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Strategy Session – Low Ks But High Value

Many fantasy players like to avoid starting pitchers with low strikeout rates, and rightly so. Often times, strikeout rate goes hand in hand with success as a starting pitcher. Many high strikeout pitchers also accumulate many wins and have low ERA and WHIPs. However, you don’t have to strike lots of batters out in order to be a successful pitcher at the major league level.

Baseball abounds with relatively low-risk players who are very solid pitchers but don’t get many strikeouts. Names like Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Sonnanstine, Derek Lowe, Aaron Cook, Kevin Slowey, and others don’t inspire visions of leading a fantasy team to the promised land, but they are often the best values in drafts. While they may not get that many strikeouts, these pitchers are likely to have a lot of wins, as well as low ERAs and WHIPs. Furthermore, because they are relatively low risk, they are still going to get their share of strikeouts. Over 180 innings, a pitcher who strikes out only 5.5 batters per nine innings will rack up 110 strikeouts. Sure, Joba Chamberlain might average a strikeout per inning, but if Joba only pitches 100 innings…well, you can do the math.

That’s not to say that Andy Sonnanstine is better than Joba Chamberlain; rather, it’s to say that Sonnanstine has more value than Joba, because of their respective draft positions. By drafting Sonnanstine you are sacrificing somewhat on strikeouts, but you’re enhancing your team because you are able to get Sonnanstine relatively late in the draft, allowing your team to stock up in something else (Power? Saves? Steals?) earlier.

Of course, it would be no good to come in last in your league in strikeouts, but this is unlikely even if you have several Andy Sonnanstines on your team. Remember, guy like Sonnanstine will still get a fair share of strikeouts simply because they are likely to pitch a lot of innings; furthermore, other teams are likely to experience injury and performance issues that will keep their pitchers’ strikeout totals down.

Also, there is nothing wrong with drafting some high strikeout pitchers as well. The best fantasy teams are a mix of risk and reward. Just keep in mind that while they may not be particularly sexy, there are some very valuable low strikeout pitchers who can fill out your staff for a relatively low price.

Strategy Session – Steals Early and Late

I don’t know about you, but stolen bases are incredibly annoying for me. There are very few players who can steal bases and help in other ways as well, and these players naturally tend to be highly valued. As such, I’ve developed a strategy for steals: try to get ‘em early, and then wait until late. Here’s why:

There aren’t many guys who can steal 30+ bases and hit for power. There are a fair amount of guys who can steal a bunch of bases and not really do much else, however. The five dimensional players like Grady Sizemore and Hanley Ramirez are among the best in the game, and are probably first round picks. Then there are the few players who can be counted on for a ton of steals, even if they won’t add too much power, like Carl Crawford and Jose Reyes. If you can get any of these guys, go for it, as they provide a tremendous amount of value. However, these types of players are almost always drafted before the third round, and it’s difficult to get one of them, let alone two.

After these types of players, there is a huge drop off among speedsters. A guy who will steal 20-30 bases with a decent batting average and nothing else just isn’t very valuable in a fantasy league, since he really only provides value in one category, and often times not even that much value. Avoid these types of players, as they are almost always overvalued. People are (rightly) concerned with the scarcity of speed, but they don’t understand that you can often find speedy players at the end of the draft.

Yes, usually these speedsters have more flaws than their fellow base stealers who are drafted earlier, but the difference in value is minimal. If you miss out on someone like Reyes or Sizemore, you still need to address steals, but you don’t particularly care if the guy also hits 2 homers or 11 homers. The difference in the amount of homers he hits is negligible – it’s all about the steals. The same goes for other categories. You don’t really care how many runs he drives in, you just want thefts. Don’t pay extra for minimal upgrades in other categories.

Be sure to add enough steals to your team, but don’t worry if you have to get the bulk of your steals late in the draft with such no-name players as Eugenio Velez, Michael Bourn, Carlos Gomez or Rajai Davis. Their thefts are just as valuable as someone like Chone Figgins’s, and the difference in other categories is not usually big enough to warrant the higher draft position of someone like Figgins.

Make sure you have enough steals on your team, but don’t worry if you have to wait until late in the draft to add that category to your team.

Strategy Session – Power is Predictable

The very nature of pitching is unpredictable. The human arm isn’t meant to throw a baseball 90+ MPH repeatedly every fifth day. Furthermore, stats such as wins, WHIP and ERA – which are commonly used in most fantasy leagues – are often derivatives of a pitcher’s home park, teammates, and luck, rather than his individual skill. As such, pitching is extremely volatile and hard to predict.

In contrast, while nothing in baseball is easy to predict, predicting power output is a lot less difficult than predicting pitching results. Year in and year out, the same guys are on the home run leaderboard. Of course, there are many variables here too – some guys get injured, others seemingly come out of nowhere, and every now and then some team gets Pronked when Travis Hafner declines for no apparent reason. But in a general sense, you know what players are likely to hit lots of home runs each year.

Furthermore, every time a player hits a home run, he also gets a hit, drives in a run (often more) and scores a run. Therefore, each long ball helps a player in four distinct categories. A home run is the most efficient way of improving your team, and is perhaps the easiest thing to predict (of all of the fantasy baseball categories, that is). Thus, many times it will make sense for you to load up on sluggers in your draft. Don’t necessarily worry that many of them play first base – there’s nothing wrong with using your DH or utility position on a second hulking first baseman who is likely to hit 30-40 homers.

Of course, sluggers are very valuable in fantasy leagues, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have several on your team. I see nothing wrong with taking sluggers with three or four of your first five picks. Having that many sluggers on your team gives you a huge advantage in the home run category, and these players are less likely to drastically underperform than someone like an ace starting pitcher. And remember, every homer hit helps you in four of the five fantasy categories.

This is not a fool-proof strategy – there is no such thing in fantasy baseball (that’s what makes it so much fun, right?). But one of the most important aspects of fantasy baseball is minimizing risk, and often time sluggers represent among the lowest risks out there. If you build your team around homers, everything else falls into place nicely.

Strategy Session – Don’t Overpay for Saves

By definition, saves are incredibly scarce. There are only 30 teams in baseball, and there are only going to be so many save opportunities for each team. Furthermore, in order to be credited with a save, a pitcher must be used in a save situation. “Closers” are more a product of their usage and environment than any other player in baseball.

As such, it may be tempting to draft sure-thing closers like Jonathan Papelbon or Mariano Rivera with a high pick. These guys are almost certainly going to get their share of saves, and they should help in other categories too. Therefore, they have tremendous value.

Don’t fall victim for this line of thinking. While everything I wrote above is true, it also is misleading. Yes, closers are volatile from year to year and save totals fluctuate; however, if you know where (and how) to look, you should be able to take advantage of undervalued closers.

The key to accumulating saves is a) pitching in save situations and b) pitching decently. This may seem obvious, but remember that (a) is far more important than (b). Yes, some pitchers will lose their job as closer, but this happens more rarely than you may think. To get saves, a pitcher must be used in save situations. To maximize the value of closers in your league, you first need to identify which pitchers are most likely going to be used in save situations.

Then you should attempt to assess how likely they are to be removed from their closer’s role if they perform poorly. For example, Kerry Wood is probably not going to be demoted to mop-up duties if he blows two saves in a row. Neither is Bobby Jenks. However, someone like George Sherrill could lose his closer’s role if he struggles, simply because he doesn’t have the same established track record as the other pitchers. If a pitcher is likely to get the majority of save opportunities and is unlikely to be demoted if he struggles a little bit, then he has a lot of value in a fantasy league. Any pitcher who meets those criteria is valuable; how good a pitcher he is is FAR less important. In other words, the difference between Jonathan Papelbon and someone like Bobby Jenks – who meets the two criteria but is much worse than Papelbon – is far less than the difference in their draft position.

Therefore, it makes the most sense to draft guys who meet those two criteria but aren’t necessarily the best of the bunch. Closers exist to get you one thing and one thing only: saves. Yes, sometimes they can help in ERA, WHIP, or even strikeouts, but their help in these categories is usually minimal, due to the fact that most closers don’t pitch more than 60-70 innings per season. Simply put, an ERA of 2.00 over 60 innings doesn’t influence your team’s overall ERA that much. Sure, it helps, but it’s not worth drafting (for example) Papelbon in the 4th round when Jenks can be had in the 13th.

Bottom line: the difference between the best “closer” and the worst “closer” is far less than the difference in their value on draft day. Therefore, you should identify all players who fall onto the list of “closer” – remember, that means guys who are likely going to be used in save situations and probably aren’t going to be removed if they blow back to back outings – and aim to acquire a few of the lesser pitchers on the list. Your team will be better off for it.

Strategy Session: Have a Plan – And Don’t Stick To It

Over the next week or so, I will be running a series of strategy articles to help prepare for your fantasy drafts. Please feel free to post any questions or ideas in the comments section.

Have a plan – and don’t stick to it.

To be successful in a fantasy draft, you need to have a plan. You need to have some idea of the players that you want to take, and know the approximate values of everyone, so you can spot value wherever it may be. You may even want to have a more specific strategy, such as punting a category or concentrating on stocking your team in several categories. However, as important as any plan may be, it’s just as important to know when to abandon your plan.

Let’s say that your strategy is to load up on starting pitching, because you feel that there are very few really high quality starters available, and if you can corner the market everyone else is going to have to dig through the scrap heap to fill out their roster. As such, you plan on taking three or four ace level starters in a row, starting in the second round. Well, let’s say that right after you select your first ace, the next three teams all select aces as well. Suddenly, there are very few other aces available, and if you want to stick to your strategy it would require you to draft non-ace level pitchers in the next several rounds. In other words, you’d have to overdraft pitchers to be able to carry out your plan.

In this situation (or any other similar situation), even though you had a plan, you must switch courses immediately. The best fantasy players are people with plans and the ability to adapt instantly should their plans be thwarted. If you understand the dynamic of any draft, you will be able to exploit it. In this particular example, starting pitchers are being overvalued, and there are bound to be some players who are not being valued appropriately. Rather than playing along with everyone else and drafting pitchers too soon, you should adapt your strategy to exploit whatever is now undervalued – perhaps it’s steals, power, or saves. Whatever it is, if you identify the market in your draft, you can work it to your advantage.

While it’s vitally important to know as many players as possible, it’s just as important to be flexible and adapt to whatever surprising things may happen during your draft. Drafts can be won or lost on this skill alone.

A Lasting(s) Effect

It seems like Lastings Milledge has been around forever, but in fact the Nationals outfielder is only 23 years old, and may be on the cusp of breaking out.

Milledge hit an underwhelming .268/.330/.402 in a 138 games this year, with 14 homers and 24 steals (in 33 attempts). He also struck out 18.4% of the time and walked only 6.8% of the time. However, Milledge appears to have improved during the season. On July 31, Milledge was hitting only .237/.300/.351 with 7 homers and 13 steals. However, from August 1 on, Milledge hit an impressive .318/.378/.485 with 7 homers and 11 steals in only 52 games.

Of course, it is certainly possible that Milledge’s impressive August and September can be attributed to a small sample size fluke. But it is also possible that Milledge has begun to refine his game. Many people forget about how young Lastings is – most 23 year olds are not playing every day in the majors. Milledge’s minor league numbers suggest that he could be successful in the majors, and that he could develop power to go along with his speed.

Next season, Milledge will once again be a starting outfielder for the Nationals. It will be interesting to see if he can build on his excellent finish to the 2008 campaign, but Milledge may be a guy worth taking a risk on for your fantasy team. The upside is enormous, as Lastings has the chance to post an excellent batting average, steal somewhere around 25-35 bases, and even hit 20+ homers. There is a lot of risk involved, as Milledge stunk for the majority of the 2008 season. However, few young players have the fantasy potential of Milledge, making that risk easier to stomach.

You shouldn’t be relying on Milledge for guaranteed production, but he’d make an excellent late-round flier thanks to his large amount of upside.

Jump for Joyce

The Rays cashed in some of their starting pitching depth by trading Edwin Jackson to the Tigers in exchange for Matt Joyce. What can we expect from Joyce in 2009?

It looks as if Joyce will be the primary right fielder for the Rays in 2009. And if there’s one thing that Joyce has consistently shown throughout his career, it’s that he can rake against righties.

Joyce hit .252/.339/.492 in 277 plate appearances with the Tigers this year – including a .255/.333/.509 line against righties. His splits in the minors are even more dramatic: this season Joyce hit .270/.352/.550 in triple-A, but crushed righties to the tune of .286/.366/.610. These trends are visible throughout Joyce’s minor league career, except for his stint in double-A, where he hit lefties and righties approximately equally.

Joyce has shown the propensity to strike out quite often in his career, and looks like he may be a “Three True Outcome” player – although probably not to the same extent as someone like Adam Dunn. However, it’s unlikely that Joyce will hit for a particularly high batting average, even though his BABIP in the majors (.293) was lower than his BABIP in the minors from this year (.328) or last year (.319). Marcel projects his batting average to be .266, which seems reasonable, if a touch optimistic.

Joyce’s power, however, seems to be real. He hits a lot of fly balls – 47.5% of his balls in play were fly balls this year – and appears to be strong enough to muscle a lot of them out of the park. In fact, 14.1% of Joyce’s fly balls left the park this year, and he hit 25 homers in only 442 at bats between triple-A and the majors.

The Rays are certainly aware of Joyce’s limitations against lefties, and are likely to pair him with another outfielder who can hit lefties better. Therefore, Joyce is unlikely to be an everyday player; however, that doesn’t mean he’s not valuable. This year he crushed 25 homers despite getting less than 500 at bats – there’s no reason why he can’t homer at that pace again next year. Joyce will be particularly valuable in leagues with daily updates, since you can bench him whenever the Rays face a lefty. However, Joyce will still be very valuable in weekly update leagues as well, since when he does face righties he’s likely to be very, very good.

Matt Joyce is probably not a top tier fantasy outfielder, thanks to his struggles against left handed pitching. However, there are far more righties than lefties out there for him to face, and Joyce should mash against righties, and could supply 25-30 homers even if he’s platooned, thus making him a very valuable commodity late in drafts.

The Maine Attraction

Last season, John Maine started out well: through his first 18 innings, he posted a 3.99 ERA and 93/49 K/BB ratio in 103 innings. Not amazing, but certainly solid, and well within the realm of expectations for Maine.

But then things went south. In his last six starts, he had a 4.83 ERA and 29/18 K/BB ratio in 31 innings. But Maine had a legitimate excuse: he was diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff. The Mets placed him on the DL retroactive to July 29, and although he did return at the end of the season, his velocity was notably down.

In fact, Maine’s velocity was going down even before he was placed on the DL. In his start on July 5, Maine’s fastball averaged 93.58 MPH. It then averaged 91.97 MPH and 92.71 MPH in his next two starts. However, on July 23 his fastball averaged 91.83 MPH and on July 28, it averaged only 90.84 MPH. Maine clearly was pitching through problems – problems that affected his performance and his statistics.

Maine underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his shoulder after the season, and is expected to be fully healthy for spring training. If so, Maine may be underrated this year. Yes, everyone knows that he was hurt last year, but others in your league may not realize that he was pitching hurt for some of the season, making his overall numbers look worse than they otherwise would.

Marcel predicts Maine’s ERA to be 3.96, and this seems reasonable, although somewhat pessimistic. Maine is a fly ball pitcher who will allow his share of homers, but plays in a park that favors fly ball pitchers and has Carlos Beltran patrolling center field. He will get a solid amount of strikeouts (his career K rate is 7.71 per nine) and should get a decent amount of wins, thanks to an above-average offense and (supposedly) improved bullpen. Maine isn’t a fantasy ace, but he could be a solid – and undervalued – member of your pitching staff.

Nothing Wang with Chien-Ming

Chien-Ming Wang may not get many strikeouts, but could be a nice addition to your fantasy team.

Wang was limited to 95 innings last year thanks to an injury he sustained running the bases in 2008. The good news for the future is that Wang’s injury had nothing to do with pitching, making it less likely that Wang will experience injury issues in 2009. And, when healthy, Wang is an excellent pitcher.

Wang relies on a devastating 92 MPH sinker that allows him to induce ground balls on 60% of his balls in play in his career. Wang relies on his often-suspect infield defense (having Jeter and Cano fielding so many grounders can’t be good for your health, let alone your ERA), but keeps the ball in the ballpark: he’s allowed only 34 homers in 628 career innings.

Additionally, Wang has slowly increased the number of swinging strikes he’s induced. In his injury-shortened 2008 season, batters swung and missed at 7.2% of his pitches. In 2007 that number was 6.9%, and was 6.6% and 5.2% in 2006 and 2005, respectively. Wang’s strikeout rate has slowly increased as well: last year he struck out 5.12 batters per nine, after getting 4.70 Ks per nine in 2006 and less than 4 per nine in 2006 and 2005. This is not a high rate, but Wang induces so many grounders that he doesn’t need to strike many hitters out.

And although strikeouts are a category in fantasy, Wang still may not be appropriately valued in your fantasy league. Subjectively, it appears that Wang’s secondary pitches – especially his slider – have improved, and the numbers back this up, as Wang has consistently struck out more batters. If he pitches 200 innings with 5.5 strikeouts per nine next year, he’ll accumulate 122 strikeouts. Wang is likely to keep his ERA under four – perhaps even 3.50 or under – and should rack up the wins thanks to a solid (if somewhat overrated) offense. There’s a lot of fantasy value in a pitcher like that – especially a rather low-risk pitcher like Wang – even if he doesn’t strike out a batter every inning.

Wang is not a fantasy ace, but should an excellent member of your team, especially if you can draft him in the late middle rounds.

Casey at the Blake

Casey Blake will decline…eventually.

Casey Blake has been remarkably consistent, and has had a nice career for someone who didn’t establish himself in the majors until age 29. Blake hit .274/.345/.463 last year between the Dodgers and Indians, slightly better than his career line of .264/.334/.447. Blake also managed 21 homers and 81 RBI. Blake’s season was right in line with his seasons over the past couple of years, and he virtually no signs of declining whatsoever.

However, next season Blake will be 36, and at some point he will certainly begin to decline. If he manages to have another normal Casey Blake season next year (.260-270 average, 20-25 homers, 70-80 RBI), he will have a fair amount of value in fantasy leagues. However, even a slight decline – especially in power – will put a huge dent in his fantasy value. While he has defied expectations at nearly every stage of his career thus far, age eventually catches up with everyone.

Furthermore, although he will be facing easier pitching in the National League than he faced while with the Indians, Dodger Stadium is not likely to give Blake any breaks. In his admittedly-short time with the Dodgers in 2008, Blake hit .251/.313/.460, which seems like a reasonable facsimile of what to expect in the future. It’s likely that his OBP will be somewhat higher, but Dodger Stadium is a difficult place to hit. The stadium may not hurt Blake’s power, but it will probably sap some of his batting average, perhaps dropping it dangerously low. Furthermore, while Blake will get to hit in Coors Field and Chase Field, he will also have to hit in PETCO Park and AT&T Park, very difficult offensive environments.

Blake could stave off decline for yet another year, but I wouldn’t bet on it. He’s a decent fallback option, but if Blake is your starting third baseman, it should be because you’ve loaded your team up in every other area and are forced to take Blake very late.

Casey Blake has had a nice career to this point, but eventually his age is going to catch up with him, and that could very well begin to happen in 2009.