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Charging the Mound: Pianowski and Erickson Talk Baseball

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).

Scott Pianowski

Scott Pianowski writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Scott Pianowski"
Sent: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 5:56am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: mounding the charge

I'm filling in for Chris Liss this week, gamers. I'm not nearly as handsome, but with any luck, I'll be just as cantankerous.

Good tidings, Jeff. I've got three mini-themes to throw out there; go a-la-carte and respond to the ones that catch your fancy.

-- Very Early in My Season, It Was Too Late: A lot of the same phrases get trotted out as smart people try to figure out the first 20 percent of the season. Small sample size … regression is coming … the schedule hasn't evened out yet . . . the weather hasn't warmed up yet … it's a marathon, not a sprint (I could not be more sick of that one) . . . yada yada yada.

But now that we're into the second week of May, how much meat do the standings and stats (real and fantasy) have? When can you look at your roster and your standings and have a sense of what your situation really is? When does a good start become a good season, and vice versa?

I'll be blunt about one thing - if you're in last place today and in a competitive and deep redraft league, your winning chances are essentially zero. Apply this to leagues like Yahoo Friends & Family and Tout Wars. Is the waiver wire pool deep? Not particularly. Is trading very common? Hey, I'm always trying, but it doesn't seem to be. I'm not picking on anyone who's currently buried in the standings (I've had some Tout train wrecks here and there), but I think anyone in last right now in a competitive league needs a more realistic goal than first place, because there's not enough time to take a sad song and make it better.

You're doing well in F&F (second) and Tout (fourth), so you're not in a desperate position. But for the owners who are (and I'm thinking redraft-only here), what should they do? Hold true to their March feelings on players? Try to invite volatility? Those playing in shallow and unsophisticated leagues probably don't have to take a Kamikaze approach, but are the rules different in more-competitive groups?

-- When Worlds Collide: I try not to dwell on it too much, but I'm somewhat conflicted when I watch baseball these days. I've got players I've promoted and panned on my mind, my own roto teams to negotiate, and then there's the real-life rooting interests that have nothing to do with fake baseball. How do you handle these conflicts in your own mind? Do you root for the Reds every day of the season, no matter how it affects opinions you've given in public or players you're invested in?

-- Identifying Growth: We'll hear "regression coming" about 10,000 more times this year, as hot starters are expected to cool and slow starters are expected to heat up. Most of the time, it's sage advice - you take comfort in the large sample, the bulk of career data. But what sorts of things can we look for in-season to help us discern when a fast start is legitimate or a slow start is troublesome? Some clues are fairly obvious - Trevor Cahill's strikeout spike or Brett Wallace's plate discipline improvement come to mind, or Derek Jeter's ground-ball jamboree - but what's under the surface here? Without giving away all of your special sauce to the world, what are some of your favorite indicators?

There are some other thematic ideas that I might introduce in the next reply, but I don't want this opener to be too long. The internet might be untimed and unlimited, but you don't want to take advantage of that. Either way, I know one of the first comments we'll get on Yahoo - too long, didn't read.

I've made my serve. I now expect you to lace it into the corner for a winner, like you always did against me in 2000.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 7:18pm
To: "Scott Pianowski"
Subject: RE: mounding the charge

Sigh ... 2000 is a pretty long time ago. That's about the last time I had a semi-regular tennis game. Now I'm relegated to playing once every summer, where those forehands that once hit the corner are now launched into the fence. Hopefully I won't miss the mark as badly with your topics this week.

-- Right now is a really good time to look at those standings and figure out where you have shortcomings. Certainly in many cases injuries have played a part, and that can change - just ask how much of a boost Zack Greinke provided his owners last night against the Padres. Where you really want to play close attention are the percentage categories - batting average (or preferably, on-base percentage, but that rarely happens), ERA and WHIP. Even in deeper, highly competitive leagues, there's the risk that some teams out of the hunt will manage their teams less proactively over the second half of the season. Sometimes that starts around the All-Star break, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, but unless there are severe penalties for finishing at the bottom, it's pretty tough to prevent this from happening. Usually when those teams start to give up, they'll drop off in the counting stats, but rarely will they change much in the percentage stats. Moreover, the later in the season you get, the harder it is to materially change your ranking in those cats, unless they are really tight to begin with.

I agree with you, though - if you're in last or a few parsecs away from contending, the chances of winning become pretty slim. If you're in a league like F&F or Tout, it's basically winner-take-all - nobody cares whether you finished 12th or 5th. So why not get radical? We always talk about managing the categories anyhow, why not start now? Load up on closers and punt wins and maybe strikeouts - especially if you're in an innings-cap league. Trade for more boom-or-bust players, in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle.

We as fantasy players don't have to worry about the ramifications of a boom-or-bust strategy going busto nearly as much real life general managers do. So naturally they're less-inclined to try these radical strategies, especially they have to worry about 2012, 2013 and beyond. Even if the decision is to punt 2011 and play for the future, there are current ramifications that these GM's and (especially) owners also have to deal with.

-- I always root for the Reds over Roto. Sometimes they make it tough for me ("now leading off, Willy Taveras"), but still, I root for a positive result from them, even with the players on the team that I don't particularly think are that good. I'd much rather see someone else's Jonny Gomes taking my Bud Norris deep than see him striking out to end the game - in fact, I'd rather be wrong about Gomes losing his job to Chris Heisey if it helps the team. And I'd rather see Heisey get the job and do well for someone else than see him flop if I'm not able to profit off my own advice. I only hope that the negative fantasy implications can be minimized. Then again, one way to mitigate that is to go out on Stubbs Island and overdraft my breakout guys from my team, so I get to enjoy them rather than someone else.

The tougher conflict is when you tout a particular player, that's not a real-life team that you already root for, but then for whatever reason don't back that up by owning him in your fantasy leagues. Do you root for the advice/tout, especially if it comes at the expense of your fantasy team? It's my least favorite aspect of our game - you can't own everyone you tout.

-- The regression talk is annoying to me, even though it's frequently accurate, because it's lazily applied. "Player X will regress because he's never done it before." Yeah, that's great, until the player does do it. How often did we see that sort of discussion with Jose Bautista? I'd rather at least try to find out why something is happening.

With the explosion of data sources and ways to parse that data, it's difficult for something these days to be under the surface, especially from a statistical point-of-view. If we're looking at a pitcher, sure, check the velocity readings of a pitcher to see if he's throwing harder or getting less velocity. But that doesn't tell you why that is happening all the time. The truth is that there is no special sauce. You look at all the statistical indicators that you can, read everything possible about the player, watch him as much as possible (and we have greater access to that than ever before), and then hope to make the best educated guess on the outliers. If there were, it would be too easy to do this. I think it's easier to believe in the breakout than to write-off the faller, especially because you get punished twice by the faller - first with his bad stats for your team, then as he helps your opponent who scoops him up after you cut/trade him.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Scott Pianowski"
Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 11:12pm
Subject: misty mountain hawpe

You're probably going to be in first in the F&F when this CTM goes to press, so congrats to that. No one gets a trophy on May 12, but any roto team contending today is probably going to contend all season.

I was too smiley and friendly in the first reply; I'm going to air some grievances in this one.

Five Critiques of Today's Roto Analysis

1. The "AL only" cop-out. Some hack tells you to "monitor" Scott Sizemore for your mixed league, but "get him for AL-only."

Do these people actually play in AL-only or NL-only formats? In the mono leagues I'm in, anyone who plays even 3-4 days a week has value. I lost both of my catchers in NL Tout (Hundley, Ruiz) and the waiver wire was so barren, I didn't even bid on a replacement (just looking at the waiver wire was a source of frustration). The "best" available free-agent hitter in the CBS AL-only expert league is Robert Andino.

The winning Sizemore bid in Mixed-Tout, for what it's worth, was $16 - Andy Behrens (he beat out five other teams). There's a pro and a con case to Sizemore, but you can't wait for the story to develop if you want a share, you need to gamble *now*. Identify a plausible upside and take a shot, that's how you contend in a competitive mixer. Those that insist on heavy bundles of data before making a decision cannot win, not in a mixed-league anyway.

2. Ride Em While He's Hot

I'm glad people write this. I was thinking I should cut bait when a player is hot. Should I pick up money I find on the ground too? I'll wait for further instruction.

3. The Sell-High, Buy-Low crapola

When a player the public likes and trusts goes on a tear, yes, you can probably sell at an inflated value. But you can't sell high on Dustin Moseley, not in any league of sophistication. You can't trade Kyle Lohse and Jed Lowrie to someone for Hanley Ramirez. (I suppose there might be some simpleton leagues where this sort of chicanery is attainable; if so, congratulations. Forget seeking any outside advice - you'll win your league just by showing up.)

4. Exposing the outlier

We all know that Alfonso Soriano isn't going to hit 55 homers and Matt Holliday isn't going to bat .390. Yelling out "regression!" is not an answer, or particularly helpful. The key question is "what level do outliers ultimately regress to?"

5. The False Eureka

I heard a roto analyst the other day sound surprised when he noted Soriano's lofty HR/FB rate. What did he expect? This isn't T-Ball - home runs in the show come on fly balls that clear the fence.

Holliday's zesty average is fueled by a crazy .471 BABIP. Sure, it's unsustainable, but we shouldn't be surprised by the presence of that hit rate. How else can you get your average near .400? A lotta balls better be falling into play. And we also have to accept that batters have some role in their BABIPs - Aaron Hill's crummy 2010 season, for example, was just as much him sucking (too many fly balls and weakly-hit balls) as it was bad luck.

Gene McCaffrey (the most underrated baseball writer I know) had this tremendous observation on the first page of his 2011 Annual:

"Ten years ago nobody ever heard of BABIP, now it's as if nothing else matters. But this is good for us, because it locks otherwise intelligent people into not thinking things through."

Man, I'm glad Gene is around.

Here are five bite-size predictions on the way out:

1. Cleveland wins the AL Central. They've got a nice lineup and a deep bullpen, and I could see them adding a starting pitcher if they're still in first in the middle of the year. This isn't a good division, and the two biggest threats in theory are already buried by 15 feet of snow.

2. Adrian Gonzalez finishes with a better Roto season than Albert Pujols. I actually traded Pujols for Gonzalez in my "fun league" last weekend, just wanting to own Gonzalez somewhere, anywhere. Gonzalez was a line-drive and doubles machine for about two weeks, before this week's homer binge. It's not that I'm down on Pujols really, I'm just convinced Gonzalez could make an MVP run.

3. Francisco Liriano is on the DL, or out of the Minnesota rotation, by the middle of the year. Maybe sooner.

4. The NFL plays a 16-game season in 2011.

5. Michael Gehlken wins the F&F League. But he's going to sweat out 15 pounds in the process. (I wish I could do that.)

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, May 12, 2011 9:43am
To: "Scott Pianowski"
Subject: RE: misty mountain hawpe

Let's take a look at your list of grievances. They're all pretty good - and chances are, somewhere along the line, I've committed my share of missteps within each category.

- League Contextual Advice: The first thing we tell our new beat writers that post player notes for RotoWire is to eschew using the phrase "no fantasy value." This game has evolved into so many different formats, that it's impossible to have a one-size fits-all approach. And it works both ways, too. I grew up playing AL-only and NL-only formats, so sometimes the thinner mixed leagues are a tricky adjustment. Just as "no fantasy value" is bad advice, so is "start-able in all formats." Either it's redundant (thanks for telling me to start Albert Pujols) or it's wrong - there's no value-add there. Yet that sort of advice still creeps in from time-to-time.

That's part of the reason why I'm in so many leagues. If you're going to pretend that you have useful advice for a reader's league, you should have at least tried to play in that format once or twice. You can't be everything for everybody, but at the same time, having a wider base of experience can't hurt.

And you're absolutely right, you can't monitor Eric Hosmer or Scott Sizemore and see how he does and *then* pick him up - not unless you're in a league with monthly moves - and yes, I'm actually in one such league. Moreover, even if you are capable of doing that, chances are that you've waited too long and missed out on the best that player has to offer. That's also why the converse of the "... ride him while he's hot ..." advice, "... bench him until he heats up ...," is even worse.

- Sell-High, Buy-Low: Liss and I have discussed various aspects of this before, and yeah, I agree with you on this (that you can't sell high on guys that aren't already in the circle of trust). You can, however, accomplish the opposite, and buy high and sell low, as you did with Brett Gardner in F&F. I think that this whole concept is like basic poker strategy - if the player is acting weak, he is strong, and if the player is acting strong, he is weak. That advice works for a good percentage of the poker playing crowd as does buy-low, sell-high for a good percentage of the roto crowd. But as you start playing against a more-advanced crowd, you need a more nuanced bag of tricks.

- Regression/Eureka: We were talking to Ron Shandler on the radio today about Jose Bautista, and the comment came up that his batting average had to regress. And while that's true, the trick is to guess how much it could regress - what does it regress to? Certainly he's getting pitched differently than last year, and that's improving his already good walk rate. Because of that, though, maybe also his batting average could improve above his career norms?

Your point on Gene is great, too. BABIP has been a funky issue for me, because once again, I think it depends on who you're talking about, and who you're talking to when raising the issue. Certainly there's some relevance in citing BABIP when discussing someone like Chris Johnson or Austin Jackson, when you pair the high BABIP along with a lousy batting eye. But yeah, BABIP becomes a pretty easy crutch to lean on, especially if you don't continue to discuss the various nuances that exist with hitter's and pitcher's individual levels. I find myself using the stat less frequently on my own show, when I assume that there's some familiarity with the stat in my audience, and more so when I do a radio hit on a general sports station, when I assume that it's referenced far less often.

Let's get to the predictions real quick and tie a bow on this:

1. "Cleveland Wins the AL Central" - I still have some concerns with the pitching staff. Carlos Carrasco has a lot of talent but got blown up by the Rays, Fausto Carmona has had great seasons before but has also blown up before. I think that there biggest challenge comes from the Tigers, and not the Twins/White Sox, though I don't think that the Sox are done. I would still take the Indians over any one team in the division, but I might prefer the field if given that option.

2. "Adrian Gonzalez finishes with a better Roto season than Albert Pujols." - This is a pretty interesting challenge, especially because you cited a specific player to do better than Albert and then backed it up. So far, Adrian has been more valuable mostly because of the batting average difference. I'd give this a 45% chance of happening.

3. "Francisco Liriano is on the DL, or out of the Minnesota rotation, by the middle of the year. Maybe sooner." - Man, I really hope you're wrong about this, from a selfish perspective - I own Liriano in Tout. I don't see the Twins making a run in the AL Central without getting a contribution from Liriano - they have too much meh in that rotation already, even acknowledging that Kyle Gibson could contribute. They need him to move the needle in a positive way. But then again, I think something might be wrong with him physically, so you're probably right. Blech.

4. "The NFL plays a 16-game season in 2011." - Let's hope, amigo, let's hope. I don't think that the 18-game schedule will get implemented, one way or another - not with the beating on concussions that the owners are taking (and is well-deserved). I still think training camps start late this year - I hate the rhetoric that I'm seeing right now.

5. "Michael Gehlken wins the F&F League." - Now you're just baiting me. Boo. That trade for Jaime Garcia is looking pretty prescient right now, though. I hope he finishes second or third. I'm on Operation 15 Pounds regardless of this league - just cut out the sodas and I'm on my way.