September 30, 2016
Expert League Recap
Tout Wars, National League
For those of you who don’t voraciously follow my exploits in all of my various fantasy leagues, Tout Wars is considered one of the two premier fantasy baseball “expert” leagues in existence (the other one is the League of Alternate Baseball Reality, or LABR). I have been in Tout Wars for seven years (in the NL only league) and last year I had the pleasure of winning my first title in Tout Wars. This year I was hoping to go back-to-back, joining a select group of fantasy experts who have done so.
But it was not to be.
If you want to read the preseason recap of my auction, you can do so here. If you don’t feel like reading two 2,400 word articles about my exciting fantasy baseball exploits in one sitting, the short summary of what happened is that the other experts were more aggressive with their pricing than usual, I didn’t spend more than $17 on a single player, I got a balanced offense but only spent $159 on it and I spent $99 on my pitching staff. I bought three closers and four catchers.
None of this was planned. I thought the opposite would happen: that I would buy two big ticket names for $35-40 apiece and go the Stars and Scrubs route on hitting. I envisioned that this plan would have me spending $60 or so on my pitching staff (Tout Wars has a $260 budget, like most auction leagues).
When I walked out of the Tout Wars auction with a pitching heavy team, my goal became a 90-point team, with the hopes that I could improve upon that in season. Breaking these goals into components, I wanted to get 35-40 points on offense and 50-55 points in pitching (out of a possible 60 points for each).
On the hitting side, I nailed it. Relatively speaking, at least.
Table 1: Mike Gianella’s NL-only 2016 Tout Wars Auction (Hitters)
Buying a $179 offense doesn’t sound like a win. The 12 Tout Wars NL teams spent $179 on offense per team. This sounds mediocre. Without the stats attached to the players, it would seem like I bought a 32.5 offense (6.5 points is the midpoint in each of the five offensive categories). But in the draft standings, I did better than this, putting together a team that would have been second in runs and RBI; third in home runs and stolen bases; and 10th in on-base percentage in a hypothetical league where all 12 Tout NL experts stood pat after Auction Day.
The OBP was far from optimal, but by inadvertently ditching one offensive category, I had managed to make the other four stronger. This was a team of grinders, and with the exception of Paulson, all of them, um, grinded. Segura’s emergence as a top-tier fantasy force obviously helped, but players like Pagan, Phillips, and Tomas were more representative of the team as a whole. The four catcher “issue” didn’t matter; stats are stats.
So success! With 45 out of 60 points on offense and the second best offense coming out of the auction, I had some room to err on the pitching side. I could withstand one bad pitcher or maybe even two. What I couldn’t overcome was a pitching staff that was just plain bad.
Table 2: Mike Gianella’s NL-only 2016 Tout Wars Auction (Pitchers)
Coming out of the auction this is how my team looked in the standings.
Table 3: Tout Wars NL Auction Standings
Even without diving into each team’s roster, you could see the problem. Being at or near the bottom of the standings in one or two categories is not catastrophic. Being at or near the bottom in several categories is.
My early goal was to move one of my closers for offense. Had I known how strong my offense was coming out of the auction I might have waited or moved a closer for a different resource. But despite his late season swoon, I could not complain about trading Familia for Jay Bruce ($18). Bruce gave me the offense I thought I needed, and would have made an already strong team stronger. The problem with this trade is that it emboldened me to make another move that turned out to be awful with the benefit of hindsight.
I didn’t exactly feel desperate to move one of my four catchers. But I did realize that everyone saw the position I was in so I didn’t want to sit too long on all four. The same week I traded Familia for Bruce, I moved Grandal for James Shields.
Go ahead. Get the laughter out of your system.
Are you done?
How about now?
OK, well I’m going to keep going. You can join me when you’re finished.
As awful as this trade sounds now, through three outings Shields had been OK. He had a 4.05 ERA, a 1.25 WHIP, and 14 strikeouts in 20 innings. These numbers weren’t great, but they had also been marred by one start at Coors. Less than the small sample size in mid-April, Shields’ 2015 stats were what I was looking at going forward. Two hundred and sixteen strikeouts in 202 1/3 innings probably wasn’t repeatable, but if I could get 170-180 strikeouts over 200 innings with 10-12 wins and even mediocre peripherals, I could live with that. I just needed an anchor.
Well, my anchor sunk me like a stone.
It wasn’t so much that Shields hurt my team but more that flipping Grandal for such a lousy asset hampered my ability to make future moves. Additionally, the bad trade led to a good deal of analysis paralysis. Once my ERA and WHIP started tanking I had two choices: to try and load up on starting pitchers of any stripe in the hopes of getting strikeouts and wins or to throw as many bad starting pitchers overboard in an effort to save my ERA and WHIP and mostly give up on wins but especially strikeouts.
I chose the first course of action. I chose poorly.
Here is the list of starting pitchers that I picked up who offered a double-digit return in earnings:
That’s the list.
Week after week, I attempted to pick up starting pitching in an effort to jump start my team. The result was like pouring the proverbial gasoline on the hypothetical fire. I started listing all of the pitchers I picked up in an effort to bolster my squad and deleted the list, because it was too depressing. I am not going to drag you down with me.
Here is a more pleasant list for you to feast your eyes upon.
Table 4: Top 10 Reserve/Free Agent Pitchers, NL Tout 2016
I bring this up for two reasons. First, as a lament in regards to what I did wrong in 2016. Second, as a way to potentially carve out a new path going forward.
In Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, King makes an analogy about the Vietnam War and hot dogs (no, this has nothing to do with sandwiches).
Well, they ate a bad hot dog called Vietnam and it gave them ptomaine. A guy named Lyndon Johnson sold it to them. So they want to this other guy, see, and they said. “Jesus, mister, I’m sick as hell.” And this other guy, his name was Nixon, he said. “I know how to fix that. Have a few more hot dogs.”
In fantasy baseball, a bad starting pitcher or two is ptomaine for our ERA and WHIP. Our solution as fantasy managers is to add the starting pitchers who weren’t even good enough to be added among the 299 players at auction and in the four round reserve phase. We are then dismayed when most of these pitchers turn out to be more ptomaine for our already aggrieved stomachs.
I would not have won Tout Wars NL this year if I had taken repeated chances on relief pitchers instead of starting pitchers. I had too many subpar assets and none of the starters I purchased turned into an ace (sorry, Jerad Eickhoff). But I might have done enough to push my ERA and WHIP up while leaving my win total more or less intact and only damaging my strikeouts. At worst, it would have been a push. All of the pushing and straining I did to improve my pitching literally gained me nothing. I stood still in wins, lost two points in ERA, lost one point in WHIP, and gained three points in strikeouts.
One of the reasons I believe a relief-oriented strategy can work more effectively than it would have in the past is because the quantity of pitchers who are throwing 200+ innings in a season is dwindling at a rapid rate. Ten years ago, 23 NL pitchers hurled 200 or more innings. This year, five have. Jon Lester should join them after tomorrow’s outing, but barring a long outing by Wainwright or a near-complete game by Eickhoff over the weekend, that is likely to be it. A few years ago, getting 75 innings from a quality reliever when starting pitchers were putting up so many more innings wasn’t that big a deal. Now, the impact of those relievers matters much more than it did in the past.
I’m less concerned about what this discovery means for my 2016 NL Tout team and more for what it can mean for my plans and strategy going forward. Second tier pitching in only leagues has always been a danger zone for fantasy managers but the opportunity with relievers was narrow because there was too much of an innings gap between them and the starting pitchers. With this gap narrowing, it is far more likely that a middle reliever will return Top 40-50 value than it was in the past. Just ask the guy who bet he would eat everything on the Dodger Stadium menu if Blanton had a decent season.
It is only September and the 2016 season isn’t even over, but I am already considering ways to use this information to my advantage. A model with one $25-30 ace, two $10-15 closers and a bunch of $1-2 middle relievers would work if it wasn’t for that pesky innings requirement. Adding a second starting pitcher to the fold would be the way to go, but the idea behind this plan is not to finish with 45 hitting points (like I did coming out of the auction this year) but to get as close to the maximum of 60 as possible. The plan would be to win saves, ERA, and WHIP and not pursue wins and strikeouts. Wins points are always volatile, but even if it doesn’t pan out, spending $55-60 on pitching to get 38 pitching points is a great way to maximize one’s auction dollars.
My takeaway from 2016 is that my valuation principles – which have always been my bedrock – served me extremely well on the hitting side but failed me on the pitching side. I was right that the rest of the experts overpaid for hitting and was able to parlay it to my advantage. I was right that I would get value from my pitching staff, but by adhering too closely to valuation I did not maximize the statistics I purchased with my auction dollars. My victory lap in 2015 was extremely rewarding, but I am pleased to look back at what I did this year and realize that I did a great job buying an offense even without spending a lot of money. I see a fairly simple fix for my pitching that should put me in good position to try and return to the winner’s circle in 2017.