Tuesday night, Francisco Liriano pitched the first no-hitter of the 2011 Major League Baseball season, and in doing so offered us an opportunity to marvel at the beauty and peculiarity that is the game of baseball, and thereby fantasy baseball. I’d like to explore Liriano’s no-no from a few different angles, some of which are more fantasy-relevant than others.
KISS strikes again
I trust many of you are familiar with the “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy. While, sometimes hard to employ and justifiable from which to deviate, KISS often comes back to bite those who exercise hubris and try to get too cute with their stratagems. I’m willing to bet Liriano’s performance occurred on many a fantasy team’s bench.
Let me say right here, all those who decided to bench Liriano on Tuesday night made an understandable choice. (His ownership is only 84 percent in Yahoo leagues, and I can’t offer the same consolation to those who chose to drop him outright). At the same time, Liriano’s performance goes to reinforce an important lesson as well. You never really know when a slumping player with a proven track record is going to turn it around, or show a glimpse of the talent that produced his resume. Let me pose a thought exercise here.
Placido Polanco is a player with a proven track record. We know he is a quality hitter with the potential of hitting well into the .300s and putting together some very useful stats for a middle infielder. He’s playing out of his mind right now, unsustainably so.
Imagine yourself a Polanco owner, would you try to jump the curve and guess when the 0-5 is coming? Would you bench him speculatively? Of course not. Most likely, the best strategy is just to ride it out day to day and bank on the right numbers being there at the end of the season, only making a move if you reach a point where you think you have a clearly better option at your disposal.
In one respect, this experiment could be argued to be making the opposite point of my own, that Liriano has stunk and that you shouldn’t try to predict when that streak will end, but rather ride it out—on your bench. But that’s not what I’m saying at all.
Quite simply, if you thought Liriano was going to stay that bad, then you should have dropped him. So, if you didn’t, you’re displaying some faith that the real Liriano will emerge. My point is, it’s a fool’s errand and an act of disillusionment to think you might know when that is going to happen.
Those of you who had him on your bench for that start are now, in one respect, in a worse position with him than you were before Tuesday’s start. Not only have you absorbed what are likely to be several of Liriano’s worst outings of the season, but you’ve also forfeited one of his best. If you’re dollar-cost-averaging, you’ve just increased your holdings of “the bad Liriano.”
The unpredictability of the game of baseball is a primary ingredient of its beauty. The juxtaposition of a game that can be so precisely measured and quantified, yet still manages to shock and awe every day, is part of what makes the sport sublime. Try to outsmart the game on a microscale at your own peril.
Before moving on, allow me to offer one more point here. Although I used Polanco as my counterexample, I do see a difference between hitters and pitchers. (Maybe I should have chosen James Shields for my example here instead.)
A pitcher makes only 30-odd starts a season, at best. It is dangerous to sit a pitcher as talented as Liriano because he has so few chances to help your team, and it really hurts if he comes through big time and it doesn’t count.
I struggled through a season of Aramis Ramirez in 2010, and I hit points where I just benched him. But, as a hitter, short of a Zobristian outburst, one day’s worth of at-bats is unlikely to produce as much positive (or negative, granted) value as an outing from a starter. In fact, I think Ramirez’s 2010 proves my point, too. Regardless of how painful and short of expectation that season was, Ramirez still put up 25 home runs and 83 RBI in 124 games.
Unless you really have a plan, like the top-notch daily fantasy game players do, and a team constructed around platooning and such, you’re playing with fire when you try to cherry pick the innings or at-bats you want from your high-level players.
On the surface, this may seem no different than sitting your borderline pitchers against the highest-octane offenses, but that’s not the case. Sitting a stud pitcher who had few bad outings is not nearly as calculated a move as it looks from the bird’s-eye view.
Unless you have hard evidence-based reason to believe he’s not actually a stud pitcher any longer, you’re basically just randomly choosing to bench a high-quality player because of the outcomes of largely independent trials that previously conducted.
After indirectly extolling the virtues of Liriano (but largely to make a more general point), I’m going look at the underbelly of Tuesday’s start. Men are pigs, and we have several terms for women who look gorgeous from afar, but substantially less so up close. “Forty-footers,” for example. Liriano’s no-no was a forty-footer, and this is more apparent when viewed through the fantasy lens than the mainstream baseball coverage lens.
Though he gave up no hits, Liriano only struck out two, and walked six in the process. He turned in nine scoreless frames to the tune of a 0.67 WHIP, earned a win and chalked up two strikeouts.
Over in Beantown, Jon Lester also earned a win, while giving up one earned run over seven innings on his way to a 1.00 WHIP, and he struck out 11 in the process.
In terms of how well each pitcher pitched, was Liriano any better from either a fantasy or actual standpoint? Going back through Liriano’s career, Tuesday’s outings wouldn’t even rank on the short list of his best outings, as he certainly was better here, here, here, here, and here, for starters (no pun intended).
So, while fantasy baseball takes its share of ribbing for not always mirroring the way the game really works (relying on batting average, overvaluing stolen bases, etc.), sometimes sabermetric justice is served in the fantasy universe, as well. Liriano’s outing (or really, the outcome of his outing) was certainly very good, but it was not incredible.
Keeping it in perspective
A good friend of mine who is a Twins fan remarked to me today that he was taken aback by the tone of some of the coverage of Liriano’s performance. Many reports focused on his recent struggles (and rightfully so—juxtaposition is always a good literary or rhetorical tool), but seemed to define Liriano by them. From this premise, the improbability of this performance was elevated. I agree that this is quite silly, and for two reasons, or maybe even three.
First, Liriano is hardly a nobody, despite what the tiny sample size of his 2011 starts has to say. For the period of time he was a starter in 2006, he was basically the best pitcher in the sport. And last year, back to full health, he was quite good again.
However, and this is the second point, even if he was a nobody, so what? The record book is chock full of mediocre pitchers who have thrown no-hitters. Just last season, Edwin Jackson (Liriano’s opponent on Tuesday) tossed one, and Armando Galaragga pitched what should have been a perfect game.
And you know why else this wasn’t all that improbable? As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t even that great a performance.
Liriano’s outing this past Tuesday is a perfect example of something many of my THT Fantasy colleagues have said in the past when discussing scoring systems for points-based leagues: Don’t give extra awards for no-hitters.
All the evidence we have at our disposal, and the anecdotal case of Liriano, tells us that these events are flukish. Liriano’s outing may have already earned more points in your points-based league than his actual performance was worth in pure merit. Don’t compound it by giving him bonus points, such that his performance outearns Lester’s by leaps and bounds.