|Jamie Moyer may be well past his prime and an afterthought in most leagues, but he can make for a great start in certain situations.(Icon/SMI)|
Over the past week or so, there has been a lot of talk around the fantasy baseball world about whether or not it makes sense to play the match-ups with our starting pitchers. Does it do more harm than good? Is micromanaging worth the effort? Does it pay to sit a decent starter against the Yankees and play a poor one against the Astros? While the answer to this last question may seem like an obvious “yes” to some, others don’t seem to be convinced.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent Tim Dierkes post at RotoAuthority:
I have waffled over the years as to whether it makes sense to bench your starting pitchers occasionally if they’re facing tough offenses. I always seem to guess wrong. Tom Gorzelanny against the Pirates, that’s a must-start. But Gorzelanny in Citizens Bank against the best offense in the NL, especially against lefties—I’ll sit him. The result: I’ve danced around Gorzelanny’s best starts.
The philosophy I hope to abide by: If he’s good enough to be a permanent part of your roster, he should be active for all starts.
In his most recent newsletter, Baseball HQ’s Ron Shandler said this:
As much as we hate to admit it, doing match-up analyses has about the same rate of accuracy as tossing spaghetti. No matter what you do, you are going to have to weather occasional meltdowns and sterling performances from the bench.
Maybe the answer is simple. When it comes to aggravation in this game, we just have to live with it.
Eric [Kesselman (co-commissioner of the league)] thought this was a curious decision and asked me to write about it. The short answer is that it was a gut call.
The longer answer is that [it was] based on the matchups…
Despite the fact that Chris and I landed on opposites sides of the Quants vs. Intuition debate, I’m on his side here. Read on.
Tim Dierkes conducted a mini-study shortly after the above-quoted post and concluded that “if you are able to identify the ‘marginal’ starters correctly, as well as the offenses that will be the best all year, there is a small gain to be had over the long run. Season to season, with probably no more than two marginal guys on your regular roster, you’d probably have a lot of years where you wished you hadn’t benched any starters.”
I’m going to a run a study that goes a little more in-depth and comes to a different conclusion. The main question I wanted to answer was “Do pitchers perform better against poor offenses and worse against good offenses?“
My study took data from 2004 to 2009 and compared how pitchers performed against good offenses and bad offenses. For the purposes of this study, “good offenses” are defined as the top four teams in year-end runs scored in each league (AL and NL). “Bad offenses” are the four lowest-scoring teams in each league.*
I then looked at all pitchers who faced at least one good offense and one bad offense and compared their starts against these teams in our four standard roto categories (W, ERA, WHIP, and K), weighted by the least of his starts vs. good offenses and starts vs. bad offenses.
*There are certainly problems here, as year-end stats don’t perfectly reflect our in-season opinions about teams, but I think it will be close enough to let us examine this match-up dilemma. Last year, for example, saw the Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Twins, Phillies, Rockies, Brewers, and Dodgers make this list. Most of these are teams that were expected to be pretty darn good offensively.
The results of the study are below, showing the advantage of facing a bad offense over a good one.
+--------+---------+--------+--------+--------+ | IP | Win/GS | ERA | WHIP | K | +--------+---------+--------+--------+--------+ | + 0.34 | + 9.66% | - 1.10 | - 0.17 | + 1.12 | +--------+---------+--------+--------+--------+
As you can see, there is a significant advantage to facing a poor offense over a good one. All else equal, if your starter gets to face the Astros instead of the Phillies, he’ll stay in the game for an extra out, strike out an extra batter, win an extra game every 10 starts, and have an ERA a full run lower. That’s a highly significant difference. It means that if you’re starting Ross Ohlendorf against the Indians, you might as well be starting Cole Hamels against an average opponent.
Now, of course, we must consider that this study knows who the good and bad offenses will end up being in any given year. In June, we don’t know with that kind of certainty who the best and worst offenses are. While we might not gain that full run ERA difference by playing match-ups (or streaming), I do think we’ll be close. After all, there’s a very high probability that teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays are actually good offenses and the Pirates, Astros and Orioles are actually poor offenses. We just need to be selective. And the deeper we go into the season, the more certain we can be about playing match-ups.
Finally, we must realize that this study deals with the extremes. We’re not always going to be faced with the decision of Ian Snell against the Rays or Joe Saunders against the Mariners (where we’d obviously take Saunders). Mediocre teams will be in the mix, and decisions will be made a little tougher. The important thing to remember is that everything should be taken within proper context and all situations analyzed individually.
There are, of course, other things to consider when deciding whether to insert a pitcher into your active lineup (ballpark, weather, home/away, opposing pitcher, etc), but there should no longer be any question whether there’s an advantage to playing match-ups. There is. And honestly, isn’t that the logical answer? Shouldn’t we expect that pitchers perform better against poor teams?
Sure, occasionally you’ll end up with Dallas Braden perfect-gaming the Rays or Brett Anderson giving up six runs to the Orioles. That’s the nature of small sample sizes. It’s no different than Albert Pujols going a week or two without a home run. And if that happens, we’re not suddenly going to declare chasing power a fool’s errand, are we? As with all small samples, extreme random variation is a possibility, but in the long run, things even out. In the long run, you’re far better off playing the match-ups. They won’t all work out as expected, but when you add them all up at the end of the year, you’ll come out ahead.
My main point can be summed up very easily: play the match-ups! While some may be convinced that it’s a crap shoot, it’s not. In the movie Rounders, Matt Damon’s character muses about a similar phenomenon:
In Confessions of a Winning Poker Player, Jack King said, “Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.” It seems true to me, cause walking in here, I can hardly remember how I built my bankroll, but I can’t stop thinking of how I lost it.
It’s easy to recall the time a spot start blew up in your face, but the marginally good match-ups are easily forgotten. They all count, though, and in the long run, playing the odds is the way to go.
Finally, I ask that you please not comment to tell me that it’s obvious that a pitcher does better facing a poor offense. To me (and likely to many others), it is obvious, but when other analysts—particularly ones as well-known as Ron Shandler—are doubting it, I thought it best to put some concrete numbers out there.