Is “handcuffing” necessary in fantasy baseball?by Ben Pritchett
January 17, 2011
As I accepted my first ever Shake ‘N Bake Football Championship trophy this past week, it got me thinking about the similarities between fantasy football and my first love, fantasy baseball. I examined my success on the gridiron and found that there was a direct correlation to my “handcuffing” of my running backs, which got me thinking if “handcuffing” could be useful in baseball.
The term “handcuffing” is well known in the fantasy football community. It is the strategy of taking a backup to a starting player on the chance the starter were to lose his job by way of injury or ineffectiveness. It’s fascinating to watch as natural selection will bring relatively obscure players to the surface. These obscure players can perform similarly to their counterparts and give enough value to salvage seasons in the process.
The inner wheels of my simple mind began to churn, and I posed two questions to myself, “Have you ever ‘handcuffed’ in fantasy baseball?” and “When would you ‘handcuff’ in the future?” My results will follow in the next several sentences.
Have you ever “handcuffed” in fantasy baseball? Before I began writing this piece, I had never heard any baseball analyst suggest the strategy of handcuffing, ever. I don’t know if it’s the difference in the actual games of football and baseball, but you just don’t see too many managers or experts going the “handcuff” route.
The game of baseball is much more of a skill-based game than football. It’s hard to replace Alex Rodriguez’ power with Eduardo Nunez or Zack Grienke’s pitch sequence with Tim Dillard’s. The skill and production would be vastly different.
So I looked over some of my successful fantasy teams that I’ve had over the past few years to see if I ever used the handcuff method and really couldn’t find much. There were a few instances where I stashed rookies like Matt Wieters on the hopes of future playing time, but I, by no means, was starting Greg Zaun while waiting for Wieters to bust out in June.
When would you handcuff in the future? Let me preface this by saying a standard ESPN or Yahoo! League should not look to this strategy. I am only addressing leagues where at least 75 to 80 percent of the player pool is used, which is basically deeper mixed leagues or NL/AL-only leagues.
Maybe it’s my propensity to root for the younger talent as they break into the big leagues, but I can’t think of any better time to handcuff than with a marginal, older player and his backup, star prospect. Here are some examples of handcuff duos I like for 2011.
Russell Martin and Jesus Montero: The last of the big, talented, prospect catcher threesome awaits his chance in Scranton. While Buster Posey wins Rookie of the Year and Carlos Santana cements himself as the Indians catcher for years to come, Montero waits. It’s not his fault.
The Yankees' brass has used Montero as trade bait for the past two years now. There are rumblings coming out of Yankee camp that he still could be moved for an impact starting pitcher, but with Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria out, the Yanks have even less to gain.
Most thought the move of Posada from behind the plate would bring in the reign of Jesus. The signing of Martin then puzzled those same people. Montero hit .352 after the All-Star break in 2010 and maintained a .220+ ISOPower. You probably couldn’t ask for a better catching prospect except for that whole defense thing.
We play fantasy, and defense doesn’t matter in fantasy. So if you are struggling to find a catcher in your draft, taking Martin and his handful of home runs and steals while you wait for Montero would get the Ben Pritchett Stamp of Approval. I personally would recommend getting a catcher earlier, though. While I am a Montero fan, I am equally a Martin detractor.
Mike Aviles and Mike Moustakas: My love for the “Moose” is well documented in my article, “Overspending for Players in 2011,” so I won’t spend too much time detailing the skills this young man has used to obliterate minor league pitching. His major league equivalents are some of the best we’ve seen in years.
Aviles finished 2010 on a high note, going .333 BA/6 HR/20 RBI in Sept./Oct. He was that good in ’08, then struggled with injuries in ’09. That glimpse he gave us in the final months of 2010 may just point to a return to 2008 levels. I wouldn’t bet on that extreme, but he could be a great fill-in at third until the Royals finally bite the bullet and hand the franchise over to Moustakas.
Aviles should retain his SS position eligibility, also. If you are stretching for CI or waited too long for your third baseman, then this could be a great handcuff situation for you. Note your league settings, as you may have to wait on Aviles to gain 3B eligibility. If that is the case, this handcuff isn’t for you.
Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel: Venters went from a lefty specialist to groundball specialist. He led all relievers with a groundball rate of 70 percent. He had the best OPS on his fastball in the game at .590 (Bill James Handbook min. 125 batters faced). He pitched in 79 games and was still able to keep his ERA at 1.95.
As for his competition at the back end of the Braves bullpen, Kimbrel, he only profiles as the Braves closer of the future. He is blessed with a laser rocket for an arm and was able to handle the transition to Atlanta rather well with a 0.44 ERA and 40 Ks in just 21 innings. He may be the most exciting young reliever in the game behind Aroldis Chapman.
Drafting both Venters and Kimbrel guarantees you the Braves' closer and another top talent in the pen. Venters could take the job out of spring, but the closing duties will be Kimbrel’s before season’s end.
Francisco Cordero and Aroldis Chapman: It’s hard to debate Cordero’s 40 saves in 2010, but his age is creeping up (35) and his strikeouts and ERA are in a freefall. As stated by Jeremy Greenhouse in The Hardball Times Annual 2011, Chapman’s fastball grades out as the best in the game. His 105-mph pitch against the Padres was the fastest recorded pitch in major league history. What about the other 24 pitches he threw that night? Well, they were all over 100, also. He is an extraordinary talent and should be owned in a deep league whether he is closing or not.
Matt Thornton and Chris Sale: This may be my favorite handcuff of them all because Sale is quite possibly the best young left hander in baseball and should be given the chance to start in 2011. Sale shouldn’t be handcuffed with any expectations other than that he will contribute and be successful whether as a closer or a front-of-the-rotation starter.
At the age of 34, the hard-throwing Thornton isn’t getting any younger. He combined a 12.0 K/9 ratio with a stunning 4.1 K/BB in 2010 and deserves the closer job in Chicago. Sale can close if Thornton falters, but this handcuff has even more value if Sale starts.
To sum all this up, there are better ways to “handcuff” than in the fantasy baseball game. The need for skill is essential for success in baseball. The need for opportunity is more important in football. So I wouldn’t hedge your championship dreams on a “handcuff.” I like this idea of using a stable veteran while waiting on your stud rookie. Let me know what you think or if you have used a “handcuff” strategy in your baseball leagues.
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