As usual, I pursued a “stars and scrubs” strategy when dealing with my NL pitching staff. There are legions of articles dealing with this the stars and scrubs model, so I won’t delve too deeply into it here. But the aspect that bears discussion is the tactical execution of the strategy.
In my high stakes league it is very difficult to win in consecutive years. The reason is that every year at least two or three teams are completely loaded for bear, having planned for this season for at least a year or possibly two. This year I planned for the 2007 championship when I joined the league in 2005. Every decision was made with the intent of following a specific plan. That was:
1. Completely rebuild in year one.
2. Continue to build in year two, but transition to a cashing position with the focus still on year three.
3. Year three is win at all costs.
This plan has worked for me. I have played in three different tough high stakes leagues and in all three I was able to successfully execute by cashing in year two and winning in year three.
The key impact this has is that every decision must be considered with an eye to whether it fits in that strategy. Generally this means in terms of a pitching staff that you will bottom feed with all cheap pitchers. To do this necessarily implies that you have no chance at cashing against tougher competition in year one.
It also means that if your league has penalties for finishing in the bottom of the league, or has monetary penalties for missing minimums, you must be prepared to pay that price. In fact in year one of this league one of my first trades, for which I was roundly lambasted, was to trade a $33 Ichiro (essentially at that time a zero profit player) for a few speculative keepers, which included a $1 Zack Greinke and a $1 BJ Upton. Sadly that trade didn’t work out, but nevertheless the focus was on the long term only. We paid quite a hefty penalty in 2005, having missed every minimum by almost historic and sad margins.
Currently, I am left with the following potential keeper list for 2008:
The execution of my plan is evident from these pitchers. All of them were purchased at the auction (except for Villanueva and Parra), all had strong underlying indicators, all were cheap. Spending money on the anchor of Peavy allowed me to speculate on every other pitching position. Of course, had my judgment been off this staff could have been a disaster. The goal is to stockpile a number of cheap arms with talent so that one or more of them turn a tidy profit, and the rest are all shuttled back and forth with free agents.
The principle behind this strategy is that the player himself is not the entire asset with which to work. The asset is the roster spot and the goal is to use the number of roster spots available to maximize profit, not just using the players.
To the problem at hand: who should be kept next year? No question that Vargas and Mitre are kept. At that salary and with their relatively good peripherals they are no-brainers and almost certainly will show a profit. However, my expectation is that one of them will be poor next year.
That sounds counter-intuitive, but it is true. When looking at keepers it is not enough to just say “I think player X will be profitable.” In fact, I have no idea which of these guys is more likely to fall off a cliff. Well, I have some idea but I am not about to bet on either. If I keep them both I am expecting that the one who doesn’t fall off will more than make up for the one that does, thereby turning enough profit to make this tactic worthwhile. If they both are solid then all the better and I may be able to repeat or at least cash. If they both stink I see a fifth place finish or worse in the offing.
The tough cases:
Jake Peavy-Can he be worth $30 again? It was at least ten years since I spent $30 on a pitcher, so you can be sure that I thought he would be the best pitcher in the NL this year. But $30 is a lot of money. Peavy had a very fortunate 78% strand rate, so it is likely that even if everything else is equal his ERA will rise next year. Looking at his past history one can see that his ERA has essentially fluctuated with his strand rate while all else has pretty much remained equal:
Year ERA Str. BB/9 K/9 2004 2.28 84% 2.9 9.4 2005 2.88 76% 2.2 9.6 2006 4.09 69% 2.8 9.6 2007 2.54 78% 2.7 9.7
Carlos Villaneuva-With a cheap $3 salary and the fact that he might be a starter next year he will likely be kept. Even if he only has a 25% chance at being a successful starter it is worth speculating. The mere fact that he stays in a rotation all year (if he does it) will make him worth $10 or so, so any success above that will make him a valuable player and may net me a $10 profit. With an expected ERA in 2007 of 4.46 and a good K rate of 7.8/9IP he can easily be a league average starter or better next year.
Keeping in mind the goal here to stockpile cheap arms and hope that one or two blossom, it should be noted that no one, and I mean not even the foremost experts, can predict with certainty among a group of cheap arms which one will succeed. Just the injury factor alone and the fact that they are cheap (and therefore not perceived as valuable) makes it difficult to be right on a specific pitcher. Villanueva and his ilk fit perfectly into my strategy of “stockpiling and hoping.”
Chad Billingsley-The question here is whether to sign him long term. This has nothing to do with his value for 2008, and everything to do with his value in 2009. Assuming I decide that I cannot compete then he is worth a loss in 2008 if I expect a bigger profit in 2009. If I thought I could win in 2008 then the decision is easy; he is renewed at $3 and that is the end of the analysis.
Billingsley, like Peavy, benefitted from an abnormally high strand rate. His expected ERA was 3.90, far higher than his actual ERA. One’s analysis must at least consider and recognize that by throwing him back one can almost guarantee that an opponent will make an error. Why? Because Billingsley would likely go for a mid-teens salary in the auction. There is a good chance that he will underproduce that salary. That said, if he can shave a walk or two off of his peripherals he can also be a stud. Paying $15 to find out, as someone certainly would, will have one bobsledding to the bottom half of the league.
Given all of the above, the best idea seems to be to sign him to a one year extension, keeping him for 2008 and 2009 at a salary of $8.
Juan Cruz-An unsung hero of my staff (since we have wins and wins minus losses as categories), Cruz was an excellent pickup in the auction. I expected a long stint in the rotation when I purchased him in the auction, so it shows that you are sometimes better off being lucky than good.
I still believe that Cruz is an unsung star in the making if given a chance and he is good enough to succeed as a closer or as a starter. Assuming health, he will likely still be on my team in 2010. He is far too talented to stay in his current role. A bit more control makes him a star in any role. You probably won’t find too many owners that value Cruz over Billingsley, but I am one.
Overall there was a fair bit of luck involved with these cheaper picks. Almost all of them turned a profit, and that won’t happen too often when you are bottom feeding. However, focusing not on all fancy metrics and insanely detailed analysis but on the fundamental peripherals such as K rate and BB rate will lead you to these unsung profitable pitchers.