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April 21, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Churn and Burn

by Eric Seidman

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Full disclosure: I have never really played fantasy baseball, at least in a serious or semi-serious capacity, prior to this season. My lack of participation had nothing to do with ulterior motives like taking a stance against W-L and batting average. I just never got into it. Well, things have changed and, in deciding to try my hand at the massively popular game, I am finding that certain tendencies have awoken that I believed were trained out of my baseball vernacular long ago. For instance, it is becoming increasingly tempting to drop a player after a poor week in exchange for a player in the midst of a hot streak. I mean, I know Jeff Francoeur isn’t going to hit .438/.583/.839, but my goodness, if I had that production or even some semblance of it instead of the .250/.345/.333 from Andrew McCutchen, I might have won both of my matchups so far.

Despite my own analytical prowess and well-known feelings about sample sizes, I find myself eerily entertaining ideas like this with each passing day, getting rid of someone I know will perform well by the end of the year for someone who is performing well now, regardless of whether that explains anything about his year-long attributes. After talking to our stable of fantasy writers, I grew to learn that giving into these temptations is actually a fairly prominent strategy with its own nickname: churning and burning. Fantasy owners will actively add or drop players based on results from the prior week or two, and even potentially try to cash in on unsustainable hot streaks by trading these players to, perhaps, lesser statistically-oriented competitors.

That such a strategy is renowned enough to have a nickname got the motors moving in my mind, wondering if the strategy made sense. Do small samples derived from a week or so of playing time hold predictive value? Regardless of the answer to that question, would our findings even be relevant relative to the context of fantasy baseball and not actual general managers making decisions?

We’re Going Streaking!

As was discussed in my opus on spring training statistics, it is human nature for fans to anchor to early-season performances when forming opinions on players, because the beginning of the year provides a tangible tracing point. This is the same reason why diets or workout regimens are started by so many on the first of the month, or a Monday, as opposed to a random Wednesday the 12th. Fantasy owners operate differently, however because each week tends to be to its own, independent of past or future weeks. Last week, my team, the HeyNowHankKingsleys lost 9-5 despite stellar pitching across the board because Kevin Youkilis, Justin Upton, McCutchen, Yunel Escobar and Adam Dunn all posted sub-.700 OPS marks, with Matt Wieters chiming in at .361. Each of these players should be firmly above .800 by the end of the year, but that fact does little to console the deep pain suffered due to the loss.

If each of them manages an OPS above 1.000 this week, wonderful, but it doesn’t retroactively change the standings just because they have regressed closer to their true talent levels. By examining players under this weekly lens, it is impossible to avoid noting who is benefiting from a hot streak and who is underperforming in the midst of a cold streak. But are streaks predictive?

To be frank, this is the point in my articles where I’ll generally explain the statistical tests or procedures to be used in order to answer the objective question of the piece, but I know the answer to this particular query without having to even flinch. I don’t need week-to-week correlations or RMSE pre- and post-tests to confirm that, no, streaks are not very predictive in the aggregate. In The Book, Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin took all hot or cold streaks, over a five-game span, from 2000-03 and compared the numbers that were to be expected after the streak to what was actually produced. The effect was faint at best and led to the conclusion that, realistically, what a player is expected to produce in a given frame based on a rolling projection matters much more. If a tiebreaker is needed, streaks work well in that regard, but they do not hold any true or clinically significant statistical advantage.

Along the lines of the test, forgive my brief tangent into discussing what I call “The Abreu Fallacy,” which aptly explains why the tests they conducted are tantamount to conducting an accurate study in this forum. When evaluating if streaks cause any effect, the numbers produced in the streak itself cannot be compared, straight up, to what transpires after the fact. This occurred frequently when Bobby Abreu won the All-Star Home Run Derby in 2005. He went into the All-Star break on an absolute tear, mashed about 732 home runs in the derby at Comerica Park, and then proceeded to hit like Winston Abreu the rest of the year. Several writers took it upon themselves to compare the pre- and post-derby numbers of several players to determine if the derby caused a decline, but they missed the boat, because Abreu and others should not have been expected to keep up their pre-derby performance.

The accurate comparison is between what he was expected to do after the hot start to what he actually did. Relating this to streaks, to determine if they are predictive, post-streak performance cannot be compared directly to streak performance, but rather to what is expected to happen after the streak, which could be as simple as a weighted average of the past three years and the numbers from the current year up to that point in time. Speaking of points in time, streaks are incredibly interesting in terms of the churn-and-burn strategy because they occur in the past. We know when one ends, because the player stops performing as well, but it is impossible to know when one will end. How do we know exactly when Franceour’s numbers will begin their gradual decline? We know it will happen in the back of our heads, but hey, if it lasts another week that could be all I need to win this matchup.

Essentially, in employing this strategy, we would be using a backwards-looking concept in order to drive decisions revolving around future performance. It can certainly work—and it must work on some level to have become such a common strategy—but from a statistical perspective, streaks in the aggregate hold next to no predictive value. What happens last week is unlikely to influence performance this week. But the question of relevance comes into play, as what happens in the aggregate does not apply to every single individual. While the broad concept holds true in that streaks are not predictive, there are certainly individuals for whom this might not apply.

The Strategy Itself

Not all churn and burns are created equally; some owners might rotate all roster spots save for the Utleys, Pujolses, and Wellemeyers Halladays of the world. Others might choose to reserve just one offensive and one pitching spot for streak-driven decisions. Even though, overall, streaks boast little predictive value, the strategy itself is still valid for the same reason that people continue to invest in penny stocks: even though the percentages are not in their favor, capitalizing on a few that turn out well more than makes up for the other failures. Imagine if you entered last season with Casey Kotchman as your starting first baseman and picked up Garrett Jones after he hit .296/.345/.667 in his first seven games. In that scenario, your replacement would have hit .293/.374/.557 for 75 games and 329 plate appearances after that point, vastly superior to he who was rostered heading into the swap.

Same with Joe Blanton, who might not have been drafted, but who posted a 3.16 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 7.5 K/9 from May 26 to the end of the season. Players like that would have supremely benefited those who took the chance. While the strategy might be very risky given the lack of predictive value in the aggregate, much of that risk is mitigated if the strategy is employed somewhat conservatively—as in, don’t drop Chase Utley after a poor week—by the fact that some really will pay off, and those that don’t can be dropped for someone else almost instantly.

So how do we actually test the strategy given that so much is open to interpretation? Well, an idea I had that I wanted to throw out is literally to apply the test in a fantasy setting. As in, two faux-leagues are set up with identical rosters, and in one of them the only moves allowed deal with DL stints, while in the other owners can run rampant with churning and burning, with a few restrictions. What I have in mind would work like this:

1) Two leagues are set up with, say, eight teams each

2) An autodraft is done in League #1

3) Those same rosters are imported into League #2

4) We define parameters for League #2 as far as who cannot be dropped. This could be as simple as anyone in the top four at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field; within the top six at first base, left field, right field and third base; within the top 12 starting pitchers and top six relievers. Numbers can change depending how the consensus feels but that would be the gist; you can drop Stephen Drew, but not Hanley Ramirez.

5) We define parameters for what constitutes a hot/cold streak. Maybe something like an OPS below .700 is a cold streak and above .900 is a hot streak.

6) In League #1, the only moves can occur if someone gets hurt, or we could just say no moves, period, and if someone is DL’d we can control for that after the fact.

7) In League #2, add/drops based on streaks can be randomized or determined by the draft order, to ensure that no one team can load up on the “hotter” streakier hitters.

Let me throw it out to the audience—is this something anyone would be interested in seeing or doing? In the end, what we could begin to determine is whether or not better production could be had by sticking to a drafted player, who was obviously solid to begin with, or exploiting streaks. Begin is the key word, as one test-flight isn’t going to answer any questions, but if it can open the discussion and shed some light on the results I’ll be satisfied. Additionally, to those who have employed this sort of strategy, what are your experiences? When has it worked or failed? Would you recommend it?

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Guancous

I'm curious to see how this shakes out. I'll take over a team but I'm dubious there will be a huge statistical difference.

Apr 21, 2010 09:45 AM
rating: 0
 
jevillarreal

I'd be very interested to see the test. I tried the churning and burning with my outfielders last year, logged all their PA's into a spreadsheet and found out they gave me average production. The daily grind was kind of exciting, but the results left me with a deeper desire to draft better outfielders.

Apr 21, 2010 10:22 AM
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CRP13

I have a feeling I know the outcome, but I don't want it publicized. In a keeper-league, I feast on Churn-and-Burner's - it has led to acquiring Reynolds, Alexei Ramirez, Napoli, and Swisher - for free, in the same season.

Seriously, I'd be interested. Not many useful information on valid fantasy strategies around. If you're looking for volunteers, I'd help, but I think you'll have tons of takers.

Apr 21, 2010 11:51 AM
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CRP13

If I were speaking English, I would have said "Not much..." instead of "Not many...", but alas, I was not.

Apr 21, 2010 11:52 AM
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Kyle E.

I too have had sustained success waiting it out, and like Chris, nabbed Napoli when he was cut loose earlier this week. Tuesday's DL'ing of Mathis was fantastic (for me, obviously not Mathis).

Yahoo keeps track of how many moves each team makes in a league. I haven't kept detailed numbers, but the churn and burners tend to be towards the bottom of the standings each year. That could of course be because they have fewer players worth hanging on to, but I much prefer to stick with the team I drafted for the first month or two, upgrading where others have cast off players for the sin of a bad couple weeks.

Apr 21, 2010 19:27 PM
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John Carter

In League #2, half the teams would be playing the hot streaks and half the teams would be selling high and buying low, right? Then hot streakers would be compared to their counterparts in League #1 and the Wall Street guys would be compared to their counterparts in League #1. Otherwise, I don't see how this would work. It would be a zero sum result if everyone was churning and burning (whatever one that is).

Apr 21, 2010 12:02 PM
rating: 0
 
oPlaiD

There are a lot of other factors to consider with strategies like this. I guess with the plan you have laid out we can get a vague idea of what might happen, but there's a lot of knowledge that can go into it that can make or break the success of a "churn and burn" strategy.

Knowing which guy to pick up when you have multiple options, for example or knowing the chances a guy actually might have a true talent level higher than what is projected are things that impact the viability of it.

The league's format, as well, makes a difference. In a "standard" ESPN or Yahoo league I'd probably never really utilize something like this since you should be able to get a full roster of solid players. In deeper leagues, though, where it's not likely the true talent level of your weaker guys is really that much higher than anyone streaking on the wire, it's a lot more tempting and fun to do.

Apr 21, 2010 12:48 PM
rating: 1
 
ZacharyRD

This would be VERY interesting. Also, I agree with Hotstatrat above.

Apr 21, 2010 14:06 PM
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anderson721

I would be very interested...and not just because I dropped Jay Bruce for Francouer last week. I knew I would be the kiss of death for Frenchy, but I had no idea I would ignite Bruce as well.

Apr 21, 2010 14:24 PM
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krissbeth

As someone who drafts teams with a churn and burn slot pre-made, I think this strategy tends to work enough to have a name for a few additional reasons.

First, attentive owners beat inattentive owners. If you have a churn spot, you have an incentive to stay really up to date on marginal players. Managers taking the long view who make few moves may tend to become passive, lose the details, and get bored. Baseball is a loooong season, especially when you seem mired in eighth. A strategy that's neutral but that leads to an engaged manager is a net positive. (in real baseball, using your entire bench may be the version of this argument.) In short, long-view managers run risks too.

Second, just because you're churning a spot, doesn't mean you're playing hot streaks for their own sake. You're churning until you find a breakout player or other player who's good enough to hold onto for the rest of the season. Then, your new lowest man on the totem pole becomes your churn and burn until you strike gold again.

Third, a hot streak may produce a change that changes the player's value. Managers do assign playing time based on them, after all. So a streak may lead to someone claiming the job, while a cold spell may lead to a job share. These are more marginal players we're talking about here. There is a logic to churn, more than simply mindlessly following OPS.

Apr 21, 2010 14:29 PM
rating: 2
 
wyliecoyote
(235)

I agree that the primary value of "churn and burn" is that it forces you to actually pay attention, so that when the completely valid upgrades present themselves, you're there to snap the player up. If you're only checking in monthly or something, it's too easy to miss these opportunities, especially if you wind up forgetting about the waiver wire entirely.

The other advantage is that people like to remember the brilliant things they did, and forget the other stuff. So they remember the best instances of churn, and keep doing it.

These also feed into each other - when you do spot the legitimate upgrade, you're usually happy to have done it, so credit your churn and burn strategy for the move, even if a completely "rational" owner would have done the exact same thing.

Apr 22, 2010 15:55 PM
rating: 0
 
mcbellows

I just did this in a fantasy hockey league (which I know nothing about) and churned basically my entire roster for the year (save for a few stars) based on how the players did over the prior 3 week span. I ended up finishing 11-5 in a H2H league so I was happy with the results.

Apr 21, 2010 15:57 PM
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Dave Holgado

This is the beauty of a deep single league format rotisserie style league. You can't churn and burn when the best thing on the waiver wire is John Hester.

Apr 21, 2010 16:43 PM
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andyfoy

I was going to say that this is the beauty of all roto leagues in general. It rewards patience and normally burns players who drop guys too quickly based on a week or two of stats.

That being said, I'm riding this Martin Prado wave until it crashes, baby.

Apr 21, 2010 22:48 PM
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AlexMcCrum

I think this would make for a very interesting article, but, as was mentioned above, would probably only be of use for moderately deep leagues--only eight teams wouldn't justify a churn-and-burn, but too many teams (say, 16 plus, maybe) and almost any potential breakout players are already rostered. I'm thinking 12-14 teams, maybe?

Apr 21, 2010 17:25 PM
rating: 0
 
wyliecoyote
(235)

The main problem will be the lack of sample size from just 1 season, and from the fact that each week, an owner can only take X players out of Y suitable pickups. Seems better to monte carlo this, Davenport-style.

Apr 22, 2010 00:11 AM
rating: 0
 
pobothecat

We've got to make a distinction between week-to-week leagues and traditional roto.

I don't see how you win the former without churning a portion of your roster. The season is 20 weeks long. Wait a month on Carlos Lee, Rich Harden and Yunel Escobar and you have to go 12 for the remaining 16 to have a chance at the playoffs.

Would any of us take Harden in a trade for, say, Shaun Marcum right now?

Which leads to a second point. Valuations change from year to year. The unstated premise to this experiment is that all the valuations made at the original draft were correct. Now all we have to do is sit back and wait for them to come true.

Well, that's just nonsense. Some of those valuations were wrong. Some badly wrong. A new season of baseball is new information.

And for all those patting themselves on the back for profiting from the impatience of others, don't be hasty. The equation isn't that simple. While you're hanging on to Napoli watching him hit .198 while waiting for his hot streak, the other team is moving players in and out and --- potentially --- getting more production out of his 'mistake' than you are.

Finally, on the art of churn-and-burn --- you don't pick up a guy five days into his hot streak. That's too late. Party's over. You look for the first-night bustout. My picks to click sometime in the next week or so (as of 4/22) --- Chris Coghlan, Ryan Doumit, Milton Bradley, Aubrey Huff, and Eric Chavez.


Apr 23, 2010 01:20 AM
rating: 0
 
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