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Charging the Mound: Overcoming Platoon Splits

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: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 3:02pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging

We talked last week about how Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun are having monster seasons, but as both were almost universally gone by the 15th pick, there are other players who yielded bigger profits. For starters Curtis Granderson, believe it or not, is leading the majors in homers, RBI and runs, the latter by an enormous margin (122 to Jacoby Ellsbury's 95). Usually a player can't dominate in runs or RBI the way one can in SBs or HRs, but Granderson's got to be a couple of standard deviations above Ellsbury in scoring this year. Given that Granderson's ADP was 73, and that he's been kind enough to add 24 steals, he's going to be on a lot of winning rosters this year.

Another player I expect to collect a lot of rings is Justin Verlander - do you realize he leads the majors in WHIP (0.90) (Josh Beckett is second at 0.97), strikeouts (218), innings pitched (215.2) and wins (20), the latter by a huge margin (C.C. Sabathia and Ian Kennedy are second with 17). And he's third in ERA behind only Johnny Cueto and Jered Weaver. Should those two stumble, and Verlander finish strong, we're talking about someone who'd win the triple crown in pitcher (Wins, Ks, ERA) and also WHIP and IP. Winning four major categories could be called a "grand slam," but do we even have a word for five?

Josh Beckett (ADP 172) is a close second given where he was drafted, his 2.43 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 141 Ks and 11 wins. A few others I'll throw out there: Lance Berkman, Melky Cabrera, Asdrubal Cabrera, Starlin Castro, Alex Gordon, Alex Avila, Ryan Roberts, Cameron Maybin, Jeff Francouer, James Shields, Justin Masterson and Ryan Volgelsong. Jacoby Ellsbury has also been a monster, even for a typical third or fourth round pick, and while Ricky Romero didn't come cheap this year, he's been a huge bargain as well.

Anyone else I'm leaving out (besides closers who won the job and kept it)?

On the flip side how many teams that drafted Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, Ubaldo Jimenez, Mat Latos, Ichiro or Alex Rodriguez are still in contention? And if you did draft one or more of those mammoth busts and win your league, do you deserve more credit than someone who grabbed Ellsbury hoping merely for a bounce-back? I've been patting myself on the back all year for contending in AL LABR despite using 10 percent of my budget on Adam Dunn, for example. Even if I were wrong to bid on Dunn (an agnostic pick, by the way), is it my fault for being this wrong, as anyone in the room would have taken him for $20 or $22 even. And while one deserves credit for going the extra buck on Granderson, no one in the room would have gone to $30, let alone the $45 or $50 he's earned.

Or alternatively, do you feel that if you're the guy who went the extra buck, you own his entire upside and downside, and you deserve 100 percent of whatever you got for making that decision at that time?

Finally, with Beckett, Romero, Sabathia, Shields, David Price, Jeff Niemann and Jon Lester all having strong seasons, despite pitching in the AL East, are you less inclined to shy away from pitchers in that division? Is it only the marginal ones who merit a downgrade? Or is the downgrade already built in, and were Lester or Sabathia to pitch in the NL West, you'd have to take them ahead of Kershaw and/or Tim Lincecum?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 4:01am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: RE: Charging

I'm not especially surprised that Granderson has kept it going, but that he has caught Jose Bautista in homers. It looked after the first three months that Bautista would run away with the home run title. It bears repeating, but what Granderson has done against lefties this year is nothing short of shocking. Here's a guy that, even factoring in this year's output, has an OPS that over .200 lower against lefties over his career, but this year he has a .278/.353/.630 line against them. He now has 939 at-bats against them in his career - perhaps it's just a case of him finally getting enough looks at lefties?

I think we've talked on the air about this, but why is it that only lefties get this sort of treatment? Is it just a matter of not facing enough fellow left-handers to get used to the angle, or is there an actual qualitative difference that allows many lefty pitchers to dominate their counterparts? I can see the rationale for platooning more in the major leagues, at least where the team in question is in contention at the moment. But do teams do themselves a disservice by platooning so frequently with lefties? I think that they do - especially given how most teams manage their big league roster - 12-man pitching staffs are the norm, so AL teams at most have a four-man bench, with one of those players being the backup catcher and another being a backup middle infielder. How many teams can afford to carry an Earl Weaver-style platoon?

I've lucked into Verlander in a few leagues this year, so I've been pretty acutely aware of just how dominant he's been. He (and Dan Haren) have given me such a stranglehold on the WHIP and ERA categories, not just because of how good they've been, but also how many innings that they've thrown. I can't emphasize enough how useful they've been in an innings-cap league like Y! F&F. But yeah, at least we paid a decent price for both of those starters. Given how good of an investment (note, the link goes back to a pay article, but you can get free 10-day access here)the elite starters have been this year, where do you expect Verlander to go next year? Do you think we'll see multiple pitchers go in the first-round of a standard 12-team league? How about one with an innings-cap? I think you could make pretty good arguments for Verlander, Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw.

Your ADP-bargains list is pretty comprehensive. Let me throw out a couple more, at least that were based on Yahoo's O-Ranks. Michael Bourn (O-Rank: 155) is no longer just a speed-only goof, but because he's done a much better job of getting on-base, both with a higher batting average and with a higher walk-rate, he's now a three-category player, with runs scored and average. He still has a pretty big stolen base lead over the field, though with 47 steals, that doesn't sound nearly as impressive as in decades past.

David Ortiz (O-Rank: 138) got discounted both because of his lack of position, and because of his slow starts the previous two years. Once again, a player with a past level of production can still regain a lot of his value once he's healthy again. Most leagues only have one UT spot available, but in a league where we have two as in F&F, we don't have to discount those DH's so severely.

One more pitcher isn't a starter or a closer, but mostly is a set-up guy - Jonny Venters. His owners may have lost the Braves' closer battle against Craig Kimbrel, but chances are they paid very little for Venters (O-Rank: 212) and were rewarded with six wins, five saves, 83 K's, a 1.33 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP for their faith in hanging onto him. In an innings-cap league, that's gold.

If you want full credit or blame for going the extra dollar, I think you have to be a genius drafter rather than an agnostic. I know that it's impossible to be purely agnostic - how else could have some sense of value but to have done the research and have your sense of the player in the first place? But if you're the type of drafter that goes in essentially mapping out their full draft or auction, down to specific names, in advance, then I think you get all the credit/blame that goes with your decisions. Otherwise, you're fooling yourself. I liked Verlander and Haren this year, but hell, if I could have taken Josh Johnson in the fourth round or Ubaldo Jimenez (not to mention a number of hitters that were taken in the 14 picks before I got Haren that ultimately were busts) in the sixth round instead, I probably would have. So there's some good fortune at work besides good drafting.

Finally, about the AL East pitchers, I'm more likely to downgrade them if I have less flexibility on when to use them. For instance, in F&F, because we have such a low innings-cap and a big pool of available starting pitching, I'm never going to use Ricky Romero against the Yankees or Red Sox. I even hesitated using Verlander against them on occasion - and it's borderline whether it's been a right call to use him even then. But I have that latitude, so I think it's still a worthwhile play to skim the cream off the top, enough that I can pay closer to full value for those pitchers. So in a league like LABR, where there's no taxiing allowed between the active and reserve roster for the vast majority of your players, yeah, I think that the discount still applies. If Sabathia and Lester were to go to the NL (and go to, say, the Phillies, where they'd get decent enough run support), they'd go right with Kershaw and Lincecum - maybe a spot or two above here, a spot or two below there. It's hard to forget exactly how awesome Sabathia was with the Brewers, but it's also pretty near impossible to get that much better than those two.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 1:32pm
Subject: Re: Charging

If I had to take a pitcher in the first round next year, it would be Roy Halladay, hands down for the consistency. Verlander's having a great year, but not better in real life than Zack Greinke in 2009, so it's hard to say he's never going back to being the Verlander of 2009 and 2010 which isn't exactly a bad, but just not a first-round pick. But I wouldn't even take Halladay in the top-15 picks because I still think the hitting is harder to come by and carries more weight when it pans out. A case in point - in the YF&F league, I dealt Mike Stanton (and threw in a almost worthless Trevor Cahill) for Tim Lincecum, and DDD dealt Jay Bruce for Clayton Kershaw SU. Maybe that league devalues starting pitching due to the low innings cap, but as you pointed out, it cuts both ways as each dominant starter occupies such a big percentage of your total innings.

As for lefties, I do think the angle is typically different - and you can see this a little bit with left-handed quarterbacks in the NFL - and it makes it more like a righty facing a right-handed sidearmer. Between that and the fact that there are fewer lefties to face and practice against, it's harder for lefties to get used to hitting fellow lefties. But Granderson is a good example of why you want to tolerate some struggles there as the Yankees would have missed out on a ton of offense had they used to his past performance as an indicator and platooned him.

The problem with the genius/agnostic distinction isn't that all agnostics have to be part "genius," but that every genius has to be part agnostic. In other words, even if you're dead set on getting Granderson, you're not going to pay $34 him in AL LABR this year. Or put differently, you love the guy relative to all evidence of what his market value is likely to be, but should some insane person in your league like him $10 over market, you're not going to like him at that price. So when Granderson earns $48, and you paid $28 for him, one could argue you're still only entitled to credit for the difference in what you got him for and what you would have paid.

In the end, it really doesn't matter how you apportion the credit - you either do well or you don't. But if you're looking back to see what you can learn from your win and how you might repeat your success next year, owning Granderson and Ellsbury might lead you to conclude: "Just buy the guys who go absolutely nuts beyond anyone's projections for them, and you'll win." Which is kind of my philosophy, though most agnostics will tell you it can't be done consistently.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, September 1, 2011 1:31am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging

Yeah, I'd take Halladay first among pitchers too, and probably Kershaw and Lincecum again, too, before going with Verlander, if for no other reason than the level of competition that each will face. Speaking of Lincecum, he had a bad start Monday against the Cubs, but he was on a pretty sick roll before that, though it doesn't reflect in his win-loss record. Of course, seeing as you traded for him, you're aware of how well he's pitched, only to not get rewarded with the wins. The question is how early would I go after one of those guys? A few years ago I had the wheel (15th spot) in the NFBC and went with Lincecum. He delivered, but I whiffed on the closers that year (and waited on them because I went with a SP early, feeling I needed to catch up on the hitting after that). If I'm in a similar position next year, yeah, I'd pass on taking a starter in the first round and probably the second round - there's just a smaller margin for errors with the hitting, and like you said, finding the hitters is getting harder. The fact that one starter doesn't stick out like a sore thumb in strikeouts any longer argues against that play, too.

Going back to the lefty platoon discussion for a second, if you want to see a remarkable split, check out what Joey Votto is doing against lefties this year. He's better across the board - .351/.453/.590 in 134 at-bats. Yet frequently I still see teams bring out the lefty situational reliever for him - and in many cases, it's just a generic lefty, not an elite one. Granted, over his career he's still been better against right-handers, but his .905 career OPS against left-handers is still pretty sweet.

The takeaway on Granderson is strong - and teams additionally hurt themselves by reflexively platooning lefties. If a lefty hitter goes long periods without facing a lefty, it's almost a self-fulfilling prophecy he'll fail in the future against future lefty pitchers. Someone like Seth Smith is almost doomed to never hit lefties - he has only 70 at-bats against them this year and only 191 over his full career. Now, he hasn't always been a starter even against righties, but they've put him in that corner for good with the way they've handled him.

The profit/loss analysis for auction leagues usually correlates pretty well to the fantasy standings. Jason Collette wrote a good series for the three Tout Wars leagues earlier this summer to that effect.