Author Archive

The Key to Blalock

Hank Blalock is really good…when he plays at home.

In his career, Blalock has hit .306/.375/.531 with 77 homers in 397 games. On the road, Blalock has hit .244/.299/.402 with 50 homers in 390 games.

Fortunately for Blalock, he is currently still a member of the Texas Rangers. Although the Rangers have many corner types, Blalock appears to be in line for a lot of plate appearances, probably at first base (assuming Chris Davis can handle third base). If he plays every day for the Rangers, he can probably continue to put up decent numbers – the type of numbers he has put up over the last 2-3 years (think ~.270 with ~25 homers or so). For those of you who play in leagues with daily updates, you can take advantage of Blalock’s drastic splits, benching him for road games but making sure that he’s in your lineup for all games in Arlington (this could work in leagues with weekly updates too, but it won’t work nearly as well).

However, Blalock’s numbers have been artificially inflated by his home park, and if he is traded his overall (and fantasy) numbers will suffer. While he may not be as bad as his road numbers indicate (after all, most players play slightly worse on the road, and his road numbers don’t take into account any games in Arlington), his overall numbers will suffer significantly if he’s traded to, say, Minnesota (or just about anywhere else, really).

In my experience, Hank Blalock’s reputation exceeds Hank Blalock’s production. Back in 2004, Blalock hit 32 homers; since then, he’s hit 63 homers total. Blalock was the Next Big Thing after his 04 season, but he simply hasn’t lived up to his reputation, and he’s had plenty of opportunities to do so. While I will admit that Blalock has some upside, he’s so far removed from his excellent 2004 season and simply hasn’t shown any improvement (let alone any ability to replicate his 04 season). That, combined with his drastic home/road splits, makes me very wary.

Again, that’s not to say that Hank Blalock is without value – that’s simply untrue. The key is his perceived value – is he perceived as being more valuable than, say, Paul Konerko? Or Conor Jackson? Or Carlos Pena? I’d much rather have those three than Blalock, but some others in your league may disagree.

Don’t be afraid to have Blalock on your team. Just make sure you value him appropriately and don’t draft him too early.

Meet K-Fuen

Brian Fuentes recently inked a contract with the Angels to replace Francisco Rodriguez as closer. And as weird as this may sound…the Angels may have upgraded.

I won’t argue the merits or drawbacks of Rodriguez (although I have in other places). However, Fuentes has quietly been very good over the last couple years.

Last season was particularly good. Fuentes struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings, while walking 3.16. He also allowed only three homers in 62 innings – although this is mainly due to an inordinately-low homer rate, as only 4.5% of his fly balls became homers. However, in his career, only 8.7% of his fly balls have become homers, so even though he tends to allow a lot of fly balls, he doesn’t allow too many homers.

Last season seems like it’s somewhat of an outlier in Fuentes’s career – but not by that much. His career strikeout rate is 10.24 per nine innings, and his career walk rate is 3.82. It’s fair to assume that Fuentes won’t quite approach last season’s peripherals or ERA, but it’s very reasonable to assume that Fuentes will strike out more than one batter per inning and will post an ERA in the 3.50 – 3.80 range (if that seems high, keep in mind that Fuentes will be moving to the more difficult league, even if he’s also leaving Coors Field in the process).

The key to Fuentes’s value in fantasy leagues is his situation. Fuentes signed a big-dollar deal to be The Closer for Los Angeles, a team which has thrived on having relievers in set roles. Therefore, Fuentes’s job is very safe – even if he pitches poorly in back to back outings, he’s unlikely to be relieved of his closer duties permanently. Furthermore, Fuentes has relatively little injury history, so even though he’s risky by definition (most relievers are fairly risky), he’s not a huge injury risk.

Additionally, although this may seem somewhat counterintuitive as a positive for Fuentes, the Angels aren’t going to be very good next year. Their offense overachieved in 2008 and they have lost Mark Teixeira and Garrett Anderson, leaving their offense as potentially one of the worst in the American League. This actually bodes well for Fuentes, because it means that the Angels aren’t going to blow many teams out. Rather, when they do win games, chances are the games are going to be close, leading to a lot of save opportunities for Fuentes. This is what allowed K-Rod to rack up so many saves last year, despite being no better than average at converting save opportunities into saves.

All in all, Brian Fuentes is a low-risk, above-average reliever who is likely to have a lot of save opportunities. Furthermore, he’s unlikely to be removed from the closer’s role if he struggles a little bit, and he should post solid numbers, even if they regress from last year’s numbers. Fuentes is likely to be available after the “top tier” of closers have been taken, and is the exact type of pitcher you should be targeting.

Strategy Session – Avoid Middle Relievers

This advice, of course, depends on the size of your league. If you’re in a 14-team NL only league, you are almost certainly going to have some middle relievers on your team. However, in most 10- or 12-team mixed leagues, you generally are best off avoiding middle relievers altogether, with two exceptions: 1) you expect that they will become closer soon, and 2) it’s late in the season and you can gain ground in ERA or WHIP. Other than that, however, middle relievers should be avoided.

Why? Because they really don’t add much to your team. If a middle reliever gets a win or save, it’s usually a fluke – it’s almost impossible to predict how many wins a guy like Rafael Betancourt will have in 2009, for example. And even the best middle relievers usually only pitch 60-70 innings. So even if you stumble onto a fantastic season by someone like Betancourt, his impact upon your team is minimal, because he’s only pitching 60-70 innings. It’s a very rare middle reliever who is worth having on your team – someone like Mariano Rivera in 1996, or Octavio Dotel in 2001 or 2002. These pitchers are few and far between, and “typical” middle relievers just don’t help you enough to justify a roster spot.

Again, it’s not that someone like Betancourt or Scot Shields isn’t a good pitcher; rather, it’s that their roster spot can be better spent on someone else. In many leagues, you can manipulate matchups so that the roster spot is occupied by a rotating assortment of waiver wire starters who have favorable matchups (in pitchers’ parks and/or against bad offenses). These pitchers may not be particularly good, but if you manipulate their matchups they can provide a heck of a lot more value than even a very good middle reliever.

As mentioned above, middle relievers are generally acceptable when you have reason to believe that they will become the closer very soon. They are also acceptable down the stretch run (generally August and September only), if your team is in the position where you stand to gain points from even a small improvement in ERA or WHIP. In this situation, the small amount of innings that a middle reliever will provide is particularly beneficial. However, in all other situations, middle relievers are almost always a waste of a roster spot.

Strategy Session – Don’t Get WHIPped

WHIP is a silly thing. Some people like to refer to it as a newfangled Moneyball stat, alongside VORP and tRA. But WHIP is old-fashioned, and not particularly indicative of player skill. Of course, pitchers who don’t walk anyone and don’t give up hits tend to be better pitchers, but we don’t need WHIP to tell us how good these pitchers are. WHIP is a byproduct of many other stats, and therefore should essentially be ignored when assessing pitchers.

That’s right: ignore WHIP. Because if you draft good pitchers, they are almost certainly going to have good WHIPs. In fact, there are very few pitchers whose WHIPs differ dramatically from their ERA and strikeout ability. And often times, when there is a significant difference between WHIP and other statistics, it’s a fluke, and unlikely to be repeated the next season.

It follows that pitchers with low ERAs tend to have lower WHIPs as well. Pitchers who have low ERAs tend to either get a lot of strikeouts or a lot of ground balls – or, failing this, they at least drastically limit their walks. Having a good WHIP is a byproduct of these three other skills: avoiding balls, missing bats, and inducing grounders. If you look for pitchers with these skills, their WHIP will follow.

The only exception for this is the mid-season tweak rule. Somewhere around July 1 (there’s no exact date, but the later the better), all bets are off: you need to tweak your roster accordingly, and most of what you read before the season can be thrown out the window. If there is one pitcher who has a particularly good WHIP and your WHIP is very high, there is nothing wrong with trying to obtain that pitcher – just be careful that the WHIP is for real, and not the byproduct of unsustainable luck.

In general, though, if you acquire a pitcher who avoids walks, gets strikeouts and induces grounders, that pitcher will have a more than respectable WHIP as well. And you won’t even have to look at that category.

What Happened to Harang?

Last season began well enough for Aaron Harang.

In fact, through his first 11 starts, he was having a normal, Harang-like season. Check it out:


Harang had a 3.50 ERA, more or less what we’d expect given those peripherals. But then, Dusty Baker made an interesting decision.

On May 22, Aaron Harang made a start on normal rest. Then, on May 25, Baker brought Harang into a tie game in the 13th inning. Harang proceeded to pitch 4 shutout innings, striking out 9 and throwing 63 pitches in the process. Harang’s next start was on May 29.

Starting pitchers have been known to pitch an inning out of the bullpen between starts, but Harang threw 63 pitches – in a tie game, no less. Of course, Harang has had a rubber arm over the last couple of seasons, having pitched over 200 innings in three straight years. If anyone could handle the added workload, it would be Harang, right?

Apparently not.

After the bullpen appearance, Harang had a 7.31 in his next eight starts. Here are his accompanying peripherals:


His strikeout rate was approximately the same, but he walked one more batter per nine innings. His homer rate also skyrocketed. The question is: was Harang unlucky – thanks to a very-high BABIP and homer rate – or was he hurt?

Well, Harang was placed on the DL on July 9 with a strained right forearm. He was then activated on August 10. However, he struggled mightily in his first two starts, giving up a total of 16 runs in 7 1/3 innings. After that, though, Harang seemed to regain his past form. Check it out:


He posted a 2.83 ERA over these eight starts.

So what does it all mean? Well…

On the one hand, Harang’s peripherals didn’t really change too much throughout the season, even after his bullpen stint. His walk rate rose, and it’s very possible that fatigue caused him to lose control of his pitches. However, his strikeout rate remained high, and it’s possible that his high BABIP and high homer rate could be more attributed to bad luck in a small sample size rather than anything else.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Harang’s ERA changed drastically directly after his outing in the bullpen. If he did indeed lose control of his pitches (as evidenced by the higher walk rate), it’s not difficult to surmise that he was also grooving an inordinate amount of pitches, leading to a higher BABIP and higher homer rate.

After he returned from the DL, his first two starts were awful, but this can be very easily be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t yet fully healthy. In his final eight starts, Harang more-or-less returned to “normal” form. His BABIP was actually a little low, and his strikeout rate was lower than before. Again, it’s difficult to tell whether this is significant or the product of a small sample size.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the bullpen stint somehow screwed Harang up. It’s very possible that his 7.31 ERA was inflated partly due to bad luck, but it’s also clear that Harang was not as good of a pitcher after the bullpen outing as he was beforehand. It’s also clear that Harang was pretty much back to “normal” after returning from the DL (well, after his first two starts). This is further evidence for Harang actually being injured.

For next year, it’s fair to expect Harang to return to his normal numbers – his numbers before 2008. That means that he has the potential to be very undervalued going into drafts next year. There is, of course, a caveat: namely, the possibility that Harang is not fully healthy. This seems unlikely, however, given his performance over the final eight starts of the season.

Aaron Harang plays for a mediocre team, in front of a poor defense, in a hitter’s park. However, he is also a very good pitcher who is likely to put up numbers that are much better than his 2008 line. It’s reasonable to expect an ERA between 3.50 and 4, and a strikeout rate somewhere around 8 batters per nine. Harang is probably going to be undervalued in your league, and is an excellent sleeper.

Strategy Session – Prospecting for Prospects

A lot of highly touted prospects begin the year in the minor leagues, but make an impact by the end of the season. If you know where to look and you are willing to be patient, you can take advantage of prospects.

For example, Jay Bruce was very highly touted coming in to 2008, but the Reds didn’t call him up until late May (probably to prevent him from becoming a Super Two player down the road). However, when he did come up, he made a big impact, smacking 21 homers. Those of you who were patient with Bruce received an infusion of power starting in late May – almost as if you acquired a power hitter for free.

Francisco Liriano is another (rather extreme) example of when patience pays off. Back in 2006, Liriano began the season in the bullpen, and many fantasy players gave up on him, despite his solid performance out of the pen. Those who were patient were rewarded with 16 phenomenal starts down the stretch. Of course, most youngsters aren’t able to perform at the level that Liriano did, but many of them can make a positive impact on your team.

The key to prospecting is figuring out what players are likely to be called up, and what players are not. For example, Jason Heyward is one of the best prospects in the game, but is very unlikely to make it to the majors this year. Meanwhile, Matt LaPorta is on the brink of a call-up, and could provide immediate value once he makes it to the show.

Furthermore, unless you play in a particularly deep league, you should understand that very few prospects may a huge impact in fantasy leagues right away. Often times even highly touted prospects fail in their first stint in the majors (remember Cameron Maybin in 2007 with Detroit?), and just aren’t worth stashing away. You have to find guys who are both on the cusp of major league action, as well as likely to have some impact when they do make it. Players like this for 2009 include LaPorta, Jordan Schafer, Tommy Hanson, Colby Rasmus, Michael Bowden, Andrew McCutchen and Dexter Fowler.

Prospects can add a lot of value to your team, but don’t get caught up in overvaluing what could be rather than what actually is.

Is Ichiro Declining?

Year in and year out, Ichiro is a model of consistency. He has had over 200 hits and a batting average over .300 every single season he’s been in the majors. He’s also scored at least 100 runs every year, and stolen at least 30 bases. That being said, what can we expect from 2009?

The short answer, of course, is more of the same. When a player is this consistent for this long, the best predictor of his performance is his past performance. With that in mind, Ichiro is also getting older – he’ll be 35 next year, and even though he is a unique player, he’s not totally immune to the effects of aging. In fact, this is already beginning to show up in his batting average.

In 2008, Ichiro hit “only” .310 – the second lowest batting average of his career (in the North American Major Leagues, that is). However, he managed this batting average despite a higher-than-expected BABIP – his actual BABIP was .330, but his expected BABIP (according to a new model I introduced) was .307.

Before you tell me that Ichiro is unique, hear me out: yes, I agree that Ichiro is unique, but this new model attempted to incorporate many of the elements that make Ichiro unique – such things as hitting to all fields and speed, two elements of which Ichiro makes particular use.

I wouldn’t disagree that, even though the model has attempted to incorporate the unique aspects of Ichiro’s game, it hasn’t fully succeeded. Here are Ichiro’s expected and actual BABIPs since 2005:


Note the average: since 2005, the model has underrated Ichiro’s BABIP by approximately 23 points. Now, I think this is somewhat unfair, as the average is severely skewed by Ichiro’s incredibly-high BABIP in 2006, which was well out of line with even his own already-high numbers. But if we assume that the ~23 point difference is correct, well…that means Ichiro’s BABIP in 2008 was completely luck free.

What’s perhaps more interesting to note is the downward trend of Ichiro’s expected BABIP – it has declined each year since 2005. This goes along with conventional aging patterns – Ichiro was 31 in 2005, and as he exited his prime, his expected BABIP slowly dropped.

This suggests to me that Ichiro’s batting average is a lot more likely to go down than it is to rise. Of course, it’s certainly possible that he has another flukey BABIP year that allows his BA to rise once again, but this is increasingly unlikely as he gets older. Even though Ichiro’s .310 batting average was the second lowest of his career in 2008, it doesn’t appear that this was a fluke, but rather was indicative of him slowly getting older. That doesn’t mean Ichiro won’t have significant value in fantasy leagues next year – after all, he’s still shown that he can steal 40+ bases and hit over .300 – but don’t draft him expecting a resurgence to the AL batting title.

Keep On Rollin(s)

Jimmy Rollins probably left many fantasy owners disappointed last year. He hit .277/.349/.437 with 11 homers and 47 steals in 137 games. Obviously, those are good numbers, but they are may be a little below what optimistic owners were expecting. What can we expect from Rollins in 2009?

Let’s start with batting average. Rollins hit .277 last year, after hitting .296, .277, .290 and .289 over the last four seasons, respectively. Rollins’s strikeout rate was actually the lowest of his career last season, as he struck out in only 9.9% of his at bats. Over the last five years, his K rate has hovered right around 10-12%. However, last season Rollins’s BABIP was .285, but his expected BABIP (according to a new model I introduced) was .323. If you add in those “missing” hits, Rollins’s batting average becomes .311.

Additionally, Rollins improved his walk rate in 2008 – he walked a career-high 9.4% of the time, the first time in his career that he was even over 8%. This led to the highest OBP of his career, despite the (relatively) low batting average. As a result, Rollins had more opportunities to steal bases. Furthermore, he stole bases at an incredibly efficient clip, getting caught just three times in 50 attempts; this continues a trend that began in 2005 – since (and including) that year, Rollins has been successful on 165 of his 184 stolen base attempts, an impressive 90% conversion rate.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Rollins’s 2008 was his power – or lack thereof. He totaled only 11 long balls, after hitting 55 over the previous two seasons combined. Part of the problem was that Rollins played in only 137 games in 2008, after having played in every single game in 2007 and 158 games in 2006. More of the problem appears to be the fact that Rollins stopped hitting fly balls – only 30.6% of his balls in play were fly balls in 2008. In 2007, Rollins hit fly balls 44.2% of the time, but that appears to be an outlier in his career: in the three seasons before 2007, his fly ball percentages were 36.9%, 32.1% and 35.8%.

His fly balls became homers at a lower rate in 2008 (7.7% of his fly balls left the park) than in the past two years (11.1% and 10.7%, respectively), but his career HR/FB is 8.8%. The biggest problem was Rollins reverting to his ground ball tendencies – an issue that could have to do with faulty mechanics and/or the sprained ankle that sent him to the DL in April (although I highly doubt a sprained ankle would sap a player of his power). However, it could simply be that Rollins’s 2007 season was a fluke in terms of fly balls – he hasn’t hit nearly as many fly balls in any other season.

If we assume that Rollins’s fly ball totals from 2007 were out of whack, so too must we assume that the 30 homers he hit that season are likely going to be a career high. It’s certainly possible that Rollins will regain some homers from his dismal 2008 year (dismal in terms of power production, that is), as his fly ball rate will probably rise somewhat, and he could see a slightly higher proportion of his fly balls leave the park. Still, an increase in these two areas would probably yield somewhere around 15-20 homers, maybe 25 (assuming Rollins stays healthy all season). As Rollins will be 30 years old next season, it’s quite likely that he won’t match his age with his homer total ever again.

However, even accounting for Rollins’s relative lack of homers, it appears that he improved his game in other facets this season – improvements that he may carry with him into next year. Rollins is still an incredibly efficient base stealer who also runs often, and this should continue next year. Furthermore, if Rollins can take his improved strikeout- and walk-rates with him into next season, he could see a rise in his batting average (remember, his batting average should have been .311 this year) and OBP, leading to more opportunities to steal bases and more runs scored atop a powerful Phillies lineup.

You shouldn’t draft Jimmy Rollins expecting 30 homers, but you can reasonably expect 15-20 bombs, and perhaps even a batting average of around .300 and upwards of 50-60 steals. That’s still a heck of a player, especially for a shortstop.

Strategy Session – Winning is Everything

Let’s say you’ve signed up for a fantasy baseball league – either with your buddies, or a public league with people you’ve never met before. Let’s say that you’re in a league with prizes – a league in which you probably had to pay some sort of entry fee. You plan on spending a lot of time fine-tuning your team throughout the season. Obviously, your goal is to win this league.

If you want to win, don’t get caught up in being a fan.

I don’t care if you passionately hate the Yankees – if Alex Rodriguez is available in the second round, you had better take him. I don’t care if you bleed Cubbie blue – don’t draft Kosuke Fukudome in the 8th round. If you really want to win, you have to remove your own fandom from your fantasy team.

This is often more easily said than done. Some people just can’t stand the sight of players they hate manning a roster spot on their beloved fantasy team. Others can’t stand seeing their favorite guys wasting away on an opponent’s roster. But if you’re going to pay money and dedicate all of this time you building a winning fantasy team, don’t undermine your own efforts. Just because you have Arod on your team doesn’t mean you have to become a Yankees fan, and just because you don’t have your own guys on your team doesn’t mean you can’t root for them. Separate fantasy from reality.

You just have to get over it, or make the decision that rooting against Arod is more important than winning the league. There’s nothing wrong with deciding that, either – to each his or her own. But you had better understand the consequences of such a decision, and be okay with it. You can’t decide against drafting Arod and then complain if you don’t win your league – you had the chance, and you decided you that your hatred of Arod was more important than winning. So don’t be surprised if you lose.

You can be a fan and be a fantasy player at the same time. Just make sure to keep them separate.

Avoid the Riot

Ryan Theriot had a surprisingly good season, both in real and fantasy baseball. He hit a somewhat impressive .307/.387/.359, striking out 15 times less than he walked and stealing 22 bases (granted, he was caught 13 times). However, his season was fueled by an unsustainably high batting average, and if that BA regresses next season, he could hurt your fantasy team.

Theriot’s BABIP was .335 this year; however, his expected BABIP was a mere .291 (according to a new model I introduced). If we adjust his batting average to be in line with his expected BABIP, his BA falls all the way to .267. Considering that Theriot hits for virtually no power and drives in very few runs, this drop in BA would have a huge impact on his overall value.

The lower BA would result in a lower OBP, which would lead to fewer runs scored and fewer opportunities to steal bases. Additionally, Theriot was downright awful at stealing bases in 2008, getting caught in 37% of his attempts. Unless he improves upon this, it’s possible that the Cubs will become more reluctant to let him steal, depressing his stolen base total even further.

There is little evidence to suggest that the BABIP information about Theriot is incorrect. His career batting average in the minors was .271; his BABIP in the minors was .309. There’s no reason to think that either of these things has suddenly improved significantly, and there’s no reason to think that Theriot can consistently beat his expected BABIP (for reference, in 2007 his actual BABIP was .283 and his expected BABIP was .311).

Considering that nearly all of Theriot’s value revolves around his inflated batting average, it would be a good idea to avoid him in most fantasy drafts next season. That’s not to say he’ll be entirely without value, but just make sure you value him as a ~.270 hitter who may not even reach last year’s SB total, rather than a ~.310 hitter with the chance to surpass 30 steals.