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Charging the Mound: Endgame Strategies

Chris Liss

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

Jeff Erickson

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

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 1:28am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Charging the Mound - Endgame Strategies

Chris, as we close out this season's column, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss some of the endgame strategies we've used in our various leagues - what's worked, what hasn't worked, what aren't people thinking of, and if certain plays are ethical, if not illegal. Here are some of the thoughts and methods I had in mind.

Pound the Categories - This should seem obvious, but it bears repeating time and time again. If you're in a categorical league, every single move needs to be analyzed with its impact in the categories in mind. You might end up doing some strange things, like starting an inferior hitter over another one on the chance that he picks up a stolen base. Trade offers that you would accept in a nanosecond in April get turned down in August and September because they don't fit your needs. My favorite story to tell there is how I once offered Jonathan Papelbon for Jerry Owens in an AL-only league one year, only to get it turned down because the owner couldn't part with the possible four-to-five stolen bases that Owens might bring and because he might just gain one point in saves with Papelbon. Now, one might argue that he could have taken the benefit of the bargain with Papelbon to get what he *did* need, but when it's winding down to the final 4-to-5 weeks of the season, it's harder to find a trade partner, so trading just to make another trade makes little sense.

You have made the point before, but it bears repeating. Just because a trade makes sense for you in the categories doesn't free you from the obligation of preventing the other team from gaining a windfall. I'm pretty well locked into my spot with HR/RBI in Tout Wars this year - I can't gain anything in either category, and I can lose at most one point in homers, if my team goes entirely into the tank. Thus, I had a couple of people approach me with offers for Miguel Cabrera in exchange for a player or players that might help me win 2-to-3 points elsewhere. Setting aside Cabrera's effect on batting average for the sake of argument, if by trading him to another team gains my opponent seven points in HR/RBI for me to get my 3-point gain in saves (as an example), not only am I giving him a bigger gain, but I'm also hurting the league's race. That has to be the secondary consideration to improving your team, but it's a consideration nonetheless. It's not enough that you gain from a trade, but that you maximize your gain.

Know the Team Context - When you're making your personnel moves, it's important to know what the team's plans are for the rest of the season. The process has already started with some teams to get their young players and pitchers in there, benching veterans or otherwise clearing the way. The Royals and what they're doing come to mind. So in some cases, a player that's on the waiver wire might normally be a better option will be pretty worthless compared to another team's scrubbier player that at least is going to play every day. The other side of this equation is the teams that are cruising into the playoffs. Javier Vazquez is skipping a start this week to recover from a "dead arm" period, and Philip Hughes will probably get the same treatment in September. So Ivan Nova gets a few extra starts for a team that on average will score a lot of runs, and Dustin Moseley might have more job security than he would otherwise, even if Andy Pettitte comes back soon. The Padres are pretty close to salting away the NL West (on an aside, what sort of odds would you have given that they would have the most security at making the playoffs with five weeks left to play?), does that mean that Adrain Gonzalez will get an extra day off? How will they handle Mat Latos and Clayton Richard? Will somebody besides Heath Bell get a save chance or two?

This also applies to figuring out which pitcher to pick up if you're debating between two pitchers on the waiver wire. If one of them gets the Pirates, for instance, and the other is one who is incrementally better but faces the Giants, that consideration should be magnified in September. Just think about how Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey profited from the steady stream of Pirates and Astros that they faced in September last year.

Trading to Hurt Your Rival - This one might seem a little sketchier, but I think it's still kosher. Sometimes it's easier to trade a player to another team that hurts your top rival in a category or two than it is for you to find ways to gain that point. A point lost by your opponent is just as good as a point gained by you. So if the cost to achieve this is lower by trading another league member a closer so that your rival loses a point in saves, why not go that route? And if you improve yourself in another category, it's an ideal situation. Figuring out who to trade with is almost as important as finding out what to trade or what to trade for.

Injury Management - Be aware that injuries are even worse in September than they are earlier in the season, because of the expanded rosters in September. Often a player will be out for a couple of weeks or even the rest of the year and not go on the DL, because the team doesn't need to protect the roster spot. Moreover, the teams are less-forthcoming about when the player will come back because they don't have to put him on the DL, and because the press corps on teams out of the race are less likely to press the matter. You're going to have to make the difficult to decision on whether to cut a guy on a day-to-day twinge a lot, because you can't stash him in your IR spots. In your standard 10-12 team mixed league format, that means you need to have a hair-trigger for all but the elite players in the league.

Head-to-Head Thoughts - I'll admit to having less experience in head-to-head leagues, but I have to imagine that when you hit the playoffs, starting pitching matters more than ever. That's both from getting more starters to maximize two-start possibilities, but I would think that acquiring more elite starters matters more too, because your opponents' point totals are going to be higher, too.

What else am I missing here? What tips do you have for finishing strong?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 1:56am
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound - Endgame Strategies

You've pretty much covered it. The key is anticipating this stuff in advance. Prospects and young, healthy players on bad teams are good. Veterans and those with nagging injuries on non-contenders are bad. There are some exceptions like Ichiro whose annual 200-plus hits milestone and general durability virtually assures him at-bats or Jose Bautista who's chasing a home-run crown. Also, it's important to keep an eye on September call-ups and figure out in advance who might stand to lose playing time when they arrive. For instance, if Dustin Ackley gets the call in Seattle, might Chone Figgins or Jose Lopez lose at-bats?

September call-ups are tricky in their own right. Will the Rays get Desmond Jennings regular work in a pennant race? Will the Mariners limit Michael Pineda's innings, or get him some important major-league experience? Will teams with Triple-A teams that are in their playoffs call their players up right away, or give them the chance to win at the minor-league level? It's not always obvious how teams will play it, and that further complicates our task.

One other point is that we still have more than 20 percent of the season left. That's not insignificant, and because players don't perform evenly over the course of the year, a lot can still change in your standings. For example, if a player hits 40 homers, he might hit 10 in April, four in May, eight in June, two in July, three in August and 13 in September. If three or four of your key players happen to produce heavily down the stretch, you can get 35 percent of their production all at once. And that can make a huge difference in the standings. As a result, don't easily neglect to make a small move here or there for an extra start, an extra game for a catcher, etc. because that small stuff might turn out to be highly significant if your team produces unexpectedly over the last five weeks.

As for trades, I agree completely that not only do you have to share the windfall, but you should be mindful of the effect it has on the rest of your league. If you move up three points, but essentially award the second place team eight and with it the title, you better have a good reason for getting those three points, e.g., it puts you in the money, and it was the best deal you could get at the time.

I'm completely on board with trades to hurt your opponent as long as it benefits the team receiving the players in some meaningful way besides merely moving up that one point to hurt the opponent. There should be some gain in the standings along with it - from eighth to sixth, for example, even if it's just for pride.

And you're right about the injury issues - most of the beat writers on non-contending teams have mailed it in. After all, they're catering to the team's fans, and no one except a fantasy owner would care when or whether Maicer Izturis returns. And at least he's on the DL - as you pointed out, with 40-man rosters, players who get hurt in September just miss games, and no one cares enough to get specific about it in a lot of cases. It's essentially a month-long Week 17, and you have to make your best guess and prepare to be wrong a good deal of the time.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, August 26, 2010 3:43am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound - Endgame Strategies

The point about September callups is a fantastic one. We talked about this some on the show today. In some cases you have to even check out the Triple-A standings to see who is going to make the playoffs there. Obviously, a contending team that hasn't yet salted away it's position is going to be more inclined to call up their top prospects if they can help, regardless of how the Triple-A team is doing.

But looking at this year's races, there's maybe fewer contenders than in the past, especially in the AL. Theoretically the Red Sox are still alive in the East/Wild Card, but they're up against it with all of their injuries. Unless the A's sweep the Rangers this weekend, the West is sewed up. Only the White Sox have a chance in the AL Central to catch the Twins. So that's eight of 14 teams that have the freedom to do what they want in terms of both calling up their prospects and in playing them. The NL is a little tighter, but only marginally so. Is 5.5 games out (behind four other teams) still playoff viable, as in the case of the Dodgers? That they're passing Manny Ramirez and other veterans through waivers this week indicates that they might not think so.

On an aside, let's give a special mention to just how badly they blundered near the trade deadline. As was the case the past two years (Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, George Sherrill for Josh Bell), they've opted to trade prospects away instead of taking on more salary. They did it again this year, but three times over. I think that the worst of the deals was the last one, acquiring Octavio Dotel for James McDonald *and* Andrew Lambo. Now I'm hearing that they're attempting to pass two of their recent acquisitions through waivers in Ted Lilly and Scott Podsednik. They surprisingly inked their first-round pick this year, but the past two years their amateur expenditures were among the lowest in the game, plus they've traded away a ton of their farm system. I don't like where this franchise is going.

Getting back on track, here are the non-contending major league organizations that have Triple-A contenders, in case you're looking to see who might not get called up:


Cleveland (Columbus - 1.5 out in the division, leading the wild card)
New York Mets (2 games out in the wild card)


Chicago Cubs (Iowa - leading the division by 1.5 games over Memphis (STL) and Omaha (KC))
Kansas City (Omaha - see above)
Los Angeles Dodgers (Albuquerque - 4 games out in the division)
Seattle (Tacoma - leading the division by 2.5 games)
Los Angeles Angels (Salt Lake - trailing by 2.5 games)
Oakland (Sacramento - trailing the division by 1 game)

Obviously, not all teams will address this situation equally. But, just as an example, there's another reason to be skeptical that Michael Pineda is going to get significant September work for the Mariners.

One other callup consideration is 40-man roster status. Some teams won't call up a prospect in September if he's not already on the 40-man roster. It saves them the pain of losing a protected guy, if they don't already have someone to slide onto the 60-day DL, and it saves them from starting his option years clock. Last year the A's declined to promote either Chris Carter or Brett Wallace in September under that scenario.

I want to finish up by asking you who was the most obscure/random player to win or lose a league for you in the endgame? It can be a hot or cold month, or a particular game/play. I've always heard of leagues where the finish was decided on one hit in the "extra" play-in game, like my AL home league was last year in the Twins-Tigers extra game. My favorite was in an NL-only league where Brant Brown's dropped fly ball against the Brewers cost the Cubs' Rod Beck a save, and thus my top rival a critical save where he dropped to tied for second in saves instead of tying me for first in saves in the league.

It was fun doing this column with you again this season. Good luck with your various endgame strategies this year.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Thursday, August 26, 2010 4:07am
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound - Endgame Strategies

I won the FSTA 18-team mixed league in 2001 because Steve Trachsel and Roy Halladay (before he was anybody) went off down the stretch. I had picked them up late and hoped for the best. I lost that same league when it was NL only in 2002 despite having a huge league in August when Tony Womack hit three HRs in one game for the second place team. (That wasn't the only thing that lost it for me, but it was a pretty bad sign - they were three of the five HRs he had hit all year in 590 at-bats).

By the way, I never addressed your point about how sick the Padres are. They've got the same number of losses as the Yanks and Rays. The odds that they'd not only win the division but be the best team in the NL by far were probably 50 to 1 at least. It's also a good reminder not to presume who is and isn't a contender early in the year and why teams like the Brewers shouldn't be so quick to assume they won't contend next year and be in a rush to deal Prince Fielder.

Good writing the column with you as well. And good luck down the stretch in your leagues.