All this talk of the swine flu got me thinking: Every successful strategy is a mutant. The strategy invades a pool of creatures who are blind to its advantages, and it exploits some central feature of the creatures’ day-to-day operation. This continues until the creatures recognize that the strategy is a winner and unleash defenses (usually in the form of mimicry), at which point the strategy has no edge to exploit and becomes harmless.
Suppose that we wanted to introduced a mutant to fantasy baseball. To be most effective, we want to attack the bias that has the widest spread—something that every league, and nearly every player, is vulnerable to. Does such an opportunity exist?
Yes. The most dominant strategy in fantasy today is the LIMA Plan. Devised by The Master, Ron Shandler, the LIMA Plan provides guidance on how to build one’s roster. To be precise, “LIMA” is both a plan (on how to allocate dollars) and a filter (on how to identify pitchers who are worth a bid—i.e., who are “LIMA-caliber”). In this piece, we’ll be focusing on the filter, which is generally expressed as 6.0 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, and 1.0 HR/9.
To a good approximation, the LIMA Plan has universal exposure. Every fantasy player worth his or her salt has antibodies against LIMA—you can’t name a pitcher with good base rates and expect him to slide past your leaguemates. This reflex among fantasy GM’s is nearly instinctive—
—Which is good; laziness is what we wish to attack. Rule LIMA, and you’ll rule the world.
But is there a mutant that can beat LIMA? That’s unclear. If there is, though, the secret may be staring us in the face:
Technically, “LIMA” stands for “Low-Investment Mound Aces.” However, the name was chosen in a contest because it evoked Jose Lima, the multiple Cy Young winner and first-ballot Hall-of-Famer whose finesse in the diplomatic arena brought lasting peace to—
Oh, you mean the Jose Lima from this reality. The one with a career 5.26 ERA in 1,567 innings. In his 11 seasons of consequential work, Lima had an ERA under 4.00 only twice. Yes, he posted a 3.70 ERA in 33 starts for Houston in 1998, and then a 3.58 ERA in 35 starts the following year; excellent seasons, no doubt. Remove those years, though, and Lima has an ERA of 5.98 and a record of 52-84. It’s true that Lima’s skills went downhill after 1999, but even in his three seasons before 1998, he had ERAs of 5.28, 5.70, and 6.11.
In other words, Jose Lima is not a pitcher whom you wanted to own more than twice in 13 years. And yet, our premier pitching plan is named after him. What a country!
This mismatch elicits a suspicion: How did Jose Lima come to be enshrined? Perhaps there is a flaw here.
For his career, Jose Lima had base rates of 5.6 K/9, 2.5 K/BB, and 1.5 HR/9. From 1994-1999 (when he acquired his allure), his rates were 6.6 K/9, 3.9 K/BB, and 1.2 HR/9.
Now, technically, Lima’s HR rate keeps him from passing his own filter. In fact, in his pre-collapse period, he achieved a homer rate below 1.1 HR/9 only twice—he had a 1.08 HR/9 in 1997, and a 1.096 HR/9 in 1999. So that we may include the man himself, we’ll expand the definition of LIMA here to parameters of 6.0 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, and 1.1 HR/9.
We looked at all pitchers since the year 2000 who have had at least one LIMA-caliber season of at least 100 IP. There were 131 such pitchers. We then asked, How many LIMA-caliber seasons did these pitchers have for their careers (possibly extending before the year 2000)?
Here are the results, grouped by the number of LIMA-caliber seasons:
Fifty of our 131 pitchers (38%) exhibited LIMA-caliber skills for one season only. (Scanning just the As, the list comprises Terry Adams, Jeremy Affeldt, Wilson Alvarez, Rick Ankiel, and Bronson Arroyo. Dare we tally the draft dollars spent chasing this fivesome?)
Only 40% of our pitchers have passed the LIMA filter for three or more seasons. That’s a mere 52 pitchers, spread across nine seasons! Granted, some of the pitchers are still pitching today, and some of those can be expected to lift their LIMA counts. Still, it’s fair to say that fantasy fortunes rose and fell on whether you got in early on these 52 names. (Only one pitcher has a 100% rate of LIMA seasons in a career of four or more seasons. Hint: He pitches for Houston. And he has some work to do to run the streak to nine seasons.)
How about this: After these 131 pitchers put up their first LIMA-caliber season, what fraction of subsequent seasons were LIMA-caliber (and in at least 100 IP)?
A: So far, these pitchers have produced 481 subsequent seasons (of any length). Of those seasons, only 35% were LIMA-caliber in 100 IP. Nineteen pitchers were responsible for half of those seasons; collectively, they had a repeat rate of 73%. If you banked on one of the other 112 pitchers, though, your hit rate was just 23%.
If this be skill, I want nothing of it. A replay of LIMA skills is 1-in-3 overall, and 1-in-4 for the unestablished? Why bother? Admittedly, we’re using LIMA eligibility as a proxy for good results. But a homer rate over 1.1 HR/9, or a strikeout-to-walk rate below 2.0 K/BB, virtually ensures a troubled season.
These findings suggest that the LIMA Plan is vulnerable to a mutant. Far from possessing repeatable skills, most of these pitchers were merely in the right place at the right time—much like Jose Lima, when the LIMA Plan was looking for a name. That may be the real lesson of the LIMA Plan.
Still, the longevity of the LIMA Plan should count for something. And we haven’t done the hard work of showing that a superior strain exists. We have a notion that an answer may lie with the low-K, high-command pitchers whom we identified last week. But we welcome your suggestions.