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April 7, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Win Expectancy and Leverage

by Marc Normandin

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Beyond a handful of reliable hurlers that manage to be consistent in their production, projecting what a reliever is going to do in any given year can be a risky proposition. For every Mariano Rivera or Jonathan Papelbon, you have dozens of inconsistent Joe Borowski or Lance Carter types to sift through every year. Luckily, there are some sabermetric tools that you can use in order to identify which pitchers are capable of consistently delivering the numbers they put up, and which ones are better left on your league's waiver wire, notwithstanding any lofty save totals they may have.

Here's an example of the kind of differences that can be found using nontraditional statistics: Brad Lidge threw 69 1/3 innings last year, with 41 saves, a 1.95 ERA, and a K/BB of 2.6. Joakim Soria threw 67 1/3 innings, racked up 42 saves, and posted an ERA of 1.60 with a K/BB of 3.5. Soria had fewer strikeouts but better control (and therefore a lower WHIP), hence the significant difference in K/BB, but otherwise the two are very similar. It's hard to believe, but Lidge was actually two wins better than Soria last season based on BP's Win Expectancy stat. WXRL is Win Expectation above Replacement (adjusted for the batters faced), and can be used to determine the value of a relief pitcher. Lidge led the majors in WXRL with 7.6 in 2008, while Soria came in fourth with 5.4 despite the similarity in their surface statistics; Lidge's opponents combined for an OPS of 770 (fifth in the league, minimum 50 innings pitched) while Soria's came in 20 points lower (114th).

Now you wouldn't say no to either of these closers on your fantasy team, but it's good to know that beyond the traditional stats used in fantasy, there are more advanced numbers that take into account factors-like the quality of batters faced-that can help you project future performance. Each year, you end up with relievers who perform over their heads due to the way they were used, who they faced, or just plain luck resulting from the small sample sizes that go hand in hand with working in relief.

In addition to WXRL, you can also use Leverage, which also uses win expectancy, though it does so in order to measure the important of the game situation. Situations that are less crucial, such as pitching in relief when your team is up by more than a few runs or when the game is out of reach, are given a leverage score under 1.00, while key situations (bottom of the eighth, bases loaded, the team pitching is up by two runs) are given higher leverage scores. Leverage scores can help you to see who is pumping up their numbers by pitching in less critical circumstances. Joe Nelson is a good example of this; he posted some impressive numbers pitching out of the Marlins' bullpen in 2008, with an ERA of 2.00 and 10 strikeouts per nine over 54 innings pitched. If you take a look at his Leverage and WXRL, you see a different story, since he was not utilized with any consistency in significant situations; his Leverage was just 1.09 (ninth on the Marlins), and he wasn't much above replacement level as a reliever, compiling an 0.87 WXRL despite pitching in 59 games. Combine that with the fact that his adjusted ERA figures are higher than his actual numbers by a considerable amount, and you can see that he isn't someone likely to repeat his performance without some help.

Leverage can also be used to explain blown save totals for some pitchers. Francisco Rodriguez shattered the record for saves in a single season last year, but he also picked up seven blown saves along the way. He had 70 save opportunities in 76 games pitched, but the Angels still utilized him in important situations-his Leverage score for the year was 2.21, and his opponents' OPS was 764, tied for the 27th highest mark in the majors. While he most likely won't approach those save totals again, his overall numbers were probably hampered by his opposition, and those blown saves had more to do with the way he was used than they did with Rodriguez' ability.

On the flip side there's Jose Valverde, who had to face even tougher competition (opponent OPS of 773, the third-highest), but who was used in situations that were much easier for him, with a Leverage score of 1.39. Like K-Rod, Valverde also blew seven saves, and despite not pitching in anywhere near as many high-leverage situations as Rodriguez, he allowed 3.1 more inherited runners to score than a league-average reliever would have (while Rodriguez allowed 2.6 more to score). For some perspective, that puts Valverde in the same neighborhood as set-up men Duaner Sanchez and Ryan Franklin, neither of whom are closers at present (nor should they be). While Valverde's season was certainly not bad, if he were to be used in higher leverage situations going forward-situations that will most likely result in his continuing to face stiff competition-his numbers would assuredly suffer for it. It's a good thing to keep in mind when you need a tiebreaker on draft day between two closers, or if you're shuffling your roster around during the season.

This is also useful for leagues where holds are a statistic, as these numbers are available for all relievers. For instance, Jeremy Affeldt increased his strikeouts and dropped his walk rates significantly, turning in one of the better seasons of his career last year while with the Reds. Take a look at his Leverage and WXRL though, and you see that part of what helped him was his use in less-critical innings (Leverage of 0.63, WXRL of 0.22). If the Giants use him in higher leverage situations this year against better hitters, we may see his numbers head downward again, and you won't pick up the holds you were expecting from him in your fantasy league.

Projecting relievers is difficult, but it isn't entirely impossible. With the right tools and a thorough approach-stats like Leverage, WXRL, and the like are available for your perusal all season long and get updated daily-you can make some headway and outfit your team with a reliable core of closers and set-up men.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Related Content:  Leverage,  Numbers

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

dom

is it really true lidge was as valuable (accounting for leverage) as cliff lee last year? i just find it hard to believe a starter who threw so many more quality innings has the same value of a closer who pitched fewer innings that happened to be the 9th

Apr 07, 2009 21:05 PM
rating: 2
 
Ira

I'd like to offer a counterpoint to the theme of this article. The theme here is that pitchers who pitch in higher leverage situations and excell are more stable from year to year. (I think. It kinda wandered on that point.)

I think that if you are looking for holds and saves, you need to look at role. Modern managers have certain roles in their bullpens and try and place their pitchers into that role. The same is true of their rotation. Pitcher A is their number 1 starter, B is number 2, etc. In the bullpen, Pitcher X might be labeled "closer" Pitcher Y, labeled "setup man (8th inning)" Pitcher Z, labeled "setup man (7th inning)" and so on.

Most bullpens have the following roles (for a 6 man pen). Closer, Setup man, Right handed short reliever, Left handed short reliever (LOOGY if you will), Right handed long reliever, and Left handed long reliever (if available). Sometimes that left handed long reliever will be a right hander if there aren't enough lefties available.

This setup requires from one to 4 left handed relievers. Most teams have 2 or 3. 4 would mean that both your closer and setup man are left handed, which is pretty rare.

In the off-season, Teams identify what pitchers are returning, what roles they might fill, what minor league pitchers might be ready to step in, and what may need to be acquired (or traded, if they have extras). With free agency being what it is, trading away arms is a bit unusual. Most teams have to acquire at least one or 2 bullpen arms just to fill slots of pitchers who file for free agency at the end of the previous season.

Teams will then acquire pitchers in hopes of filling all the roles available in the pen (and starters too if there are holes in the rotation). Spring training is the time where the pitchers earn their slot in the bullpen (or rotation). Some inherit their slot from the previous year (either by merit or by default). Some have to re-earn it every year. By the last week of spring training very few slots are still open. During the season guys only move around in the pen for two reasons: 1) ineffectiveness and 2) injury. The second reason being alot more prominent than the first.

My point to all this is that a fantasy owner should be able to look (or sift) through the reports out of spring training and figure out who the closer will be on all 30 teams. They should probably also identify the primary setup man, as that's the guy most likely to be promoted to close in the case of ineffectiveness or injury. After the setup man, its whichever of the other 4 relievers are most effective, with the short-man getting preference over the long-man. (though long-men are more likely to get promoted into the rotation due to holes there). However, if you are only interested in saves, any team on their third closer is not one you want to be looking at too closely.

Apr 08, 2009 08:00 AM
rating: -1
 
maddie7777

Fascinating article. This brings up a truly innovative angle that is what keeps me coming back to this site over and over.

Not to be TOO lazy here, but you wouldn't happen to have a list of some of the top leverage guys and their season numbers, would you? I'm always looking for good relievers to supplement my starters.

Apr 08, 2009 08:08 AM
rating: 0
 
John Kearns

I would also want to see whether WXRL and Leverage have historically been actual indicators of relievers' future performance. You *tell* us they are, but I don't see a reference to a place where anybody has actually *shown* what the numbers say. After all, these could easily be subject to the same sorts of sample-size issues as ERA or saves, and there could also easily be other stats (BABIP? GB/FB?) that are in fact much stronger indicators of future performance than these particular statistics. This column would be quite helpful if it is accurate, but I'd love to see more evidence before employing these tactics as strategy.

Apr 08, 2009 08:12 AM
rating: 0
 
Marc Normandin

As with most statistics I use, I think Leverage and WXRL are good starting points. I don't like to generalize too much in regards to individual player performance, so even if WXRL and Leverage consistently show me one thing, I would double-check elsewhere with other numbers. If you've read me in the past, you know how much I'm into batted ball data, but not everyone likes to look at things that way, so I'm trying to provide other viewpoints as well.

I don't think that there is just one number you can use for relievers to project their future, which is what makes the few guys who are consistent year-to-year so special. Relievers are one of those positions where you require a larger toolbox to pull from in order to figure out what's going to happen. The article is meant more to tell you that WXRL and Leverage can be some of those tools if used in context (I mentioned the quality of competition often in this piece), and I use them alongside of other factors you mentioned.

Apr 08, 2009 08:31 AM
rating: 0
 
John Kearns

Thanks for your reply, Marc. I totally understand why you're using these statistics as a starting point - and it's absolutely interesting to look at and think about. I just wish we knew which statistics were actually the strongest predictors of following-year performance - ideally I'd love to look at a whole list and see how strong the correlation is for each possibility. Perhaps WXRL and Leverage would come out on top (and I suspect they'd be close, at least), but knowing that would be a highly useful step in implementing them as tools.

Apr 08, 2009 09:02 AM
rating: 1
 
CubbyFan23

"While Valverde's season was certainly not bad, if he were to be used in higher leverage situations going forward—situations that will most likely result in his continuing to face stiff competition—his numbers would assuredly suffer for it."

I don't understand this totally. Wouldn't using him in more high leverage situations hurt his blown saves but not ER, since more high leverage situations often will = coming in with runners in scoring position already? Also you point out earlier that he faced the third highest opponent OPS in the league, isn't that a trend that will decrease rather than increase, thus improving his overall numbers from 2008 rather than the other way around?

Apr 08, 2009 09:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Marc Normandin

My point was that his leverage was nowhere near the level of K-Rod, yet they ended up with the same number of blown saves (and in far fewer chances by Valverde). If you were to increase the leverage, he may fair even worse.

You're right in that his ER may not jump up, since he would have runners on base, but if the rest of his numbers go south and he isn't picking up as many saves, that's also an issue, fantasy-wise. And if the runners he is responsible for end up scoring, then the ERA suffers as well.

Apr 08, 2009 20:20 PM
rating: 0
 
CubbyFan23

I do agree that his blown saves would go south if leverage was increased -- but for fantasy purposes, I would think that would at most result in a handful of less saves in a year. Just thinking out loud and off the top of my head, I'd think that his increases in ratios/ERA/even Ks as he pitches to worse hitters perhaps would increase.

Hope you don't get me wrong, I love the direction of this column and leverage discussion, just trying to figure out which would be more important for Valverde's 2009 fantasy season -- increased high leverage situations or a decrease in the talent of hitters he would face.

Apr 10, 2009 10:08 AM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

I don't agree that leverage has that much of a predictable effect on the skills a pitcher will develop in the future. It is a backwards looking measurement that has to do with usage patterns, not skills. The skill of the opponents hitters is useful for projecting future skills. The best thing leverage can be used for, IMO, around fantasy is knowing which non-closers the manager trusts and which non-closers he doesn't. It can sometimes be tough to know who is the real backup to the closer, and leverage can sometimes give you that clue.

Apr 08, 2009 13:16 PM
rating: 0
 
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