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How to Win: Runs Scored

If you've done fantasy baseball long enough, you've probably come to think that runs are a pretty dumb stat. If you've followed sabermetrics long enough, you're probably totally sure about that. And yet, we keep coming back to it, to baseball's first recorded stat. Its unpredictability haunts us, leaving us to the caprices of teammate performance, park effects, opposing defenses, and blind luck.

Runs scored (presumably) correlate so weakly from one year to the next that Fangraphs didn't even mention them when discussing such things last month. But Runs are a whole category in our game, so we have to find some way to cheat the system and come out on top. To start us off, here are last year's leaders:

2012's Top 12:

1. Mike Trout                          129
2. Miguel Cabrera                 109 
3. Ryan Braun                        108
4. Andrew McCutchen         107
4. Justin Upton                      107
6. Robinson Cano                  105
6. Ian Kinsler                          105 
8. Austin Jackson                 103
8. Adam Jones                       103
8. Josh Hamilton                  103
11. Jimmy Rollins                 102
11. Curtis Granderson          102 

What can we learn from this list? Not next year's top twelve, I'd imagine--though some should still be on there. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of player on the leaderboard: elite hitters who had great seasons, and the top-of-the-lineup players hitting ahead of them. Splitting the difference apparently doesn't hurt, as Rollins can attest, and at least Upton managed to do something productive for his fantasy owners. Notice, too, how many of these hitters came from elite lineups, hitters' parks, or both--only Rollins and McCutchen break that mold. Finally, we can all appreciate that Trout scored 20 more runs than anyone else despite waiting in the minors for a month. Wow. You don't have to be a traditionalist to appreciate that.

It is from these gleanings that we can begin to form a strategy more cogent than simply: "Get good hitters and good luck." You can't build a competitive advantage with that one--all but one other team in your league will be trying to get good hitters. (One will be stumbling around in the dark--you probably know who I'm talking about.) Exception: if you're lucky enough to draft near the top, grab Trout because his combination of elite hitting and setting the table for other elite hitters gives him a very real advantage.

For everyone else, we'll be looking at how to increase your runs on the margins and get more value out of the same picks everyone else has.

Top of the Order Hitters
Except in the case of your worst leadoff men, on your worst offenses, leadoff hitters are a great place to sneak in some extra runs. The nice thing is that they tend to play in the outfield--where you probably have more roster flexibility--or middle infield, where everyone is bad, so you might as well score some runs. Some teams will settle on a leadoff hitter in Spring Training, and plenty of teams will change leadoff hitters over the course of the season. Nabbing a newly-minted leadoff hitter can be a great way to swipe some extra runs off the waiver wire in the summer. For now, here are a few players who should be leading off, won't be early draft day targets, and aren't already on your depth chart for bushels of steals:

Dustin Ackley, Jon Jay, David DeJesus, Adam Eaton, Michael Brantley, Ruben Tejada, Denard Span, Nick Markakis, Starling Marte, Dexter Fowler, Darin Mastroianni, and Derek Jeter

I know, there are some names you know here, and some guys that are projected to swipe a few bags, but all of these guys--as long as they can hold down the leadoff spot--are likely to get a little extra boost in runs scored. If someone's flying off the board because of their batting average (like Jackson), or their elite steals (Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Reyes), or their all-around utility (Shin-Soo Choo), they might not be a bargain. But prospects like Eaton, Mastroianni, and Marte might be. Even the shortstop once considered by everyone on the West Coast to be the game's most overrated player might be a good deal.

High OBP + High in the Lineup

Not everyone on the list above is going to be a good leadoff hitter. They may not even lead off for very long. Besides, leadoff hitters aren't the only place to look for value in Runs Scored. Anyone who can get on base and hit in the 1-3 spots of a batting order is probably going to be helpful in this category. Here are some elite pretty high OBP-players who will see time at the top of a lineup. Again, superstars are excluded.

Fowler (.389), Jeter (.362), Martin Prado (.359), DeJesus (.350), Elvis Andrus (.349), Brantley (.348), Marco Scutaro (.348), Carlos Beltran (.346), Span (.342), Neil Walker (.342), Asdrubal Cabrera (.338), Angel Pagan (.338), Ian Desmond (.335), Ben Revere (.333), Daniel Murphy (.332), Alcides Escobar (.331).

Fowler is the only one on this list whose OBP is elite, but any and all of these players should be scoring some runs. Even in lousy lineups like those the Mets and Royals will be putting out, hitting in the first couple spots in the order usually means someone pretty good is coming up next.

High OBP + Elite Lineup

Of course, runs aren't scored only at the top of the lineup. With a powerful team or a helpful home park a player who gets on base should be scoring some runs. Think about:

Miguel Montero (.391), David Murphy (.380), A.J. Ellis (.373), David Freese (.372), Paul Konerko (.371), Torii Hunter (.365), Aaron Hill (.360), Andre Ethier (.351), Adam LaRoche (.343), and Jordan Pacheco (.341).

Notice that Fowler, Jeter, Prado, and Beltran would qualify for both lists. Unfortunately, they're also four of the most expensive players on these lists. 

XBH Leaders

Obviously, just getting on base and hoping for help later in the lineup isn't always possible--especially for players hitting in the five-six spots in the lineup, since they are the help that comes later. Getting yourself to second--or third--base is a great way to help your own cause. So is hitting a home run, but that's its own category and price tag.

This time with elite hitters remaining, here are some top doubles hitters: Alex Gordon (51), Aramis Ramirez (50), Albert Pujols (50),  Cano (49), Adrian Gonzalez (47), Nelson Cruz (45), Hill (44), Paul Goldschmidt (43), Choo (43),  Prado (42),  Kinsler (42), David Wright (41),  Cabrera (40), Murphy (40), Buster Posey (39), Dustin Pedroia (39),  Jones (39), Yonder Alonso (39), Ben Zobrist (39), Pagan (38), and Span (38).

I left the top players in this time to show their relatively hidden extra value. Doubles aren't often shown on your fantasy website's searchable stats unless you're using them as a category, so this kind of production can fly under the radar. Also, is Arizona going crazy with doubles hitters or what?

Remember when the league leader in triples used to hit about seven? Not anymore. Just as stolen bases have spread throughout the game, so is baseball's most exciting play. Here are the top triples hitters: Pagan (15), Reyes (12), Starlin Castro (12), Fowler (11), Jackson (10), Michael Bourn (10), Andrus (9), Bryce Harper (9), Trout (8), Alex Rios (8), DeJesus (8), and Jemile Weeks (8).

These guys are just a sac fly away from adding to your Runs Scored; not only that, but extra base hits will help quietly pad your RBI total. So that's nice too.

Run Scoring Parks--and Divisions

If you're deciding between two players to draft for help in runs scored, consider their park factors. And--with the unbalanced schedule--the factors of other teams in the division. The AL West, for instance, has one extreme hitters' haven (Texas), but three places pitchers love (Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles). Houston's own Minute Maid Park isn't the same place that torpedoed its pitchers when it was first unveiled--it had a mildly run-suppressing factor of 0.937). So your Texas hitters will love their home games, but their road schedule will be pretty ugly. At least the Astros can't pitch, right?

On the flip side, the AL East features three hitters' parks (Boston, Baltimore, and Toronto), and one more that adds a lot of help to home run hitters (New York), and just one pitchers' park (Tampa Bay). The other divisions are more balanced than these, though the NL West balances only extremes.

A Few Final Words

Runs Scored isn't an easy category to win--I should know, I finished nearly last in the category last year. There's a lot of luck, and the best way to win it is to spend a little extra on your offense. Probably the person who does that in your league will come out near the top in the category. They might have an unbalanced team, though, and suffer in the overall standings because of it. Without breaking the bank, looking for an extra edge in each pick can get you a long ways in the standings. You aren't in as much control here as in other categories, like Homers, Steals, and Strikeouts, but looking for high OBP's, lots of XBH's, and hitters near the top of good lineups can make a lot of difference at the margins.

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