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May 8, 2003

BP Does Tout Wars

10 Valuable Lessons

by Jonah Keri and Nate Silver

Toldyaso.

It doesn't matter whether your game is roto, Strat, Scoresheet, or fantasy NASCAR: Drafting for value is the right way to go. Cute little strategies might help to break a tie, and a mastery of bidding psychology can matter at the margins, but sound player evaluation is the name of the game. Between the PECOTA projections and the Will Carroll Walking Injury Database, we felt that Team BP was in an in ideal situation to leverage our edge in information into success in Tout Wars. The results so far have been affirming: in spite of some disappointing individual performances, we're in first place by a healthy margin.

It's too soon, of course, to come to any conclusions about how the standings will end up--hell, it's early enough in the season that Carl Everett hasn't even been suspended yet. Still, there are a few take-home lessons from the season thus far, as embodied by some of our more successful acquisitions and strategies.

  • Todd Helton. Sometimes the most consistent players are also the most overlooked. While the Tout Wars draft coincided with a mini-panic about Helton's back injury, we had Will's thumbs-up, and picked up Helton for $7 less than our projected value for him.

    Lesson #1. Don't be lazy about researching injuries. Consider the nature of the injury, the player's medical history, his age and fielding position, and the effect the injury has had on his statistics. In Helton's case, he's managed to be a valuable player in spite of recurring back problems. It's one thing to expect a player to maintain his performance in the presence of a medical concern, and quite another to expect him to improve it.

    Lesson #2. Team context is important. PECOTA expected the men hitting in front of Helton to be much more effective than Los Dos Juanholios were last year. They have been, and Helton's RBI totals have increased as a result.

  • Kerry Wood. Mark Prior has gotten all the attention, but Wood has been one of the best pitchers in the league, and his high strikeout total is a huge bonus. With an improved offense behind him, Wood could easily win 17 or 18 games. Actually, he'd better, or our pitching staff will be in trouble.

    Lesson #3. Never underestimate the importance of strikeout rate, especially in a 5x5 league.

  • Felipe Lopez. Not that his numbers have overwhelmed anyone, but a little bit of speed and a little bit of power is plenty helpful from a $6 shortstop, and in a thin Reds infield, his counting numbers should be wind up being pretty good. Fortunately, there's no punishment in Tout Wars for fielding errors.

    Lesson #4. Evaluate playing time opportunities in context: our system wasn't sold on Barry Larkin's health, or Brandon Larson's ability, and we projected a lot of playing time for Lopez as a result.

  • Stars and Scrubs. Several of our $1 players--Bobby Estalella, Ricky Ledee, Jack Wilson--have already paid dividends. Those that haven't have been replaced through free agent acquisitions, including solid performers like Brad Lidge.

    Lesson #5. Whatever its merits on draft day, Stars and Scrubs allows for a tremendous amount of in-season flexibility because of the high number of interchangeable parts. Better to invest in a bunch of $1 players that you can easily dispose of than a $10 player that you know will be lucky to be better than average.

  • Avoiding Collapses. Sometimes the most important thing isn't the players that you do acquire, but those that you avoid. While our team contains some players that have performed a little below expectations--we'll get to them in a moment--we've averted any irreconcilable disasters. Relatively speaking, PECOTA was way down on Greg Maddux, Ken Griffey, and Roberto Alomar (among others) and we were happy to make them someone else's risk.

    Lesson #6. While there's always some luck involved here--we were within a couple of bucks of acquiring Randy Johnson and Brian Giles--knowing which players not to spend your money on tilts the odds in your favor.

    Of course, not everything has gone so smoothly.

  • Byung-Hyun Kim. Mind you, we still expect to get good value from Kim before the season is out, but it's been a bumpy road so far. His strikeout rate has declined, his run support has been non-existent, and he's on the DL (though fortunately not with an arm injury).

    Lesson #7. Starting pitching is qualitatively different than relief. Kim has had to alter his approach to keep his pitch counts down--he's cut his pitches per opposition plate appearance to 3.77 from a career figure above 4. Our research suggests that's a necessary evil for a power pitcher converting to a starting role, but it's also resulted in a lower strikeout rate and a higher WHIP.

    Lesson #8. When projecting pitcher win totals, keep in mind changes to team offensive context. We projected a pretty serious decline in Arizona's offense this year as a result of the team's advancing age but drafted Kim in spite of it.

  • Adam Dunn. He's been just fine in the power department, on pace for 44 home runs and 93 RBI's, but he's also hitting just .222, and is on track to strike out a Branyanesque 226 times. We still like the price we paid for him, but he isn't looking like a bargain at this point.

    Lesson #9. Although there are few roto leagues that count hitter strikeouts as a category, their effects need to be accounted for, especially for a developing player. Nobody is harkening for the second coming of Dave Kingman.

  • Ryan Dempster. A $4 gamble that didn't turn out. Dempster has a 7.22 ERA, and with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of (gasp!) 19:33, he's actually pitched worse than that.

    Lesson #10. Ryan Dempster sucks.

So where to now? In a roto format, finding the right way to grab marginal gains in select categories can lead to a league title. You wouldn't ever trade Pat Burrell for Dave Roberts in real life, for instance. But in roto, where big-SB guys are rarer than Devil Ray tattoos, you consider it, especially if you can project a gain in overall points through Roberts' boost in steals vs. the loss of power stats from Burrell.

A quick glance back at the Tout Wars standings though won't necessarily reveal Team BP's needs, or places where copious ground can be made up. Through Tuesday's games, our worst categories were Ks (with a respectable seven points out of a possible 13) and stolen bases (7.5 out of 13 possible points).

Meanwhile, our balanced roster has yielded double-digit standings points in batting average, RBI, runs scored, wins, saves, ERA and WHIP. Yet we're not in first place in any one category, nor have we dramatically broken away from the pack in any counting stat category.

All of which is to say: We don't have any life-or-death needs, nor huge surpluses to trade from, at least if the results of the season's first five weeks are any guide.

This brings up an interesting fork in the road for our squad. We've already discussed our focus on value at the draft table. Yet even the most ardent value supporters would concede you have to ditch that tack and target the categories where you can net the most gains while trading from areas where the losses would be minimal.

But what if Team BP stays fairly strong in every category, without any glaring weaknesses or overwhelming strengths? Can a roto team manage an entire season by not only drafting value, but also trading and FAABing for value?

Here's where relying on our system can pay dividends. At the beginning of the season, we compiled roto values for all National League pitchers and position players. When in doubt, our best bet might be to simply target the players we've rated highest all along. If said player has struggled badly to start the season--the NL equivalent of Miguel Tejada basically--all the better, hopefully we can buy low.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Much as we hammer on the concept of small sample size, the season is nonetheless 1/5 over. Some of the players that seem like locks to bounce back after slow starts may not do so. This season could mark an off year for them, a season plagued by nagging, limiting injuries, or maybe even another step along the painful road to irrelevance.

Fortunately, we still have our two main draft day tools--PECOTA and Will Carroll--at our disposal. Our original PECOTA-generated roto values can still provide a rough guide as we consider trade and waiver wire decisions. But we can do better than that.

As noted in yesterday's "Lies, Damned Lies", PECOTA can adjust its EqA estimate in-season to reflect current trends and results--up for Jose Cruz, down for Edgardo Alfonzo--to estimate the probability that a hitter's true ability is at a given level of performance. While it takes some extra work to make the next leap to roto value adjustments, you can still get a feel for how the rest of a player's season might unfold.

Meanwhile, Will keeps us posted daily on the bumps, bruises and tweaks of every player under the sun. Last weekend we opened the wallet for Kiko Calero, spending $13 on a pitcher with an erratic minor league track record and (at the time) zero major league saves. Sure, we already had two of the league's elite closers in Billy Wagner and Scott Williamson. But we'd also been assured by Will that Isringhausen and the Cardinals weren't about to try any miracle comebacks in the next week or two. With Izzy's slow road back, mixed with Steve Kline's crisis of confidence and subsequent removal from the closer's role, Calero looked like a good flyer. His huge early-season K rate and Tony La Russa's vote of confidence sealed the deal for us. With one save and one implosion on his ledger since grabbing the closer's job, the jury's still out on Kiko.

Why grab a wannabe closer in the first place? Again, value. If Team BP did nothing but ride Wagner and Williamson all year, we'd have a good shot at a top 3 finish in saves. But if Calero racks up five saves, seven, even 10 or more? Suddenly, trade scenarios multiply.

Will we make a trade at some point? Given Jonah's inability to sit still for longer than five seconds, almost assuredly. But we're not committing to any one course of action.

With Ryan Dempster buried on the bench indefinitely and Jason Marquis scuffling in the minors, our Opening Day starting five is down to the trio of Kerry Wood, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Brian Lawrence. A starting pitcher becomes a possibility. But given the yeoman work of non-closers Brad Lidge, Paul Shuey, Joey Eischen, and Scott Stewart, there may be enough vulture wins and Ks around to keep us among the leaders in pitchers' counting stats. If early results are any indication, team ERA and WHIP won't be a problem with those four supporting the starters and closers.

We could target steals. But Felipe Lopez's emergence as an everyday player and a rare stolen base threat combined with--if all goes well--a speed resurgence from Adam Dunn and some minor contributors could keep us afloat there too. Fear the wrath of Orlando Merced!

Instead, we'll keep our options open and generally try to improve our team. And if all else fails, we could get more Expos. What's that? We own them all already? Wait, we don't. Jamey Carroll, $60!

Catch the Doug Pappas World Tour as it rolls into California. SoCal Pizza Feed this Saturday, May 10. NoCal Pizza Feed Wednesday, May 14. Special guests, mystery guests, and more. Head here to sign up.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here
Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

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