Playing for time

The next big thing in fantasy baseball is predicting playing time. We here at THT are devoting resources to keeping depth charts with up-to-date predictions for playing time. I am pretty sure a few other big names, like Baseball HQ, are trying to do the same. Why? Two reasons: Predictions of changes in playing time from pure stats are shoddy, and getting better predictions is extremely valuable for fantasy.

Fantasy baseball players and, more generally, baseball statheads the world over always have sharp opinions about which players deserve more or less playing time based on their stats. For better or worse, managers and general managers often have their own opinions, and divining them from stats alone can be tricky. Having an “ear to the ground” by following comments in the local papers and blogs, listening to or watching games and using the occasional Google search can really help predict who’s in the king’s favor and who’s likely to ride the bench for a bit longer. These sources also help us predict position eligibility changes—how else would we find out whether Jake Fox might earn catcher eligibility this season?

Having better predictions of playing time (any half-decent one right now is a huge improvement over what used to be on offer) and incorporating them into your strategy can really help you earn profits and find value. Why? Generally speaking, there are two kinds of upside value: upside skills and upside time. Finding players with solid, known skills who lack a regular role (upside time) can offer a more sure asset to place on your bench than the volatile youngster with a starting job (upside skills).

Upside skills players are more fun to have. Their potential seems limitless, their power to propel us into first inexhaustible. 20-20 seems a sure bet and 30-30 a fair chance. Elijah Dukes
, Lastings Milledge, Jeremy Hermida, Jason Heyward, Colby Rasmus—these are just a few of the players our dreams, past and present, are made on. Clearly some of these players realize their upside. Many do not.

More important is what these players are doing to your fantasy team while this uncertainty over their skills is resolved. There are two possibilities. You can sit them on your bench or you can start them.

If you sit them, you obviously are going to wait at least until they “break out,” until they start showing some nice production. But then, with such a small sample, you still don’t know whether this production is “for real”—whether they have the skills to maintain starter value. You can start the player anyway and hope he doesn’t regress or you can wait still more. But it could be a while before the sample size becomes large enough to be truly sure. If you start him right away, well, pretty much he can just stink right off the bat and for a while. Again, you wouldn’t be sure for quite a number of weeks about whether the player was going to regress back up to a good performance level.

Upside time players offer much more certainty about when you should start them. For example, if Jason Kubel gets injured, Jim Thome might be in line for many more at-bats. On a per-at-bat basis, we have a pretty good idea what to expect from Thome. Other examples are Jake Fox and Mike Lowell. Injured players are classic examples of this. When they come back, you can see fairly early on whether they have their old form or not. Guys like Justin Duchscherer, Scott Kazmir, Erik Bedard and eventually Brandon Webb are on this list. Sure, there’s the potential for re-injury, but we usually (but not always, if the player hides it) know when a re-injury happens. It isn’t nearly as easy to observe regression to the mean in real time.

Of course, the players that are upside legends, showering their owners with buckets of profit, usually are both upside skill and upside time risks, though we often portray them as just upside time risks in hindsight. John Bowker is starting to percolate onto lists. Ben Zobrist is last year’s success story here. A succession of injuries offered him the opportunity, which he clearly seized. But once Akinori Iwamura was injured, was Zobrist a solid bet? Not to me, and I was one of the lucky ones who had picked him up early on, mostly out of desperation for a shortstop. I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop on his performance (and to a small extent it did in the second half of the season) and probably would have sat him if I had had any suitable replacement.

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  1. 3FingersBrown said...

    Interesting piece. There must be something in the air these days. Fangraphs audio spoke on the topic of predicting playing time and I wrote a little piece expanding on the many factors fantasy owners must consider when rostering marginal players. Good stuff. Keep it coming!

  2. Buck Turgidson said...

    I appreciate your time on this piece.

    I have to tell you that Jake Fox looks completely horrific both at the plate and in the field and I doubt he will have much fantasy value no matter his position eligibility.  This is a pretty unanimous from observers I’ve read this spring.  Who knows for sure, but I would stay away from Fox.

  3. Jonathan Halket said...

    Thanks for the comments guys.
    I think there definitely is something in the air on playing time.  Forecasting it requires a lot of human resources – this isn’t something we can “fill all” on a spreadsheet. So, it is expensive for sites to do this and takes a big operation. 

    Buck – thanks for the update on Fox.  Certainly of the players I listed, he’s one of the ones with the least certaintly surrounding his skills.

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