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March 20, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Not Your Average League

by Marc Normandin

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Last year around this time I wrote about the draft in my fantasy league, where we play with a different set of rules than the standard ones, with changes made to the formula that force you to think a little differently. It's fun to challenge yourself by playing in leagues with unique setups, as it gives you a chance to break away from the standard roster construction that you've become accustomed to through years of playing the standard fantasy game.

That's why this year I jumped at the opportunity to play in a league hosted by my statistically inclined friends over at Beyond the Box Score. They had a very different set of rules that made this league unlike any other I had ever played in. It's called the "Ball on a Budget" league; you have $60 million to play with, using actual 2009 salaries to build a 25-man roster.

That by itself isn't what amazed me. What set this league apart is that there was only one statistic used to keep score. They chose to use Fangraphs' form of wins above replacement, so you had some serious decisions to make each time it was your turn to pick. You need to divvy up your $60 million by using concepts like MORP in order to spend efficiently and effectively; many players that you would not normally think of as being valuable had a lot going for them in this format. Also, defense is included in WAR, so certain sluggers did not carry the same weight that they would in a typical fantasy league, while someone like Randy Winn turns into an amazing pick.

A win above replacement is worth $4.5 million, if a young player making $450,000 was worth three wins last year: that player is a bargain with a value of $13.5 million. Likewise, a player making $12 million a year that is worth just two wins above replacement costs more than he's worth, making him a poor use of your resources. That principle guided almost all of the picks made during this draft.

To be eligible, a player needed 20 games played in 2008 at any level, so if one of last year's draft picks played in 20 games, he qualified. That information is important, since we also had to deal with maximum plate appearances (6,500) and innings pitched (1,000 for starters, 500 for relievers); if you exceeded them, the totals would be prorated back down. For those trying to avoid going over the limits, minor leaguers who may make their way to the majors for a handful of innings or at-bats suddenly had some appeal, and when you consider that we had to pay them just $400,000, they became worthwhile picks to fill out the back end of the roster.

We needed to roster the standard positions, plus a second catcher, a corner infielder, a middle infielder, a fourth outfielder, and a utility player. There was no differentiation between outfield positions, so you could pick all center fielders if you wanted to-between the positional adjustment and the extra defensive value, they were more valuable than they normally would be, which is saying something.

There were multiple strategies used, but for the most part people were loath to spend any of their money until the last few rounds. I was not one of those people, as my $60 million was burning a hole in my e-pocket. I managed to spend around $30 million on just two players, and then the rest on the other 23 roster spots. I also somehow finished with nearly $1 million leftover, in spite of some heavy spending.

Let's take a look at my roster and the thoughts behind some of my picks:

Round 1: Josh Hamilton $0.436513M
Some of the players I wanted (such as B.J. Upton, Dustin Pedroia, and Tim Lincecum) were taken quickly, and since I was picking 11th out of 12 in a snake draft, I missed out. Hamilton seemed like a great early choice though, given his value as a hitter and the fact that he costs about the same as some of my part-timers.

Round 2: Ryan Braun $0.745M
Clearly eschewing defense with this second pick, but between the bat and the price, I felt it was a worthwhile pick.

Round 3: Chipper Jones $11M
My preoccupation with offense is revealed during these first three rounds. Since there is a plate appearance maximum, Chipper Jones loses his one drawback (missing 20-30 games with injury) in this league. Last season, despite accumulating just 534 plate appearances, he ranked fourth in WAR behind Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, and Hanley Ramirez. Part of the reason for that is Chipper turning into an average defender at third since his return to the position, so his offense doesn't have to make up for any shortcomings.

Round 4: Edinson Volquez $0.431750M
Round 5: Ricky Nolasco $2.4M

Volquez worries me a little because of his second half last year-I would like to see young pitchers improve with more experience-but the price was right. I keep talking about how amazing Ricky Nolasco was for 140-plus innings last year after he had made some adjustments, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I picked him as one of my staff anchors early on.

Round 6: Hunter Pence $0.4356M
I discussed why I think PECOTA is on to something with Pence before I began the positional rankings this year. If he can bump his average up while retaining last year's power, he's going to be a fine right fielder.

Round 7: Brandon Phillips $4.75M
I was thinking about going cheap here again for a second baseman, but decided that the position didn't have the depth I wanted, so I whipped out the checkbook again. Phillips' 2006-08 seasons average out to 3.2 wins above replacement, so his $4.75 million contract is a significant bargain at just over the cost of a single win.

Round 8: Mike Pelfrey $1.3125M
This is one I wish I could take back, as I thought the pitching was lighter than it was, and Josh Johnson was still on the board. If there had been a list of players to draw from, I wouldn't have made the mistake, but this one is on me regardless.

Round 9: Russell Branyan $1.4M
Branyan was worth 1.2 wins in just 152 plate appearances last year. He's going to get a lot of starts as the lefty half of a first-base platoon in Seattle, so I couldn't pass this one up.

Round 10: Justin Duchscherer $3.9M
This pick was obviously made before the elbow troubles set in. As with Jones though, I'm banking on Duke for 120-140 innings, and he's still a bargain given his value versus cost.

Round 11: Milton Bradley $5M
I was taking on a lot of players with injury risks because of the PA maximum, and Bradley was another one. His deal pays him much more than this over two seasons, but most of it is tied up in 2010 with an option that vests if he plays in 75 games. He won't hit like an MVP like he did in Texas last year, but this is also a guy who was capable of bashing while in San Diego a few years ago.

Round 12: Jose Ceda $0.4M
After spending at least one million each on five straight players, I wanted to take it down a notch and give my bullpen some help. Ceda isn't expected to start the season with the club, but I'm hoping he'll be called up relatively soon. The Marlins are not shy about bringing up young (inexpensive) arms to test them out, so it's not implausible.

Round 13: Carlos Beltran $18.5M
Here is the other half of my extravagant spending. Beltran ranked eleventh in wins above replacement last season, and if you average his past three seasons he's more than a six-win player. Incredibly, he's still a bargain despite raking in nearly $20 million a year. Before I made this pick, I put together a spreadsheet that listed all of my drafted players, their salaries, and my position requirements. I then set up the sheet to keep track of how much I had spent and how much I had left, as well as the average cost of my players. Picking Beltran forced me to be thrifty from here on out, but I thought it was worth it based on how I had mapped out the rest of my roster.

Round 14: Marco Scutaro $1.1M
These last two picks are why I love this league's format. How often do you get a chance to take Marco Scutaro immediately after Carlos Beltran and have people thinking you made a good pick? Scooter can't hit a lick (he's a Blue Jay after all) but he can field, and the shortstop pool was very thin, as it is in any fantasy league.

Round 15: Dioner Navarro $2.1M
Another mistake pick; Kurt Suzuki went shortly after, and since defense counts, I would have preferred the A's backstop given his lower salary.

Round 16: Howie Kendrick $0.475M
Kendrick isn't a bad fielder, and even if he doesn't improve as a hitter, he's still a solid pick for my middle infielder position. If he does improve as a hitter-a lot of that hinges on how healthy he'll be-then this is going to be a big, big pick for me.

Round 17: Anibal Sanchez $0.429M
This is a risky pick-I'm hoping that Sanchez will remain healthy and productive at the same time, something he hasn't been consistently capable of during his stay in the majors. His strikeouts were way up last year though, even with his struggles, and I'm a sucker for strikeouts from guys with good stuff. He just needs to stop walking so many hitters; hopefully some of last year's issues had to do with being a bit rusty. He was unlucky according to FIP, and should have been about three-quarters of a run better in ERA.

Round 18: David Aardsma $0.443575M
Aardsma was a quality reliever last year until his DL stint; after coming back, he was shelled repeatedly, and it ruined his overall line. He'll get a shot to stick in Seattle this year, a team that may be more willing to put up with (and able to afford) his hiccups than Boston was.

Round 19: Takashi Saito $1.5M
It's well established that Saito is very good. If he's healthy all year, he may beat out some of my starters for value, which is impressive since he's making $1.5 million. I was shocked that he was still on the board this late, given the nature of the league.

Round 20: Gaby Sanchez $0.4M
Looking at the MLB.com depth chart for the Florida Marlins makes me think that Sanchez shouldn't have a problem winning the majority of at-bats at first base, as his main competition is Wes Helms (assuming that Jorge Cantu sticks at third). PECOTA isn't in love with Sanchez, but his 75th- (.263/.347/.433) and 90th- (.273/.358/.454) percentile forecasts are promising, and his glove isn't half-bad either. There's a slight risk involved, but I think this is a potentially high-reward pick if he can adjust to the majors.

Round 21: Sergio Romo $0.441M
Romo threw 34 innings last year, striking out 8.8 hitters per nine while displaying excellent control. His BABIP was low at .171, but he was also unlucky stranding baserunners, leaving just 61 percent on base. Those last two items should even out some, and Romo should remain solid. Being a fly-ball pitcher in San Francisco isn't a bad thing, unless you're facing Barry Bonds.

Round 22: John Baker $0.4M
Baker ranked 20th in my catcher rankings; he was worth a few wins last year despite not playing the entire season. He could turn out to be more useful to me than Navarro, given his price and potential as a hitter. He could also just as easily be just another backup catcher.

Round 23: Ryan Tucker $0.4M
You may have noticed a theme on my team involving the Marlins. Part of my reasoning for picking Carlos Beltran and his hefty salary was that I could do one of two things to make this work: pick like the Marlins would, or just pick the Marlins. I went with a little of column A and column B from then on, and Tucker is another one of those column B picks. Tucker struggled last year splitting time as a starter and reliever for 37 innings, but his minor league numbers are good, and as a young pitcher with quality stuff, the Marlins will give him a shot to succeed. I'm assuming he'll relieve since his changeup isn't a consistent second offering yet, but if he starts I may have the innings available to deal with it.

Round 24: Daniel Bard $0.4M
Bard is another high-upside arm that will spend time in relief. PECOTA doesn't project much out of him this year, as it forecasts control issues since he walked 4.7 per nine while at Double-A Portland last year, and except for his stint in A-ball in 2008, he usually walks far too many hitters. I'm lacking in relievers with innings, so I'm going to need him to make the jump.

Round 25: Madison Bumgarner $0.4M
If things are close in the National League West at the end of the year, maybe Bumgarner will make a David Price-like appearance, and give me some value over a short span of time at a low cost.

There are some things I wish I did differently-I need to focus a little more on relievers if I do this again, and figure out a better way to track the players that are still available to avoid another Pelfrey/Navarro debacle-but overall I think this was a solid first effort. It's a league that takes a different approach to fantasy than what we are used to seeing, and it forced me to think outside of the box.

I'm assuming here that most of you play in a standard fantasy league, or one with only slight rule changes. I wonder how many of you would be interested in something like this, which combines fantasy baseball with real baseball through the use of sabermetric applications. Also, let me know in the comments about the kinds of strategies you would have taken were you in this league, and if there are things you would have done differently. As someone who has played fantasy baseball for a significant portion of my life, it's exciting to find a new twist on an old game, and I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

17 comments have been left for this article.

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