Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Roster Decisions-The Big Fly

One of the trickiest aspects of fantasy baseball is knowing when to drop a player. When a player is off to a slow start, do you stick with him and hope he turns it around soon or cut your losses?

One important point to remember is that baseball has a long season with 162 games. A player's peformance will usually revert to his established mean over the long run, meaning if he's an excellent player and slumps for the first month or so, he still has an excellent chance of turning it around. Gary Sheffield is a prime example. He started this season in a prolonged slump, hitting worse than some pitchers. However, he rewarded his patient owners with a nice rebound, which should be expected considering his career norms.

The opposite also holds true. Mark Hendrickson is a prime example of a pitcher who overachieved in his first few starts only to be out of the rotation about a month later.

Those are the easier situations to deal with. It's not a tough decision to stick with Gary Sheffield. What about a younger player who has a good if not great minor league record but does not have enough major league experience to project his numbers with reasonable accuracy?

My rule of thumb is: if he's starting every day, it's usually a safe bet to keep him in your lineup. I figure major league teams have much more at stake than fantasy owners, so if they feel comfortable starting him, then you should too. Like any rule of thumb, you still have to use your own judgement. A team may be in rebuilding mode or, especially later in the season, have thrown in the towel and want to test out some different players. Generally, though, this method works.

The Padres slated Kevin Kouzmanoff as their everyday third baseman after he tore the cover off the ball in AAA. As of May 10th, he was batting .108, in one of the worst slumps in recent memory. Bud Black, the Padres manager, remained patient and still gave him the majority of starts. Most teams would have either benched him or sent him back to the minors, but he eventually turned things around and hit well over .300 for the month of May.

On the flip side, I drafted Wes Helms in a couple leagues this year fresh off a season where he batted .325 and slugged .575 in part-time duty. In fact, his career has been on the upswing for a while now. At the beginning of the season he didn't perform badly, just not up to expectations, and the Phillies panicked. As of this writing, he has started only two of their past eight games and I dropped him off my rosters.

In a situation like that, where a player is playing only half the games or less, even if he performs well his contribution to your team will still be limited because he's sitting on the bench half the time. Also, it's difficult for a player to develop a rhythm when he's shifted in and out of the lineup. Generally, it's best to move on.

Another way to help with personnel decisions is to keep in mind the value of each player, as I discussed in a previous article. If a player is still starting, or for pitchers if they are still in the rotation or the team's closer, then they still have value close to their pre-season projections. Watch for impatient owners dropping a player off to a slow start or target underperformers in trades and you could be well on your way to a strong run in the second half of the season!

I love to talk baseball, so please feel free to post any comments and opinions or email me at tim10966@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Big Fly-Free Agents

Draft day is the single most important event of the season for your team. No matter how skilled a drafter you are, however, the key to success over the long haul is managing your team well. Specifically, this means using the free agent pool to your advantage. Indeed, winning a championship based on a good draft alone is as rare as a pitcher hitting a home run. Yes, it does happen, but the general rule of thumb is: the more competitive a league, the harder it is to win without skillfully running your team during the ups and downs of the season.

A simplification technique I have always used is viewing every player as having a particular value, like a stock. Just like a stock, a multitude of variables can influence a player's value, such as past performance, how his manager will likely use him, his health, etc. For example, J.J. Hardy of the Brewers was a pretty good prospect when he entered the majors a few years ago, but he has struggled somewhat, compounded by a propensity to miss large chunks of time with injuries. His value was low enough entering the 2007 season where he went undrafted in many leagues.

As of this writing, he is leading the National League in home runs, thanks to good health (knock on wood), more experience, and batting in a Brewer offense that's more potent than it has been in years, perhaps since the days of Harvey's Wallbangers. Any home run leader has tremendous value, but a shortstop?! Needless to say, his value has skyrocketed.

If Hardy was available in your league's free agent pool, he is surely long gone by now. Essentially, his value increased enough for the lucky owner who picked him up when his value exceeded someone elses on his team. That's the way I look at it. I don't normally assign a numerical value beyond draft day. Rather, I have a rough idea of how much each player is worth. Games are played daily, injuries occur, players are called up or sent down to the minors, become starters or vice versa, etc. In other words, just like the stock market, baseball is dynamic, with values changing every single day of the season. To reach the top, you have to stay on top of the news and be aware of who is available.

So what is the best way to sort through the multitude of available players? No matter how skilled a player is, if he doesn't play regularly, it's next to impossible to help your team, unless you think he's so good he won't be overlooked all season and you have room on your roster to stash him away. Otherwise, the best players to target are those whose playing time is on the upswing, mainly players who just earned a chance to start. When that happens, I then examine his historical performance, including the minor leagues. There are many players who have excelled in the minors but haven't had much of an opportunity to play in the big leagues. Just recently, Jack Cust of the A's was given a shot to start in the outfield. He has terrorized minor league pitchers for years but really hasn't had much of a trial in the big show. Now he's looking like the real deal, blasting a homer seemingly every other game.

Those types of players can have huge payoffs if you jump early. They don't all work out, of course. Sometimes they slump, the window closes fast, and their value drops. Over a long season, though, you will hit paydirt sometimes, and it's a great feeling. It's surprising how many players have big time ability and don't really have a chance to display their skills. Some players languish in utility roles for years before really having the chance to shine.

Pitchers are more of a crapshoot, but here's a secret: pay close attention to their K/IP ratio, especially for starters. If it's not at least 2/3, they will rarely achieve long-term success unless their name is Jimmy Key. Even if a pitcher has struggled somewhat, if he has high strikeout rates and is starting, I will invariable take a chance on him. Even better, many leagues count strikeouts or strikeout ratio as a category, so you have a leg up to begin with. In general, history has shown that strikeout pitchers excel far more than their soft-tossing counterparts, so don't hesitate to jump on the bandwagon.

Lastly, assuming saves are important in your league, pay close attention to each team's closer situation. In particular, if a team's ace reliever is struggling, usually there is another guy on the team throwing well and, with one more blown save by the closer, might find himself in that role before too long. If you have room on your roster for closers in waiting, you have a real good chance of a huge payoff.

Two or three major pickups can be enough for an average team to make the playoffs. Once you make the post-season, anything can happen, so stay on top of the news and you will reap the rewards!

Good luck this week. If you have any comments or are interested in a thorough, low-cost analysis of your team, feel free to email me at tim10966@gmail.com for details. Also, please see my ebay listing under fantasy baseball.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Big Fly-Hitting vs. Pitching

When I first played fantasy baseball on the internet back in 1997 on the late, great Grandstand game on AOL, I struggled to reach .500. I had watched baseball since I was a little boy, collected baseball cards and immersed myself in the statistics on the back, read the fascinating Baseball Abstracts by Bill James, and competed in leagues with my friends for years. How could I fail to win even with my pitching hand tied behind my back?

I discovered two reasons. First, you need to have access to an informative, constantly updated news source. The internet was fairly new at that time, especially to me, and reading the transaction listings in the back of the sports page did not cut it. By now, this is common knowledge and almost every participant who is even half serious can access sports news. Back then, I noticed that the winner of our league used the Roto News, later to become rotowire.com and I have been a loyal subscriber ever since for all sports.

My second discovery was much more important. As I pored over all the statistics available in Grandstand looking for anything that might help, I stumbled upon something relatively simple and surprising. Our league standings were seperated into total points by batting and pitching. The teams with the best pitching were all over the map, but the teams at the top of the standings were all at or near the top in hitting. Eureka!

Wait a minute, though, was that a fluke? What were the reasons? I thought about it for a while and realized there was something to it, actually quite a bit to it. For several reasons.

One, how many hitters come out of nowhere each year? Not too many. Sure, there are always surprises like Russell Martin last year. However, if you made a list of the top players at each hitting position, it's difficult for an unknown player to crack that lineup. For example, using Yahoo's pre-season rankings for first base eligible players, here are the top ten:

4.Derrek Lee
6.Ryan Howard
8.Adrian Gonzalez

If you then sort by 2007 performance, six of the top seven first basemen are included in that list, and nine of the ten are in the top 18. In fact, the only player who doesn't show up is Ryan Howard, who is currently on the DL. Here is the list:

9.Shawn Green
10.Victor Martinez

I'm pretty sure Sir Albert will appear on that list before too long.

Now let's do the same with pitchers. Here are the pre-draft rankings:

5.Felix Hernandez
7.Rich Hill
9.B.J. Ryan

Only two of them make the top ten now:

5.Francisco Cordero
6.Al Reyes

Granted, there are more pitchers than first basemen. I'll get to that in a moment. Still, the success of four of these pitchers is a surprise. Al Reyes was part of a closer committee at the start of the season, Marquis had been awful, Hudson had a horrible season last year, and Penny is good but not a top 20 pitcher by most measures.

Also notice how two of the pitchers on the pre-season list, Ryan and Halladay, are on the DL, and Hernandez has also missed some time. Ryan is actually out for the year. That raises another point-pitchers are more injury prone. The motion necessary to pitch a baseball is unnatural in most cases and leads to many injuries, often serous, while swinging a bat puts much less pressure on the body. In fact, some experts ranked Chris Carpenter as one of the best pitchers entering 2007 and he is also finished for the year.

There are 30 teams, each using a five man pitching rotation as well as a closer. That's 180 players to choose from just to begin the season. With so many injuries and, with such a high variance in performance, the player pool of 180 expands rapidly even during the opening weeks of the season.

In contrast, each team uses only one catcher, one shortstop, etc. for the most part. Some teams platoon players, further reducing the number of players you want on your team. Player turnover is much lower, with fewer injuries and players losing their grip on the starting job. In short, you will have significantly more trouble finding a suitable replacement for a hitter, so you need to make it a priority to draft good ones at each position. With pitchers, you can pick up free agents and have some who were drafted lower come through as pleasant surprises.

In 2004. I took over a last place team in a league where you can keep your six best players. I then lost my best player, Vlad Guerrero, before the season started because he went to the American League. I traded away a couple good pitchers for draft picks and went crazy drafting batters. I finished with a league record 61-13 mark and crushed the opposition in the post-season.

In short, the one most important secret to know in fantasy baseball is to DRAFT HITTERS OVER PITCHERS. It gives you a tremendous advantage. Most people are unaware of this fact and you can use this knowledge to win more than your share of championships!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Big Fly-Positional Scarcity

Chase Utley is the best player to target for the 2007 season. Shocking? Indeed, most experts would disagree with this statement, ranking players such as Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez higher, to throw out just a couple names. However, there are other players at their positions who are at least in the same ballpark as Sir Albert and ARod, but Utley rates head and shoulders above the rest of his class, especially in National League only leagues.

Experts are divided on the importance of positional scarcity. Simply put, it means that some positions are loaded with players of similar abilities, while others have a small group of players who clearly outshine the rest. When building a team, an advocate of the positional scarcity strategy will emphasize filling those positions early.

Roughly half of the fantasy baseball commentators I have read tailor their teams to this principle. When looking at the numbers, it makes perfect sense.

In a mixed 5X5 league, according to rotowire.com, Utley is valued at $32. The second best second baseman is Ian Kinsler, whose value is $9. That is a $23 difference! If you missed out on drafting Utley, Kinsler is the best alternative. Realistically, you might very well end up with an even lower valued player, making the difference that much greater.

In contast, Alex Rodriguez is another great player, with an identical value of $32. Third base is a much deeper position, though. The eighth best player, Scott Rolen, has a $10 value, a $22 difference. In other words, if you own the best second baseman, Utley, and the #8 third baseman, you have total value of $42, one dollar better than having the best third baseman and #2 second baseman.

Let's consider the ramifications. Say you're in a mixed league, non-auction draft with 12 teams. Both ARod and Utley will most likely be drafted in the first round, with ARod usually going first. Once they are both selected, each owner crosses their names off their cheatsheets. Now what happens? On most of those sheets, the #1 second and third baseman have a line drawn through them. 10 of the 12 owners still need a player at each position and the next name on their list stands out like a Ryan Howard blast. The proud owner of Utley smiles to himself, knowing he can wait a while before drafting a third baseman and instead concentrates on other high value players. Not so for the other 11 owners. That is the key: it provides you the freedom to draft an excellent player at each position while your competition is forced to play catch-up. In other words, you have flexibility. You can draft a third baseman in the second round if you wish and still be way ahead, or you can wait a while on third base and instead draft a stud outfielder in the second round and an excellent shortstop in the third round.

Using this strategy, you need to group players of similar value together at each position, usually by drawing a line on your draft sheet. For example, in my mixed league Yahoo draft, I had five players at third base valued between $26-$31. The sixth best player came in at $20. I didn't want to draft a third baseman immediately, but made sure to watch how many of those five were still available when my turn approached. If there were only one or two of them remaining, it was time to take the plunge. Often there is at least one position where the talent is becoming scarce as the draft progresses and, because of the flexibility you now have, you can jump on those players before it's too late.

One caveat to this approach: don't draft players too early. This is the tricky part. There may be one catcher left who is a few dollars better than the rest. At this point, you have to decide if he's likely to be drafted over the next round or two. If that's not the case, go ahead and fill a need at a different position and hope he's still available when your turn rolls around again. Experience and knowing your competition helps here, as well as your draft position. If you're participating in a snake draft where the order reverses after each round, you may not have to wait 12 pick before making another selection. Also, if most or all of the owners drafting after you have a catcher, you can feel a little more confident he will still be available later. Just like anything else, the more practice you have in drafting, the sharper your skills will become.

Following this principle will result in a team filled with excellent, high value players. If the value of your starting lineup is the highest in the league, especially on offense, that should translate to a playoff berth and hopefully a championship!

Good luck to everyone this week! If you are interested in a thorough, low-cost analysis of your team, please email me at tim10966@gmail.com or view my ebay listing under fantasy baseball.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Fantasy Baseball League Structure

Welcome to the inaugural article of my new fantasy baseball blog. You are one of the first people to read my column. Just imagine what an edge you'll have over your competition!

This is the first in a continuing series of weekly articles. I'm bursting with ideas for future articles (feel free to email me with your ideas too). Leading off the first inning is one of the most important topics: league structure. Simply put, all leagues are not created equally.

For example, I am playing in five leagues this season, three on yahoo and two on cbssportsline. One of the yahoo leagues is a full keeper league, or dynasty format. We conducted our initial draft last season and filled out our rosters. Prior to the start of the 2007 season. each owner announced which players he was releasing. If you dropped three players, that is how many you were drafting. Because it's a keeper format, the players drafted this year were mostly young, highly talented players such as Brandon Wood and Elijah Dukes who have tremendous long-term potential.

The other two yahoo leagues are start from scratch, one year only leagues. Many of the most coveted players drafted right off the bat in the other league were chosen much lower here, in some cases going completely undrafted. The players are the same, of course. It's just the structure that alters their value. It's therefore important to note that when seeking out advice, an owner has to be careful in determining how applicable it is to their own format. One size does not fit all, so be sure to exercise your own good judgment as a filter.

To further complicate matters, both of my CBS leagues are set up where you can retain up to six players from the previous season, plus two rookies. If an owner feels he is out of the race, he may trade four or five good players for one superstar. In most leagues, such a deal would make no sense, but here it can help both owners.

My CBS leagues feature point-based, head-to-head matchups on a weekly basis. We actually play three teams simultaneously. By the end of the week, if you outscored all three of your opponents, you are awarded three victories. If you beat two of the teams, you go 2-1, and so on. Under this point system, a player stealing a base scores two points, while you lose one if your player is caught stealing.

On the other hand, in two of the yahoo leagues, we compare categories instead of scoring points. For example, on offense we use average, on base percentage, home runs, rbi's, runs, and stolen bases. We play only one opponent per week and compare the team totals in each category at the end of the week, so if you scored 50 runs and your rival scored 49, then you earned a victory.

In this case, the importance of stolen bases is magnified. In fact, many hitters can slug 15-20 home runs or more, but not as many can swipe 20 bases. A player like Corey Patterson might hit .265 and score 75 runs. Not bad, although not really what you might want from an outfielder. However, if he steals 45-50 bases, he can lead your team to many victories in that category. If he is caught 20 times, no problem-there is no penalty for being gunned down at second base. Again, due to the league structure, he goes from being a pretty good player to one with significant value.

In addition to the above, other league differences influencing an owner's strategy include:

  • Starting Lineup Size-do you have to start one or two catchers? Three, four, or even five outfielders? How many pitchers vs. batters?
  • Lineup Frequency-do you submit daily or weekly lineups?
  • Roster Size-do you have plenty of room on your bench to stash away players with potential?
  • Disabled List-are you allowed to shift players to the DL and free up roster space, perhaps for a player like Pedro Martinez who should help you later?
  • Playoff Format-is it winner take all or do six of the ten teams qualify for the playoffs?
  • Scoring Categories-very important. A couple of my leagues count double plays turned by infielders, for example, making second basemen and shortstops much more valuable.
  • Type of Draft-is it an auction, a live draft, or fully automated?
  • Minimum Qualifications-do your statistics not count if you fail to reach a team minimum of at bats or innings pitched?
  • Player Pool-is it AL or NL only or mixed?
Good luck to everyone this week! If you are interested in a thorough, low-cost analysis of your team, please email me at tim10966@gmail.com for details.