Strength of schedule: Adjusting hitter values

Strength of Schedule (SOS) is a concept usually reserved for discussions about football. That is largely because football has only 16 games per season, and therefore the variance between the easiest schedule and hardest schedule is quite large. Over a 162 game season, that disparity becomes much smaller, which is why now, 40 games into 2013, is the perfect time to gauge schedules in baseball—right now, there is a huge disparity between the best and worst quality of competition faced among specific players.

In fantasy baseball leagues, being aware of that disparity could lead to enormous advantages in valuing players much more accurately than your league mates, because at this point, strength of schedule just isn’t something the average baseball owner factors in. This week, I’m going to focus on the hitters with the best and worst SOS in certain metrics, and next week I will write up the pitchers.

Note: All of the data used in this article is from BaseballProspectus.com, and only includes hitters with a minimum of 75 Plate Appearances.

Nate McLouth, Chris Davis, Adam Jones, and the rest of the Orioles lineup:
Baseball Prospectus has a metric called Opponent Slugging (oppSLG), which is the aggregate slugging average of all the pitchers faced against a hitter. The Orioles have nine of the top 20 performers in oppSLG so far this season. Basically, Baltimore as a team has faced pitchers who have given up an inordinately high slugging percentage so far this year, so all of the power-performances on the team must be taken with a slight grain of salt.

I still buy into Adam Jones, Chris Davis and even Nate McLouth as legitimate fantasy performers, but their power production pace might dwindle the rest of the year. That is particularly true in the cases of Chris Davis (11 HR, .659 SLG) J.J. Hardy (7 HR, .396 SLG) and Manny Machado (5 HR, .541 SLG).

The Blue Jays Lineup vs. the Tigers Lineup
At this point in the season, all of these opponent-gauging metrics seem to come in team-wide waves. One of those stats is Opponent On Base Percentage (oppOBP), which measures the aggregate On Base Percentage of all of the pitchers a batter has faced for the year. The Blue Jays have six of the 10 lowest oppOBP’s in major league baseball, and nine of the bottom 18, whereas Detroit actually has six of the top seven performers in the statistic.

The truth of the matter is the Blue Jays have just faced one of the hardest pitching schedules in baseball so far this year, and the Tigers have faced one of the easiest. Players like Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Melky Cabrera have all been adversely affected by that fact, and players like Alex Avila, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter have all been greatly helped by it.

For example, the difference between Lawrie’s oppOBP (.298) and Torii Hunter’s (.330) makes the 100 point disparity in their OBPs more understandable—Hunter has faced significantly worse competition than Lawrie.

While the ratio of how much oppOBP affects a player’s actual OBP isn’t one to one, a shrewd fantasy owner should acknowledge that it has some tangible effect and downgrade some of what Hunter has accomplished this year, while upgrading what Lawrie has done. Both oppOBP and oppSLG should be used as a general tool to modify a player’s value slightly rather than to overhaul it entirely.

Buy Low On: Buster Posey
Posey has managed a .286/.391/.508 triple slash so far this season. The most impressive part of that is certainly the slugging percentage, as Posey is among the bottom thirty in oppSLG. Most fantasy owners are disappointed that Posey only has 5 homers so far this year, but I think that number should spike the rest of the way and owners will be thoroughly satisfied. Posey has also both increased his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate, so he is maturing as a hitter plate discipline-wise despite some bad luck. Now is a prime opportunity to buy low on the guy who is still clearly the best catcher in Major League Baseball.

Sell High On: Coco Crisp
Coco Crisp is tied for the tenth highest oppOBP in baseball. The reason I’ve singled out Crisp from that list as a sell high candidate is that his skillset in particular benefits greatly from facing a lot of high on base allowing competition. Speed-first guys are extremely prone to having value inflation due to their fluky OBP’s, and Crisp seems like a prime example of that phenomenon.

See, stolen bases are all about opportunities, and logically, the more a player gets on base, the more opportunity they will have to steal bases. So not only did Crisp’s value get inflated in the form of a higher batting average, more runs, and a higher OBP, it also gets inflated (disproportionately so) because Crisp now has significantly more stolen bases than he normally would have up to this point in the season. I still like Crisp, but his pace of eight stolen bases in 25 games is completely unsustainable, and I’d project his .375 OBP to regress to around his career norm of .330. If you can still get top 50 player rater value for him, I would pull the trigger on moving Crisp.

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