LIMA’s hidden costs

In any market defined by buyers having fixed total resources, whether auction dollars or draft picks per round, buyers will be forced to sacrifice some goods for the opportunity to hold others. In some ways, these sacrifices are fairly straight forward—if I choose to build a low-budget pitching staff, I largely sacrifice the chance of owning expensive, top tier pitchers. However, other implications of certain strategies may not be so self-evident at the outset. Today, I’d like to explore some of the concentric effects of building a pitching staff on a budget, the hidden costs or opportunity cost of the LIMA plan.

Like many of our readers, I often spend most of my purchasing power on elite hitters as opposed to elite pitchers. In one of my home-leagues, a simple 12-team mixed, snake draft league, my co-owner and I have been traditionally successful at pulling off competitive rotations on the cheap, and this season we were at it again.

We often agree that taking one elite starter is a good move, should such a true stud fall far enough for us to really perk up. This season we were both gaga for Clayton Kershaw and were happy to select him in the fourth round, at 42nd overall. We waited nearly 100 picks to select our second starter, grabbing Gio Gonzalez at pick #138. After that, we were really bargain shopping, picking up six more starters between picks 199 and 306. (I should note that one of those picks was a flier on the disabled Brandon Webb, who has since been jettisoned because our DL is suddenly crowded with Rajai Davis and yesterday’s punch to the gut in the form of Josh Hamilton).

Sometimes these patchwork late-round motley crews can give their owners bouts with agita, but we feel that we’ll get enough production out of our guys to compete in most pitching categories. At the same time, we’re hoping to mop up a disproportionate amount of offensive points, largely on the backs of an extremely potent roster of outfielders. This is a pretty standard approach to roster construction, but sometimes it doesn’t work out as well as planned, and I think this is because of some of the more subtle sacrifices you make when you build your team this way. Here are some other issues to keep in mind for those of you who built teams in the LIMA model.

Offensive games played
Last year, in this same league the winning team took 52 of 60 possible offensive points. Part of his success was due to the fact that he had 90 more games played than the average team in the league, and almost 200 more games played than the last place team. Such a disparity is tantamount to having additional offensive roster spots. Over the course of the season, this owner was ostensibly playing 14 on 13 against the lower half of the league. And, guess who one of those teams short on offensive games played was? That’s right, us—and it’s no coincidence.

Though I often preach heavy rotation of players in your last few roster spots to maximize ABs and usage, doing so can be a bit difficult with the type of pitching staff you often assemble when operating on a shoestring budget. There are a few reasons for this.

One such reason is that I often find myself drafting more starters than mathematically necessary when I operate from a LIMA-esque platform. More affordable starting pitching options are less reliable and more flawed, so LIMA owners often have to mix and match pitchers, sitting them against tough match-ups and the like. You can still get great production out of a staff this way, but it is more roster-space-intensive to do so. In the case of this league, I probably want somewhere in the neighborhood of 1150 – 1200 innings from my starters. To achieve that, I’m probably taking 95-100 percent of my first through third starters’ innings and then trying to mix and match the best 60 – 70 percent of innings my remaining four or five starters will throw this year. All things considered, I’m using seven or eight roster spots to hopefully accrue six starting pitchers’ worth of innings.

This leaves less roster flexibility to take advantage of all the potential Monday, Thursday, and Sunday ABs. If the starting pitching depth on the wire is prime, then perhaps I can roll over my last two starters more often and wring out some extra ABs, but this is not something I can count on. The way hay can really be made with this strategy by getting a great year or a breakout from a back-end pitcher. If one or two of those pitcher emerge as guys from whom I want 90 percent of their innings, it allows me to shave my staff and add get additional ABs. This goes into how I draft, but you never know exactly what you’ll get, and of course you don’t have to be a LIMA owner to benefit from cheap pitchers breaking out.

Offensive depth
Continuing on the theme of subtle offensive sacrifices caused by the LIMA plan, those of you who go LIMA on a snake draft may remember still filling out your starting rotation while other teams were stocking their benches with extra bats.

In the league I’m using as a springboard for this article, one of the other things we sacrificed by having to fill out so many starting pitchers in the late rounds was the chance of drafting a bench bat that is meaningfully above replacement level. This makes your team a little less prepared to accommodate a key injury.

In our case, we compounded this dynamic by also drafting Chase Utley, before drafting a bench bat. We DL-ed him after the draft, but that meant that our active Utley replacement was destined to be a replacement level player, barring a Jose Bautista pull on the waiver wire slot machine.

With the Hamilton injury, our roster is really feeling the squeeze, as not only do we have to accommodate our part-time pitchers, but with two injured starters in addition to Utley, who we aren’t ready to cut loose, we have to use an active roster spot to keep a third inactive player.

Competing priorities
One other roster construction dynamic often put into motion by a cheap pitching staff is the complimentary nature of elite middle relievers. Middle relievers who efficiently rack up wins and Ks, and help anchor rate stats are a great compliment to staffs that are set up to rely on the likes of rate-dangerous starters on good teams (e.g. John Lackey), and/or potentially wins-starved cogs (e.g. Michael Pineda).Some owners also like to use the few spots on a roster speculate on saves futures.

Concluding thoughts
Theoretically, there are a number of ways you’d like to be able to use your bench. You’d like to be able to have a plus bat, to rotate players to maximize ABs, to roster efficient and productive middle relievers, and to speculate on saves futures. The more you rely on the deeper, cheaper, mix-and-match starting rotation, the more you may sacrifice your ability to use your last handful of roster spots. This does not mean that the LIMA-esque pitching staff strategy isn’t a good one. In fact, I still think it’s still the most straightforward way to maximize value in a draft. This discussion is just to reiterate that no plan is without its more subtle liabilities.

If your pitching staff is like ours, your offense is probably similarly formidable, but at the same time you may not have the most room for error. Luckily, no matter how competent your league, there will always be a handful of unwise, out-of-frustration drops of slow-starting batters, who have reliable track records. LIMA plan owners would be wise to monitor the waiver wire closely early in the season, because this is potential lamp from which your genies will emerge. Above replacement-level bats or higher end starters off to poor starts may find themselves there, and with a little luck and discipline, you might be able to fill your holes and recoup those hidden LIMA costs sooner than later.

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  1. Brad Johnson said...

    You get what you pay for with Hamilton. I bought into him and Grady Sizemore in one of my leagues in 2009. I finished dead last (thankfully I won my other two leagues that year).

    My home league is an auction keeper league. Last year I scored a perfect 60 of 60 on pitching stats (yet still came in second place with 104.5 total points). However, the keepers I had in place – Wainwright and Scherzer in the rotation and Posey, Santana, Raburn, Tulo, Bautista, Cruz, and Torres on offense – pushed me towards the LIMA plan, especially after Wainwright hit the shelf. Lincecum, Greinke, and Haren were the most notable SP’s on the market.

    In an auction format, some of the costs of the LIMA plan you mentioned don’t materialize. For instance, I was able to squirrel away enough money to have my pick of the end of draft sleepers. In the draft, I only selected Chacin and Pineda to complement Scherzer in my rotation but have since added Lowe, Beachy, and Beckett. Where I’m feeling the pain is in the bullpen. We have 9 generic P slots and I like to carry 7 RP, 4 SP and occasionally cycle the 7th RP into a spot starter. That leaves me 3 bench slots on offense. In order to keep my games played up, I’ve had to cut back to 5 RP, which is hurting my ratios.

  2. batpig said...

    um, how about defining WTF the “LIMA model” is if you are going to make it a central thesis of your article.  I am not a mind-reader.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Might be a good point. I don’t know when that term got affixed to the method but I’ve always known it as going cheap on pitching. Calling that a model sounds a little pretentious since there isn’t really any modeling involved.

    But then again, fantasy baseball deserves some jargon.

  4. batpig said...

    is it an acronym? if so what’s it stand for?

    either way, you should at least slip in a parenthetical in the first paragraph letting the reader know what you are talking about.  I mean, I was able to infer the gist of it but still….

    maximizing plate appearances is definitely a major thing that mediocre fantasy owners don’t understand.  In my very competitive keeper league there is a high correlation with team AB and position in the standings.  You are definitely paying a price in roster space with a mix-and-match pitching staff.

  5. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    LIMA is the fantasy baseball strategy that Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster created many years back (1998) for dealing with resource constraints by allowing you to target high skills pitchers at very low cost, thereby freeing up dollars for offense.

    LIMA is an acronym for Low Investment Mound Aces, and also pays tribute to Jose Lima, a $1 pitcher in 1998 who exemplified the power of the strategy.

    There is a nice explanation of the exact details of how to execute such a strategy at this website:

    FYI, remember that was state of the art in 1998, not so much now.  Baseball Forecaster has moved to a new strategy they call “The Portfolio3 Plan”.  They have a lengthy explanation of the strategy in their annual, cheap on Amazon, I love their book, helped me win my leagues when I was first starting out and not sure what I was doing.  It was also excellent for getting me over the sabermetric hump, I vaguely understood all the Baseball Prospectus stuff about sabermetrics, but Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster made it all very clear now.

  6. varmintito said...


    Ron Shandler created the acronym because, coincidentally, Jose Lima was the exemplar of the approach the year he formalized it.  Looking at Lima’s career numbers at baseball reference, this must have been 1998.

    In 1997, Lima was a 24 year old reliever who went 1-6 with a 5.28 ERA.  His K:BB was 3.94 (very good) and his K/9 was 7.6 (good but not elite and, ironically,the highest of his career outside a 6 inning cup of coffe his first year).

    I can only assume that Lima was firmly penciled into the Astros rotation before Shandler’s 1998 auction.

    In general terms, Shandler’s idea was to identify younger pitchers that had strong K/9 and K/BB ratios, but mediocre ERA and W-L records.  The underlying assumption was that the poor ERA and W-L records were the at least partially the product of bad luck, and that the strong underlying skills plus regression to the mean plus normal development meant profit.

    Today, the approach sounds so intuitively obvious that we forget how recent the widespread availability and acceptance of fairly basic sabermetric principles is.  A system like LIMA only works if most people either cannot find out a pitcher’s K:BB and K/9, or do not understand their significance.

    In 1998, writers like Rob Neyer at ESPN, and sites like Baseball Prospectus, were just gaining an audience (I’m not sure, but I suspect that THT was still a gleam in its daddy’s eye).  I remember reading Neyer’s stuff on ESPN, and realizing that most of the popular measures of baseball ability (W-L, RBI, BA, Fielding pct.) were deeply flawed to the verge of being worthless.

    Sabermetrics began to gain acceptance, especially among roto players.  As with many strategies that rely on overlooked but easily exploitable inefficiencies, LIMA almost immediately became impossible to implement in its purest form.  Everybody saw how much an advantage it created, and the price of young pitchers with a K:BB over 3 and a K/9 over 7 but bad W-L and ERA jumped. 

    To use a morbid non-baseball parallel, the viability of a terrost strategy of hijacking airliners and turning them into flying bombs lasted about an hour after it was first done.  The inefficiency exploited(passengers remaining docile during a hijacking under the assumption that the hijacker wanted to survive) almost immediately disappeared.

  7. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Sorry for not defining the acronym, batpig.

    I was also using the term loosely, as most of you have infered. Many fantasy owners do build their teams in the spirit of the low investment mound ace, and basically I’m just referring to those of us with a strong, inherent averasion to paying top dollar or draft pick for the most expensive arms in the game.

    I’ve seen some attempts by experts to swing the other way, figuring the LIMA-esque orthodoxy must be giving way to opportunity for value at the top of the pitching pyramid, but – to me, at least – it doesn’t seem that such a reciprocal strategy has worked all that well and/or become popular. I think that’s largely because the greater inherent uncertainty of pitchers and the sheer volume of starting pitchers means that late round starting pitching will almost always represent the biggest opportunity for windfall ROI of any class of player.

    The late round hitters just don’t have the same upside. So, even if you wring out a few dollars of value on the Halladays, Lincecums, and King Felixes of the world, if you put yourself in a position where you don’t need to dip into the pool of late round pitching, your forefitting the class of players most likely to give you a chance at $12 profits. At that point in the draft, you’re left to try to find that same kind of profit margin from lower tier hitters, and it just seems that there less of that profit potential to go around among that group.

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