Killing two birds with one stone

Last week’s Cy Young Award apparently sparked some controversy. A number of fans seemed to think that Chris Carpenter was robbed. The archetypal argument even played out on THT, in the comment section of a post on Shyster Ball, which then prompted another post dedicated to the controversy.

Many Carpenter supporters didn’t seem to want to acknowledge the value of the 30 additional innings pitched by Tim Lincecum. Talking heads in the baseball community often like to reference an alleged dichotomy between fantasy baseball and the real thing. But, I think this is actually a great example of the fantasy baseball experience being instructive regarding a debate about the real thing.

I can understand, or at least accept, that when somebody looks at Carpenter’s stats in comparison to Lincecum, they don’t seamlessly interpret that innings gap in terms of value over replacement player. But, if you play fantasy baseball, you know this is exactly what such a disparity means.

When one of your stud players misses time, you must replace that player. You want to make the most of your roster spots and get as much production in as you can. And, the deeper the league, the more questionable the quality of your potential replacements. We all know that when it comes to problems like this, prevention trumps cure, so ideally you would like to draft players who you will not need to replace. Surely, there is a fair share of luck involved in your players avoiding the DL, but you can certainly skew the odds. As Branch Rickey famously said, “luck is the residue of design.”

Traditionally, my pieces preach conservatism and I commonly tout “boring veterans” as often representing solid value picks. But, there is one concomitant benefit to privileging upside that is rarely talked about, and it has to do with durability. By selecting players entering what should be the prime of their careers, based upon career production arcs, you are also selecting players who are generally less injury prone. Once leagues start to get deeper, say 14 teams and up, replacement value really starts to take a hit, and the payoff of successful upside picks become that much more influential on the standings. So, by targeting players between the ages of 24 and 30, you can help to kill two birds with one stone.

Of course, the upside and replacement dynamics can work against you just as hard when they fail. Quality replacements for busted picks are harder to find, therefore taking too much risk will likely lead to teams with too many holes. But, it’s worth making a somewhat fine semantic distinction here. Drafting “upside” is not the same thing as drafting “potential.” When looking for upside, you are looking at guys with reasonably similar projections and choosing the guy who may have slightly less impressive numbers, but a far greater chance to exceed them. Say, James Loney vs. Todd Helton. Gambling highly on Matt Wieters, on the other hand, was —and still is— a “potential” pick. When you are looking for upside, you are playing the trends. When you are looking for potential, you are playing the lottery.

Over on Fantasy 411, Cory Schwartz posted a retrospective on his NFBC (15-team, mixed-league) team, which won his league and finished fifth overall out of 390 teams. Reading Cory’s thoughts, one thing struck me rather profoundly. Two of his top three picks busted, and pretty solidly at that, but he was still able to triumph. One of the main reasons why he was able to do so was that very few of his players spent time on the DL. In a 15-team league, he didn’t have to give too many at-bats to replacement-level players. Not a coincidence, 11 of his 14 starting bats were between 24 and 29 years old.

At this point, I think it’s also worth discussing how ramifications of busts and replacement value play out in shallow versus deep leagues. Cory’s first pick in this league was B.J. Upton at 13th overall, clearly a bust. Among the players over whom he chose Upton were Carlos Beltran and Josh Hamilton, both of whom missed about half the season with injuries (coming into the season, Beltran was 32 and Hamilton was 28, by the way). Cory remarks, and correctly so, that although Upton busted, neither Hamilton’s nor Beltran’s seasons justified them as better picks. This is true because of the size of the league.

In a shallow, 10- or 12-team league, it’s arguable that you were better off with an injured Beltran or Hamilton than an under-producing Upton. This is because of replacement value. In a 10-team league, you could have likely found a 20-homer, 80-RBI outfielder on the wire, and cobbled together a half season’s worth of him with half a season of Beltran and still wind up with pretty nice production from that spot, more production than Upton straight up. But, in a deeper league, where replacements are of far inferior quality, you’re likely better off getting the full, but disappointing season out of Upton.

So, what are the takeaways here? First, Tim Lincecum deserved the National League Cy Young Award; Major League Baseball is not a 10-team mixed league and replacement-level starting pitching is pretty brutal. Second, breakout potential and durability often go hand-in-hand. The deeper your league, the more important it is to strategically target both. Third, a league’s depth partially determines the ramifications of busts and injuries.


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Cory Schwartz
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Cory Schwartz
Thanks for the shout-out! A couple of thoughts… The youthful-driven strategy was based more on the “upside” of that age, rather than the health factor, although that clearly did turn out to be an unexpected benefit. Remember though that if a young player fails to realize his upside, he might not have the job security to play through it, forcing you into the replacement pool anyway. Even if forced to pursue replacements—due to health OR performance issues—there are values to be found even in a deep 15-team format like NFBC, and it’s those guys (Branyan, Coghlan, Carlos Gonzalez, etc.) who… Read more »
Paul Singman
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Paul Singman

Nice article Derek, you always have a way with words. Coincidentally my article for tomorrow will deal with a similar topic as yours does, regarding how depth affects replacement level except with a focus on bench depth.

Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Good to see you drop by, Cory. And, once again congrats on your NFBC finish. Point taken about playing time; I think that’s also part of the nuance of drafting upside vs. potential. The best “upside” guys are established major leaguers with room to grow and minimal threats behind them. I have a habit of being one year too early on many of these guys, and then not willing to pay the price once the same players take off. Last year, in my main league I boasted a roster that included Tulo, Zimmerman, and Felix Hernandez. Point also taken about… Read more »
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