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May 8, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Ask the Experts

by Mike Gianella

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In Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, Eugene Debs Hartke spends the latter half of the novel teaching inmates in a prison in upstate New York. While he was able to teach some of his students successfully, some were merely interested in using Hartke as a walking encyclopedia.

(some of the inmates) used me as an ambulatory Guinness Book of World Records, asking me who the oldest person in the world was, the richest one, the woman who had had the most babies, and so on.

For the last two years, I have been answering fantasy baseball questions on Twitter with increasing regularity. I’m not the only one who does this. Several fantasy baseball experts answer follower questions every day. Some of the questioners ask a question here and there, but there is also a group of fantasy players who shop their questions around to as many experts as possible.

I try to answer as many questions as I possibly can. With the exception of questions along the lines of  “here are the 30 players on my roster: who are the 23 I should start this week,” I answer just about everything that’s thrown my way. However, while I’m happy to answer questions, I do wonder what good it does in the long term. While my answers might be “right” more often than not, I’m less concerned about whether or not my advice is heeded and more concerned about how that advice is used. Are my Twitter followers simply doing what I tell them to do, or are they asking themselves why I gave them that advice?

Everyone is different. But for me, one of the biggest joys of this game is figuring out why a course of action is the best course of action to take, not being merely being told what the best course of action is. Like any expert in any field, it took me years to become this good at this game. But I don’t have a particular secret, nor do I have any special skill that puts me head and shoulders above the crowd. More than anything else, hard work, diligence, and trial and error are how I have learned how to play fantasy baseball.

If you would rather behave like an expert instead of merely parroting an expert, here are a few pointers.

Seek Out Information
In the pre-Twitter days, I used to try to read the daily team notes from as many online newspapers as I had time to read. The best thing about Twitter is that it gives me instant access to beat writers and avid fans of every team in Major League Baseball. The advantages of reading the beat writers’ daily columns have been diluted by Twitter, but you would be surprised at how many fantasy players ignore Twitter and don’t take advantage of this invaluable resource. If you were on Twitter, you found out before anyone else that Edward Mujica and Kevin Gregg were next in line for saves, and may have been able to scoop them up on the cheap before their role change became common knowledge and the cost became prohibitive. This might sound like something that would only work in casual home leagues, but I found out about Mujica on Twitter on a Sunday night and beat everyone to the punch in Tout Wars a few hours later.

Some fantasy players dismiss beat writers because some of them are anti-sabermetric, but if you do this, you’re missing out. There are plenty of great resources that will dissect statistics for you. This isn’t the role of a beat writer. His or her job is to go into the clubhouse and give you a good feel for whether or not your sleeper is going to have a role with the big club. During spring training in particular, a close read of a strong beat writer will give you a better feel for how a situation is unfolding than a stats-oriented view.

This past March, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times kept telling everyone who would listen that Erasmo Ramirez wasn’t likely to start the season with the Mariners. This seemed unlikely, if not impossible, to the numbers-minded crowd. They couldn’t believe that Jon Garland or Brandon Maurer was going to beat out the more-talented Ramriez for a job. But that’s exactly what happened. Baker didn’t have an axe to grind; he was merely doing his job and reporting what he knew based on credible sources with the team he covered. It’s impossible to argue that Ramirez doesn’t have a higher ceiling than Maurer, but while focusing on skills is important, at some point roles do have to be considered as well.

Metrics Are Important, But What’s the Takeaway?
Baseball Prospectus took sabermetrics and propagated them on the Internet, and a whole host of baseball-oriented, numbers-oriented web sites followed. This is one of the best things that have happened to the fantasy game’s evolution, as it has created a quantity and quality of analysis that previously did not exist. I can’t get enough of all of the data out there, as well as all of the charts and graphs that accompany these data.

While the proliferation of information has certainly made for some great reading, unfortunately, some of these newfangled metrics don’t have a tangible purpose for fantasy. Worse yet, some metrics are worse than useless in that they muddy up the waters with information that is presented as having an application for fantasy but in reality does not.

I love sabermetrics, but the goal in fantasy baseball isn’t to accumulate the most WAR or UZR; rather, it’s to rack up stats in a fairly traditional array of categories (I do recognize that there are a handful of leagues that use advanced metrics). If you find yourself reading a fantasy-oriented article that discusses non-fantasy scoring categories, immediately ask yourself what the takeaway is for your league and your rules. You should be reading pieces like this to increase your understanding of the real game, but remember that in most leagues, you’re trying to grab a piece of the traditional pie, not the esoteric one.

What’s Your Situation?
“Which player should I take, Player A or Player B?”

“Player A.”

“But I’m in a 7x7 league where holds count and we use doubles plus triples instead of batting average.”

Context is everything. If you’re in a head-to-head league, your needs are going to be different than the needs of someone who is playing straight Roto. Standard mixed league owners can afford to cavalierly toss aside a bottom-of-the-barrel closer in a trade, while one-league-only format owners typically don’t have this luxury. Keeper leagues have different rules of the road than non-carryover leagues. And so on and so forth.

Some contextual differences have less to do with the rules and more to do with the way the league plays. Some leagues cherish minor-leaguers, while others don’t value them very much at all. Some leagues value pitching very highly while others view pitchers as interchangeable cogs. Some leagues feature owners that are very willing to throw categories overboard, while others have a dozen owners that try to win every category. Knowing your league is more vital than any general advice I can give you on whether or not Player A is superior to Player B. Watch what other owners do, and if you have the opportunity, listen to what they have to say. This offers the potential for a tactical advantage. Take it.

Ask The Experts
Given the tone of this piece, you might think that I’m contradicting myself with this piece of advice. This is not the case. But rather than asking the experts “what should I do?” a better question would be “why should I do this?” If someone offers you David Wright for Madison Bumgarner and an expert says you should jump at this trade, why is this the case?

In Tout Wars, I made my first trade this past weekend, flipping Matt Garza for Welington Castillo. I had been carrying two dead spots at catcher all year long and my pitching has done much better than I expected. However, I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing, so I asked Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Collette. He advised me to get rid of Garza because he simply doesn’t trust Garza’s health. I double-checked with ESPN’s Tristan Cockroft, and he backed up Collette’s belief, saying that Garza “scared” him.

Sometimes it’s what the experts don’t say that can influence my behavior. Read between the lines. If you think a trade is a slam dunk and you get a lukewarm reception from the peanut gallery, try to find out why. If your opinion is “wrong,” rather than accepting conventional wisdom and following the pack, try to find out why it is “wrong.” You might learn something. You might even find that after doing your own work that you disagree with the experts for any number of reasons and decide to put yourself out on a limb. If this starts happening once in a while, there’s a good chance that you are learning how to play the game and starting to develop your own opinions. This is good news.

The greatest opportunity to grow as a fantasy player is when you make your own decisions. It is understandable when you start playing fantasy baseball that you will want to seek out the opinions of more experienced players. Eventually, you should reach a comfort level and shouldn’t be afraid to start thinking things through on your own. I’m always happy to answer any questions posed to me by fantasy players, but I’m even more excited to see fantasy players eventually start to ask more intelligent questions, and then ask fewer and fewer questions as time goes on and their comfort level increases. Whether you’re reading me here or following along on Twitter, my goal is to see you become a better player. The more of your own legwork that you do, the more likely this is to happen.

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

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