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September 20, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Luck

by Kenn Ruby

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In early 1997, I traded Barry Larkin for a promising young pitcher who was pitching way over his head. Larkin was coming off a 33-home run season in 1996 that may have been even better than his 1995 MVP campaign. This was a .300-hitting shortstop with 48 home runs and 87 stolen bases in the two previous seasons. He was off to a slow start, but my trading partner was willing to buy low to shore up such a valuable shortstop, and he didn't think the young pitcher--a guy by the name of Pedro Martinez--could possibly keep up his hotstart.

Larkin aggravated a nagging heel injury in June, playing just 16 games after June 16 with only two RBI and two stolen bases in that stretch. Meanwhile, Pedro did keep it up, finishing with a 1.90 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 305 strikeouts, and his first of three Cy Young Awards.

Perhaps needless to say, I won my first title that year. Our league commissioner, Dave, a good friend and funny guy, told me that I was lucky. Sure, I'd been targeting Pedro for a couple of years, and I did feel that Larkin was slowing down a little, but Dave had a point. I was able to get something for Larkin when he was still healthy and the other guy was the one who suffered.

Still, is that luck? More importantly, why do we so strongly resist the fact that luck plays such a large part in this game? It's almost as if we're offended that luck has anything to do with fantasy baseball at all. Our egos are so big that we can't possibly believe that anything but our own skill has anything to do with winning. Well, that and the skills of the guys on our team.

As I write this, I am clinging to the tiniest of leads in my NL-only league. I'm at 91, with teams at 90.5, 88.5, and 88 right behind me. Am I lucky to be in first? Not in the sense that Dave described 10 years ago. If anything, I'm lucky to be in first not because my team has been abnormally healthy, but because they've been abnormally unhealthy.

Consider:

  • My Opening Day corner infielders (Chipper Jones, Willy Aybar, and Nomar Garciaparra), have all been on the DL, with Aybar missing the whole season.
  • My Opening Day outfielders (Carlos Beltran, Willy Taveras, Ryan Freel, Matt Kemp, and Scott Spiezio) have all been on the DL, and Taveras and Freel both finished up the season a bit early.
  • My Opening Day middle infielders (Kazuo Matsui, Marcus Giles, and Aaron Miles) have either been on the DL or have been Aaron Miles.
  • I also lost Mike Gonzalez for the last three-quarters of the season, and Shawn Hill, who was on his way to being one of my more valuable pitchers, missed three months in the middle of the year.
  • Scott Olsen, who I unwisely kept at $15 (making him my most expensive pitcher), has been one of the worst pitchers in the league this year.
  • There's plenty more, but I'm retching over my ill fortune right now.

How on earth is this team in first place? I thought I had a decent draft, but I did not think I would be able to contend in 2007 with the guys I had. I paid too much for Giles--at $27 he's a shoo-in to win our league's "Nick Esasky Award" for the most overpaid player. I drafted Jones and Garciaparra after suffering through their myriad injuries in 2006. I took way too many rookies in the rotation draft. I figured with Kemp, Tim Lincecum, Fred Lewis, and a few other youngsters, I might have a core for 2008, and I could trade the Beltrans and Garciaparras for more keepers. Halfway through the year I tried to do just that, but I could find no takers. It looked like I was stuck with this team.

A funny thing happened, though, while everyone was on the DL--I found a lot of free agents to keep me afloat. Guys like Ryan Ludwick, Troy Percival, Randy Messenger, Justin Miller, Tadahito Iguchi, and Cory Sullivan have all logged significant time on my active roster. Percival in particular has been one of my most valuable pitchers over the last few months, while Ludwick has hit 12 homers for my team.

Additionally, the guys who stayed healthy had few rough patches, particularly pitchers Jose Valverde, Brad Penny, and Tom Gorzelanny. By the time I was the recipient of a dump trade in July, my team was ready for the stretch run.

They say a wise man makes his own luck, and that's probably no truer than in fantasy sports. None of us like to believe that our success is due at all to luck, but the dirty little secret is that to be successful in this game, you need a little luck. My team wasn't the only contender to lose players to injury. The other contenders have lost Chris Carpenter, Hunter Pence, Edgar Renteria, Ryan Howard, Rickie Weeks, Jeremy Hermida, Brett Myers, Jim Edmonds, Jason Jennings, Carlos Quentin, Ben Sheets, Orlando Hernandez, and many more to the DL this season.

Given that injuries are part of the game and that every team will have them, how do you make your own luck?

  • Minimize Risk: I violated this one right off the bat by employing Nomar, Chipper, Matsui, Freel, and other injury-prone players. As mentioned above, I had Nomar and Chipper in 2006 and vowed to never own them again; whoops. Taveras was probably my most durable player going into the season and he's already missed over 50 games this year. If your roster is full of guys who played 150 games the last couple of years, you're a better man than I am.
  • Handcuffs: Admittedly, this strategy makes far more sense in fantasy football, when you pretty much have to have Michael Turner if you own LaDainian Tomlinson, but it can work in baseball too. Imagine if the owner of Renteria had Yunel Escobar this year. It's a drop in value to be sure, but if Escobar is getting the starts that Renteria had before, it's not nearly as much of a drop as if you had to find a shortstop on the waiver wire like Ramon Martinez or Eric Bruntlett. Generally speaking, this works even better for relief pitchers. If you have a shaky or injury-prone closer, you should always be looking to handcuff him to his backups.
  • Work the Waiver Wire: Despite the fact that I didn't buy any players more expensive than an $18 Iguchi, I spent every cent of my $100 FAAB this year. They weren't all winners--I actually bought and then activated Shea Hillenbrand--but I perused the free agent lists frequently. Don't believe anyone who says there are no good free agents in your league. They're out there, but you just have to find them.
  • Fill Your Holes Early: The very first post-draft activity for me every year--I would do it in the car if I could--is to plug my projections into a spreadsheet. Many of you use your own draft software, so this is done for you during the draft, but I can't vouch for how helpful that is. The act of putting them all in myself forces me to pay attention to how everyone looks. I knew on Opening Day that I needed a better shortstop, more RBI, another starting pitcher, and more infield depth. Some experts say that you should wait until May 1 to do anything. I say, as long as you don't panic, you should be making moves to improve your team on April 1.
  • Watch Trends: I like to look at how my players statistically are doing over the last 28 days or last seven days or whatever. Most of the big stat-keeping services that host leagues offer features like this, and I strongly urge you to check it out frequently. One method I like to employ in the second half of the season is what I call the "Last X Days" method. If there are X days left in the season, check out how all players have done in the last X days. You can add those totals to the year-to-date totals for a very crude projection, and you might discover a hard-charging foe that may pass you in a key category.
  • Use "My Rotowire": I'm a little biased on this one, but I have to really trumpet the My RotoWire feature. If you plug in all your players, you can get all of the notes on your players in one tidy place. Based on up-to-date information I read on RotoWire, I was recently able to deactivate players like Taveras and Carlos Delgado before their week full of zeroes.

There are always going to be other things out of your control: intentional walks, rainouts, baffling decisions by managers, arrests, locusts, etc. However, the harder you work, the less your team will be affected by happenstance.

---

Kenn Ruby is a contributing writer at Rotowire. He can be reached here.

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