Nuance or Rigid Process

Humans are kind of a mess. One of our many failings as a species is a tendency to oversimplify complex issues. I think of it as the “good versus evil conundrum.” I’m sure academia has a better name for it. Basically, we prefer wholesome heroes and fell villains rather than the equivocating mess we typically find in reality.

Good guys sometimes do bad things. The venerable Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War to deal with dissidents. Most of the so-called evil folk in history were trying to make a better world for themselves. They were the good guys in their story. Our tendency to ignore the gray area between good and evil – i.e. the nuance – can be found in baseball (and fantasy baseball) too.

Sabermetrics rose to prevalence because the scouting science of the early- and mid-1900’s grew stale and warped. I think just about everybody’s favorite passage in Moneyball is about The Face, wherein actual major league scouts touted players due to some sort of facial je ne sais quoi. That guy looks like a ballplayer. From what I’ve heard, players with The Face were almost uniformly white. Scouts were certainly doing many things right, but the role was stagnating rather than developing. The Face was merely the most egregious example.

Enter the saberists. In addition to developing new, more accurate statistical tools to evaluate player performance, the intellectual elite of baseball grew more and more concerned about implementing strong processes.

For example, research has shown again and again that major league managers are incapable of identifying when to remove a starting pitcher. A guy can cruise for seven innings and spontaneously combust. We’ve discovered that times through the order tends to be a reliable indicator for when to remove a pitcher. The Mets have even announced plans to limit their starters to between two or three times through the order. They’re the first team to state an intention to use a rigid process for monitoring pitcher removals.

Scientifically, times through the order may be our best tool with which to build a process. However, anybody who has spent time around the game can tell you that it falls woefully short of explaining everything. If followed blindly, managers will lose games by turning to their bullpens too early and too often. The reason why it’s an attractive option is because these managers should lose fewer games than those who use more traditional observational techniques – assuming that can find enough relievers to absorb all those bullpen innings.

In short, a state of the art scientific process will outperform previous methods for player management. That doesn’t mean there will never be mistakes. Hitters beat shifts on occasion, but it doesn’t mean the shift was the wrong play. The idea behind a shift is to allow fewer impactful hits. If, over 100 plate appearances, a shift results in a specific batter losing five hits to the pull side and gaining two to the opposite field, it’s a winning process.

Applying the Above Nonsense to Your Fantasy Experience

I’d hazard that most fantasy baseball owners like to manage with their gut. I know I have more fun trusting my own wherewithal over a dull process. However, if MLB managers can’t accurately gut-manage their players, how can we hope to do so? Should we adopt rigid processes rather than trying to understand the nuance of reality?

Rigidity would have landed you great values on players like Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. The next Charlie Blackmon (perhaps Chris Taylor) can only be found via nuance. At the time, Blackmon’s breakout was only mildly supported by his peripherals. But he kept getting better and better to make up for looming regression.

Taylor is similarly uninspiring when you peek under the hood. You have to watch him play and believe your eyeballs if you want to bet on a repeat or improvement in 2018. It might happen, but no scientific process will tell you to pay top dollar for Taylor.

Ultimately, fantasy baseball is about having fun and maybe making a couple dollars. Nobody is a professional fantasy baseball player (excluding DFS). Even I play as a hobby – my actual job is to write about it.

Since it’s not a business, my best advice is to maximize your utility. For some, that only means winning. There’s no such thing as having a good time if the end result isn’t victory. In that case, hone your processes. If, instead, it’s all about the journey, try marrying nuance with flexible processes.

I mentioned Taylor earlier. On June 12, I traded Mike Leake and Nick Markakis for Taylor and Jesus Sanchez in a dynasty league. We had a very interesting conversation at the time. The foundation of the deal was Leake for Sanchez. I wanted slightly more for Leake, the other owner felt it was a fair one-for-one swap. So we did some due diligence on throw-ins. Neither of us even considered Taylor to be a potential keeper in a 20 team, 45 man roster, keep 28 format. We agreed he was a 100 wRC+ backup utility guy. I asked both players for Leake and acquiesced when Markakis was later added to the swap.

At the time, Taylor was batting .294/.383/.497 with a .384 BABIP, 25 percent HR/FB ratio, and a 26.9 percent strikeout rate. Of course he would regress. It made perfect sense for his owner to get something for a fringy asset. He applied a sound sell-high process.

Meanwhile, I was betting on two very small things. His batted ball profile was radically altered. Knowing that Justin Turner likes to proselytize, I had some small hope that certain elements of his breakout could be sustainable.

Over the rest of the season, Taylor continued to post a high BABIP while performing at or around his career norms in most other categories. His strikeout rate dropped only a couple points while his HR/FB ratio fell to 13.3 percent. Even his hand and fly ball contact weren’t particularly impressive. In fact, at the end of the day, the only meaningful change in his profile was a jump in pulled contact. That may be what drove the high BABIP. While that’s probably a positive sign, a process-oriented approach once again points to selling high on Taylor. Then again, there’s a small chance he’ll continue to improve.

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