5 Ways to Keep Interest Alive in September
September can be a long and desolate month for those who have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. For those who now stare blankly at the inevitable no-money finish, there is only ennui. The trading deadline has passed, the days are getting shorter as winter approaches and the seductive sirens of Fantasy Luge are calling... However, just when life seems it's bleakest, there are yet some things one can do to reinvigorate hope while getting a head start for next year.
It's always a good idea to follow the daily pitching lines. It's an especially good idea in September. Every year, several guys leave clues that they are figuring out how to pitch. Teams out of the pennant races often take the opportunity to turn September into a late season spring training. Along with giving prospects a month-long look, they encourage established players to work on specific aspects of their game. For pitchers, it's a good time to concentrate on mechanics or to try a new pitch or a new approach. But unlike spring training where a pitcher faces plenty of guys destined for A ball, in September he faces major leaguers and very-soon-to-be major leaguers almost exclusively. If the adjustments he makes in September are successful, he can be confident that the positive results will continue the following spring. In September of 1997, Andy Ashby, who had been a decent pitcher to date, had a slightly above average ERA of 3.89. However, he also had a WHIP ratio of 0.865 while striking out an uncharacteristically high 36 batters in 37 innings. He accomplished this while facing playoff-bound Atlanta and San Francisco (twice), St. Louis and Colorado. The following year, he was arguably the most dominant pitcher in the NL until injuries slowed him down 5 months into the season. Last September, journeyman Paul Byrd gave Philadelphia a short glimpse of what they'd see this year: 3 wins, an ERA of 2.30 and a ratio 1.180. He's won 14 games already this year and until recently had been among the league leaders in ERA. Dave Veres' September ERA of 0.84 last year probably cemented him as the Rockies closer this year even before spring training began. Mike Williams had a similar performance (0.87 ERA) and result in Pittsburgh. This September's candidates start with Darren Dreifort, who has a 2.29 ERA and a ratio of 1.021 in his last 4 starts. Lance Painter has made a strong push to be next year's closer-from-nowhere with his 1.63 ERA and 0.636 ratio of late.
Some AL/NL-only roto leagues allow owners to have players from the other league on their farm rosters. Now is an excellent time for those owners to pick up as many opposite-league potential free agents as the rules allow. Getting a John Olerud now for league minimum can be a huge boon come draft day next year if he decides to switch leagues. Another group of players to consider picking up now is next year's free agent class, which has the potential to be the richest ever. Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Craig Biggio, Mike Hampton, Juan Gonzales, Shawn Green, Carlos Delgado, John Smoltz, Andy Pettitte, Barry Larkin, Ismael Valdes, Brad Radke, Andy Ashby, Mike Mussina, Tino Martinez, Jim Edmonds, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens are all eligible for free agency at the end of next season. If any of their current teams can't sign them to long term deals this winter, they will likely be headed elsewhere before next spring, as teams will try to avoid getting shortchanged at the midsummer trade deadline. Getting one of those guys at league minimum would be bigger than any draft day steal.
From a strategic standpoint, September is the perfect time to farm or dump any non-"ace" type starters in favor of good middle- and late-inning relievers. At any time during the season, there are probably a dozen or more relievers floating around the free agent pool who have ERAs in the low 3's and ratios below 1.300. Loading up a staff with guys like that will drop a team's overall ERA and ratio significantly, as much as 0.20 in ERA and 0.040 in ratio even this late in the season. It's quite possible to move up 2 or 3 spots in each category with 4 or 5 good relievers at work. That kind of movement usually sends contending teams into a panic, the likes of which only the Blair Witch can cause. They're faced with a difficult decision: continue to accumulate wins and risk losing points in two categories or adopt a similar strategy to keep up in ERA and ratio. While it's not a particularly enjoyable situation for the contenders, it does make for good entertainment for the rest of the league. Innings requirements probably won't be a consideration at this point as most teams are either close to or have passed what is required to avoid default. This strategy also has a secondary benefit: with so many relievers, there's an improved chance of discovering one or more of next year's relief gems, like the aforementioned Veres and Williams.
Another useful September pastime is to keep a close eye on the minor league playoffs and call-ups. Great offseason trades can be made off the hype generated by a promising September or the disappointment of a wretched one. For example, in 1994, Bill Pulsipher, a highly regarded pitching prospect for the New York Mets, had a brilliant season, going 14-9 with a 3.22 ERA. That September, he threw a no-hitter in the Eastern League playoffs. In keeper leagues, his fantasy value skyrocketed as high as his much ballyhooed potential. Unfortunately, he had thrown an inordinate amount of innings (201) that year for someone so young (21). He still has yet to reach his potential in the majors as arm problems have plagued him ever since. But anyone who was salivating over the "next Jerry Koosman" that year probably didn't care about the overuse and paid dearly for him. Hitters don't fare much better than pitchers. Anyone who traded for Shane Spencer this past winter after his huge September has also reaped a big handful of fool's gold. Rarely do huge Septembers mean huge rookie years, or huge careers for that matter. This corollary works in reverse as well. For every .373 Shane Spencer September, there is an opposite but clearly unequal .232 Mike Piazza September. For a more accurate measure of talent than any single game accomplishments or glamorous batting averages, look for strong strikeout-to-walk ratios (2-1 or better) and reasonable usage patterns (less than 175 innings) in pitchers and balanced walk-to-strikeout ratios in hitters. If good ratios aren't present, the highlights will likely be fleeting.
Lastly, September is the perfect time to spend extra time with one's spouse/significant other. While this won't directly affect the standings in one's league this year or next, it will certainly improve one's standings in a more important arena for a much longer period of time. Nothing inspires more charity than sacrifice, and there're few greater sacrifices than a quiet dinner out when there's a satellite dish just a click away from bringing hours and hours of baseball at home. And if sacrifice brings charity, it would not be overstating the fact that a little September charity can go a long way to soothe that feeling of missing out on some October money.
So there it is: five things to do to make the final month of the roto-year interesting, even if winning the league is not an option. And while the last suggestion doesn't have a lot to do with fantasy baseball, it will certainly keep interest, in a greater sense, alive.