The Death of LIMA

The Low Investment Mound Ace (LIMA) has been dead for years. It’s a classic roster building technique aimed at dominating the hitting categories and doing just enough with low cost pitchers. As recently as a few years ago, it was the linchpin of my drafting strategy. It’s still talked about as a common and successful approach. Judging by the title, I probably disagree.

The 2010 season was a good year for LIMA owners. I found myself with shares of Francisco Liriano, Ubaldo Jimenez, R.A. Dickey, and Jonathan Sanchez. Yeah, that was the year Jonathan Sanchez was a thing. There were plenty of other decent pitchers who didn’t throw a billion innings. Part of making LIMA work is churning through the waiver wire, streaming decent matchups to make up for a lack of reliable rotation depth. The volume of innings had to come from somewhere.

Back then, streaming was looked down upon. “Oh, you micromanage your roster. I trust the team I pick.” And sure, there’s some merit to these snide comments. I remember owning and dropping Ben Zobrist in multiple leagues. Ditto Jose Bautista and Charlie Blackmon. All because I wanted one start from a mostly useless pitcher. Sometimes I quickly re-acquired those breakout stars. Sometimes they were snatched from my clutches.

I remember those mistakes, but they’re the one percenters. Most of the schmucks I cut were genuine schmucks. They spent their day on my team to do one specific thing and left. These days, it feels like more and more players are experiencing breakouts every year. Last season, a full handful of the top 30 hitters were breakouts or big rebounds – guys you might have cut in April to get a day of Jimmy Nelson at PNC Park.

This is the smallest reason why LIMA is no longer a good approach – opportunity cost. The LIMA strategy dictates that, short of a miraculous draft, you must stream constantly. While I didn’t vigorously test that there are more breakout players now than six years ago, it does pass a smell test. Translation: we’re more likely to accidentally cut a meaningful breakout.

Let’s skip ahead to the biggest reason LIMA has faded. The information available today is stunningly useful. We’ve had arsenal score for a couple years which highlighted Carlos Carrasco and Carlos Martinez. A true LIMA approach would have included those players in appropriately late rounds or for under $5. Instead, they were hyped up to fair value (partly my fault).

Using Statcast, we figured out exactly why Rich Hill is so good, and why some pitchers like Drew Pomeranz, Seth Lugo, and Matt Strahm (h/t yesterday’s AL Central commenters) could benefit from using a similar set of skills. In recent days, we’ve discovered via a new BPro stat that Zach Davies is the most Kyle Hendricks-like. In short, we’re better at identifying talent.

Why is this a problem for LIMA implementers? Part of my success using the strategy was via out-discovering new talent. While there are still leagues innocent of all things sabermetrics, you aren’t playing in them (right?). It’s harder to find these pitchers in the “Low Investment” bin, especially in auction leagues. They’re too visible, and the demand for their services is high. It’s often a better  value to pick John Lackey.

Beyond opportunity cost and availability, the very cornerstone of my personal LIMA recipe crumbled into dust. The secret sauce to the strategy had nothing to do with lucking into Lirianos and Dickeys – it was all about monopolizing on elite non-closers. Returning to 2010, I used relievers like Hong-Chih Kuo, Sean Marshall, Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, Rafael Betancourt, and Joaquin Benoit to massively boost my ERA, WHIP, and strikeout rate. This more than counteracted the below average rates of streamers, allowing me to focus on picking wins off the waiver wire.

There were maybe 10 non-closers who wrecked the competition. I would roster as many of these players as possible – usually five. Now, there’s no way to monopolize this segment of the relief market. The sheer number of elite, non-closing relievers is ridiculous. Everybody uses them too. The world beaters – Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances – are (rightly) picked before at least half the actual closers. The volume of choice ensures that there’s no real value to the rest of them. You can try to improve your rates, but your savvy rivals are doing the same thing. It all cancels out. And if they didn’t match your LIMA approach, then they’re doing it with a better base pitching staff.

Opportunity costs, availability, and reliever golden age have conspired to make LIMA obsolete. However, there is a ray of hope for those clinging to low cost pitchers. These same tools that help us to identify the next Hill or Hendricks are available to actual pitchers. Never before has a major leaguer had better feedback about how similar pitchers succeed. It’s easier than ever for a guy to reinvent himself. Perhaps you can be the first to identify him?

You can follow me on twitter @BaseballATeam

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5 years ago

Not dead, just more challenging! 🙂

5 years ago
Reply to  joedcamp

Agreed. There is still more than one way to build a pitching staff, it’s just that LIMA is not the easy path that it once was.