Last spring, an industry consensus emerged – if you wanted to win, you needed to invest early and often in starting pitchers. When a consensus becomes too commonplace, a profitable contrarian approach often becomes available. And so I explored the possibility of finding an advantage by investing in cheaper pitchers. I dubbed it nuLIMA. To be certain, it was meant as theorycrafting, not gospel. Check it out if you’d like to revisit an old idea that might still have legs.
The setup to that article still applies.
[The 2019] season features perhaps the most monolithic consensus I’ve seen in the last decade. Ace starting pitchers are the key to life, liberty, the cosmos, and a rockin’ bikini bod. You can’t possibly contend without at least one ace. Multiple aces are preferred. This leads me to ask a question…
Is 2019 a LIMA year?
LIMA stands for Low Investment Mound Ace and was invented in the late-90s by Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ. It’s meant to invoke Jose Lima, the scrub who won 21 games in 246 innings for the 1999 Houston Astros. The point of the strategy was to free up resources to dominate the more reliable hitting categories.
Back during the peak years of the LIMA strategy, using cutting edge statistics was still outre. Most fantasy managers, even the experts, played purely by gut. Those articles on Yahoo telling you to pick up so-and-so because he’s been hot over the last three weeks were the height of analysis. Thus, there was a lot of scope for observant, statistically-oriented managers to discover piles of free value every year.
So, was it a LIMA year? Well, that depends upon whom you invested. Those who grabbed shares of Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, and Blake Snell would have been better off nabbing some early bats. If you happened upon some combination of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer, you probably did alright for yourself. Many of the best performers in NFBC had aces like Cole and deGrom.
I took a look at the 75 pitchers who threw 150 or more innings and removed the 12 most ace-like. The remaining 63 names averaged 11.6 wins, 8.36 K/9, and a 4.10 ERA. Remove half a dozen pitchers you knew better than to use and the average output surges to 12 wins, 8.61 K/9, and 4.03 ERA. The pitchers in this sample range from fringe ace (Noah Syndergaard) to consistent core performers (Kyle Hendricks) to emergency patches (Trent Thornton). A fantasy pitching staff using a smattering of these more affordable names plus a few of the better low IP guys (Zac Gallen) would have been competitive in 12-team mixed leagues.
We’re not really answering the question. Was 2019 a LIMA year? Again, it depends. It depends on how well your leaguemates did at landing the good aces. It depends on how well you worked the wire. Did you pump valuable properties like Matt Boyd back into the pool as part of a churn-and-burn strategy or did you wisely hold.
nuLIMA relied heavily on relievers. They let us down in 2019. Fortunately, since nearly all pitchers let us down, this also created a lot of opportunity to find long term solutions to saves and starter quality on the waiver wire.
Almost none of our specific reliever targets panned out (Diego Castillo, Seranthony Dominguez, Joe Jimenez, and Ryan Brasier). But you could have nabbed a cheap Kirby Yates in-draft. Ditto Will Smith. Liam Hendricks, Taylor Rogers, Brandon Workman, Emilio Pagan, Nick Anderson, and Seth Lugo were just there for the taking. Since nuLIMA required us to be active waiver hounds, we should have landed at least some of these relief aces purely by grinding.
Quite a few starters popped up over the season too – Gallen, Boyd, Lucas Giolito, Dakota Hudson, Marcus Stroman, Michael Pineda, Max Fried, Joe Ross, and Sandy Alcantara all flitted across the waiver wire at some point. Finding volume innings in nuLIMA was more challenging than spiking a few relievers, but it was still possible.
For leagues with trading (i.e. not NFBC), swapping bats for quality pitchers is an important part of the formula. This come in a few forms. Buy low opportunities on Sale, Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, and Jack Flaherty serve as both warning and encouragement. Alternatively, you could wade into the mid-tier by nabbing reliable, affordable arms like Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. These too offered mixed results.
Perhaps the lesson is that pitchers of a like asset class inherently offer mixed results.
One important detail in determining nuLIMA’s value is the interplay between pitchers and hitters. In a world where the supply of good hitters is massively higher than that of good pitchers, the implication is you should invest in the scarcer resource. We seem to be living in that world.
On the basis of one season, especially one affected by the 2019 baseball, I’m not prepared to relinquish nuLIMA as a contrarian/emergency strategy. However, so long as something like the 2019 baseball remains in play, this is the wrong meta to bet too heavily on a no-ace approach.
If you’re feeling that contrarian itch, imagine a league where a dozen teams shutdown their sign steal schemes. The league over-corrects the 2019 baseball, introducing a deadened ball instead. Suddenly, guys like Vince Velasquez, Trevor Cahill, Tyler Mahle, and Max Fried aren’t struggling with elevated home run rates. Velasquez and Mahle might look like solid mid-tier arms. Cahill would be streamable again. Fried, an already hyped breakout candidate, posts ace-like numbers. So does Mike Foltynewicz. Tyler Beede becomes a thing. Like not just as in “this guy has some traits, but it’s ugly.” My hype of Anibal Sanchez is re-vindicated.
In this world, the Jeff McNeils and Ketel Martes who popped up as new superstars probably revert to middling production. At least a lot of players like them will decline even if those specific guys hold up. If you’re all in on nuLIMA, this is the world you’re predicting will come to pass.
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