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May 31, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Fantasy Tip: Be Dr. Frankenstein

by Matthew Knight

I play fantasy baseball when my wife isn't looking. That's not a dirty little secret or anything. It's just an acknowledgment that the time I put into managing my roster, basically mornings before she's out of bed, isn't a lot. With that said, pretty much everything I read or watch about baseball is filtered through the lens of "How will this affect my fantasy team?"

The best advice I can give for improving your fantasy team is to read Baseball Prospectus every day. The vast majority of my fantasy decisions are made after consulting Will Carroll, Marc Normandin, and PECOTA. In addition, I recommend keeping up with the latest news regarding role changes, trades, and top prospects.

I don't have any earth shattering wisdom in any of these aspects of fantasy baseball, so instead I will discuss two strategies I have developed for making the most of the free agent pool. With diligence and a bit of luck, you may be able to construct a monster player or two from the scrap heap.

Build Your Own Ace

After the top tier of fantasy pitchers are taken in my draft, I ignore starting pitching. I spend the rest of the draft loading up on hitters with potential and closers with good peripherals. As a result, my early season roster tends to be bloated with young, high upside hitters and generally looks like it will have trouble approaching the innings pitched limits.

My reasoning is that pitching statistics fluctuate more year-to-year than hitting statistics, and beyond the top starters and closers with guaranteed jobs it is difficult to reliably predict which pitchers will be worth owning. Furthermore, by filling out my pitching rotation with innings eaters, my rate stats take a beating without a significant increase in wins or strikeouts.

By mid-May, it becomes obvious which hitters are just hogging bench space. Rather than carrying a roster of players who aren't likely to contribute in the near future, I pare my hitters down to the bare necessities and replace them with relievers.

Well chosen relievers can put up rate stats far superior to a typical back of the fantasy rotation starting pitcher with a decent number of strikeouts and possibly a few wins and saves. The combined stats of two or three relievers can blow away the innings eater.

Below are 15 relievers from 2008 who accumulated no more than 5 saves and started no more than 3 games. The list includes a few guys who were likely on rosters in a typical fantasy league, but nine of the 15 were ranked outside of Yahoo's top 200 at the end of the season. Most of them could probably be acquired as free agents in your league at one time during the season.

Player            IP    W   SV    K      ERA   WHIP
Hong-Chih Kuo    80.0   5    1    96    2.14   1.01
J.P. Howell      89.1   6    3    92    2.22   1.13
Octavio Dotel    67.1   4    1    92    3.76   1.21
Rafael Perez     76.1   4    2    86    3.54   1.18
Frank Francisco  63.1   3    5    83    3.13   1.15
Grant Balfour    58.1   6    4    82    1.54   0.89
Jeremy Affeldt   78.1   1    0    80    3.33   1.31
Matt Thornton    67.1   5    1    77    2.67   1.00
Mike Adams       65.1   2    0    74    2.48   1.04
Manny Delcarmen  74.1   1    2    72    3.27   1.12
Heath Bell       78.0   6    0    71    3.58   1.21
Damaso Marte     65.0   5    5    71    4.02   1.20
Juan Cruz        51.2   4    0    71    2.61   1.26
Ramon Ramirez    71.2   3    1    70    2.64   1.23
Ryan Madson      82.2   4    1    67    3.05   1.23
Average          71.1   3.9  1.7  78.9  2.94   1.15

Averaging the stats of these 15 relievers and creating one super reliever with the combined stats of three players, you have the following line: 214 IP, 12 wins, 5 saves, 237 strikeouts, 2.94 ERA, and 1.15 WHIP. You can construct a Tim Lincecum/Johan Santana/Cole Hamels type pitcher just by picking the right relievers off the waiver wire!

So how to decide which relievers to pick up? I look for relievers who average at least one strikeout per inning. If K/BB is a category, I sort on that and look to see who is pitching the most innings with a high strikeout rate. If the league does not use K/BB, I sort by WHIP. As a last resort I'll use ERA. If you can find a reliever who also has starter eligibility, that is an added bonus because you can use him there when your normal starters are not pitching and squeeze another reliever onto your active roster.

One caveat: finding good relievers gets harder if your league counts holds, but chances are there are a few managers in your league who don't bother looking for holds. While it may take some time to identify the top middle relievers, the payoff of an ace level pitcher at the cost of some hitting flexibility can be enormous.

Keep a Hot-Potato Spot

Since hitting performance is generally less variable from year to year, it is often hard to find a worthy hitter to pick up this late in the season. Chances are the only hitters available are either massively under-performing expectations with no apparent hope of a rebound or players whose established level of play puts them solidly in the replacement fantasy player pool.

Can you construct the equivalent of a solid fantasy hitter out of players on the waiver wire? Yes, but it takes sustained effort and good timing.

Without doing any research into this claim, it seems like many mediocre players go through stretches where they are all star caliber hitters. Over 162 games, these hot stretches are averaged out by cold stretches, but if you time it right you can get some monster stats by moving from hot streak to hot streak. The problem with this strategy is much like trying to beat the stock market - knowing when to buy low and sell high.

As an example, I have attempted to fill my UTIL spot in a deep league this season with Travis Snider, followed by Mark Teahen, and currently Nick Johnson. Here are the stats they've accumulated for me in this league:

Player           AB   R  HR  RBI  SB    AVG     OPS
Travis Snider    34   6   2    9   1   0.265   0.901
Mark Teahen      60   2   1    4   1   0.133   0.457
Nick Johnson     43   8   1    7   1   0.349   1.020
TS+NJ total      77  14   3   16   2   0.312   0.967
TS+MT+NJ total  137  16   4   20   3   0.234   0.744

I timed my usage of Snider and Johnson well, dropping Snider as he started to cool off and picking Johnson while he's been on fire. Their combined numbers are superior to either player's season line on a per at bat basis. Unfortunately, between these two I used Mark Teahen, picking him up just after he cooled off from a torrid start, and not realizing this very quickly.*

The combined batting line for my Snider-Teahen-Johnson utility player would put the player in the mid-200s in Yahoo's rankings, around under-performing stars Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton and marginal fantasy players such as Jeremy Hermida and Joe Crede. The league in question is deep enough that Hermida and Crede are among the top 10 available hitters. So even though I completely missed Teahen's hot streak, the overall UTIL production is respectable. With a bit more attention, my hot potato spot would be out-producing what I could pick up off waivers.

How do I identify players on a hot streak? The time periods over which Yahoo gives stats make timing a hot streak challenging. If you sort on the last week, the stats may be heavily influenced by one big game. If you sort on the last month, the stats may be skewed by an amazing first two weeks, meaning you'd be picking up a player who won't be any help now. I generally end up looking at the player's game log for the last 10-15 days to see who is in the midst of a legitimate hot streak.

Wrapping It Up

How successful these strategies will be for you has a lot to do with the structure of your league. I like that both strategies utilize replacement level talent, so the cost of dropping one of these players is low. As a result, it leaves me with a few roster spots that I'm willing to use to take a chance on a sudden change of roles. When news breaks of a major trade, call up of a top prospect, or change in closer duties, I don't have to deliberate over whom to drop. Instead, I can grab the new player before the rest of my league hears about it, secure in the knowledge that there is always another player available if things don't pan out.

*In my defense, the other options on my roster during this time were Garrett Atkins, Adam LaRoche, and Chris Duncan. All things considered Teahen's performance was probably the best of a bad situation. Nevertheless, a look at the available free agents couldn't have hurt!

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Scott D. Simon

Another nit-picky note: When authors use the Posnanski asterisk, I wish they would also keep to his style of placing the footnoted text immediately below the paragraph the asterisk was used,* rather than at the bottom of the article.

*Like this.

That enables the reader to keep moving through the article rather than having to scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen for the footnote and then all the way back up to continue reading.

May 31, 2009 11:23 AM
rating: 2
Matthew Avery

What if an author just uses a regular asterisk? Isn't the only difference between a regular asterisk and a Posnaski asterisk that Posnaski places the rejoinder at the end of the paragraph instead of at the end of the article?

So basically, aren't you just asking him to bogart Posnaski's style rather than just doing it regular-like?

May 31, 2009 21:45 PM
rating: -1

Matthew is someone whose fantasy advice and baseball analysis I'd really appreciate if he were sitting next to me at a bar or a baseball game, but I don't think I would want to pay for it. Sorry.

May 31, 2009 11:45 AM
rating: 0

I think this is a good piece, but I think that it would have worked better had he not tried to cover both pitchers and hitters. Showing how loading up on relievers can basically get you Lincecum numbers was great. But it might have been followed up by some more specific strategic points rather than a topic-change. Nice piece in general, though.

May 31, 2009 11:53 AM
rating: 0

Kevin Goldstein hit it: "Good-not-great"

This is the best article to which I didn't give a thums-up.

May 31, 2009 12:34 PM
rating: 0

That's "thumbs-up" with a "b' both silent and hidden.

May 31, 2009 12:36 PM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

I agree that it would've been better to contain the argument to either pitchers(which I felt was the stronger section of the article) or hitters. I do like he included the note that he was in a deep league when discussing the hitters. Yet, instead of going Dr. Frankenstein on a UTIL spot, I would've worked a trade for a better UTIL hitter that wouldn't require as much maintenance, probably by packaging Teahan's hot start and possible 2B eligibility to another team.

I do think the pitching side of the strategy is a bit too extreme, since in effect, you are punting the Wins category and risking not hitting your innings limit. I would suggest grabbing one or two mid-range starter with good K/9 and WHIP ratios then start grabbing the middle relievers with later draft picks. Some response to that kind of problem (punting wins) should've been included. I did like the Linecum combination though.

I thought the first paragraph of the introduction was great, but the rest of it was fluff... "The best advice I can give for improving your fantasy team is to read Baseball Prospectus every day..." seemed a bit self-serving. "I don't have any earth shattering wisdom..." was a bit ironic because I've seen the no-starter philosophy before. I actually would've preferred those paragraphs were omitted, or the strategies that you do use expounded in some other article.

All, that being said, I felt the article was solid, well-organized, and easy to follow. I didn't learn anything "earth-shattering", but I found it an enjoyable read. It may fall into the "good-not-great" category, but I definitely think it's worthy of my thumbs up, especially after his previous work... and noting how quickly Byron got bounced, I definitely don't want to lose him at this stage of the game.

May 31, 2009 13:26 PM
rating: 0

I'm afraid I agree with the consensus. Focus on either pitching or hitting, providing more examples. I really didn't have a chance to sort through the first batches due to time constraints. As a professional writer, I have two bits of advice in general. 1) personalize stories (Dave Pease's introduction is a prime example, weaving in pop cultural references). This lightens the tone and provides a necessary break from BP's more intellectual approach. I liked how Matt used his personal experience -- and admitted that even experts get it wrong. However, I wish the writing had been punchier. 2) Facts, facts, facts. Do the research and don't be afraid to go into detail (especially if you can leaven it with humor, LOL). One writer sought out a MLB executive for a quote in the previous round. The quote he extracted was standard boring obvious stuff---as an editor I would have asked him to dig deeper, but it showed initiative. Use not only objective numbers, but even "subjective" quotes to paint the full picture. Unfortunately, Matt went far too basic in this article. Nothing new here for a BP reader -- even a casual non-subscriber I'd bet.

There was a lot of blather about each writer's voice in the previous round. Frankly, none of them have yet to demonstrate a strong writerly voice that blends the BP philosophy with their own individual style. Love him or hate him, Matt Berry (not to mention the minions he mentored... please note alliteration) is a fine example of all the above. Thumbs down on this one, I'm afraid.

May 31, 2009 13:51 PM
rating: 0

Yikes. Accidentally voted thumbs up for this one. can't seem to change the vote. BP judging panel, please count this as a negative vote. Thanks. And sorry, Matt -- you do seem like someone who'd be fun to hang out with at a bar discussing sports. :-)

May 31, 2009 13:55 PM
rating: -1

In a nutshell? Boring. Never captured my imagination with his writing and never provided enough insight to make up for a lack of creativity.

May 31, 2009 15:16 PM
rating: 0

Not necessarily boring to me, but I DID feel like I've read it some where before, on maybe the thousand of other fantasy columns that are out there.

Being a strategy I have used in leagues, and am using in one this season, it didn't cover new ground NOR reinforce that it's a stronger option than others.

CK hit on some good nitpicky stat and number points too.

May 31, 2009 18:17 PM
rating: 0

One other point. Did NOT like the using of old numbers for pitchers and current numbers for hitters.

May 31, 2009 18:20 PM
rating: 2

Being apologetic about his fantasy abilities does not do him any favors. Even if it is true. This is a decent article, squarely in the average category.

Just curious, how do you do in your fantasy leagues? I have found that punting any category is a losing strategy in the long run.

May 31, 2009 18:38 PM
rating: 0
Matthew Knight

Typically top 3. So far I'm leading both leagues this year.

Just to clarify-I'm not totally punting wins, just trying to replace a 12 win/140 K innings eater with three relievers who will combine for 12 wins with a lot more Ks and better ERA/WHIP.

May 31, 2009 20:07 PM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

Replacing one 12 win/140 k innings eater with three relievers is good, maybe two if you can grab a Carlos Marmol type..but unless you have a huge roster size as well as a huge active roster size (since you need to keep all those relievers active on a daily basis), then you punt wins if you don't draft a single starting pitcher. Worse yet, in a head-to-head league, your results in the win category become a bit of a crapshoot.

May 31, 2009 20:20 PM
rating: 0
John Carter

After breezing through the first half of Matthew’s entry I thought, wow, he’s stepped up. Then I hit the snag when he began discussing his Hot-Potato Spot. It was written well enough. I understand his strategy. The problem is that he provided no evidence that it works. In fact, from what I’ve read elsewhere, it doesn’t work at all.

May 31, 2009 21:12 PM
rating: 0

Bingo. That's exactly where he lost me as well.

Jun 01, 2009 12:10 PM
rating: 0

Remember, it's a total vote count as a go-forward. I vote thumbs up for the six best so that what I consider to be the 9th best artcle has a lesser chance of sneaking past the fourth... Decent read, thumbs up for MK this week...

Jun 01, 2009 00:15 AM
rating: 0
Ben Solow

An important caveat at the top of this article would be that this strategy only works in leagues with daily transactions. I play in a league with huge roster sizes and could pursue both strategies, but limited (weekly) transactions which means the pitching idea is completely useless. You're not replacing 1 innings eater with 3 relievers, you're replacing 3 starters with 1 stud starter, which means you'll end up around -20 on wins (assuming 10-11 wins per starter, 4 per reliever) and -150 on k's (assuming 120 k's per starter, 70 per reliever) if you're good at picking the top relievers.

That's not to mention that, as Kevin Towers has aptly demonstrated, reliever performance is largely fungible and extremely variable from year to year. Picking those top relievers at the start of the year is extremely difficult -- how many of you saw Belisario or Troncoso coming, for instance? Given that any rate-stat advantage relievers provide is diminished the later in the year you acquire them, this strategy makes little to no sense for me.

Jun 01, 2009 05:15 AM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

Um, actually, the strategy works fine with limited weekly transactions because you don't have to juggle those weird days when multiple starting pitchers are starting and have to demote a reliever to fit them all in. All you do is see who has offdays that week among your three relievers and keep them in the active roster.

Reliever performance is largely fungible ERA-wise, but their WHIPs and k/9 tend to be more stable for those relievers who tend to throw an inning or more.

Jun 01, 2009 05:59 AM
rating: 0
Ben Solow

Richard, the strategy of juggling in the days when you have multiple starting pitchers going isn't used when you have weekly transactions. The point is that it's not just about performance of the players, and I would completely agree that 3 top middle relievers are much better than 1 starting pitcher over the course of the season. The point is that, if you don't have daily transactions where you can shuffle based on who's starting on a given day, you're not replacing 1 starting pitcher with 3 relievers, you're replacing 3 starting pitchers with 3 relievers, and therefore you sacrifice a ton in the counting categories.

We can consider, for simplicity, a league that uses wins, ERA, WHIP and K's for pitching stats (since the whole point of picking these relievers is that they're free talent because of save bias) and has only 3 generic pitcher spots (since we're only talking about 3 players at a time). You can start 3 relievers and have a better ERA and WHIP, but you're going to sacrifice the counting categories to anyone who chooses 3 starters. The margin in the counting categories will be huge, too, around the numbers I assumed in the first comment, and probably enough for several points in each category depending on where you rank in the league, whereas the relievers' marginal contributions to your rate stats may not be similarly big.

Jun 01, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 0
Richard Bergstrom

I agree with what you're saying Ben. I had commented earlier that doing this for all your starters would not work well. However, I'd have no problems grabbing two or three decent starters and cobbling the extra one or two pitching slots from middle relievers. As a bit of background, I tend to play Yahoo leagues where often it's a 2xSP,2xRP,3xP active format. I usually vulch enough saves where I can flip one of the closers for an upgrade at another position. This used to work much better in the late 90s when you had multiple 250K+ pitchers like Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez running around.

Jun 01, 2009 18:05 PM
rating: 0

First half of the article was decent. The stuff on following hitters on hot streaks is pretty dumb though.

Jun 01, 2009 07:05 AM
rating: 1

There was one genuinely good piece of advice in this one, which is more than I usually see in Fantasy articles.

Jun 01, 2009 09:46 AM
rating: 3

I would have liked to read this article on Yahoo or Sportsline because I already understand ERA and BA and stuff.

Give me acronyms that I have no idea what they stand for so I feel like I get my money's worth out of my subscription, please!

Jun 01, 2009 10:18 AM
rating: -2

I loved using a variant of this pitching strategy several years ago in leagues that capped the number of games *started* for pitchers but did not enforce any type of innings pitched limit. Those leagues also used daily changes so that I could get the most value out of the relievers. Instead of giving an active roster spot to a starter not starting that day, I could have a chance at an extra few K's while lowering my rate stats and maybe getting a vulture win. Using some starters though was necessary. This league structure is pretty rare though, and I haven't found it to be particularly useful in other structures.

Jun 01, 2009 11:56 AM
rating: 0

Okay on style, but lacking on substance. I often read articles about grabbing high K/BB and K/IP relievers, but most do not discuss the variance you see from year to year. Sure, Marmol has been consistently good for the past year and a half, but for every Marmol there are a half dozen flameouts that can only be culled from the mix by virtue of hindsight. And almost none of these fantasy pieces discuss competetive leagues where the free agent bidding in-season is fierce for any RP with even a glimmer of a chance to close and put up solid peripherals. In keeper leagues, the choices are even more limited. The piece was more of a primer for fantasy beginners than one that would inform BP readers. Again, good on style, but "eh" otherwise.

Jun 01, 2009 14:23 PM
rating: 0

Not very exciting, but contains critical strategy elements that many above-average fantasy players still do not fully grasp. I personally did not get a whole lot out of it, but I applaud the author for taking the time to address this fantasy technique in an organized way. Overall, the article is worthwhile because it offers a specific strategy to improve your fantasy performance. How many of the other articles this week can make that claim?

Jun 02, 2009 00:07 AM
rating: 0

This shares a weakness that many articles sabout specififc fantasy teams share in that it doesn't really help unless you know specififcs about the depth of the leauge and the scoring system. This is important, as a guy like Michael Bourn is a star in one type of format and a scrub in another. With the multitude of he best antasy articles are the ones that cover how players perform in reality, then you can translate that to your own team

Jun 02, 2009 07:55 AM
rating: -1
Richard Bergstrom

While I see what you are saying, the idea Matthew was getting at was you can take these concepts and apply it to your own league and rules. You don't really need to know Matthew's league format to understand the theory that he is writing about, though knowing his league format would give you a better idea if it was an optimal strategy for his team.

Jun 02, 2009 09:20 AM
rating: 0

Undermining your article in your opening is a bad idea. The fact that you don't quite deliver throughout makes that bad mojo a promise kept.

Churn and burn? Really? Most fantasy players know that you can construct a good player out of relief pitchers, but they also know that their variability makes them extremely difficult to pick. Churn and burn always looks smarter in retrospect. It's a high risk strategy that can sink your season otherwise.

Sure, if you're just experimenting in a league, it's not a bad strategy. But when you absolutely positively have to win that league, accept a substitute.

Jun 02, 2009 09:27 AM
rating: -1
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