Beware he who has little to lose

When I was offered this writing job, I told myself that I would try to stay away from posting self-indulgent anecdotes about experiences in my own leagues. Ah, the best laid plans… In actuality, I had a revelation on the second-to-last day of the season in my head-to-head league that I found interesting and also touches on some of the larger debates in the fantasy baseball world. So, I’m going to share it here, for purposes of establishing the context for the larger point.

I’m in the finals of a head-to-head (non-keeper) league and facing the league’s most hyperactive manager. Naturally, at season’s end there is even more motivation than normal to spot start and manipulate your roster for short-term gain. Thus his managerial style has become a caricature of itself, but strategically so.

I knew how he was going to manage the finals, and I tried to take the advice I always give. Be flexible and opportunistic; force him to commit to a paradigm before I do. So, for the first week I picked up a fair amount of attractive spot-starting match-ups, but did not overindulge. The idea was to keep myself in contention in the counting stats and control the rate stats. I accomplished that goal, and did so well enough to put me in a difficult position.

Not surprisingly, as I write this on Saturday morning, I am ahead in the rate stats and trailing in wins (and saves). However, there is one dynamic I did not expect. I actually enjoy a small lead in Ks (thank you, Ricky Nolasco) but have fallen behind in K/BB. My opponent had a full slate of starters for Saturday and Sunday. Even though I am losing the overall match-up, I’ve chosen not to protect the K lead, as I think he is goading me to risk my rate stats. Instead, I’m hoping his cadre of bottom-of-the-barrel starters causes him to give back the K/BB category. Ostensibly, I’m hoping to trade the K point for the K/BB point, which would leave the pitching match-up at 3-3 and put the overall battle in the hands of the offenses, neither of which have really shown up by the way.

The most questionable element of my strategy is that I am voluntarily relinquishing control of a category, in favor of betting on my opponent’s self destruction. He just has too many innings coming to him for me to match, so I don’t think I can win playing his game, at least not without severely risking two other categories in the process. Will it work? I guess I’ll know by the time this column runs.

The revelation I referred to earlier is really not some foreign concept. It’s simply the idea that he with less to lose is more dangerous. Whoever was losing the rate stats in this battle actually controlled the dynamic of the whole match-up because rates are the only categories you ever have to “protect.” You don’t protect leads in counting categories so much as you keep up with, or outpace your opponent. With games, innings or at-bats, counting stats will come; they can never be less than they were before, they can only grow at an insufficient rate. My opponent does not have to think as much as I do, his strategy is simple – pick up as many pitchers as he can and try to make the best choices available.

Over the long term, he can’t act this way to this degree. However, the end of the season removes the opportunity cost from dropping quality players for immediate stats. I can’t keep up with his level of activity if I am concerned about protecting the rates, which is why even though I happen to be leading in Ks, I’ve identified a category I’m currently losing as a more viable category to actually win.

This particular experience has drawn me toward the conclusion that while it is preferable to invest in quality pitching throughout the season (with an eye toward opportunism); it is wise to invest in counting stats down the stretch in head-to-head leagues. The tenets underlying this theory are manifold.

The first important point is that over weekly scoring periods quality often takes care of quantity without trying. Better pitchers will amass more wins and more Ks. It takes fewer good pitchers to amass the same number of strikeouts as several poor pitchers. The opportunity cost of committing too heavily to the revolving-door roster strategy is enough of a stick to prevent an opponent from jumping over the edge. In the playoffs, it’s win or go home, so a manager has more incentive to ramp up the hyperactivity to the point that it is hard to compete against without his opponent adopting that strategy, at least to some degree.

A second factor is that small sample size enables the possibility of a manager not being heavily penalized for running out a parade of subpar pitchers. While over the course of the season a manager who does this will suffer horribly in the rate stats, in one playoff series it’s entirely possible to get a good run of performances from inferior players. Or, conversely, it’s quite possible that a series of good pitchers perform poorly over one playoff week.

The conclusion of my not-so-novel revelation seems to be that when you eliminate long-term security from the equation, chasing counting stats is the wiser strategy, and it allows you to dictate the dynamic of a head-to-head series.

The larger question this situation brings forth is that of regulation in fantasy baseball. Namely, should moves be limited?

Normally, I’m a libertarian on these matters (highly ironic for those who know me personally). I’m against limiting moves. I’m against distinguishing pitching roster spots between starters and relievers, and so forth. But, it does appear that full deregulation of transactions skews the incentive to invest in what are otherwise equally valuable categories during the most important time of the season. Is that a problem? I’m not sure.

During the offseason, I plan to write several pieces dealing with overarching strategy and models of league construction. To limit moves or not will certainly be one issue I explore.

But, for now, I ask the readership two questions. What say you about investing in counting stats versus rate stats down the stretch in head-to-head leagues? And, if the conclusion in this piece is true, is that a viable argument for limiting moves in head-to-head leagues?

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Comments

  1. B Mills said...

    In my 20 team H2H league, we actually limit moves to 14 for the entire season.  The exception is if a Starting Pitcher is injured (must be on DL), you’re allowed a free move to drop that pitcher.  The reason that was implemented was we have a minimum on IP and Starts in order to prevent teams from investing only in hitting preseason, and taking advantage of rate categories (ERA, WHIP), losses, Holds, and Saves (someone dominated the league using this strategy a few years back).  If you don’t meet the 2 week minimums (65 IP and 9 GS), you forefit ERA, WHIP and L.  If the waiver wire is raided every week, availability becomes a huge problem (we have 30 man rosters, 3 DL slots, and a minor league system that can also limit free agents).

    I really think that limiting moves and creating certain restrictions allows for a more representative auction draft.  The other problem we’ve run into is a shortage of pitchers on the waiver wire due to large rosters and no maximum limit on IP and GS in a 2-week session.  This results in top-tier pitchers going for less than I think they’re worth, with some teams loading up on lower-tier pitchers to gain advantages in counting categories only.  We end up with teams starting anywhere from only 9 to 30 pitchers a session.  With more people conducting the latter strategy this season, I was under the impression that low-tier salaries were increased, and the auction values were not as realistic as I had hoped (as well as the diminished availability of SP on the waiver wire).  I like the leagues to be as realistic as possible, and I think restrictions are needed to ensure those constraints.  But that depends on your preferences.

  2. chattanooga said...

    one of my leagues has a roster lock come playoff time; allowing add/drops only in the case of injury, and even then, positions must be replaced by a matching FA.  A streamer may get into the playoffs, but it is hard to overcome quality pitching over a 2 week period.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...

    My default position has tended to be that the risks of the hyperactive managerial style are inherent and therefore that style does not constitute some sort of advantage or exploit a loophole. Therefore I’ve traditionally been against limiting moves, practically as well as philosophically. As always, different league designs will determine stronger or weaker arguments for implementing such limits.

    (One of the non-discussed elements of the deregulated set-up is that it does something to enourage active participation among all participants. In less competitive leagues some players complain about deadbeats who screw with the league’s standings. Unlimited moves is one more incentive to atively and regularly engage in the league.)

    Perhaps, the solution is not to limit moves but to establish scoring period innings caps in addition to the innings minimums. Most roto leagues have innings caps.

    Let me also make another disclaimer by stating that I enjoy prefer roto to H2H.

  4. Todd said...

    In my H2H league, we have limited transactions, but you can acquire more through trades (everyone has a free agent budget of $50 + any leftover dollars from the auction, and they can trade that money to other owners). There are no acquisitions allowed during the playoffs (drops are allowed in case someone comes off the DL). You can still win with something approximating a streaming strategy (in that it emphasizes Ws and Ks at the expense of ERA & WHIP), because all of our pitching slots are generic, so it’s certainly possible to forego an offensive bench and roster 14 starters, where most owners carry 6 to 8 and a few relievers.

    I’ve found, though, that a wiser strategy is to have a small to medium cadre of elite starters combined with a plethora of high-K relievers (not necessarily closers); usually, out of 8 pitching slots I only have 1 or 2 not occupied by relievers. I still mostly forego an offensive bench, which doesn’t cost that much except in the case of an injury during the playoffs, and I can usually take 4 of the 5 pitching categories (Ws, Ks, ERA, & WHIP) without having to pay a lot for pitching.

  5. james said...

    Standard, unlimited move leagues penalize teams that invest heavily in pitching
    When you can stream away half the point of it you really are penalizing for investing in it

    As to the first point, I do agree.  Standard h2h does incent investing heavily in offense and running a skeleton pitching crew

  6. B Mills said...

    Derek,

    This is a pickle we’ve been in in our league recently.  I generally like to allow as much room for strategy as possible (especially when it comes to trades).  But I think that incentives drive managers toward not investing in pitching.

    My argument for innings caps unfortunately fell on deaf ears this offseason.  With more owners looking to maximize counting stats, the ones that did it the year before didn’t have the advantage.  So while the competition evened out (no real advantage or loophole as you discuss), I’m not sure values are distributed correctly on players in the league.  As I said, I like as much realism as possible, as I think the ultimate goal of participating in a fantasy league is simulating the real thing.

  7. B Mills said...

    Derek,

    This is a pickle we’ve been in in our league recently.  I generally like to allow as much room for strategy as possible in a keeper league (especially when it comes to trades).  But I think that incentives drive managers toward not investing in pitching.

    My argument for innings caps unfortunately fell on deaf ears this offseason.  With more owners looking to maximize counting stats, the ones that gained from it the year before didn’t have the same advantage this season.  So while the competition ‘evened out’ (no real advantage or loophole as you discuss), I’m not sure values are distributed correctly on players in the league. 

    As I said, I like as much ‘realism’ as possible, as I think the ultimate goal of participating in a fantasy league is simulating the real thing.

  8. Grammar Police said...

    Beware he who has little to lose

    Our Embedded Clause Division has been alerted.  Violations like this one usually result in probation.

    BTW, the ECD favors innings caps to reduce the fantasy-league impact of the Liván Hernándezes (¿Hernándeces?) of the world.  This is merely an advisory opinion, not a regulation.

  9. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I just think innings caps are a far less intrusive way of reaching the same goal. I don’t know if streaming pitchers actually devalues pitching. It only happens that way when the long term incentives are lost. My opponent in the finals streamed all year, but throughout the season if you convert the H2H to roto, I would have outscored him in the cumulative pitching cats (and then add the times when I sat pitchers to protect rate leads, something he hardly ever did).

    There are two larger points. One, in order to argue for limiting moves, you’d have to establish a positive correlation between moves made and final standings (somehow accounting for skill disparity among owners). Anecdotally, this may be kind of true in the history of my fantasy baseball playing, but certainly not absolutely. My opponent in this case has been in the league for three years. Every year he uses the same strategy. This is the first time he’s won the regular season or playoffs. It may be true that teams who make more moves often finish higher, but that’s often a reflection of the owners’ commitment as opposed to an endorsement of transactions being a pilar of success, for their own sake. I’ve won leagues making more moves than anybody and I’ve won leagues making among the fewest.

    Two, the streaming strategy only becomes incredibly difficult to counter when long term concerns cease to exist. So, do the playoff beg a different set of rules?

  10. Todd said...

    In my auction keeper league mentioned above, the justification for the acquisition limit is as much the salary cap as anything else. The idea is that you have to pay for all those acquisitions, and you don’t have an unlimited budget with which to do so.

  11. Brian M said...

    I’ve got to agree with Todd on this one.  Much of the point of having a cap on salary and an auction format is defeated by allowing unlimited moves.  With no discretion on pickups, the value of the auction is limited.  The idea, at least in our league, is to have the auction be the most important part of the league results.  Significant free agent moves and certain strategies could lead to an inefficient outcome in the auction, given the free unlimited moves.

    Obviously, smart moves and trades during the season are extremely important as well.  For example, the pickups of Randy Wells, Andrew Bailey, Tyler Clippard, Tom Gorzellany, Eric O’Flaherty, Garrett Jones, Scott Podsednik, and Matt Diaz were pivotal in my having a successful season.  Similarly, I should be penalized for dropping Franklin Gutierrez for Russ Springer, or bothering to use a roster spot for Kris Benson, Russ Ortiz or Carlos Silva.  Using discretion in FA moves adds another component to strategy, and combines strategy and evaluation into one.  Not limiting moves simply removes discretion and careful evaluation, leading to hoarding and the quickest draw to get the players.  While it promotes participation, it doesn’t necessarily promote the competition we are looking for in a league.

    I strongly disagree with ‘having to establish correlation between wins and moves’.  Why would you have to do that?  If that’s the case, then you’re imposing limits for the wrong reason: to limit the ability of a single owner.  If teams are significantly moving up the board by using more moves, then you have a participation problem.  The outcome, in theory, should be that if everyone participating sees that correlation, then they, too, will use more moves.  Just because it’s not leading to ‘Wins’ doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

    Rules should be put in place to A. Ensure the removal of inefficiencies in the leauge and/or B. To ensure the underlying theory of why we run a fantasy league are upheld.  Inefficiencies usually only last for a short time (like your correlation of ‘moves’ and ‘wins’) and once one person exposes it, others follow to reduce that advantage for everyone; but the persistence of hoarding is an issue I see as undermining my interest in playing fantasy.

  12. Kevin said...

    If I’m in a H2H league with money on the line, I always insist on unlimited transactions but weekly line up changes.
    Of course it opens up the risk of having a player injured in Monday’s game…

  13. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Just as an update (as if anybody cares)- the strategy worked as I intended, but not enough to net the outcome I wanted. I lost the K point by a little over 20 Ks. I closed the gap considerably on the K/BB, but not enough to take the category. Meanwhile, his motley crew pitched pretty well on Sunday, which meant that I barely hung on to the WHIP category. (I likely would have blown it chasing he Ks.)

    At the end of the day, my team didn’t hit enough to win, regardless.

  14. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Brian,

    Perhaps this is a semantic issue, but I’m not sure what you mean by “hoarding.” Rosters are set at a certain size; at any given point we all have the same number of player under our control. Therefore, the idea of “hoarding” is a red herring.

    Second, the idea of reducing discretion is not an advantage or liability, per se. To pick up a player, you have to drop one. And, while the streamers often get great short term production and/or maximize their opportunities for production their short leashes also cause them to drop players who turn out to be very valuable assets. That aspect of the strategy evens itself out.

    Third, I don’t see anything wrong with penalizing the quickest to act. I know sometimes I lament the fact that I may be busier than others in my league and that impacts my ability to beat others to the wire, but those are (as I feel they should be) tough cookies.

    And, forgive my ignorance, but wouldn’t the streaming strategy only truly devalue players bordering on replacement level anyway? The sample size is really the culprit here more than the streaming itself – the scoring periods are short enough so that a marginal starter can approximate a stud.

    Finally, you are correct in the idea that if everybody co-opted the strategy then it would cease to have the advantages it is alleged to possess. The fact that in leagues with unlimited moves, the entire league does not necessarily adopt that model serves to establish that there’s a lack of consensus on whether those advantages are real.

    Once again, in my opinion, the biggest reason to regulate against the streaming strategy is that the cost of implementing it diminishes as match-ups become more important, culminating in a dynamic in which there is almost no deterant to implement it in the playoffs on a scale that wuold have been illogical and counterproductive at earlier points in the season.

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