Single-year League Gambit
July 18, 2011

I have to admit that for someone who is often classified as a fantasy baseball writer, I do not read a lot of fantasy baseball columns.  The primary reason is that there are way too many available to read.  The second reason is that most don't tell you anything you can't divine from a casual persual of the readily available stats.  Some go into in-depth analysis of league-wide trends and strategies, and those guys to whom I give more attention.  But for the most part, I spend my time watching the games and seeing the developments for myself.

That said, occasionally I will stumble across a thought-provoking column that merits some comment.  This is one such occasion.  The wrtier in question was commenting on the current NL Tout Wars competition and his conclusion was that although one team has a substantial, some might even venture an overwhelming lead, that the differences in personnel indicate this should be a much closer competition as the season winds down.  He drew this conclusion comparing the rosters to what his own projections would have yielded to this point in the season.  His analysis was rooted in the idea that the teams did not show a great variance in the amount of profit generated to this point in the season based on his preseason projected statistics.

Two problems come to mind here:

The first and most obvious is that every team he compared had yeilded a negative value.  While it's certainly possible that 13 teams could have drafted so poorly as to produce negative value, the more likely explanation is that his projections were overly optimistic in their dollar values.

The second and the point on which I'd like to expound is that variances in a league as deep as Tout are very marginal and the standard by which he was comparing them to was more suited to a mixed league.  In a league like Tout, which of course, everyone on the outside looking in claims that they can win with ease, is that all the rosters are filled with three to five star players, a dozen or so middle value players and the rest of the roster is filled five to seven end-game/dollar spots.  It what happens with those spots that more often than not determines who will win the league.  In the grand scheme of things, those guys will usually end up being worth four or five dollars, but get five of them and you will run away with the title.  In a mixed league, those guys aren't even on the taxi squad. 

To whit, one famous fantasy baseball personality has made a name for himself with the mantra of never buying closers at the auction.  He reasons that they can be had for practically nothing off waivers throughout the season.  So clearly he should have an enormous advantage over his competition, right?  Not paying for a closer at auction gives him $15 extra dollars to spend on another starting pitcher or upgrading his catcher or some other position.  Yet even with this extra money he is often found near the bottom of the standings by the end of every year.  Why?  Because even though he spends that extra money on acquiring better stars, he fails to understand that four or five deadspots on the roster that aren't generating positive stats are far more detrimental than a mild upgrade at catcher is useful.  In a mixed league roster holes are not such a big deal because there are scores of replacements available on the wire.  In a league like NL Tout, you're lucky to find a decent replacement once per month.  To win Tout, one needs to get the best possible production out of as many spots as possible.

Which brings me to my real point in all this.  One of the strategic errors I see quite often in a league like Tout occurs in the drafting of the taxi squads.  Every year, the prospect guides and spring training reports are overflowing with the names of the superstars of tomorrow.  And so the temptation is to load up on as mnay of the hyped names as possible.  Most of these players are especially young.  That's one of the reasons they are so hyped, because of what they are accomplishing at such a young age.  Here's the thing: most of those guys are still several years away from producing the kinds of numbers everyone expects from them.  For one, they are still young and rarely does a player under 23 feel the urgency to make a huge splash right away and put in the extra work necessary to dominate the league from the outset.  Most are supremely talented and they know it, and they also know that time is on their side.  So if they get out of the gate slowly, it's no big deal.  They can go back to the minors, work on a few things and still know they'll be back in the show fairly soon.  Their GMs also know this so there is no rush to bring them to the majors in the first place, regardless of how well they perform in the minors.  Look, everyone knows that Bruce Harper and Mike Trout will eventually be very good, perhaps even great players.  But their peak production is years away and even if they do make the majors, as Trout has this season, you're not likely to get valuable production, as evidenced by Trout's current .359 OPS suggests.  So stashing them on your taxi squad, whether it's in Tout Wars or a Yahoo league this year, is just a wasted roster spot.  In a league like Tout Wars where the taxi squad is only 4 spots, one wasted roster spot is a huge disadvantage.

However, this is not true with older minor leaguers.  Guys who have been on the cusp of the majors for a while or who have been blocked by a sub-par veteran for a year or two... those are the guys to target.  Guys like Alex Pressley or Zack Cozart.  When they get promoted, they know this might be their only chance to prove they belong so they have a great deal of incentive to prove their worth immedaitely.  There is another benefit fantasy-wise in that if they don't make an impression: there's no reluctance to jettison them.  There's no worry that some other team will take advantage of a mistake waiver drop.  Chances are the player will get demoted and probably not get another chance for quite a while since the team will most likely be looking at other options the next time a need arises.  For these reasons, these are the guys who win fantasy leagues for you.  The best example I can think of was Shane Spencer.  In 1998 the Yankees were having an epic season but needed some outfield help down the stretch.  They brought up 26-year old Spencer in late August and he proceeded to go nuts on the AL for the final month and a half, hitting .410 with 10 homers and 27 RBI.  Fantasy teams that picked him up were likely the teams that won their championships that year. 

Of course, in a keeper league the story is a bit different.  Teams that drafted him in 1999 or held on to Spencer thinking they had picked up a right-handed Ted Williams likely finished in the basement that subsequent season.  But that topic is for another column.