How to Win


How to Win 2014: Home Runs

Home runs are why we play fantasy baseball. You see whenever baseball has been on the brink of death, homers have been there to resurrect it. After the Black Sox scandal in 1919, there was Babe Ruth. After a decade of Yankee pennants, there was Bill Mazeroski in 1960. Amid two decades of pitcher-dominance, Reggie Jackson became Mr. October in 1977. After the strike, Cal Ripken, Jr. homered in his 2131st consecutive game in 1995 (played...not homered in...but that would have been awesome), and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased and shattered the home run record in 1998.*

*Hey, not every story has a happy epilogue.

Homers keep things interesting; they change the game in an instant; their very threat keeps pitchers on their toes and out of the upper half of the strike zone; they keep four-run leads within reach. And they completely dominate fantasy baseball.

See, homers are three categories in one, score this one and you get two more for free. Homers are the most important category in standard fantasy leagues, and in plenty of non-standards as well. Homers are why Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo are studs (and they are, we'll soon see) and Chris Carter is relevant at all in our fake game, instead of the lead-footed strikeout artists they are on a real baseball field.

And home runs are a breath of fresh air. After weeks of heavily luck-dependent categories (there's a reason some states consider this gambling), homers are a highly repeatable, predictable skill. The biggest luck factor, home park, is easy to see and account for. Homers are not too hard to evaluate.

But they are very, very hard to win.* Because, you see, this ain't the '90's anymore, and it sure ain't the 2001 of Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez. Only two players hit over 40 homers last year, and only two (the same guys) slugged over .600 and qualified for the batting title. Consider that the league slugging was over .600 in 1996** and you'll see my point: homers are a lot scarcer now than they used to be.

*Okay, in a 12-team league, you've got a one-in-12 shot just like every other category. Technically.

**No, no it wasn't. Not even close.

We aren't quite back to the days when you could get called "Home Run Baker" just by hitting  three or four inside the park homers in a season, but we're pretty much back in the '80's, back to the days before Prince Fielder's dad (Cecil) smacked 50 homers and inaugurated the Golden Age of Power Hitting...

Get to the point!

...screamed the readers. Fair enough.

Point of the introduction:

1) Homers are an extremely scarce commodity, somewhat like steals were in the '90's and '00's.

2) But they are more important than steals ever were, because they directly impact two more categories.

There, hopefully that’s more direct. Those on a time crunch or with extremely short attention spans are invited to distill the rest of my analysis into the following concise statement:

Invest in homers. Pay extra in auction dollars and draft rounds for the very best home run hitters.

Also, if you're on a time crunch or have an extremely short attention span, I'd love for you to join one of my money leagues....

2013 Home Run Leaders

 

Name

PA

HR

R

RBI

SLG

                                     

1

Chris Davis

673

53

103

138

0.634

                                     

2

Miguel Cabrera

652

44

103

137

0.636

                                     

3

Paul Goldschmidt

710

36

103

125

0.551

                                     

4

Edwin Encarnacion

621

36

90

104

0.534

                                     

5

Pedro Alvarez

614

36

70

100

0.473

                                     

6

Alfonso Soriano

626

34

84

101

0.489

                                     

7

Mark Trumbo

678

34

85

100

0.453

                                     

8

Adam Dunn

607

34

60

86

0.442

                                     

9

Adam Jones

689

33

100

108

0.493

                                     

10

Evan Longoria

693

32

91

88

0.498

                                     

11

David Ortiz

600

30

84

103

0.564

                                     

12

Brandon Moss

505

30

73

87

0.522

                                     

13

Adrian Beltre

690

30

88

92

0.509

                                     

14

Jay Bruce

697

30

89

109

0.478

                                     

You definitely want a couple of these guys on your team next year. The best will help in batting average too, but they'll be gone in the first round or two...except for David Ortiz, who gets the DH discount (but he's 1B eligible in Yahoo! leagues). At the other end of the spectrum, we've got some guys who won't just hurt your average, they'll kill it. I'm looking at you, Adam Dunn.

Aside from Dunn and his Black Hole of Batting Average, it's a bit surprising to see how many of these leaders can be had at relatively low price. Alvarez will certainly hurt your average, but his prodigious power is at a position without a lot of production at all. Soriano is a very consistent home run hitter, but his age, average, and reputation seem to be keeping him low on draft boards. Moss won't play against lefties...and yet made this list with 100 fewer plate appearances than most of the others, and 200 fewer than first-rounder Goldschmidt. I think you can afford to platoon him.

Shortened Season Home Run Hitters

Raw homer totals are far from the whole story, though. There were plenty of players who contributed in the category, but had their season shortened for one reason or another. I put them into a spreadsheet with cutoffs of at least 17 homers and no more than 540 PA. It’s too big to post, but you can Download Partial Season Home Run Leaders. (Note that catchers are not included—most are expected to get fewer than 540 PA.)

Some of these players ran into injuries: Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Bautista are obvious enough, but don’t forget that Troy Tulowitzki, Bryce Harper, Carlos Gonzalez, David Wright, Jayson Werth, Colby Rasmus, Chase Utley, and others all gave us their production before, after, and around injuries.

Other players platooned: Nate Schierholz, Raul Ibanez, Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Will Venable, and Mark Reynolds all played less than full time for their teams. They may well do so again, but can provide cheap value in homers for this season’s fantasy owners.

Of course, some are young players who came to the Majors or into a starting role later in the season—or struggled and were sent down: Yasiel Puig, Will Middlebrooks, Matt Adams, and Jedd Gyorko fit that role.

Home Runs by Position

To get an idea of how good a player is relative to his competition at the same position, let’s check out last year’s average homer totals for the top 12 home run contributors at each position.

Catchers

Leader: Matt Wieters, 22

Top-12 Average: 18.66667

Top 12 Range: 15-22

Notable: A lot of guys hover just under 20—though a couple are still undraftable.

First Base

Leader: Chris Davis, 53

Top-12 Average: 30.83333

Top 12 Range: 23-53

Notable: Seven players with 29 homers or more; 17 players with 17-25.

Second Base

Leader: Robinson Cano, 27

Top-12 Average: 17.5

Top 12 Range: 12-27

Notable: Only three players with more than 20 homers—and one was Dan Uggla.

Third Base

Leader: Miguel Cabrera, 44

Top-12 Average: 25.91667

Top 12 Range: 18-44

Notable: A very top-heavy and power-heavy position, with multiple home run hitters who hurt in average.

Shortstop

Leader: Troy Tulowitzki and J.J. Hardy, 25

Top-12 Average: 16.16667

Top 12 Range: 10-25

Notable: The leaders are below average for the 3B top 12! This makes Hardy look like a great value.

Outfield (Top 36)

Leader: Alfonso Soriano, 34

Top-12 Average: 23.63889

Top 12 Range: 17-34

Notable: A lot of potential homer leaders in the OF missed significant time last year—expect OF to be a better homer source in 2014.

Rate Power Stats

There were only 16 players who qualified for the batting title and slugged over .500. Power is rare. High SLG is normal for home run hitters—so those who don’t have a high number are probably losing it by not providing extra-base power (and so losing out on RBI), or by putting up low batting averages.

Last year, 31 players (who qualified) managed an ISO of .200 or better. And just one (guess who) managed to top .300. I wouldn’t say there is time or need to dive deeply in to ISO here, but it’s a great cross-check when you see intriguing home run production, especially in players with less than a full season. Also, it excludes batting average, so it’s subject to less luck than SLG.

Worth noting: Josh Donaldson just missed both arbitrary round-number cutoffs—he slugged .499 and had an ISO of .199. Go figure.

More to Know

By the time I finish this conclusion, I’ll be up around 1500 words (which doesn’t always stop me, I know), but there’s a lot more worth examining in your pursuit of home runs. Park effects (spoiler: Colorado, Arizona, and Texas are good for homers), flyball rates, HR/FB rates, average flyball distance, “Just Over the Wall” and “No Doubt” homer data, and plenty of other stats feed meaningfully into home runs. It’s a testament to their importance in real and fantasy baseball, I suppose, that they deserve something more like a five-part series than a single episode.

Don’t forget the original, simplified version though: invest in home runs. There aren’t as many as there used to be.

Join us again next week as we tackle a bonus category: OPS. Just in time for me to have already drafted a league that counts it....



How to Win 2014: Saves

No category and position are more closely related than Saves and the closers who luck into earn them. You certainly can't make up for lousy saves production out of your relievers by getting a third baseman who specializes in closing out ballgames. (You know...they way you might compensate for non-stealing middle infielders....) So, we're stuck with relievers.

There are more problems with relievers: they're inconsistent from outing to outing and year to year; they're pitchers and so more likely to get injured than others; they pitch in extremely small sample sizes, so luck doesn't even come close to evening out and a single bad night can ruin a season's ERA; their accumulation of Saves is subject to team performance, and that not even of winning but of winning by a certain small margin; their presence in the closer's role is dependent entirely on managerial fiat.

Wow. That list of problems is even worse in print than it was in my head. No wonder RotoAuthority's resident closer expert, Luckey Helms, argues against paying for saves

But I digress. The risks associated with relief pitchers aren't the topic of this article. How to reap their benefits is.

Strategy 1: Buy Those Saves

When you look at RA's Closer Rankings (or anyone else's, probably), you'll see four names far above the rest: Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Greg Holland. In some outlets you might see our fifth through seventh guys rated near them as well: Koji Uehara, Joe Nathan, and Trevor Rosenthal. These seven pitchers aren't so highly rated because they're the best sources of saves, though.

No, premium closers are premium because they do so much more than save games, offering the possibilities of sub 2.00 ERA's and K/9's over 12.00. All that is great if you're looking to build a balanced fantasy team (which you probably should), but it comes at a very high price. Getting one of these closers as an anchor could be a good idea if you're already willing to spend auction dollars and high draft picks on a closer, but getting two or three of them is likely a price too dear.

But that's not so bad, because there's no guarantee that the best closers will earn the most Saves. Sure, they've got the best odds to do so, but that doesn't keep Jim Johnson from saving 50 games a season with a K/9 of literally zero.* You can get saves without elite relievers. You can win Saves without elite relievers. You just need volume.

*Actually, his career number is 5.96, also known as figuratively zero.

When I advocate paying for saves, I tend to think in terms of my eighth-twelfth round draft picks--it's a lot tougher for me to part with auction cash than it is fourth-tier corner infielders and mid-rotation starters. While it's hard for me to part with a third round pick for Kimbrel and his greatness (the ghost of Eric Gagne keeps reminding me that only Mariano Rivera can be great forever), it isn't so hard for me to give up two or even three of my middle-round draft picks to lock down some saves. When I do, I'm really not looking for closer excellence; in fact, I want just one thing: job security.

Okay, I want excellence too, if I can get it, but job security is my top priority when I employ this strategy. With only this one factor under consideration, let's do a little re-ranking of closers.

Total Security

These guys have been closing games for a long time, earned the trust of their team, or just got a big pile of cash from a new team after closing games for a long time. Their managers likely can't remove them from the role without permission from the front office. They will safely ride all temporary storms:

Kimbrel, Nathan

Wow. Just two. No wonder they're so expensive.

Very Secure

These guys will have long leashes thanks to their strong track records, or standout performance, though they may not have been in the ninth very long. Their teams may have few other solid bullpen options:

Chapman, Holland, Jansen, Glen Perkins, Sergio Romo, Steve Cishek

Varying levels of quality here, but some potential value.

Mostly Secure

These guys are either quite good, or their team has few other options, but not both. They may be talented pitchers but lack the "proven closer" merit badge. Or their team may have had a turbulent recent history in the closer's role and be more open than most for quick changes. An extended stretch of bad luck could result in a demotion:

Uehara, Rosenthal, Casey Janssen, Johnson, David Robertson, Jason Grilli, Ernesto Frieri, Grant Balfour, Jonathan Papelbon, Fernando Rodney, Bobby Parnell

There are a lot of ways to be just "mostly secure," but these guys are still good bets to keep their job all year.

Basically Secure

These guys own their job without question for now, but poor performance could change that, as they aren't established, have inconsistent histories, or their teams have multiple decent alternatives:  

Addison Reed, John Axford, Jim Henderson, Rafael Soriano, Huston Street, Jose Veras

Out of this group, falling strikeout rates and the presence of elite setup guys in their bullpens makes me think that Soriano and Street are particularly volatile. I won't be drafting either in any format.

On Thin Ice

These guys have next to no job security (but may be available very late in drafts for excellent potential value):

Tommy Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins

Fighting for the Job

These guys don't technically have the job, but are in the lead for it at the moment. When they get it, their prize will be to move to the "On Thin Ice" tier. Yay for them. Their top competitors are in parentheses:

Neftali Feliz (Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers), Nate Jones (Matt Lindstrom, Daniel Webb, plus a bunch of other guys), Chad Qualls (Josh Fields, the injured Jesse Crain)

Possession is nine tenths of the law in closer land, so anyone who does end up with a job is worth drafting in the hopes that good luck and inertia are in your favor.

Job Stealers

These guys have a better shot than most at stealing a closing gig at some point in the season. If your purpose in drafting non-closing relievers is to snag saves, these are your guys:

Mark Melancon, Pedro Strop, Joaquin Benoit, J.J. Putz, Rex Brothers, Tyler Clippard, Darren O'Day, Cody Allen

Also included are anyone who loses in the above closer battles.

Strategy 2: Don't Pay for Saves--but Don't Ignore Them

I spent a lot of time on the first strategy, so I won't fill up too much more space with this one. Frankly, it's pretty straightforward, just a lot easier said than done.

A caveat: I don't find this to be a worthwhile strategy in leagues with weekly free agent/waiver wire moves--you need to pay to compete in those formats.

The first thing to do is set aside some roster space for relievers. Maybe you use some late-round picks on the dark horses in closer battles, or some slightly-less-late-round picks on the leading candidates or even full closers with low job security. Or maybe you just take the best setup guys available, regardless of whether or not their closer has good security. Whatever.

No matter what you do with this roster space (and you'll want at least three roster slots for this, I should think), you'll be treating the players you draft as highly expendable. These are your rotating Saves slots for now, not players on your team.

You also need to start following @CloserNews on Twitter. No Twitter account? Get one if you don't want to pay for Saves. Use this advice not only to find out which closers are about to lose their jobs, but also who's likely to get rested the next day. Then, pick up the setup guy for the teams with resting closers. You'd be surprised how many Saves fall through the cracks each year. Back in the old days, when I worked for CloserNews, I seriously considered attempting to get all my Saves like this with a fantasy team to see what would happen. Still haven't had the guts to try it.

Get up early (if you're on the West Coast) and stay up late (East Coasters) to catch the latest updates.When they announce that LaTroy Hawkins is being removed from the closer's role, somebody in your league will already have their fantasy team loaded up. Be that person. 

Keep a particular eye on the strikeouts and velocity of closers and the guys replacing them--sometimes that's even more important than their overall stats. Remember, being "closer material" is less about being the best pitcher in the bullpen and more about being the coolest pitcher in the bullpen, selling jerseys, growing facial hair, pumping up the crowd, and blasting Metallica or AC/DC.

I'm totally on board with the first half of the rationale against paying for Saves: closers are volatile and unpredictable. The second half, that Saves are always available on the waiver wire, has grown dicier. It's totally true--but your whole league knows it, and they'll be looking for Saves too.

Strategy 3: Hybrids

You can always mix the two strategies; in fact, anyone paying for Saves should be just as active on the waiver wire as anyone else. Not only can you benefit from more Saves (and make trades if you have excess) you're protecting your investment by making it more difficult for anyone to get similar value for free. Your only limit is roster space.

You can also make Strategy 2 your primary plan, but keep an eye out in drafts for solid value. If enough of your league wants to get their Saves from the waiver wire, you might want to go the other way. Alternatively, it might be good to get one closer with high job security to anchor you while you speculate on further Saves.

Good luck in Saves--you'll need it. Or, better yet, follow @CloserNews! We'll be back next week to wrap up the traditional categories with Home Runs.



How to Win 2014: Batting Average

I'll just say at the outset that I have no idea how to win in Batting Average (though I did last year). Before you get angry and click over some more confident fantasy writer on your league's website, you should know that they don't know either. Nobody does. It's a mystery. Article done.

Or not quite. Luck-heavy categories are as much a part of fantasy baseball as they are real life (are they?) and there are ways to put yourself in a good position to win...and ways not to. Let's check out what it'll take to be competitive in Batting Average.

There are two basic components to drafting for batting average: players who help you, and players who hurt you. Both feature elements of skill and luck. Fortunately it's much easier to be a player who hurts in Batting Average--those guys are pretty predictable.

Just a quick note on park factors: only Coors Field (107 factor) was farther away from the mean than three percent by Fangraphs park factors for singles. So take parks into account for Average, but not too far--especially for singles-oriented hitters. No wonder Ichiro put up so many great season in Seattle....

2013 .300 Hitters (min. 300 AB)

We've been using the arbitrary .300 cutoff to determine a good Batting Average for a hundred years, so we might as well go with it. Plus, it gives us a bunch of names to start with.

Name

PA

BABIP

AVG

Miguel Cabrera

652

0.356

0.348

Hanley Ramirez

336

0.363

0.345

Michael Cuddyer

540

0.382

0.331

Joe Mauer

508

0.383

0.324

Mike Trout

716

0.376

0.323

Chris Johnson

547

0.394

0.321

Yadier Molina

541

0.338

0.319

Freddie Freeman

629

0.371

0.319

Yasiel Puig

432

0.383

0.319

Matt Carpenter

717

0.359

0.318

Jayson Werth

532

0.358

0.318

Omar Infante

476

0.333

0.318

Andrew McCutchen

674

0.353

0.317

Adrian Beltre

690

0.322

0.315

Allen Craig

563

0.368

0.315

Robinson Cano

681

0.327

0.314

Troy Tulowitzki

512

0.334

0.312

David Ortiz

600

0.321

0.309

David Wright

492

0.340

0.307

Joey Votto

726

0.360

0.305

Ben Revere

336

0.344

0.305

Torii Hunter

652

0.344

0.304

Jhonny Peralta

448

0.374

0.303

Daniel Nava

536

0.352

0.303

Jose Iglesias

382

0.356

0.303

Paul Goldschmidt

710

0.343

0.302

Carlos Gonzalez

436

0.368

0.302

Eric Hosmer

680

0.335

0.302

Josh Donaldson

668

0.333

0.301

Dustin Pedroia

724

0.326

0.301

Victor Martinez

668

0.313

0.301

Matt Holliday

602

0.322

0.300

Take a careful look at the list above: how much credence you should give that Average depends in part on its luck factor: how far is the BABIP from the player's career norms? One may not suspect that Cuddyer will post a .382 BABIP again next year, Coors Field or not. But Victor Martinez may well post a .313 BABIP. Also take plate appearances into account: it isn't just the Average itself that helps or hurts, it's how heavily that value is weighted. Part of the reason Matt Carpenter's .318 average was so good is because he did it in 717 PA for nearly a million total hits. Pretty good.

So, those are last year's leaders--how about some guys due for a BABIP rebound? Note that the list below involves significant subjective culling on my part: some guys posted low BABIP's and are not likely to rebound. Dan Uggla, that means you.

2013 BABIP Rebound Candidates

Name

PA

BABIP

AVG

Chris Young

375

0.237

0.200

Edwin Encarnacion

621

0.247

0.272

Andrelton Simmons

658

0.247

0.248

Michael Morse

337

0.254

0.215

Evan Gattis

382

0.255

0.243

Mitch Moreland

518

0.255

0.232

Josh Reddick

441

0.255

0.226

Mike Moustakas

514

0.257

0.233

Coco Crisp

584

0.258

0.261

Albert Pujols

443

0.258

0.258

Anthony Rizzo

690

0.258

0.233

Brian McCann

402

0.261

0.256

Will Middlebrooks

374

0.263

0.227

B.J. Upton

446

0.266

0.184

Ike Davis

377

0.268

0.205

Todd Frazier

600

0.269

0.234

Josh Willingham

471

0.269

0.208

The first name that stands out is Encarnacion: he's due for some BABIP help and didn't even hurt you in Batting Average last year. Did I say first round pick? Not all these guys will be able to provide good fantasy impact just by upping their BABIP (Upton needs a lot more help than that, for instance), but keep them in mind when evaluating last year's Batting Averages. Players like Pujols, Rizzo, McCann, and Frazier would all be very intriguing with higher averages. Others--like Willingham and Davis--a better BABIP is necessary just to be playable. But it may well happen.

Projected Averages

Here are next year’s top 16 hitters from the three projection systems found on Fangraphs. You can find more projections (and you should), but these are a start when it comes to finding high-average guys. Why a top 16? Because the 16th-place player wasn’t tied with the 17th-place player on any of the systems. See: sometimes the number of players I list is non-arbitrary!

 

Oliver

Steamer

ZiPS

 

Name

AB

AVG

Name

AB

AVG

Name

AB

AVG

1

Mike Trout

498

0.325

Miguel Cabrera

561

0.325

Miguel Cabrera

559

0.317

2

Miguel Cabrera

515

0.324

Mike Trout

563

0.306

Mike Trout

596

0.300

3

Andrew McCutchen

519

0.310

Troy Tulowitzki

529

0.301

Ryan Braun

594

0.300

4

Freddie Freeman

524

0.305

Joe Mauer

563

0.300

Adrian Beltre

553

0.297

5

Ryan Braun

530

0.302

Norichika Aoki

557

0.299

David Ortiz

406

0.296

6

Jayson Werth

519

0.301

Andrew McCutchen

560

0.298

Troy Tulowitzki

469

0.296

7

Paul Goldschmidt

510

0.300

Buster Posey

557

0.297

Eric Hosmer

597

0.296

8

Michael Cuddyer

540

0.300

Adrian Beltre

582

0.295

Buster Posey

512

0.293

9

Adrian Beltre

544

0.300

Robinson Cano

576

0.295

Yadier Molina

501

0.293

10

Joe Mauer

523

0.300

DJ LeMahieu

408

0.295

Joe Mauer

507

0.292

11

Joey Votto

488

0.299

Joey Votto

497

0.294

Victor Martinez

471

0.291

12

Troy Tulowitzki

525

0.299

Adrian Gonzalez

587

0.293

Michael Cuddyer

458

0.290

13

Eric Hosmer

545

0.299

Omar Infante

471

0.293

Melky Cabrera

534

0.290

14

Chris Johnson

559

0.299

Billy Butler

569

0.292

Joey Votto

508

0.289

15

Jean Segura

562

0.297

Allen Craig

577

0.292

Jose Reyes

526

0.289

16

Brent Keys

543

0.297

Henry Urrutia

179

0.292

Brent Keys

456

0.289

 

It’s worth noting that projection systems are almost always pretty conservative when it comes to Average—so Miguel Cabrera is just that impressive. It’s worth noting that Oliver projects significantly higher top-end averages. Here are some players who make it onto all three lists:

Mike Trout, Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Beltre, Joe Mauer, Joey Votto, and…yeah, that’s it. But in a category with as high margins of error as Batting Average, the top 16 barely scratches the surface. Check out these projection systems (and others) while researching. Players whose names show up batting over about .280 across multiple systems represent good bets to be assets in Average.

Note: I’m not super-sure who Brent Keys is, but I’m going to find out.

Update: I googled him and no longer feel bad about having never heard of him before.

For those who want to compete in Batting Average, I definitely recommend getting an anchor in the category in the first couple rounds. You may well have to sacrifice power, but getting tons of at bats out of a high-average hitter will take you a long way.

But it won’t take you far enough. There are way too many gradations of usefulness for me to go into right now, but you’re probably going to want to shoot for a team Average just north of .270. The beautiful thing is, you can do it any way you want; while couple splashy stars won’t be able to carry the team in the category, they can give you the luxury of a homers-first, average-never sort of player in a position or two. Getting a team full of “good-enoughs” to go with your truly strong players matters.

Here are some mid-range (and lower) guys from each position that will help keep you afloat in Batting Average while your stars do the heavy lifting:

C: Salvador Perez, Jonathan Lucroy, A.J. Pierzynski

1B: Adrian Gonzalez, James Loney, Yonder Alonso

2B: Chase Utley, Omar Infante, Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick, Marco Scutaro, Jose Altuve

3B: Chris Johnson, Martin Prado, Aramis Ramirez 

SS: Jed Lowrie, Erick Aybar, Alexei Ramirez

OF: Carlos Beltran, Norichika Aoki, Michael Brantley, Angel Pagan, Austin Jackson

And here are some guys to avoid for the sake of your Average, though they’ll help in other categories (high-level talent included):

C: Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero

1B: Mike Napoli, Mark Trumbo, Brandon Moss, Nick SwisherChris Carter

2B: Jedd Gyorko, Brian Dozier

3B: Matt Dominguez, Kyle SeagerPedro Alvarez

SS: Brad Miller, Andrelton Simmons, Asdrubal Cabrera

OF: Jay Bruce, Jose Bautista, Desmond Jennings, Justin Upton, Alfonso Soriano, Leonys Martin

It’s interesting to note that you can find a bunch of potential help in Batting Average at second base, but not so much outside the elite options at first base and outfield. Just remember when you take that sweet-swinging power hitter, or that spideresque elite basestealer that you may need to be compensating for his Batting Average at another position. Keep track of your Average during your draft to ensure some balance.

Also keep a close eye on your Average in April and May--once your team has a significant number of at bats under its belt, it becomes very, very hard to move the needle in this category. So don't overdo it with low-level at bat streaming for your counting categories....

As always, good luck in the category. We'll see you next week for Saves, as I steal ideas from Luckey Helms. After that, we'll close out the traditional How to Win categories with Home Runs. Best for last, you know.



How to Win 2014: ERA

In the old days, ERA was a pretty easy category to win. All it took was a team ERA in the mid-3.00's and you were set. Get an ace or two, some good relievers, and focus on strikeout pitchers decent enough to get you some wins, and you'd probably compete in ERA. Maybe even win. As a proxy for other all competitive leagues, the ERA leader in the MLBTR league rocked a 3.01 ERA. My 3.99 number was good for...last place. This ain't the '90's, that's for sure.

So, let us assume that the ERA's in your league are also likely to run from one end of the 3.00's to the other, and not get much worse (except in public free leagues when someone is bound to quit checking their team in mid-May) or better than that. The bar is high for success in ERA, which is probably why we're seeing higher ADP's for top starters, including a more-or-less-consensus that Clayton Kershaw belongs in the first round.

The category is, of course, notoriously luck-heavy, with park, defense, left-on-base rates, timing of hits and outs, and plain ol' random chance all playing parts. But there's a lot of skill going on too. As with any rate category, you can't force a win, not even by spending way too much of your budget trying to, but you can certainly put yourself in a good (or bad) position.

Let's take a look at last year's ERA leaders, with their FIP, and their ERA-FIP. We'll go back to using the top 12 players, for the potential anchor for each team in a standard league.

2013 ERA Leaders (min. 100 IP)*

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Clay Buchholz

1.74

2.78

3.41

3.2

-1.04

2

Clayton Kershaw

1.83

2.39

2.88

6.5

-0.56

3

Jose Fernandez

2.19

2.73

3.08

4.2

-0.54

4

Anibal Sanchez

2.57

2.39

2.91

6.2

0.18

5

Zack Greinke

2.63

3.23

3.45

2.9

-0.6

6

Bartolo Colon

2.65

3.23

3.95

3.9

-0.58

7

Hisashi Iwakuma

2.66

3.44

3.28

4.2

-0.78

8

Alex Cobb

2.76

3.36

3.02

2.4

-0.6

9

Madison Bumgarner

2.77

3.05

3.32

3.7

-0.28

10

Yu Darvish

2.83

3.28

2.84

5

-0.45

11

Cliff Lee

2.87

2.82

2.78

5.1

0.05

12

Max Scherzer

2.9

2.74

3.16

6.4

0.16

*Excluding Matt Harvey, who won't be pitching this season.

A lot of the usual suspects here, though Buchholz and Cobb have yet to be full-season aces, while Colon's strikeout rate is so low he's difficult to play in mixed leagues.

One might have been tempted to peg Scherzer as a regression candidate, but he and Lee are the only ones on this list to post FIP's better than their ERA. Of course, Scherzer's xFIP tells a different story...I'll sum it up as, "he'll be good," and leave the particulars to others.

Read on, and beware: there will be many charts!

Continue reading "How to Win 2014: ERA" »



How to Win 2014: RBI

Runs Batted In are our third luck-heavy counting-stat category in a row, following on the heels of Wins and Run Scored. RBI contain the same two essential features: skill factors and luck factors, so we'll be examining the category based on both. Let the reader beware: much of what matters for scoring runs matters for driving them in--and that's not at all limited to hitting the ball over the fence and doing both at once. With that in mind (hint, be ready to check the How to Win article from a couple weeks ago), let's dive in to what it'll take to bring home the RBI crown.

Making Your Own Luck

Big-Picture Factors: Park and Lineup

Park factors and overall team offense play a huge part in how many runs any given player bats in. There's a reason one expects Robinson Cano's fantasy value to go down playing for the Mariners. You already read the more in-depth analysis (right?) that I did for Runs, and it's the same for RBI. Here's the condensed version:

The Rockies, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Red Sox were all among the top teams in projected offensive output (by RS/Game) and play in the top hitter-friendly parks. Yes, these two factors have causal relationships on one another, but getting both at once is still well worthwhile.

The Angels, Blue Jays, Tigers, Giants, Cardinals, and Braves all look to be among the top offenses in their leagues. While the difference between AL and NL clubs looks very large at the macro-lineup level, a lot of that difference (all?) is thanks to those wonderful batting pitchers. Keep that in mind when it comes to NL players in the first-third lineup slots, but after that it shouldn't matter nearly as much.

Your Place in the World (or at Least the Batting Order)

Just as with Runs Scored, a hitter's slot in the lineup matters a lot for RBI. Fortunately, entirely different slots are useful here, so we get some original analysis.

This part of the teammate/order/luck factor is obvious enough: middle of the order hitters get more RBI chances, and therefore get more RBI. Adding to the obviousness of it all, this is where most of the best hitters bat anyway. So the key to RBI is to use early draft picks and high auction dollars on good hitters. Now, that is an efficient fantasy baseball economy.

Unfortunately, my last two sentences are about as true as they are tongue in cheek, but there is still a way to get less-obvious value and more RBI onto your roster.

The first thing you can do is to check out our list (again in the runs article) of high-OBP hitters that bat in leadoff or second, and take extra care to target the hitters behind them. However good the hitter is, he'll get a value boost from the guys batting ahead of them. It's why maybe you shouldn't be too excited about the RBI chances that Joey Votto or Chris Davis will get (check out MLBDepthCharts.com to see who might be hitting ahead of them...ugh), but you can be thrilled about what Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera will be able to do.

Here are some teams whose four through six hitters ought to enjoy their table-setters:

Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Indians, Tigers, Angels, Rangers, and probably the A's.

Over in the NL, we've got the Braves, Padres (surprisingly enough), Rockies, Cardinals, Nationals, and probably the Dodgers and Brewers getting good OBP's out of their top two slots.

Of course, change the lineup around a lotand these lists might look different by the time the season starts. They will look different by the time it ends. So keep an eye on this stuff. It's also worth noting that having a good team offense and having good table-setters are very different things.

The second thing you can do is look for middle-of-the-road hitters in premium lineup slots. These guys won't have the name value or high cost of their superstar counterparts, but they ought to drive in more runs than similar players stuck farther back in the lineup. These hitters might even be in bad lineups, but stand a good chance to luck into whatever baserunners manage to happen.

Here are some decided non-stars who seem rosterable occupying prime four-through-six batting order real estate (most platoon players excluded):

C: Miguel MonteroEvan GattisJarrod SaltalamacchiaJonathan LucroyRussell MartinSalvador Perez

1B: Justin MorneauYonder AlonsoMatt AdamsAdam LaRocheCorey Hart, Mitch Moreland, James Loney

2B: Brandon PhillipsNeil Walker,  Jedd Gyorko

3B: Chris JohnsonJuan UribeDavid Freese

SS: Asdrubal CabreraJ.J. HardyXander Bogaerts

OF: Ryan Ludwick,  Chris Young, Marlon Byrd,   Carlos Quentin,   Michael Brantley,  Avisail Garcia, Josh Willingham, Oswaldo Arcia,  Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera,  Josh Reddick

 Narrow that down to players on the teams listed above for good table-setters and you've got a target list of guys who ought to luck into more RBI's than a player of their caliber normally would:

Gattis, Johnson, Morneau, Uribe, Lucroy, Quentin, Alonso, Gyorko,* Adams, LaRoche, Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Bogaerts, Loney, Rasmus, Melky Cabrera, Freese, Reddick, Moreland

*Don't actually load up on Padres hoping for RBI. But one of them really might produce with Everth Cabrera and Will Venable setting the table.

You could narrow it down by park factor too (which would get rid of those incongruous Padres from the formula), but that seems to make it a bit too narrow to be useful.

Bringing the Skills to the Table

Hidden Power

Homer power is more than a little apparent. Doubles and triples, however, fly a little under the radar. Not much, but a little. And really, who do you think is driving in more runs, a guy with 35 doubles and 20 HR's, or a guy with 20 doubles and 20 HR's? Their stats may look the same on your fantasy baseball website (which can be useful when you offer trades), but the first guy will probably be knocking in way more runs. So go after those doubles hitters.

Thrity-eight players hit at least 35 doubles last year. Since you can go to Fangraphs.com or Baseball-Reference.com and see them for yourself, I'm not going to list them here. But I will mention those doubles hitters that don't hit home runs. Any that do will have been snatched up long before you could get to them.

And yes, 35 is arbitrary. But there has to be a cutoff somewhere. Just remember that when you're looking up a player's stats in the heat of the draft, look them up from a source that actually tells you how many extra-base hits he got.

Players with 35+ Doubles and Fewer than 20 HR's

40-55 Doubles: Matt Carpenter, Manny Machado, Jed Lowrie, Yadier Molina, Gerardo Parra, Dustin Pedroia, Saltalamacchia

35-39 Doubles: Brandon Belt, Alexei Ramirez, Daniel Murphy, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Jason Kipnis, Martin Prado, Ben Zobrist, Morneau, Jimmy Rollins, Joe Mauer, Jason Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera

 High Slugging Percentage, Low Homers

 Doubles are a specific, helpful aspect of slugging percentage, but the rate stat does a good job of encapsulating the ability to drive in runners too. Again, we'll list some heavy sluggers, but omit those with over 20 homers (or who would have gotten over 20 with more playing time).

 .460-.480 SLG: Carpenter, Molina, Mauer

 .440-.460: Jhonny Peralta, Chris Johnson, Allen Craig, Jonathan Lucroy, Jason Kipnis, Shane Victorino, Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer, Jed Lowrie, Daniel Nava, Starling Marte

 Aside from the fact that this list comprises essentially the entire Cardinals lineup, we can see that there are a some potential values at catcher and middle infield--which is good, because those aren't the usual sources of homers or of RBI.

 Some Final Thoughts

The above are ways to assist yourself on the margins. Marginal upgrades to each player in your lineup, mid- and late-round draft picks that will provide more help than their peers, that sort of thing. By far, though, the bulk of your team RBI will come from your top players, and this will be true for everyone in your league. Beware, then, of spending too much or too early on pitching, as it will have consequences in the RBI category.

As with Runs Scored, your RBI total in daily roto leagues will depend a lot on your in-season management: utilizing your bench slots, and probably streaming at bats. The more chances you have to hit, the more runs will come in. Sometimes, baseball is still simple.

Join us again next week: we'll swing back to the pitcher's mound for ERA.



How to Win 2014: Wins

Wins aren’t exactly the trendiest category since the sabermetric revolution. Apparently, they don't tell us much about a player's "true talent," and they aren't very "predictive" of future performance. Things have come a long ways since Buzzie Bavasi let Nolan Ryan go for being "a .500 pitcher."

But we still include wins in this, our enlightened, statistical game. And we have to. Wins are what keep us in touch with real baseball, what keep us interested in the outcome of the real games. Play in a couple fantasy leagues, and you'll be watching the scores in half the day's games every day. Wins are exhilarating.

 And a bit frustrating. My favorite example of this is 2004, the year I had poor Kelvim Escobar when he was pitching for the Angels. Now, you may not remember, but Escobar was really good for a couple years there, and so were the Angels. They had one of the top-scoring offenses, and Escobar was a distinctly above-average fantasy pitcher. And he ended up with a record of 11-12. He was much better than teammate Bartolo Colon and pitched the same number of innings. Colon's record: 18-12. With an ERA over 5.00. Life just ain't fair.

 Fortunately, as in Runs Scored, there are controllable luck components to getting Wins, and there are legitimate skill components too. You can chase both.

 Living with Luck Dragons: Run Support

 The Escobar/Colon example I gave was so frustrating because those guys pitched for the same team, with the same hitters supposedly trying to score some runs. Thankfully, this is an extreme example: as best as we can predict, pitchers on the same team ought to get pretty much the same run support. (Except when the team changes its defensive lineup to help the pitcher with speed and defense outfielders, or a personal catcher who can't hit.)

 Get a good pitcher on a good offensive team and you've put yourself in a decent position for some Wins. A great pitcher with a great offense is obviously even better, but don't think the results are linear: Wins should be treated as having a wide possible spread because there are so many uncontrollable factors going into every game.

 Here are the top AL teams by projected Runs Scored/Game going into next season:

Angels 4.55
Rangers 4.52
Red Sox 4.51
Blue Jays 4.49
Tigers 4.44

If you're noticing that these teams look really similar to the list I posted last week...well, they are. The same thing that scores runs for hitters scores it for pitchers. Players with good teammates tend to benefit from what we term luck.

For the same reasons as last time, I'll include the top few NL offenses too: 

Rockies 4.51
Diamondbacks 4.23
Giants 4.20 
Cardinals 4.19
Braves 4.14

Standards are lower in NL (thanks a lot, letting pitchers bat), but that doen't mean that these teams aren't going to beat their competition. It's probably worth noting that the Rockies get their high number from their park more than their hitters--the D-Backs too, to a lesser extent.

Here are some teams that don't look like they'll score many runs:

In the AL, the Twins and White Sox stand below the crowd with just 4.06 and 4.04 RS/9, respectively. The Rays, Yankees, Mariners, and Astros form the next tier up, with between 4.20 and 4.24 RS/G.

In the NL, the Marlins are alone for horrible-ness, with just 3.65 predicted RS/G. Ouch. The Cubs, Phillies, Mets, and Padres are all projected between 3.84 and 3.89 RS/G. 

Real Skills: IP/G

The deeper into games you pitch, the more you'll win. It's pretty simple, actually, but pitching deep into the game is a skill worth having. Here are the starters with the highest innings per start from 2011-2013:

Name            

Cliff Lee

Wins

37

GS

93

IP

666.1

IP/GS

7.16

James Shields

44

100

705.2

7.05

Hisashi Iwakuma

23

49

345

7.04

Clayton Kershaw

51

99

697

7.04

Justin Verlander

54

101

707.2

7.00

CC Sabathia

48

93

648.1

6.97

Felix Hernandez

39

97

670

6.91

Cole Hamels

39

95

651.1

6.85

David Price

42

92

622

6.76

R.A. Dickey

42

99

667

6.74

Adam Wainwright

33

66

440.1

6.67

Jered Weaver

49

87

578.2

6.65

Doug Fister

35

89

586.2

6.59

Matt Cain

36

95

625.1

6.58

Yu Darvish

29

61

401

6.57 

This isn't perfect, as you can see from the Wins column above, but these deep-pitching guys give their teams a chance to hit the ball and score runs.

If your league happens to count up losses...well, pitching deep means more decisions. In 5x5, you don't care about the difference between a loss and a no-decision, but if your format does give a penalty for a loss, straight-up IP/GS may get you in some trouble. Usually, though, a Win is more benefit than a Loss is a problem.

Luck and Skill: Together Again

Here are some pitchers who rack up innings and pitch for teams that score runs. It's the closest thing to a magic formula that I can think of for wins--aside from, you know, just being a good pitcher.

Darvish, Cain, Weaver, Wainwright, Dickey and Verlander are the standouts from the list above.

Dropping beyond the very best of innings eaters, here are some more pitchers that also fit pretty well into the formula:

Mark Buehrle, Tim Hudson, Madison Bumgarner, C.J. Wilson, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, John Lackey, Tim Lincecum, and Mike Minor

All these guys averaged at least 6.0 IP/GS for the last three years, and play in one of the top five offenses in their league.

Are their wins a sure thing? Certainly not. But their skills combine well with those of their teammates to win ballgames for their teams and themselves.

Just in Case We Missed Something...

Like Runs Scored, Wins are an output stat. We've measured two of the biggest inputs for getting Wins, but there are more. We can't measure them all here, and most are only a tiny fraction of the Win anyway. So, for the sake of thoroughness, let's see the top winners from the last three years:

Name

Wins

Justin Verlander

54

Max Scherzer

52

Clayton Kershaw

51

Jered Weaver

49

CC Sabathia

48

Gio Gonzalez

48

Zack Greinke

46

C.J. Wilson

46

Yovani Gallardo

45

James Shields

44

Ian Kennedy

43

David Price

42

Madison Bumgarner

42

R.A. Dickey

42

Kyle Lohse

41

Hiroki Kuroda

40

Tim Hudson

40

There are a lot of repeat names here, which is probably a good sign: innings, teammates, and good luck seem to be the real keys of the Wins category. 

 Don't Forget the Bullpen

Nothing is worse than losing a lead because the relief blew it. Closers get all the fantasy press, but you can lose the Win any time after your starter gets the hook.

These are the bullpens that led baseball by WAR last year and didn’t face significant losses to their relief corps: Royals, Red Sox, Twins, A’s, Blue Jays, and Braves.

By ERA, they were: Braves, Royals, Pirates, Brewers, A’s, and Reds.

In addition, the Dodgers and Rays have added some impressive pieces. While the Rangers lost Joe Nathan (so I removed them from the above lists), they could have a seriously dominant ‘pen if Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria are both back from their injuries.

Targeted Streaming

If you're in daily league, choosing the occasional streamer is a great way to enhance your Wins. What I don't mean is what often happens: streaming two or more pitchers a day, racking up a ton of wins, and losing out in ERA and WHIP. Not worth it. (Or maybe, I guess.)

Assuming you want to compete in ERA and WHIP, though, choosing a decent pitcher with a great matchup off the waiver wire ought to help you out a lot in the Wins category, not to mention strikeouts. When you find a fringy late-round/$1 flyer type of guy floating down the wire with a start against the Twins or White Sox, the Cubs or the Marlins--go for it. Over the course of the season, especially in a Roto style league.

Check us back out next week, as we return to hitters and RBI.



How to Win 2014: Runs Scored

Winning Runs Scored isn't an easy thing to do: the category is highly dependent upon luck, including plate appearances, lineup order, park effects, opposing pitchers and more. Some of these things you can account for, but others can never be known...and a player's spot in the lineup might change five minutes before any given game. A big part of success in this category is putting yourself in the position to benefit from possible good luck.

There is good news: there's some skill involved too, especially the skill of being a good baseball player. All right, it's more specific than that. On-base skills are by far the most crucial (your teammates can't hit you home if you're sitting in the dugout), and having either power or speed to go with the on-base really, really helps. They call second and third base "scoring position" for a reason.

In discussing how to win Runs Scored this year, we'll take a look at both parts of the category and see how you can steer your fantasy team towards the plate more often.

Embracing Luck

Just because we call something “luck” doesn’t mean it can’t be predicted. A player’s slot in the batting order, the hitters behind him, and the park he plays in are lucky (or unlucky) only in the sense that the player himself has no control over them. They don’t tell us much (if anything) about a player’s true talent, but it’s not like they’re chosen by a random number generator before every at bat. (But wouldn’t that be cool? No...probably not.)

Below, we’ll take a look at some things you can predict and price into your player valuations.

Park Factors!

You know how to do this by now, I imagine. This isn’t 2002. Predictability is this: Colorado is so much of a hitters’ park that it makes all the other parks look pretty much the same. The nine points that separated the Fangraphs Colorado park factor (115) from second-place Texas (106) were as much of a difference as between Texas and Oakland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh (97, tied for 21st).

Even aside from Colorado, the parks do matter. The top non-Coors park factors belonged to the Rangers, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Orioles, and Yankees last year.

The bottom slots were held by the Giants, Rays, Padres, and Dodgers. The differences aren’t enough to base your whole strategy around, but they’re definitely important to keep in mind at the margins. Runs Scored can easily be won or lost by less than 5%.

Team Batting

Sure, the impact of the immediate two or three hitters in the order matter most, but that information is very much subject to serious change. When you know a player’s slot in the batting order and who’s batting after him (like how you know Jacoby Ellsbury will lead off for the Yanks and that Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Alfonso Soriano will come sometime after him), act on that information. But when you don’t have it, picking guys from good hitting teams is a perfectly good proxy.

Using Fangraphs.com’s 2014 Projected standings, here are the top teams by Runs Scored per game:

Angels 4.55
Rangers 4.52
Red Sox 4.51
Rockies 4.51
Blue Jays 4.49
Tigers 4.44

Other than the Rockies, NL lineups are projected for fairly low runs totals—probably thanks to the batting pitchers. That’s good reason to avoid their seventh and eighth hitters, but the rest of the lineup shouldn’t feel the effects too much. Here are the best non-Colorado NL teams:

Diamondbacks 4.23
Giants 4.20 (what?)
Cardinals 4.19
Braves 4.14

Batting Order

Batting orders are far from set, but you can make some reasonable predictions nonetheless. Here are some hitters projected to bat first or second (and thus garner lots of PA) and have at least decent hitters in the third through fifth slots behind them. Lineup projections  are based on MLBDepthCharts.com.

Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Gerardo Parra, Aaron Hill, Jason Heyward, Nick Markakis, Billy Hamilton, Zack Cozart, Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Nolan Arenado, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Yasiel Puig, Carl Crawford, Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, Jean Segura, Erick Aybar, Mike Trout, Jacoby Ellsbury, Derek Jeter, Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, Starling Marte, Everth Cabrera, Kyle Seager, Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Ben Zobrist, Matt Carpenter, Peter Bourjos, Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Reyes.

Is this long list rather subjective? Yup. So feel free to root through their projected lineups and make your own evaluations about what counts as “decent” third through fifth hitters, who’s really likely to platoon, and who’s so bad they won’t score runs no matter where they’re allowed to hit.

Finding the Talent

Scoring has two components that are largely up to the hitter: getting on base and getting into scoring position with power or wheels.

On Base and Speed

Steals aren’t the only way to advance on the basepaths, so we’ll use Fangraphs’ Baserunning (BsR) scores for speed.

Mike Trout leaps off the page with the third-best OBP (.432) and the fourth-best BsR (8.1). We also know he hits for power and plays in a high scoring lineup with (possibly) good hitters behind him. Yes, Trout is a Runs Scored perfect storm.

But here are some more players worth thinking about for run scoring possibilities, with OBP’s .340 or above and decent BsR scores of at least 3.5.

Andrew McCutchen, Matt Carpenter, David Wright, Carlos Gonzalez, Everth Cabrera, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ben Zobrist, Starling Marte, Justin Upton, and Hunter Pence. Okay, so Pence just misses the cut, with a .339 OBP. We’ll include him anyway.

These guys combine elite BsR’s of 5.0 or better with decent OBP’s of .325 or better. Man, on-base standards have gone down….

Elvis Andrus, Alex Rios (another cheat—.324 OBP), Carlos Gomez, Coco Crisp, Austin Jackson, Desmond Jennings, Carl Crawford, plus Ellsbury, Pence, and Cabrera, who make it to both lists.

On Base and (Doubles) Power

Homers will get you across the plate, but home run hitters are easy to find. Doubles and triples are less obvious and aren’t a category of their own, but when you hit one, you don’t need speed: you’re in scoring position already.

The following players had at least 40 doubles + triples and OBP’s of .340 or more:

Matt Carpenter, Jed Lowrie, Yadier Molina, Dustin Pedroia, Chris Davis, Robinson Cano, Mike Trout, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, Carlos Santana, Andrew McCutchen, David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Josh Donaldson, Jason Kipnis, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury

If You Did It Once Before…

Runs Scored don’t correlate incredibly well from one year to the next, but they are an output that captures at least some inputs that the rest of this article hasn’t. So here are the top scoring players from last year. If they don’t meet any one of these criteria, maybe they came really close in several, and that’s plenty good enough to help you in the category. All had 90 or more Runs Scored last season.

Matt Carpenter, Mike Trout, Shin-Soo Choo, Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Holliday, Joey Votto, Adam Jones, Austin Jackson, Andrew McCutchen, Justin Upton, Coco Crisp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Murphy, Evan Longoria, Hunter Pence, Dustin Pedroia, Elvis Andrus, Edwin Encarnacion, Alex Gordon, Torii Hunter

Looking at these names, one thing is apparent: scoring lots of runs seems to correlate pretty well with being a very good baseball player.

A Final, Important Note for Daily Leaguers

The last thing to consider in the Runs Scored category transcends the individual players on your team—it’s maximizing the runs you can squeeze out of your roster. That means storing a couple decent players on your bench, making use of real-life platoons, and streaming at bats. As much as possible, don’t let any of your lineup slots take a day off. Rack up those at bats and the Runs (and RBI) will follow.

Good planning will bring you a long way in Runs Scored, but good luck will probably still put someone over the top--there are a lot of variables that go into the category. My last advice is not to weigh runs too highly in your draft or auction, since they are so difficult to predict.

Join us next week, as we return to pitching with another luck-heavy category: Wins!



How to Win 2014: WHIP

Your success in WHIP hangs by a thread, stands on a razor’s edge, and a bunch of other violence-threatening metaphors for the imminent likelihood of disaster. 

You’ve noticed by now that baseball has changed in the last few years, and fantasy baseball with it. Pitchers are dominating like the 90’s never happened. The league average (min. 100 IP) starter WHIP was 1.29. For fantasy-viable starters (taking the top 100 SP by FIP as a proxy) it was 1.22. In one competitive roto-style league I played in last year, the WHIP winner had a team number of 1.12—last place was 1.28, or pretty much MLB average. I swear that number would have been competitive just five years ago. 

Expanding out of just my personal experience, let’s say the range of likely team WHIP scores (from last year) was 1.10-1.30. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. Hence the menacing metaphors of my intro. By the way, you’ve got the same WHIP-related stress whether you play the game week-by-week in head-to-head formats or all year long in a roto format. If it seems like one bad WHIP guy can kill you…well, he can. Thank you bargain-priced Tim Lincecum.

WHIP is a tricky category, composed in equal parts of two very different aspects of pitching: walk allowance and hitting allowance. The first variable, walks, is highly correlated from one year to the next—hits allowed are a different story. So, to try to catch a little more signal than noise, let’s examine the WHIP leaders over the course of the last three years. 

WHIP 2011-13 (min. 200 IP)

 

Name

WHIP

1

Clayton Kershaw

0.97

2

Jered Weaver

1.05

3

Cliff Lee

1.05

4

Stephen Strasburg

1.07

5

Hisashi Iwakuma

1.07

6

Justin Verlander

1.09

7

Cole Hamels

1.09

8

Matt Cain

1.09

9

Kris Medlen

1.09

10

Chris Sale

1.10

11

Brandon Beachy

1.11

12

Marco Estrada

1.11

13

David Price

1.11

14

Madison Bumgarner

1.12

15

Johnny Cueto

1.13

16

A.J. Griffin

1.13

17

Jordan Zimmermann

1.13

18

Kyle Lohse

1.14

19

James Shields

1.15

20

Adam Wainwright

1.15

21

Jake Peavy

1.16

Check out the analysis below the fold….

Continue reading "How to Win 2014: WHIP" »


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How to Win 2014: Stolen Bases

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in predicting the future is to assume that today’s trend will continue forever. That’s pretty much what I did last year, seeing that league-wide stolen bases had risen in the recent past and seemed to plateau at a high level. Steals had risen over the last decade from 2573 in 2003 to a high of 3279 in 2011. They were close to that level again 2012 at 3229, and had been over 2900 four years in a row. It seemed safe to assume that 2013 would be another great year for the stolen base.

Nope. Steals dropped to just 2693—a fall of 536 steals, or 16.6%. To put that number in perspective, it’s like five whole teams quit stealing bases. The 2013 total was the lowest since 2005 and you bet it affected player valuations. So, why did this happen? 

First of all, stolen bases are unique among fantasy categories in that they are under a player’s direct volitional control. A baseball player chooses to attempt a stolen base in a way that he does not choose to hit a single,* strike a batter out, or score a run. Of course, once the choice is made, other factors come into play in regards to success and failure—no matter how often he tried, Cal Ripken was never going to out-steal Rickey Henderson

*Of course, Ichiro was an exception to this rule for much of the 2000’s. Seriously, that guy could do whatever he wanted.

The overall trends are subject to human decisions, those of runners, pitchers, catchers, coaches, managers, and GM’s. The relevant decision-makers can’t choose for their team to hit more homers just by willing it to happen. But they can will stolen bases to go up—or down.

Maybe everybody decided that this whole stealing bases thing wasn’t working so well after all. Maybe you can attribute it all to Michael Bourn’s decline, or insufficient playing time for Emilio Bonifacio. (No, you can’t.) Maybe 2013 is an outlier in an upward-climbing trend. It certainly looks that way in this article from Fangraphs.com, which also shows at long-term trend in increasing stolen base percentages. Teams are getting better about which players and situations to call for the stolen base.

Whatever happened to change the trend of stolen bases, I’m not going to trying predict what will happen next.

What’s the implication of this for fantasy?

The first thing that’s interesting to note is that 10 teams ignored the league-wide memo to reduce the running game. If 2013 was the result of a change in strategy (big if, I know), these teams didn’t participate and might be good places to look for steals next year: Yankees, Royals, Indians, Red Sox Pirates, Mets, Astros, Orioles, Rockies, and Rangers.

Unfortunately, you can’t outsmart the future with some magic-bullet strategy. Either league-wide steals will rise and each stolen base will be less valuable, and non-specialists will steal plenty of bases…or they will stay the same or continue last year’s decline, making speed-specialists all the more important. It looks like the safest bet continues to be to spend intentionally on speed. Let’s see where to spend our auction dollars and draft picks. 

2013’s Top 12 15

 

Name

SB

CS

1

Jacoby Ellsbury

52

4

2

Eric Young

46

11

3

Rajai Davis

45

6

4

Jean Segura

44

13

5

Alex Rios

42

7

6

Elvis Andrus

42

8

7

Starling Marte

41

15

8

Carlos Gomez

40

7

9

Everth Cabrera

37

12

10

Leonys Martin

36

9

11

Jose Altuve

35

13

12

Mike Trout

33

7

13

Alexei Ramirez

30

9

14

Jason Kipnis

30

7

15

Nate McLouth

30

7

Why 15? Well, there was a tie. And the tie just happened to land on a nice, round number. I really had no choice.

We can learn a couple things from this list. First, steals come from the outfield, short, and second. But we knew that already. Second, you don’t have to be a particularly good hitter to steal bases. We also knew that. Let’s look at 2012’s data for a few more speedy names—and to see who stopped and started stealing.

2012’s Top 12 22

 

Name

SB

CS

1

Mike Trout

49

5

2

Rajai Davis

46

13

3

Everth Cabrera

44

4

4

Michael Bourn

42

13

5

Ben Revere

40

9

6

Jose Reyes

40

11

7

Coco Crisp

39

4

8

Shane Victorino

39

6

9

Juan Pierre

37

7

10

Carlos Gomez

37

6

11

Alcides Escobar

35

5

12

Jose Altuve

33

11

13

Dee Gordon

32

10

14

Jason Kipnis

31

7

15

B.J. Upton

31

6

16

Desmond Jennings

31

2

17

Ryan Braun

30

7

18

Norichika Aoki

30

8

19

Jarrod Dyson

30

5

20

Emilio Bonifacio

30

3

21

Jimmy Rollins

30

5

22

Drew Stubbs

30

7

Given the overall trend, it should not be shocking that several more players made it to the 30-steal plateau. The players who appear on both lists are a good place to start for consistency. Consider: Davis, Gomez, Cabrera, Altuve, Kipnis, and Trout. Yeah, only six guys managed back-to-back 30-steal seasons. And one of them wasn’t even supposed to be a starter. Moral: don’t bank on one guy to anchor your steals. Second moral: don’t write off Rajai Davis. Ever.

While we’re on the magically round 30-steal number, here are the nine guys who’ve averaged that mark over the last three years:

 

Name    

 SB

 CS

1

Michael Bourn

126

39

2

Rajai Davis

125

30

3

Coco Crisp

109

18

4

Jacoby Ellsbury

105

22

5

Elvis Andrus

100

30

6

Emilio Bonifacio

98

22

7

Ben Revere

96

26

8

Jose Reyes

94

24

9

Carlos Gomez

93

15

 Only three of them (Ellsbury, Andrus, and Gomez) managed 30 or more steals last year, which makes me think that we may be experiencing a generation shift in base stealers, with new players coming into their own and others finally slowing down. Maybe that's what's responsible for the Great Major League Slowdown. Moral: don’t be afraid of a short track record when it comes to steals.

 Watch Out for These Guys

If teams are getting savvier about not letting their guys get caught on the basepaths, you can probably expect runners with high CS totals to get the brakes put on them. Consider avoiding these guys with problematic SB/CS ratios: Aoki (20/12), Bourn (23/12), Shin-Soo Choo (20/11), Ian Kinsler (15/11), Dexter Fowler (19/9), Alfonso Soriano (18/9), Justin Ruggiano (15/8), and Paul Goldschmidt (15/8). Really don’t count on these guys, with atrocious ratios: Gerardo Parra (10/10) and Yasiel Puig (11/8).

Good Hitters Who Steal

One way to pad your steals total is to take your steals in medium-sized amounts from a number of otherwise good hitters on your roster. These guys all stole between 10 and 20 bases, but you aren't drafting any of them because of thier speed.

Maybe you don’t want one or two speed specialists, and didn’t snag a power/speed threat in the first or second round…if so, this tactic can be useful, as players like this frequently slip under the base-stealing radar. Consider: Jayson Werth (10 steals), Goldschmidt (15—unless they stop his running game), David Wright (17), Michael Cuddyer (10), Adam Jones (14), Ben Zobrist (11), Dustin Pedroia (17), Michael Brantley (17), Alex Gordon (11), Brian Dozier (14), Michael Saunders (13), Erick Aybar (12), Chris Young (10), Josh Rutledge (12)….

Okay, somewhere in there we stretched the bounds of “good,” but the point is to get steals out of people you don’t draft for steals. It’s worth noting that this strategy seemed more viable last offseason. If you suspect that league-wide steals will decline further, then you probably won’t think this strategy is very useful. 

Speed Bums

In deeper leagues, when everyone has to scramble to find someone to fill out their MI slot and their last one or two OF slots, I like to snag a couple players I affectionately term “speed bums.” You know the type: can’t really hit but lightning fast. Iffy playing time, no help in HR or RBI; they only don’t hurt you in Runs or Average if you’re lucky.

Do I like to count on them to carry me in the category? Of course not—but they can put me over the top, and after awhile they’re the best choices left. When they don’t work out, new speed bums can always be found on the waiver wire. (Such players also make good deep-league injury replacements when real hitters can’t be found.) 

Here are some guys to consider: the inimitable Rajai Davis (elite speed bum, pretty much of all time, 45 steals), Eric Young (46 steals, probably no starting job next year…Rajai 2.0?), Nate McLouth (30), Emilio Bonifacio (28), Craig Gentry and Brett Gardner (24 each—with surprisingly good hitting lines), Juan Pierre (23, the granddaddy of speed bums), Jimmy Rollins and Alcides Escobar (22 and reduced to a lowly state), Jordan Schafer, Ben Revere, and Elliot Johnson (22 and glad to be here), Denard Span (20), Ichrio Suzuki (20).

It’s interesting to note that there aren’t as many of this kind of player as in the past either. Maybe the MLB strategic decision was not to play these guys at all.

Some Final Thoughts 

I’m playing steals on the safer side this year, and that means paying for some speed near the beginning of the draft. You don’t have to go elite with Trout or Ellsbury to get some speed, but you’ll probably have to spread it across a number of 20-steal types with power (think Ian Desmond or Shane Victorino), or grab a couple of 30-steal guys who can help in Average and Runs (like Leonys Martin or Jason Kipnis).

Whatever happens with steals next year, you don’t want to be outrun by your leaguemates.

Check out How to Win next week for WHIP.



How to Win 2014: Strikeouts

The Award-Winning* How to Win series is back this year, and starting with Strikeouts. We’ll tour each of the ten 5x5 categories over the course of the preseason to examine data about the category’s leaders, identify surprise players, and discuss various strategies for winning the category.

*I literally just gave myself an award. It is scribbled on a napkin and stuffed into my pocket. Feel free to extend congratulations in the comments.

Strikeouts are an easy category to win. It’s simple. Stream pitchers like crazy and rack up 50% more innings than the next best team. You’ll win. Guaranteed. You’ll probably win Wins, too. If you follow this simple strategy and don’t win…stream more pitchers until you’ve got it.

Article done. 

Unless, of course, you want to win (or at least compete) in WHIP and ERA, play with a transaction limit (do you?), or an innings cap, or make your roster changes weekly. So I guess there’s more work to do than that. 

Winning any category (or getting points from the stat, if that’s how you roll) depends heavily on your format, and I’m not just talking about the big, obvious stuff like roto scoring vs. head-to-head, or categories vs. points, or daily vs. weekly roster moves. Are your innings capped at 1500 or 1400? Are your transactions limited by week or month, all year, or not at all? How many players can you keep on your bench? All these things and more will change your focus on how to win Strikeouts.

That’s why I’m including 2013’s top 12 Strikeout leaders by three separate measurements: raw whiff totals, K/9, and K%. Each measurement has its uses. Why the top 12? Think of it as—potentially—each team’s best contributor in the category.

Total Strikeouts (min. 130 IP—like it matters here)

 

Player

SO

1

Yu Darvish

277

2

Max Scherzer

240

3

Clayton Kershaw

232

4

Chris Sale

226

5

Cliff Lee

222

6

Adam Wainwright

219

7

Justin Verlander

217

8

Felix Hernandez

216

9

Jeff Samardzija

214

10

A.J. Burnett

209

11

Anibal Sanchez

202

12

Cole Hamels

202

 The first thing we notice about these names and numbers is that there’s a pretty big difference between Darvish and anyone else. In fact, he’s almost as far away from Scherzer at number two, as he is from Hamels and Sanchez. If you want elite in Strikeouts, he’s in a class of his own, and he’s the only pitcher in baseball who appears to have a credible chance of cracking 300 like Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson.

Notice also that the difference between Darvish and the 12th spot on the list is roughly equivalent to the Strikeouts you’d get from a mid-level closer. That’s like getting a roster slot for free. 

Obviously, not everyone can draft Darvish, and there might be good reasons not to, (okay, probably not?) but the other guys on this list will provide some pretty serious value. While some are elite pitchers making more money per season than anyone else ever has, others are…well, maybe retiring. The point is that most elite Strikeout artists are simply amazing pitchers and come with similarly high draft or auction prices—but there are exceptions. 

Consider Burnett and Samardzija, as well as Hamels (whose stock may have fallen), and Sanchez (who might not be believed as an ace yet) from this list. Also consider some of these guys, all with 180 whiffs or more: Homer Bailey (if the hype isn’t too frenzied), Lance Lynn (if he keeps his job), Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum, and C.J. Wilson. Note that this isn’t just a list of the next guys sorted by Strikeouts, but a handful of non-elite pitchers who miss bats.

K/9 (min. 130 IP)

 

Player

K/9

1

Yu Darvish

11.89

2

Max Scherzer

10.08

3

Anibal Sanchez

9.99

4

A.J. Burnett

9.85

5

Jose Fernandez

9.75

6

Ubaldo Jimenez

9.56

7

Felix Hernandez

9.51

8

Chris Sale

9.49

9

Stephen Strasburg

9.39

10

Scott Kazmir

9.23

11

Francisco Liriano

9.11

12

Justin Masterson

9.09

Obviously, there’s a lot of repetition between this list and the last…but there are some key differences, and this is the measurement you’ll want to focus on in a roto style league with an innings cap. The lower your cap or the deeper your league, the more you’ll want to focus on the Strikeout rate over the raw total.

It’s interesting to note that a few more aces fall out of elite status by this measure. You can get serious production from apparently fringy guys by concentrating on K/9—though pitchers like Jimenez and Masterson may will harm you in WHIP.

Here are some more pitchers with quality K/9 rates that won’t be priced like an ace: Matt Moore (8.56), Alex Cobb (8.41), Corey Kluber (8.31), Hector Santiago (8.28), Ryan Dempster (8.25), Julio Teheran (8.24), Ian Kennedy (8.09).

Tony Cingrani (104.2 IP, 10.32 K/9), Tyson Ross (94, 9.29), Marco Estrada (123, 8.20), Todd Redmond (69.2, 9.35), Josh Johnson (81.1, 9,18), and Sonny Gray (60, 9.15) all helped out in Strikeouts despite limited time. Of course, they didn’t all help out in the other categories….

K% (min. 130 IP)

 

Player

K%

1

Yu Darvish

32.90%

2

Max Scherzer

28.70%

3

Jose Fernandez

27.50%

4

Anibal Sanchez

27.10%

5

Felix Hernandez

26.30%

6

Stephen Strasburg

26.10%

7

Chris Sale

26.10%

8

A.J. Burnett

26.10%

9

Clayton Kershaw

25.60%

10

Cliff Lee

25.30%

11

Ubaldo Jimenez

25.00%

12

Madison Bumgarner

24.80%

Yu stands very tall here again, overshadowing the fact that the difference between Scherzer and Fernandez is also very large. It’s clear that these two guys are the top Strikeout pitchers no matter the format…but you already knew that.

 

Kershaw, Lee, and Bumgarner crack this list but not K/9, and that tells us a little bit about the nature of K%, and the difference between the two stats. It’s subtle, but the difference between Strikeouts as a percentage of total batters faced, and Strikeouts per inning is important: pitchers with a K% better than their K/9 are getting more batters out in other ways and facing fewer batters. It means they get fewer whiffs…but it also means they put fewer hitters on base.

Clay Buchholz (23.1 K%), Mike Minor (22.1%), Hisashi Iwakuma (21.4%), Gerrit Cole (21.3%), Mat Latos (21.2%), and Chris Tillman (21.2%) all whiffed over 21% of their batters but had K/9 rates under 8.00. Unsurprisingly, all turned out pretty good results.

 Don’t Forget Relievers 

Below are the top Strikeout relievers, with closers omitted. You and I both know you’ll be ranking your closers based on how many whiffs they generate, and that the best ones won’t come cheap. All I’ll say on the matter is this: don’t waste a roster slot on a closer who doesn’t strike people out. 

In a lot of formats, there’s no room for non-closing relievers, I know. But for the formats in which you can use them, they can make a difference. Check out some of the top relievers for raw strikeouts. If you want your relievers to make a difference (in any format), you need them to generate the counting stats—an elite K/9 and K% is a given; the trick is pitching enough innings to matter. 

 

Player

SO

1

Cody Allen

88

2

A.J. Ramos

86

3

Josh Collmenter

85

4

Luke Hochevar

82

5

Steve Delabar

82

6

Charlie Furbush

80

7

Craig Stammen

79

8

Adam Ottavino

78

9

Jake McGee

75

10

David Carpenter

74

11

Oliver Perez

74

12

Kelvin Herrera

74

The best Strikeout artists seem to end up in the ninth, but these guys can help out fantasy teams under the radar. A lot of them aren’t even typical closers-in-waiting, which means you can nab your favorite one(s) with the last pick(s) of the draft. Reliever usage and performance is, of course, hugely variable, so consider this a starting point for padding the category, not a true guide to the next year’s highest Strikeout totals.

Differentiated Strategies

I said before that different formats require different strategies. Check out a few of your options.

Yahoo! Head-to-Head Style

Daily changes, shallow rosters, and no innings cap. In leagues like this, I’d try to get bulk strikeouts from a couple studs, and then focus on quality K% from two to four mid-rotation types (depending on what kind of funds you want to allocate to pitching). I’d finish it up in one of three ways: grab a couple high-risk guys with good K/9’s, find some high-volume relievers, or stream away with a roster spot or two.

Standard Roto

Daily changes and an innings cap—usually about 1500 IP. Every inning, every out counts. Figure you’re splitting your innings between five to seven starters in order to hit your limit. Concentrate on K% for balance and add relievers to improve ERA and WHIP, or lower-level starters with good K/9 for Wins.

Weekly Changes or Limited Transactions 

These situations throw streaming out the window, and they aren’t great for relieves either. Usually such leagues let you have a deep bench, so my usual strategy in this format is to draft two aces and a bunch of high K/9 arms and play the matchups.

If you do have a short bench in this format—or league with more than 12 teams—I’d emphasize risk mitigation and look for K% above everything else.

Check us out again next week, for a look at our first hitting category: the enigmatic Stolen Base.





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