The grass isn't much greener for setup men, as Will wades through the relief crews beyond the closers.
Call this one my tip of the cap to fantasy players. I've spent years using a "punt saves" strategy in my leagues, trying instead to figure out which closers would crater. By grabbing the guys that are "closers in waiting" on the cheap, I have been able to focus on the more valuable pieces earlier. Occasionally, I'll get lucky and pick up someone like Jonathan Papelbon (who I picked with my last pick last year on the off chance he made the rotation) or Akinori Otsuka. Relievers are essentially a fungible quantity; there's always another. Due to their usage, the small sample size rule works in their favor. They're talented enough to make it to the majors, which by definition means they have the stuff to get hot over a couple weeks. It's often very apparent in some of the more specialized reports, like Quality of Batters Faced. In other words, relievers can be valuable if you get the right one in the right role, but if not, don't get too attached. Your fantasy team should churn and burn these guys the same way major league teams do.
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An especially risky group this year, with few bets to stay healthy all season.
What we're chasing here is a better measure of fatigue. Keith Woolner, Rany Jazayerli, and before them, Craig Wright have all sought statistical models that proxy fatigue somehow. As good a counting stat as PAP is--and Keith's essay in Baseball Prospectus 2007 brings it even further, proving something I discussed in last year's pitching development article--it's not going to beat an EMG test. If you can figure out how to get someone to pitch with all those wires (and get a team to loan you their pitchers), you'll be ahead of the game. Until then, we're really just guessing. We're seeing players that failed as starters, trying to wishcast vague psychological models to ascribe that always-elusive 'makeup,' and letting inconsistency, inefficiency, and volatility decide the end of games.
As pitchers and catchers get in their early work on spring training fields, Will looks at the health of the top rotation starters.
Even the least risky pitcher is risky compared to a position player, making the fantasy draft even that much more important as far as who you pick and when. Worse, the replacement level for pitchers is a steep slope; it's not so bad when a team is forced to replace its fifth starter, but there are no aces in reserve. The ability to keep the aces and big-dollar pitchers healthy is non-democratic, and means that more than a few fantasy GMs will be taxed by throwing big dollars at non-aces. It makes pitcher development once a pitcher makes the majors even more important, a factor that's often overlooked by teams and fantasy owners alike. We also know that players like roles, so noting new roles for players is important, though from the outside it's often tough to tell exactly who's where. These factors are often the difference between winning and losing, so it's worth taking some time to check all of these things out.
When it comes to shortstops and health, Will sees it as a case of haves and have-nots.
As I do the calculations to come up with the ratings here--and let me make no secret about the fact that these are very simple operations, not a complex PECOTA-like act of creation--it's the results for shortstops that come out looking the most odd. Three blue ratings (one standard deviation below the positional median) and a lot of greens make it appear as if this is one of the safer positions. In fact, it's one of the riskiest. The baseline is higher here than at third base, for instance, for equivalent ages. The difference comes in the broad ranges of risk; players at shortstop tend to be either very healthy and durable or Xzibit-class busted. It's nearly binary, a one or the other-ness that you don't find at other positions.
Although playing one of the safest positions on the diamond, today's third basemen are more athletic than ever before.
Young, quick, athletic players like Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright are the new face of the position, but the new-age third baseman may have his model in one of the more injury-prone players at the hot corner: Troy Glaus. However banged up he was in the past, Glaus is still athletic enough to have started eight games at shortstop in 2006, putting up a below-average but not horrible defensive rating. Given his bat, if a team was willing to put up with some defensive miscues, or smartly played him behind flyball pitchers only (or paired him with a rangy fielders at second and/or third), the offensive value could be pretty interesting. Instead, he's a veteran who represents an example of the future at third base, with more complete, athletic players manning the position. If the trends hold true, these players should be healthy enough to reach their potential to be among the game's elite for the next decade.
These hulking sluggers may play a less demanding position, but there's a usually a good reason they're not shagging fly balls or making plays in the hole.
First base should be the least risky position on the field, but there are factors that cancel out some of the inherent advantage. First, the guys who man the position tend to be of a type. They lack mobility, have an increased likelihood of previous injuries (many of which are the reason they're at first), and tend to be large and muscular. So the advantage of "hiding" someone down the defensive spectrum may keep some defensive shortcomings from being exposed, but it won't necessarily keep their injury risk from being a factor. Players moving to first base have a greatly increased risk of injury in the first year; there's definitely a learning curve to the position. A ten-year trend of collision injuries at first base indicates that most of them happen to new first basemen, though it's the longer-term first basemen that get hit the hardest or at least have the most effect. If a team wants to keep their first baseman healthy, the ideal candidate seems to be a younger player who has been converted from third base or catcher while in the minors. Then again, most first basemen are just hoping that Nick Johnson doesn't skew the curve too much.
A boatload of risk is typical when it comes to the most physically demanding position on the diamond.
I have been playing along with the joke of "pitchers and Molinas report in X days" for so long that it seems natural. For at least the last decade, the general view of starting catchers has been that they come in two everyday-play sizes: sluggers like Mike Piazza who happen to catch, and guys like Mike Matheny who happen to hit. Honestly, I think the iron man catcher era may be over, and that's a good thing. When the Cubs re-signed Henry Blanco to once again pair up with Michael Barrett, I took a long look at the move and liked what I saw. Less wear and tear on a catcher is a good thing, a lesson football GMs have learned about running backs. Job-sharing is expanding. I still wonder why the good-catch guy doesn't do more on calling pitches, or why the emergency catcher isn't used more in situations where the "hitting" catcher could be brought in to pinch-hit. But generally, I look at the trends and notice that these offense/defense platoons tend to stay healthier and more productive in both respects. It's a nice evolution.