Stretch strategy: Playing keep-away

The stretch run has begun for fantasy leaguers, and at this time of year, every advantage you can gain over your competitor can be crucial. In the FOX Sports Experts League I’m playing in, I failed to capitalize on one such advantage on Monday that hopefully you can learn from.

The situation

It’s currently a two-horse race for first: me and Nicholas Minnix from KFFL. I believe I’ve set myself up very well to win the league, but there are still some precautions I need to take to ensure this victory. Monday, I wasn’t able to take one of these precautions.

The Texas Rangers announced Monday that they would call up Nelson Cruz. For those who haven’t noticed, Cruz has posted a .343 batting average, 37 home runs and 24 steals in 370 Triple-A at-bats this year. With a chance to earn regular playing time for the Rangers, Cruz could have significant value over the next five weeks.

I had my eye on Cruz for a while and had been debating picking him up, but I didn’t have room for dead weight (only three bench spots and I needed them for pitching) and was waiting for him to be recalled. Once I heard he had been recalled, I wasn’t near a computer and didn’t have the opportunity to get to one until it was too late. In not picking up Cruz myself, I allowed Nicholas to pick him up.

Here’s how I would have liked things to play out, even if I decided that Cruz couldn’t help me.

The optimal course of action

I was already planning on dropping someone Monday night to pick up Jorge de la Rosa for his start on Tuesday. I should have dropped that player (whomever I decided it would be) and picked up Cruz when the news on his promotion was released on Monday afternoon. Even if I had no intention of keeping Cruz, I could have immediately dropped him for de la Rosa, and the net effect on my team would have been exactly the same.

Cruz, however, would have been placed on waivers. Since Nicholas had recently used his waiver claim on Grant Balfour following Troy Percival‘s third trip to the DL, Nicholas was now 12th in line, at the very end. Cruz would have had to make it through the entire league before Nicholas had the opportunity to grab him. Also, I would have had the option to put in a claim myself if I deemed it necessary, though I’m not sure it would have been (and really, I could have just kept Cruz to begin with if that was my intention. Still, it would have been an option).

Unfortunately, things didn’t play out this way, which leaves me trying to figure out how this could affect the standings.

Assessing the damage

Overall, I don’t think this move should do much damage.

Even if Cruz posts a 10.0 AB/HR as he did in Triple-A (unlikely) and gets 100 at-bats the rest of the way (four at-bats per game, five games per week, for the next five weeks—somewhat likely), that would still leave him with just 10 home runs. Cruz replaced Jed Lowrie on Nicholas’s roster, so optimistically, that might be a net eight- or nine-homer gain.

For a more realistic estimate, let’s check out Jeff Sackman’s MLE (Minor League Equivalency) calculator at Minor League Splits. This gives Cruz an expected 7.5 homers given 100 at-bats (and maybe a net 6 HR over Lowrie). And that’s ignoring the fact that Cruz is 28 years old and has played in the Pacific Coast League each year since 2004, amassing 754 at-bats before counting those in 2008 (as a side note, this age adjustment seems like the next logical step for MLEs, and I know others have talked about it in the recent past).

Nicholas is 10 homers away from gaining one point and 17 away from two points. Holding all else constant, grabbing Cruz should give him only one point in homers, at most—and that’s if Cruz gets a little lucky.

Nicholas is 62 RBI away from another point, so no worries there. He’s already leading in steals and runs, so he won’t gain any points there either (though having Cruz will help him hold off the trailing teams). There is a little concern with batting average, especially since I’m directly ahead of him so if he passes me it’s a two-point swing, but I should be fine unless Cruz absolutely tears it up (and a 77 percent contact rate means that his average should drop off a bit in the majors).

For what it’s worth, I actually ran through this exact evaluation (I’ve spared some of the details) a couple of weeks ago when I was deciding if I should jump the gun on Cruz. I decided that most likely the potential damage wasn’t great enough to call for it. However, we all know that fluctuation is a big part of baseball, so Cruz could end up besting his expected numbers.

Concluding thoughts

Hopefully this all won’t amount to anything, but it wasn’t a good situation, regardless. This seems like it might be sort of a rare scenario, but if you find yourself in a similar situation, definitely consider my plan. Even if you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, hopefully this will show you the kind of thinking that needs to go into your stretch-run strategy.

In the majority of leagues, the time for trades and elaborate planning is mostly over, but little moves like this can make a lot of difference. Imagine what could have happened to me if Nicholas was closer to gaining points in those offensive categories and Cruz does end up on the kind side of fluctuation? Finding 10 homers, 10 steals, 20 RBI, 20 runs and .002 points of batting average, even at this late date, would go a long way in many leagues.

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