How to Win


How to Win: Last Minute Draft Strategy

On today's Very Special Episode of How to Win, I'm not going to cover a particular stat or position. Instead, I'm going to take a step back and share what I've learned from this year's drafting season and try to pass on this newfound knowledge in time for the final weekend of drafting. If this comes too late to you...I'm sorry. Just remember that it came too late for my first several drafts too.

Maybe I haven't been in the most drafts this year, but I think I've been in more than most: Thursday was my third, and I was assistant to my wife on two more. (Yeah, I'm lucky that my wife is a fantasy baseball junkie too.) Drafts and mocks have basically been my job this month. Well, they are my job, actually. I've done Roto, H2H, standard 5x5, non-standard categories, shallow 23-rounders, deep 27-rounders with 15 teams, Yahoo!, ESPN, and later today I'll cap the season with a monster 30-round, 14-team, CBS H2H points league. So I'm gonna be needing my own advice.

Know Your Format
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are literally several different formats out there: know your format! How many DL slots do you have? Is it points or categories? Five-by-five or something more arcane? Weekly matchups or roto style? One catcher or two? Weekly changes or daily? Is there an innings cap or not? The possibilities could go on and on. For at least another sentence. The point is that these things--even the smaller seeming ones--can make a huge difference in how you draft. Take that DL slots one: I drafted for Blog Wars not too long ago, but at the end of the draft I couldn't remember how many DL slots we had. The clock was running out and my Internet was slow and I couldn't find the league settings fast enough. So I found out the hard way and Colby Lewis is my waiver claim, not on my bench.

Some players are differently valuable in different formats. For instance, Curtis Granderson, Hanley Ramirez, Chase Headley, Matt Garza, and any other injured player is a lot more useful in H2H leagues that utilize DL slots. Discount them if you're playing standard roto, where their April (or more) absences are just as important as their (presumed) presence down the stretch in September. Discount them even more if your league doesn't give you a DL.

A really important one for me is the difference between weekly and daily formats. In a weekly format you typically play two relievers and need to fill the rest of your spots with starters; three relievers is pretty much the max you can afford. So don't get more than that, and don't waste a pick on a non-closer. Daily is totally different. Non-closers who get strikeouts are useful, and you can pile on the closers to win big in saves without sacrificing your wins and K's. Similarly, don't bother with a platoon hitter in all but the deepest weekly formats. In daily though, even Raul Ibanez can come in handy.

Catcher Strategy

With five drafts in my pocket, I have yet to draft (or suggest to draft) a catcher early. With fewer at-bats than other players, they impact your team less in average, help less in counting stats, and generally aren't any good at all. Plus, quality catchers run pretty deep. Three years ago, wouldn't you have been thrilled to have Ryan Doumit's .270 average and 15 HR's at catcher? Yes. Now, he's the 14th catcher in my rankings and even lower in others. Whether it's a single or double catcher league, I've been following pretty much the same strategy: wait for a great deal on a catcher, or be the last one to get one. Is Buster Posey great? Yeah. Should you use a first-round pick to get him? No. Snatch him up if he falls to the third. On Thursday (in a single-catcher league), I waited until the 20th round before I took my catcher, Brian McCann. Two rounds later I took Doumit to fill in while he's injured. I could get nearly equal catching production to people who used much earlier picks for this position.

Starter Strategy

There is no one good strategy for starers, but the most important thing to do will be to stick to yours. I actually don't recommend going into the draft with a set strategy for starters; instead, I let my first couple picks determine my course. Sometimes I've gone with a single ace (usually Strasburg) and waited for a while. I've taken pairs of aces with back-to-back picks (maybe Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia), and I've grabbed three sub-aces-with-strikeouts a little later on (Max Scherzer, Yovani Gallardo, James Shields). Depending on how much risk I've already assumed, I might load up on high upside starters in the middle rounds, snag one or two seemingly dependable starters, or wait all the way until the late rounds to fill out my rotation with a mix of sleepers (Marco Estrada is a favorite) and boring vets (Ryan Dempster and Bronson Arroyo come to mind).

Reliever Strategy

Get three relievers. I just don't see that much downside. I had always been the guy that gets one reliever and then happily ignores them until the 15th round and beyond, snatching up several bottom-dwellers in after the 20th. Well, not only did that strategy torpedo me in saves in last year's Silver League (I can't believe Carlos Marmol, Grant Balfour, and Greg Holland were closers then, are closers now, and still sunk me in saves by losing their jobs) it isn't nearly as viable this year. With several teams in an unsettled limbo at closer, the saves pool is shallower than ever at a very risky position.

In some drafts I've reached for an early top gun (I just had to have Rivera on a team in his last season; there was no way my wife and I could pass on Kimbrel in the 5th round), but I've aimed for three closers in each draft. Nearly every time I've gotten at least two closers from a big tier that I consider to be solid values around the 10th-12th rounds: John Axford, Jason Grilli, Glen Perkins, Rafael Betancourt, Greg Holland and Tom Wilhelmsen. Actually, J.J. Putz, Rafael Soriano, and Sergio Romo are in that group for me too, but everyone else values them a bit higher I guess.

After these guys, most closers have serious question marks or less than a full hold on the job. Let someone else take the risks. As for playing the waiver wire for saves in season: do it! But starting with a solid relief corps means you'll win bigger and have goods to trade down the line. It also means you're safer in case you have a slower free agent trigger finger than other teams in your league.

On every team, I feel like I have a solid group of closers less likely than most to lose their jobs to ineffectiveness and the rest of my team still looks pretty strong. I haven't been able to afford a fourth closer...they're just all gone by the 15th round or so, even the likes of Bobby Parnell and Casey Janssen.

Speaking of Janssen, it looks like he can start moving up draft boards with his sudden return to health and Sergio Santos beginning to struggle.

Get three closers.

Speed Strategy

So you didn't get Mike Trout or Ryan Braun with your first pick, which means that you probably aren't getting 30 steals out of a heavy hitter. (Let's face it, Andrew McCutchen, and Carlos Gonzalez won't be doing that, and I bet Matt Kemp won't either.) Where do you get speed? Fortunately you've got choices, most of which belong in the outfield or at shortstop. You can use an early pick for an elite base-stealer like Jose Reyes, Jacoby Ellsbury, B.J. Upton, or Michael Bourn. You can wait until the end at both positions and take Elvis Andrus (who won't be there, but he should be), Alcides Escobar, or Everth Cabrera at short, or Brett Gardner, Coco Crisp, Ichiro Suzuki, Cameron Maybin, Drew Stubbs, or other "speed bums" in the outfield. I strongly suggest getting at least one of the latter group in any deep format.

Watch out for sneaky players in the early and middle rounds that steal bases on top of their regular value. Remember that speed is priced into their draft cost, but that players like Shin-Soo Choo, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, and Yoenis Cespedes can help you a lot as a group, but none of them can crash the category all by himself.

Roll with the Punches, Go with the Flow, Blah, Blah, Blah

You've got to be flexible with your rankings and your draft strategy. If shortstops are flying off the board to the tune of Erick Aybar in the 7th round, then do what it takes to make sure you aren't left starting Alexei Ramirez or Zack Cozart, even if it means drafting Alcides Escobar, J.J. Hardy, or Everth Cabrera ten rounds ahead of where you planned. It won't kill your team: the fair market price for their services got more expensive; for some other position it will have necessarily become cheaper. If you can't adjust, you'll be left in the dust. Similar things can happen to catchers and relievers,and it's important to balance flexing with your league-mates, and striking your own path. Don't take Addison Reed in the third round just because seven closers just went off the board. But take him in the 10th if you need a second closer and he's the only good one left.

Don't Just Make Tiers, Use Them!

It's easy to just go down your player list, even if you've broken everything up into tiers. Don't do that. Your tiers (or ours--you can use them for free) are there for a reason. Do you need speed or power? Hopefully there's some of both in that fifth OF tier. Do you want to take a big risk with your fifth starter, or get someone steady to balance out risks you've already taken? There should be a sprinkling of both in the tier.

Forget Your Tiers and Rankings

You probably didn't get up this morning and make all your tiers and rankings fresh for today's draft. If you did...well, okay. Otherwise, you've had time to gather more information, read more analysis, gauge the relative wisdom of the crowds you've drafted with, and otherwise reevaluate every player in the game. I know I ranked Danny Espinosa near Jimmy Rollins, but I just can't bring myself to draft Espinosa where I've got him ranked: I was just too high on him in my personal tiers. If I want Carlos Gomez, I'll have to bump him way up--he's just too popular to land where I've tiered him, so if I need his power/speed combo, I have to decide whether or not to overpay. Roy Halladay is another example of this: he goes deeper and deeper into my rankings seemingly every time, as the news has yet to be positive about him. He's dropped from my initial expectation of the 5th round, to the 7th, and then the 10th, and lately the 12th. 

Trust yourself and the decisions you made about most players. Unless you have good reason not to.

Position Scarcity

Intimately related to the three sections above, your strategy for dealing with scarce positions (second base, shortstop) relative to deep ones (first base, outfield, pitcher, catcher) will be different in every league.

Take the standard Yahoo! format (of which I am not a fan, by the way): with eligibility down to basically three innings (actually 5 games started), basically everybody is eligible everywhere. (Get extra value in Kyle Seager at 2B, Mark Trumbo at 3B, and Martin Prado at SS and 2B.) On top of that, the standard format doesn't include MI or CI, but does give you two Util slots. What does that mean? You're now expected to have one 2B from an expanded pool, one SS from an expanded pool, and one 3B from an expanded pool...and you might as well take three 1B since you can play them all. In this format, 1B and OF are extra valuable and you can get pretty good production at the "premium positions" without using early picks. My wife took Joey Votto with her first pick, and there was no good reason not to grab Edwin Encarnacion with her third. Her production up the middle is just fine!

Contrast that with the style we use for the RotoAuthority and Silver Leagues, where we run five OF's, a MI, and a CI. It's like every position is scarce! Don't neglect your outfield in these formats (or, like me, you may have a team in which Coco Crisp is your number two OF), but make sure to fill at least one infield position in the first few rounds. Notice also, that the injuries to Ramirez and Headley, plus the questions about Pablo Sandoval have made 3B a noticeably shallower position than it was at the beginning of Spring Training.

Don't Drink and Draft (Unless You're in my Leagues)

I get that it's more fun. Of course it is. But fantasy baseball isn't about fun, it's about winning! Plus, you can have a good time without impairing your strategy to the point where Yahoo!'s autodraft mechanism is a safer bet than your judgement. In a related vein, I don't recommend drafting anywhere with an environment that isn't conducive to clear thinking. Sometimes this means draft in your home...sometimes it means get as far away from your home as possible.

A Few Final Words

I don't have any final words. If you haven't drafted yet, good luck!



How to Win: On-Base Percentage

I know what you're thinking: OBP isn't a category in traditional 5x5 leagues! I have noticed that (and lamented, being a member of the Moneyball generation), but that doesn't mean On-Base doesn't matter. You know that too, of course, deep down. A hitter with a high OBP will have more opportunities to score runs and steal bases. Also, these hitters can take pitches, which I can imagine leads to more homers and RBI's, and higher batting averages. Or maybe those things drive On-Base up. Either way, they go together. Since OBP doesn't show up among the sortable stats on your fantasy website (unless they're a category in your league), finding players with high numbers here can be a great way to sneakily get slightly-better hitters for your overall team. Finally, hitters who can get on base are much more likely to stay in the lineup, or on top of the lineup. So basically, OBP is great.

Of course, you might play in a league that isn't precisely 5x5--if that's the case then you already love high-OBP hitters, because you directly benefit from them, via walks, OPS, or OBP as a straight-up replacement for batting average. There are many choices.

2012's Top 24 
(Min. 350 PA)

1. Joey Votto, .474
2. Joe Mauer, .416
3. David Ortiz, .415
4. Prince Fielder, .412
5. Buster Posey, .408
6. Andrew McCutchen, .400
7. Mike Trout, .399
8. John Jaso, .394
9. Carlos Ruiz, .394
10. Miguel Cabrera, .393
11. Ryan Braun, .391
12. David Wright, .391
13. Miguel Montero, .391
14. Melky Cabrera, .390
15. Dexter Fowler, .389
16. Edwin Encarnacion, .384
17. David Murphy, .380
18. Matt Holliday, .379
19. Robinson Cano, .379
20. Austin Jackson, .377
21. Ben Zobrist, .377
22. Chase Headley, .376
23. Jon Jay, .373
24. Yadier Molina, .373 

The first thing I notice here is just how much higher Votto is than everyone else. If your league does OBP instead of AVG, he might belong among the top couple draft picks. A couple other guys on this list aren't high at all on most draft boards: John Jaso, Dexter Fowler, David Murphy, and Jon Jay. In anything but a standard league, all these guys could be starters at their positions. In 5x5, their OBP still adds value, but they remain second-stringers. If Ruiz wasn't suspended for PED's, I'd heartily recommend him. As it is, I don't see a lot of reason to stash a catcher you can't use and can't put on the DL.

OBP-AVG

Some players get a big value boost from batting average, which is fine, especially in a standard league. Other players lose value from low averages, but you can find extra-useful players of both types by simply finding the players who get the most of their OBP from walks. Also, these players are the ones most likely to put up high On-Base Percentages next year, even if BABIP treats them poorly. They'll also benefit from extra steals and extra runs, relative to other hitters with a similar batting average.

1. Joey Votto, .137
2. Carlos Pena, .133
3. Adam Dunn, .129
4. Dan Uggla, .128
5. John Jaso, .118
6. Travis Hafner, .118
7. Jose Bautista, .117
8. Mike Napoli, .116
9. Jonny Gomes, .115
10. Mark Reynolds, .114
11. Carlos Santana, .113
12. Carlos Quentin, .113
13. Chase Utley, .109
14. Alex Avila, .109
15. Ben Zobrist, 107
16. Josh Willingham, .106
17. Miguel Montero, .105
18. John Buck, .105
19. Edwin Encarnacion, .105
20. A.J. Ellis, .103
21. Kevin Youkilis, .101
22. Matt Joyce, .100
23. Russell Martin, .100
24. Prince Fielder, .099
25. Rickie Weeks, 0.98 

This list is certainly headlined by two types of player: high power, low average guys, and some of the best hitters in baseball. Notice also, players who had down years last year (Youk, Weeks) and, for some reason, quite a few catchers. Catching runs really deep this year, but there's all the more reason to wait till the end to take your backstop if you play in a league that rewards walks or OBP. Alternatively, you would be more justified in paying the premium price for Mauer, Santana, or Napoli.

OBP + Speed

In fantasy baseball, we love power/speed combos. We really like speedy guys with good batting averages too. Maybe more important than either, however, is the OBP of our speedsters. The more they get on the more they steal. When we draft  someone for steals, especially towards the middle and late rounds, each steal they might add is more important than a homer or two, or a handful of points of batting average.

So here are some high OBP (.340 or above) speedsters (20 steals or more): Mike Trout, Michael Bourn, Jose Reyes, Juan Pierre, Jose Altuve, Ryan Braun, Norichika Aoki, Alejandro De Aza, Jason Heyward,* Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Andrew McCutchen, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Gonzalez

*Heyward's OBP was only .335, but he's got a history of high On-Base years, and he's a great bet to top that number next year.

Speed Without OBP

Here are some guys to watch out for: the opposite of the players listed above. They stole plenty of bases (20 or more), but their low OBP's (under .320) kept them from nabbing more. This also limited their chances to bat at the top of the order and score runs, always a nice bonus from a speedster. Here they are: Rajai Davis, Carlos Gomez, Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton, Jimmy Rollins, Drew Stubbs, Ichiro Suzuki, Jordan Schafer, Cameron Maybin, Michael Saunders, Danny Espinosa, Alexei Ramirez

Some of these guys are great players, and great for fantasy...but remember to discount them for their walk avoidance, and remember that some of them could find themselves sitting next to Davis, their headliner: on the bench.

A Few Final Words

Whether or not your league directly counts OBP, checking this stat is similar to looking at a pitcher's peripheral stats: it tells you a lot about what kind of hitter he is, and what kind of opportunities he'll have to help you in whichever categories your league does score. High OBP hitters are key to maximizing your potential in steals and runs scored. In fact, my Runs Scored article has two sections devoted to the high OBP hitters you might want. If you didn't read it already, check it out. For me, OBP can make a great tiebreaker between two players of otherwise similar value. When comparing similar guys, whether at the top or bottom of a draft, the one who gets on more often is almost always the better choice.


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How to Win: Saves

Saves are a curious phenomenon. Invented quite recently--for a stat with the weight of tradition--their presence in baseball's statistical pantheon has actually changed the way games are played and millions of dollars are apportioned. If not for this category, you might still be seeing the game's best relievers pitching the seventh and eighth innings of tied ballgames...not waiting until the ninth, only to sit down if a lead disappears or grows over three. See, saves are illogical, and that's just something we all have to accept before we can win this category.

Saves are subject to several factors, only one of which is a pitcher's performance. Since nearly all saves are doled out to just 30 pitchers at any given time, the manager's choice of pitcher matters too. For some teams (like the Braves) the choice is easy. The Tigers are having a tough time with it. What goes into the manager's closer decision? Who knows for sure, but performance, raw ability, reputation, and appearance all seem to go into it. Recent performance matters too: a quality pitcher can go into a rough patch with a closer gig and high fantasy value and leave with neither. Finally, winning games is part of it too...but, so is winning by a little. I like to target good or mediocre teams with better pitching than hitting.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to win this one: more closers, or more information. 

To help you do either one, our first list is of the 24 closers who have a firm grip on their jobs. Note that this is not the same as last year's leaders, nor is it a ranking. You can check out our RP Rankings, or our Closer Depth Chart for information on each team's backup closers.

Firm Closers*

AL West

Grant Balfour, OAK
Tom Wilhelmsen, SEA
Jose Veras, HOU
Joe Nathan, TEX

NL West

Sergio Romo, SFG
Rafael Betancourt, COL
J.J. Putz, ARI
Huston Street, SDP

AL Central

Greg Holland, KCR
Glen Perkins, MIN
Chris Perez, CLE
Addison Reed, CHW

NL Central

John Axford, MIL
Jason Grilli, PIT
Jonathan Broxton, CIN**
Jason Motte, STL

AL East

Mariano Rivera, NYY
Joel Hanrahan, BOS
Jim Johnson, BAL
Fernando Rodney, TBR

NL East

Steve Cishek, MIA
Jonathan Papelbon, PHI
Rafael Soriano, WAS
Craig Kimbrel, ATL

*I say firm, but you know I don't mean it. These guys might not be fighting for jobs now, but any could lose it during the season to injury, sudden ineffectiveness, or manager's caprice.

**Brox is solidly a closer as long as the "Aroldis Chapman: Starting Pitcher" plan continues. If Chapman returns to the bullpen, expect him to bump Broxton out of the closer's chair.

With only 24 known closers this late into Spring Training, saves are already a rarer draft commodity than they used to be. It's down to two guys per team in a standard league; you could easily be stuck with just one in a deep league. The volatility inherent to closers makes me usually want to avoid them early in drafts (what I really like is snapping up three or four of the last six taken, but that doesn't look like such a good idea this year). This year, more than in others, I'd strongly consider using early and middle picks to get more than one of the top closers.

Closer Cage Matches

Not every save comes from a closer with a solid job. Each division hosts a team that can't seem to make up its mind about their stopper, and you can (with a little luck) profit from taking a chance with pitchers in those situations. Just don't depend on them. I went into a little more detail about these cases on Friday, so I'll keep it brief here.

Angels: Ernesto Frieri v. Ryan Madson

Frieri should start as closer; the plan is that Madson will return to the job when he's healthy.

Dodgers: Brandon League v. Kenley Jansen

League has been dubbed "closer" by the Dodgers...but they've done this before, and Jansen is really, really good. Especially at striking people out.

Tigers: Bruce Rondon v. Joaquin Benoit v. Al Alburquerque v. Phil Coke v. someone they haven't traded for yet.

This one's a mess. If you can spare your last round pick to have a horse in the race, go for it.

Cubs: Carlos Marmol v. Kyuji Fujikawa

Marmol is the closer. Marmol is very available in trade. Don't expect him to close in his new destination.

Blue Jays: Sergio Santos v. Casey Janssen

Janssen is hurt, but was supposed to have the job. Santos was pitching very well, but he was hurt last year and now he might be a little bit hurt.

Mets: Bobby Parnell v. Frank Francisco

Parnell is a pretty good pitcher who isn't hurt. Francisco is a volatile (but underrated) pitcher who is hurt.

Any of these situations could also end up in job shares or committee approaches. I've listed the current frontrunner first in each case (though others might be less bullish on Santos and Parnell), but all of these teams' plans are way up in the air.

Draft More Closers

Now that we've actually found the closers, we can get back into some real strategy. As I said above (long ago, by now), one of the two main ways to win saves is to have the most closers. In some years, you can do this on the cheap, by getting undervalued closers way at the back end of your draft. This year, not so much. You can also spend heavily on the most elite closers, those unlikely to lose their jobs even after blowing two or three saves in a row. (That can happen to anybody.)

I recently tried this strategy out in a Yahoo! mock draft. A standard Yahoo! league is very shallow, and it doesn't contain MI or CI spots, and only runs three OF's. What does this mean for closers? Well, if I only need one player at each premium position, then I can stand to spend a little more on closers. That's what I did. I drafted four closers, and if this were a real league, I would win saves for sure with this crew. Here's my whole team (for context), with relievers in black:

1. Giancarlo Stanton (Mia - OF) 
2. Edwin Encarnacion (Tor - 1B) 
3. Cliff Lee (Phi - SP) 
4. Craig Kimbrel (Atl - RP) 
5. Aramis Ramirez (Mil - 3B) 
6. Shin-Soo Choo (Cin - OF) 
7. Jonathan Papelbon (Phi - RP) 
8. Jose Altuve (Hou - 2B) 
9. Michael Bourn (Cle - OF) 
10. Ian Kennedy (Ari - SP) 
11. Anibal Sanchez (Det - SP) 
12. Nick Swisher (Cle - 1B,OF) 
13. Brian McCann (Atl - C) 
14. John Axford (Mil - RP) 
15. Jason Grilli (Pit - RP) 
16. Alcides Escobar (KC - SS) 
17. Todd Frazier (Cin - 1B,3B,OF) 
18. Wade Miley (Ari - SP) 
19. Hisashi Iwakuma (Sea - SP,RP) 
20. Josh Rutledge (Col - 2B,SS) 
21. James McDonald (Pit - SP) 
22. Bronson Arroyo (Cin - SP) 
23. Jason Hammel (Bal - SP) 

My starting pitching is a little thin, and I don't have much bench, but I think it's a decent team. (If you don't, let me know in the comments, so I don't do this in a real draft...) The important thing, though, is that I will win saves.

Presumably, you can spend extra on saves without going to this extreme. One way to do this is to grab closers that are better than their draft positions. In case you didn't notice, I did a little of that on the team above.

John Axford is the 5th reliever going on MockDraftCentral, and 8th on RotoAuthority's rankings, so there's no value there...except that he's number 13 on Yahoo!

Similarly, Glen Perkins is our 15th ranked closer, and he goes at a fair 14th on MDC, but you can get him 21st on Yahoo!

Jason Grilli is our 10th closer ranked, but he's going 19th on MDC and 17th on Yahoo! Grilli (and his awesome 13.81 K/9) are very underrated.

Rafael Betanourt is our 14th closer, but he's 18th on MDC and 16th on Yahoo!

Addison Reed is our 17th closer, but he's 22nd on MDC and 20th on Yahoo!

Huston Street is our number 16, but he lasts until number 24 on MDC. On Yahoo!, though, he's ranked 12th, so be careful.

Jose Veras is way down everybody's lists, but saves could be extra-hard for him to come by: even at 250 overall on Yahoo! and 303 on MDC, he's probably still the second Houston Astro taken in many drafts. Yeah, that's a bad team.

Any of these pitchers--or any other--could get very underrated in any draft you might do. Even when intending to fill some other position, remember to consider grabbing a value closer if one slips to you. In an auction, of course, this is even easier to see, though your leaguemates might make you pay a premium if they notice you trying to amass an All-Star bullpen.

Get More Information

You can succeed in saves without spending more than the competition. In last year's Silver League, the team that won in saves finished at or near the top of the whole league standings. That team didn't break the bank on closers in the draft (though I seem to recall them spending the normal amount). Instead, throughout the year, they consistently snatched up some of the best closers to take over jobs midseason. Helpfully, I believe they started by nabbing Fernando Rodney.

If you think you can succeed this way, I say go for it. All it means is more more work, and it can really pay off. Following our own @CloserNews Twitter feed is a great way to start, but I'd suggest loading up on as many information sources as you can. It helps living on the West Coast, or staying up late to catch the night games and news. Injuries and managerial decisions can happen at any time, and in many leagues, a newly minted closer will have been snatched up by the time you wake up in the morning. 

There's another way to squeeze saves out of your team, and that is to stream setup guys. It takes some seriously careful watching (it was a lot easier for me to do when I was taking night shifts on the @CloserNews feed, I'll tell you that), but when a closer has pitched two or three days in a row, you won't expect him to come in the next day, so you grab his backup and hope for a save opp. For a couple years, I've wanted to try devoting a whole team to this strategy, but I haven't gotten around to it, mostly for time zone related reasons.

A Few Final Words: Different Strategies for Different Leagues

I'm in five different leagues next season, and I'll have at least four different strategies for success in saves. If your league does daily changes and has a lot of open P slots, then either of the strategies above will work well for you. You can leave most of your relievers in on most days (or cycle in your streamers), and sit them when you need to put in extra starters. It's like reliever paradise. I'll probably go for quantity in one, and information in another and see what happens.

But I also play in leagues with weekly lineup changes and waiver wire pickups, and one of them allows only two relievers--but awards them a ton of points. For these, my plan will (probably) be to get at least one high quality reliever, one medium quality guy, and a third or fourth injury backup. Or maybe I'll go for two of the top ten and hope for the best. We'll see how the draft goes.

Some leagues do quite a few categories: 7x7 or even 10x10. The more categories you have, the less you should spend on closers. Similarly, points leagues can have very valuable closers, or make them pretty worthless. On the flip side of things, if you play in a 4x4 league (the original standard), saves just got way more valuable. Ratchet closers up your lists accordingly.

Whether you play in a deep league or a shallow league, with weekly changes or daily, with just two RP slots or more than you can even use, there is a value for saves out there. Whatever it is pay that, and not more. In a head-to-head league, you could even punt the category (but don't, because someone else will and even one closer will beat that team twice next year), but every little bit helps in standard Rotisserie.

There's an old adage floating around in the aether of our cultural consciousness that, "It's better to be lucky than good." Nowhere is this more true than in getting saves for your fantasy baseball team, so: good luck!

By the way, this concludes the standard 5x5 categories, but it doesn't conclude the How to Win series. My plan is to examine OBP next week, since plenty of leagues use the stat and it indirectly affects all leagues. If a bunch of people clamor for something else, though, maybe I'll change the plan....



How to Win: Home Runs

Homers are everybody's favorite category. Or almost everybody's. Well, they're mine. My favorite hitting category, at least. Yes, that's it: home runs are my favorite hitting category.

Why the affinity for the longball? Just because they're awesome? Because I grew up watching Ken Griffey, Jr. and the rest of our 90's heroes launching them all around town? Or because I've watched so many games at Safeco Field that I don't really remember what they look like in person and I have to resort to rooting them on in fantasy? Maybe.

But mostly it's because homers are simple. Hit the ball hard enough and high enough and nobody cares what the defense is, or what the rest of your lineup looks like. Good pitchers usually keep homers down, good hitters usually hit some out. Some parks add to homer totals, others kill them--but it isn't too hard to find out which ones are which.

Not only that, but I'm a sucker for a freebie. (If that's even possible--I mean, it's free...) Every homer is a free Run Scored and a free RBI and the best way to do well in those categories is to have a bunch of guys who do well in this one.

This is a theme I've been on all year long, but consider this article my crescendo: power is down, and the game is different. In real baseball, strikeouts are up, steals are up and homers and slugging percentage are down. For fantasy, that means that you have to pounce on power earlier than ever, because mediocre players that still hit 30 bombs are nearly a thing of the past. In 2009, there were 86 players with 20 homers or more. Last year, there were just 78. Last year the majors slugged just .405--down from .418 in 2009 and .432 ain 2006. When you're asking yourself why you should pay first round prices for a player who only helps in three categories (cough, cough, Jose Bautista), there's your answer.

Since we're lucky enough to be reviewing a category that actually tends to correlate from year to year, here are last year's top 24 home run hitters.

2012's Top 24

1. Miguel Cabrera, 44 (3B) 
2. Josh Hamilton, 43 (OF)
2. Curtis Granderson, 43 (OF)
4. Edwin Encarnacion, 42 (1B)
5. Ryan Braun, 41 (OF)
5. Adam Dunn, 41 (1B)
7. Giancarlo Stanton, 37 (OF)
8. Adrian Beltre, 36 (3B)
9. Josh Willingham, 35 (OF)
10. Jay Bruce, 34 (OF)
11. Robinson Cano, 33 (2B)
11. Adam LaRoche, 33 (1B)
11. Chris Davis, 33 (1B/OF)
14. Josh Reddick, 32 (OF)
14. Adam Jones, 32 (OF)
14. Alfonso Soriano, 32 (OF)
14. Carlos Beltran, 32 (OF)
14. Mark Trumbo, 32 (OF)
14. Ike Davis, 32 (1B)
20. Chase Headley, 31 (3B)
20. Andrew McCutchen, 31 (OF)
22. Mike Trout, 30 (OF)
22. Prince Fielder, 30 (1B)
22. Albert Pujols, 30 (1B)
22. Corey Hart, 30 (OF/1B)
22. Pedro Alvarez, 30 (3B)
22. Jason Kubel, 30 (OF)

Don't you love it when there's a tie at the end? It's even better when we're left with a big, round benchmark. I can pretty much guarantee that this won't be the exact list of league leaders from next year, but I'd be willing to bet that most of these guys will comprise most of next year's leaders. 

I listed each player's position to highlight the fact that only one of last year's 30-HR hitters played outside of the traditional power positions: Robinson Cano.

Just because they didn't top 30 doesn't mean you can't find some power at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop. Consider these guys:

Catchers:

1. Wilin Rosario, 28
2. A.J. Pierzynski, 27
3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 25
4. Buster Posey, 24 
4. Mike Napoli, 24
6. Matt Wieters, 23
7. Yadier Molina, 22
8. Russell Martin, 21
9. Brian McCann, 20 

Not to mention guys who could easily better their 2012 totals: Carlos Santana, Ryan Doumit, Victor Martinez, Jesus Montero, J.P. Arencibia

Catcher: not a bad place to sneak some power into your lineup--they look especially good when you consider how few plate appearances the typical catcher gets.

Second Base

1. Robinson Cano, 33
2. Aaron Hill, 26
3. Rickie Weeks, 21
4. Ben Zobrist, 20

Here are some under-20's who could bounce back or take a step forward next year: Dan Uggla, Ian Kinsler, Chase Utley, Danny Espinosa 

Yeah, second base is a desert when it comes to power. That's why the top guys are going off the board so quickly, and why everyone else just sticks around looking awkwardly like the last kid picked for the kickball team. (Or they steal bases, I guess.)

Shortstop

1. Ian Desmond, 25
2. Hanley Ramirez, 24
3. Jimmy Rollins, 23
4. J.J. Hardy, 22
5. Ben Zobrist, 20

Some guys who might help with better health or more playing time: Troy Tulowitzki, Jed Lowrie, Stephen Drew (I guess), Josh Rutledge

Shorstop might actually be better off than second base, but you know things are bad when Lowrie can tie for sixth-most shortstop homers while playing just 97 games. The bar is low enough that even the 15-homer-range performances of guys like Asdrubal Cabrera, Derek Jeter, and Starlin Castro count as pretty good. 

Late Draft Power Hitters

If you don't like the idea of spending high picks on "power" hitters at premium positions or stacking your OF while filling your 1B, 3B, and CI positions as fast as possible, then make sure you scrape around the middle and late rounds for power hitters like the ones below. Actually, you should do that regardless, because you can't really have too much power.

Since I like big, round numbers, check out these hitters that you should be able to get after pick 150:

Pedro Alvarez, Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Ludwick, Adam Dunn, Andre Ethier, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, Todd Frazier, Brandon Moss, Dan Uggla, Mark Reynolds, Jedd Gyorko, J.J. Hardy, Carlos Quentin, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Lance Berkman, Chris Young, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Olt, Cody Ross, Tyler Colvin, Jed Lowrie, Justin Smoak, Adam Lind, Matt Joyce, Carlos Pena, Johnny Gomes

Obviously, some of these guys are better than others, and there are varying degrees of safety and potential to be had.

Some More Power-Related Statistics

We can find more power hitters (especially the ones that didn't finish the season) by looking up some stats a little further under the hood than home runs.

Isolated Power

1. Giancarlo Stanton, .318
2. David Ortiz, .293
3. Josh Hamilton, .292
4. Jose Bautista, .286
5. Edwin Encarnacion, .277
6. Miguel Cabrera, .277
7. Ryan Braun, .276
8. Josh Willingham, .267
9. Adam Dunn, .263
10. Jay Bruce, .263
11. Wilin Rosario, .260
12. Curtis Granderson, .260
13. Ryan Ludwick, .256
14. Jason Kubel, .253
15. Garrett Jones, .242
16. Mike Napoli, .241
17. Scott Hairston, .241
18. Tyler Colvin, .240
19. Aramis Ramirez, .240
20. Adrian Beltre, .240
21. Adam LaRoche, .238
22. Mike Trout, .238
23. Robinson Cano, .238
24. Alfonso Soriano, .237 

HR/FB%

1. Adam Dunn, 29.3
2. Giancarlo Stanton, 28.9
3. Josh Hamilton, 25.6
4. Mike Napoli, 25.5
5. Wilin Rosario, 25.5
6. Chris Davis, 25.2
7. Pedro Alvarez, 25.0
8. Curtis Granderson, 24.2 
9. Robinson Cano, 24.1
10. Michael Morse, 23.4
11. Miguel Cabrera, 23.0
12. Justin Maxwell, 22.8
13. Ryan Bruan, 22.8
14. Matt Kemp, 21.7
15. Mike Trout, 21.6
16. Chase Headley, 21.4
17. Josh Willingham, 21.2
18. Ike Davis, 21.1
19. Kendrys Morales, 21.0
20. Mark Trumbo, 20.6
21. Bryan LaHair, 20.5
22. Dayan Viciedo, 20.5
23. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 20.0
24. David Ortiz, 20.0

A Brief Note on Park Factors

Park factors are typically listed for total runs scored, but that won't necessarily help you in homers. The HR factors are slightly different, and there are further differences for hitters of different handednesses. Below are 2012's top homer producing parks:

1. Milwaukee, 1.631
2. Cincinatti, 1.592
3. Colorado, 1.493
4. Chicago (White Sox), 1.349
5. Baltimore, 1.314
6. Arizona, 1.192
7. Texas, 1.168
8. New York (Yankees), 1.143
9. Los Angeles (Dodgers), 1.125

All nine of these parks add at least 10% more homers than league average. Notably, Yankee and Dodger Stadiums actually suppress runs on the whole, despite adding homers. 

And Now a Wet Blanket: "Just Enough" Homers

ESPN's HitTrackerOnline lists various types of home runs--all useful for planning your fantasy team--but here we're looking at those homers that only barely cleared the wall. Maybe in a different park, or with different weather conditions or with springier center fielders these balls would have stayed in the yard. Unsurprisingly, lots of "Just Enoughs" indicate lots of total homers--and a decent chance that a player's homers may decline without such good fortune.

16: Miguel Cabrera
15: Adrian Beltre
14: Ryan Braun
12: David Wright, Josh Hamilton
11: Josh Willingham, Hanley Ramirez, Ike Davis, Corey Hart, Chase Headley
10: Matt Holliday, Jed Lowrie, Brian McCann, Hunter Pence, Garrett Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, Jay Bruce, Jason Heyward, Wilin Rosario, Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Swisher
9: Justin Smoak, Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes, David Ortiz, Billy Butler, Matt Weiters, Curtis Granderson, Matt Kemp, Carlos Quentin, Carlos Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse

Having lots of "Just Enoughs" isn't a kiss of death, but it isn't a good sign. Consider players like Wright, Lowrie, and Smoak, for whom more than half of their homers were close, to be risky plays next year. Players like Headley and Butler, who took big steps forward, appear to have had some help in the luck department. 

When you are mentally discounting players for close homers, don't cut them all away--having several of these is a perfectly normal, even necessary, part of hitting home runs.  

A Few Final Words

Power hitting is still the name of the game in fantasy baseball. When one category practically controls two of the others, that's just how it has to be. In the past three years, home run hitting--and offense in general--has been dropping. Expect to pay more to get less when it comes to homers. You aren't getting hosed; that's just the new market price. Just as one-category base stealers were once prized commodities, now even power hitters with serious flaws will command early draft picks and hefty auction prices.

It also seems to me that homers are particularly concentrated in the outfield and on the corners. I strongly suggest making sure your lineup is fortified with several such players, even if it means waiting a little to fill scarce positions. What I really don't recommend is spending early picks on outfielders and corner hitters who aren't big helps in power. 

If I could turn sixteen hundred words into three, this is what it would look like: pay for power. Win homers and you (almost) can't avoid finishing with the leaders in Runs and RBI's. The cost has risen, but so has the value of each home run.



How to Win: Wins

Wins are as mercurial a category as any you'll find in fantasy baseball. According to ancient sabermetric tradition, it was Storm Davis and his 19-win season in 1989 that helped us to realize that last year's wins don't tell us much about what kind of pitcher someone is. After all, Davis had pitched quite poorly that year and went on to have a terrible rest of his career. The flip side of the coin happened this year, with Cliff Lee and his paltry six wins. The Phils weren't as good as they had been recently, but come on, six wins? For a pitcher with a 7.39 K/BB and a 3.16 ERA? Something here isn't fair.

You were perfectly aware of this unfairness, of course, and you've been hoping to exploit it successfully for quite some time. Unfortunately, that's a little easier said than done. Last year was a pretty good year for pitchers winning a lot of games, so we'll take a look at the leader list, not because it's likely to tell us next year's biggest winners, but because it might give us a hint as to what type of pitchers might be giving us value in the category.

2012's Top Winners:

21 Wins: Gio Gonzalez
20 Wins: R.A. Dickey, David Price, Jered Weaver
19 Wins: Johnny Cueto
18 Wins: Matt Harrison, Lance Lynn
17 Wins: Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale
16 Wins: Matt Cain, Wade Miley, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett, Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Lohse, Tim Hudson, Yovani Gallardo, Phil Hughes, Max Scherzer
15 Wins: CC Sabathia, James Shields, Ian Kennedy, Zack Greinke, Barry Zito, Stephen Strasburg
14 Wins: Clayton Kershaw, Clayton Richard, Jason Vargas, Mat Latos, Adam Wainwright, Ryan Vogelsong

As you can see, there are some wide disparities in skill, team quality, and pitcher type on this list, which is exactly what you would expect. The good news is that it can't be completely random; the majority of these names are guys you count on to be among the best pitchers in baseball.

Set those aces aside for a moment, along with guys like Sale and Miley who surprised us by pitching like them last year. What about the other guys, why are they here? Blind luck. Definitely some of it. But maybe a little more. Harrison, Lynn, Lohse, Kuroda, Hughes, Hudson, Zito, and Vogelsong all pitched for playoff teams last year. The three who didn't pitch for playoff teams all came from very pitcher-friendly parks: Burnett, Richard, and Vargas.

How much of this is signal and how much is noise? It's honestly hard to tell for sure. After all, Vargas was pitching for the same team as Felix Hernandez, and won one more game. We probably aren't going to be confused about which one is the better draft choice. All got several more wins than Edwin Jackson, even though he pitched for the best team in baseball. So it's definitely a noisy pattern, but it seems to make sense logically: great pitchers tend to get some of the higher win totals, and most of the other good win counts come from the ranks of the pretty good who play on good teams. Plus Barry Zito, for whom “pretty good” is a bit of a stretch.

Decent Pitcher, Good Offense

The goal here isn't to target the top aces out there, instead it's to find some mid-draft starters that might be extra helpful in wins. What they do in other categories is their business.

Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster (BOS); Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd (CHW); Anibal Sanchez (DET); Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton (LAA); Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes (NYY); Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando (TEX); Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson (TOR); Mike Minor, Paul Maholm (ATL); Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey (CIN); Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers (MIL); Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn (STL); Dan Haren (WAS); whoever ends up filling out the Dodgers' rotation.

Obviously there are quite a few pitchers who make it into this category. Some are sleepers for other reasons, and others have touched ace status before and could do it again. There are a wide variety of price tags that count as “mid-range” and I recommend getting a couple of them. You never know who next year's Matt Harrison or Lance Lynn could be. They could even do it again.

I'd also consider paying a little extra for those with shutdown bullpens. In case of a tie, consider pitchers from Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, and the Yankees a little more highly than others.

Turning Signal Into Strategy

Quantity is the name of the game in Wins, just as it is in Strikeouts. Getting good pitchers won't be enough to take this category—you need lots of pitchers, pitching lots of innings to come away with the lead at the end of the year, or just to win it week to week. There are two basic routes you can go for this category: streaming and non.

Streaming (In Full and in Part)
If you really want to win this one, stream. Rotate as many starters as you can on and off your roster and soak up the joys of wins and whiffs. Your ERA and WHIP won't like you, but maybe you weren't going to do well in those categories anyways.

There are problems with streaming of course: unhappy commissioners and leaguemates, weekly instead of daily changes, limited roster moves, and innings limits. There's also the fact that most streamed pitchers are sort of bad (or really bad in a deep league) and likely to hurt you in ERA and WHIP disproportionately to how much they help you in Wins and Strikeouts. Plus, the more of your league that streams, the worse the options are for everyone. Given all those drawbacks, I don't like this strategy much. (Also, I don't think it's terribly fun, but that's for you to decide, I guess.) The only time I'd stream would be in a shallow head-to-head matchups league, which is what a lot of the public leagues out there are.

If full streaming isn't right for your team or your league, a sort of measured streaming might be. Isolate next week's best two-start option off the waiver wire and snatch him up. Keep him for the week and drop him after his second start for next week's top candidate. In most leagues, chances are this will be a pitcher on the fringe of being worth hanging onto, so he's probably decent. You can try padding your win total this way without hurting your ERA and WHIP too badly, especially if you get to play specific matchups. You can do this with two pitchers a week, I suppose, but any more than that and you're just streaming and subject to its downsides. I think this one is best for a head-to-head league.

If you play in a league with weekly changes, then you're already all over those two-start guys, sometimes weeks ahead of time. Keep on keeping on.

What if you don't stream?
There are a few options open to those who cannot or should not stream. First of all, in a head-to-head league, expect to lose to the streamers when you play them. Even if it's not really a good idea, these leagues always have some streamers. Against the others, though, and in any roto league with an innings cap, you still want to get ahead of the competition.

One thing you can do is bulk up on mid-draft pitchers. Don't just take one or two from the back end, but take three or four across multiple strata. What I normally do, is  grab two aces and then sit on starters for a long time. This strategy seems to work well in a number of contexts (especially my offense), but it can be a detriment in the wins column. By filling out your starting rotation a little earlier you can bring a few more wins in without hurting your rate stats. This strategy could have netted you guys like Harrison, Lohse, Kuroda, and Hughes last year. If it did, then you were probably pretty happy. Of course, it might also have gotten you Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, John Danks, and Shaun Marcum, so maybe you weren't too enthused. If you do go this route, expect to play with a short hitting bench (or none at all, in a shallower league).

Pay extra for pitching. This one is simple, and it's the opposite of a strategy I suggested when talking about Runs Scored. Whether you're in an auction or a draft, you can always unbalance your team. In select leagues it might even be a good idea. If you think you can get all the hitting bargains, maybe you can afford to pay a little extra for a truly great pitching staff.

If you play standard roto, I definitely believe you should max out your IP. If you can get good pitching, do it. If you can get lots of it, do it. Once you've built up a good Wins total, trade a couple good starters near your deadline—trade 'em cheap if you have to—preferably for closers. Then, as you near your IP limit, start dropping starters in favor of the best relievers on the waiver wire. It won't be a game changer in the rate stats, but it won't hurt and it will let you tack on some strikeouts too.

A Few Final Words
There are a lot of things that go into a successful year in the Wins category, and only some of them are under your control. Complicating matters further, is the fact that slight changes in your league rules can make big differences in how to win, Wins. The strategies of your opponents will come heavily into play too. The good news is this: with a decent starting staff, you can probably expect to be near the middle of the pack in wins. Normal variations of luck could be enough to vault you up to the league leaders in the category, while paying attention to the waiver wire and the play of your own pitchers should be enough to keep a decent staff from foundering on luck alone.

If there was a category that I would give up trying to win it would be this one. Not that I would punt it—not by a long shot. But playing to win in this one is likely to leave you shorted in another category or three. Instead, I recommend aiming for that mid-pack ranking, and hoping to land near the top.  At the end of the day, though, someone who spent too much on the quantity of their pitching is probably going to win this one. I should know—I did exactly that last year.



How to Win: RBI

Runs Batted In are a tough category to prepare for. Like Runs Scored, they depend partly on the skills of the hitter you want to draft, but heavily on the context he plays in. With Runs, you wanted the hitters who sat at the top of their lineups, now you want the bashers driving those guys in. Unfortunately, we've got the same problem we had then: most of the best RBI guys are the best hitters in baseball. That means that the edge you get is going to be more on the margins. Unless you get some seriously good luck or short yourself in a another category (like speed), you probably aren't going to run away with this one, but that doesn't mean you can't win it....

2012's Top 12

1. Miguel Cabrera            139
2. Josh Hamilton            128
3. Chase Headley             115
4. Ryan Braun                   112
5. Edwin Encarnacion    110 
6. Josh Willingham        110
7. Prince Fielder               108
7. Alfonso Soriano          108
7. Adrian Gonzalez         108 
10. Billy Butler                  107
11. Curtis Granderson    106
12. Aramis Ramirez        105
12. Albert Pujols              105

On a list like this, you'd expect to see elite power hitters in elite lineups, and that's mostly what you get. Obviously, everyone on this list had a great year last year, but some of the names don't seem to come from baseball's top offenses. Willingham comes from the middling Twins, while Headley's Padres and Soriano's Cubs come from the bottom ranks of last year's offensive teams. So, apparently you can get some RBI's on mediocre offenses, but other than that, I don't see much from last year's leaders that can help us find true value.

RBI's Without Homers
Often, RBI's are connected to homers, but that means paying extra for the double-category production. These guys won't put too many balls over the fence, but they'll knock in some runs anyway. If you want some sneaky RBI value, try some of these hitters: Adrian Gonzalez (108 RBI's, 18 HR), Torii Hunter (92, 16), Miguel Montero (88, 15), Joe Mauer (85, 10), Starlin Castro (78, 14), Brandon Phillips (77, 18), Justin Morneau (77, 19), Jason Kipnis (76, 14), Chris Johnson (76, 15), Marco Scutaro (74, 7), Alexei Ramirez (73, 9), Alex Gordon (72, 14), Martin Prado (70, 10), Neil Walker (69, 14), Howie Kendrick (67, 8), Shin-Soo Choo (67,16), Michael Young (67, 8), Austin Jackson (66, 16). I didn't include everyone with more than 66 RBI's and fewer than 20 homers. Instead, I was looking simply for hitters that don't get a large part of their value from hitting home runs--or a lot of their price tag from a power reputation.

2B+3B Leaders
If you aren't putting the ball over the fence, you're still going to need some kind of power. Since doubles and triples usually bring in the same amount of runners (most or all of them),  I've just added the stats together. Here are the leaders:

1. Alex Gordon                 56
2. Aramis Ramirez          53
3. Albert Pujols                50
3. Aaron Hill                 50
5. Robinson Cano       49
5. Jose Reyes                49
7. Adrian Gonzalez         48
7. Martin Prado               48
9. Ian Kinsler                47
10. Ben Zobrist             46
11. Alex Rios                   45
11. Shin-Soo Choo           45
11. Nelson Cruz             45
12. Paul Goldschmidt 44
12. Joey Votto                44

The list continues on, and anyone with 35 or more doubles and triples is going to get some extra RBI's, on top of however many you might expect from his homers, lineup, and park. How good is Joey Votto, by the way? Forty-four doubles and triples in less than 400 AB--there's a reason you can't get him after the first round. Pujols, Kinsler, and Gonzalez, all disappointed to one degree or another--but they still batted runners in with extra-base hits.Knowing who smacks in extra-base hits is important, because you won't find that info listed with your fantasy stats. 

Of course, all the doubles and triples in the world aren't going to send many RBI's Jose Reyes's way, leading off as he does. That's why it's worth remembering a player's place in the lineup. 

Middle of the Order Hitters

A hitter in the right lineup slot can bring in a lot of runners, especially with a couple high-OBP hitters setting the table. Looking for a strong overall offense isn't so important when it comes to RBI's--you just need a decent hitter and runners on base. Without reiterating all the power-hitting superstars, here are some hitters likely to get some good RBI opportunities: Shane Victorino, Will Middlebrooks, Nick Swisher, Victor Martinez, Carlos Pena, Chris Carter, Howie Kendrick, Kevin Youkilis,Brandon Moss, Kendrys Morales, David Murphy, Colby Rasmus, Jason Kubel, Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Gomez, Garrett Jones, Yonder Alonso, Jayson Werth.

Remember that context is key, even when considering context. Remember to count a hitter's home park for or against him--but do it after the players around him. Everyone knows to get the hitters from Colorado and Texas, but consider Chicago (White Sox), Boston, Baltimore, Arizona, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and--surprisingly enough--Detroit, Minnesota, and Atlanta. 

Mid-Order Steals

Stolen bases are showing up everywhere in today's game, not just in the top couple spots in the lineup and the AL nine-hole. Sure there are elite power-speed players out there, but there aren't many to go around. That doesn't mean you can't squeeze some RBI's out of your speedsters. Check out these mid-order guys who steal a few bases: Shane Victorino, Starlin Castro, Alex Rios, Ian Desmond, Hanley Ramirez, B.J. Upton, and Michael Saunders. All the guys above managed  20 steals or more, but you don't need to get your steals in bulk to help yourself in RBI's. There are quite a few hitters who add 10-15 steals but bat in the middle of the lineup. Grabbing several of them can pad your steals total without compromising your Runs Batted In.

A Few Final Words

Finding RBI's can be as simple as spending extra dollars or higher draft picks on the best hitters, in the best lineups, and friendliest parks. It's not to say that getting elite players isn't key...it is, but it's not really a strategy. The trick to succeeding in RBI's and finishing near the top of the pack at the end of the year (or week to week, if that's how you roll) is to add a few extra RBI's in on as many players as you can. Finding those sneaky doubles hitters, and making sure your later draft picks are hitting behind someone with a good on-base percentage can add quite a few ribbies to your fantasy lineup.

As with Runs Scored, RBI's aren't a category you can really plan on winning. There's so much luck involved in the difference between a little success and a huge amount, that a single waiver-wire selection can change the whole game. The one thing you want to avoid most is to assume that RBI's are nothing but luck, short yourself in the kind of players you'll need, and end up--avoidably--in the cellar. You can't win RBI's on draft day, but you can definitely put yourself in position to compete in the category and do enough to keep your team near the top of the standings.



How to Win: WHIP

It's time to WHIP your roster into shape. Let's WHIP up a great pitching staff. Who's the majority WHIP of your fantasy team? And as many other cliched puns on WHIP as you can think of. Now that we've gotten that out of our systems, we can all agree never to speak of this again.

Another thing we can agree on is this: WHIP is a great category. After all the team- and luck-dependencies of Runs Scored and ERA, WHIP should come as a breath of fresh air. It's not that there isn't any luck that goes into the process--there certainly is--but there isn't nearly as much of it. WHIP tells us a lot about a pitcher's true talent level, which is nice--we can trust it. The only downside is that everyone else can trust it and the opportunity to game this system is a lot less than it could be. The good news, though, is that we get to list 24 pitchers below, precisely because we can expect most of them to be among the league leaders. To give you a little extra edge, the minimum IP for these guys is just 120, so maybe some of them will have slipped through the cracks of your opponents' preparation. 

 2012's Top 24

1. Kris Medlen                       0.91
2. Jered Weaver                   1.02
2. Clayton Kershaw             1.02
4. Matt Cain                            1.04
5. R.A. Dickey                        1.05
6. Justin Verlander              1.06
7. Kyle Lohse                          1.09
8. Jake Peavy                          1.10
8. David Price                          1.10
10. Madison Bumgarner     1.11
10. Cliff Lee                              1.11
10. Brandon Morrow           1.11
13. Cole Hamels                     1.12
14. Gio Gonzalez                    1.13
15. Chris Sale                          1.14
15. CC Sabathia                      1.14
15. Marco Estrada                1.14
15. Felix Hernandez            1.14
19. Mike Minor                      1.15
19. Stephen Strasburg         1.15
21. Mat Latos                         1.16
22. Hiroki Kuroda               1.17
22. James Shields                1.17
22. Jordan Zimmermann 1.17
22. Johnny Cueto                1.17
22. Mark Buehrle                 1.17
22. Jon Niese                        1.17 

Did you notice the freebies? Thanks to the miracle of rounding, a six-way tie brought us to 27 names. Lucky us. By the way, when I searched for pitchers who threw at least 120 innings, I got 121 entries. The worst WHIP belonged to Ricky Romero--an ugly 1.67. More usefully, perhaps, the median number is 1.27 and is shared by many; the 2012 average was 1.31. Interestingly, as recently as 2009, the league average was 1.39. So don't be too impressed with WHIP's in the 20's. Baseball isn't the same game as it was half a decade ago, and you get to have higher expectations from your pitchers.

WHIP comes from two places, obviously enough: walks allowed and hits allowed. A pitcher with a consistently low WHIP probably keeps both of them pretty far down, most of the time. That said, one is much easier to control than another, and it is, you guessed it, that walk rate. Who's keeping their walks down? Let's see:

BB/9 

1. Cliff Lee                                1.19

2. Bartolo Colon                      1.36

3. Blake Beavan                       1.42

4. Kris Medlen                         1.50

5. Bronson Arroyo                  1.56

6. Joe Blanton                         1.60

7. Scott Diamond                    1.61

8. Kyle Lohse                           1.62

9. Tommy Milone                   1.71

9. Wade Miley                         1.71

10. Clayton Richard              1.73

11. Mark Buehrle                    1.78

12. Tommy Hunter                1.82

13. Marco Estrada                 1.89

14. Dan Haren                       1.94

15. Jordan Zimmermann    1.98

15. CC Sabathia                      1.98

Of these pitchers (all those under the arbitrary milestone of 2.00/9 with at least 120 IP), most had helpful WHIP's. Some had very helpful numbers. A couple were...not so helpful: Beavan, Blanton, and Richard were barely better than average (for their inning count), while Milone and Haren were both worse than average. For Haren, it seems to be related to his injury issues last year. For Blanton, it seems to be that he's chronically too hittable. The others could have had similar issues, or they just could have gotten a few bad bounces on balls in play.

A couple more names stand out to me on this list: check out Zimmermann and Sabathia riding the end of it. Right now, they are the 23rd and 20th starters off the board at MockDraftCentral, giving both triple-digit ADP's. Keeping their walks down and pitching in front of powerful offenses seems like a recipe for more success than they're being given credit for. 

Miley's presence here is also interesting. When I see a young starter have surprising Big League success, I'm usually a little hesitant. Usually someone like that has great stuff, no idea how to harness it, and the league will figure him out by his second season. A good red flag for a guy like that is, of course, his walk rate. Miley's kind of the opposite, and that makes him interesting. Especially for this category.

I'd also like to use this opportunity to plug Marco Estrada. Again. Look how good he is! 

 Good WHIP, Lousy ERA

If WHIP and ERA are siblings, WHIP is the quiet, studious one and ERA is the high-drama, high-energy one. Guess which one gets more attention? Guess which one we'll vote Most Likely to Succeed in the end? A pitcher with a great ERA will never fly under the radar. Even Joe Morgan will notice. Someone with a good or great WHIP, but a mediocre or lousy ERA might just escape some notice. Not only that, but just about anyone is more likely to underperform their true talent in ERA than overperform it in WHIP. Peavy, Bumgarner, Sabathia, and Estrada all had top-20 WHIP's, but ERA's in the 3.30's. Mike Minor was right there with them in WHIP, but sported a 4.16 ERA.

Some more pitchers on the WHIP leaderboard but closer to the middle of the pack in ERA include: Latos, Kuroda, Shields, Buehrle, Niese, Jason Vargas, Miley, Doug Fister, Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, and Travis Wood.

After Wood, we start getting past WHIP's of 1.20 and into the territory where both numbers are in the middle of the pack. To make a real mark in team WHIP, a pitcher has to be very good indeed, because the median is so low.

A Few Final Words 

The best thing you can do for your team WHIP is to be aggressive when you bid or draft. Jump an extra dollar or an extra round on one of those pitchers with a helpful WHIP, even if they came with a marginal ERA last year. The band of successful pitchers in this category is pretty small. As pitching has gotten better in the last couple years, so have the numbers required to win your fantasy league. Because WHIP is so (relatively) predictable, I suggest aiming high and getting multiple good-to-great WHIP starters, and peppering your staff with relievers who get saves or strikeouts and--quietly--don't walk anyone. 


Full Story |  Comments (0) | Categories: How to Win | Starters | WHIP

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.




How to Win: ERA

Like it's hitting cousin, Batting Average, ERA is a seriously unpredictable category, even for pitchers. It's less luck-dependent than wins, but only by so much. The main strategy for ERA is this: get good pitchers, don't throw too many innings. Hopefully we can do better than that today.

2012's Top 12

1. Kris Medlen                            1.57
2. Clayton Kershaw                  2.53
3. David Price                             2.56
4. Justin Verlander                   2.61
5. R.A. Dickey                            2.74
6. Johnny Cueto                         2.78
7. Matt Cain                                2.79
8. Jered Weaver                         2.81
9. Kyle Lohse                              2.86
10. Gio Gonzalez                       2.89
11. Jordan Zimmermann        2.94
12. Brandon Morrow                2.96

It's worth noting that Medlen pitched just 138 IP over 12 starts, while Morrow threw only 125 over 21 starts. Take those guys off the list and you get Chris Sale and Cole Hamels (3.05) in the last two spots. It's also worth noting that these top guys are all pretty good and you aren't likely to get more than one or two on your fantasy team. Fortunately for us, last year's ERA isn't such a good predictor of this year's ERA. Advanced metrics, here we come!

FIP (from Fangraphs.com, 120 minimum IP)

1. Kris Medlen                    2.42
2. Gio Gonzalez                  2.82
2. Stephen Strasburg         2.82 
4. Felix Hernandez            2.84
5. Clayton Kershaw           2.89
6. Justin Verlander            2.94
7. David Price                      3.05
8. Adam Wainwright        3.10
8. Zack Greinke                  3.10 
10. Cliff Lee                          3.13
11. Wade Miley                    3.15
12. Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Chris Sale tied with 3.27 

It's easy to say that if you see someone on this list but not on this first one, you can expect a little bit better from his ERA, and to expect the opposite too. That's mostly true, but it's not so simple. Again, this can be used for your benefit.

FIP-ERA
So, who had the biggest differences between their FIP's and their ERA's? Anyone with an ERA lower than his FIP probably benefited from a degree of good luck, anyone with an ERA higher than his FIP should have gotten the corresponding bad luck. You could do it either way, but I subtracted ERA from FIP, meaning that negative numbers are "good," showing FIP's lower than ERA's and offering optimism for the year to come. The lower the negative number the more the optimism, I suppose. The reverse is also true.

Better FIP than ERA--Opportunity?
1.Luke Hochevar                  -1.10
2. Tim Lincecum                  -1.00
3. Francisco Liriano          -1.00
4. Randy Wolf                     -0.86 
5. Adam Wainwright        -0.84 
6. Roy Halladay                 -0.80
7. Joe Blanton                    -0.80
8. J.A. Happ                       -0.78
9. Justin Masterson          -0.77
10. Derek Lowe                  -0.74
11. Jon Lester                      -0.71 
12. Rick Porcello                -0.68

There are a number of things that go into FIP, and what makes for repeatable success, so I wouldn't go out drafting Hochevar or Lowe just because they show up high on this list. Plus, their FIP's were still lousy (4.63 and 4.37, respectively), just not horrid like their ERA's. Some of the names on here are intriguing, though. Lester, for instance could be a lot more serviceable than his 2012 ERA would suggest, so long as you don't harbor expectations of a return to greatness on his part. Joe Blanton had a very large drop from a 4.71 ERA to a 3.91 FIP--but even farther to his xFIP of 3.39, which suggests that he should have been pretty good, not terrible. Maybe the Angels looked those numbers up when they signed him....

Halladay, as Mark has written before, is a great candidate to put up numbers that look more like his former self, as bad luck seems to have compounded his injury struggles and sunk him on ADP boards. Adam Wainwright appears on this list, and on the FIP top 12, so you know that impresses me. If he matches that FIP, he's right back where he belongs: with the best pitchers in baseball. Too bad he's already getting drafted like it.

Lincecum and Liriano are probably the most interesting cases, and a lot has been written about each elsewhere. I've even done some of it. Two of the three most extreme pitchers on this list have some of the highest upside--and lowest downside. Both of them had more going on than bad luck to produce differences between their FIP's and ERA's, and their prodigious strikeout rates probably hid their real struggles in composite measures. Don't think that FIP-ERA is a magical catch-all for isolating the unlucky, because there were a lot of factors that led to these pitchers' disastrous seasons. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take a chance on them, but you have to know it is one.

Worse FIP than ERA--Beware?

1. Jeremy Hellickson             1.50
2. Jered Weaver                       0.94
3. Kris Medlen                         0.85
4. Jason Vargas                      0.84
5. Matt Harrison                    0.74
6. Kyle Lohse                           0.65
7. Ross Detwiler                     0.64
8. Clayton Richard                0.63
9. Matt Cain                             0.61
10. Jordan Zimmermann    0.57
10. Travis Wood                     0.57
12. R.A. Dickey                       0.54
12. Hiroki Kuroda                  0.54 

Hellickson's number sure jumps off the page, doesn't it? So much so that number two Jered Weaver is actually closer to the twelfth spot than he his to overtaking Hellickson for number one. Maybe Hellickson has some sort of skill for beating his FIP with his ERA, but I bet it isn't a run and a half per game good. Look for some serious regression next year.

Speaking of regression, expect some out of Weaver and Vargas, not to mention small-sample superhero Medlen (though he can regress a long, long way and still be really good.) Weaver's high FIP comes with a shrinking strikeout rate too, so be extra careful. Both Angels starters have a good opportunity to post better ERA's than FIP's owing to their home park and defense (more on that below), but not to this extreme. 

Harrison, Richard, Detwiler and Wood could all see their ERA's go from good to lousy with more normal luck, as indicated by the difference between that number and their FIP.

Lohse, Zimmermann, Kuroda, and especially Dickey all posted good FIP's and amazing ERA's, which means even if and when they get hit with regression, they should still be useful to excellent pitchers. 

Cain is a special case, as he's shown a consistent ability to post a better ERA than FIP. He's done it every year since 2007, in fact, and it's long past the time that we all acknowledged that as a skill. Expect more of the same next year.

Defense and Park Effects
The purpose of FIP is to isolate a pitcher's contributions to his own success, which means taking out all the defense and park effects along with what we understand as chance. That's why they call it "Fielding Independent Pitching," after all. 
Of course, your fantasy league is won on results, not true talent, so we have to take defense and park dimensions back into account. On a team-by-team basis, here are the top seven defenses from 2012, by Fangraphs' UZR:

Top Defenses, 2012

Braves                     53.1
Angels                    44.3
Red Sox                   35.5
Twins                      29.5
Mariners                27.3
Athletics                 24.3
Diamondbacks    19.5 

The numbers will be different for 2013, since players have shifted teams (especially between the Braves and Diamondbacks), balls will bounce differently, and fielders will have up and down years. Still, this can be a starting point for evaluating how much the difference between a pitcher's "true talent" stats and ERA can be attributed to something that won't repeat, like luck, and something that should, like fielders' performance.

Here are some uglier numbers, again by UZR.

Bad Defenses, 2012

Indians        -57.0
Rockies         -41.6
Astros           -31.3
Tigers           -28.1
Orioles         -26.5
Mets              -23.3
Marlins        -21.1
Cardinals    -20.4
Blue Jays     -17.9 

If your pitcher underperformed his ERA for one of these teams--and he'll be pitching there again--don't be shocked if you see another year of better FIP's than ERA's.

The home park makes a big difference too. Here are some of pitchers' friendliest confines from 2012:

Pitchers' Parks, 2012

Mariners     0.687
Giants          0.737
Pirates         0.764
Angels         0.812
Padres         0.852
Dodgers      0.867
Rays            0.874
Mets            0.874
Athletics    0.888 

Notice the presence of the Mariners, Angels, and A's on the park effect list and the defense list, compounding the effect. Not only that, they all play in the same division, so they'll be spending a lot of time on the road at each other's parks. That might even help Texas and Houston pitchers a little. It also suggests a partial explanation for the discrepancies between FIP and ERA for the aforementioned Weaver and Vargas.

Below are some parks pitchers want to stay away from. Some are the usual suspects, but some could be surprising. Also, note the absence of reputed hitters havens like Yankee Stadium and the Phillies' Citizens' Bank Park.

Hitters Parks, 2012

Rockies                  1.159
White Sox             1.268
Red Sox                 1.206
Rangers                 1.183
Orioles                   1.173
Diamondbacks    1.171
Brewers                  1.168
Reds                        1.113
Tigers                     1.071 

While the Diamondbacks and Red Sox managed to mitigate their own park effects with their defenses, the Rockies, Orioles, and Tigers are compounding the issues of their pitchers (though perhaps one number alters another to an extent). The good news is that you were already staying away from Rockies pitchers if you want to win ERA, and you were already targeting a couple of Tigers pitchers. If you were on the fence about the Orioles' staff, maybe this'll push you over. 

A Few Last Words

Unless you want to really break your auction budget there really isn't any way to make sure you own the ERA category. In a draft league, there's almost no way to be sure about it. Maybe you could make your top five picks starters, but even that might not get you very far. It certainly wouldn't help you overall, so don't go out and do it and blame it on me.

By keeping track of team defense, park effects, and the difference between a pitcher's FIP and his ERA, however, you can put yourself in the position to take advantage of the most skilled pitchers. And the luckiest. That's about all you can hope for in ERA, where the winner will have to be both lucky and good. 

Ed. Note: A previous version of this post appeared without links to player names. Content has been otherwise unchanged.



How to Win: Batting Average

Quick Overview
Batting average is horrible. It's unpredictable and the winner of the category each year can only be described as an overly lucky person who will surely regress to the mean next year. (The loser probably drafted Adam Dunn or Carlos Pena and that's their own fault.) 

This was more or less my attitude going into the year. What's too hard to understand probably can't be understood. Well, I learned quickly enough that other people seemed non-randomly better than me at figuring out this whole batting average thing and it was my own team that sank in the BA standings. Fun times. The good news is that I'm resolved to be less intellectually lazy this year, and that I'm happy to share my newfound industriousness with you. The bad news is that you're more likely to get hit with the same number of pitches than post the same batting average two years in a row. Yeah, BA only correlates from one year to the next at a mark of 0.477--which is considered quite poor, but better than totally random.

2012's Top 12
Below is the table of the top qualified batting averages across MLB. In parentheses, I show their BABIPs. Note that this list is only twelve names long, instead of my customary 24--with the volatility of batting average, it just isn't worth reading so many players. 

1. Buster Posey        .336 (.368)
2. Miguel Cabrera    .330 (.331)
3. Andrew McCutchen    .327 (.375)
4. Mike Trout    .326 (.383)
5. Adrian Beltre    .321 (.319)
6. Ryan Braun    .319 (346) 
7. Joe Mauer    .319 (364)
8. Derek Jeter    .316 (.347)
9. Yadier Molina    .315 (.316)
10. Prince Fielder    .313 (.321)
11. Torii Hunter       .313 (.389)
12. Billy Butler    .313 (.341)

A couple things stand out--first of all, three catchers! Second, one of those catchers--Molina--posted his average with a BABIP nearly identical to his batting average, and a pretty low BABIP at that. That tells me he could actually post a better number next year with an unsurprising amount of good luck. Beltre's average exceeded his BABIP which seems pretty odd too. Like Molina, he could see a bump in his average next year through just a little more good luck.

3-Year Top 12
The more time goes on, the less volatile any stat is. Mayhaps the last three years of BA leaders will be more instructive than just one. Double points for the players on both lists.

1. Miguel Cabrera    .334 (.344)
2. Joey Votto    .321 (.367)
3. Ryan Braun    .318 (.342)
4. Buster Posey    .317 (342)
5. Victor Martinez .317 (.324)
6. Joe Mauer    .315 (.348)
7. Adrian Beltre    .314 (.310)
8. Josh Hamilton    .313 (.343)
9. Carlos Gonzalez    .313 (.355)
10. Adrian Gonzalez  .312 (.346)
11. Robinson Cano    .311 (.322)
12. Billy Butler    .307 (.333)  

Interestingly, half of the lists are the same, which isn't too far off from what a .477 correlation score would suggest. In fact, it's exactly what we should expect, so long as we have to round up to a whole Victor Martinez. The consistency of guys like Cano and Butler pays off here, but I wonder if injuries do too--look at the players who've missed time (or whole seasons) in the past three years. Maybe one of the components of having a good average is simply not playing much, to keep bad luck from catching up....

Some Discussion of Good and Evil BABIPs
Speaking of bad luck, here are some selected players whose lousy BABIPs hurt their averages and might be bouncing back a bit next year. While they might not become true helpers in BA, they might not hurt as much as last year. While their lousy 2012 averages are busy scaring people away, you might get away with drafting them and enjoying their good qualities. As above, the real average is first, the BABIP in parentheses.

Ike Davis    .227 (.246)
Eric Hosmer    .232 (.255)
Jemile Weeks    .221 (256)
Colby Rasmus    .223 (.259)
Curtis Granderson    .232 (.260)
Dustin Ackley    .226 (.265)
Edwin Encarnacion    .280 (.266)
Kevin Youkilis    .235 (.268) 
Ian Kinsler    .256 (.270)

So...odd list of names. I threw out players who'd posted lousy BABIPs for the last three years in a row, so I'm not expecting to see the likes of Adam Dunn, Mark Teixeira, J.J. Hardy, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Pena regressing to the happy mean of .300. Some of the names I did list are young (Hosmer, Weeks, Ackley) and I have no idea where their "true-talent" BABIP will lie--maybe it's low and they won't be regressing because they were at their own, natural, bad mean in 2012. Others, though, are veterans (Granderson, Youk, Kinsler) who might be declining and also might be feeling a little bad luck. Of those, I like Granderson best for a better average next year. Finally, there's Encarnacion, who somehow hit .280 with a bad BABIP. If I didn't like him for next year, I sure do now.

The flip side of the BABIP coin are those players who won't be repeating their good 2012 performances:

Joey Votto    .337 (.404)
Dexter Fowler    .300 (.390)
Torii Hunter    .313 (.389)
Mike Trout     .326 (.383)
Melky Cabrera    .346 (.379)
Andrew McCutchen    .327 (.375)
Austin Jackson    .300 (.371)
Buster Posey    .336 (.368)
Joe Mauer    .319 (.364)
Tyler Colvin    .290 (.364)
Miguel Montero    .286 (.362)

This list, by the way, has its PA requirement dropped down to 450, to show the red flags about a couple players who didn't qualify for the batting title (including the one who would have won it, Votto). The truly scary ones are those that didn't hit for a stratospheric average even with such a high BABIP--Fowler, Jackson, Colvin, and Montero. It's worth noting, though, that three of those guys play at high altitudes, and Jackson just barely topped his career BABIP of .370. In three Major League seasons, he hasn't been below .340, so maybe that's a skill of his. Of course, he hit just .249 with that .340 BABIP....

Park Effects
Speaking of players who hit in Coors Field, check out the hits-specific park effects around MLB here. If you'd rather stay right here, good, I've got the highlights.

Coors Field                       Rockies        1.276
Fenway Park                    Red Sox       1.173
Ballpark at Arlington    Rangers       1.117
Camden Yards                 Orioles         1.099
U.S. Cellular                    White Sox    1.081 

...

Tropicana Field               Rays            0.914
Angel Stadium                 Angels        0.906
AT&T Park                       Giants         0.901
PNC Park                         Pirates         0.871
Safeco Field                     Mariners    0.831 

Park effect numbers measure the difference between the given baseball stadium and the league average. The number 1.0 is exactly neutral, so Coors Field's 1.276 number means that park saw 27.6% more hits than the league average, while Safeco's 0.831 number means Seattle saw 16.9% fewer hits than average. Basically, the top five parks can really help your average and the bottom five are likely to hurt it. Conspicuously absent from this list are some parks notorious for adding to overall runs scored (or taking them away)--don't assume that Yankee Stadium will help your hitters' average or that Target Field (in Minnesota) will kill it. 

A Few Last Words
Batting average isn't an easy category to forecast, but with the tools of park effects, BABIP, and long-term trends under your belt, you can do pretty well. In fact, that's exactly what I recommend shooting for. If you write it off and load up on the B.J. Uptons and Adam Dunns of the world, you get what you pay for: power, speed, whatever else you want...and an ugly place in the BA standings. In a weekly head-to-head league, that might not be so bad. It's not as good for standard roto style, though. Instead, if you shoot to land towards the middle you can avoid overpaying for last year's best averages but still give yourself the chance to luck into some extra points--chances are that's what your league leader did last year anyway.
 





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