This article is part of our Umpire Analysis series.
As daily fantasy leagues continue to gain popularity, it's only natural to find that the techniques we use to give us our edge aren't quite as sharp as they once were. Targeting by methods such as park factors, various weather data, and handedness, for example, are now widespread among even casual players. That's not to say that these techniques have outlived their usefulness, of course, but it behooves players to continue to look for different kinds of information in addition to these standards in order to stay ahead of the field.
As I sat down to set my FanDuel lineups Wednesday, I noticed what I thought was a decent low-cost play in Edwin Jackson against the Mets at home. Sure, Jackson has been pretty shaky this season, but he's also been striking out hitters at a nice clip, and with New York's well-documented struggles against right-handed pitchers, I figured a small play might net me some decent reward.
But then something happened. As I watched the game it began to look as though my pitcher was getting squeezed—big time. Was this legitimate? Or was I simply frustrated over the fact that my pick was off the rails? Well, thanks to information provided by texasleaguers.com, there is no need to speculate.
As we can see, the bottom right and top left quadrants of the strike zone were basically off-limits. A zone as tight as this has the potential to be disastrous for a pitcher, because it will either lead to free passes, or force the hurler to try to find more of the open plate to get strikes, which can result in more hittable pitches. As for Jackson, he wound up going five innings in the contest, walking five and throwing 110 pitches.
So what's the takeaway here? Umpires (specifically those at home plate) can drastically affect our games. Being able to predict the impact an umpire's zone will have on a given contest can really help us in our daily decisions, and we can find information to that effect at baseballprospectus.com.
The entire chart is probably more in-depth than we need to get here, with the above data being sufficient for our purposes. As we can see, the man at the dish for the Mets versus the Cubs on Wednesday, Todd Tichenor, sees 3.6 walks per every nine innings he is behind the plate this season. This ranks him 17th from the bottom in that category out of the 87 umpires that appear on the chart. He also sees the fifth-highest slugging percentage. I encourage readers of this article to click the above link and see what you find. The first thing that stands out to me when looking at such information is we can select umpires in contests based on FanDuel categories. For example, if we have an ump who sees a lot of strikeouts and not many walks, that's a game we may want to target (all factors considered), as the homeplate umpire can really give our pitcher the edge when we need the close pitch to get out of a jam, or just to get in a nice rhythm.
Of course, we can work in reverse as well, and try to target hitters with nice power/OBP numbers to see if they can do some damage when pitchers are forced to come in over the plate to get a strike. Alternatively, we may just look at umpires who sport high ERAs and give hitters in those contests a whirl. As I alluded to above, I wouldn't recommend eschewing any of the data points mentioned in the opening, such as park factors, to try and find a friendly umpire. Instead, our goal should be to blend all of our most important elements together as well as possible to come out with the lineups that will give us the best bang for our buck.
Unfortunately, umpiring crews for the first game of any given series aren't released until a few minutes before the contest, which makes it difficult to plan for the first day of a new set. However, umpire position for the subsequent games of a series can be determined easily enough. Umpires rotate around the diamond in a clockwise pattern. Therefore, by finding out who the umpire at first base was in the previous contest (which can be found by checking box scores at the end of each game on ESPN.com) we can discover who the probable umpire behind the plate for the next game will be. For example, Tichenor was the first-base umpire at Wrigley Field on Tuesday before stepping behind the plate Wednesday. This is a standard rotation, but of course, if an umpire is unable to perform for any reason, he will be replaced in the contest.
Knowing your umpire can be a valuable tool in your arsenal when making FanDuel lineups. There are certain things, as discussed above, which limit this tactic's usefulness, but knowing who controls the zone can definitely provide an edge in the right context.