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Charging the Mound: Where Are the Bags?

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 21, 2012 5:51pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging

What a race in Y!F&F. There are six teams still in contention, and the categories in many cases are tight, particularly steals, something along with wins I can't buy of late. It was nice of Carl Crawford to shut it down for the year just when I needed a roster spot for Brett Anderson. But apart from that, I'm just not getting the bags I need from Cameron Maybin, Austin Jackson and Dustin Pedroia. It got so bad, I dumped Lorenzo Cain for Anthony Gose, figuring that Cain barely cracks my lineup, and Gose - when he starts - is as good a steals play as anyone besides Mike Trout.

Steals this year seem to be down generally. After Trout and Rajai Davis, Michael Bourn is third with only 33. Juan Pierre, an injured Dee Gordon and just-back-from-the DL Emilio Bonifacio are the only other players over 30. Trout and Ryan Braun are the only 20/20 guys, and only B.J. Upton, Alex Rios and Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward and maybe Ian Desmond are good bets to join them. What happened to the Jacoby Ellsbury/Matt Kemp/Braun/Curtis Granderson/Ian Kinsler/Pedroia/Justin Upton monster power/speed combos from last year? Where are Bourn's 61 steals and 10 players with 39 steals or more? I suppose injuries to Gordon, Brett Gardner and Bonifacio are largely to blame for the latter issue, but only Braun and Trout have been big-time power/speed sources this year.

One player that slipped my attention almost entirely this year is Carlos Gomez. He's .255/.303/.464 with 12 homers, four triples, 14 doubles and 23 steals while playing center field. Not a superstar buy any means, but a useful player both in fantasy and reality that was pretty much left for dead. It's a shame that Austin Jackson rarely runs anymore because he's otherwise having a fantastic year despite spending time on the DL - .309/.392/.504 while playing elite center field defense. He's a borderline top-10 MVP candidate - assuming the Tigers make the playoffs. Another under-the-radar player is Justin Morneau who's gone .331/.385/.531 since the break. It took him a while to hit lefties, but now he's all the way back. He's also hit 11 of his 16 homers on the road. Put him in Yankee Stadium, and he could hit 40.

I rostered two pitchers on the DL of late - Jaime Garcia, who pitched a gem, but lost the win due to fielding errors - and now Brett Anderson, who I hope has a good start tonight. It's always good to keep an eye on the injured guys on the waiver wire, and stash them a couple weeks in advance of their call-ups, especially in the Yahoo League where you get special DL slots. Knock on wood - I hope I'm not jinxing Anderson who goes tonight against the Twins at home.

The trick for me in the Yahoo! League as I'm behind in the innings count is to be both aggressive and patient. Aggressive in picking up starters with good match-ups, but patient not to force borderline good match-ups just to catch up. I used Bartolo Colon at home against the Indians last week, which worked out great, but Homer Bailey stunk it up against someone - I think it was the Mets. Of course, it's easy to criticize the call once you know the flop. What's your basis for using the marginal starters in good match-ups? Obviously, even a 50-year old Roger Clemens plays against the Astros these days, but when you're dealing with Cleveland, San Diego, Seattle and Miami, what are your tiebreakers?

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 5:40pm
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: RE: Charging

I've noticed the lack of stolen bases out there as well. In fact, I'm right there with you in that tight pack of stolen bases in F&F. You would think that in an era where power is down, teams would try to run more often to manufacture more runs. The thing is, stolen bases as a whole aren't too far off - there's just fewer outlier guys. As of Tuesday night, there have been 2,457 stolen bases in 3,684 games. That puts on a pace of 3,241 bags stolen in the major leagues, just slightly below the 3,279 bags stolen last year.

But I do wonder if certain players are getting the red light more often, and whether that's a case of fewer elite stolen base guys, or a general mindset in baseball, perhaps sabermetrically driven, that getting caught is more costly? Or, does Occam's Razor apply and the fluctuation is just random? Is there a way to test for it looking at the overall numbers? Again, using the overall numbers at, base stealers have been more proficient this year, successfully running at a 73.7% clip, compared to 72.2% last year. Is that statistically significant? How many years do we need to identify a trend?

Anyways, back to the details. In the last couple of days I've picked up a couple of guys that might be decent stolen base plays. Gerardo Parra is starting in the Diamondbacks' outfield with Justin Upton nursing a hamstring injury. He had a handful of bags when Chris Young was hurt earlier this season. Hamstring injuries can linger, even if the initial prognosis is a day or two, so Parra is worth a gamble that he gets extended playing time. The other guy I picked up is almost purely a steals-only play - Everth Cabrera of the Padres. In 82 games he's 22-for-22 on the basepaths. Alas, he has just two homers this year, so he's completely one-dimensional, though at least at a lighter-hitting position.

Perhaps the best speed-only play in September will be Billy Hamilton, who just broke the minor league stolen base record Tuesday night. In fact, when he did that, he took over the Southern League lead despite playing just 39 games there. The problem is two-fold for Hamilton for September, though. One, he's not already on the 40-man roster and the Reds' 40-man is full, meaning that unless they have someone go down with a long-term injury and can put him on the 60-day DL, they'll have to risk losing someone that they're currently protecting. Two, there's no place for Hamilton to play regularly with the Reds. He's not going to replace Zack Cozart at shortstop or Brandon Phillips at second base, and the Reds already have too many outfielders. So he'll be relegated to pinch-hit and pinch-run duties - hard to start a guy like that in your fantasy league, especially in a mixed league, when there's such a high chance of walking away with a zero in his spot.

I've got Jackson in two leagues, so I've been pretty acutely aware of how good he has been. Six of his stolen bases were in the first two months of the season, before he suffered his abdominal injury. I wonder if that's a reason why he hasn't run as frequently? Though that wouldn't explain everything - he has hit well enough after his injury.

I'm also feeling your pain on streaming starting pitchers. Perhaps Arizona isn't the best venue to do it, but I thought that streaming against the Marlins, a team that has all but two of their Opening Day starters gone or hurt, would be a good streaming opponent. But Trevor Cahill couldn't hold a 5-0 lead, so much for that theory. I'm still trying to start pitchers in Safeco, Oakland and Tampa, but as you've mentioned before, it's not a slam dunk against those teams or in those parks. The same holds true with the Pirates in Pittsburgh. I'm starting now to also look at the opposing starter, in the dreaded practice of chasing wins. Fortunately, that's a lesser concern for my F&F team.

My biggest pain this year, however, has been to get enough at-bats, period. We only have three extra/reserve slots, though with the roster manipulation rules in this game, we can expand that a little bit more. And I've tried to do that the best I can, streaming pitchers, using pitcher slots for hitters, etc... But even then, I'm way behind on at-bats, and it's really hard to make that up, unlike missing innings. I haven't avoided the injury bug nearly as much as last year, nor am I finding as many good hitters on the waiver wire as I did last year. And I'm making all sorts of missteps - Carlos Gomez, for instance, was on my team briefly as a Monday/Thursday stream, but I cut him later on, and now he's doing his damage elsewhere, all the while I have 20 games to make up in the outfield. But hey, at least I've got Denard Span's forever day-to-day status on my squad.

Last year when I won, I had more hitter games played than anyone, by a comfortable margin. Even in a mixed league like this, it makes a world of difference in the counting stats. I know the execution for Pianow didn't work out this year in this league, but I think he was onto something with his draft strategy, shorting pitchers significantly to max out at-bats.

The other thing is, with you, Dalton, Behrens and Salfino also aggressively streaming, I'm going to have to start acting two days in advance on my pickups - that eliminates some efficiency, plus it cuts down on roster flexibility on those lighter schedule days. This is a tough league, but I love the aggression in August and September. There's no playing out the string here.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Thursday, August 23, 2012 2:12am
Subject: Re: Charging

For what it's worth, I'm not sure Occam's Razor applies here as it favors simple explanations over complex ones, and saying the lack of steals outliers is random is not an explanation at all. Put differently, Occam's Razor has to have something to shave. That said, once you lose the steals outliers - the 40-60 steals guys - the harder it is to find steals for your team because 20-30 steal players - even if there are more of them - don't run as consistently. In other words, a 28-steal guy might have 14 bags in May, and 14 the rest of the year combined. A 49-steal guy is usually giving you something every month, so you can count on it. You can pick up a Parra or a Chris Young, but if you get them in the wrong month, they won't out-steal Eric Hosmer or Alex Gordon.

Jackson's also been caught a lot this year, so it makes sense that he's not running a ton, and he's got Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder behind him. As bad as it is to make an out merely to advance one base, it's got to be even worse, the better the hitters are behind you. But given his speed in center field, you'd think he would be a 30-steal guy by now.

I got lucky today streaming Tyler Skaggs against the Marlins. I read that Giancarlo Stanton was going to sit out one of the doubleheader games, and I vowed to bench Skaggs if Stanton showed up in the early-game lineup and start him if Stanton sat. Well, I had to leave the house early today on some personal business, and by the time I got home, the game had already started, and Skaggs was in my lineup. He walked five, but made it through 6.2 innings, allowing just three hits and getting the win.

And you do have to look ahead to stream in this league - figure out who the Astros are playing even three or four days in advance, and pick up the applicable pitchers. I have Jake Westbrook going tomorrow even - though I might be taking it too far. We'll see.

My problem in that league is really batting average. I stuck with Justin Smoak and Jemile Weeks (thanks for trading him to me) for too long, and Cameron Maybin and Eric Hosmer didn't do me a lot of favors, either. Maybin has been on fire of late, by the way, but it might be too little too late. But if I can surge is steals, homers and wins - all of which are within range - I could probably win with a three or four in average.

And you should never get behind in games played unless you have a lot of injuries, and I'm not counting Span who you should have probably dropped. The optimal configuration in that format is about six or seven pitchers, at least three of whom are closers, and all the rest hitters. You end up with two good pitchers, find a third on the waiver wire who's a keeper and stream the fourth spot all year. That way you have tons of extra offensive players who can make sure you get extra games played. And I didn't start doing this until midseason, but you really should look at pitching match-ups for your hitters. Only the elite play against Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez. Otherwise you bench them for one of your many subs.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, August 23, 2012 9:30am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging

Perhaps I should clarify what I meant by "random." Isn't it just as likely that there's no global explanation at the lack of top-tier stolen base guys than there being one? Why can't it be that Bourn just hasn't had as many good opportunities to run this year? I think that is the simplest explanation.

One of the worst cliches in baseball is that "speed never slumps," which is just silly. Of course it slumps, just like anything else. Once again, we like to order certain things in our mind, have generalities, rules of thumb, to guide us in our leagues and in life. Many, if not most times, those are misleading at best.

I do agree that the lack of outliers makes this a far more difficult enterprise - it almost forces you to make sure more of your spots are stolen-base capable, instead of relying on two-to-four guys that get the bulk of your steals. Which ties back into my playing time problem - which also featured Peter Bourjos for a good two-to-three months of the season.

The funny thing about Jemile Weeks is that I believed in him, even when I traded him to you. I really thought he'd turn it around, and in a keeper league, I'd still try to acquire him if he could be kept cheaply. He doesn't have contact issues and walks at a decent rate. But he just didn't hit for any sort of authority - and that lack of power has been apparent before. Perhaps I expected him to have a semblance of his brother's power and grow into it. He's a guy I'll have to revisit this winter.