Risks and rewards of September roster expansion

by BaseballHQ.com on August 26, 2010 @ 14:00:00 PDT


For the Rotisserie GM, the flipping of the calendar to Sept. 1 each year brings with it not only thoughts Labor Day and back-to-school, but also September roster expansion. This rule was one of the charming additions that the Founding Fathers wove into the game, in part to mirror the major leagues' own active roster expansion option during September. But unlike the major-league GMs, who often use the final month of the season as a testing ground for the following year, roto owners that exercise this option have one thing on their minds: a championship.

To use this tactic is not without risk: In most leagues, the expansion fee is justifiably pricey. There is certainly nothing to be gained by a second-division club indulging in the extra player(s); only the big boys within shooting distance of the title need apply. And, as with projecting the stats of any player, especially for one month, there are no guaranteed results. A two-week slump or nagging injury can, depending on the circumstances, actually hurt a team's chances more than doing nothing. But with some care, identifying the right rotisserie team situation and choosing the right player to expand with can be the difference between sipping Yoo-Hoo or sucking air come October.

Team situation

A basic starting point is to focus the expansion effort on one category. It needs to be one that possesses upward mobility; the more teams that are catchable (in four short weeks) the better. Be realistic ­ conservative estimates on gauging categorical upside are better than a "best-case scenario" method, which rarely comes to fruition.

If the identified category for expansion and maximum upside is BA, ERA or WHIP (the three non-cumulative categories in standard rotisserie), take a step back. Do the analysis again ­ these three are the most difficult to move up in the standings at this point in the season. Only in the closest of races should the September roster expansion be used to affect these numbers.

The reason? 83 percent of a rotisserie team's at-bats and innings pitched have been recorded by Sept. 1, major gains in these areas are very rare. A 4.54 team ERA in 900 innings pitched is much less transient than the same ERA complied in only 450 innings pitched. The time to move on improving these numbers is in June and July, not September. There will be the occasional 3rd-through-6th batting average race of .2868-.2866-.2859-.2850; where the 6th place team has a 3-point upside in BA alone. But in cases like this, it may be just as smart a move to replace that .245, 25-AB a week player with a 5-AB a week player than to ante up the extra dough for expansion. In trying to affect these categories at this point in the season, AB and IP are no longer an asset.

Saves and stolen bases provide the most reliable possibilities for upward movement. Unfortunately, there are usually no established closers or speed demons unrostered in most competitive leagues come September 1. Home runs and RBIs are slightly less predictable, but are linked closely together: If one finds that expanded power-hitting jewel on a September tear, both categories could take a jump. And the animal of chasing wins via September expansion has its own set of circumstances. Normally, wins are the most difficult to predict because of the elements beyond a starter's control ­ mainly offensive and defensive support. However, if on Sept. 1 a team finds itself safe in both WHIP and ERA ­ with enough padding below to rule out a possible drop in the categories ­ then loading up (and possibly expanding) a roster with starting pitchers on good teams is an acceptable strategy.

But the trick is finding the players that fit the profile.

September expansion player profile

On one hand, the talent pool for choosing your September expansion is diluted - injury replacements have sifted out most of the productive players. However, don't discount your own reserve list ­ sometimes a player that fits you categorical need that is about to come off the DL has just as good of a shot at helping a team as going outside your organization.

On the other hand, a whole new pool of players arrive via major-league roster expansion. These players often have something to prove - for some, it will be the first shot at the big show. Many will do all they can to make a statement in preparation for the future. A positive impression on the major-league level in the final couple of weeks can make an impact that may last until next February. So unlike some veterans on these second-tier teams whose only future concern is hunting season, the September call-ups have a motivation to give it their all during the final stretch. Which can translate into favorable statistics for the fantasy team.

A knowledge of individual teams and their probable positional openings for the following year will also aid in the search. There's nothing like a good position battle to help production. And a quick look at September schedules can benefit, also ­ those teams full of youngsters playing opposing teams full of youngsters or a team with a certain playoff spot are the most favorable. These opponents will also be holding tryouts for next April or resting their regulars for October, respectively, and give the expansion players a better chance of contributing, since the competition is weakened. Consequently, be aware of players that will face a steady diet of playoff contenders in September. These squads should be focused on winning, and are more likely to throw their "A" game at competitors every night.

A word of caution: if forced to go the youngster route, be aware that this is not without some risk. Many of these players are untested at the major-league level; many will be overmatched, and end up pressing and making matters worse. Even those with great minor-league numbers can be a flop, especially in just one short month. In addition, some top draft picks have a mandatory Sept. 1 call-up in their contracts, whether they are ready or not. So there can be some help to be found in this group, but it has its share of risks as well.

Whether one is able to expand with an unrostered veteran or try your hand at identifying the rookie that can help push a team over the top, Baseball HQ is the place to start. The indicators such as batting eye and OBP, Command ratio and K/9 often tell a story that your competition might not value. Whether it's from the minors or the Friday Forecast, a quick glance and understanding of the indicators tell a much larger story than standard statistics such as batting average, wins and ERA. With a little restraint, proper analysis and knowing the numbers, the choice on how to deal with September roster expansion this year can be a wise one.

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Ron Shandler began publishing statistical reports for baseball analysts and fantasy leaguers in 1986. Since then, his enterprise has grown into one of the largest information providers in the industry, producing quality products continuously and over a longer period than any other fantasy baseball company.

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