So let’s get right to the point. There are a number of ways to win a fantasy baseball championship. But there are infinitely more ways to lose. In fantasy baseball, as in war, the side that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins.
Thus, putting together a successful fantasy baseball season is less about who makes the most creative, clever decisions. It is primarily about minimizing risks, and seizing obvious opportunities when they present themselves.
As I stated in my last post, I’ve been involved in a fantasy baseball league since the early ’90′s. No, this doesn’t make me an expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to have a monopoly on fantasy baseball wisdom. I can only share my own experiences that have allowed me to enjoy my fair share of success, but also, an impressive record of futility.
The strategies and tactics I’m going to share with you occur to me from time-to-time, but I don’t follow each and every one of them religiously. There have been, however, some self-imposed rules that I once considered inviolable that I have since discarded.
For example, for many years, Rule #1 was Never Draft Rockies Pitchers. The thin mountain air of Coors Field meant high ERA’s and generally low strikeout totals for pitchers unlucky enough to call Coors home.
This season, for the first time, there are at least two or three pitchers on the Rockies that I would be happy to own. Perhaps at the end of this season, if none of those pitchers live up to expectations, I’ll reinstate my old rule number #1.
So here, without further preamble, are some of my guidelines for the 2010 fantasy baseball season:
1) Never draft a pitcher in the first round. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think any starting pitchers are worth drafting with your #1 pick. In fact, if I have the 9th overall pick in our ten team league, and Tim Lincecum is still on the board, he would be very difficult to pass up. But the reality is, pitchers are seldom as reliable and predictable as hitters, and you cannot afford to make a mistake with your first choice.
2) Beware of career years outside the norm. Do you really believe Marco Scutaro will score 100 runs again? Do you really believe Raul Ibanez will set yet another career high in slugging percentage at age 37? How much are you willing to bet that Mike Cuddyer will match the 32 homers and 94 RBI’s he tallied last year? All of these players are past 30 years old. Buyer, beware.
3) Ignore win totals. There is no strategy that will get you into more trouble than looking at a pitcher’s win total from one season and using this total to project the following season’s numbers. For example, in 1976, Jerry Koosman finished the season with a record of 21-10, and he was runner-up to Randy Jones for the N.L. Cy Young award.
Now, if anyone other than Bill James had been playing fantasy baseball in the Spring of ’77, they would have drafted Koosman, largely based on his win-loss record, in perhaps the second round. So what happened in 1977? Did Koosman pitch poorly and finish with a losing record?
Well, no, and yes. He actually pitched quite well, leading the league with 7.6 K’s per nine innings. But the Mets as a team were terrible in ’77, offering Koosman no support at all, and he finished with a remarkably terrible record of 8-20.
That’s right, he lost 20 games the year after he won 20 games while pitching only slightly less effectively himself. Pitchers are simply never a sure thing (see Rule #1.)
So how does one go about choosing pitchers to draft? It’s not that hard, actually, and I have found year after year that I can begin the season with a mediocre looking staff only to have other owners in my league jealously eye-balling my rotation by the All-Star break. This brings us to item #4.
4) Draft pitchers with high strike-out rates and low WHIPs. Dominance in the form of high K rates eventually reveals itself on the ball-field in the form of wins. This does not contradict what I stated about how win totals aren’t important. But if you start with wins as your base-line to project success, as opposed to high K rates and low WHIPs, you are far more likely to end up disappointed with the end results.
Let me illustrate this strategy using two examples of starting pitchers who will be drafted this spring: Matt Garza and Scott Feldman. Feldman, a 27 year old pitcher for the Rangers, finished last season with a promising record of 17-8 with a reasonably good WHIP of 1.28.
Garza, on the other hand, a 26 year old hurler with the Twins, finished the season with an 8-12 record despite an even slightly better WHIP of 1.26. Who would you rather have, the 17 game winner, or the 8 game winner?
If you chose Feldman, the bigger winner, good luck to you.
Here’s why. Feldman managed to strike out only 113 batters in just under 190 innings last season. Garza K’d 189 in 203 innings. That’s 76 more K’s for Garza in only about 13 more innings. Fewer K’s mean more balls in play. More balls in play lead eventually to many more hits, opportunities for errors by the defense, and bigger innings by the opposing offense.
Strikeout pitchers with reasonably low walk totals get themselves out of many more jams, with less damage done, than contact pitchers. There are just far more opportunities for dominance by a strikeout pitcher than for a contact pitcher, and far more opportunities to fail for a contact pitcher, who, in Feldman’s case, also happens to pitch in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball. Which leads me directly to item #5
5) Draft the Ball-Park: Look, obviously, when you are talking about great players such as Albert Pujols or a pitcher like Roy Halladay, ball-park factors are largely incidental. Put them on any of the planets in our Solar System, and they’ll find ways to succeed. But for many of the mere mortals out there, the ballpark they call home for 81 games during the season can make a big difference in the level of success they achieve.
In general, I like to find talented young hitters who have shown ability but still haven’t had the right opportunity, put them in a hitter’s park like Philadelphia or Texas, and you have a recipe for success. Two players who, going into last season, fit that description exactly were Nelson Cruz of Texas and the Phillies Jayson Werth.
Neither player had previously enjoyed a full-time job with their clubs, but both men had shown solid slugging abilities in part-time or platoon stints. Each of them blossomed into extremely valuable commodities last season as they took advantage of playing regularly in hitter-friendly parks to amass impressive numbers. (You can look up their numbers on your own; no need to reprint them here.)
For pitchers, this strategy works just as well, but in reverse, of course. Find young arms that have shown some talent, check to see if they pitch in pitcher-friendly ball-parks, and you will probably find a diamond in the rough (the still very young Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers comes to mind.)
TIP Alert! About a half dozen of the best pitcher’s parks in the country are in both league’s Western Divisions.
6) Beware of catchers: Look, there’s a reason why Bill James in his book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” ranks Darrell Porter as the 18th best catcher of all time. There just haven’t been all that many great catchers, folks. Currently, Mike Napoli (yes, Mike Napoli) of the Angels is a top five A.L. catcher. And Chris Iannetta of Colorado, along with his .228 batting average (in Colorado, or God’s sake?) is top ten in the N.L.
This past season, one participant in our league decided to try to corner the market on catchers, thus garnering for himself a clear competitive edge at one position. He drafted Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Geovani Soto. Soto had been named N.L. Rookie of the Year the season before with the Cubs, and Martin (Dodgers), seemed to be among the leaders of a class of solid young N.L. catchers
For those of you who followed baseball at all last season, you know Soto was a disaster, and Martin appears to be following along the career track of Jason Kendall, and empty singles hitter with a little speed.
So, needless to say, that strategy backfired. And why shouldn’t it? Again, there have been fewer than fifteen great catchers in the entire history of major league baseball.
Therefore, if you don’t end up with a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Joe Mauer (a sure first-rounder) don’t panic. There are worse fates in fantasy baseball than to end up with Yadier Molina as your starting catcher.
7) Avoid aging players in their decline: This is especially true at deep positions like first base. Someone will certainly draft either Lance Berkman, age 34, or Derrek Lee, age 35, over Joey Votto, age 26 due to reputation and resume. But neither of the two veterans offer anything like the potential upside offered by Votto.
At best, Berkman and Lee will accomplish something close to what they usually offer in their average seasons. Votto hasn’t had anything like his best season yet.
It is not a foolish gamble to bet on a player like Votto whose OPS is already extremely impressive, who plays in a good hitters park and who can only get better.
TIP Alert! Avoid with extreme prejudice!
Other players / positions who fit the aging, yet still productive bill are: Miguel Tejada at shortstop, Chipper Jones and Michael Young at third base, Benjie Molina (catcher), Raul Ibanez, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells and Vlad Guerrerro (OF) and the following pitchers: Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle and closers, Francisco Cordero, Bobby Jenks, and Fernando Rodney.
8) Beware of Over-Hyped Rookies: (Especially Pitchers) Anyone out there remember all the hype surrounding young PHEENOM David Price last season? The next Dwight Gooden, and all that? To be fair, most people probably drafted Price rather conservatively last season, but even those people were almost certainly extremely disappointed with his final season totals: 10-7, 4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, only 128 innings pitched.
Generally speaking, it takes most young talents a couple of years or so before they really begin demonstrating their can’t-miss talent on a regular basis. King Felix Hernandez had been hyped to the extreme for about three years before it all came together for him last season.
Sure, there are some rookies who jump right into the Big Leagues hitting line drives all over the place (Ryan Braun), or fanning ten batters in a game (Tim Lincecum) and never look back. But they are few and far between, and if you build a fantasy strategy based in part on acquiring as much rookie talent as you can, you are taking an unnecessary gamble.
TIP Alert! Neither Stephen Strasburg nor Madison Bumgarner will win the Cy Young Award this season.
Strategy #9) Draft Power at the corners: Whenever I’ve had a successful fantasy baseball season, it’s often been in part because I’ve had legitimate sluggers at first and third base. It’s not difficult at all to draft power at first base, and if you don’t, you’re sunk. Third base can be a little more tricky sometimes because this position isn’t always as deep as it appears to be this season.
There are lots of good hitters at third base, but not necessarily a lot of big sluggers at this position. One player I know everyone will be watching closely is the Mets star David Wright. Last season he hit an unbelievably low ten home runs. That’s Mark Teahen terrritory, folks.
Everyone expects Wright to rebound in 2010, perhaps doubling his homer total to twenty, or even twenty-five. And, if he does hit 20-25 homers, lots of people will think they’ve landed a bargain if they draft Wright in the fourth or fifth round.
But think of it this way. Evan Longoria, A-Rod, and Mark Reynolds are almost certain to hit about twice as many homers as Wright, even if Wright doubles last season’s total. Are you willing to concede that much run production at such an important offensive position if you don’t have to?
Moreover, several other third basemen will hit about the same amount of homers as Wright, but will be drafted much lower. Sure, Wright also brings stolen bases to the table, but I’ve never found in my league that stolen bases win championships. Power does. A three-run homer trumps a double-steal any day.
Once Draft Day finally arrives, I’m quite sure that I will do what everyone else does, adjust to the circumstances of the draft. And every draft is different. Like a general on a battlefield, once the shooting starts, you might as well roll the battle-plans around a half dozen cigars and drop them on the battlefield, for all the good they’ll do you.
Still, a general without a plan is more likely to freeze up in a key moment, a potentially decisive situation, precisely because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been beforehand. I hope the tips and strategies I’ve shared with you will offer you some tactical advantage over your adversaries in your 2010 fantasy baseball season.
If you have questions or comments about the strategies and tips I’ve shared, or would like to share some of your own, by all means, please let me know.
Next blog post: A.L. / N.L. Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide