Early-season surprises

by BaseballHQ.com on April 9, 2009 @ 00:00:00 PDT


Managers in small fantasy or Rotisserie leagues face challenges somewhat different that those in more standard leagues. Small leagues are typically characterized by a better level of talent among the undrafted players and those otherwise available for mid-season pickups. This leaves the small league manager sorting through a talent pool that may largely be already claimed in a more standard league (and therefore not worthy of general public mention). A savvy small-league manager can make substantial changes to his team during this early season period, as lineup and situational questions are starting to be answered, and the league is littered with a variety of players whose early performance has been cause for surprise.

LIMA Concepts in Small Leagues

Baseball HQ has been an advocate of the LIMA plan, which supports acquiring several high-skills relief pitchers who may not necessarily have clearly valuable situational opportunities. This strategy, spurred by the public successes of Ron Shandler and others, has become increasingly common in standard leagues - ones in which the entire supply of "quality" starting pitchers and established closers or closer-in-waiting are sure to be claimed. However even Shandler has advised caution in following the LIMA plan in smaller leagues, as the opportunity costs of acquiring middle relievers is higher - there are simply more intriguing starters or potential closers being forsaken in smaller leagues. For that reason, the translation of LIMA pitching staffs into smaller leagues is not seamless.

Some obvious high-skills pitchers were doubtless drafted in leagues of nearly any size. However, the essence of the LIMA plan is on its first two initials: "low investment." Paying $5-10 for a player may yield $5-10 in "value" to the team, but may not yield as much value as $1 spent for a player who slots into a valuable role as the season progresses.

In small leagues, a guiding principle to remember is the value of a high-skills pitcher. The point in time of his acquisition may be variable, as middle relievers tend to be overlooked in the drafts or auctions of these "shallow" leagues, but their value remains significant. As the season unfolds, keep an eye on the base statistics (Cmd, K/9 IP, HR/9IP) for middle relievers who may be emerging as reliable players and who have some history of solid performance. While the temptation will exist to take risks with available starters or closers-of-the-week, a contending team can likely help itself more with reliable, high-skills relievers who get consistent innings in opportune times, and can occasionally vulture a few wins or saves. If the trend continues of even trustworthy starting pitchers getting sent packing after short-inning blowups, then these cautionary words are even more true.

Trusting Starting Pitchers

If your team's circumstances dictate that you make an investment in starting pitchers, then use the proper player evaluation tools. In small leagues, it is likely that there will always be a myriad of starters available for acquisition. Many will have unproven or inconsistent track records.

Baseball HQ regularly advises that evaluation of pitchers start with one simple, but counterintuitive rule: ignore ERA. Earned Run Average is a product of a variety of factors, only a part of which are within the pitcher's control. In assessing starting pitchers for possible pickup, an excellent tool is provided on the Baseball HQ site. The "Pitcher Logs," measuring "pure quality starts" are a superb method of analyzing starting pitching with an eye on the fundamental factors that predict success. You will note that these logs do not reveal the "category" numbers that rotisserie players have come to rely on - they do not even indicate whether the pitcher earned a win for each effort. But the system used there, measuring more fundamental results of the effort, is as valuable an analysis tool that is available.

Offensive Players and Defining Roles

Another fundamental difference in small leagues is the fact that the league draft or auction rarely reaches into the levels of offensive players who are not thoroughly assured of sizable playing time. In standard "deep" leagues, fantasy managers must speculate on players who don't "own" a day-to-day job, platoon players and part-time prospects. With a ratio of fantasy teams to real ballclubs substantially below 1:1, there is rarely a need for fantasy managers to initially acquire players who will not log a full season's at-bats, barring injury or collapse.

This leads to another opportunity as teams begin to settle their lineups and batting orders through the season's first month or two. Players are called up, injury adjustments are becoming visible, and the nature of most teams is becoming clearer. Players who were on draft day shrouded in mystery can now be better pigeonholed into their likely role. The savvy small league manager will recognize the opportunity offered by the improved clarity in league rosters as they "settle."

Again, the best advice is to follow Baseball HQ's guidance and evaluate players based on the fundamental statistics rather than the nominal performance numbers. Watch the player's batting eye for the best expression of his current ability to "see" the ball, and as an indicator on the player's ability to either maintain a hot start or elevate his game beyond early returns. When the team has already made the early commitment of playing time to one player over another, the amount of "value" assigned to each of those players adjust correspondingly. When the playing time situation remains unresolved, use an analysis of the underlying performance to find where the smart money says the battle will lead.

In small leagues, even more so than in traditional leagues, there are abundant opportunities to improve a team during the early parts of the season. Many valuable relief pitchers will likely be overlooked and available. Starting pitching ought not be a wasteland, and a measured investment there can still yield benefits. And offensive playing time conflicts are yielding more informed judgment about the value locked within position battles. In each case, a fundamental knowledge of the value of each player and the base skills that predict success will help the savvy manager get his due advantage.

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About BaseballHQ.com

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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