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Charging the Mound: Erickson and Liss Talk Baseball

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

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).

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jeff Erickson"
Sent: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 1:23pm
To: liss@rotowire.com
Subject: Charging: Reviews & Regrets


Drafting season is almost over you have one league left to go, I have three, but most of the heavy lifting is done. It's time to take stock in our results what's in our portfolio, what did you get right, and what do you wish you did differently? You've already put up your portfolio piece, so let's start there.

Let's ignore the elite players that are among your most commonly owned not that they aren't interesting too, but it's not too difficult to see the appeal in most situations. If one needs convincing that Ian Kinsler or Felix Hernandez is valuable, he is clearly picking the wrong hobby. Instead, let's talk about some of these other guys on the margin, as that's where most of the profit and risk potential lies.

- Justin Smoak: Both you and Derek VanRiper have persuaded me to pump up his projection. You by taking him in three drafts in a row, Derek by ranking him considerably higher than me in our composite rankings. As you said in your portfolio blog, he fits both the "Last Year's Bum" and "Post-Hype Sleeper" characterizations. Him playing in Safeco Field and in an awful lineup concern me, but then again, that's driving his price down low enough (in most cases) to make him affordable. I haven't targeted him yet, but he's still available to me in the NFBC and in my AL home league I still might add him to my portfolio.

- Matt Thornton: It looks like the closer job is Thornton's, which is just, given how he lost it last year. It's not that Sergio Santos wasn't worthy or even better, but Thornton had a couple of fluky bad results in April that skewed his entire line, including a couple of biffed fly balls that should have been caught by Juan Pierre. Compare that to his otherwise sterling track record, and it's no wonder he's still closer-worthy. New manager Robin Ventura is a wild card we have zero clue on how he'll handle the first blown save. Did you back up Thornton with either Addison Reed or Jesse Crain in any of those leagues? To what extent do you back up your closers with their likely next-in-lines? Or is that a waste of a roster spot? Which handcuff is less useful closers, or running backs?

- Chone Figgins: Figgins really fits your "buy lowest" mantra, and of all the "Last Year's Bums" you drafted, he's the one I'm having the most trouble buying into. But then again, he's also the one that cost you the least. He's 34 years old and has two years left on his contract, so I don't see a trade to another organization as likely. More troubling is that his walk rate collapsed last year after previously being pretty high was he getting challenged more in the zone, was it a function of playing hurt, or is there something else at work here? What does a bounce-back season for him look like?

In addition to evaluating what we've done, we're hearing others do it as well, whether it's with our Yahoo! Friends & Family draft, or with our various Tout Wars teams. The funny thing about these reviews is that even though a lot of the analysis is insightful, many of the other opinions will be dead wrong, even when it comes from our peers and not just from the comments. Take for instance last year's F&F review Dalton's selection of Jacoby Ellsbury was the most frequently panned pick, followed by your Mike/Giancarlo Stanton pick. The separate discussion about Stanton was especially amusing in a retrospective light.

So, what are we as an industry going to get wrong this year? Where do you fall out of line with the industry consensus the most? And what's your biggest regret so far this draft season is there any player or trend you feel you might have missed out on after going through your six drafts?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 6:02pm
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging: Reviews & Regrets


Smoak is a switch hitter, so that means he's mostly hitting lefty, which isn't that bad in Safeco. Throw in a bounce-back from Ichiro, a bounce-back or replacement for Chone Figgins (a dead hippopotamus would stink less), more from Dustin Ackley, something from Mike Carp/Casper Wells and then Jesus Montero at DH, and the lineup should be a lot better. Also, Smoak was banged up last year, and his father died, so there were extenuating circumstances. Finally, he has 775 career ABs, which in my opinion is the sweet spot for a breakout as most players usually take 700-1000 before they "get it." Essentially, he's got the perfect storm of better health, improved lineup, more experience, a good age (25) and a great pedigree for explosive growth. That doesn't mean it'll happen, but it's the kind of stock you should be investing in given the going price ($14 in Tout, Round 18 in Y!F&F).

I like Thornton at his price, too. He could lose the job easily, but he has good enough skills to close, and a good couple months could lock him into the job for the year. I don't typically back up my closers, especially in this case when they were cheap and there are two players who could take the job in Reed or Crain. Then you're using three roster spots for one team's saves. You could do it in the case of Mariano Rivera/David Robertson where it's fairly clear who the guy would be and that's worth it in a league like Y!F&F where Robertson has value even as a setup guy. But typically, I'm just going with whoever has the most upside, whether it's a closer in waiting on another team, or another position player. I think the question is kind of similar with running backs if the backup either (a) has value even as a backup; (b) the backup would unquestionably get the job should the starter go down; and/or (c) the backup would produce nearly as well as the starter should he get the chance, then I'll try to get him. Otherwise, I'd rather use the roster spot for something else.

I don't think there's a point in analyzing a player's historically terrible year in terms of walk rate, or whether he's being "challenged in the zone." Clearly Figgins was hurt, and the question is whether at his age and coming off his hip problems he can ever be the player he was. It's amazing he walked 21 times in 288 at-bats and an indictment of any pitcher who gave a free pass to a .484 OPS guy. Figgins' contract, defensive versatility, speed and on-base skills make him worth another shot to the Mariners, and if he can show he's healthy, he'll have plenty of value. If not, he'll be out of baseball in a couple months. A bounce back season is .275/.370 with 35 steals and 90 runs.

Regarding the evaluation of others, you want it to be negative, and I mean that seriously. Consider that if everyone likes your draft, that means everyone agrees with what you did. And if everyone agrees with you, that means you don't have any special insight into the player pool, i.e., you've drafted a team that everyone can see is good. But if people hate your team, that means they're not on the players you picked. Which means you see something that others don't. Now it's possible you're simply hallucinating, but if you've done your homework and have experience researching and drafting in these kinds of leagues, there's a good chance your observations are valid. And if you make valid observations that others miss, that's the recipe for winning your league. So it's not surprising that people panned some of the best picks in last year's drafts.

I think even smart people often make two key mistakes (1) They rely too much on what happened last year and even the last three years; and (2) They trust the conclusions of the market far too much and don't look at the raw data themselves. As to the first point, I don't really care about past performance per se it's just an indicator, and it doesn't have any causal effect on this year's stats. In other words, that Mike Stanton hit 34 homers last year doesn't cause him to hit homers this year. I mean that excruciatingly obvious point quite literally. Past home runs might be indicators of likely future home runs, but are not causes. And as obvious as that is, people confuse indicators and causes. So a player like Adam Dunn who has tons of power can cause balls to leave the yard this year just as surely as a player with similar raw power who was successful last year. Dunn's past failure might be an indicator of future failure, but it is not a cause. So if you think Dunn still has the raw power and batting eye, then last year really isn't a problem for you. Instead it's a buying opportunity. And you don't even have to explain last year. You just have to decide whether the conditions for home runs are still present this year.

The second point is that often people believe the market's conclusions, e.g., Smoak is a late-round flyer, and they don't always analyze the data about Smoak. They already know what kind of player Smoak is because they know his ADP and last year's stats, so there's no need to look at the actual data. Actual data includes last year's stats, but also age, injury history, pedigree, monthly splits (on occasion), personal circumstances etc. It's not easy to aggregate all this data into an accurate conclusion, but over time the effort puts you ahead of those who don't bother trying.

So I think the industry is usually wrong when past performance diverges from present conditions (Ellsbury healthy and at his peak), or particular player career arcs differing from the norm (Stanton). That's why the potential for profit is always greatest on players who were bad or hurt last year (Dunn, Figgins, Smoak, Morneau, etc.) or those whose circumstances have changed a lot which necessarily includes young players whose experience level is itself a major change.

Players I don't own in whom I wish I had a stake include: Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana, Trevor Bauer, Brandon Belt and Dominic Brown.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Jeff Erickson"
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 5:10pm
To: liss@rotowire.com
Subject: Charging: Reviews & Regrets


The aspect about career arcs differing from the norm most often applies to prospects, I think. How often have I heard people justify not taking a player in a particular spot because "... he hasn't done it before ..."? I've probably been guilty of that at times, too, but so long as the ultimate goal isn't outlandish, I fail to see that as valid advice. Yes, I get that at times we jump on the shiny, new commodity to a fault, but I think in a league full of sharks, the backlash against doing so is too strong. So whether it's "Player X hasn't ever stayed healthy enough" in a given year, or "Player Y" hasn't hit 30 homers yet, that in and of itself shouldn't be used as a reason to say he won't do so in a coming year.

To that end, that's why I'm bullish on a player like David Freese. In fact, he fits two "backlash" classifications the "hasn't done it before" one and the "don't overspend on a playoff hero" line. Sure, I get that he hasn't played in more than 100 games in a season before, but (a) he never before has had his starting position unchallenged and (b) missed time with a fluky injury last year (broken hand) neither of those are indicative of future performance. When healthy, the skills are there I'm not sure why we should discount him that much. In fact, I think I'm just as guilty of doing so by projecting him for only 125 games. Why shouldn't he be projected for 140+ games when he has no current injury? Time to update that projection.

I'm right there with you on wishing I owned a share of Darvish somewhere hopefully I can correct that in my home league or in the NFBC. And Bauer is a pretty good example, too, though I traded him in one of my Scoresheet leagues earlier due to extenuating circumstances, so I had my chance.

One other thing about the consensus being wrong so frequently about these drafts the objections are more valid when it's on a league structure or draft strategy level, and less so on a player evaluation level. More than ever, matching your player evaluation skills to the league format is an important skill. Clearly the information on a player's role is a freely available commodity the tougher part is organizing that information to make it useful for you.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 10:22pm
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging: Reviews & Regrets


The career-arc analysis is really one of the more interesting aspects of what we do. Matt Wieters was a massive prospect, didn't live up to the hype and then for the last two months of last season looked like the guy everyone thought he'd be. Alex Gordon struggled with injuries, a position change and being jerked in and out of the lineup but then broke out last year. Clayton Kershaw had an ERA of 4.26 and a 100:52 K:BB ratio during his first year with the Dodgers while Stephen Strasburg was 2.91 and 92:17. It's very hard to know what kind of future a player has from the numbers alone. Similarity scores can be useful, I suppose, but then why are players similar to one group of historical comps in Year 3 and have an entirely different set of them in Year 6? If the comps were so predictive, wouldn't they often stay the same throughout his career?

The bottom line is a player will perform according to his skills, opportunities, circumstances and luck. And last year's stats or even the last three years' stats often paint only a partial picture and sometimes even a misleading one.

And I agree wholeheartedly that the brunt of criticism should be on the level of strategy and league-fit rather than on player evaluation, an area where we're all dealing with huge unknowns and by which we're suprised all the time.