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 Series experience; all things being equal, you usually go with the guys who have been there before.  However, both Todd and I have been within a whisker of the 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. 

The 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 welcome a 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 each 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.  Both Perez 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 people 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 Williams, 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.