AL Tout Wars Review:
How I did it

After last year's close finish in AL Tout Wars, I had a pretty good feeling that I was getting the hang of this.  The key for me was understanding the mistakes I made that ultimately cost me and making sure they didn't happen again.  They were small, but nevertheless significant misjudgments on my part like assuming an injured player would come back before the season ended, not aggressively grabbing more depth off the free agent market when the opportunity presented itself, not spending all my salary at the draft and perhaps most importantly, not spending an extra buck on players I had confidence in.  I felt that if I avoided making those same mistakes, I'd be in pretty good shape this year.

Stay close to the candles... the stairs can be quite treacherous.
The problem was that another variable was thrown into the mix this year: the competition.  In March, the stars aligned and the heavy hitters fell into place to form one of the toughest leagues imaginable.  The league membership consisted of:

Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ who has won three Tout Wars titles,
Jason Grey of Mastersball who had won the last two Tout Wars titles in the AL,
Lawr Michaels of Creative Sports (one Tout Wars title),
Mat Olkin of USA Today/Baseball Weekly (one Tout Wars title) who turned his team after the draft over to Gene McCaffrey and John Menna of Wise Guy Sports (one Tout Wars title),
Matt Berry of Talented Mr. Roto (formerly of Rotoworld) who was the winner of last year's FSTA/Fox Sports title,
Rich Fogel of USA Stats - last year's second place finisher in AL Tout,
Joe Sheehan, one of the originators of Baseball Prospectus and a regular columnist for them,
Jeff Erickson, co-founder of Rotowire,
Dean Peterson, the IT guru of STATS Inc., 
Steve Moyer, currently the head of Baseball Info Solutions, but a guy who's been at the heart of the fantasy sports movement and a past winner of  Baseball Weekly's LABR title,
Sam Walker of the Wall Street Journal.  Sam was a newcomer to the scene, but he did not come into this competition unprepared.  He was armed with two hired assistants: one, a multiple winner of numerous roto-leagues and the other, a stats analyst from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.  That's right - he had a rocket scientist on his team... literally.  He also had a budget that allowed him to spend several weeks in spring training and press access to every clubhouse and GM.  Sam was no regular guy; he brought an "A" game to the table.

For me, it was like going up against the Celtics of the 1960s, or the 1927 Yankees.  In a field of star thoroughbreds, I was hoping to be Seabiscuit.  I had come close last year, but this year was going to be a real test.

My season was not without it's tribulations.  Over the course of the year, seven of my starting players spent at least 6 weeks on the DL.  Four of my original 23 starters were lost for the season before the beginning of August.  I also had Scott Spiezio, who was so bad he should have been DLed, if only to save me from my own optimism.  After the first month, I had 4 guys on the DL and was foundering in 11th place, 57.5 points out of first.  After the first week of June, I had scrambled all the way to 9th place, 31.5 points out of first.  But by August, I was in first place for good. 

                           Team                         Pts      
                         1 Long Gandhi                  90.5      
                         2 Baseball HQ                  81.0      
                         3 STATS INC                    76.5      
                         4 USA Stats                    73.0      
                         5 Talented Mr. Roto            70.0     
                         6 CREATiVESPORTS               69.0     
                         7 Baseball Prospectus          65.0    
                         8 Wall Street Journal          58.0      
                         9 SPORTS WEEKLY WISE GUYS      57.0      
                         10 RotoWire                    51.5     
                         11 Mastersball                 48.5      
                         12 Baseball Info Solutions     40.0      

What caused the turnaround?  On the offensive side, it was my roster finally getting healthy in May, then providing the expected production from 14 hitters over the next three months.  Three in particular stood out and for much of the season performed above what I had anticipated: Matt Lawton, Victor Martinez and Johnny Damon.  It's not uncommon to have several guys play above what you'd expect, just as having several players - Spiezio, Kevin Millar (before I traded him), Joe Crede (after I traded Millar for him), Brian Jordan - perform well below expectations isn't a surprise, either. 

Some will say that the injury bug didn't hit me that badly because I didn't lose any star players to the DL.  But when your game plan is to field a team without any high-priced stars, that's not something you really have to worry about.

Until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke upon me...
Three bits of insight are the basis of my philosophy when it comes to creating a fantasy team in an auction league.  The first two came from Ron Shandler.  The first is once a player displays a skill, he owns it until injury, age or lack of opportunity take it away from him.  The second is always seek to minimize your risk.  The third came from Gene McCaffrey at a roundtable discussion about draft strategy: the only strategy that matters is this... always get value.  It doesn't matter if the player is a star or scrub or someone in between - if he's going for less than he's worth, get him.

I've always had a knack for getting good pitching so I modified my philosophy going into this season to focus on getting hitters who have demonstrated decent talent, but are low risk with some upside, then finding my pitching from what's left over.  No superstar hitters.  Just a team chock full of reasonably productive bats... boring players who put up decent numbers. 

My idea of a low risk hitter is probably different than most.  To me, drafting a superstar in an auction league is high risk.  Why?  Because if he gets injured, it's next to impossible to replace him without creating a gaping hole somewhere else on your roster.  And it doesn't matter if he's played 162 games a season for the last 5 years; injuries are rarely predictable and anyone short of Cal Ripken can miss significant time to injury.  It's far easier to replace the production of a guy like Bernie Williams or Scott Spiezio off the waiver wire than it is Magglio Ordonez or Eric Chavez.  Of course, this is almost the exact opposite of what an actual GM would (and should!) do with a real team, so it's a bit counter-intuitive.  Then again, this is fantasy baseball.

Getting value was the second part of the strategy.  Most people shy away from injury-prone players.  But as long as the injuries aren't chronic or if they have been freakish in nature, I say take a chance on a player who is finally healthy like Matt Lawton or Jermaine Dye.  He'll go for significantly less than he's capable of producing.  I also like to take young players who have seriously under-performed from what was expected of them the previous year or two.  Victor Martinez was my team's prime example from this year (Ramon Hernandez was last year) but there are a handful of guys (like Hank Blalock last year and Carlos Guillen this year) available every year who seem to come out of nowhere after strong minor league careers but who struggled in their first exposure to the majors.  I didn't have either Blalock or Guillen, but they serve as my perfect profile of an attractive target player.

By building an offense this way, even if any one, two or even three players get injured or have a down year, the team will not be completely crippled.  Plus, solutions can either be found by making modest trades or scouring the waiver wire.  My big free agent hitter pick-up this year was Gary Matthews Jr.; last year it was Jeff DaVanon.  Both stepped in nicely to give equivalent production to the players they replaced.

Granted, this strategy might not work for everyone because it depends on being able to get quality pitching for little money.  Given the amount of research and literature that's available to everyone on the topic, that isn't always easy.  I'll save my methods for finding pitching gems for another day.  But the point is that a decent offensive team can be created with little risk of being undone by injuries or suspensions.  If you can find the low cost quality pitching, you'll have a good chance to be competitive.  Speaking of quality pitching...

He would have an enormous schwanschtuka.

Going into this year, I thought Johan Santana was as good as any starter in the AL, but honestly I had no idea that he would be this good.  I doubt anyone did, especially with the way he started the season, when his ERA was over 5.00 and his WHIP was 1.492 at the end of May.  Despite the rough start, he ended up allowing fewer than 1 baserunner per inning (0.921 to be exact).  To give some perspective how incredible his numbers are, the last time an American League pitcher posted a WHIP that low was 2000 when Pedro Martinez stood the world on it's ear with an unbelievable 0.802 mark.  Before that you have to go back to 1968 - the year Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA in the NL, Luis Tiant posted a 1.60 in the AL and Denny McLain won 31 games - to find a starter posting similar numbers.  Taking only what Santana did from June to the end of the season (0.713 baserunners per inning over 167 innings), it would qualify as the lowest mark in history for anyone throwing at least 150 innings.  In fact, only four times has that mark ever been exceeded by anyone throwing even 50 innings or more: Dennis Eckersley in 1989 and 1990, Billy Wagner in 1999 and Eric Gagne last year.  And his ERA over that period was an equally closer-esque 1.51. 

Using just his numbers as a starter this year and last, he became the 7th starting pitcher in history to have at least two seasons in which he averaged at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings and post an ERA under 3.00.  The others are Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Sandy Koufax and Sam McDowell.  Mike Scott, Martinez, Schilling, Koufax and now Santana are the only starters in history to combine the sub-1.000 WHIP with the 10Ks/9 innings feat in a single season.  Since Ron Gardenhire put him in the rotation for good last season, he is 31-8 with an ERA of 2.80.  I think it's safe to say that this year was the last in which Santana will be considered a "sleeper" by anyone.  It's also safe to say that years like this one don't happen often enough to expect them.

Oh sweet mystery of life I finally found you...
There is a temptation to refer to myself in the third person as "The Champ" henceforth.  OK, not really.

Actually, I am looking forward to next year already.  This year is over.  What's done is done and there's always more work to do.  I don't have all the answers in real or fantasy baseball.  Not by a long shot.  As I see it, the study of baseball is just now entering cellular phase, but still has the molecular and sub-atomic phases to go before we begin to truly understand what is going on.  We need to break the game down further to the actual balls and strikes, to the exact positioning and actual distance fielders move to get to batted balls, to the release points, bat speeds and trajectories, to put into statistical form what scouts see and intuitively understand about players and their talents... so until video analysis gets us there - and it isn't too far away - I'm just going to keep plugging away, sharing my thoughts and discoveries as I go.

The most important thing I took away from this season is that I have the good fortune to be able to call my fellow Tout competitors my friends.  I'm thankful for the opportunity to play in the Game that they helped revolutionize, and in the process change the way we think about baseball.  There's always some luck involved in any fantasy sports championship - whether it's outbidding your opponents for what turns out to be a surprisingly productive player, or losing out on a bid for a surprisingly unproductive player.  What isn't left to luck is what we do with the opportunity to make life-long friends in the leagues we compete in.  For me, that is what determines the true champion.  Namaste.