LIMA-time in Limbo

Ron Shandler is one of the most innovative, forward thinking individuals writing about baseball today.  Not just fantasy baseball... baseball in general.  Through his Baseball Forecaster Annual and Baseball HQ website, he has introduced us to strand rates, power and speed indexes and numerous other useful tools that can help fantasy owners and real baseball organizations (a couple of major league clubs subscribe to his publications) make good player personnel decisions.

One of his most successful fantasy innovations is the LIMA plan.  Using it, he was able to dominate expert leagues for a couple of years.  Essentially, LIMA (Low Investment Mound Ace) uses several criteria that allows one to assemble a quality pitching staff for very little of the budget, thus freeing more than the standard 65/35 split on quality hitters.  The reason it was successful is that from year to year there are far more pitchers who surprise us with quality seasons than hitters, and that most of these pitchers display a predictable pattern before they break out.

LIMA pitchers are ones who strike out batters greater than 6 per 9 innings, have a K/BB ratio of 2.0 or better and have a home run rate of less than 1 per 9 innings. It's brilliant in it's simplicity.  Great pitching breakouts like those of Jon Lieber and John Burkett were predicted with this method.

And although LIMA is not a gimmick, it's usefulness may be on the wane.  Why?

First of all, LIMA's own success has done it in.  One of the keys for using LIMA is that you get good pitchers inexpensively.  But because of it's success, everyone is aware of who the LIMA candidates are and immediately bids them out of the acceptable price range.  It's not that they want to drive the price up; they just want quality pitchers and LIMA is an established way of identifying them.  So where once you could get 4 or 5 solid LIMA starters with the $30 budget, now you can only get 2, maybe 3.

Secondly, the evolution toward 5x5 leagues has also hurt LIMA.  LIMA only looks for pitchers with K rates of 6.00 or better, but in a 5x5 league, that just isn't enough to compete with the teams that have the strikeout artists.  The 6.00 K rate will net you 133 Ks on a 200 inning pitcher, a total matched by 54 pitchers last year.  Twenty-two of those pitchers struck out at least 170.  The LIMA team can't afford to pay for the extra Ks, as it would cut into the hitting budget.  But with so may high K pitchers floating around, it's very difficult for the LIMA team to keep pace with the rest of the league in that category.  So while they may win WHIP and ERA, they might just as easily finish last in Wins and Strikeouts.  Punting one category is an acceptable risk; punting two is asking for a seat at the runners-up table.

There is one final spectre staring LIMA down.  Tangential to the previous point, LIMA is especially effective when there's not a lot of high ceiling talent in the pitching ranks.  Successful pitching in that environment is more a matter of defense and limiting the damage that hitters can do by keeping the number of baserunners down.  But with the emergence of so much quality pitching talent - 61 pitchers are on pace for 133 Ks this year - pitchers are taking matters into their own hands and actively getting hitters out on their own.  While this aggressiveness leads to more Ks which helps LIMA because it increases the available pool of qualifying talent, it also leads to something that fundamentally undermines it.

LIMA misses emerging stars like AJ Burnett, Matt Clement, Ramon Ortiz - hardthrowers who could dominate the game for much of the next decade - because it focuses on walk rates.  While you never like to see a guy issue free passes, many times, especially in young pitchers, it's a function of maturity, not ability.  A change in pitching coach, or delivery or even grip can have a dramatic effect on a young pitcher, transforming them from a taxi-squatter to a roto-stud in a matter of weeks.  And it was just a matter of making a minor adjustment that harnesses the talent.  So by including a strict walk-dependent stat in the criteria, LIMA misses out much of the most promising pitching talent in the game.

So should LIMA be abandoned?  Heavens, no!  Just as in life, there are few simple answers, and just because things get a little more complex, doesn't mean we abandon all order and choose anarchy.  LIMA just needs to be honed a bit.  I haven't done any studies to demonstrate conclusively how, but I do have a few suggestions.

1) In order to identify and include young, potentially high-strikeout pitchers, examine minor league records to see if there's any history of good strikeout rates, and by good I mean better than 7.5 per 9 innings.  Then look at their rates in the majors.  If they're getting 6 or better per 9, there's a good chance they're gonna take a big step up in K rate once they get comfortable..

2) For pitchers with fewer than 60 starts (roughly two years experience), divide their walks by 3 (round down) and add that to their strikeout total.  From the few isolated examples I've looked at, this seems to work pretty well at predicting their eventual strikeout rates.  By removing a third of their walks, you also get a decent approximation of the number of walks they'll be allowing.  It sorta makes sense because young pitchers are still refining their craft and don't usually get the benefit of the doubt from the umpires, but that's purely speculation.  Anyway, use these modified numbers to identify whether an inexperienced pitcher will develop a K/BB rate of better than 2.0.

3) Home run rates should be noted, but I'm not convinced that one year's home run output is an indicator of future failure or lack of success.  Check the pitcher's career rate.  It could be that a guy who's giving up a lot of bombs was just unlucky that year.  With hitters as juiced up as they are, even bad swings can put the ball out of the park.  And even if a pitcher consistently gives up bombs, that doesn't preclude him from being a quality pitcher.  There are several pitchers like Jamie Moyer whose home run rates are high yet they are still quality pitchers.  Be wary of guys who give up home runs, but don't be afraid to get one and certainly don't cross them of your list, especially if they qualify in the other criteria.

Largely because of it's success, LIMA needs to increase it's usable player pool.  By making some adjustments due to pitcher inexperience and for career rates, the pool can be increased enough to include high potential, low cost pitchers who could eventually fit the LIMA profile. 

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