You've made your All-Star assessment of your team and your league. You know your strengths and weaknesses, and you've decided you need to make up some ground in the pitching categories as the trading season heats up. How do you reach your goals in remaking your pitching staff?
The biggest challenge to making improvements is that half the season has already passed. Suppose that you've accumulated 600 innings and that you have a team ERA of 3.80. Your analysis shows that you need to reduce that to 3.60. You plan to upgrade a starting pitching slot through a trade, replacing 100 innings of an average inning-eater with 100 innings of a star. But in order to reach this goal, you need to replace a starter with a 4.34 ERA with a starter with a 2.00 ERA.
This fact is a source of hidden good news for teams who own high end starters. These aces are generally in high demand in the trade market. But their actual impact on the pennant race is usually smaller than expected. This means that you can get an inflated price for these arms, that losing them probably won't hurt you much (especially if you are doing well in ERA and ratio), and they probably won't mean a huge improvement for the contending team.
But for those trying to improve, this presents a problem. The dilemma facing any owner is that you pretty much have to choose between improving in the "average" categories (ERA, ratio) and improving in the "counting" categories (wins, saves, strikeouts). There are very few pitchers who can significantly improve a team in both kinds of categories and they should certainly be pursued, but they are invariably expensive. It is much easier to find good short relievers and ugly-win starters, and they should be the building blocks -- or at least the mortar -- of your rebuilding effort.
If you decide to look for improvements in the "average" categories, you need to focus on getting good innings.
One way to do this is to reduce the total number of innings pitched. While this is an obviously valuable strategy if you are trying to protect a lead in the average categories, it also helps if you are trying to improve, since it reduces the number of bad innings as well as your risk of disaster. It doesn't do you any good to pile on more innings at 3.80 if you're trying to get to 3.60. If you have accumulated 600 innings to date, and you have a 1000-inning minimum, you should try to reduce your team IP to about 450 (you need a little cushion). Most starters will pitch another 90 innings down the stretch, and most relievers will pitch 30 or 40 innings. Use these rules to guide you as you make your replacements.
The simplest and cheapest move is to replace a starter of lesser quality with a reliever of good quality. This is usually a low-cost move since you should be able to find good short relievers in the free agent pool.
You could also try replacing two mediocre starters with one good one.
A third option is to pursue closers. Most of a closer's value comes in a counting category, but closers also tend to help in the average categories, both because their skills are high and their innings are limited. Closers are usually generally expensive. But as we have seen in expert leagues and elsewhere, closer prices have been depressed. And the closer market is generally unstable. It's very likely that some closers are available on the trading block because of their high salaries. And the benefits are strong enough that you may be justified in acquiring a closer at cost.
It's important to note, though, that by reducing your innings you are also reducing the number of opportunities you have to improve and raise the bar for the quality of your innings. For instance, to stick with our present example of improving your ERA to 3.60, if you have a 1000-IP minimum, your ERA over those last 400 innings needs to be 3.31. If you have a 1100-IP minimum, your 500-inning ERA can be 3.36.
So a good alternate strategy in this case could be to maximize your IP. Our example team could still reach its goal by assembling a 750-IP staff with a 3.44 ERA. This choice is very heavily dependent on your league situation. It makes more sense if you're trying to improve a 4.40 ERA to a 4.20 ERA, since you would need a staff ERA of 4.04, and that's much easier to find than a 3.44 staff ERA.
The bottom line is that if you are trying to improve in average categories, you can have a very low tolerance for bad innings, or even mediocre ones. Focus on the gold.
On the other hand, what should you do if your ERA of 4.20 means you're in tenth place, or worse? Unless there are three other teams between 4.10 and 4.20, your ability to pick up points in this category is extremely limited. But you can't lose much more ground. So reconcile yourself to a basement finish in the average categories and focus on improving in the counting categories, where you could be more competitive. Deal your best starters for a closer or hitters. Replace those aces with ugly-win specialists, wild throwers who collect lots of strikeouts along with lots of walks, or vulture relievers from the free agent pool. Note that you don't have to worry about protecting the average categories, so you can ignore the ugly innings and watch the wins and saves pile up.
As always, consider the league context and what is available. I checked several expert leagues as well as my own leagues and I found that a team going from a 3.80 to a 3.60 ERA would gain 0, 1, 1, 3, 3, and 5 points; in three of those leagues a 3.60 ERA meant first place in the category and in two of those leagues it meant fifth place. So your decisions have to depend on your analysis of your league. Improving your pitching gets tougher as the season goes along, but there is still time to make up ground.
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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