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September 1, 2011
Resident Fantasy Genius
The Fool's Quest
Sorry for not having an article Monday, readers. Hurricane Irene saw to that, but everything’s fine and I’m back in action today!
This past Friday, Baseball HQ’s weekly newsletter reached my inbox. At the bottom of each newsletter, HQ founder Ron Shandler usually writes a few paragraphs, riffing on a fantasy topic that’s caught his eye that week. This week, something he said caught my attention, and I thought it warranted a deeper look:
…chasing Wins is a fool's quest and strikeouts can be amazingly resilient because everyone contributes. There is no guarantee that a roster stocked with starters will win any more games than one stocked with middle relievers who have vulture potential. If I'm searching for Wins, I'd rather have high-skilled arms on my team like Sean Marshall, Sergio Romo, Glen Perkins, Matt Belisle, Al Albuquerque or Antonio Bastardo than inning-eaters like Wade Davis, Nick Blackburn, Mike Pelfrey. Jeremy Guthrie, James McDonald or Carl Pavano.
I thought this was an interesting point of view and something that was testable, so today I’ve set out to do just that. In the final month of the season, are high-skilled relievers more likely to win games than low-skilled starters?
To be included in the “bad starters” bucket, a pitcher must have made at least 10 starts over the entire season, made at least five starts in September (or non-postseason October), and posted a FIP above 4.50 for the season. In this study, I’ve included all seasons since 1993 excluding the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons.
As it turns out, bad starters are still the way to go if you’re chasing wins, especially if you pick ones on good teams and use them for favorable matchups. While “chasing Wins is a fool's quest” is a popular notion among fantasy players, it really isn’t that foolish. As I’ve discussed before, there are definite ways to go about it. Sure, wins have a lot of volatility and give you a wide range of possible outcomes, but if we’re playing the percentages, bad starters are still good bets to accumulate some wins—at least relative to relievers. There is a direct relationship between starts made and wins, so if you want wins and don’t care about anything else, trot out as many pitchers as possible.
As far as strikeouts go, yes, everyone contributes, but a bad starter will still accumulate more than a top-notch middle reliever based on innings. Of course, Ron’s larger point was “protecting categories with downside”—namely, ERA and WHIP.
Two of the categories that most fantasy leaguers don't realize have incredible downside and need to be protected -- even in the final week of the season -- are ERA and WHIP. With volatile mixes of established and rookie pitchers taking the mound this coming month, there will be a good many pitchers "taking one for the team." Blowout games can make even an apparently safe 0.20 ERA lead disappear in a matter of days.
In this respect, top-flight relievers are naturally a better bet than poor starters. Using our same groups as before, here’s how they stack up:
The difference is huge: a full two-point difference in ERA and a 30-point difference in WHIP. And because the starters throw nearly three times as many innings as the relievers, they’re going to have a much larger relative impact on the ratio stats. Still, at this point in the season, most fantasy teams have accumulated well over 1,000 innings, meaning a starter who posts a 4.90 ERA over 30 September innings will probably only budge it somewhere between 0.02 and 0.04 points. Having multiple starters like this can add up, but don’t go crazy if you need a few extra wins and need to employ one. There is always the chance of a huge blowup, but the odds are against it, especially if you play the matchups.
The flip side of this is that a good reliever will be unlikely to budge your ERA or WHIP. They’ll accomplish Ron’s stated goal—protecting downside—which can be very important, especially if you’re in first place or even just in the championship race. Just don’t look at that shiny ERA and expect it to move your team’s ERA much. Those 12 innings aren’t going to make a dent in the 1,300 innings or so a fantasy team will ultimately muster. We’re talking 0.01 points, 0.02 max. These relievers will protect the ERA and WHIP to an extent, but for each reliever you choose over a starter, you’re likely to lose one win and eight or nine strikeouts (on average). How your league’s standings break down will be what determines the proper move for your team.