Fantasy: Lucky or Talented?by Kent Williams
June 23, 2006
A recurring theme in this space will be the differences between fantasy baseball and the real thing. Even in complex leagues attempting to emulate as many of the countless responsibilities of a manager and general manager as possible, fantasy owners who think they could run a ballclub better than, say, Allard Baird or Jim Bowden, are (with very few exceptions) delusional. I’m not implying that any MLB general manager would be a cinch to win your league; the profession and the hobby simply don’t require the same skills.
Similarities do exist, of course. One of them is the role luck plays on a winning team.
It’s a game of inches, we’re frequently reminded. Actually, that brush is much too broad. The “heroic” walk-off grand slam is a tiny fraction of an inch from a “choking” bases-loaded popup. Can the result be explained by the relative talent of the pitcher and batter? Is it predictable by any algorithm? Nope, it just happens. Invisible, impossible-to-measure factors with enormous effects aren’t exclusively the realm of physicists.
The scientific approach to baseball is best viewed through a telescope. The larger the sample size, the more relevant the data. Under the microscope of each particular pitch, events appear almost random. Assuming they’re both good players, the hurler of the preceding paragraph, backed by his fielders, can be expected to “win” that battle about 70% of the time. We have no way of knowing exactly when one of the hitter’s intermittent (but inevitable) successes will occur. Or precisely why, though theories will abound in column and blog, especially if it happens in the postseason.
Obviously, I’m no mathematician. Many years of betting on horses did teach me a little about odds and probabilities, though. What we as fantasy owners are attempting to do, like real general managers, is assess the likelihood of given players either repeating their past performance, improving or regressing. There are many different tools available to remove some, but not all, of the guesswork. It doesn’t matter whether we rely on ZiPS, PECOTA, proprietary stats, scouts, touts or a consensus of the above, we all come up with evaluations and rankings before our auctions, drafts or winter meetings. If you excel at the game, those ratings are probably applied to 1,000 players or more, including minor-leaguers, and adjusted throughout the season.
Your “system” may be vastly superior to mine. If so, all other things being equal, you’ll probably finish ahead of me in our league. However, in any given season, my team might avoid injuries while yours doesn’t. I might get unexpected career years from a few players. Champions aren’t always the best-run team. So much is beyond our control, all we can really do is prepare diligently, make consistently sound decisions and hope for the best.
This is also the case on the diamond. Not to diminish what the White Sox accomplished in 2005, but had Jon Garland pitched like he did in most previous seasons—a level to which he seems to have returned this year—they would have been hard-pressed to make the playoffs. That’s deliberately oversimplified; the point is, some combination of avoiding disasters and taking advantage of pleasant surprises is common to winning teams.
Attributing someone else’s success to “good luck” and blaming your own failures on “bad luck” can be a convenient cop-out for the lazy and/or incompetent. Sure, there are people “born on third base who think they hit a triple” and others whose life burdens seem unfair. But in our context—attempting to make sense of a sport—don’t dismiss random chance as a plausible explanation for certain team or individual performances. Let's not get into fate.
Baseball remains an eternal mystery, even to those who devote a lifetime to studying it. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed picking the brains of many big league managers, coaches, players, scouts, general managers and a controversial Yankees owner. My baseball library is extensive; I’ve been watching on TV since Pee Wee Reese and Dizzy Dean manned the broadcast booth. Attending thousands more games in person, as participant or spectator, at every level of organized and amateur ball, has further expanded my internal database. Still, like most astute observers, I “see something new every day.”
The statistical revolution of recent years has helped a growing segment of fans become more aware of the game’s nuances. Open-minded career baseball men—they aren’t all Luddites—have also adopted sabermetric principles. Collectively, we’re better informed (about sports and everything else) than at any previous time in human history. Nevertheless, all that knowledge hasn't made the answers to many pertinent questions any less elusive. True wisdom, it’s been said, begins with knowing what you don’t know.
Since we’re speaking of unpredictability, remember April, when Chris Shelton was on pace for over 100 homers and 200 RBIs? Meanwhile, Dan Johnson was hitting under .200 all season—with an OPS under .600—until very recently. Over the last month, Shelton has been killing his owners at a .194/.272/.323 clip, while Johnson, at .329/.398/.537, is finally rewarding those patient enough to wait for the law of averages to be invoked. Anyone out there who “sold high” on Shelton for something like a stud pitcher and Johnson is cackling all the way to a pennant despite being full of horseshoes, in a most uncomfortable place.
Apologies to anyone who picked up Casey Janssen on my enthusiastic recommendation a couple of weeks ago. While my scouting report still applies, his recent results have been extremely disappointing. The frame of a power pitcher and a Seaveresque leg drive notwithstanding, this righty relies on finesse and precision. Unfortunately for his fantasy owners, the Jays and his confidence, his pinpoint control suddenly went missing June 12 against the Orioles. After setting down the first six batters—striking out two—Janssen gave up a pair of infield singles and a triple before fanning two more to limit the damage. The next inning was a waking nightmare: five singles, a hit batsman with the bases loaded (!) and a merciful hook.
Five days later in Florida against the resurgent Marlins, Janssen began by nibbling, tentatively, from the first pitch, and plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt wasn’t impressed. An uncharacteristic four walks and a barrage of 11 base hits resulted in an even shorter outing. There’s a simple explanation: when your fastball is 89-92, and you miss your spots early in the count, you get clobbered. How the young man responds to this first taste of big-league embarrassment will determine whether he sticks around all season (as seemed so likely a short time ago) or is returned to Syracuse for more seasoning.
Needless to say, it wasn’t the best week for my Toronto Walrus, which not only suffered through Janssen’s WHIP-destroying meltdown, but had some very sound managerial logic backfire. Gil Meche, scratched from a scheduled start with a sore back, took the hill the following afternoon. Less than 100% healthy, with the recently overpowering Jason Schmidt as his mound opponent and Barry Bonds in the Giants lineup, he seemed like an automatic candidate for a benching. The win, the 9 innings, the lone earned run and 7/1 ratio of strikeouts to walks would all have been helpful in a week where I took a 10-2 pounding. Brain cramp, or bad luck?
Blind Squirrel Award
Owners who picked up Jamie Shields after his inauspicious big-league debut—or even after his second start—are at risk of rotator cuff damage from patting themselves on the back after the D-Rays rookie out duelled Brandon Webb for his fourth straight win. It was a tough call this week over Henry Blanco, who became a 10-day regular because of Michael Barrett’s suspension and proceeded to nearly double his OPS in six remarkable days. Honorable mention if you added So Taguchi just before his 2 stolen bases and rare home run this week. White Sox hitters, especially Joe Crede, have been racking up crazy stats while averaging more than 11 runs per game during six straight victories. Sadly, their owners are ineligible for the BSA because Pale Hose bats were smart investments, not lucky shots in the dark.
The only “reason” to keep Janssen in my lineup vs. the Mets tonight is a remarkable streak of success for the Blue Jays on my birthday. One man's coincidence is another's karma; for one day, the baseball gods have been very kind since the last millenium. In both 2000 and 2001, a Toronto team I didn’t particularly like (except for Carlos Delgado) defeated the Red Sox. During the first half of 2002, I ripped J.P. Ricciardi in multiple ESPN.com fantasy columns every week for sticking with the overmatched “lame duck Buck” Martinez as skipper and “Buck Eighty”—my scornful, AVG-based nickname for Joey Lawrence—at second base. On June 23, the team won anyway.
As I celebrated the Big 5-0 with family and friends, the 2003 Jays thumped the Orioles. That was a pretty good season: getting to know John Gibbons and the other coaches, cheering (only once in the press box) for three superstars and the Rookie of the Year.
Roy Halladay pitches very well on any date. For my “present” in 2004, he allowed just one run in seven innings, and the Jays beat the Rays on a Reed Johnson RBI single in the tenth. Last year, Doc fanned eight Orioles, improving to 11-4 in what looked like another Cy Young campaign, until that fateful Kevin Mench line drive broke his leg.
I’ll be at the Rogers Centre this evening, to hoist a few celebratory brews and welcome the great Delgado back to T.O., though I hope Janssen sits him down four times. Many reasonable people would have cut Casey by now, even in a 20-team league like BBFL. Anyone with half a brain would at least keep him benched until he turns it around. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that considering the “birthday mojo” (in addition to where my opponent and I stand in the six pitching categories) will make his fantasy start a last-minute decision.
On to a couple of more realistic possible additions. Depending on the depth of your league, Zach Miner may be available. The unheralded Tigers righty tossed a complete game against the Brewers that lowered his ERA to 2.08 and improved his record to 3-1. Facing the Astros and possibly the Pirates next week (depending on how Jim Leyland deals with an off day), he might continue to surprise for a while longer. He’s not recommended long-term, because sooner or later, opponents will figure out they should sit on the rookie’s bread-and-butter changeup.
It’s too soon to declare this a complete turnaround, but Erik Bedard, after winning just once in 10 wildly inconsistent starts, has now collected a win in his last two. The Canadian lefty has never looked better than Wednesday night, when he absolutely baffled the Marlins. Thanks primarily to a dazzling curveball, he struck out 12 in eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks. In shallow leagues he might be a free agent, making two starts against NL clubs next week.
Stay tuned, fantasy fans. We’re about to review the first half, saluting the 20-20 All-Stars, then will be looking ahead to the second half for potential breakout candidates. Until then, the very best of luck.
References and Resources
Thanks to the one and only Retrosheet. Memories were made to be refreshed.
Kent Williams is a Toronto baseball coach, former ESPN.com fantasy correspondent, and founder of Batter's Box. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions via e-mail.