A Whole New Ballgame
June 6. 2005

I'm trying out my first Strat-o-Matic league.  If your are not familiar with Strat, it is a baseball simulation card game that has been around for decades that now offers gameplay on the computer.  The Sporting News offers online leagues and that's where I'm playing.  Each player card represents what a player did in a particular season, both on offense and defense.  The league I'm in is using the 2004 season.  Based on how the player performed, he is assigned a salary.  Each team in the league has an $80 million salary cap from which to accumulate 10 pitchers and 15 position players.  The season is played out in 3-game series versus the other teams over the course of a regular 162-game season.  

One of the benefits of playing sim games like Strat is that they often inspire insights into the real game.  Sometimes those insights can help understand other games as well.  Most of the time, however, they don't.  One of the first graphic computer sim games was Tony La Russa Baseball.  It was a fantastic game that spawned a couple of expansions and a follow up game called Old Time baseball.  You could create your own teams of all-time greats, play out full seasons, even generate your own fictional farm systems.  The action was pretty realistic, too, although the graphic representation of the knuckleball left something to be desired.  The game designers could realistically simulate the trajectory of the other pitches, but the knuckler isn't so easy.  Their solution was to make it a randomly expanding and contracting baseball as it approached the plate which made it absolutely impossible to time.  The computer had no trouble smashing my Wilbur Wood offerings all over the ballpark.  But in a head to head match-up against another human, using the knuckler almost guaranteed a no-hitter.  But I digress... a friend of mine had the idea that if he played a season of TLRB using the previous year's stats, he'd get insight about which players would be the best sleeper players in the upcoming season in our roto league.  Unfortunately, he based his decisions on one simulated season and ended up making Jeff Conine one of the most expensive players in the next draft.  This was back in the early 90s before the term "sample size" had really entered the baseball lexicon.  Apparently, using a particular set of managerial guidelines, Conine became a 30/30 player in the sim game.  But since that manager didn't exist in the real world or at the least wasn't Conine's real life skipper, Conine was just Conine that year. 

However, the sims do have some real world value.  For example, I once experimented with the maximum impact of an individual player.  Playing Dr. Frankenstein, I created four genetically super, maximum value players.  For example, the base season for the starting pitcher was 300 innings with 900 strikeouts, no walks or hits and a 0.00 ERA.  I likewise created a batter with similar hitting capability (all home runs) and a fielder who basically caught every batted ball anywhere near his position.  I also created a closer with identical ability to the robo-starter.  Then I placed these players on bad teams and ran the sim through 100 seasons to find out which had the greatest impact on the standings.  In each sim season, the uber-player's numbers would be spectacular but they wouldn't be perfect: the pitcher would occasionally give up an earned run, the hitter would strike out once in a while, etc.  Their effect on the standings were pretty surprising.  It was a pitcher who had the greatest impact, but as a closer not a starter.  And the difference was huge.  The uber closer meant a gain on average of nearly 30 wins.  No other addition resulted in more than a 20-game increase.  The reason I suspect is that once his team got the lead, he would be brought in for an inning or two and the game was essentially over.  The hitter could be pitched around and the fielder couldn't cover the whole field.  But the pitcher controlled the game, especially in the later innings.  

Anyway, for my Strat league I decided my home stadium was going to be Stade Olympique.  I chose it for three reasons: 1) it's a fairly large park, 2) it has artificial turf, and 3) Montreal still deserves baseball even if it is only simulated.  My strategy was to use the size of the park and the speed of the turf as a weapon against teams that forsake defense for OPS.  My team was going to be based on defense and the ability to do a lot of things on offense - steal bases, bunt, hit and run, etc. - in order to gain the upper hand.  For my pitching, I would concentrate on extreme groundball starters who could get a decent amount of strikeouts and on the back end find 5 or 6 relievers who could simply shut the opposition down with strikeouts.  The infield defense would have to be top-notch and the centerfielder would not only have to get to everything, but keep opposing runners honest with his arm.  In theory, this would make an average looking starting staff post somewhat studly numbers because a) baserunners could routinely be erased by double plays, b) cheeky baserunners would not have opportunities to take extra bases on base hits, and c) inherited runners would find themselves stranded more often than not.

Strat online drafts are not like regular fantasy drafts in that they are done automatically by rank priority and if you don't get the player you wanted, the computer will assign you a player of comparable salary.  That doesn't work out the way you might think.  For example, I ranked Jake Peavy third on my list.  Someone else took him earlier and I ended up with Glendon Rusch, but only until I could scour the wire and find someone else.  I guess his salary was based on his flexibility as a pitcher instead of a superior performance.  Anyway, there were a number of amusing subs like David Weathers instead of Josh Beckett, Miguel Ojeda instead of Victor Martinez, etc.  But for the most part, everyone got a large number of the players they wanted and were able to fix their rosters after the draft from the waiver wire. 

I had targeted ARod, Eric Chavez, Adam Kennedy and Derrek Lee as my infield and got everyone but Lee.  Brian Giles might have been a better choice at second, but I liked Kennedy's combination of offense and very good defense plus a superior ability to bunt and hit and run.  He was also more than a million and a half cheaper and not the injury risk that Giles is.  I also considered Luis Castillo as he'd probably be a superior lead-off hitter and he is the best fielding second baseman in the game, but his lack of power was a disadvantage as was his price tag of nearly $2 million more than Kennedy.  I did manage to snag sure-handed Paul Konerko and am hoping that range at first base doesn't come into play all that much.  In Strat, a good gloveman at first does not reduce the chance of errors from the other infielders as it does in real life so I'm hoping that top rate first base D is a luxury rather than a necessity in the overall scheme.

In the outfield, I targeted Jason Bay, Torii Hunter and Brad Wilkerson.  Bay's defense isn't that great, but his below average arm and average range are outweighed by his ability to hit both lefties and righties equally well at a defensive position that doesn't see much action.  I considered going after another defensively-challenged left-fielder with superior hitting skills, namely, the "SF leftfielder" (Bonds did not allow MLB to license his name), but his $16+ million price tag was prohibitive.  Hunter's on base isn't great, but he has speed and power and he's one of the best defenders available.  With him at the bottom of the order and Kennedy at the top, I should have all sorts of little ball options as the roster turns over - hit and run, bunt, straight steal - that should increase their value on offense.  I didn't get Wilkerson, but managed to get JD Drew in his place.  He doesn't have Wilkerson's arm, but he covers as much ground, makes fewer errors and is a considerably better hitter. 

At catcher, I went with injury-prone but highly productive Joe Mauer, with Brian Schneider as his back-up.  Both completely shut down the opposition running game and do a great job behind the plate at keeping balls in the dirt in front of them.  Defensively, they are both in the top four behind only Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus.  I also picked up Miguel Olivo, who isn't as nimble behind the plate, but has a good arm and has excellent value as a platoon partner with Mauer.  More on that aspect in a second.

To round out the bench I grabbed Nick Johnson, Alfredo Amezaga (he can't hit, but can lay down a bunt and is an excellent fielder at three infield positions), Scott Podsednik (his 70 steals make for an excellent pinch-runner) and Michael Cuddyer (he has decent power and plays everywhere but short and catcher).  Chipper Jones will be my DH.  The result is the following line-ups:

Versus Lefties    OPS                   Versus Righties    OPS
Kennedy          .720                   Kennedy           .768
Bay              .922                   Drew             1.042
Drew             .929                   Bay               .904
ARod            1.081                   Mauer            1.146
Chipper          .953                   Konerko           .871
Konerko          .949                   Chavez            .902
Chavez           .893                   ARod              .832
Olivo            .978                   Chipper           .797
Hunter           .764                   Hunter            .823

Defensive range scores run from a rating of 1 for the best to 5 as the worst.  Six of the everyday starters (including Mauer) have at least a 2 rating, with Hunter and Chavez both being 1s.  Bay and Konerko are average but with a very low error rate and Olivo's range isn't as relevant as his throwing arm.  Only Clement and Bonderman don't hold runners very well, so I may opt for Schneider (the best catcher's arm in the game both real and simulated as his major league best 49% caught stealing rate since he entered the league full-time in 2001 will attest) behind the plate when they pitch against teams with lots of speed.  Excellent defense, pretty good offense.  Not perfect by any means.  The offense against right-handers could be better and there really isn't anyone off the bench that hits right-handers well.  I have no idea how injuries play out in this game, but if they aren't too much of an issue I may drop some of my bench depth to pick up someone who has ridiculously good splits against right-handers to replace Chipper at DH against them. 

And it's here where Strat-o-matic fails as a simulation for real baseball.  In this Strat league for example, Damion Easley is a stud player because of his terrific splits against right-handers.  In 2004, he posted a .950 OPS against them.  However, if he were really a .950 OPS type player, especially against right-handers he would be an All-Star, not the bench warmer that he actually is.  His OPS was the result of 136 at bats.  For his career, his OPS against righties is a much more bench-worthy .726.  This year, it's .606.  In the previous two years against right-handers it was .472 and .598 respectively.  But in Strat, a fluke season is portrayed as an actual talent level creating the possibility of a juggernaut team of platooners.  No one in real life would consider benching Chipper Jones in favor of Damion Easley.  But in Strat, it has to be a consideration.  One that I am taking advantage of with Miguel Olivo.

If you are wondering why I stacked the line-up so heavily against left-handers it's becasue the two best starting pitchers in the game (by far, at least in 2004) are left-handed - Randy Johnson and Johan Santana.  Oliver Perez ain't too shabby either.  If I somehow end up in the playoffs against a team boasting one of them, I want to at least have a decent chance of taking those games.          

On the pitching staff I was hoping Jake Peavy would be my ace.  He's not a groundball pitcher, but he is a pretty incredible pitcher and because he hadn't thrown many innings last year, his price was far more reasonable than comparable talents like Johan Santana and Roger Clemens.  As many are seeing this year, yes, he really is that good.  I also targeted Mark Buerhle, Josh Beckett and Matt Clement.  I added Barry Zito to my list as well.  Like Peavy, he's not a groundball pitcher either, but because he had an up and down year in 2004 he was very cheap.  I ended up with Clement, Zito, Mark Mulder, Jeremy Bonderman and Matt Morris.  Clement (1.60 G/F ratio), Morris (1.59) and Mulder (2.05) are all groundball pitchers.  And while Bonderman is gaining notoriety as a strikeout pitcher, his G/F rate last year was 1.44, just behind Roger Clemens 1.47, but ahead of Carl Pavano's 1.43.  They all had decent numbers, and with the exception of Morris each had flawed defenses behind them last year.  I'm hoping their numbers will improve with the defense I've put behind them.

The bullpen turned out better than planned although it took a little work.  I had targeted BJ Ryan, Octavio Dotel, John Smoltz, Jamie Walker and Jay Witasick, but of those I only ended up with Witasick, who is death on righties (0.920 WHIP against) if he can be restricted to only facing them.  The rest of the assortment I was left with by the auto-drafter was hardly worth mentioning.  But through some creative finance I was able to assemble Eric Gagne, Eddie Guardado, Brendan Donnelly, and Ricardo Rincon.  I preferred Brian Shouse to Rincon because his overall numbers were better and he was much more of a groundball pitcher.  But after all the maneuvering to get to this point, I only had enough money for Rincon, who is devastating against lefties (0.920 WHIP against) but not useable against right-handers.  Donnelly is a good all-purpose reliever with an excellent strikeout rate and Guardado can not only close, but can serve as the primary set-up man against lefties (0.350 WHIP against).  Remember the effect of the uber-closer I mentioned before?  Well, this bullpen is about as close to that as I can construct on a limited budget.  Hopefully, I've gained enough understanding about how Strat actually works and they'll make good on that promise.  Otherwise, I'll end up with an $80 million Conine.

post draft follow-up