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Charging the Mound: Liss and Erickson Talk Baseball

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-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Monday, February 28, 2011 5:28pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging

I made a post in the NY Times today about the importance of knowing your league parameters and their implications for player value. I want to take that concept and apply it to the standard Yahoo! format that we use for the Yahoo Friends and Family League - I figure a fair number of readers here play in those leagues.

For starters, most Yahoo! leagues use only one catcher. Which means you can essentially toss out all the typical ADP lists for them. For example according to Mock Draft Central, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Brian McCann are all top-30 picks. In a one-catcher league, I'm waiting until at least pick 70 before taking the top backstops, and by that time they'll all be gone, so I'll wait a lot longer than that. Even if I get stuck with the 12th or 14th-best catcher (Chris Iannetta, Jorge Posada, A.J. Pierzynski, whoever), he'll get 75 percent of McCann's numbers, and I'll get him with the very last pick. Plus, if the one I take doesn't pan out, there will be plenty more on the waiver wire getting full-time at-bats to plug in. Catchers are the baseball's version of the tight end - low upside, plenty of options if you need to start only one.

Another quirk of the YF&F I wrote about was the innings cap. If the cap is low enough, everyone's going to get there eventually, and that means counting categories like Ks and wins actually become averaging categories, i.e., K/9 and wins/9. In that case, you simply cannot roster Dallas Braden or Mark Buehrle. Every time they set foot on the mound, they're using up your finite innings and not providing enough strikeouts. Likewise, you must boost strikeout specialists like Yovani Gallardo and Jonathan Sanchez. Closers who strike out a batter per inning are also valuable because if they can manage even four or five wins in 75 IP, they're the rare five-category pitcher, since everything must be calculated on a per-inning basis. In fact, it makes sense to stream top middle relievers like Luke Gregerson or Daniel Bard who should give you a better bang for your per-inning buck. Of course, middle relievers are notoriously unreliable year-to-year, so that strategy is better in theory than in practice.

The other tricky thing about the Yahoo! format is the lack of bench/injury spots. With only three bench and two DL slots, you can find yourself in a bind if three or four of your top-10 players are out for an extended period of time even though there are typically decent options on the waiver wire. You might not be able to pick up that closer-in-waiting to stash on your bench, and it's pretty hard to field an active roster on travel days which you must if you're going to maximize your games played at each position. For that reason, I'd downgrade injury prone players more than usual in that format, and don't see much reason to stash a Johan Santana, for example, in one of your DL slots unless the rest of your team has surprisingly good health luck. (Santana's declining K rate is another reason to avoid him here).

But perhaps the biggest quirk of any given league is simply how its parameters determine replacement value at its various positions. The one-catcher aspect of YF&F is one example, but also four outfielders and two utility spots is essentially four and a half OF and one-and-a-half corner IF spots. That means outfield is nearly as scarce as in a five-OF, one-UTIL league, and corner infielders are more scarce than in your typical one-1B, one-3B, one-CI league. (You could theoretically put a MI or C in your utility spot, but it's rare). So corner infielders are slightly more valuable than what we see on most standard cheat sheets, and outfielders are slightly less.

Two other hard-to-predict factors to keep in mind are: (1) Does your league wait on pitchers? and (2) Do people toward the bottom of the standings tend to give up and stop making moves down the stretch? In our the league the answers are (1) somewhat and (2) only slightly. If you think people are going to wait on pitching (as many experienced leagues do), then the market for pitchers is lower, and you'd be unwise to take Roy Halladay, for example, in the first round when bargain pitchers will abound throughout the draft. If people who are out of contention tend to pack it in, then you'd be wise to stock up on batting average, ERA and WHIP because you can pass all the quitters in the counting categories over the season's final 2-3 months. (If you were stuck behind them in the averaging ones, that they're not bothering to set their lineups or maximize their games played will be of no help to you).

I only realized these quirks in the Yahoo! format by playing in it for several years, and it's also why those who have experience in a particular format usually have an advantage over those who are new to it.

Any other not-necessarily-obvious tricks you've discovered in the Yahoo! game or elsewhere?

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: March 1, 2011 2:02 PM PST
To: Christopher Liss

There's another quirk to this league that runs counter to most of my leagues, and that's how players qualify at a particular position. Most of my leagues use the old school requirement of 20 games played at a position last year or 10 this year to qualify at that position. There are a few differences here and there, but they're all pretty close to that baseline. However, Yahoo! F&F has a more lenient policy, requiring either 10 games played or five games started at that position. And it has a pretty big impact. Ryan Raburn all of a sudden becomes second-base eligible. Adam Lind and Luke Scott go from DH-only to both first base and the outfield, and Vladimir Guerrero gets qualified to play the outfield. The latter three players are especially important to me. You can stick anyone in a utility spot, and absent a really empty daily schedule, that spot shouldn't ever be unfilled on a given day. But be being able to slot these guys at another spot in the infield helps get us closer to the games cap for each position slot. In a league with daily moves allowed, this is an important consideration. While 162 games per active roster slot might look restrictive, the opposite is true - rarely does a given player play all 162 games. Plus with only three reserve slots, it's hard to account for days off on the waiver wire, especially if you get hit by a slew of injuries. Thus, often it's easy to fall behind on games played. If you're getting more at-bats than the competition, you get a decisive advantage in the counting categories. Knowing these eligibility rules and manipulating them properly can give you a significant leg up.

I do like the innings-cap aspect of the league, though to be honest it's taken me awhile to appreciate all the nuances of the rule. It certainly dampens the benefits to streaming pitchers, and that's good given the first-come, first-serve free agent claiming process. Because of the cap, you can't just wantonly claim anyone with a pulse and a decent matchup. Each inning is currency and can't be wasted. This type of league actually makes it viable to take Roy Halladay in the latter half of the first-round, where he really belongs in terms of pure value, and a few other elite starters in the earlier rounds, something I'd very rarely do in a standard snake draft. I often play the "wait-on-the-pitchers" game, and to some extent I might still do so in F&F, but it comes with more of a cost than it does elsewhere.

That's also true about the elite closers and other relievers. Your point about everything being evaluated at the per-innings level resonates. In the past couple of seasons, I've fallen behind on the epic closer runs that happen in this draft, in part because I didn't appreciate their value in an innings-cap format. Last year, for example, I grabbed one solid closer in the first 10 rounds in Jose Valverde, but I passed up multiple opportunities in the ensuing rounds to add a second one, and it came back to bite me. Not only was I chasing saves for much of the season (and good luck snagging one on the waiver wire with transaction hounds like Scott Pianowski and Andy Behrens in the league), but I missed out on the per-innings benefits that they provide. There's a fine line between adjusting to what you've learned and overreacting to past results, but I intend to straddle that line this year.

To that end, I'm loading up the F&F draft settings into the RotoWire Draft Software application, and I'm adding K/9 as one of our categories, effectively making this a 5x6 league. I don't know if this is mathematically the right way to handle it, but I don't think that replacing strikeouts with K/9IP as a category appropriately handles the valuation issue. I think you'd end up falling short in the pitching counting stats by overvaluing relievers. Otherwise, I'd be sorely tempted to overload on elite relievers. The other problem with that plan is to put your faith on a subset of players (relief pitchers) whose performance seems less stable. How often do we see the next big thing emerge, only to blow up or get hurt? I'm still toying with this - any suggestions? Is there a hitting metric analog to add balance between the hitting and pitching categories?

Looking at other leagues, my AL home league, the one that started RotoNews/RotoWire, has a neat draft quirk. We don't have to fill a full active roster with all of our auction dollars. You can fill as many of your open spots as you'd like with extra round reserve picks, or, if you've saved your dollars, you can buy your reserve players in the auction. So we're encouraged to try different approaches in the auction - obviously Stars & Scrubs becomes more viable, for instance. Also, if you opt not to buy one of the elite catchers in the auction, you also don't have to use valuable units on minimum-valued catchers or on the last few pitcher spots. I'm sure you can think of other ways to manipulate the auction and draft to fit your strategy using this rule.

I once had another league where we could use the UT spot either on a hitter or a pitcher, meaning some teams had 10 pitchers and others had nine active pitchers on draft day. Finally, if your league has unlimited DL slots, or at least more than F&F, that opens up a few more choices on draft day if you're in a mixed league where the replacement value of that roster spot is high enough. A player that has a pretty good projected value per game played but will be out until June won't lose as much at the draft table if you can turn around and stash him on the DL and replace him with someone viable. It won't work as well here in F&F with only two DL spots, unless you run especially lucky in terms of injuries during the course of the season.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 2:00am
Subject: Re: Charging

Good point about players eligible at multiple positions and how that enables you to get more games played from each spot given our short benches. The pitching strategy is simpler - stick with 2-4 good K/9 starters, 3 closers and two good middle relievers. Rotate in spot starters based on matchup, add and subtract middle relievers as the season goes along and look to add permanent starters in the event of a breakout. But with hitters, you have to try and maximize at-bats and games, and it's hard to do this without streaming, something that's tough with three bench spots and the fact that the Yahoo! game only lets you pick up players for the following day's game. Players with multiple position eligibility make it a lot easier.

The other strange quirk is that the innings cap kicks in at the end of the *day* you reach it, so you'd be advised to get up to about 1448 IP in the 1450-cap league, and then pick a day where you can add 4-5 starts all at once. You can end up with closer to 1500 IP if you do it that way.

As for using the RotoWire Draft Software for YF&F, I'd run it just 5 x 5 with K/9 subbing in for Ks. As long as that category is adjusted for innings pitched, it won't skew too much toward closers, i.e., Carlos Marmol's 16 K/9 is sick, but it was in just 77.2 IP. It shouldn't treat him as if he had that kind of K rate in 220 IP.

One quirk in my 15-team home league is that we don't use WHIP, so it's 5 x 4. It's interesting how it affects values. On the one hand, elite pitchers are only three-category guys, but on the other, the only downside for starting pitchers is ERA. Which means you have activate almost anyone decent with two starts, and it's worth using a few of your six bench spots for pitching depth. Closers are worth more relative to elite pitchers (because elite pitchers help you more in WHIP), but they're worth less relative to average ones because closers help you somewhat in WHIP. High walk-rate pitchers like Gio Gonzalez and Jonathan Sanchez are also worth more because they can't hurt your WHIP.

The other oddity is there's no utility slot, which means you have to be very careful during the draft not to fill up at a position too early, e.g., taking two first baseman for 1B and CI in the first five rounds, because you're barred from any bargain 1B that falls later in the draft. So not only are you trying to draft the best player available but also tempering that with the need to preserve flexibility. I've run afoul of this rule a few times, and it's cost me. OF (of which there are five) and P (of which there are nine) get a slight bump as a result because you can draft a bunch of them without costing yourself options later.

Hopefully, none of the guys in my home league read this column, though I imagine a few have already figured most if not all of this out

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: March 2, 2011 5:49:53 PM PST
To: Christopher Liss

Two other closers that should get a bump relative to other closers in the YF&F format are the Braves' Craig Kimbrel and the Pirates' Joel Hanrahan. Kimbrel still has to win the job over Johnny Venters, but he struck out a whopping 40 batters in 20.2 innings after getting the call (albeit at the cost of walking 16 in that span). While he'll obviously regress some, his K-rates consistently were in the 12-13 per nine innings range all throughout the minors. Meanwhile, Hanrahan posted his highest strikeout rate yet last year, striking out nearly 13/9IP last year while walking fewer batters per-nine (3.36) than he's ever done. I only wish the Pirates had waited longer to name him their closer, to give me a better chance at landing Hanrahan cheaply.

One other thought to throw out - does the Yahoo F&F rules allowing for two UT's make it less punitive to draft a DH-only like David Ortiz or Jim Thome, or does the games-cap plus three reserves spots still make it pretty punitive?

Finally, one thing that I wish I would have used more in the past is Yahoo's position-eligibility page. I either overlooked that, or it's an enhanced feature. Either way, it's a good tool to help us map out our draft strategy for F&F.