Articles by Alex Zelvin

A listing of all the articles written by Alex Zelvin for the RotoWire Blog.

Erik Bedard Is Back

I’ve talked about this before, but in general I find pitchers to be a lot more predictable than hitters. I know that goes against the common wisdom, but there’s a reason for it. Hitters do tend to follow slightly more predictable career paths. We probably can do a better idea projecting what will happen over the next few years for any group of hitters than pitchers because of the likelihood that many pitchers will be impacted by changes in health, arm strength, and mechanics. On the other hand, when one of those things happens, it’s generally pretty easy to see in the statistics of the pitcher. When a previously dominating pitcher goes two months with a strikeout rate under 6, we KNOW something is wrong. When a top hitter goes two months with a .190 batting average, we have no idea whether there’s a problem, or he’s just had some bad luck. In the future, we may gain additional insight from Pitch/fx, but that’s just going to widen the gap even more, making diagnosing pitchers struggles even easier.

Before the season, I was down on Erik Bedard, both because of his Spring statistics and some things I had heard. After his second start, I suggested I might have been wrong.  Through three starts, he’s got 23 strikeouts and only 3 walks in 19.1 innings. He appears to be completely healthy, and I think he’s an excellent trade target. His value may have gone up since opening day, but probably not far enough to prevent him from being cheaper than he should in most leagues.  That’s the beauty of analyzing pitchers – there are stats that act as terrific leading indicators of effectiveness.

Alex runs three websites, including Draftbug (http://www.draftbug.com) which offers daily fantasy baseball contests including free contests with real cash prizes every day.

Cole Hamels 2009

I’ve always been a big fan of Cole Hamels, and at one point I believed that he had a good chance to be the best pitcher in baseball. Hamels has been excellent, but is reason for some concern as his K/9 rate has dropped from 10.1 to 9.3 to 8.3 over the past three years. That’s still very good, and the magnitude of the decrease is small enough that it’s possible this is simply year to year variance, but my instinct is that it’s an actual change in ‘skill’ and that Hamels is unlikely to reach 10.1 again. Looking at his rate statistics, Hamels has gone from being Scott Kazmir with better control to being James Shields with worse control. That’s not a very encouraging change in a young pitcher, and although I still definitely consider him a top ten starting pitcher, I would avoid him in drafts for 2009, given how early he’s being picked. I like him a lot more in games like Rotohog, Snapdraft, and Draftbug, as you’ll have the opportunity to track how his strikeout rate is, and avoid him if it doesn’t bounce back above 9.0.

Ben Sheets 2009

Ben Sheets is not the same pitcher he was a few years ago. He’s always been a high risk player because of his frequent injuries. However, through 2006, he compensated for that risk with exceptional performance, typically strikout out more than 10.0 batters per nine innings, while walking 1.5 or less. In 2007 and 2008, he only struck out 7.5 and 7.0 batters per nine innings, and his control wasn’t quite as good either (2.4 and 2.2). Those numbers are still pretty good, but not special at all. His exact value in 2009 is going to depend in large part on what team he ends up with, but between declining performance and injury risk, Sheets is unlikely to justify his price, since his decline has largely been masked by relatively consistent earned run averages over the years. Don’t be fooled by the fact that his ERA doesn’t show an obvious trend. Especially if he ends up in the American League, Sheets it not a good pick for 2009.

Are Pitchers Really Harder To Project?

The common wisdom seems to be that future pitching performance is harder to predict than future hitting performance. In one sense that’s true, but in some ways it’s completely wrong.

What is true is that long term improvement is harder to forecast. The vast majority of 20 year old hitters will be substantially better five years in the future than they are now. The same really can’t be said of pitchers. Some will suffer major injuries. Others will have more subtle problems with arm strength, mechanics, or other aspects of pitching that reduce their effectiveness. Many will never be better than they are at 20, although some will also reach their full potential later than almost any hitter. So in that sense, the common wisdom is correct. Pitchers’ long term development is much harder to predict.

The good news is that in many cases we don’t actually NEED to forecast development in pitchers. We can simply recognize changes in true ability faster than others. When a 21 year old hitter with a career average of .250 hits .320 in April, I have no idea if the change is permanent or simply short term variance. However, when a 21 year old pitcher with career ratios of 5.0 for strikeouts and 4.0 for walks completes the first month of the season with a ratio of 35/8 in 31 innings, I can be nearly certain that he’s become a much better pitcher than he used to be. If I’m lucky, he’ll have suffered enough bad luck to keep his ERA high, obscuring his true talent level, and allowing me to get a bargain.

You can read more of Alex’s thoughts on fantasy baseball at waiverwire.blogspot.com.

Johan Santana

Johan Santana is another player whose value in traditional leagues may not be the same as it is in games where you can turn your roster over on a daily basis. In a traditional league, I would steer clear of him in 2009. While there’s no doubt that he’s still an excellent pitcher, his declining K/9 rate is a major concern. In 2004, it was 11.7. From 2005 to 2007 it ranged from 10.0 to 10.3 every year. Last year, pitching in an easier league it declined to 8.3. Combined with reports of reduced velocity on his fastball, I’d say there’s some reason to be concerned about an injury, and he certainly appears not to be the clear ‘best pitcher in baseball’ that he was a few years back. Assuming he’s still being drafted (based on reputation) in the first few rounds of most drafts, I would keep away. At this point, I’d be inclined to pick guys like Peavy, Sabathia, and Webb ahead of him. On the other hand, if his K/9 rate bounces back early in the season and is over 10 through his first 5 or 6 starts, then by all means go ahead and use him in Rotohog, Fantasy Sports Live, and the other daily games.

You can read more of Alex’s thoughts on fantasy baseball at waiverwire.blogspot.com.

Randy Johnson

Randy Johnson is one of those players who is potentially a LOT more valuable in games where you can choose a new roster every day (like Rotohog, FantasySportsLive, SnapDraft, and DraftHero) than in traditional fantasy baseball formats. That’s because at his age (45) you REALLY don’t want to have to count on him for a full, heathy season of baseball. But he’s still pretty effective when he is healthy, and is a perfectly acceptable choice for spot starts when his match-up is good. Last year he struck out 8.6 per nine innings and walked only 2.2 per nine innings. That’s not out of line with what he’s done the past few years, and even assuming a continued decline due to age, I won’t hesitate to use him against weak opponents in any of the contests listed above.

You can read more of Alex’s thoughts on fantasy baseball at waiverwire.blogspot.com.

 

Adjusting For Contest Size In Single Day Contests

Success at fantasy baseball is all about adjusting to context. Sometimes the context comes within the game as its played on the field – for example, adjusting for park or for league strength. Other times, the context is found within the rules of the fantasy game you’re playing.

One such example is making adjustments for the size of the daily contest you’re playing. Sites like FantasySportsLive and DraftHero run contests with as few people as two to as many as fifty. Your strategy needs to change to reflect the size of the contest! Two person contests are the most straightforward – you’re generally going to do best simply picking the players who you believe will score the most points that day. But isn’t that true in larger contests too? The answer is…definitely not! If you use the same strategy in a fifty person contest, you’re going to frequently find yourself finishing in the upper half of the contest…but falling short of the top few spots that receive all the prize money.

The goal in a larger contest is to introduce variance to your scoring. Note that this strategy won’t work (at least as described here) in a season long contest like Rotohog, because those have a real ‘penalty’ for putting up especially low scores. But in a single day contest you should be looking for strategies that will increase your chances of having the top score…even if those same strategies will also increase your chance of having a truly awful score.

There are really two things you can do to accomplish this:
1. Choose players whose performance is likely to be strongly correlated. The easiest way to do this is to choose players on the same team. If they knock the opposing starter out early and get to face the dregs of the opposing bullpen, that’s going to benefit both of them…leading to a positive correlation in their scores for the day. If the batter hitting fourth gets an RBI, there’s a pretty good chance that the batter hitting ahead of him got a run…again leading to greater correlation among their daily scores. Most games won’t allow you to choose all players from the same team, but choosing mostly players from the same team is definitely a good idea in larger contests…particularly if you can identify a bad opposing starting pitcher to go against.

2. Differentiate from your opponents. This is a little trickier. In order for it to be a viable strategy, you need a few conditions to exist. Score should be heavily influenced by one player…for example a game format where a single starting pitcher generally scores almost half of a team’s points for the day. You need to know that most of your opponents are likely to choose the same player for that position. Imagine a game with 20 contestants where the ENTIRE score is derived from a single starting pitcher. Now imagine that there are only two starting pitchers available today…Jake Peavy and Mike Pelfrey. Who is the better pick? Almost certainly Pelfrey! While Peavy might have a 75|PERCENT| chance of winning, if you win you’ll be sharing your first place prize with about 18 other people. If Pelfrey wins (25|PERCENT| chance) you’re likely to win the entire prize. This is a great (although admittedly extreme) example of how differentiation can help you in these contests.

For more of Alex’s thoughts on fantasy baseball, visit his blog waiverwire.blogspot.com