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Monday, February 14, 2011
“The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital."
- Joe Paterno, Penn State Football Coach
Everybody wants to win, but few have the drive to prepare. Since I started writing for The Hardball Times, I learned there are a lot of well-educated fantasy players out there who know a lot more than I do. I like to think that what I lack in knowledge of vague sabrmetric statistical applications, I make up for it in targeted preparation.
I think most experts would agree that preparation is the key to all success. No matter if you are a head-to-head streamer or a Rotisserie auction junkie, perpetual winning is tied to your unending preparation.
I’m not sure if I actually have an area of expertise, but I grew up playing in a significant amount of head-to-head leagues. There are those in our fantasy grouping that would consider the idea of a head-to-head league as sheer blasphemy.
Derek Ambrosino would be one of the H2H detractors. His points are solid as a rock, and like a fine wine matures, my opinion of the way fantasy should be played has changed more to an agreement with Derek. Why add more luck to a game that is already entrenched with it?
The real truth is that mainstream fantasy baseball players seek to get the same enjoyment out of fantasy baseball as they would out of playing real baseball. This “feeling” is best achieved in the H2H format.
I don’t think anyone would debate the weekly battle that ensues out of a head-to-head league can be intense, especially when it involves a co-worker or buddies from high school—or better yet, both. The rivalries and trash talk born out of these leagues spills over into everyday life. A roto league that has weekly lineup changes cannot possibly generate the same kind of passion.
With all that said, the driving force behind this article is to better understand how to be competitive in a head-to-head fantasy baseball league. We will assume that the league follows the standard ESPN settings with daily lineup changes.
Streaming is, for lack of a better word, good. I’d say streaming is the equivalent to greed. Enjoying money is one thing, but when it consumes your soul it becomes unhealthy. Streaming can consume your fantasy baseball team.
A commissioner can limit moves by a number of ways like instituting a FAAB budget, but streaming at its simplest form is unavoidable in all H2H leagues. Understanding how to “stream” properly and ethically can be a stepping-stone to a championship.
Here’s an example. In 2010, you drafted Brandon Webb as your ace. You missed out on picking up Colby Lewis, and you hesitated on Shaun Marcum because of the injuries. Now your team is without a true ace. Forced to scour the waiver wire, you concentrate on two-start pitchers and favorable matchups.
Living by that strategy can be tiresome and risky. To properly incorporate what I’m going to call streaming is by using a technique we’ll call "ride-or-die". The key to finding a replacement for Webb will not be found in a constant add/drop roller coaster. The art of the waiver wire is entangled into the philosophy of ride-or-die.
Basically, I will examine the waiver wire of my league as well as the minor leagues, and I’ll find a potential stopgap. I like to focus on guys with the most talent that have for some reason or another suffered a value drop. Usually their value has dipped due to momentary ineffectiveness, lack of playing time, or injury. Rookies and injured players can be the best ride-or-die prospects.
Another thing I like to see is an extreme upswing in performance right before I add the player. For a pitcher, that may be as little as two extraordinary starts. For a hitter, we’re looking at more of a week or two of solid statistical output. I like to hear humbleness by the player and praise from the manager.
To properly evaluate a potential ride-or-die pick up, you must use the tools easily available to you. Whether you use our lovely THT Forecasts or the piles of data on Fangraphs, incorporating statistical output with a visual scouting job is essential. Understanding statistics and understanding the baseball being played on the field are great in themselves, but if used together, they can be epic in the process of furthering your baseball team.
Barring the use of a FAAB budget, a waiver wire pickup shouldn’t cost you much. Once a player makes it through the judgment process and nestles himself into my starting rotation, I will tend to be more forgiving of poor performance, though that forgiveness always has a tipping point.
Always remember the key to a successful ride-or-die mindset is knowing when the ride has died. That thin line can be a difference between having Jose Bautista for some of 2010 or all of 2010.
When the ride for your pickup has ended, you’ll just need to give him a slap on the rear and show him the door. There is no room for being a fan or having loyalty in fantasy baseball. Then, you let the process repeat itself. This cycle, if run correctly, can really bandage the wound an injury may cause.
Lastly, I must say in no way am I endorsing the strategy of all forms of streaming. The type of streaming I am mostly talking about here is where a player with an inferior team uses the free agent list like a buffet and runs pitchers and/or hitters to accumulate the most stats possible with disregard to respecting the game itself. A streamer of this sort, I despise. There is no skill involved in this form of streaming.
I know we play the game to win, and are free to dabble in all the strategic devices available to us, but like my dad always said, there comes a point in every man’s life where he has to choose if he’s going to do right no matter what the consequences. Losing money is not cool, but even in a silly game of fantasy baseball, losing my pride is unacceptable.
My advice in dealing with a negative streamer is to outsmarting them. Like they say, beat them to the punch. Normally, a H2H league follows a 5X5, 6X6, or 7X7 category format. See which categories your competitor may be trying to target and beat him to the punch.
Most of the time, a streamer will attack the bulk categories like HR, RBI, SB, W, K, SV and categories they may already be performing well in. In times past where I have had to deal with a streamer, I had to release a few players I was prospecting on and out-stream him. In a perfect world, your league should have parameters that prevent this type of play, but sometimes that just isn’t the case, especially in head-to-head leagues.
If you’re having trouble deciphering the waiver wire of your league or feel that you may be unable to “stream” effectively, we’ll have several columns throughout the year by Josh Shepardson and Jeffrey Gross that should help break down the players that will inevitably provide the most value as the season progresses. I am also available for insight and quandaries as we enter our 2011 journey to glory together.
Posted by Ben Pritchett at 5:11am
Clayton Kershaw is turning 23 in March. Kershaw has two full seasons under his belt with ERAs under 3.00. Over the last two years, he's No. 15 in Fangraphs' WAR. Over the last two years Kershaw has been a very, very good pitcher, with FIPs of 3.12 or better and xFIPs of 3.9 or lower. Moreover, he has been a pretty good strikeout pitcher, punching out more than a batter per inning, and last year he even improved his walk rate to a reasonable level (3.57 BB/9).
Really, the only area that Kershaw has been deficient for the fantasy player has been in the win column due to the failures of his own team. This may still be a problem in 2011, but that's not Kershaw's fault.
But how about the parts of Kershaw's own performance that he can control? Can he continue to keep up that great performance or perhaps even improve further?
Well, let's take a look at his pitches:
Kershaw's pitch repertoire
Kershaw broke into the major leagues with only three pitches: a fastball, change-up and curveball. Against same-handed batters (left-handers), Kershaw was solely a fastball-curveball pitcher. Against opposite-handed batters (righties), Kershaw was still mainly a fastball-curveball pitcher, but he mixed in a change-up every so often.
In the start of his second season (2009), Kershaw continued using these pitches in the same manner. But in June of 2009, Kershaw began to use a slider in addition to his curveball. By August, Kershaw had begun to use the slider almost as frequently as the curveball.
In 2010, the change in Kershaw's repertoire was complete: against same-handed batters, he began to basically stop using the curveball in favor of the slider. Against opposite-handed batters, Kershaw also used the slider more frequently than the curveball, using the slider twice as frequently as the curve (and, actually, he began to use the slider more frequently compared to the curveball as the year went on).
While Kershaw's fastball usage has been unaffected by the emergence of the slider, Kershaw's change-up has almost entirely disappeared. Essentially, in 2010 Kershaw was strictly a fastball-slider pitcher against left-handed batters, while he was a fastball-slider-curveball pitcher against right-handed batters.
The movement and velocity of Kershaw's fastball, curveball, and slider are shown in the tables below (for the purposes of this article, I'm going to ignore the change-up, given that Kershaw used it infrequently in 2008-2009 and basically stopped it using in 2010.):
As you can see, relatively little has changed in Kershaw's three main pitches over the last three years in terms of how these pitches moved. It should be noted that Kershaw's fastball has decreased in velocity each of the last two years, by about one mile per hour per year. Kershaw HEAVILY depends upon his fastball, so this bears watching.
If the fastball velocity continues to drop, his results could be greatly affected. This is something to keep an eye on in spring training and April of the upcoming year, though note: Kershaw's drop in velocity didn't happen in the '09-'10 off season, but mainly happened in June of 2010, which makes one wonder about the possibility of injury or something. It could, of course, just be a calibration issue, but keep an eye on this in 2011.
The results of Kershaw's pitches
Against Left-Handed Batters:
First, as should be obvious from Kershaw's splits, his pitches are a nightmare for lefties. Kershaw throws the fastball 73.5 percent of the time against left-handed batters, with the slider making up most of the rest of his pitches (24.0%). And that fastball is incredible: Kershaw has gotten a swinging strike rate on the fastball above 14 percent each of the last three years, with it hitting a career high rate of 16.95 percent in 2010.
For reference, the average fastball has a swinging strike rate around 5-6 percent....meaning Kershaw's fastball gets a swinging strike almost three times more frequently than the average fastball against these batters. That is utterly ridiculous. Kershaw's fastball has lost its ability to get ground balls against these batters a little bit each year, but the swinging strike rate is so high that it doesn't matter*.
*How does Kershaw do this? Quite simply, he's incredibly good at locating his fastball in the up-and-away part of the strike zone, an area likely to get more strikeouts with the fastball. Despite seeming to target this spot, Kershaw does not miss the strike zone very often with this pitch, and the pitch doesn't miss inside (into the power area of batters) very often either. He is VERY impressive.
Similarly, Kershaw's slider is terrific against left-handed batters, with swinging strike rates above 20 percent each of the last two years.
All in all, if you have Kershaw and he's facing a team filled with left-handed bats, you should expect some really good results. Unfortunately, 79 percent of the batters that Kershaw faces each year are right-handed batters.
Against Right-Handed Batters
Against right-handed batters, Kershaw has become a fastball-slider-curve ball pitcher, as mentioned above, with the change-up being used on rare occasions. Since the change-up has become basically irrelevant (he threw 29 total the last four months of the season), I'm going to ignore it here.
Once again, Kershaw is primarily a fastball pitcher, using the pitch over 70% of the time. His aim with this pitch doesn't seem as specific as it is against left-handed batters; the pitch is aimed on the inside part of the plate (similar to his spot against left-handed batters), though it does hit the middle of the plate a bit. As against left-handed batters, the pitch is primarily aimed high in the strike zone, but not too high...the pitch is still in the strike zone very frequently (more on this in a bit).
The end result of this aim is that the fastball's results are much closer to average against righties than against lefties. The pitch's swinging strike rate actually decreased to a career low in 2010, down from 7.6 percent in 2009 to 5.8 percent in 2010, essentially making the pitch go from above average at getting whiffs (by a little bit) to barely below average.
The pitch's groundball rate (43.7 percent) in 2010 was above average, but Kershaw's GB rate on this pitch has fluctuated each year (from 45.0 percent to 39.7 percent to 43.7 percent), so it's likely this is just a random result rather than a true change.
All in all, however, the fastball was still a pretty good pitch against these batters, even when you take into account BABIP and HR/FB oddities. It is, however, not as insane a pitch as it is against left-handed batters.
The slider was a revelation for Kershaw against right-handed batters in 2010. Traditionally, a slider is a pitch used mainly against same-handed batters, with the change-up taking its place against opposite-handed batters. Alternatively, you'll see pitchers use a curveball instead to handle opposite-handed batters.
Kershaw, on the other hand, has marginalized his change-up and begun to use the slider against opposite- (right-) handed batters, as opposed to what you'd expect. And, in fact, after a rough start with this pitch in 2009, it was tremendously successful in 2010.
In 2010, the swinging strike percentage of the pitch against right-handers increased to 17.7 percent from 11.0 percent, and the groundball rate improved from 18 percent to 33 percent (though, admittedly, the 18 percent result in 2009 was based upon only 11 batted balls and was probably just bad luck).
The end result is that the slider has given Kershaw a second deadly weapon that he uses most frequently in two-strike situations (though even in these situations, Kershaw's most frequently used pitch is his fastball).
The emergence of the slider is particularly good given that Kershaw's curveball, which looked so good when he first came up, has greatly decreased in value. When Kershaw broke into the majors in 2008, the curveball got an okay swinging strike rate of 9.9 percent and an amazing 70.6 percent GB rate, though that was only on 34 balls put into play.
In 2009, the swinging strike rate dropped a tiny bit to right-handed batters to 8.4 percent, but the GB rate dropped off a cliff to 38.5 percent, though this was on a small sample size of 39 balls in play.
In 2010, the drop-off in efficiency was seen in the swinging strike rate, plummeting to 6.6 percent as batters simply didn't swing at the pitch as frequently as they had before. The GB rate recovered somewhat, though the sample size this year was even smaller (16 balls in play). As it is, this drop in effectiveness is not particularly worrisome due to the fact that the curveball's use has decreased greatly in favor of the slider.
It should be noted that the slider was used more and more frequently compared to the curve in three of the last four months of the 2010 season. Thus, in April and spring training, we should keep an eye on what breaking ball Kershaw is using most frequently.
A good sign toward the future: Kershaw's extreme accuracy at hitting the strike zone.
One thing that needs to be noted about Kershaw is this: he became much better at hitting the strike zone in 2010. In fact, using one measure of the strike zone (a wide zone, minimum 1500 pitches thrown), he hit the strike zone with his pitches at the 10th-best rate in all of the majors. According to another measurement of the strike zone (one that measures a smaller zone, minimum 1500 pitches thrown), he was the 13th best.
Now, Kershaw's walk rate did improve from 2009 to 2010 a good bit, but still, his walk rate was actually 79th in the league out of 92 qualifying pitchers! How does that make sense?
Well it does make some sense: in reality, walk rate doesn't correlate very strongly with a pitcher's strike-zone rate (after all, pitchers do throw out of the zone on purpose on 0-2 and other counts where the odds of it causing a walk are extremely low). That said, there is some correlation (higher strike-zone rate, lower BB rate), and Kershaw actually has the highest walk rate of any pitcher with a strike-zone rate equivalent to, or higher than, his own rate.
This suggests that we would expect Kershaw, if he can keep up his improved accuracy, to improve his BB rate further. This makes sense of course: the strike-zone rate shows that Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw is a REALLY good pitcher and is likely to continue to be such a good pitcher in the coming season. A PitchF/X analysis shows only one possible red flag: his fastball velocity has decreased each year. But the same analysis reveals more factors—the emergence of a strong breaking pitch in the slider and his improved accuracy—that show he could take another step toward being one of the best pitchers in the league.
For fantasy purposes, I'd consider Kershaw highly and would be willing to count on him for everything but wins (for obvious reasons). So though he might not get the press as some of the other amazing pitchers on bad teams, I'd consider him a guy who could potentially be in the same category by next year. There's real potential there, which he looks really close to realizing. And even if he doesn't, he's already a great pitcher.
Posted by Josh Smolow at 5:10am
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