Keeper leagues: When it's time to fish or cut bait

by on July 8, 2010 @ 11:30:01 PDT


At some point in the season, most GM's face the decision of whether to pursue the pennant or bow out for the year. This issue has less gravity for GM's in non-keeper leagues, because the only alternative to fighting is hibernating. But GM's in keeper leagues have a real choice. For second-tier teams in both leagues, this essay will examine ways of settling your course.

Run full-league projections. This is the single most important step that you can take. List the rosters, fill in both their year-to-date stats and their projected balance-of-year numbers, and compile the predicted standings. Yes, this exercise takes two hours or so, but the resulting perspective is invaluable. There is no wishfulness in the numbers. They may be off somewhat -- no projections should be taken as gospel, and deviations from performance are inevitable, particularly as October nears -- but over a full roster, biases should mostly offset.

From the placement of the top team in the predicted standings, and anticipating constructive moves by its GM, you can estimate how many points it will take to win. From the placement of your team -- the categories in which you can gain ground, the areas in which you can deal from strength or weakness -- you can estimate how many points you can amass. (You don't have to vie in all categories. In a tight race, where 70 points could take it all, you may be able to ditch one or two stats and still have a shot.) Now, take 90% of your total to account for bad luck and foiled designs. If your revised total is larger than the leader's, you're still in the race.

Run an upside/downside table. Unlike projections, this table doesn't isolate player stats. Instead, a simple table compares year-to-date and balance-of-year values for hitters and pitchers. This table would give the degree of upside or downside in your staff. These dollar earning estimations aren't perfect, because you probably have not owned all these guys for the full season to date. Nevertheless, the numbers you get give an idea of whether to expect better or worse performance from this crew than you've seen so far. Downsides beyond 15% suggest rough waters ahead, whereas a 15% upside indicates ready improvement without a need for trades.

Knock out a wall. Have you run full-league projections? Good. Now, delete your best hitter. What shape are you in now? What about your next-best hitter? What about your best hurler? If the loss of one player knocks you down five or more points in the standings, your roster may be too sensitive to an injury or out-of-league trade to survive the next three months.

Grade the bait. In a keeper league, the quality of one's keepers is as vital as the strength of one's stats, because keepers can essentially be "converted" to stats. Assign your keepers an "A," "B," or "C," depending on the player's potential, the gap between his current salary and likely future value, and the number of years left on his contract. With half a season to go, an "A" keeper may bring 4-5 points in the standings; a "B" keeper, 2-3 points; and a "C" keeper, 1-2 points. (As a rule of thumb, 10 HR = 10 SB = 33 RBI = 4 W = 6 SV = 1 point.) Do this exercise for the top three teams, too. How do you stack up? Do you have enough of an edge in keepers to make up for a deficit in stats? (This grading assumes 7-15 keepers. If your league allows fewer keepers, then the market for keepers shrinks, so ignore "C"-level guys.)

Grade the fish. Of course, bait won't catch fish in an empty pond. Identify the attractive non-keepers on the block in your league. Are there non-keepers in the areas that you'll need, of the values that match your keepers? (On average, a player adds one point to the standings for every $5 of projected value.) Your best chances are in a league where there are neither too few keepers, because one or two deals by your enemies could spell the end of trading, nor too many keepers, because you want your deals to deplete the talent pool for your foes.

Eye your diversification. Diversification refers to players whose fortunes are tied. Examples of linked guys include two starters on one MLB team, a starter and his closer, and a cleanup man and his leadoff man. In each case, the values of both players ride in part on the fortunes of each other or on those of other players on the same MLB team. A diversified roster -- one with few tied players -- reduces your risk and so limits your downside (but also your upside).

Now, your appetite for diversification depends on your outlook for the season. The further out of first place, the more risk your roster should possess. A team that is currently leading but is poorly diversified may be setting itself up for a tumble. On the other hand, a second-tier team with distributed talent won't be able to take advantage of lucky bursts of good performance among linked players. See if the make-up of your team matches your place in the standings.

Expect a fight. The biggest error that a GM can make in weighing his chances is viewing his foes as static. They aren't. It does no good to trade all your prospects to reach the leader, if he can then trade all his prospects to surge back ahead. If you're well behind the leader in both predicted standings and top-level keepers, discretion may be the better part of valor.

Let's say that your team passes muster. What to do now? It's time to drive home the title.

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