The Need For Speed
June 7, 2006

Well, it's time for another season of SOMBOE (Strat-o-matic Baseball Online Experts) League at  This year's field is as impressive as any high profile simulation or fantasy league anywhere:

Eric Karabell from ESPN,
Joe Sheehan from Baseball Prospectus,
Jeff Erickson from Rotowire,
Will Kimmey from Baseball America,
Brendan Roberts from the Sporting News,
Lawr Michaels from CreativeSports,
Dean Peterson from STATS, Inc,
Matt Watson from CBS Sportsline,
Dennis Crowley from Rotowire,
Scoresheet Baseball guru Al Melchior from Baseball HQ,
and Strat-O-Matic grand master and league commisioner JP Kastner from CreativeSports
... ok, well, I'm in there too... couldn't be helped.

Last year I had a built in excuse if I fielded a lousy team because I had never played Strat-o-matic before.  But fate had other ideas, so now I have to prove that last year's success wasn't a complete fluke.  But no pressure, dude.

Anyway, I wanted to experiment a little this year.  With Montreal's Stade Olympique as my home park, last year's strategy was to load up on as many top defensive players as I could get, get one ace starter and stack the bullpen with as many studs as I could afford.  It was very similar to the model the 1990 Reds used for their championship with Jose Rijo and the Nasty Boys.  And it worked out pretty well in the simulation.  I was hoping to keep the Montreal/Washington connection and use RFK this year, but the ballpark was taken in the stadium draft so I opted for Kansas City's Kaufmann Stadium instead.  I guess I figured it was about time someone used it for baseball.  Like the Expos/Nationals whose existence has been nomadic the last several years, the Royals have been at least philosophically nomadic, desperately searching for a clue so I guess there's some continuity.  Regardless, moving to an extreme pitchers park presented new challenges.

After much research on what strategies work in those kind of parks (I highly recommend the Sporting News user forums as a resource for ideas) the model that most impressed me was very similar in style to the Cardinals of the mid-80s: Whiteyball.  Named for Whitey Herzog (one of the finest baseball minds of the last half century), the idea is that in a big park one forgoes the new sabermetric ideas for creating offense, i.e., drawing walks and hitting for power.   Instead, one opts for (deadball) old school methods by concentrating on hitting for average and using team speed to get the extra bases.  The Cardinals used uber-speedsters Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr and Willie McGee to create scoring opportunities with high average hitter Terry Pendleton and high-walk power hitter Jack Clark to drive them in, dominating the National League East for the early part of the 80s.

One of the teams that was listed in the forums - a 100-win Kaufmann team - was almost identical to those old Cardinals teams.  Albert Pujols replaced Jack Clark in the power-hitter role and there was speed at every other position on the field including catcher.  The roster included Brad Ausmus, Miguel Olivo, Brian Roberts, Ryan Freel, Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, Willy Tavares, Ichiro Suzuki and Bobby Abreu and they combined to steal 289 bases and score 854 runs.  The starting pitching was lead by Pedro Martinez with the rest of the staff filled with an assortment of innings eaters (Javier Vazquez, Paul Byrd, John Halama and Jamie Moyer).  Perhaps the most striking feature of this team was that it had used a low cost closer - in this case Francisco Rodriguez -  and four cheap relievers.  In Strat-o-matic, rarely do bullpens with so little depth or quality succeed to this degree.  But perhaps that's one of the advantages of the extreme pitchers park.

The results of our SOMBOE draft left me a little short of speed at a couple of positions and almost totally empty-handed on the pitching side.  I only recieved three of the eleven pitchers I had targeted and the ones I got were each inexpensive specialized relievers.  So from the waiver wire, I had to construct a rotation and a back-end of the bullpen.  What fun!  The reverse side of the coin is that with the exception of Chone Figgins and Alfonso Soriano, I got all of the players I wanted on offense.   I liked both of those guys because they run like crazy; both AA rated on speed.  Figgins' card rated his defense at third as excellent and Soriano's card seems tailor-made for a park that favors right-handers slightly, especially if his subpar glove is not required in the field.

On paper the offense looks like it can take advantage of the extreme pitcher's environment, but also have enough power to do well on the road.  Like the previously mentioned teams, this one has oodles of speed with Brian Roberts (2B), Rafael Furcal (SS), Willy Tavares (CF), Scott Podsednik (LF), Bobby Abreu (RF), Billy Hall (3B) and even at catcher with Joe Mauer and Miguel Olivo, who make a fine complimentary platoon.  What makes this team different from it's philosophical ancestors is that it possesses two power hitters - Manny Ramirez, who will serve as the team's DH, and switch-hitting first baseman Tony Clark.  Most power hitter cards have a number of home run rolls that are ballpark dependent, which means rolls that would normally result in a home run in most ballparks are merely outs at Kaufmann.  But Clark has a good number of what are called "natural" homers that go out regardless of the park, making him effective at home or on the road.  Ramirez has several good natural homer rolls as well and a good number of high percentage extra base hit rolls.  My bench is comprised of speedy and versatile Eric Bruntlett and Marlon Anderson, plus Marcus Thames, whose card appears to be better than his numbers indicate with a number of natural home run rolls.  Each of the bench players went for nearly minimum salary and hopefully will be relatively productive when pressed into emergency service. 

I had considered using Frank Thomas as my DH.  His card has a ridiculous fifteen rolls in which the result would be a homer, ten of which are natural.  Most good power hitter cards have around eight homer rolls.  But he also has an injury rating of 5, which means he could spend a good portion of the season on the trainer's table.  I looked at a bunch of other teams that have used Thomas and most had gotten between 300-350 at bats out of him with an upper range of 500 and a lower range of 200.  And depending on how many at bats he accumulated, he hit anywhere from 30 to 65 homers.  His card also doesn't take advantage of the ballpark when it comes to batting average, so he basically hits .200, gets a few walks, clouts homers and makes a lot of outs when he's not on the DL.  That's an acceptable trade-off if he stays on the field, but, and you can trust me on this, there's nothing more frustrating in Strat than fighting for your playoff life because injuries have left you with Antonio Perez as your regular DH.   Depending on an injury 5 player like Thomas is inviting just that kind of disaster.  Yes, it's a team game but some guys are more vital than others. 
After much consternation and roster shuffling, I ended up with a starting staff that will be fronted by John Smoltz and Randy Johnson.  Neither card is as dominating as their public perception but with a favorable ballpark, very good middle infield defense and two very strong arms in the outfield to keep baserunners from taking too many liberties on the bases each has the potential to be almost studly.  The back of the rotation is manned by Jeff Weaver and Rodrigo Lopez whom I'm hoping will accumulate about 250 respectable innings apiece.  There is some risk in going with a four man rotation because it's difficult to manipulate one's staff to account for the opposition's ballpark effects.  You either match-up well or you don't.  Of course, the benefit is that finding four good starters is somewhat easier than finding five, and it allows one to devote more salary to the bullpen and offense.  I added a cheap swingman John Halama, who doesn't have a homer roll against lefties, yet is tough on right-handers, to give a different look when necessary.  I toyed with the idea of using Livan Herandez as my fourth starter because he has more endurance than Lopez, and Wandy Rodriguez as my swingman because of his slightly better numbers coming from a hitters park.  But both guys simply gave up too many homers, even in a good pitchers park.  Another concern is that extreme handed pitchers like Johnson (7L) and Weaver (7R) are susceptible to stacked line-ups (Johnson against right-handers and Weaver versus left-handers).  Hopefully, the team's defensive strengths and ballpark will mitigate those concerns.

In the bullpen, I tabbed Joe Nathan as my slam dunk closer.  I wrote about this last year, but it's my belief that there's an enormous difference in the standings (and in the playoffs) between a great closer and merely a good one.  A guy who turns 95% of his 8th inning leads into wins makes a big difference over a guy who converts 80-85% of his opportunities.  With 50 opportunities, that translates to 6-8 additional wins per season.  Setting up Nathan will be Mike MacDougal (who was pretty decent last year) and specialists Luis Ayala (vs RH), Randy Flores (vs LH) and Keith Foulke (vs LH).  Lance Cormier (E) will mop up when necessary.  Everyone on the staff does a pretty good job of keeping runners in check, so Mauer and Olivo should be able to stymie even the most speedy baserunners.

I'm optimistic about this team.  Of course it will have to avoid the usual pitfalls like injuries, subpar seasons from key players, the general ineptitude of HAL's handling of the bullpen and HAL's tendency to make bone-headed in-game decisions like sending in a pinch runner in the first inning.  And I have some concern about the weakness in the back of the rotation.  But the defense should help, it has some potentially dominating starting pitching and what could be a pretty solid bullpen with a top notch closer, all features that worked well for me last year.  The offense should be pretty respectable on base-wise.  The two power hitters I have are potent enough to be effective in Kaufmann and should be able to prevent the team from being totally outslugged in the hitters parks.  But what I hope will be the deciding factor is the team's speed.  I've run a number of season simulations using the current circumstances and this squad will generally steal between 270-320 bases in any given year.  That's not quite the modern record held by the 1976 Oakland As who stole 341, but it should still be pretty fun to watch.  And even if the opposition uses a catcher with a great arm, not all starters are very good at holding runners and very few relievers are.  So in theory there should be opportunities in just about every game to steal a win, literally.  There's an old baseball axiom that everything in baseball is prone to slumps with the exception of speed.   Hopefully, this team will prove it.