Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).
When Clay Link co-hosted the RotoWire MLB Podcast with me last Thursday, he mentioned that he uses First-Pitch Strike Rate (F-Strike% on Fangraphs) as a helpful metric. The metric is simple enough – it’s how often a pitcher starts off ahead in the count. It should be pretty obvious why this is important, but let’s spell it out anyhow. According to Baseball-Reference.com, in 2018 when pitchers started the count 0-1, opposing batters hit .218/.264/.349 and pitchers had a 6.14 K/BB ratio. But when they started the count 1-0, those same batters hit .262/.379/.444, and pitchers had a 1.18 K/BB. So that seems pretty important to get off on the right foot, right? And it also follows that we might want to see who is good at getting ahead, and who struggles to do so.
Let’s start out with some baselines. Across the entire MLB universe in 2018, pitchers began with an 0-1 count 55.9% of the time. But that’s an overly broad sample – we’re not even thinking of drafting over half the pitchers seeing action in MLB. Even in the 15-team NFBC Main Event, there are only 135 pitchers active at any given moment, plus another 50-60 more pitchers on reserve. So chances are the average F-Strike% from our pool is much higher. My hypothesis is that relievers will likely have a higher rate than starters, due to their ability to work at or near max effort. We’ll test out that assumption in this exercise, but for now my focus will be on starting pitchers. The default listing on Fangraphs is to list “Qualified” starters, but in 2018 only 57 pitchers reached that threshold, and the median for those pitchers was at 62.5%, between Jakob Junis and David Price.
I drafted in the Mixed LABR draft online on Tuesday night, selecting from the 8-spot in a 15-team league. Steve Gardner and the USA Today folks added the online Mixed league as a companion to the AL and NL auctions in Phoenix awhile ago, and after going back to Phoenix to do the NL one last year, I’m back in the Mixed this year because of my daughter’s soccer schedule (she’s in All-Stars and I help coach her team). I miss seeing everyone in the industry, but it’s a trade-off worth making, and I won’t have too many more years left to make that trade.
Anyhow, I drew the eighth spot – there was no selecting spots here, just a randomly generated draft order. One cool aspect of this league is that I was between two of my closest friends in the business, Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski and Joe Sheehan (of his own Newsletter, but also flying the Sports Illustrated flag for this draft). Cool, but also annoying in the sense that we kept poaching each other’s picks. I enjoy drafting in the middle of the draft – as first articulated to me by Scott Jenstad in an NFBC context, it’s a nice place to be because it’s easier to avoid missing out as a result of a run on a category or position, and you stay engaged better in the draft. The downside to that aspect is that when you’re doing an online draft, there are no breaks, and if your next pick is always 15 or fewer picks away, it’s harder to get away to eat (the draft started at 5:15 pm local time) or even go to the bathroom. That means sitting in the same place for four hours – not exactly a courageous feat, but one that always leaves me with a sore neck and back. Fodder for an epilogue to Profiles In Courage, I know, but bear with me anyhow.
Let’s continue reviewing last year’s teams to see if there are any global lessons to be learned, both positive and negative, and to see where are our missteps were. Previously I covered the results in NL LABR, today let’s hit up AL Tout Wars. Going into this draft, I had more focus and a better sense of my game plan – the oh-so edgy, revolutionary plan of building an offense around Mike Trout. In Tout Wars, as with most “only” leagues, my best teams have been strong offensively, and my worst teams have been when I cut corners there. I think that the equation is different in mixed leagues, where most often the bats are plentiful – at the very least, the playing time is – and elite pitching is more at a premium.
I was able to accomplish that at Tout, though I had to pay very close to my projected price on Trout, and I could have spent even a little bit more to bully the hitting categories. Still, at $189/$260, that’s over 72% of my budget allocated towards the hitting categories.
Did it work? As Gene McCaffrey (and Scott Pianowski) often says, any plan can work, but it has to have the right players. As with NL LABR, I finished in a distant fourth place, this time behind the dynamic duo of Rick Wolf and Glenn Colton. The difference was that the entire league finished distantly behind them – they ran away with a 21-point margin over second place. Full results after the jump, where we can break down whether player selection or general strategy was the greater shortcoming.
We started the FSTA Experts draft Tuesday, broadcasting the first 10 rounds on SiriusXM Fantasy at the FSTA conference in Tampa. It’s a 14-team, 5×5 league with basic rules – trading is allowed, there’s no larger contest, and we draft full rosters. The only thing unusual about this draft was that I was broadcasting and drafting at the same time. It’s not that difficult to do, actually – it’s a snake draft, not an auction, and I was on one of the ends, giving me plenty of time to plan for my pair of picks. Moreover, because this was on air, and there was no clock between picks, each player in the league took their time with their picks. We knew in advance that we wouldn’t finish the draft live, completing it instead via slow draft.
We learn more from our failures than our victories, but in the fantasy sports industry (and probably in life!) we write more about our victories. It’s fun to pen the “How I won Expert League X” piece, and it’s good for marketing, too. Those pieces have merit on their own beyond a marketing standpoint too – but I do think that there’s a risk in assuming global truths from something that worked locally. For that matter, the converse is probably also true – we can conclude too much from a negative individual experience. Still, I’m going to go back and review each league and see what, if anything, we can learn. Are there any global lessons about how I play? How about how the run environment affected the results in my leagues? Or whether there was a certain type of player I was frequently right or wrong about?
After a three-year hiatus from the live LABR auctions in Phoenix, last spring I participated in the NL LABR auction over the first weekend in March. I liked but didn’t love the results, thinking at the time that I didn’t allocation my budget properly. I didn’t think that I spent enough on my hitting, both overall ($179 instead of my intended $190) and for my final roster spots, filling three outfield slots in the endgame plus my UT slot.
In our last post, we discussed the problem of placing a value or ranking on a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw, someone nominally expected to be a top starter but is projected to have fewer starts than other top starters. How do we incorporate the value from his replacements when drafting him? My conclusion was that we were not effectively doing so already, but there are a few related points from that discussion that I still wanted to follow up with this post.
On our SiriusXM show today, Chris Liss and I discussed Clayton Kershaw’s projection, his rank our cheatsheets using our algorithm and the role of replacement value during his projected absences in determining his rank. I’ve spent plenty of bandwidth discussing Kershaw’s decline, most notably last summer in this space. I’m worried about the decline in his strikeout rate, his fastball velocity, his fastball usage and effectiveness. Most of all, I’m worried about his health, and his lack of innings. My original projection for Kershaw 163 innings, 2.82 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 12 wins and 173 strikeouts in that span. Such a projection would place him 64th overall in the current rankings, good for 13th among starting pitchers.