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Last season, in a 12 team AL-only Expert league, TheSportsJudge spent $238 of his $260 budget on hitting.  His aggressive bidding with hitters netted him the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, B.J. Upton, and Alex Rios on his lineup–quite the formidable group in an AL-Only league. However, that also presented him with a pitching staff that contained the likes of Gil Meche, Brad Bergesen, Jeremy Bonderman, and Ryan-Rowland Smith. He struck gold in his reserve rounds, choosing Brandon Morrow and Freddy Garcia, and also pulled off a trade to add Jonathan Papelbon in-season. This resulted in finishing just a half a point out of third place. Here were the final standings for the league:

He nearly maxed out four of the five hitting categories and did surprisingly well in the pitching counting categories, but his plan fell apart in the ratios. Throwing Bonderman out there for 171 innings and Bergesen for another 170 innings hurt him almost as much as it did their real-life squads. The pair collected 16 wins and 193 strikeouts, which would be great if it was accomplished in 170 innings and not twice that amount. It was an aggressive plan that got him into the money, but it is not a new plan.

In 1996, LABR (League of Alternative Baseball Reality) draft participant Larry Labadini spent $251 of his $260 budget on hitting. Unfortunately, the interwebs do not provide a history of who won the league that season, but most of the people I’ve talked to cannot recall anyone ever winning a league with such a strategy. [Edit: Labadini finished in fourth, eight points out of first, as pointed out in the comments.] It does not mean people have not continued to try it every season either in an auction format or in a draft by spending their first fourteen picks on hitters before selecting their first pitcher. Employing such a strategy is inherently risky in any league with a competent group of owners, as all of your value picks will be on the pitching side, making your hitting expensive. Such a strategy is much easier to employ in an office league or one where you are confident you are clearly the best owner in the group. Additionally, if you cannot use free agent money to acquire new talent in season or make trades, do not even bother giving this a go, as the margin of error is slimmer than the Cubs' chances of winning back-to-back World Series titles.

If you do decide to implement the Labadini plan either in an auction or a draft, what kind of pitching pool can you expect to pull from in assembling your $9 pitching staff?  Or, what kind of staff can you expect to put together if you do not draft your first pitcher until the 15th round of a draft?

Lord (Todd) Zola and I pitched this idea around a bit today and came up with a starting pitcher pool of 32 names whose current Average Draft Position values would value them at $1 (or less) in an auction. The best of the best in that player pool includes:

For argument’s sake, let’s scratch Niemann and Arroyo off that list and see what projections we are dealing with:

Pitcher

W

K

ERA

WHIP

Pavano

13

132

4.32

1.27

Norris

14

175

4.23

1.33

McDonald

12

185

3.79

1.38

Davis

13

135

3.91

1.31

Volquez

11

147

4.09

1.46

Wood

12

138

3.40

1.15

TOTAL

75

912

3.98

1.33

The main risk with this pitching staff is that it is counting on four second-year starting pitchers and two others with questionable health histories. When you are in dollar days, beggars cannot be choosers, and this is the lot you are left to select. It only serves to highlight the true risk in implementing this strategy.

The closer pool has just 14 names in it and only two projected full-time closers. That list includes:

We’re stuck with the committees in Pittsburgh and Toronto, as well as with some high-end relievers. The high-impact middle relievers are great, but in a mixed league you cannot simply punt saves unless you truly max out your other counting categories.  Since your starting staff is already built on risk, you have to go for the certain play. We are trying to compile as many saves as possible with this strategy, so as to not fall behind in the counting categories, so we’re taking Lyon, Nunez, and hedging our bets that Hanrahan ends up being the full-time closer in Pittsburgh.

Pitcher

SV

K

ERA

WHIP

Lyon

33

60

2.90

1.26

Nunez

22

66

4.22

1.34

Hanrahan

21

91

3.18

1.15

That $9 pitching staff roughly compiles the following totals (the second number represents suggested benchmarks for that particular category to finish in the top three spots):

  • Strikeouts: 1120/1300
  • Wins: 85/100
  • Saves: 76/100
  • ERA: 3.95/3.75
  • WHIP: 1.32/1.27

Assuming each pitcher meets his projections at 100 percent value, this team still falls short of finishing in the top 25 percent of any one of those categories.

In a 12 team 5×5 league, there are 120 total points on the table. If a team decides to go all in on hitting at the draft table, they have to win at least 52/60 hitting points to make the investment work. If our $9 pitching staff finishes in fifth place across the board in pitching, that gets 40 pitching points and 92 to 100 points would put a team in contention for the title, no well-balanced team ran away with it as my team did last year in the AL league. As you can see, the staff falls short of even the third place benchmarks in every category, so we would need those pitchers to hit 110 percent or more of their projected value to make this happen.

There is a reason why you see most people stay +/- five point from the old 70/30 split during auctions: it helps spread out the risks. If you deviate beyond that comfort zone at your auction, you have to be extremely confident in both your projections and your ability to execute your plan to perfection throughout the season. Even with that good fortune, you are simply in the game to finish in the top half of your final standings. If you go with the Labadini plan, you have to walk the thin line of finding those pitchers that will help you the most in the counting categories while not terribly hampering you in the counting categories; just remember that it is one or more faults that put each of those pitchers at $1 in the first place. 

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shandler
2/01
Labadini finished 4th in LABR 1996, just 8 points out of first. John Hunt and Steve Moyer tied for first place.
moonlightj
2/01
Thanks for the assist, Ron. I was unable to find that history despite my best efforts yesterday.
tbsmkdn
2/01
Great stuff, Jason. And a belated welcome!
GNWachs
2/01
Several years ago I tried the strategy of all out for the hitters and relievers and basically abandon starters. My goal was to win the batting categories and the saves, ERA and WHIP categories conceding wins. My team won going away. Next year the league added a minimim innings requirement.
moonlightj
2/01
yea, the league minimum requirement is a huge roadblock to the strategy. My local leagues did the same several years back because someone nearly won the league doing the same.
sam19041
2/01
Jason, really liked this article. Not revolutionary, but a clear and level-headed take on strategy. RJ in the house!
kdierman
2/01
Something similar that worked for me - only because I really liked Colby Lewis (thanks Baseball Prospectus) and Trevor Cahill to be front end starters and I like the Rangers....Last year in my American League only auction I tried something similar ... ended up with Kevin Gregg, Uehara, and FRodney for a total of 6 bucks and got 8 save points ...filled out the staff with Trevor Cahill for $2, Colby Lewis $2, CJ Wilson for $3, Dallas Braden $1, Bret Cecil for $1, Michael Wuertz for $2 - adding Jake Westbrook, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Duensing on reserve. I eventually traded offense for Bret Anderson when he was coming off the DL. Spending $243 on offense got 59 offensive points ... and a once in a lifetime runaway win
moonlightj
2/01
Well done!
ScottBehson
2/01
I sometimes considered- but never did- a strategy in which I only had inactive pitchers on my roster. That way, I win ERA and WHIP and can max out on hitting categories- punting wins, saves, and Ks.
ackbar
2/01
Most leagues have an innings pitched minimum to prevent people from employing this strategy. I would recommend you give your league's constitution a second look before implementing such a philosophy.
Robotey
2/02
In general it seems the risk is higher in pitching than in hitting. There are more $25 pitchers who've had $5 seasons than there are hitters who've done the same. Pitchers are more prone to injury, increasing their odds of missing extended time and being ineffective when they return, whereas hitters, provided they get the AB's, usually manage to turn even the most disappointing season into something credible. Witness Aramis Ramirez last season, useless for a long time, and then injecting teams with life in August. It also depends on the diligence of the other owners. In some leagues it's rare for a gem to fall through the cracks during the season, in others owners tune out or hoard their FAAB for the stud OF who changes leagues at the deadline. I always find 2 or 3 closers emerge from nowhere during the season (Axford e.g.), so I never pay for a 2nd.
moonlightj
2/03
I agree. It really requires you to find a few pitchers that strongly exceed their expectations. Our example in the article nailed Brandon Morrow and got a pile of wins from Freddy Garcia that nobody was counting on. Unfortunately, some of his misses were equally as bad.
Robotey
2/03
As a roto-purist whose roots and fandom go back to the first book in 1984 with the green cover I see it as 'the more things change...'. In all the war stories of how the Steinbrenners and Goners claimed their pennants there was always a cheap Dravecky or Reuschel or Price who delivered 14 wins for $2 and was their team's MVP. In a deep league--the only kind worth playing in--you need a little luck to win. Paying $31 for a Halladay or Lincecum season is just value, not luck, but getting Carlos Silva's lucky first half for $1 --or less--must have launched many lucky teams toward the money last year, so there will always be merit in the strategy.
moonlightj
2/03
Absolutely. Everyone has to have some luck to win. In that league above, my 2 biggest investments were $32 on Ellsbury and $19 on Peavy; they produced around $9 of value for me. I spent $30 combined on Soriano/Bailey who blew that away closing, and picked Trevor Crowe and Danny Valencia as reserves. I got more from 2 reserves than half the league got from their CI and 4th/5th OF.
SkyKing162
2/02
Good stuff, Jason, Love the strategery-oriented fantasy articles. You think a low-money pitching approach like this is easier or harder in shallower leagues?
atfhoops
2/02
Man, this seems like a thinly-veiled way to show everyone you blew away the field last year. ;)
moonlightj
2/03
Shallower leagues because you can correct mistakes with a deeper FA pool.
moonlightj
2/03
:) It was the best example I could find of a guy using a radical draft split and doing very well with it.