I Don't Know What I'm Talking About... yet
April 9, 2011
I don't know if you've noticed or not, but there is practially nothing
on the internet regarding dynasty league strategy. My impression
has been that most people, or at least most people I know, play in some
kind of keeper or dynasty league. I've never been the most
connected guy in fantasy baseball. but I do know a good number of the
guys who write about it professionally, and most of them are very, very
knowledgable on the topic, both on the players and the
strategies. So I was quite surprised that
no one had much to say on the topic of dynasty leagues. Perhaps
it's because player
valuation is incredibly complicated due to draft inflation. Or
perhaps it's because rule systems vary so greatly and it's hard to get
useable comparisons between leagues. Or perhaps it's because the
people who write most of the stuff on the internet about fantasy
baseball don't want to
let any of their secrets out for fear of losing their edge in their
absolute favorite league.
Anyway, with nothing on the internet about strategy, I thought my best
option would be to discuss strategy with my opposition in the oldest
expert dynasty/keeper league in existence (Sorry, Fangraphs, but your
new expert keeper league isn't the only game in town; XFL
has been around 8 years.) So after our XFL draft, I opened the
topic with my friend and fellow competitor, Todd Zola. How does
one win a dynasty league? If you're going solely by results,
neither of us know what we're talking about because neither of us have
ever won this league. Think of it like players with no World
experience; all things being equal, you usually go with the guys who
been there before. However, both Todd and I have been within a
title and I'd like to think our close calls were due to some late
season bad luck as opposed to any misfired strategies.
Caveats aside, how does one go about building a roster capable of
winning a championship?
There are two schools of thought. The first is that you go all-in
one year, dump and rebuild from the bottom of the pile the next, rinse
and repeat. Sometimes it takes two years to get back to
competing, but that's the nature of the animal. The other school
says that you build a core of players for a stretch run of several
years and try to fill in as best as one can to streamline the rough
edges. Both Todd and I subscribe to the latter strategy.
Unfortunately, using the XFL as our model as it is currently
constructed (15 teams), so far the distribution of championships is
even: 3 wins for the all-or-nothings, 3 wins for the dynasty builders.
So any definitive conclusion we might arrive at regarding the best
strategy is at best speculation until there's
more evidence that one way is clearly better than the other.
One thing that is definitely true in this league is the increasing
importance of building a farm system. Either for the purpose of
trading them, or for establishing a core of players who produce far
more than their salary, teams are loading up on prospects. This
spring I compiled a list of the top 150 prospects in the game. My
list is an amalgamation of the six most respected published lists plus
a list created by a metric I'm testing that adjusts for age and league
level. I don't imagine there's anything really controversial
about my final list as it has probably 90% of the names that are on
other people's lists and has them ranked generally in the same areas
one would expect. After this most recent supplemental draft was
completed, 73 of the top 75 prospects on the list were rostered, 88 of
the top 100, and 103 in total. This doesn't include farm players
who are already in the majors or players who were on last year's list
who fell on hard times yet have still been retained. In all, 191
roster spots are occupied by players who began on the farm reserves and
have been deemed productive enough to be retained annually.
That's nearly a third of the available roster spots. And
with the exception of last year's champ who basically traded away his
farm for the win, teams with fewer than 11 farm players on their
current roster have not finished higher than 6th since 2007.
irony is that while Todd and I both adhere to the slow brick-laying
method of building a castle, we differ on how to go about it.
Todd has gone to some pains to explain his strategy of building a team
around pitching at his website, Mastersball.com
The crux is that
there is a difference between cheap pitching and pitching acquired
cheaply. Since there is so much information and analysis
regarding the evaluation of pitching talent, relatively few quality
yet inexpensive sleepers are available. So in order to get good
pitching, one must pay
for it because there aren't enough cheapies to build an entire quality
staff. I agree and I'll take it a step further: one must pay for
pitching, period. If you don't buy quality, you'll have to pay
extra for a better offense in order to make up the difference.
Either way, you pay for it.
I also think the influence of a true ace on a pitching staff is as much
or more than that of the best hitter on the offense. Since there
are only nine pitching spots on a roster and usually at least two of
them are occupied by closers/relievers, a great ace
pitcher can cover a lot of ugly spots on a fantasy staff. When I
won AL Tout Wars the first time in 2004, Johan Santana pretty much
carried a pitching staff populated with solid but unspectacular hurlers
(David Bush, Kelvim Escobar, Nate Robertson, Erik Bedard, Jon
Lieber). Santana's monster final four months pushed my staff to
the top in Ks and wins plus top three finishes in ERA and WHIP.
So I agree with Todd that building a competitive pitching staff can not
be built cheaply, at least one that can compete for more than one year.
That said, is it better to build a keeper foundation around a pitching
staff or a core of
hitting? In the XFL, one has the ability to build through the
farm system, drafting players in the spring draft who's salaries will
only increase by +3 each year as opposed to +5 for most players.
For a star level player ($30+) initially rostered at $1, that amounts
to four extra years of
being on the roster. That's a huge advantage assuming one can
pick those players before they get promoted. Unfortunately,
finding those players comes at a high cost, roughly 6 roster spots for
every one found and even then, one has to keep them through the lean
years (which are common among developing talents) meaning the actual
rate of return is more like one in every 10 roster spots used on
prospects. That result comes from some back of the envelope
calculations on 5 years of Baseball America top 100 lists so I'd
more thorough analysis. The average number of keepable players
(players who return a value of
equal to or greater than $6) taken in the supplemental draft and the
monthly waiver drafts is about 60 per season, or roughly four per
team. So those prospects come at a cost of production not gained
in the current season.
My point? There are far more $30 hitters than $30 pitchers in any
league, so in order to lessen the risk, at least in my view, it makes
more sense to acquire potential $30 bats than $30 arms. One has a
better chance of hitting the jackpot on a star hitter than a star
pitcher so the investment is less for the same return. In
addition, finding a true $30 pitcher is extremely rare because much of
a starting pitchers success is based on the team surrounding him.
That's true to some degree of a $30 hitter, but much less so.
Even without a solid team around him a star hitter can contribute
considerably to three categories, home runs, steals and average (or as
is the case in XFL, on base percentage). A star pitcher really
only has control of strikeouts because WHIP is dependent on the team
defense, ERA dependent on the team bullpen and wins on the team
offense. So finding a guy who produces in all four without much
help from his team is incredibly rare.
So the question is this: what ratio of sifting through prospects makes
it worth finding an ace. With hitters it's between one-in-six to
one-in-ten. What if it takes sifting through 20 pitching
prospects to find the ace? Is that a worthwhile pursuit?
Making matters more complex is the
fact that minor league stats don't always reveal the talent when it
comes to pitching aces. Last
year, for example, I targeted three pitchers who I thought would evolve
into star pitchers (Martin Perez, Chris Withrow and Kyle Gibson) with
showing a number of traits that generally accompany success in the
majors, yet only one of the three still has his star on the rise.
and Withrow struggled with Double A hitting and their ETAs have
been moved back by at least a year. You find a pitcher with a
K/9 in the neighborhood of 9.0 and/or a K/BB greater than 3/1 and most
would say that's a guy who's going to succeed in the majors. Yet
the majors are littered with the dessicated husks of Yusmeiro Petit,
Bobby Jones, Dennis Tankersley, Jesse Foppert, Matt Riley, Jerome
etc. etc. Get a hitter who displays the type of skills
that lead people to label them can't miss - K/BB rate nearly even,
reasonable strikeout and contact rates, decent power and/or marked
improvements from year to year - and with the
exception of the occasional Jeremy Hermida, most of them pan out.
At least that's my perception.
So why bother trying to find an ace if it's this much trouble?
Well, because I don't think one can win an dynasty league without
one. A true ace like a Roy Halladay covers up so many blemishes
on a mediocre staff, and makes a good staff unstoppable. More
importantly, it's just too difficult to synchronize an entire pitching
staff of five or six second tier pitchers to get great years out of all
of them. One of them is going to bust and even though it seems
like a minimal hit, losing even a few fractions of a point in ERA and
WHIP can cost 8-12 points in the standings of a very competitive
league. Having an
ace, like having a 95 mph fastball, makes the job a little easier
because one has a little wiggle room for mistakes.
Which leaves me with this question: is it worth casting a wide net to
fill up my reserve roster with a bunch of pitching prospects to try to
luck into developing an ace, or is it better to overpay for a legit one
in trade? In 2009, Ron Shandler traded Ryan Howard at $13
on a +3 farm contract for Tim Lincecum at $7 also on a +3
contract. When I heard that news I was stunned that Ron had paid
what I perceived to be so high a price. And even though it didn't
work out for Ron last year, that trade wasn't the reason. What I
am looking at this year is Ron's Lincecum-led staff with Brett
Anderson, Ian Kennedy, Carlos Carrasco and Johnny Cueto in tow (all
except Kennedy on +3 contracts), and with a $13 Billy Butler (+3 as
well) in place of Ryan Howard, all of which gave him enough savings to
buy both Alex Rodriguez and Adam Dunn at the draft. I'm still not
completely convinced I would have done the same thing if I had been
given that opportunity, but it seems to have been a worthwhile gamble,
one that could reveal it's long-term value this year.