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June 24, 2005

Fantasy Focus

Managing Volatility

by Chris Liss

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We're nearly at the halfway point in the season, and by now the at-bat and innings pitched sample sizes are getting big enough to draw some meaningful conclusions about player performance. Vernon Wells has shaken off his early season slump, and by year's end will probably have the productive numbers that we expected. Pat Burrell seems to have turned the corner after two disappointing seasons and looks like he's finally picked up where he left off in 2002. Chase Utley is showing that he's one of the top middle infield bats in the National League. In short, there are some things that have been established, if not beyond all doubt, then at least to the point where we can rely on them for the purpose of making roster decisions.

Of course, there are a lot of questions still up in the air: will Todd Helton regain his power stroke? Has Randy Johnson's age finally caught up with him? Is Jason Schmidt finally back?

As a result, fantasy owners are forced to deal with a measure of uncertainty, not simply because it's impossible to predict exactly what a player will do (that's a given), but also because there's no clear way to read certain players. You can look at Helton's outstanding plate discipline and his abnormally low hit-rate and conclude that he'll be fine, but then there's the problem of his six homers and 17 doubles, and you have to wonder whether he's become Mark Grace. In the end, there's no "right" way to view Helton right now--you have the data from half a season in front of you, but then you have his career numbers as well. And lest you think that this power decline has been going on since he hit 49 homers in 2001, consider that he slugged .630 and .620 the last two seasons--(that's Alex Rodriguez in Arlington territory).

The bottom line is that you have to make roster decisions, and in some cases, baseball knowledge alone won't bail you out. What you need instead is a way to factor the uncertainty into your decision-making and even take advantage of it. In the case of a player like Helton, it doesn't really matter whether you think he'll bounce back or not. If you drafted Helton, you're stuck with him--there's no point in selling him at 70 cents (or less) on the dollar, and given what he's done to your team thus far, you're probably depending on his second-half upside to contend in the offensive categories.

As for Schmidt, who has struggled with his velocity and even talked about "changing his [pitching] philosophy," i.e., becoming less of a power pitcher, it might be a good time to sell after his two recent good starts. If you've managed to hang around in the pitching categories despite not getting much from Schmidt, getting 90 cents on the dollar and letting someone else take on the risk could pan out nicely. And it's funny, because a week ago, it made sense for owners needing a big lift to target Schmidt. But his price has gone up dramatically.

When there is uncertainty and high volatility with respect to a player's value due to an unexpected surge or decline in skills, trying to make the correct prediction about the player is often less fruitful than accepting the uncertainty and acting according to your need for volatile players in general.

In the case of Johnson, he's been up and down all year, but his overall numbers, minus the 16 home runs allowed, are still very good (94:21 K/BB ratio in 103 IP). But the home runs are troubling considering he allowed just 18 homers in 246 IP last year pitching half the time at hitter-friendly Bank One Ballpark. And when you consider that Yankee Stadium is especially stingy with the long ball for right-handed hitters (and Johnson is supposed to destroy the lefties), it's hard to imagine that Johnson hasn't lost something. But no pitcher has more upside than Johnson the rest of the way, and it's common for pitchers to go through dead arm periods or simply not have their best stuff for a while before going on a tear. Accordingly, if you need to make a big move to get back into contention, struggling pitchers like Johnson, or hitters like Carlos Beltran, Helton and Jim Thome should be on your target list.

On the flip side, if you have a big surplus in hitting, your team is a strong contender for the title, and you want to move a position player for a pitcher who is the final piece to the puzzle, consider moving your surplus for the steadier Mark Buehrle or a lesser hitter for Matt Clement. There's no reason to take on major risk when you've got a made hand.

Finally, for players who have vastly outperformed preseason expectations (e.g., Brett Myers, Brian Roberts, Dontrelle Willis, Jon Garland, Kenny Rogers) it's almost always worth moving them for anything close to full value, even when the indicators that the performance is largely due to skill are all in place. I realize that some people might question moving players whose performances have been supported by their skills, but this way you lock in your profit even if there's some regression to the mean for guys like Myers and Willis (Willis has only allowed two home runs, for God's sake). Moreover, remember that K/IP, K/BB and HR/IP aren't so much indicators of future performance as an accurate picture of past performance. Just because Willis and Myers performed well for the first half of the season doesn't mean they will in the second half. This is an obvious point that's often lost on owners once they've made the leap past ERA and WHIP and into the numbers that more accurately measure performance. You have such a leg up on the ERA-chasers when you're looking at K-rate and K/BB ratio that it's easy to forget that past performance doesn't guarantee future results--there are plenty of other factors (burnout, defensive downgrades, warm weather causing fly balls to leave the park, bullpen injuries, confidence and command issues, etc.) to which younger, less established pitchers are particularly prone.

With a guy like Rogers whose first-half performance wasn't nearly as good as it looks, that's all the more reason to sell, but savvy owners in your league obviously won't be paying top dollar for Rogers.

Finally, one more thing to keep in mind when you're looking to make moves to bolster your rotation for the second half--at the lower end, target volatile pitchers who have thrown dominant games before targeting safer pitchers whose upside is more limited. That means go after guys like Daniel Cabrera, Casey Fossum, Scott Kazmir, Ted Lilly and Dan Haren (though he probably can't be had cheaply anymore), rather than the Brian Moehlers, Victor Santoses or Carlos Silvas of the world. There's a better chance that someone from the former group will make a meaningful impact in the second half.

Chris Liss is the Managing Editor of Rotowire, and the host of Fantasy Focus on XM Channel 175 every Friday from 11 am to noon PST.

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Prospectus Notebook: F... (06/24)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: AL Quan... (06/20)
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