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?