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February 1, 2011

Fantasy Beat

The Cheapest Staff Possible

by Jason Collette

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Last season, in a 12 team AL-only Expert league, TheSportsJudge spent $238 of his $260 budget on hitting.  His aggressive bidding with hitters netted him the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, B.J. Upton, and Alex Rios on his lineup–quite the formidable group in an AL-Only league. However, that also presented him with a pitching staff that contained the likes of Gil Meche, Brad Bergesen, Jeremy Bonderman, and Ryan-Rowland Smith. He struck gold in his reserve rounds, choosing Brandon Morrow and Freddy Garcia, and also pulled off a trade to add Jonathan Papelbon in-season. This resulted in finishing just a half a point out of third place. Here were the final standings for the league:

He nearly maxed out four of the five hitting categories and did surprisingly well in the pitching counting categories, but his plan fell apart in the ratios. Throwing Bonderman out there for 171 innings and Bergesen for another 170 innings hurt him almost as much as it did their real-life squads. The pair collected 16 wins and 193 strikeouts, which would be great if it was accomplished in 170 innings and not twice that amount. It was an aggressive plan that got him into the money, but it is not a new plan.

In 1996, LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) draft participant Larry Labadini spent $251 of his $260 budget on hitting. Unfortunately, the interwebs do not provide a history of who won the league that season, but most of the people I’ve talked to cannot recall anyone ever winning a league with such a strategy. [Edit: Labadini finished in fourth, eight points out of first, as pointed out in the comments.] It does not mean people have not continued to try it every season either in an auction format or in a draft by spending their first fourteen picks on hitters before selecting their first pitcher. Employing such a strategy is inherently risky in any league with a competent group of owners, as all of your value picks will be on the pitching side, making your hitting expensive. Such a strategy is much easier to employ in an office league or one where you are confident you are clearly the best owner in the group. Additionally, if you cannot use free agent money to acquire new talent in season or make trades, do not even bother giving this a go, as the margin of error is slimmer than the Cubs' chances of winning back-to-back World Series titles.

If you do decide to implement the Labadini plan either in an auction or a draft, what kind of pitching pool can you expect to pull from in assembling your $9 pitching staff?  Or, what kind of staff can you expect to put together if you do not draft your first pitcher until the 15th round of a draft?

Lord (Todd) Zola and I pitched this idea around a bit today and came up with a starting pitcher pool of 32 names whose current Average Draft Position values would value them at $1 (or less) in an auction. The best of the best in that player pool includes:

For argument’s sake, let’s scratch Niemann and Arroyo off that list and see what projections we are dealing with:









































The main risk with this pitching staff is that it is counting on four second-year starting pitchers and two others with questionable health histories. When you are in dollar days, beggars cannot be choosers, and this is the lot you are left to select. It only serves to highlight the true risk in implementing this strategy.

The closer pool has just 14 names in it and only two projected full-time closers. That list includes:

We’re stuck with the committees in Pittsburgh and Toronto, as well as with some high-end relievers. The high-impact middle relievers are great, but in a mixed league you cannot simply punt saves unless you truly max out your other counting categories.  Since your starting staff is already built on risk, you have to go for the certain play. We are trying to compile as many saves as possible with this strategy, so as to not fall behind in the counting categories, so we’re taking Lyon, Nunez, and hedging our bets that Hanrahan ends up being the full-time closer in Pittsburgh.





















That $9 pitching staff roughly compiles the following totals (the second number represents suggested benchmarks for that particular category to finish in the top three spots):

  • Strikeouts: 1120/1300
  • Wins: 85/100
  • Saves: 76/100
  • ERA: 3.95/3.75
  • WHIP: 1.32/1.27

Assuming each pitcher meets his projections at 100 percent value, this team still falls short of finishing in the top 25 percent of any one of those categories.

In a 12 team 5x5 league, there are 120 total points on the table. If a team decides to go all in on hitting at the draft table, they have to win at least 52/60 hitting points to make the investment work. If our $9 pitching staff finishes in fifth place across the board in pitching, that gets 40 pitching points and 92 to 100 points would put a team in contention for the title, no well-balanced team ran away with it as my team did last year in the AL league. As you can see, the staff falls short of even the third place benchmarks in every category, so we would need those pitchers to hit 110 percent or more of their projected value to make this happen.

There is a reason why you see most people stay +/- five point from the old 70/30 split during auctions: it helps spread out the risks. If you deviate beyond that comfort zone at your auction, you have to be extremely confident in both your projections and your ability to execute your plan to perfection throughout the season. Even with that good fortune, you are simply in the game to finish in the top half of your final standings. If you go with the Labadini plan, you have to walk the thin line of finding those pitchers that will help you the most in the counting categories while not terribly hampering you in the counting categories; just remember that it is one or more faults that put each of those pitchers at $1 in the first place. 

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

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