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Wednesday, March 28, 2012
It is a foregone conclusion at this point in spring training, with regular season games gearing up this week, but I had an epiphany this offseason in preparing for my fantasy auctions. And that epiphany is this: Now, more than ever, the LIMA (Low Investment Mound Aces) strategy, explained below, is the most viable option to winning your fantasy league. With robust pitching aplenty in the return of the era of the pitcher, why invest in elite arms?
Now let's get one thing straight: Leagues are not won at the auction/draft table. They can be lost there (coming back from a poor draft can be a devastatingly difficult uphill battle), but one cannot sit idly by after the league drafts and hope to go for gold. The waiver wire is a key component to a successful fantasy season, both in acquiring players for your team and preventing other teams from acquiring players that help theirs. My motto is that drafting is only 60 percent of the battle. The other 40 percent is a diligent and careful use of the waiver wire (in addition to trading).
That said, drafting is undeniably important. In the context of auctions, you are given a limited budget—usually $260—to acquire a 28-man roster out of 336 players out of the given baseball universe, give or take a few spots based on your league's size and roster requirements. Economizing is key, as is game theory. You need to maximize your resources by guessing not only what a player's expected relative value will be, but how other participants in your league are going to value said player.
If you have to pay $50 to acquire $38 of production, is that the wisest use of your limited budget (even assuming the value of concentrated production in a single roster spot)? Likewise, if the next highest valuator in the league values that $38 of production at $30, then do you really need to bid $38 to acquire him? This game of bid chicken, price enforcing and value-seeking is fun, complex, and nerve-wracking at times. Guessing all of these moving parts is no easy task, and a high-priced mistake can be devastating. Likewise, leaving $25 at the table could have meant the difference between having Matt Kemp instead or Drew Stubbs, or upgrading multiple positions.
Given all these complexities, limitations, and dangers of mistakes on spending, why spend money when you do not have to? Enter the LIMA strategy.
While most fantasy drafters tend to split their auction budget somewhere between 60/40 and 70/30 on hitting and pitching, the LIMA method splits the "excess" budget something like 85/15, or, in its most extreme form, 100/0.
Excess budget is defined by the amount of money you can spend on a player in excess of $1 per position, the minimum required to be kept unspent until all slots are filled. So in a league with $260 auction budgets and 28 players to be drafted per roster, the excess budget is $232.
The theory behind LIMA is that a good-enough-to-compete pitching staff can be cobbled together through playing match-ups, streaming and economizing late-round sleeper picks. LIMA revolves around the notion that pitching is so deep and volatile that it is a better use of resources to invest in elite hitting. LIMA requires a lot more micromanagement of your team, knowledge of up-and-coming pitchers, activity on the waiver wire, and the use of a value-seeking lens that ignores brand name and bankable production in favor of those "unsexy options" that no one else likes. (An example: drafting a pitcher like Edinson Volquez this year with the intent of streaming him at home.) LIMA is almost an extreme version of playing stars and scrubs, with almost all of your stars being hitters and almost all of your scrubs being pitchers.
The version of LIMA I usually play is to draft one ace and two to three cheap closers and surround them with $1 pitchers that I draft late. Last year, those $1 pitchers included Brandon Beachy, Michael Pineda, Javier Vazquez and Brandon McCarthy. In 2010, they included Colby Lewis, Phil Hughes and Kris Medlen (pre-injury). This year, with the exception of Yu Darvish and Anibal Sanchez in a couple of leagues, I almost exclusively drafted $1 pitchers.
Noting that the LIMA strategy has been around a long time—popularized and given its name by, Ron Shandler—why is this strategy more viable now than ever before? And why do I feel so comfortable drafting $1 pitchers across the board when I have never done anything so extreme before? The answer lies in recent trends in pitching.
It is no secret that over the past few years, the pitching standard has evolved towards a lower mean. Look at the 10-year trend in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, walks, swings-and-misses (SwStr%) and first pitch strikes (F-Strike%):
A few things worth noting: While the league average ERA and WHIP have hardly been steady over the past 10 years, there is a clear difference between the pitching results from 2010 and 2011 compared to 2002-2009. From 2002 to 2009, the league ERA fluctuated from a low of 4.28 to a high of 4.53. That's a maximum variation of a quarter of a run per nine innings. Noting that, it is pretty huge that the league average ERA from 2009 to 2010 varied by 0.24 runs per nine innings. That's an ERA difference of 0.20 from the previous low mark in the 10-year sample, which came all the way back in 2002 (oddly, the season that Barry Bonds was walked to death). That's a huge outlier right there, and it was thought of as just that by many people heading into 2011.
But then 2011 happened, and the league average ERA dropped to 3.94. That's almost as big of a drop between 2010 and 2011 as the drop between 2010 and 2002 (again, the prior low league average ERA in the 10-year sample). The 2011 league average ERA of 3.94 is just over a third of a run per nine innings, or approximately a run per game, lower than the 2002-2009 league low. That's a pretty substantial 8 percent change in runs allowed against the lowest league average ERA between 2002 and 2008. The 3.94 major league average ERA is a 10-plus percent—almost half a run—difference from the 2002-2008 major league average ERA. That is pretty substantial.
A similar trend is observable in league average pitcher WHIPs, though to a much lesser degree. What is the cause of this? The answer is pretty murky, as detailed below
Second, walk rates have been more or less stable over this time. They have varied by no more than five percent in any year-to-year change, and the changes have moved in both directions an equal number of times in this set. You'll notice also a similar stability in first pitch strike rates, with only one season (2005) having a change in rate greater than one percent (and in that year, it was 1.2 percent). This is unsurprising given my rudimentary findings a few years ago that first pitch strike rates are highly relevant to a pitcher's overall walk rate.
Third, strikeout rates overall seem to be on the rise, despite a decline in swinging strike rates and the decline of big-strikeout, big home run hitters that defined the 1990s and early 2000s. Given the relationship between swinging strike percentage and strikeout percentage, this seems a bit odd. But this trend is not new. It is part of a larger overall trend that has been going on in baseball for more than 50 years, as eloquently detailed by Christina Kahrl at Baseball Prospectus in an excerpt from the upcoming book Extra Innings" (a sequel to the must-read Baseball Between the Numbers).
Kahrl points to the rise of micromanaging relief pitcher usage (bullpen assembly and management) against the decline of the "nine-inning starter" as one probable cause for this spike. Fresh arms that haven't been out there earlier in the game are harder to guess.
Steve Treder, in the 2011 Hardball Times Annual, had this to add about strikeout trends, as relayed to me in a recent email:
In July of this year, on his website The Diamond Appraised, the iconic sabermetrician Craig Wright published an excellent article titled “What is Behind the Offensive Decline?” Wright methodically considers various factors potentially causing scoring rates to decline over the past several years, including the crackdown on steroids. His take is that PED testing is at most a minor explanation, for two good reasons:
There is no shortage of recent literature on the recent trends in pitching, and the specific causes are still up for debate. Regardless of exactly why pitchers are showing better results, the fact is that they are, and some research shows that this trend might be more sustainable than one would have thought at the end of the 2010 season.
Let me point out some additional key observations. First, the difference between the top starters and the average major league starter has not changed by too much over the past five years. Below is a chart that compares the difference between the ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate and walk rate of the cumulative top 10 qualified starting pitchers by ERA against the major league average:
You'll notice that not too much looks out of place comparing 2010 and 2011 to 2007-2009. Likewise, the variation between qualified starting pitcher ERA and WHIP, a measure of "clustering," do not seem to indicate any substantial trend over time either:
Getting the top guys is still much better for your team than grabbing the league average pitcher, assuming you can successfully identify them (there is a lot of turnover).
So why LIMA? Does ignoring pitching really make more sense when the differentials between the top and middle are not overly substantial at best?
The answer, looping back to Kahrl's Baseball Prospectus article, lies in the increased availability of elite non-closing relievers. Check out the stats of qualified relievers over the past decade:
For whatever reason—better micromanagement and usage of bullpens, better evaluation in bullpen composition, or something else—it seems that over the past few years, relievers as a whole are putting up more elite numbers. I have written about the value of drafting elite, non-closing relievers on many occasions.
Saves are only one statistic. There are plenty of players like Jonny Venters, Tyler Clippard, David Robertson, Addison Reed, Mike Adams and Kenley Jansen out there who have the potential to be worth double-digit dollar values by the end of the season despite a lack of saves. The additional upshot of some of these guys, like Sergio Romo and Sean Marshall (before Ryan Madson's injury) is that they are often "next in line" for saves. Some can even net you five to 10 wins to boot.
As more and more of these guys are available, or as more of these elite non-closer relievers are more often and better used, they become more and more useful for fantasy teams. No one really drafts these guys, and fewer people pick up emerging elite non-closing relievers in the middle of the season. You'll of course have to watch the leverage usage statistics (if your elite non-closing reliever is coming in only to face guys like Adrian Gonzalez, you might want to opt for someone else), but why not invest a dollar or two into a couple of players who can arguably turn Bud Norris into Tim Lincecum.
It might burn an extra roster space, but with innings caps and only so many hitters you can start in one day, maximization can take on many forms. They include playing the LIMA method by drafting elite non-closing relievers to boot. I call this method of maximization LIMAPER (LIMA Plus Elite Non-closing Relievers).
Winning in fantasy baseball is about adjusting, and it is essential to adjust to this trend to win in more competitive leagues. Every advantage counts. Fantasy baseball is about finding market inefficiencies and exploiting them. The biggest names in elite non-closing relievers—Jonny Venters (60 percent Yahoo ownership rate), Kenley Jansen (74 percent), Tyler Clippard (44 percent) and Aroldis Chapman (45 percent)—are are pretty heavily owned, but outside the name brands, and the farther the player is from vulturing saves, the lower the ownership rates.
Notice the drop in ownership rates to even Mike Adams (31 percent), David Robertson (32 percent), Sergio Romo (33 percent), Fernando Salas (33 percent), and Vinnie Pestano (26 percent), and then compare them to Koji Uehara (8 percent), Eric O'Flaherty (13 percent), Joaquin Benoit (13 percent) and Kris Medlen (1 percent, and he might even take the fifth starter role for April in Tim Hudson's absence).
Take Oliver's projections and THT Forecast's customizable auction price guide set for a deep, 12-team league with nine pitching spots. Assume a $260 budget heavily skewed 70/30 in favor of hitting. Guys like Adams, Benoit, Uehara, Romo and Joel Peralta are pegged to be worth $6-8, while Craig Kimbrell, arguably the most valuable closer in baseball for 2012, is worth only about $12. That's more than double what Oliver thinks you can expect out of Johan Santana, but he's owned in over three-quarters of leagues.
Elite non-closing relievers are a market inefficiency. How much is one of these guys going to cost you? A buck? Two bucks? Maybe three to five dollars if you get a top name early on? Plenty will be available on the waiver wire. Some, like Luke Gregerson, Rafael Soriano and Hong-Chih Kuo last year, will surely bust. But you can drop them without much worry. They did not cost you much of your budget—maybe 1 percent of it. And there will be plenty of guys like Takashi Saito and Kerry Wood to replace them with even in league-only formats.
Let's come full circle and note a few things:
Hitting is about concentrating production. You can play the match-ups and try to Frankenstein your way to success, but the best strategy is to install the best players possible at each hitting position. It is harder to "stream" hitters day-to-day than it is pitchers. By using the LIMAPEN strategy, you are freeing a greater amount of your resources to confidently invest in positional upgrades. It could mean the difference between making a few Mark Reynoldses into Pablo Sandovals, or upgrading Asdrubal Cabreras into Hanley Ramirez. It's harder to play the matchups to replicate Ramirez at shortstop than it is to combine breakout potential players like Juan Nicasio, Mike Minor, Brian Matusz, Jeff Samardzija, Luke Hocheaver or flawed/risky pitchers on the cheap like Brandon Morrow, Bud Norris, Carlos Zambrano with elite non-closing relievers like Robertson, Adams, and Benoit to replicate the production of Daniel Hudson, James Shields or C.J. Wilson types.
It cannot be any riskier than drafting Adam Wainwright or Josh Johnson at plus-market rates. You might have more wins risk, but there's plenty of Alfredo Aceveses in the season. Further considering the lower bust/flop rates of hitters compared to pitchers, it makes more sense to invest in the former over the latter. And the LIMAPER strategy enables you to do that with less worry. Combine that with the "do not pay for saves" strategy* and you have a lot of extra money to spend maximizing lesser risks.
*I do advocate paying something for saves, just not too much, because you by and large cannot punt any category in a non-H2H format and reasonably expect to end up on top. I suppose you could even "overpay" for saves from guys like Craig Kimbrell, who will bolster your bottom pitching line in addition to netting you saves, if you want to play it safest. I covered this issue, very crudely, in one of my very first fantasy articles.
Now if only I had written this article a month ago... at least you still have plenty of time to scour the waiver wire!
Check out part two of this article for the quantification of this argument.
As always, leave the love/hate in the comments below.
Posted by Jeffrey Gross at 4:52am
Following up upon part one of this two-part series, let's look at the potential effect of elite non-closing relievers.
First, let's assume the standard 1,400 innings pitched cap that is the Yahoo default. Second, let's assume you draft the league average pitching staff, plus three elite non-closing relievers from last year who currently have ownership rates under 15 percent this season. For the sake of example, let's use Eric O'Flaherty (13 percent Yahoo ownership), Joaquin Benoit (13 percent), and Koji Uehara (8 percent), who combined for 199.2 innings last season. That leaves us with 1,200.1 innings of "league average" production.
So first, let's recap the league average pitcher production from 2012.
These data include reliever numbers, but also include the bad starting real-life pitchers who no way in heck would ever end up on anybody's roster, so let's assume those two factors cancel each other out. Applied to our 1,200.1 inning sample, we get the following aggregate numbers:
Next, let's aggregate our elite non-closer numbers.
Put it all together, and here is the potential effect on the "league average" line:
At this point, it is essential to address a couple of points. First, I am not advocating that these specific relievers are going to be this good again this year. Certainly O'Flaherty will not post an ERA under 1.00, and it's unlikely that you can absolutely identify three players who will cumulatively put up an ERA of 2.03. Second, the "overall impact" does not seem extreme enough to win. Taking note of Tim Dierkes' series on what it takes to win, you would still fall short of where you'd ideally like to be.
So what does this mean?
First and foremost, you are likely not going to draft a team with a league average ERA or an ERA just under 4.00. Between intelligently playing the match-ups, finding sleepers off the waiver wire, and good team management, you are likely to produce much better numbers from the smaller pool of fantasy relevant starters plus your closers. The better than league average that you can make your pitching staff, the closer these elite non-closing relievers will bring you to the top of the pitching categories.
Keep in mind as well that you do not have to win every fantasy category to place if you can offset losses in one category by placing higher in other categories. Dierkes' estimations are based on what he thinks will net you a top four or five placing in every Roto category. Every point you shore up on the hitting side, however, is a point you can slice from the pitching side.
Finally, while you might not be able to target a group of pitchers able to put up a 2.00 ERA, you should be able to find a handful of relievers with sub-2.80 ERA. Their impact on your bottom line will be lesser, but again, if you draft/stream smartly, then all you need is these guys to shore you up and "upgrade" your staff versus form the basis of the staff.
Noting this, look at the total impact that three elite relievers from last year could have had on your team—noting that the highest current ownership rate of any of them is 13 percent. You could lower your ERA by a quarter of a run, and bolster your WHIP by a very substantial .05 points. That's your best case scenario when you trade for both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee midseason to fix a middling staff. Sure, these three pitchers combined for only eight wins, but there are always plenty of relievers like Tyler Clippard in 2010 and Alfredo Aceves in 2011 who are in "vulture" middle relief roles (look for relievers with high leverage and/or "lock down the rest of the sixth or seventh inning" usage). They tend up put up equally useful numbers plus wins.
New elite non-closing relievers come out of the woodwork every year, and they go chronically unowned. It's hard to predict just how good a reliever will be, and given their smaller sample of innings, they can be even more volatile than starters. However, some relievers (like Mike Adams) have a certain level of projectability that clearly outweighs their cost.
Given this potential impact on your bottom line, why not risk the $2 flier on such relievers in the draft? Especially if you use the waiver wire to rotate match-up-friendly pitchers, you should have plenty of roster space for the elite non-closing relievers. Even if you do not stream starters, the transferred budget from pitching to shoring up your hitting positions under LIMA means there is a lesser need to keep a deeper bench of hitters to micromanage your offense.
So who are some $1 pitchers you can pair with your elite non-closing relievers to produce a competitive pitching staff? Here are some of the $1 pitchers I have gotten with regularity this offseason, including in my experts leagues:
In a game where every advantage counts, elite non-closing relievers are a potential difference maker. If they bust, they cost you almost nothing, and can be safely dropped and readily replaced. Pitching volatility is a worry, but relievers as a whole tend to product better numbers than starting pitchers, so the risk seems no worse than taking a flier on pitcher matchup.
As always, leave the love/hate in the comments below.
Posted by Jeffrey Gross at 2:16am
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