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June 23, 2011

Resident Fantasy Genius

The Pursuit of Wins

by Derek Carty

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“Don’t chase wins.” This is perhaps the most frequently dispensed piece of advice by fantasy baseball analysts. Everyone from Mike Siano (MLB) to Scott White (CBS) to Eric Mack (SI) says it. Heck, I’m sure I’ve said it at one point or another. Ron Shandler probably puts the notion most succinctly:

Bad strategy. DON'T CHASE WINS. You never succeed. Just make sure you have high-skilled pitchers and hope the wins follow. That is the best, and ONLY thing you can control.

It’s easy to see why this is such a popular piece of advice. The table below shows the year-to-year correlation for a number of pitching stats (2002-2010, 100 IP min, no relief appearances):

Stat

R

GB%

0.84

K/9

0.80

BB/9

0.68

WHIP

0.45

ERA

0.34

W/GS

0.22

Clearly, there is a lot more variability in a pitcher’s wins than there is in his other stats, especially his “skills”: strikeouts, walks, and groundballs.

“Don’t chase wins” has become perhaps the most accepted strategy in all of fantasy sports. So why do I bring up the topic today? Because it’s overly simplified and not the optimal course of action. It’s also topical, as there is an ongoing discussion at the website for the CardRunners Fantasy Baseball Experts League (of which I’m a part) and because during my live chat the other day; the first question I received came from reader Andrew from Las Vegas:

Is there any real way to try to improve in the wins category?

The answer is “yes.” There are two ways, actually. I’ll defer the first way to CardRunners leaguemate Chris Hill–a poker player who has teamed up with Hollywood director/writer/actor Nick Cassavetes for the league–who put it eloquently:

Wins are essentially a function of total starts. You send as many donkeys out to the mound as you can every week and a hope a few come back with baskets full of gold instead of hits and losses.

A league-average pitcher will take home a ‘W’ in 35 percent of his starts, so the easiest way to accumulate wins is to do just as Chris says: send as many donkeys out there as you can. This is the only surefire way to accumulate a lot of wins. Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of putting anybody with a pulse into our fantasy rotations due to league settings and/or the need to protect our ERAs and WHIPs.

This brings us to option two: picking pitchers that have the best chance of winning games. While many analysts will preach that the best we can do is to pick pitchers with good skills, this is not really true. A pitcher’s skills play a part in winning games, but not the largest part. The average pitcher only throws 5.9 innings per game. His bullpen takes the remaining innings in the field, and his offense takes the other nine half-innings. This means that the offense is involved in 50 percent of a game, the bullpen 17 percent, and the pitcher himself 33 percent (ignoring the fact that luck, defense, etc. come into play while the pitcher is on the mound).

Because of this, if all we cared about was wins, we’d actually be better off picking our pitchers based upon their supporting offense than picking them based upon their own skills. Of course, it’s not an either/or scenario, so we can do even better by combining all of these factors to come up with a more accurate expectation of a pitcher’s win total. To do this, Bill James’s Pythagorean Theorem serves as a good tool. The formula is:

This next part will look familiar if you read my piece on Tim Stauffer a couple weeks ago. Today I’ll use Dan Haren—who I happen to own in CardRunners—as my example.

First, we should first come up with how many innings we expect a pitcher to throw per game and what his expected run average (RA) is. Haren averages roughly 6.7 innings per start, and we’ll use 3.35 as his expected run average. Haren’s bullpen’s run average on the year is 3.81 (ideally we’d go through projections for each member of the bullpen individually and put them together, but this should be a good enough ballpark estimate).

Assuming Haren and his bullpen pitch a total of 8.91 innings per game (league average, since the bottom of the ninth doesn’t always happen), their combined expected RA is 3.46. The Angels’ offense has scored 3.67 runs per game this year (again, we could go through individually, but we’ll use this for simplicity’s sake).

When we combine these numbers, we see that in games Haren pitches, the Angels would be expected to win 52.8 percent of the time. From here, we just need to figure out how many times Haren should be expected to get the win in these Angels victories. Here is a table that shows how often the pitcher gets a ‘W’ in games in which 1) his team wins and 2) he allows just two or three runs (Haren’s expectation is 2.5 per 6.7 innings) based on the number of innings he throws:

IP

W%

5

65%

5.1

62%

5.2

68%

6

70%

6.1

71%

6.2

75%

7

75%

7.1

80%

7.2

82%

8

85%

8.1

89%

8.2

91%

9

94%

Based on this chart, we could expect Haren to get the win in roughly 75 percent of his starts that result in an Angels win, for a final win percentage of 39.7 percent of all games started. Over a 32-start season, that would give Haren a bit under 13 wins. He’s currently getting a win in just 33.3 percent of his starts, so we can say that Haren has been a bit unlucky in the wins department to this point.

To help you with your own analyses, you can see a complete chart of win percentages based upon the number of innings thrown and the number of runs allowed below.  

IP

R

W%

SAMPLE

 

IP

R

W%

SAMPLE

 

IP

R

W%

SAMPLE

5

0

.809

236

 

6.1

0

.857

84

 

7.2

0

.925

106

5

1

.787

474

 

6.1

1

.834

223

 

7.2

1

.909

176

5

2

.670

572

 

6.1

2

.732

287

 

7.2

2

.846

162

5

3

.626

604

 

6.1

3

.690

242

 

7.2

3

.787

108

5

4

.557

467

 

6.1

4

.594

160

 

7.2

4

.727

44

5

5

.470

287

 

6.1

5

.551

78

 

7.2

5

.786

14

5

6

.444

117

 

6.1

6

.320

25

 

7.2

6

1.000

1

5

7

.339

56

 

6.1

7

.333

12

 

8

0

.909

628

5

8

.000

12

 

6.1

8

.500

2

 

8

1

.887

856

5

9

.500

4

 

6.2

0

.928

111

 

8

2

.859

544

5.1

0

.854

41

 

6.2

1

.817

268

 

8

3

.840

250

5.1

1

.785

130

 

6.2

2

.776

357

 

8

4

.774

84

5.1

2

.654

188

 

6.2

3

.722

299

 

8

5

.760

25

5.1

3

.596

225

 

6.2

4

.623

183

 

8

6

.667

9

5.1

4

.531

147

 

6.2

5

.609

69

 

8.1

0

1.000

26

5.1

5

.475

122

 

6.2

6

.524

21

 

8.1

1

.930

57

5.1

6

.447

47

 

6.2

7

.250

4

 

8.1

2

.868

38

5.1

7

.263

19

 

6.2

8

.500

2

 

8.1

3

.917

36

5.1

8

.200

5

 

6.2

9

.000

1

 

8.1

4

.818

11

5.2

0

.776

58

 

6.2

1

.500

2

 

8.1

5

1.000

4

5.2

1

.784

153

 

7

0

.907

1226

 

8.1

7

1.000

1

5.2

2

.702

215

 

7

1

.849

1934

 

8.2

0

.875

16

5.2

3

.657

248

 

7

2

.785

1575

 

8.2

1

.897

39

5.2

4

.517

180

 

7

3

.703

990

 

8.2

2

.906

32

5.2

5

.440

125

 

7

4

.693

401

 

8.2

3

.917

12

5.2

6

.419

43

 

7

5

.625

136

 

8.2

4

.750

4

5.2

7

.357

14

 

7

6

.794

34

 

8.2

5

1.000

2

5.2

8

.000

3

 

7

7

.571

7

 

8.2

6

1.000

1

5.2

9

1.000

1

 

7

8

.000

2

 

9

0

.985

716

6

0

.877

626

 

7.1

0

.894

94

 

9

1

.960

446

6

1

.789

1216

 

7.1

1

.867

188

 

9

2

.944

196

6

2

.722

1482

 

7.1

2

.838

198

 

9

3

.935

77

6

3

.663

1223

 

7.1

3

.736

129

 

9

4

.880

25

6

4

.554

724

 

7.1

4

.702

67

 

9

5

.800

5

6

5

.506

340

 

7.1

5

.773

22

 

9

6

1.000

1

6

6

.514

109

 

7.1

6

.500

6

 

10

0

1.000

2

6

7

.565

23

 

7.1

8

.000

1

 

10

1

.500

2

6

8

.000

4

                   

I’m not saying that you should forget everything you’ve learned to this point and gun solely for wins; I’m just saying that wins aren’t a complete crapshoot as some suggest. Combine this type of analysis with your expectations for the other categories and you’ll be better off in the long run. Or I’m sure PECOTA does something similar to arrive at a pitcher’s projected win total, so when looking at a pitcher’s projection, don’t just look at the ERA and call it a day. The wins in the projection line are relevant. As such, you can and should set your fantasy team up to generate more wins. At an absolute minimum, make sure to take the pitcher’s supporting offense into consideration. Sure, there will be variability with wins—more even than with ERA—but if variability is something you can handle, your net expectation is going to be better for it.

Related Content:  Game 1

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