Lord Zola's Fantasy Baseball Mailbag

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on April 11, 2011 @ 10:47:04 PDT


A common mistake some make is to confuse patience with complacence. While it is true that it is best to limit your knee-jerk reactions to early season happenings, you should still actively manage your squad. Today's queries deal with some strategic means to help make roster decisions. If you have strategy questions, or want a trade or free agent pick up analyzed, please e-mail lordzola@kffl.com, post on the KFFL Baseball Facebook page or via Twitter by following @KFFL_Baseball.

Hi Todd. I play in a daily transaction league and always struggle with which hitters to start. What stats should I use to make sure I have my best hitters active? - Donald Humphrey

The early part of the season is crucial for those in daily transaction leagues. Off days are more plentiful and the available player pool is as rich as it will be as injuries have not completely depleted it yet. As such, depending on your pickup rules, every effort should be made to have as many at bats in your lineup as possible, especially on Monday and Thursday, the traditional travel days.

Perhaps it is best to begin with a statistic that is often misused and that is a hitter's past performance against the scheduled pitcher. The sample is simply too small to be meaningful, regardless of the level of success or struggle. Granted, the announcers love to focus on this as if it means something, and you may even find others offering start/sit advice based on the matchup, but the research on the subject is definitive: a player's past performance against a specific pitcher is not predictive of future performance.

San Francisco Giants SP Jonathan Sanchez
Sanchez, plus a little help from friends

So what should be used? In almost all instances, the superior player should be active, period. But there are some instances where players of equal talent are in competition for the same roster spot, or perhaps it is Monday and you need a short term filler to maximize at bats and you want to determine the best option. The two chief factors I look at are if the hitter is at home and the handedness of the opposing pitcher. Studies suggest a player performs better at home and most players display favorable splits when facing a hurler of the opposite handedness. Ideally, you look for a righty facing a lefty or vice versa, at home. If this is not sufficient to differentiate the players, you can break the tie with the more favorable home park or facing the weaker pitcher.

Some may wonder what to do with slumping players that are, on paper, better than a hot player on reserve or available in free agency. While I will not proclaim there is no such thing as a hot or cold player, it is often difficult to discern if a player is truly hot, or has just had a few grounders find holes or bloopers fall in. Similarly, a cold player could simply be stinging a few "at-em" balls into the awaiting leather of the opponent. If a hitter is perceived to be slumping, look at his strikeouts as this is the truest means of judging if he is indeed cold or just unlucky. If the hitter is not striking out, he is just hitting into some bad luck and should be deployed as normal. If the whiffs are excessive, perhaps a seat on the bench is warranted.

Before we move on, if your league allows, one way to take best advantage of the early season available talent is to plan ahead, before your fellow competitors look to help their lineups. Find the players heading to Coors Field or U.S. Cellular Field a few days before the series begin to beat the rush. Find a replacement for your marginal batter scheduled for a series at PETCO Park or AT&T Park in advance of an impending series. This allows you to put the best possible lineup on the field. The more you can jack up your numbers now, the more flexibility you will have later, not to mention be better able to withstand the inevitable injury that will strike your squad.

Lord, how do you go about setting your pitching for the week? How do you decide between a so-so guy with two starts and a decent guy with one start, stuff like that? - Reggie Wilson

This is one of the more hotly debated strategic topics and is really league dependent, revolving around what you need and what your alternatives are to use instead. The balance is the ability to pound up strikeouts and wins versus the possibility of blowing up your ERA and WHIP. Early in the season, I play it a bit more conservative as I do not feel I know enough about the marginal pitchers to make an educated decision. Hand in hand with this is my confidence with respect to identifying solid options as the season wears on.

Before I discuss some specific factors to look at, I need to discuss a particular format and that is a league that has a rather low innings pitched maximum. In these instances, the normal strikeout category should be considered to be K/9. The heading of the category on your scoring site may say strikeouts, but since almost everyone will reach the innings maximum, the leader in the category has the best K/9. This eliminates some otherwise decent pitchers from consideration. There are several pitchers that are successful because they limit walks or homers, but do not fan many hitters. They may have a respectable ERA and WHIP, but they will hurt you in the strikeout category if their K/9 is low. On the other hand, there are a few pitchers that rack up serious strikeouts but also walk a bunch of hitters, leading to a high WHIP and maybe ERA. In leagues with a low innings cap, it is usually best to deploy a bunch of solid middle relievers with a high K/9 building up an innings buffer, so you can absorb the high ratios of someone like Jonathan Sanchez or Gio Gonzalez that contributes a great K/9.

In leagues without an innings cap, these less dominant but still effective pitchers become viable options when they start twice. They may only fan four or so batters a game, but if they have a couple of outings that week, you could get eight or so strikeouts plus a chance to pick up a win or two.

To me, the most important thing to look at in a two-start pitcher is if he has a pair at home. As mentioned above, a player performs better at home. I also look to start hurlers in a neutral to pitcher's park. That is, even if a pitcher has two home starts, if it is in a hitter's haven, I prefer to look elsewhere. I do care a little about the opposition, but it is quite secondary compared to whether or not the starter is scheduled to work at home.

With regard to if a pitcher is on a roll or scuffling, similar to hitters, I focus on strikeouts. The main difference is I also take a good look at walks. A pitcher truly throwing well is missing bats and limiting walks. You can often take advantage of a lesser pitcher on a hot streak if you can spot him at home during a stretch he is showing higher skills. Similarly, while I will usually not bench a solid pitcher, even if he is struggling, for a home game, if he is on the road and has walked an excessive number of hitters in his recent starts, I may sit him.

The truth is, it is almost impossible to time when a pitcher will have a solid start so I tend to rely on what is tried and true and focus on pitchers at home in favorable parks. This at least reduces the chance of a disastrous performance.

When Todd is not looking for that two-start gem, you can find him hanging out on the forum at Mastersball.

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About Todd Zola, MastersBall.com

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.

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