Cash Games


Most of the focus around Best Ball is on tournaments (much like DFS!) because they’re exciting and offer the chance to win life-changing money. But there are also smaller Best Ball contests available across all major sites ranging from 3 to 12 entries. These contests aren’t exactly “cash games” as we’re used to thinking about them in DFS, in that they don’t pay out the top half of the field (though I think it would be awesome if some site decided to implement that), but they’re fairly close; some of them pay out winners each week (like Yahoo), whereas others just pay out the top few teams (generally the top 20-30%) at the end of the season. 

I played around with this type of format last season and my experience was extremely positive; my ROI in these types of contests was around 60-70%. I’m not sure that’s sustainable (in fact it probably is not), but much like other more niche formats (such as Showdown cash games), these types of contests should continue to offer a strong positive ROI. This is partly because most of the sharpest Best Ball players just don’t bother playing these types of contests. They’re focused on the big tournaments, and partly because people just apply the same Best Ball strategies they’re reading about even though those strategies are focused on large tournaments. As JM likes to say (and what has become something of a mantra for OWS), every edge matters, and there’s a meaningful edge in these types of contests.

So if people are using “normal” Best Ball tournament strategies in these types of contests, why is that bad? And how can we smartly take advantage? 

Hyper-Fragile Builds

Most Best Ball content is focused on large tournaments. They’re strategies that are focused on maximizing upside, whereas in these smaller contests we don’t need to do that; we need to reduce variance on our rosters and maximize our floor/median outcomes. A clear example of this is the overall Best Ball roster construction philosophy and specifically the “hyper-fragile RB” strategy that is becoming increasingly common. A hyper-fragile RB build, to put it extremely simply, is based on picking 1 or 2 stud running backs early but then mostly skipping RB the rest of the way, ending with a small number of running backs on the roster (4 is often the targeted number of running backs in these strategies). The theory here for large-field contests is that you have to assume the health of your early picks; if you pick Dalvin Cook 2nd overall and he gets hurt, your roster is probably not live to compete for 1st place in a large tournament, so you just need to assume Cook stays healthy and is filling one of your RB slots every single week with a strong score. 

This is a great strategy for large tournaments, but for these smaller leagues we don’t need to beat out thousands of other rosters, we only need to beat a few. In a large tournament, with a bunch of entries, you just write off the Dalvin Cook rosters if he gets hurt; no big deal, injuries happen, that roster is going to be dead. But in a smaller contest, you want to give yourself a reasonable chance to overcome injuries and still cash, which is doable if you ensure sufficient depth at each position. 

The hyper-fragile build idea extends to all positions. In tournament builds, if you invest an early pick in a 1-slot position (quarterback or tight end), you’re assuming that pick will be healthy and will be a top scoring option every week; it doesn’t make sense to invest much draft capital in the QB or TE slots if you end up picking a top QB or TE early in the draft. If you grab Travis Kelce in the first round, you need Kelce to smash; if he doesn’t, you’re probably dead to win a big tournament, so it doesn’t really matter what backup TEs you grab behind him. It’s common in tournament strategies to see a roster that picks a top QB or TE not take a second one at those positions until the very latest rounds of the draft. In smaller leagues, you still want to be aware of how you’re using your overall draft capital positionally; I wouldn’t ever draft two top-5 QBs or two top-5 TEs. I definitely want to make sure my roster has more than one good option at each position so an injury doesn’t completely torpedo a roster. So, for example, if I draft Kelce as my first TE in a large tournament, I probably would leave my backup TE until the last 2-3 rounds. Whereas in a smaller league I would be more open to picking a second TE any time after rounds 9-10 or so. At a high level, my perspective on cash games is “pick the best available player at each pick early on and then fill in for roster needs in the second half of the draft.” I don’t care about stacking, what I care about is jamming as much value as possible onto each roster. 

Lean Away from Variance

Another point of differentiation in small leagues versus tournaments is that you want to lean away rather than leaning into variance. What I mean here are uncertain situations. In Best Ball, we’re often drafting based on expectations of roles. We think this guy will be the starter, but we don’t know for sure. In small leagues, I think you benefit on the whole from avoiding those types of situations (or at least under drafting those situations; only picking a guy in a situation like that up if he falls well below his ADP). If you believe ADP is relatively efficient, picking a guy in an uncertain situation at his ADP is “fair value,” but you want to get good value on every pick to maximize your floor. In tournaments you can take that kind of risk, hoping to get the starter right and thus gain several rounds of ADP value. But in small leagues, you benefit from avoiding risk. For example, this year we have situations like Andy Dalton and Justin Fields in Chicago; right now I think we don’t really know who the starter will be coming out of camp. The Bears list Dalton first on the depth chart, and there’s random coachspeak to try and interpret, but I think it’s fair to say we don’t really know for sure what’s going to happen here until Week 1. My take here is that in small leagues I would rather just avoid this situation entirely. Why take the risk?

This informational risk is highly relevant depending on when you’re drafting. I think that in small leagues there is more edge to drafting early; you’re largely competing against players who are not super knowledgeable and are just following ADP. You also don’t have to worry about late news resulting in ADP changes that leave rosters built later in the draft season being stronger. You’re only competing against a pool of players who are drafting at the same time as you are. There is value in drafting early and just avoiding situations of uncertainty, letting others take on that risk while you focus on just building a strong roster top-to-bottom that only has players with highly certain roles.

Roster Construction 

Finally, a thought on roster construction. It’s really common in tournaments to see roster constructions that look like this: 2 QB, 4 RB, 9 WR, 3 TE (or something very close to that, assuming it’s a “standard” 18 slot roster). In cash games, I generally want 7 or 8 WRs so that I can have an additional RB or QB. Generally speaking, I aim for all of my rosters to have at least one of the following:

  • A top 5 QB
  • Two top 12 RBs
  • A top 3 TE (this varies year to year depending on the separation between the top tiers and later ones, but this year it’s Kelce/Waller/Kittle clearly in the top tier for me)

Which of those I achieve on a given roster will determine the overall construction I end up with. If I get a top 5 QB, I probably only want one additional QB. If I get a top 3 TE, I will likewise probably end up with 1 backup TE, while if I get two top RBs I’ll probably land at a total of 5 or 6. I don’t think there’s an optimal number of players at each position that you can go into a draft thinking around. Instead, it’s all about thinking of your draft as an allotment of resources. Each pick representing some amount of value, and allotting your overall draft resources intelligently across the different positions based on who you manage to draft and what value is available on the board at each pick.

The important takeaways from this piece:

  • Small Best Ball leagues are a great source of positive ROI
  • Focus on reducing variance and building high-floor rosters
  • Avoid the hyperfragile approach in these leagues (but utilize it in tournaments!)
  • Avoid uncertainty, focus on guys with known roles (including a role that is “known, but could expand”)

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