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Charging the Mound: Advanced Stats Outliers

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, June 12, 2012 12:17pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: rant and roll

Looks like I'm sitting in the Chris Liss Seat of Rants for this week. Captain Liss will return next week, assuming the concert schedule for his ABBA Tribute Band isn't extended.

The two MLB clubs I really care about, the Red Sox and the Tigers, are in trouble, so I'll start there.

Has anything gone right in Boston? David Ortiz is the only significant player who's doing more than expected. Maybe they'll get something magical from Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford (seriously, don't get me started) in the second half, but how can anyone trust the infield? Kevin Youkilis looks like he's 105 years old, Dustin Pedroia's got the bad thumb and his numbers are in the tank, Mike Aviles can't hit righties, and something has to be wrong with Adrian Gonzalez, too (bad shoulder? bad karma?). The pitching staff is full of the usual suspects, underachievers all over the place.

The Tigers look like a top-heavy fraud. Two super hitters, one elite starting pitcher, one terrific defender in center, that's all I like here. Obviously the rest of the defense is a problem. It's hard to offset Injuries to key support guys like Doug Fister and Alex Avila. The Tigers can't afford to have Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch be vortexes of suck. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello keep teasing everyone. But the main reason I think Detroit is sunk: Chicago is damn good, and Cleveland might be a player if it adds one more piece. Those guys are ahead of the Tigers and they're probably better anyway. End of story.

It's been an up-and-down year for my roto clubs. I've got three teams in first, contending in a few others (including NL Tout). Rebuilding in the hometown keeper, but after titles in 2009 and 2010, that's fine. (I know, no one really cares. No one should.)

My Friends & Family team is buried under 20 feet of snow, so it goes. I still like the strategy I used in March (grab just about all hitting at the draft, figure out pitching in-season) and I'm pretty sure I'll work with a similar plan next year, assuming the league specs don't change. I'm not blaming the blueprint, I'm blaming the execution (and the guy who made the in-season decisions).

And I'll say this for the F&F: no matter where I sit i the standings, it's still fun. It's always fun. There's always something to look at, someone to pick up, a waiver wire to look at. I wish I could say that about every industry league I'm in.

Here's the evil side of roto: consider the 12-team AL-only industry group that CBS runs. The league has seven-men benches and either deep or unlimited DL spots, I'm not sure which. I've had injured outfielders all year and there's literally no one to pick up - you cannot find an outfielder free agent who logged an at-bat last week. And there hasn't been a single trade in this league all season. What's fun about that? Why would anyone want to play roto this way? If you can't pick up anyone or trade for anyone, why should you care?

I've been mocked by a few Tout Warriors for my unorthodox DL views. I just wish people would approach the subject with an open mind. When you run into injury issues in a mono league, finding adequate replacements is a bigger worry than clearing storage space for your injured guys. If nothing else, I hope Tout will consider limiting DL spots in subsequent seasons (eliminating them altogether might be better). We're allowing owners unlimited fishing, but the pond doesn't have any fish.

I'm already over the word count, but humor me with two quick hitters. Rickie Weeks will do what the rest of the way? Tim Lincecum's ERA will be what the rest of the way? What sort of stats (or non-statistical factors) influence your answers?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 4:41am
To: "scott pianowski"
Subject: RE: rant and roll

At least a few things have gone right recently for the Red Sox, though it seems even those open up other problems or at the very least more questions. Youkilis looks like he's toast for sure, but at least Will Middlebrooks has emerged at the right time. The dreaded "anonymous scout" has weighed in on Youk, saying he looks even worse than his numbers indicate. It's going to be harder than I first thought for the Red Sox to get much out of him. So it raises the question (note, *raises* and not *begs*) - are the Red Sox willing to bench him for Middlebrooks if a trade can't get worked out? And Will Middlebrooks falter the second time around the league?

Germane to your point about expert leagues, I traded for Middlebrooks in AL Tout Wars with your colleague Andy Behrens. Needing power and a corner infielder to replace the immortal Kila Ka'aihue, I gave up Jarrod Parker to get Middlebrooks, after he turned down Parker for Chris Davis. At the time (and really, it shows how fragile our roto existence can be to say "at the time" two days ago), I could readily afford to give up a decent starting pitcher and still maintain my lead in strikeouts in the league - then Brandon Morrow went down after nine pitches on Monday. I'm gambling that Middlebrooks sticks around the rest of the season by hook-or-crook. What say you?

The minor thing that's worked out for the Sox has been some of the no-name relievers turning in good seasons. Andrew Miller hasn't been used in high-leverage situations, but somehow he's got a 2.13 ERA and .711 WHIP. I'll concede the small sample size point, but it's possible he has turned the corner. Scott Atchison similarly has been great. Franklin Morales has been useful, too. But even that has been bittersweet, as the no-names have outperformed those brought in from the outside this offseason to come to the aid of the much-maligned bullpen - Andrew Bailey obviously hasn't pitched, Mark Melancon got dinged after one horrific weekend in Detroit (fill in your own punch line - and I have family from the area, so I'm taking that cheap shot with love), and Vicente Padilla has been all over the map.

I don't know what to make of Adrian Gonzalez. I know that his walk rate is way down, but while it's worth noting that particular fact, I want to know *why* it's down so much. Is he compensating for an injury that would slow his bat-speed, and thus committing earlier in the pitch? Is there an eyesight issue? It's so rare to see a player's plate discipline collapse like this at this stage of his career, particularly when it used to be so good. I'm tempted to try to trade for him in more leagues, though that's easier said than done. I hear from all these people on my show panicking about their slumping stars, but I never seem to make any headway when I try to trade for them. See also, Justin Upton. In fact, I only get trade offers in the leagues where I already own the likes of Upton and Gonzalez.

Despite all of the bad storylines for Boston, they still are second in baseball in runs scored behind the Rangers. Clay Buchholz has four good starts in a row. Alfredo Aceves has kept his blow-ups to a minimum lately. And most importantly, nobody has run away and hid in the AL East. Making up ground is still an achievable goal.

I'm with you on the Tigers, though - I'm not nearly as optimistic about their chances, despite them being in a weaker division. The fantasy takeaway is that they represent the perils of trying to do a "Stars-and-Scrubs" auction team - you have to get the right stars and make the pieces fit, and there's very little margin for error for injuries. The defense is just atrocious on this team, something that was foreseeable from Day 1. They've had some bad luck in that Ryan Raburn tanked so badly and they went without Austin Jackson for a while due to his side injury, not to mention losing Victor Martinez in the offseason. I'd include losing Andy Dirks along with Avila and Fister, too.

My F&F team is wallowing in mediocrity (well, that was my perception before Tuesday's games and a good-sized spike in the standings - convenient, that), and the big problem is the offense, which is a rare spot for me, given my typical draft preferences. I might have deviated from my usual strategy by one pitcher vs. hitter choice in the first 12 rounds, and it's had a reasonably big impact. Last year I think I had more at-bats than everyone else by a comfortable margin and was pushing the games limits at every position. That's not the case this season - I'm finding it harder and harder to get up to that games limit, as I think that the league as a whole is crushing those Monday/Thursday pickups and carrying fewer and fewer pitchers. Your draft strategy illustrated that mentality, and I don't think that you're alone in doing so.

I love the wrinkles of this league - low innings cap, two UT spots and just four OF slots, the ability to start (or even carry) fewer pitchers than the max active slots, etc ... It would be a pain if every league were like this, but finding the nuances of a particular game is part of the appeal. To use my monthly poker analogy - we all know the card values and that a flush beats a straight (e.g., that Player X is worth more than Player Y), but it's the little aspects of the individual game and the tendencies of the people playing it that makes the game more playable.

Speaking of league nuances, I don't mind your proposal to limit the DL spots in a deep industry league like Tout. The only problem is that there's the apparent discrepancy in how it affects individual teams in a given year. If your team happens to be on the low end of the luck spectrum, you get disproportionately hit by the rule that helps the greater good. You're the one having to make hard choices in the name of making the waiver wire more valuable. I don't think the luck factor with injuries balances out - at least not in the course of one season. But it probably would come closer to doing so over four-to-five seasons.

But even with that possible flaw, the scenario that you describe in the CBS league is a nightmare. Tout at least has done two changes to that starts to address the problem. We once had six reserve slots, and we've since pared that down to four. And in the "only" leagues, we now are only required to start four outfielders, converting the fifth outfielder slot to a "swingman," which can be any position, including a 10th pitcher. I don't know if it's a perfect response, but I like it better than how it was previously - and I think it could be interesting to see if we see a team load up on starting pitchers as a second-half strategy, using that extra slot as a way to bludgeon his way to the top of the strikeout and wins categories.

I'm completely baffled about Rickie Weeks. Usually we look at a spike in the walk rate as a positive, and a drop there as a warning sign. But for Weeks both is walk rate and his strikeout rate have exploded. Again, like the Adrian Gonzalez question, it's not just enough to cite that it's happened, but to ask why has it happened? It can't always just be a health issue; at least, I don't think it can. Weeks is only 29 years old, too. Even as a second baseman, he shouldn't be anywhere near the cliff. The good news for the Brewers is that they only have two more years left on his contract after this season.

I dodged the question, but I'll say: "Rickie Weeks will blame an injury later this season."

Up until his last start, I thought I might buy on Lincecum - I don't own him anywhere, so I don't have that psychological "been burned by him" barrier yet. But renewed talk about his velocity dipping lower again in Sunday's loss to the Rangers has put the brakes on that notion. Part of the problem for me is I can't tell how reliable the pitch data really is. Fangraphs suggests that his fastball wasn't appreciably slower Sunday than in his other starts this season, nor that he was throwing his slider any less. But now the rumor is flying - between conflicting velocity reports and other suggestions that he might end up bullpen bound, I'm just going to avoid that market altogether. Rest of the way ERA? Let's go with a continued series of tough outings, and a 5.50 ERA.

I'll leave you with one question. I broached the possibility of Kevin Youkilis getting dealt. Who else to you is a logical trade candidate? Will there be fewer sellers this year because of the additional play-in wild card game? Or is this too far off your radar to start breaking down the possible trades?

-----Original Message-----
From: "scott pianowski"
Sent: Thursday, June 14, 2012 3:17am
Subject: perfectly purple

So, Matt Cain threw a no-hitter. Wait, a perfect game. ("A shutout!" according to Tim Lincecum. Okay, I'm making that up.)

I don't have any Cain stock this year, but he's always been one of my favorite pitchers because of how he defies so many modern metrics and ERA estimators. We need players like this.

It also reminds me of a Gene McCaffrey quote from a few years ago, absolute gold (and I know I mentioned this last year, same space):

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.

So many logical spin-overs to that. I'm so glad Gene is around.

Mike Salfino and I have been having a Cain-esque debate for a week or so about Johnny Cueto, another pitcher who's mocking his peripheral-suggested ERAs. Mike's on board. I'm skeptical - I don't dislike Cueto, but I think he's pitching over his head and this is a great time to sell. If you have a second, give us the word from Cincinnati West.

Andy Behrens is an expert who will trade in industry leagues. Love that guy. Always reasonable. I see Youkilis getting dealt, but the Red Sox will have to eat a decent chunk of the salary.

One of Boston's big problems for a comeback is the fact that the entire division is good. The days of kicking Baltimore around seem over. Toronto is the sleeping giant in baseball if you ask me, tons of talent, smarts, cash. Everyone knows what looms in New York and Tampa. I'm putting Boston down for 82 wins and golf on Oct. 4.

One thing that always bothered me about the Tigers was the middle-infield defense. If you're going to lock down the corners with Miggy and Fielder, fine - but you better be air-tight up the middle. Raburn is a horrendous second baseman and it's not like Peralta is a plus defender. Chicago and Cleveland will finish ahead of the Tigers.

One other Tout change I'd like to see: let's buy *all* of our players on auction day, not just the starters. The only reason we have a reserve draft is because "we've always done it that way." Let the marketplace truly be free at all times.

I envision a quiet MLB trade deadline because too many teams are in contention. Money will drive most of the deals, not standing placement.

Weeks finishes the year under .200, and eventually hits the DL again. Lincecum's ERA from this point forward is over 4. Cueto's ERA bloats to 3.65 in the second half. Behrens wins the Yahoo! Friends & Family League, with you or Dalton second. (And I finish first in trades. Ha! Not a banner year for the Baileys.)

Thanks for letting me ride shotgun. I'll catch you in the comments.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, June 14, 2012 10:11am
To: "scott pianowski"
Subject: RE: perfectly purple

All these outliers are great. Not just Cain and his low home run rate, but how about Jeremy Hellickson? What about the opposite example - Ricky Nolasco? How many years in a row have his advanced metrics suggested he's better than his traditional metrics suggest? If you want to go back farther, Carlos Zambrano confounded everyone for years by outperforming his suggested levels. I used to get angry about mainstream writers using outliers to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I think there are now just as many people on the sabermetric side that troll beat writers. In both cases, the voices are just too strident - so many people talking past each other and not with each other.

I'm probably the wrong person to ask about Cueto, because I want to believe in him. When he first came up, he would frequently struggle to get deep into games, often getting to 100 pitches after five innings. This appears to be a conscious effort to become more efficient and to allow fewer homers. He's changed how he attacks hitters and he's changed his delivery. I think it's for real. Put me down for 3.05 the rest of the way.

I don't mind the idea of buying all the players in Tout, including the reserves, especially if we don't have to fill the active roster first. Open up the strategic considerations even further. Though if we're going to go that route, I'd make it even more wide open, and allow for more than one swingman that can be either a pitcher or hitter on the active roster. Really let owners choose how they want to construct their roster.

I think that the extra wild card slot will create fewer trades, at least this year. Maybe in future years we'll have a clearer distinction between playoff contenders and pretenders to create more sellers. But right now, I think that the only obvious sellers are the Cubs, Astros, Padres, A's, Mariners and Twins, and maybe the Royals. What sort of inventory do they really have? Matt Garza is probably the most cherished commodity among those, maybe Ryan Dempster. Maybe another team will emerge like the Rockies, but again, what exactly do we have to buy from them?