Fantasy Blows Ohtani

January 16. 2018

 

 

 

Iíve never been a huge fan of Dave Cameron but I recognize the enormous contribution he has made. One of the seminal writers and originators of Fangraphs.com, he has inspired many excellent analysts to take up the keyboard and explore all things baseball. That is not an easy thing to do. What makes Cameron unique is that as an analyst, he was pretty terrible. One could write a book on the number of subjects he wrote about and got completely wrong. One of the more notable instances was when he predicted back in 2008 that the Seattle Mariners were the sixth most likely franchise to win a World Series within the next five years, in large part because they had hired Jack Zduriencik away from the Brewers. At the time, Zduriencik was the Assistant GM with the Brewers and was noted for his early embrace of sabermetrics, as well as his history in scouting. On his first day on the job, Zduriencik talked about how he was going to build a franchise with players who possess good character. It sounds great but the thing is that in the nine years he was either director of scouting or AGM, he had not really established a great track record of finding players with good character. Sure, there were some canít miss draft picks like Prince Fielder, but by and large most of his canít miss good character guys missed, either on talent or character or both (Dave Krynzel, Mike Jones, Mark Rogers, Jeremy Jeffress, Matt LaPorta, Brett Lawrie, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Braun were all first picks). The Brewers finished no better than third in a weak division for all but two of his years there and only once did they make the expanded playoffs, almost entirely on the strength of CC Sabathiaís left arm, who had been a mid-season acquisition from the Indians.

 

But I digressÖ the point is that while in theory a guy like Zduriencik was the way to go Ė someone who relied both on scouting and advanced metrics to formulate his conclusions Ė that particular guy was not the right guy for the job. He just wasnít very good at identifying the kind of players he wanted to identify. That became painfully evident as Seattle finished last or next to last every year he was their GM. And anyone who had taken a close look at Zduriencikís track record should have known this going in.

 

Still, and I want to make this perfectly clear, I think the Padres did an incredibly smart thing by hiring Cameron to lead their analytics department because the one thing that he is brilliant at is asking the right questions. Even though his analysis was frequently off because it focused largely on only half the equation (strictly the numbers side, and even then it used some numbers that shouldnít be used for scouting like WAR and xWAR) he was always looking where franchises should be looking for answers. Which player is the most valuable, once you consider both his talent and his contract? Which organizations are best suited for a sustained run at a title? Which contracts are better than they look? Or worse? Cameron was almost always on point with his exploration of where the spotlight needed to be focused. And for a major league franchise, that is one of the most important skills to have in-house because with their practically unlimited resources, they can get the right guys to get the answers. But without that guy who is asking the right questions, they are as lost as if they got all the wrong guys. So congratulations, San Diego Padres, your franchise is about to get much better because you have one of the best around at pointing the spotlight where it needs to be. Heíll get the discussion going in the right direction, which is half the challenge of a successful franchise.

 

Which brings me to Shohei OhtaniÖ

 

For its entire history, fantasy baseball has been one of the greatest engines for change in baseball in large part because as competitors looked for an edge on how to win it, they invested time and energy into new ways of evaluating players. Without fantasy baseball, publications like Baseball America and Stats Inc, and even Fangraphs would be nowhere close to as popular as they are. When Baseball America started in 1981, they sold only a few thousand copies a year and this didnít change dramatically for a decade. But as fantasy baseball took hold, interest in finding the best player before they became the best players exploded and today BA sells more than 150,000 print copies and has more than a million page views for their website per year.

 

So fantasy baseball has always been on the right side of understanding the future of baseball.

 

But they got it wrong when it came to Shohei Ohtani. In fact, they couldnít be more wrong.

 

The actual player promises to become one of the better starting pitchers in baseball, but his unique talent set might allow him to become an effective DH or outfielder as well. No other player since Babe Ruth has had this intriguing skill set. In fact, should he fulfill his promise Ė and unlike many Japanese players coming to MLB, heís still well before his prime years so he should get better than he already is Ė he will be one of the most valuable players in baseball, if not the most valuable. And one would have a very compelling argument that if he indeed becomes a star pitcher and a star hitter, that he will be the most valuable player since Ruth.

 

The current convention in fantasy baseball, however, is that he isnít that valuable. In the most notable expert and competition leagues, he is being either restricted to being drafted as a pitcher only, or he must be drafted as a pitcher or a hitter and if you want to have both he will use two roster spots. So any team that rosters him is getting penalized twice for owning him. The first time is because they would only be getting half his actual production, and the second is because the owner then loses a roster or reserve spot that he could use for another player. In essence, heís being forced to play short-handed. And even if Ohtani becomes an absolute stud in one or the other disciplines, he will never get his real value. In fact, there are several casual formats (like a ten-team mixed) in which he is neither tradeable or rosterable because of the manufactured handicaps. Despite the fact that all 30 MLB teams made bids for his services because it is clear he is the most intriguing player to come along in a generation, in fantasy he will likely be a middling roster option.

 

And letís be clear, having him on a major league roster is a huge advantage. If a team can use one of their starting pitchers as their regular DH, they no longer need to spend millions of dollars and a roster spot on finding a DH. They can use that money and that spot to fill other needs. Perhaps acquire a defensive specialist for late innings, or another reliever for a deeper bullpen. The point is that if a player can do two things well at the major league level, he gives his team an advantage over a player who can only do one thing well.

 

The argument is that heís a pitcher and in fantasy the pitcherís hitting stats are never counted. And even if they did, it wouldnít be fair to have an extra hitter. He would imbalance the game.

 

But that is exactly who he is. There will always be players who challenge our conventions and make the game seem unfair. Rickey Henderson made it seem unfair when he was hitting 20+ homers and stealing 80+ bases and posting an on base of .400 and long with scoring 130+ runs a season. Pedro Martinez made it seem unfair when he was striking out 300 batters with a sub 2 ERA. Tony Phillips made it seem unfair when he was hitting 20 homers with a .400 on base while qualifying for every position on the field including bat boy. Just because a player challenges game balance doesnít mean he should be artificially handicapped. Players like that are properly valued with a very high asking price. But who in their right mind would pay a high price for a player if they only get half his stats?

 

I have heard a number of people reference that Wayne Gretzky was divided into two players during his heyday Ė one for the goal scorer and one for the assist leader. But how is that even remotely logical? Itís one guy, perhaps the most dominant player in any sport in history. Yes, it means one team will have a huge advantage of having him on the team if he is one player. So what? Sports are inherently unfair because thereís always some uber-talented guy who comes along and gives his team a huge advantage. Ask the teams that faced Wilt Chamberlain. The point is that just because the guy is a juggernaut, that doesnít give anyone the right to dissect him so that everyone can have a chance of winning. That is so antithetical to sports that it boggles the mind that anyone would even consider it. The truly great players are the very reason we watch the game. It is why we watch any sport.

 

At the SABR convention announcing his development of Win Shares, Bill James freely admitted that his first effort failed because the final results showed that a number of 19th century pitchers were by far the most valuable players ever. To James, that didnít make sense. What had happened was that in his calculation, the number of innings they pitched imbalanced their contribution to the teamís chances of winning. James didnít think that was right, so he arbitrarily diminished the value of those innings by half so that would not pollute his own narrative as to who the most valuable players in history were. But honestly, if a pitcher throws 500+ innings a season, as some of those old guys did, then they should be recognized as incredibly valuable. Yes, the game was different back then but that shouldnít diminish the weight of their contribution. To illustrate further using a famous Warner Brothers cartoon, if Bugs Bunny can pitch, catch and field every pitch, then heís pretty damn valuable because you donít need as many other players. Well, the fantasy industry is making the exact same mistake Bill James did.

 

How then should fantasy baseball address him? Essentially Ohtani is just like any other multi-position eligible player. As long as he has fulfilled the games required criteria, then he should accumulate all the statistics in every category in which he contributes as long as heís active. It does not matter that he is both pitcher and hitter. All other pitchers in the past have been solely pitchers and all other hitters have been solely hitters. That is where they qualified. Ohtani is no different that any other guy who forces us to re-evaluate our thinking. Heís an 8-category player and should be recognized as such.

 

To give an example, the Angels have him start on a Monday and he goes 7 innings and then for the next 4 of 5 days he is either in the line-up as a DH or plays OF. Then on Sunday he starts again and goes 7 more innings. So in that week heís posted 14 innings pitched and 20-24 plate appearances all at positions he qualifies for. Under the current convention, an Ohtani owner would only get the pitching or the hitting unless he used two active roster spots. The thing is that the Angels didnít have to. They had a pitcher for two days who then played as an everyday hitter for four more and the player who accumulated that playing time only occupied one spot on the roster. They got production that usually requires two players out of one player. That is what Ohtani should be doing in fantasy as well.

 

Let me offer a counter-example. Letís say Marwin Gonzales, who qualifies all over the diamond, in a given week plays a couple games at first, a game at second, a game at third, one in the outfield and maybe during the late innings of an extra inning game he is asked to play catcher for a few innings. For the fantasy owner, it does not matter what position they have him at on the roster. They get all the stats he produced that week, even the ones where he played a position he did not qualify for (catcher). They were not limited to only the stats he accumulated at first base if they had him on their active roster at first. They got all of them, regardless. So can anyone give me a decent reason why Ohtani shouldnít also be afforded the same respect? Other than it would be inconvenient for the stat service, who by the way, is paid to tabulate stats however they come and whoever accumulates them.

 

Let me put it another way. The best ranging shortstops lead the majors in defensive chances, getting about 400 chances to make a play on defense. The really good ones make about 300 of those opportunities. A leadoff hitter gets about 700 plate appearances. So at best, a lead-off hitting, great fielding shortstop would have a hand in about 1100 plays over the course of a season, either on offense or defense. A really good starting pitcher will face about 900 batters over the course of a season and might get 75 plate appearances if heís in the NL. So the players who get the most opportunities to change the game only get roughly a thousand chances a season. Ohtani will likely be on an innings limit the first year but eventually he will likely be one of those top starters. But for the sake of argument, letís say he only gets 715 batters faced (160 innings pitched (*3 outs per inning) + 155 hits allowed + 70 walks + a few reaching on error, hit batsmen, etc). Heíll also DH for about 350 plate appearances. So even if he only DHs, heíll be getting more opportunities to change a game (and as a pitcher have greater control than a batter) than just about any player. Now letís toss in that he might also play first base or outfield, which adds another hundred or more opportunities to change the game on defense. By the time you add it all up, in his first season Ohtani will likely be involved in 6% more plays than any other player. As he grows and is given more innings, that impact will only grow. So yes, he should be one of the most valuable commodities in fantasy baseball.

 

The argument that Ohtaniís a pitcher and pitchers donít get their hitting stats is fallacious. Ohtani is also a regular hitter and as such qualifies to have his hitting stats included. Heís getting four times as many plate appearances as a regular pitcher. Frankly, I think hitting stats should be included anyway regardless if a guy is a pitcher or not. NL pitchers theoretically have an advantage because they face pitchers and can pitch to the line-up, so they generally accumulate more Ks, and have better ERAs and WHIPs. There is an advantage to rostering them over AL pitchers. But what would happen if their on base or batting average was also factored in? That might generate more interest in AL pitchers. For a couple extra runs and RBI you would have to take a hit on team hitting averages. That seems like a fair and more realistic trade-off. Regardless, Ohtani should be accumulating hitting stats like a 15th hitter in a standard format because that what he is for the Angels. And if he stinks as a hitter, then whoever has him active as a pitcher should suffer that performance. Likewise when he pitches in Colorado, the owner should have to suffer the consequences as well as benefit. He shouldnít get to cherry pick. But the point is that Ohtani gives the Angels an advantage on their roster, and currently in fantasy baseball he is the opposite of an advantage.

 

The reason pitcher's hitting stats have never been included is because their contributions have been statistically insignificant. Only Mike Hampton and Brook Keischnick have hit more than 5 home runs in a season since 1971, and in only 1973 and 1977 have more than 3 pitchers hit more than 2. In at least half of those years the major league leader for pitchers had fewer than 10 RBI or 10 runs. So Ohtani is probably going to be something quite new.

 

Or quite old depending on how you look at it. In 1918, just two years after leading the AL in ERA, Babe Ruth was in the top 10 in ERA yet also led the league in homers and slugging. The next year he still pitched 133 league average innings, but led the league in runs, homers, RBI, TB, OBP and slugging. So the question is this: was Ruth the most valuable player in history as an 8-category player, or was he two second-round players? The current thinking in fantasy would have you believe the latter; Iím in the former camp.

 

Fantasy baseball is a simulation game. The primary objective of any simulation is to come as close to reality as possible so that conclusions can be drawn to make better decisions in reality. The more realistic the simulation, the more useful and more challenging it is. Should fantasy baseball continue with its current course on Ohtani, it will have utterly failed in this primary objective. While it may seem like Iím splitting hairs or being argumentative, the fact is that distinctions matter. Sometimes they matter quite a lot. All Iím trying to do is get the discussion going back in the right direction.