December 5, 2012
Resident Fantasy Genius
The Impact of Changing Teams on Fantasy Value
I probably don’t say it enough, but BP readers are the best. I love hearing from you guys and talking baseball, and occasionally I’ll get an article request, which I like to oblige whenever possible. I received such a request from a reader this weekend:
Imagine you were Zack Greinke (or any other elite free agent), knowing that not only the best offer but the second or third one will make you a very rich man. What would you do to maximize your 'fantasy value'?
Of course, this is not what baseball players care about, but it is what fantasy players care about. I wonder if you could do analysis on different lineup/defense/ballparks/division matches that would potentially help pitchers or hitters.
With the Winter Meetings now in full swing, lots of players will be changing addresses over the coming days. As a fantasy player, it’s crucial to understand how moving to a new club will alter a player’s production. From my very first article here at BP, I’ve preached the importance of context. Yes, it’s important to focus on a player’s skills, his defense-independent statistics, etc., but that’s just one part of the equation. Once we isolate what a player is capable of doing well on his own, we need to either credit or debit him for the things that are quantifiable but that he can’t control himself. Analysis often ends with what the player himself can do, but fantasy seasons don’t occur in a vacuum. They occur in real life, where there are plenty of external factors that come into play. An ERA higher than a FIP is not always bad luck. Since Greinke was this reader’s example, let’s start with pitchers.
Analysts sometimes mention he league that a pitcher plays in in passing, but it deserves more than that. Ballparks and offensive support are the sexy things to talk about, but it’s the league that may, in fact, be the most important contextual factor of all—the Velma of fantasy baseball context analysis, if you will. Studies I’ve run have shown that, in recent years, the National League has been wildly more forgiving to pitchers than the American League has been. The average pitcher moving from the AL to NL can expect to lower his ERA by nearly half a point (0.45), lower his WHIP by 0.07 points, and raise his K/9 by 0.53. According to some eyeballing of our PFM, that seems to be worth roughly $4-5 in a 15-team mixed league. Just from changing leagues.
Ballparks get a lot of play from analysts. Some are more deserving than others—Arizona’s Chase Field, for instance, is a hitter’s park, but not nearly to the extent most make it out to be—but they are definitely important to consider. An extreme park can inflate or deflate run-scoring by 10 percent or more (not to mention its effects on strikeouts, which can be non-trivial). That means, a pitcher with a true talent ERA of 4.00 could have a 3.60 ERA in an extreme pitcher’s park. Of course, you have to consider that half of his games will be played on the road, and some divisions (the AL or NL West) are more favorable than others (AL East). According to BP’s Personal Park Factors, the most a pitcher will generally receive from his ballpark mix is a five-to-ten percent boost or reverse-boost in run-scoring. That’s worth roughly $1-2 fantasy dollars.
Whenever a pitcher joins a club like the Yankees or Angels, fantasy players go crazy salivating over the wins that could be added to his total. This is often overstated, though. Doing some back-of-the-envelope Pythagorean math, for an average starting pitcher, the difference between being backed by the Yankees and being backed by the Cubs is only three or four wins. An extra four wins are great, but when that’s the difference between an absolutely elite offense and an absolutely terrible one, it’s not that extravagant. We’re probably talking $1 here. Additionally, wins are just one category, whereas a league change has a big impact on three categories.
Defensive support is important, but it can be trickier to evaluate than offensive support. Offensive statistics stabilize very quickly relative to defensive ones, so differentiating the good defensive teams from the poor ones can be much more difficult and inexact. Especially if we’re just eyeballing it instead of running actual projections and consulting scouts, we don’t want to go overboard in crediting or debiting a pitcher for his defense. Assuming we know the quality of a team’s defense, an elite squadron might trim 0.30 points off of the average pitcher’s ERA and 0.07 points off his WHIP relative to an average defense (and the reverse for a terrible defense). (For good pitchers, that figure will be lower since they strike out more batters, allow fewer balls in play, and rely less on their defenses.) That equates out to $2-3 fantasy dollars, although again, that’s under the assumption that the defense in question truly is elite.
Catchers and Managers
The effects of catchers and managers is a topic rarely explored anywhere outside the pages of BP. Luckily, we managed to talk Super Marchio (aka Max Marchi) into retiring his plunger and princess lust to focus all of his attention on baseball earlier this year, and he has frequently tackled these tricky subjects. They’re complicated topics for sure, plus all of the data is not available publicly, so for now, it’s probably best to simply know that a few catchers are really good (Jose Molina, Yadier Molina, Brian McCann, Russell Martin, etc.) and a few are really bad (Ryan Doumit, J.P. Arencibia, Cleveland’s Carlos Santana/Lou Marson tandem, etc.). Teams that have a catcher at one of the extremes generally raise or lower a pitcher’s ERA by 0.40 or so—nearly $2 fantasy. Yes, that means finding a pitcher moving to a team with a great catcher may well be a smarter fantasy move than finding one moving to a team with a great offense. Managers can mostly be ignored. Even the best of the best and the worst of the worst cause less than half-run of help or damage over 200 innings.
If we’re trying to put these factors in a loose order, we might come up with something like 1) league change, 2) ballpark, 3) catcher, 4) defense, 5) offense. Just be sure to pay as much attention to where the player is coming from as you do to where he’s going. The move from the league’s worst defense to the league’s best, for example, may well have a bigger impact than switching leagues.