Lord Zola's Fantasy Baseball Mailbag: Choosing spot starters, gaining in ratio categories

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on August 22, 2011 @ 09:03:08 PDT


We all know the analogy; the baseball season is a marathon. Those that are familiar with the Boston Marathon understand why the analogy can be extended by saying we have just climbed Heartbreak Hill where the contenders separate from the pretenders. If you are still in it, it is time to really focus and bring it on home. With that as a backdrop, we have a couple of strategy oriented questions, asking for some down the home stretch roster management, sorry for mixing my metaphors. If you want that last piece of advice to put you over the top, please send your question to lordzola@kffl.com, post your question on the KFFL Baseball Facebook page or via Twitter by following @KFFL_Baseball.

Hello Lord Zola. I am about to start my head to head playoffs and need some advice with pitching. I am going to face a guy who has the Midas touch when it comes to picking his starting pitchers, so I know I am going to need to find some sleepers of my own from the waiver wire, preferably of the two-start variety. Whenever I do this, I end up croaking my ERA and WHIP so what kind of tips do you have for pitching? Davis Parkman, Seattle, WA

Streaming pitching can be quite the challenge. The way to approach it is to use some logical criteria to filter and do not second guess if the result is not as hoped. It is difficult enough to predict how a pitcher will fare over the course of a season, let alone a one-week sample. All you can do is afford yourself the best chance of success and let the chips fall where they may.

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My initial filter is potential hurler needs to possess a strikeout to walk ratio greater than 2.00. I am not as concerned about the individual strikeout and walk rates. It is important to keep in mind that there is a reason that these guys are even available now, they all have warts of some sort. As a starting point, I need my pitcher to fan at least twice as many as he walks.

The next two cutoffs I use are whether the pitcher is working at home and if the park is pitcher friendly. Research demonstrates that a player's skills are about 10 percent better at home than on the road so I always seek that advantage. I consider these two factors equal. Ideally, you find a home starter in a favorable park, but if the option is a road starter in a favorable park versus a home starter in a hitter's park, I will look at some other factors.

The next criterion is recent performance, with the catch focusing on strikeouts and walks. In a small sample of a few games, hit and home run rates can be misleading, good or bad. This means focusing on the surface stats of ERA and WHIP can result in poor decisions. In fact, often the best choices are pitchers that have appeared to struggle lately, but in fact were more unlucky than bad. To find these gems, I want the pitcher to either have a recent strikeout rate better than his seasonal average or a recent walk rate below his seasonal mark. This filter is not perfect and perhaps not entirely scientific, but it historically has done well for me.

The factor I only use as a last resort tie breaker is wins potential. This is a pet peeve of mine. On one hand analysts are quick to point out how fickle wins are, but when they are asked to decide on a couple of pitchers, they inevitably talk about how one pitches for a better team. I will take the better skills, even if the run support is limited.

OK, I'll bite. Last week you claimed that it is easier to pick up points in average, ERA and WHIP. Lord Zola, you have some splaining to do. Gregory Billings, Lincoln, Nebraska

This is my annual crusade, as many still falsely believe that the accumulation of at bats and innings render it near impossible to gain or lose points in the ratio categories. This is a misnomer as it is actually easier to move in batting average, ERA and WHIP.

Before getting into the explanation, it needs to be emphasized that the single most important point is the distribution in your league's standings. This trumps any analytical explanation. Every league has unique standings where the standings places are quite bunched and others more spread out. What I am about to discuss is a more global treatment, using average standings from multiple leagues of like format.

In short, the reason it is actually easier to gain or lose in the ratio statistics is, on the average, they are more tightly compacted from top to bottom. The manner to illustrate this is to normalize average standings. If you adjust the standings to have the total stats in each category equal the same number, you will see the top to bottom spread of average, ERA and WHIP is smaller than the counting stats, significantly so. So while it is true that as at bats and innings accrue you cannot move as much, the reality is you may not have to move very much in order to gain or lose points.

There is another factor as well. You can gain points in the pitching categories on a day where you have nary a guy throw a single pitch. Your fellow owners can have a bad day at the dish or on the mound, allowing you to pass them in the standings due to their ratio worsening. This is of course not possible with counting stats, unless you owned George Brett way back when.

When Todd is not trying to figure out what pitchers to stream, you can find him hanging out at 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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