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Charging the Mound: Level of Dominance

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: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Monday, April 16, 2012 6:47pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Re: Charging


Do you remember around 10 years ago when some idiot in your fantasy football league would take Priest Holmes with the first pick, and Holmes would score 27 TDs and almost single-handedly win him league? Now, it wasn't that Holmes was so much better than everyone in the NFL, but given his situation he was the dominant player in fantasy football. And the same thing happened a couple years later with LaDainian Tomlinson. Baseball's supposed to be different, of course, with so many more starters, and production more evenly distributed across the board. For example, Jose Bautista led the majors with 43 homers, but having Bautista was by no means enough in and of itself to win your league.

There were some players, however, who have approached that level over the last 20 years - Pedro Martinez in 2000 struck out 284 batters in 217 IP and had an ERA of 1.74 and a WHIP of 0.74 in one of the most hitter-friendly eras in history. In 2002, Randy Johnson struck out 334 batters and won 24 games with a 2.32 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 260 IP. In 1997, Larry Walker hit 49 homers, stole 33 bases and batted .366, becoming the only 40-30-.360 player in MLB history. He also chipped in 143 runs and 130 RBI. If you owned any of those seasons, you didn't have to get a whole lot else right to win your league.

That almost never happens anymore in baseball. Justin Verlander won the pitching Triple-Crown last year and yet wasn't worth nearly as much as Martinez or Johnson. And Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson had monster years, but none even approached what Walker did. Still, it's hard not to wonder whether a player will emerge who is so much better than everyone else in the league. A Stephen Strasburg, an Aroldis Chapman once he's turned loose as a starter. It seemed maybe Yu Darvish might have been that guy - with his deep arsenal of quality pitches and his utter domination in Japan. Or Matt Moore - after striking out 11 Yankees in five innings after his call-up late last year. But almost always, these guys come down to earth, or just can't separate themselves when competing against the best players in the world.

In that light, what do you make of Matt Kemp - a 39-40-.313 player in 2011 who at age 27 has vowed to get to 50-50 and is posting a .487/.523/.1026 line through 10 games with six homers and 16 RBI? And that last number is not OPS, it's slugging. (OPS would be 1.549.) Could Kemp be so good that he overmatches the league in a way not done since an obviously roided-to-the-gills Barry Bonds walked 232 times, struck out 41 times and hit 45 homers for a .362/.609/.812 line?

Can Clayton Kershaw ever approach 300 Ks, or Strasburg get 250 in 180 IP? Are there any Wayne Gretzky's or Babe Ruth's of the sport in the pipeline, waiting to get to the majors over the next couple years?

The other topic I wanted to address was the difficulty of reading pitchers from one start to the next. I own Jake Peavy in a couple places, and after watching him pitch against the Rangers in Texas, I was pretty sure I had made a mistake. While he escaped with only three runs allowed on eight hits and a walk, at least three balls were ripped to the warning track where they were barely caught on a full run. Next up was a home start against the Tigers where he'd undoubtedly get shelled. Instead, he dominated them, allowing just two hits and one walk while striking out eight in 6.2 IP. While we know sometimes pitchers have their "A" stuff, and sometimes a lot less, is there any way to know - especially early on - whether we just caught Francisco Liriano's "C" stuff for two games, or whether there's only "C" stuff left? Danny Duffy, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Drabek have looked good early on, too. Brian Matusz and Phil Hughes have been shaky. Going forward, is there any reason to think the former three will be better than the latter two based solely on two starts? Is velocity the key? Because Matusz' velocity has been fine - it's his command that's been bad. Same with Hughes. How do we know which results matter and which don't when it comes to pitchers?

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 8:34pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging


There's a certain amount of irony that fantasy football leagues primarily employ snake draft formats, whereas baseball leagues have more auction leagues that at least allow the market to try to properly price these outliers. I remember when Pedro Martinez would go for over $50 in AL LABR and Tout, and it was rational to pay that amount. But fantasy football has more of these guys dominate at the front of the draft order, going much farther back in time. How about Emmitt Smith in 1995, with his 25 touchdowns, one year after his 21-touchdown season? Or Terrell Davis in his peak years (ironically, the only year I ever owned Davis was the year he blew out his knee)? Those are the leagues that are just begging for auctions, rather than allowing someone to luck into the first overall pick.

Could someone dominate baseball in the same way now? Sure, I think it's possible, maybe even likely. I tend to think that the game runs in cycles, and while it seems as if there's a tight cluster at the top now, what if Kemp is that guy that breaks away from the pack as you suggested? I think that you've got the right guys in the equation, though maybe Bryce Harper could get added to that nexus eventually, or a healthy Justin Upton (not this year, not with him dealing with that thumb injury.). But Kemp is at the right age, is capable of producing among the elite in every category, and seems motivated to push for those individual stats, given his "50-50" quote from the offseason. It's amazing to watch him do this with so little help in the lineup aside from Andre Ethier.

While Bryce Harper and Mike Trout seem like those sort of potential dominant types among hitters, I don't really see it among pitchers in their current prospect pool. Trevor Bauer is the pitching prospect with the most buzz right now, and while I like him and want him in more leagues than I have, with my untrained prospect eye I don't put him in the Strasburg class. But I'm naturally cautious against elevating pitching prospects, perhaps because of the very example of Strasburg and his Tommy John surgery.

Addressing your other pitcher topic, man, I really hesitate to judge on two April starts. Even when we're looking at velocity, how many times have we seen a guy regain lost velocity midway through a season? Max Scherzer two years ago comes to mind, where he got sent down, made a minor mechanical tweak, then came back throwing three mph harder than before.

I floated the idea on our show that perhaps physical scouting ability could be more helpful than looking at the statistical results, including the pitch F/X and velocity readings. But as you suggested, that could lead to some pretty nasty confirmation bias issues - we see what we want to see. I think early on we have to at least partially trust our pre-draft reads, absent reports of any injuries. If the velocity is way off, not just a little off, yeah, worry more, as with Matusz last year. Andy Behrens' piece on Liriano last week broke down the circumstances pretty well with him - not only did Liriano struggle in his first two starts this year, but he also fell apart last year, dropped in velocity, and had shoulder problems. That's a lot of check marks on the wrong side of the ledger. Maybe it was just his "C" stuff, but it's also likely that his "A" stuff will be present less frequently. There's not a catch-all way to classify these guys, only to dig for as much information as possible.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 2:36am
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging


But barring a situation like Liriano's where he hasn't been right for a couple of years, save for five weeks in spring training, what do you make of Ubaldo Jimenez, Jake Peavy, and Tim Lincecum even? Do we value them as if the season's first two weeks never happened? At what point do we value players as if the history of the world prior to the season never happened? In other words, are we more guilty of making too much of recent events or of ignoring them and holding onto the past? Should we trade Jered Weaver or C.J. Wilson straight up for Lincecum? I'm assuming Lincecum was higher on your draft board, but who would you rather have now?

In AL Tout, I bought two pitchers in whom I had no interest (Michael Pineda for $14 and Jimenez for $12), simply because they were cheap due to low velocity in spring training. For the former I had no idea Joe Girardi would coax him into injuring himself, but my idea was to buy the guys everyone was worried about. So far that hasn't worked out. But maybe I could deal Peavy off his Tigers start for someone good who's doing terribly. (Of course, that'll never happen because the owners of Jeremy Hellickson (5 K, 7 BB, 13.2 IP) are positive it's a sample-size anomaly.)

On the flip side, I drafted Eric Hosmer in Y!F&F in the fifth round, and that looked like a good value in spring training. I even commented that I wished he would slow down and save some of it for the season. Whoever I said it to wasn't worried at all. And now Hosmer's preseason exploits could not be less relevant. Streaks and slumps, slumps and streaks - we never know when they're beginning or ending and we have no idea how long they'll last. The experts will tell you to buy Hosmer and Alex Gordon low, but no one's selling them at a serious discount. For that you need to inquire about Adam Dunn, Kevin Youkilis, and other washed-up looking players with whom someone will actually part.

As for the next dominant No. 1 overall player, would you rather name 10 guys who it might be or take the field? If your answer is the field, how many guys would you have to have before you'd take your list over the field?

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 9:14pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging


Didn't we spend a lot of time in spurts worrying about Lincecum last season? I think that portends mostly negatively, under the "... where there's smoke, there's fire ..." mentality. So much of this has to have a gut feel component to it, right? I think that we've established that there's no one-size fits all approach. The stats can fool us, the Pitch F/X can be deceiving, and our eyes can clearly lead us astray.

I think that we weigh the first two weeks in light of the historical record, and there's almost always a historical record. The only league where I have Jake Peavy is the Scoresheet League that you and I share, and that's because of where he went and the type of team that you and I are building, where we can gamble on his upside without too much repercussion if it doesn't work out. The only league where I own Ubaldo Jimenez is a dynasty league where we keep 28 players - it would have been insane not to keep him, and there was no way to get full value for him on the trade market this past offseason. I don't own Lincecum or Liriano anywhere.

This isn't to say I'm problem-free, or that it doesn't apply to me, because I certainly have my problem pitchers too. But as much as I like to go after the "Last Year's Bums," I'm more cautious with pitchers, especially when there's an injury involved. I'm going to weigh last year more than the first two weeks, and more than the first four weeks too. That applies both for positive outliers and negative outliers. So I'm guilty more of holding onto the past than making too much of recent events - at least, that's my perception of my actions.

I'm in the same boat with you on Michael Pineda, getting him in AL-LABR for the same price as you, when I thought he'd go for $2-5 more than he did. I was done at that price - if it goes one more bid higher, he's somebody else's problem. I'm just going to wait it out with him and see what comes. You might be able to get somebody to go after Peavy, though. He's got four K's tonight through 2.2 innings as I type. It's those K's that are so tantalizing. Hellickson has had one great start (absent the K's, of course) against the Yankees, though - hard to shake that from his owners' collective heads if you're trying to trade for him. It's easy to write off his overall numbers as one bad start at Fenway - and it might even be proper to do so.

I'm glad that you mentioned the flaw in buy-low sell-high. Who the heck is paying top dollar for your Austin Jackson investment right now? Is anyone really treating Josh Willingham as a 35-homer guy yet? I doubt it. So while the theory sounds plausible, if you're really going to sell high, you need to do so with the elites like Matt Kemp or Hanley Ramirez (just homered again tonight), just as you need to buy lowest with those that you mentioned. It might even be too late with Kevin Youkilis, now that he has one homer under his belt - so much for the talk that he hasn't had a homer since mid-August last year. Even before Bobby Valentine's comments, poorly phrased if we're giving him the greatest benefit of the doubt, asinine if you read them at face value, Youkilis was already showing a lot of positive signs at the plate. He had hits in three consecutive games, drew three walks over that span and scored six runs. Maybe Valentine might have briefly lowered the asking price, but I'm guessing it would be hard to get him at a discount.

Your last question is the most interesting to me, and right up your alley. You love those "X vs. the field" bets, and I'm guessing your track record on setting the right number so that you can take the field has to be pretty good. In this case, I'd definitely take the field. Think about it this way - how many guys would you have had to name to get to Jose Bautista before he exploded? Too rare of an example? Ok, how about Pedro Martinez, once traded for Delino DeShields and first used as a reliever in his career. Or Randy Johnson, who took forever to develop? Yeah, there are counter-examples - Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. were touted every step of the way. But given the expanse of major league baseball, I'd probably need at least 50 slots before being willing to concede the field. Perhaps 100 is the right number. Point being, give me the field every time. How about you? What's your number? Or is 10 sufficient?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 9:33pm
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging


Incidentally, I'm pretty sure you got Pineda for $16 and I got him for $14.

I'd need about 35 guys, I think. You cover the best young players right now, the freaks like Chapman and Strasburg with the highest ceilings and 10 top prospects who are more ceiling than floor. But it also matters what we mean by finding that guy. Would Verlander and Kershaw qualify now? Or would they need to put up a Pedro-like season? If it's the latter, I think that makes it harder in some ways, easier in others. Under that criterion, you could argue Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy have a better chance than Roy Halladay.

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 9:57pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging


You're right - it was $16 for Pineda in LABR. I guess that was a construct of my mind to make it look less bad than it was.

As for our methodology, I'd say we could run a dollar-value calculator for a standard 12-team mixed league. The player would have to reach a certain earning threshold - obviously, when there's one player that stands out above the field, he's more likely to have that dominant value than in a year like last year, when there wasn't much separation between Verlander, Kershaw and Halladay. I think they need to have that Pedro-like season, at least under the scenariothat you set up.