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Charging the Mound: Robot Umpires

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri

Jonah Keri writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jonah Keri"
Sent: Monday, July 4, 2011 8:46pm
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Charging the Mound

Chris Liss is on vacation this week. Subbing for Chris is Jonah Keri, author of the best-selling book "The Extra 2%" and host of The Jonah Keri Podcast. You can follow Jonah on Twitter @jonahkeri.

Studies have shown that pinch-hitters perform about 10% worse than non-pinch hitters, all else being equal, due to coming on cold off the bench. This being my first-ever crack at Charging the Mound, I would gladly take a performance 90% as good as the great Chris Liss.

Let's kick things off with Charlie Furbush. Aside from having a fantastic name (I like it even better as Chuck Furbush, or Carlos Furbush), he was the subject of a Twitter exchange we had today. My 16-team mixed league allows for unlimited transactions any time we want (probably because I'm the co-commish and made the rules), so I grabbed Furbush this morning, in time for weekly deadline. You were bummed that you'd been outbid in Tout Wars, by a buck no less. Two starts this week, the first of which is against the Angels a few minutes from now. Are you optimistic? Nice minor league numbers, encouraging performance in relief this season, and a real shot to stick for the rest of the year if he produces, n'est-ce pas?

Tell me if this happens to you: You do your auction prep, get to the draft table (or virtual draft table), and things are going well. You're sticking to your guns, executing your strategy, getting guys you like. The auction has been going for a couple hours, you're getting a little tired and punchy, and a name comes up you may not have expected at that point. You pan through your spreadsheet, start bidding...and just go as high as the number tells you, possibly because you're not sharp enough at that moment to nail the nuances. Happens to me every year, where I end up with a guy I may not have loved, because the price was right according to my list.

This year, that guy was Edwin Encarnacion. I got him for $11, which, considering how thin 3B appeared and how much worse it's ended up becoming, combined with some touts talking about E5 as a candidate for 30, 35, even 40 homers, would seem to be a not-too-bad price. But Encarnacion also plays miserable defense, has no plate discipline (my league is standard 5x5, only with OBP instead of AVG), and might not have any business being on a major league roster -- a real boom or bust guy. I actually dropped him a few weeks ago, that's how fed up I was. Finally picked him up again last night, after he hit four homers in eight games (making it a grand total of six or the season). Slotted him in my lineup this week ahead of David Freese, watched him go 0-for-5 today. Is E5 Fool's Gold? Or are Jason Collete, Cory Schwartz and other believers right to stick with him and wait for the bombs to come?

Other topics of note:

--Are you worried about Ian Kennedy's recent rough patch, given his emergence into a quasi-ace seemed to come out of nowhere?

--Are you a Joe Nathan buyer, given Matt Capps's struggles and Nathan regaining some lost velocity?

--I just traded for Dan Uggla in another league (Strat-O-Matic, actually). Am I crazy?

--Everyone seems to want a few stolen bases at this time of year...who's your cheap steals guy to watch?

Mound, charged.

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 8:29pm
To: "Jonah Keri"
Subject: RE: Charging the Mound

Didn't you cover for me one time when I was in Myrtle? Granted, that was a long time ago and doesn't pollute your pinch-hitter analogy. What I'm concerned with is that when Liss reads this, he'll think that you're being earnest rather than falsely modest (because Liss doesn't do false modesty), and think that you'll only be worth 90% of Liss. We don't need to feed this man's ego any further, please.

Despite last night's performance by Furbush (which really wasn't that bad), yes, I am optimistic. He doesn't have the ceiling of organization-mate Jacob Turner, but I like how he's conquered each minor league level on his climb to the majors, bouncing back nicely after his 2008 Tommy John surgery. He doesn't have overpowering velocity (average fastball works around 91 mph), but he misses bats nonetheless, as he's ultimately average more than a strikeout per inning at each level before getting to the show. His home run rate is a little high for comfort (and indeed, he allowed a homer Monday), but that's negated some by pitching in Comerica Park. If given the chance in my other AL-only league, I'll take a gamble on him.

The Encarnacion scenario that you described happens to me at least once or twice an auction, at least in auctions where the player pool penetration is pretty deep. It's really hard to buy a full roster of players that are at the proverbial 90% of your price - the agnostic's maxim. So sometimes grab a guy that's at value, even if you don't love him, especially if the circumstances suggest that the next guy that becomes available is a significant downgrade. So instead, that at-value guy actually is the agnostic purchase. You were willing to overlook your own reservations to fill a need on your roster.

Sometimes those guys work out just as well as your targeted guys, in fact, maybe even better, if for no other reason than you're probably not going to overvalue that player in your draft prep to begin with. How often do you see a player that your really like when you're doing your auction prep and you make a projection or valuation accordingly?That projection ends up being the outlier, rather than the league standard, so when you get that "discount" on draft day, you're really only getting the player at cost or even over cost.

But like Cory and Jason, I'm still a bit of a believer in E5, at least in a roto context. I picked him up a couple of weeks ago in Y! Friends and Family, a 14-team mixed league, though I had him benched for his two-homer game a week ago (we have daily moves), so I haven't fully enjoyed his mini-renaissance. But in defense of Encarnacion, he didn't always have poor plate discipline. He used to walk over 10% of his plate appearances with the Reds, and he still makes pretty decent contact even now. You make the trade-off of poor average for power even at his best, though - but with batting averages down across baseball, a guy like that isn't all bad. It's his defense that makes his roster-worthy status questionable in real life and in simulation games like Strat and Scoresheet, but that shouldn't bother us as much here. I think your decision to start him over Freese is perfectly defensible.

Ian Kennedy: I'm not worried about his recent rough patch. Rather, I encourage it, as somehow I've managed to not own him in any of my 14 leagues. Stink On (in deference to your USC fandom), as far as I'm concerned. Anyhow, he's had 14 K's in 13.2 innings over those two bad starts - I wouldn't be concerned.

Joe Nathan: Yeah, I'd like to be a buyer if the price were reasonable. Unfortunately, the only trade offer I've had for him so far is a league where (a) I already had three closers and (b) I was asked to give up Huston Street for him. What's the point? I appreciate when opposing owners are willing to make the first offer in trade talks with me, but if you're going to take the time to offer a deal to begin with, at least look to see whether the trade makes any sort of sense for the other owner.

What did you give up in the Uggla deal? I can't properly analyze your sanity or lack thereof (well, in context, at least) without knowing what you gave up. I have to imagine Strat-o-Matic properly punishes his defense, but I like the idea of buying him at a low point. I know that second baseman sometimes fall off the cliff quicker (paging Carlos Baerga) than other positions, and that late-bloomers like Uggla also have shorter peaks, but even viewed in that context, Uggla's collapse this year seems extraordinary. I think this is a perfect illustration of Liss's "buy lowest" idea.

One cheap steals guy that you can probably get in many mixed leagues is the Pirates' Alex Presley. There's some threat of a demotion back to Triple-A Indy once Jose Tabata comes back, but really, the obstacle for him to get playing time in that scenario is the combo of Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz. Given that the former was already starting to lose playing time before Presley's recall, I could see the scenario where they just roll with Presley in right field.

Thanks for starting up this week's Charging, and thanks even more for not doing your best Izzy Alcantara or George Bell impersonation when doing so.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jonah Keri"
Sent: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 10:13am
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

You golfing and me volunteering to shoot my mouth off both sound highly plausible. Bummed I had to give up the sport (golf, not blabbing). Oh well I'll always have that one-hop, sand wedge eagle on the short par four at Brookside #2, with you looking on.

Encarnacion at least got on base last night after that initial 0-for-5. Of course he was then called out despite being blatantly safe, on a play that ended, and decided the game. Robot umpires, please.

Matt Capps stunk again last night against the Rays (that game was also decided on a bang-bang play that screamed out for replay), and that was after Nathan pitched another pretty smooth 8th. Glen Perkins got the save, but that was largely due to the Twins having burned the rest of their pen, and a lefty coming up in Johnny Damon. I know Perkins has notched a couple saves lately, but you can't ignore that huge Nathan contract. He's been an elite closer in the past, the Twins are paying him to close, have to think Nathan will close.

I just gave up spare parts for Uggla, no big. Strat-O-Matic uses year-ago stats, so I confess that much of Uggla's use is for his great current card, based on his excellent 2010 season. BUT...reached base all four times last night, including a monster homer. I like him to have a big second half, so much so that his end-of-season numbers could look downright respectable. Buy lowest indeed.

And frankly, I'm so agnostic I'd just be buying low on nearly everyone I could, and selling high on nearly everyone I could. Imagine you sold Jose Bautista or Matt Joyce a month ago for full value? Not to say that both aren't going to be solid contributors the rest of the season (especially Bautista, who might be the best hitter in baseball at this point), but if someone was offering up superelite packages for either or both at the time...yeah. Who has the most perceived value now, Jose Reyes? Perfect, shop him. I'd be buying low on Jayson Werth, maybe a little more than I would fellow monster-contracted free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, only because injuries can gum up the works on buy-lows, and Crawford isn't healthy right now.

Speaking of the Red Sox and injuries, you've got Clay Buchholz still on the DL, and now Jon Lester comes up lame. Andrew Miller suddenly become integral to the team's success. The Sox once had admirable starting pitching depth, now they need fringy guys to carry the load for at least a little while, lest they lose contact with the Bartolo Colon- (OK, and CC Sabathia)-led Yankees staff. Baseball's so weird.

Alex Presley's a good call. Frankly anything Pirates-related seems like a good call. They're a game and a half out of first past the halfway point of the season! They're as far out of first in the NL Central as the Red Sox are in the AL East! I know you're a Reds fan, but if they can't repeat, it'd be fun to root for a Pirates-Indians World Series.

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 9:50pm
To: "Jonah Keri"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

Robot umpires, indeed. When the umpire is correct, we will no longer say "safe," we will say "affirmative." I can see how the home plate ump missed the call - the ball beat Encarnacion (the gold standard for the softball leagues I play in), and Encarnacion made contact with Jason Varitek first with the slide. But yeah, that tag was blatantly missed. I wonder if that play happens in Toronto if it's called the same. It's not that the umpire is necessarily looking to make the call in the favor of the Red Sox, but rather on those bang-bang plays, it's been alleged that there's an inherent home field advantage when it comes to making crucial calls among all umpires, and not just baseball. The blog in question that I linked to examined that study further and found some problems, so the matter isn't entirely settled.

Anyhow, let's get these plays right. I'm stunned that so many other sports can get instant replay right (seriously, look at how tennis does it - it's done quickly and accurately), but baseball insists on the "human element" to decide critical plays in critical games because, well, that's how they've always done it.

I actually did trade Bautista, a little over a month ago, on-air no less. And until Lester's injury yesterday, I was feeling pretty darn good about it. I got Lester, Jered Weaver and Eduardo Nunez, and I gave up Bautista, Guillermo Moscoso and Jake McGee to Steve Moyer. Now that Lester is hurt, meh - but it was a deal I had to do given the circumstances of the league. But I'm with you on Bautista - he might very well be the best hitter in baseball, and it hurt to trade him. I still have some sidebets on his HR total for the season, so I'm still enjoying the show.

One good result from the Lester injury is that it might push the Red Sox to make a deal soon - and I'm always in favor of that. The more chaos to analyze, the better. Just let it be at some other fantasy player's expense next time, please.