The fantasy alphabet, part one: A-D

A is for…“Ace in the Hole” starting pitcher strategy

In a 4×4, NL-only league with nine starters drafted for roughly $100 bucks out of $260, Clayton Kershaw was worth $55 dollars. Roy Halladay lagged behind, accruing $45 dollars worth of value, and Cliff Lee followed at $43. These were three of the five most valuable NL-only players, and that doesn’t even factor in potential strikeout value. An “Ace in the Hole” strategy involves drafting two aces and an array of mid-level to low-level starters, whose value comes in the form of wins while your aces serve as 200-inning-per-year ratio rocks.

There’s a certain amount of risk to this approach, but that exists everywhere in fantasy baseball. A combination of Josh Johnson (nine games started in 2011) and Zack Greinke (unimpressive standard stats, such as a 3.93 ERA, overshadowing impressive peripherals, such as a 2.56 xFIP) would represent a worst-case scenario of sorts, but the combined value of Halladay and Kershaw, for example ($100 on Baseball Monster) would roughly equal having five Matt Cains on your staff ($22).

While Mike Adams and other relief pitchers with superb stats would hold value on a staff populated by mid-level starters with weak ratio stats (ERA, WHIP), they wouldn’t find so much value here. Since Halladay and Kershaw (again playing the best-case scenario) would’ve provided roughly 470 innings, you could feel comfortable drafting a Kyle Lohse, Randy Wolf, Dillon Gee, or Aaron Harang. You play these guys for wins, and hope to get decent ratios, knowing you have a safety valve in the form of your aces.

Undervalued players to target:

Madison Bumgarner:
I know. Madison Bumgarner is 23, pitches for one of the worst offensive teams in baseball, and is possibly the third-best pitcher on his own staff. But the Mad Bum has a 3.10/3.06/3.35 ERA/FIP/xFIP triple slash through 325.2 career major league innings. His BABIP was in line, if not a tick high last year, at .322, and his left-on-base percentage (LOB%) was perfectly average at 72.4 percent. His FIP was fourth-best in the majors, behind Halladay, Kershaw, and Lee. See what I’m saying?

Zack Greinke
Greinke was a major disappointment in the fantasy world after missing a month with a back injury suffered during a pickup basketball game, and he put up a below-average ERA and average WHIP. His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) was a career best at 10.54, though, and he won 16 games in 28 starts on the offensive juggernaut that was the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers. Give him five more starts, and you may have looked at 18 wins and an ERA around 3.60 (trending downward, lest you forget). He had a 2.98 FIP and a 2.56 xFIP, and his BABIP was a bit high. He will be a superb second ace.

B is for…BABIP

Already used in this article, BABIP is quite simply the number of balls put in play that end in a hit divided by the total number of balls put in play. Home runs are excluded from BABIP, as are strikeouts or walks, but all other outcomes—from pop outs to bunt hits to line drive doubles—factor into one’s BABIP.

No longer so revolutionary, the concept is that the ball not making an out is much in the hands of luck. Of course, a line drive has a much higher probability of falling for a hit than a fly ball, but BABIP stabilizes to a player’s mean, and this can give you a competitive advantage in drafting batting average.

The top three BABIPs in 2010 were Austin Jackson (a ridiculous .396), Josh Hamilton (also ridiculous at .390), and Carlos Gonzalez (still ridiculous at .384). The league average is said to be around .300, but some players naturally have higher ones, whether because of their speed or batted-ball types.

Jackson finished with a .340 BABIP in 2011, CarGo finished with a .326 BABIP, and Hamilton fell all the way to .317. None of the players with a top-ten BABIP in 2010 found his name at the top of the leaderboard in 2011. Joey Votto was closest, finishing 13th in 2011 with a .349 BABIP after finishing fourth with a .361 mark in 2010.

So BABIP fluctuates wildly at times, and those with the highest batting average on balls in play aren’t likely to keep it up.

(Stats courtesy of FanGraphs)

Adrian Gonzalez (.380), Matt Kemp (.380), and Emilio Bonifacio (.372) led the league this year; expect regression, and expect it to be major.

C is for…cheap speed

I’m a sucker for cheap speed. In my keeper league, I like to acquire guys who cost very little and will steal a ton of bases while picking from a much larger pool of power hitters while inflating the price on the Michael Bourn and Rajai Davis types for my league mates. While it sounds hard to do, and may be in some cases, it’s a strategy worth pursuing.

If I keep four or five thirty-plus steal guys and have a few steals, on average, from the rest of my nine or 10 offensive players, not only will I win that category in most years, but I’ll deplete the pool of speedsters. Late in the draft, generally, a GM who panics, realizing he has very little in the way of stolen base options in the pool and fewer still on his team, will pay way more than he should for an elite speed man like Bourn, who is generally valuable but overpriced in my drafts for this reason exactly.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Here are some under-the-radar stolen base options for 2012:

Angel Pagan: Pagan broke out as a 29 year old in 2010 after crawling through the Cubs’ system and being cast off to the Mets as a utility roster filler. But injuries, coupled with an excellent second half in 2009, led Pagan to full at-bats in 2010, and he cashed in to the tune of a .290 batting average, 37 steals, and most impressively, 4.7 WAR (though I am unaware of a fantasy league that uses WAR as a stat).

In 2011, Pagan was drafted in the late 13th round in a standard ESPN mixed league and struggled with injury problems and batting average concerns in the first half. Pagan still put up elite speed numbers (32 steals in 532 PA) and brought his average back to respectability.

Lost amid the disappointment was how unlucky he was, and how he raised his walk rate from 7.0 percent to 8.1 percent and cut his strikeout percentage by nearly 4.5 percent. His BABIP was low at .285 (career .314 BABIP) considering how speedy he is, and more luck, coupled with a clean bill of health on opening day, will allow Pagan to improve on his 2010 numbers while costing less than he did in 2011.

Dee Gordon: Dee Gordon is fast. He bunts a lot, beats out a ton of infield hits, and generally wreaks havoc on the basepaths. My gut tells me Jamey Carroll is traded rather than kept as a 38-year-old utility infielder, and Rafael Furcal already was. Gordon was the Dodgers’ top prospect in 2011, and he stole 24 bases in 233 plate appearances, which, when extrapolated to 600 PA, would equal 61.8 SB. So, yeah, he defines cheap speed…that is, if he does turn out to be cheap.

Alejandro de Aza: De Aza took the South Side of the Windy City by storm with a .329 batting average, 151 wRC+, and 2.8 WAR audition in the waning months of the 2011 season, when he was given 171 plate appearances. He racked up a dozen steals in such playing time, and he stole 22 bases earlier in the year in Triple-A, where he was given an additional 435 PA.

De Aza could put up a quiet 10-HR, 30-SB season with his respectable power and elite speed, as his 7.8 Speed Rating was among the top 15 of all major leaguers with 150 or more plate appearances.

Jordan Schafer: Schafer was the centerpiece of the Michael Bourn deal, believe it or not, and has acquired the tag of “center fielder of the future” for the anemic Astros. Set to lose another 100 games next year barring an unlikely free agent splash, the ‘Stros will give Schafer plenty of playing time, and he did one thing well consistently last year with his 338 PA: He stole bases.

Always a threat to run with his 7.8 Speed Rating and center fielder legs, Schafer could reach 40 steals playing every day. He won’t do much to help your team by way of any of the other four major categories, but take advantage of this opportunity, even if he isn’t so fun to watch.

D is for…dwindling value

Alex Rodriguez. David Wright. Kevin Youkilis. What do these men all have in common? Well, they play professional baseball for a living, and at a corner infield position. They were all fantasy disappointments, and they were all top 30 picks on average in 2011, according to ESPN live draft results.

At some point in life, people get old, and they have to quit doing what they love for a living because they lose passion or physically cannot compete anymore. These three players have not reached such a point yet, but they are undeniably on the downturn in their careers and are taken as staples in a Roto team when they should be left untouched at such a high spot in drafts.

A-Rod is 36 years old, David Wright will be 29 next year, and Youk will be 33 on Opening Day 2012. All of these players have peaked, and all of them will fall in drafts next year…as well they should.

Wright may be the most highly disputed name on the list. The man’s not even thirty, you say, and is still a well above-average baseball player on the offensive side (his injury-shortened 2011 still had him at 118 wRC+, which indexes players adjusted for league and park, with 100 being average and every single point above 100 equaling one percent more production than average).

But trending downwards from his incredibly consistent cluster of 2005-2008 are, on average, his home runs, runs scored, RBI, batting average, BABIP, wRC+, UZR and WAR. Trending upwards are his strikeouts. He’s being drafted as the guy who always flirted with 30-30 (averaged 29 HR and 21.5 SB from 2005-2008, went 30-30 once) and always hit .300 (.311 BA from those four seasons) while serving as the centerpiece of the Mets’ glowing future (6.85 WAR in those four seasons on average, including 8.9 in 2007).

His third base defense has become steadily terrible (-10 UZR or worse three years in a row), and his offense in general has diminished. So tell me again why he’s worth a second-, third-, or even fourth-round pick when his floor is going lower and lower?

A-Rod, too, is being drafted like the multi-category stud that he used to be, when in reality, he’s stopped stealing bases and stopped finishing seasons. In a weak third base crop, Rodriguez finished 10th at his position per ESPN Player Rater weights, while he was drafted 19th overall, on average. He’ll probably go in the third or fourth round next year and doesn’t deserve to.

The third baseman drafted 10th last year was Pablo Sandoval coming off of a bad year, and he went 109th. I’d rather have Aramis Ramirez around 75th overall or Sandoval around the fourth round than reach on A-Rod.

Youkilis will probably be eligible at both first and third next year, which will help him remain reached-for, but in reality, the Greek God of Walks is brittle and dwindling. He’s never played 150 games, and over the last three years, only tallied 120 twice (136, 120, 102 games played), while seeing his batting average slip from the .305-.312 range in 2008-2010 all the way down to .258 last year. Youk is striking out more, hitting with less authority (.833 OPS last year was 50 points below his career mark), and has likely already peaked.

So I ask, why reach on these fellas?

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great article.  i look forward to the rest of the series and how you’re going to use some tough letters… like Y

(yonder alonso?)
(yackity sax?)

Ben Pritchett
Ben Pritchett

Way to bring it, Nick. You’ve got me hooked to see what’s next…