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Fantasy Freestyle – 2017 LABR AL Recap

I wrote an 1,833-word recap about my season in the 2017 League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) AL-only league. Except for the bit about Yolmer Sanchez, most of that recap will disappear when I hit the delete key on my earlier draft.

Oh sure, I could regale you with tales of my seventh-place team. I could tell you that the final standings were closer than they looked, that heading into the final month of the season it was a six-team dogfight for first place and that for two days in early August my team was in first place before it all came unceremoniously crashing down.

These pieces are fun to write. These pieces are not very interesting to read, unless you were in the league. Instead, I’m going to cut to the chase and write about what worked, what didn’t, and what I can apply from this year’s loss to next year’s attempt to win.

This is what my pitching staff looked like coming out of the auction on March 4.

Table 1: Mike Gianella’s LABR AL Pitching

Pitcher $ Sal +/- AVG 2016 My Bid
Andrew Bailey $2 1 1 0 $3 3
Dylan Bundy $16 7 9 8 $8 10
Sam Dyson* $0 12 -12 13 $18 14
J.A. Happ $14 8 6 10 $25 11
Craig Kimbrel $30 17 13 21 $16 19
Rick Porcello $9 17 -8 17 $33 18
Huston Street $1 1 -0 3 $1 4
Masahiro Tanaka $15 17 -2 20 $25 20
Chris Tillman -$14 5 -19 4 $16 7
Totals $73 85 -12 96 $145 106

*includes NL-only stats

The “$” column is what my formulas say each player was worth in AL-only in 2017. “Sal” is what I paid in LABR in March. “Avg” is the average of what CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars paid for the player. 2016 tells us what a player earned last year while the “My Bid” column tells you what my bid limit was when I sat down at LABR.

Despite what the other expert leagues, along with my bid limit and especially the 2016 column said, my auction on the pitching side was subpar. My theory coming out of the auction was that Happ, Porcello, and Tanaka could slip, earn 2/3 of what they earned in 2016 and I would still come out way ahead. Instead, they earned a combined $38, or less than half of the $83 they earned the previous year. Without any additional context, you would assume my team was finished.

But I had an ace in the hole.

Craig Kimbrel not only carried my team in saves but also was an ERA and WHIP anchor I was not expecting. Only Corey Kluber, Chris Sale and Luis Severino generated more fantasy earnings in ERA; only Kluber and Sale earned more in WHIP. Kimbrel’s strength in those categories allowed me to survive most of Dyson’s terrible Rangers tenure and a portion of Tillman’s (Tillman was gone from my roster awful 29 ghastly innings, not the 93 reflected in the $ column above).

I did need to replace Dyson and Tillman. But even in the deepest of mono leagues, you can find quality free-agent pitching far more easily than you can find hitting. The 10th-best free-agent pitcher who wasn’t drafted or taken on reserve in LABR earned $11. Only three free-agent hitters cracked this barrier. Not all of these pitchers were superstars, but if you have an anchor like Kimbrel you don’t need a superstar. You only need a handful of pitchers who are $10-12 earners to fill in the holes. Heck, you can even absorb some below average ERA and WHIP in exchange for wins and strikeouts.

This was the power of Kimbrel. Jordan Montgomery ($14) and J.C. Ramirez ($10) weren’t aces, but on a team with so much power vested in one reliever they didn’t need to be. I drafted Andrew Cashner ($12) on reserve and eventually added him to my staff as well. Bundy did flirt with being an ace at times, which helped. But my pitching staff was Kimbrel plus volume. I finished with 45.5 out of a possible 60 pitching points. This was only one point behind the best pitching staff in the league. If I could have duplicated this on offense, I would have won.

On paper, the team I bought looked like it had a solid foundation.

Table 2: Mike Gianella’s LABR AL Hitting

Pos Player $ Sal +/- Avg 2016 $ My Bid
C Russell Martin $6 11 -5 14 $11 12
C James McCann $8 7 1 6 $5 5
1B Hanley Ramirez $11 20 -9 22 $26 24
2B Ian Kinsler $16 23 -7 23 $29 25
SS Alcides Escobar $10 12 -2 11 $16 12
3B Yulieski Gurriel $19 16 3 13 $3 15
CO Chase Headley $17 7 10 7 $12 9
MI Yolmer Sanchez $14 1 13 0 $1 2
OF Jackie Bradley $13 17 -4 17 $22 22
OF Melky Cabrera $19 10 9 10 $20 19
OF Shin-Soo Choo $21 10 11 12 $6 14
OF Corey Dickerson $20 9 11 9 $12 14
OF Kevin Kiermaier $17 20 -3 20 $16 15
DH Victor Martinez $7 12 -5 13 $20 14
Totals $198 175 23 177 $199 202

My biggest mistake was when I dropped Yolmer Sanchez one week into the season.

Yes, really.

Table 3: Yolmer Sanchez and his Replacements

Yolmer Sanchez 480 128 12 63 59 8 .267
Daniel Robertson 160 35 5 18 16 1 .219
Adam Rosales 34 6 1 4 6 0 .176
Tyler Wade 33 3 0 1 0 0 .091
Taylor Motter 15 4 0 3 2 2 .267
JaCoby Jones 78 13 2 8 7 4 .167
Net Loss 160 67 4 29 28 1 .419

Absent the batting-average hit, it doesn’t look like much. But runs and RBIs were close enough that keeping Sanchez would have gained me two points in runs and one in RBIs. I finished tied for ninth in steals, so that extra steal would have been worth half a point.

Three and a half points if I had kept Sanchez. AL-only is hell.

The Sanchez gaffe aside, I would not have had enough offense to win.

The odd thing about my team is not only did I turn a profit on offense coming out of the auction but even with the benefit of hindsight I executed my plan. Having a balanced roster typically shields you from losing significant value on one hitter and this is what happened in my case. No hitter lost more than $9, and 11 of the 14 hitters I purchased earned at least $10. I finished with 6,779 at-bats, or 93 more than the next team and 357 more than the third-best team. Yet, despite all of these positives, I still finished with 26.5 points on offense. Only three LABR teams were worse, and these three teams finished 10th, 11th, and 12th.

The takeaway is that while the balanced roster approach can still work, it must be tweaked for context.

Table 4: LABR AL Category Winners 2013-2017

2013 907 221 828 179 .270
2014 843 197 787 126 .270
2015 907 248 901 129 .273
2016 914 289 890 105 .267
2017 955 299 918 137 .271

Runs and RBI spiked in 2015. Home runs followed in 2016. There was a time when you could carry a team of hitters that hit 15 home runs per hitter on average and finish near the top of most of the hitting categories. Those days are gone.

Returning to the example above, having a Yolmer Sanchez as the 14th man on your offense is better than rostering a hitter who only plays once a week. But you cannot spend more than $1 or two on a player like this and you certainly can’t have a roster with three or four Yolmer Sanchezes (Sanchii?). Alcides Escobar is even more problematic in 2017’s context. Yes, he earned $10, and came closer to earning the $12 that I paid for him. But six home runs and four steals from a player who graced my roster for 26 weeks was painful, and the opportunity cost of failing to purchase a superior option at middle infield sabotaged my team.

A valuation-based approach left me in contention for most of the season and within striking distance of first place for five months before Steve Gardner of USA Today pulled away and won his third AL title and second in three years. My overall approach is sound. The adjustments I will have to make in 2018 to transform my team from five-month contender to sustainable winner are tweaks to a sound system, not foundational adjustments to my entire approach.

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