A Plentiful Waste Of Time

As Lou Reed and Jimmy Durante, among numerous others, have observed, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September. In other words, as Yogi Berra (RIP) evidently really did say, it gets late early.

For the Birchwood Brothers, though, the situation is direr. It’s not just late, but too late–too late to cast off the drab cloak of mere respectability and don the royal raiment of Fantasy preeminence that we crave. We co-manage teams in three leagues, and our fate in each of them seems to be the same:

–In our NFBC Main Event league, a modest surge has taken us to 5th Place (198th of 450 Main Event teams overall); we’ve got an outside shot at 4th, though could easily finish 8th, thanks to the saboteurs on our pitching staff. If our pitching had been as good as our hitting, we’d be 18th overall. Conversely, if our hitting had been as bad as our pitching, we’d be 405th.

–In our NFBC Slow Draft league, an epochally bad two weeks for our pitchers (6.27 ERA and 1.373 WHIP in 70 innings) has taken us from first place to fourth. It’s probably too late to recover. We begrudge Dallas Keuchel nothing, but his 11 baserunners and 9 earned runs in 4 2/3 innings last week finished us off, statistically and emotionally, and produced a game score of 11, a number so bad that…that…that it’s worse than all but one of Kyle Kendrick’s 25 starts this year, and Kendrick pitches for Colorado and has an ERA over 6.

–Meanwhile, in the Fangraphs mid-season league we ourselves oversee, we are in third place, and that’s where we’re going to wind up, once again held back by our pitching.

That’s right, we’re whining again about our pitchers. We’ll stop now. Forward-looking and sunny-dispositioned as always, we have risen on stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things, and are already thinking optimistically about next season’s draft, and asking ourselves, What have we learned? Can we derive any lessons from our season that go beyond Draft Better Guys? Three things, we think:

— Let Strikeouts Be Your Guide. Allow us to vent for a moment before we get to the point. We deplore strikeouts as a Fantasy category. True, adding another quantitative pitching category to Paleo Rotisserie 4×4 means you can’t game the game by punting home runs and RBIs. And we will stipulate that in Reality Baseball strikeouts are slightly more valuable statistically, in terms of the runs they prevent, than batted-ball outs.

But we still object. Strikeouts aren’t that much more valuable than batted-ball outs, and—as a species of out—are already being counted in ERA and WHIP. Moreover, because relievers get way more strikeouts per inning than starters, and closers (and set-up guys, if you use Holds) get more strikeouts than other relievers, you’re artificially enhancing the value of relievers, who are already overvalued if you’re using five categories and one of them is Saves or Saves plus Holds. (Though we grant you that strikeouts by late-inning relievers protecting a lead are especially significant vis-à-vis batted ball outs).

We also grant you that a high strikeout rate is a better predictor of future success than, say, ERA. But we reject categorically the notion that strikeouts are a crucial corrective to the inaccuracies of counting, you know, actual runs, hits, and walks allowed. You think ERA is unfair and WHIP one-dimensional? So do we. Use Component ERA. Your stat service doesn’t offer it? Use Pitcher OPS, which some do offer, and which correlates highly with CERA.

As we say in upstate New York, when in Rome, pretend you’re someplace else. If a Strikeouts category is the only way we can join the other kids on the monkey bars, we can live with it. Indeed, we’ll cater to it. If you’re sharp enough to distinguish next season’s Erasmo Ramirez (low-strikeout stud) from next season’s Alfredo Simon (low-strikeout dud), splendid. We’re not. So in 2016, we’re going to do our best not to take any starters who don’t project to get at least 8 strikeouts every nine innings. At worst, it will make us competitive in one more pitching category than we are at the moment. And if strikeouts, unaccompanied by other indicia of good pitching performance, are really harbingers of better things to come, then maybe the market will undervalue them and we can get a dragon-slayer cheap.

–Be Reactive, Rather Than Proactive, With Closers. As we discussed in reviewing our Main Event draft back in April, we planned to take two “elite closers” as soon as somebody else drafted a closer. This approach was animated by our awareness that “elite closers” are better than just plain closers, and that nothing predicts elite closerness better than prior elite closerness. As it turned out, closers went so late in this league that we took the first one (Aroldis Chapman) with the 57th overall pick, and then waited three more picks before we took Steve Cishek with the 94th pick.

Leave aside our pre-season view that Cishek would be an elite closer. Though grievously wrong, it was an opinion that a lot of people shared, and anyway, our Cishek radar enabled us to get A.J. Ramos on waivers before anyone else noticed him. Ramos gave us more or less what Cishek was supposed to give us. In general, the bimodal distribution of saves among pitchers disguises the fact that, year after year, closers are pretty predictable. Sure, there are notable disasters like Cishek, and we envy the person who can foresee them. But most of the time, roughly 12 of the top 15 closers chosen in a draft will wind up producing stats within the range of expectation for a full-season closer. On the other hand, the very first closers chosen (in our Main Event league, they were Chapman, Kimbrel, Holland, Allen, and Robertson, and that doesn’t count Cishek) don’t seem to do notably better than a group chosen randomly from the top 15. Our takeaway: Wait a little longer for closers. Proposed rule of thumb: don’t take your first closer until enough closers have been taken that you aren’t going to be able to get a top-15 guy as your second closer if everyone who doesn’t already have a closer and drafts between your current pick and your next pick takes one. Obviously, how this plays out depends on your draft position, but as best we can tell from looking at NFBC Average Draft Position, this strategy would have left you drafting your closers somewhere between the 7th and 9th rounds, rather than the 4th and 7th as we did, and choosing among Rosenthal, Street, Britton, Papelbon, and, er, Storen and Cishek.

–There’s No Such Thing As Cheap Steals. We won’t defend our decision to take Billy Hamilton late in the 2nd Round of our Main Event draft, but we won’t repudiate it either. Hamilton’s late-season injury moots the important question, which is what the 70 or 80 steals a healthy Hamilton would have gotten in a full season are worth. If he plays a full season, Hamilton’s almost a lab experiment, in that he has no value other than what inheres in his steals, and yet he steals so many more bases than anyone else that he carries and deserves a huge price tag. (Of course, this assumes that his manager (1) treats Hamilton as an everyday player, rather than a pinch-runner, and (2) lets Hamilton try to steal whenever he’s on base. That’s Bryan Price’s weltanschauung, but we suspect that Price isn’t going to be the Cincinnati manager next season, and who knows what his successor will think?)

Anyway, even if you’ve got Hamilton, he gets you only about halfway to the league lead in steals, if that’s what you’re after. The really interesting question is: what do you do with the almost-Hamiltons, by which we mean the outfielders who aren’t quite as fast as Hamilton, and (like Hamilton) can’t really get on base very well, but who will steal a lot of bases for you if they happen to play, especially if they get hot? Our answer: eschew them. You might get lucky for a season and come up with, say,
Delino DeShields, who we predict will be the most overpriced player in the 2016 draft. Or you might get unlucky and imagine, as we did, that Jordan Schafer, though a .230 hitter, was in the prime of his career and would lead the league in stolen bases. But it’s too much of a crapshoot: these guys have too narrow a skill set, and, even if they’re great glove men (see, e.g., Leonys Martin), are just one injury, one slump, or one managerial whim away from permanent pinchrunnerdom.

So what do you do for steals? Pay for them, and for the certainty you’re going to get them. Maybe you draft fast guys who can’t really hit but are good middle infielders who therefore won’t lose their jobs, like Elvis Andrus or Jean Segura. (And, yes, Alcides Escobar. Who knew the Royals were going to stop trying to steal bases promiscuously this season?) If you do that, you pay a position-scarcity premium. Or maybe you draft fast outfielders who can actually hit, like Starling Marte or Carlos Gomez. No bargains there. But that’s what we’re planning to do.

We’ll be back at or just before the end of the season, partly to share with you whatever thoughts we have about the Fantasy aspects of the post-season, but mostly to crown the monarch of our Fangraphs mid-season league. As indicated, it won’t be us. See you then.

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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You said that because relievers have a higher K/9 than starters, it increases the value of relievers in leagues that have strikeouts as a category. That isn’t really supported by the math, is it? Only one reliever has more strikeouts this season than noted low-strikeout dud Alfredo Simon, because even with a low rate he still pitches twice as many innings as most relievers.