Using a “defense first” strategy

My penultimate trade for Rafael Furcal in my high stakes league worked out like a charm. For my opponents that is. As the league stood after that trade, I was at approximately 150 points in the AL and about 130 in the NL. I still had a 30 point lead at the time, but strongly felt my position was weak. After that trade I dropped about ten points but still held the lead.

After the failure of the Furcal trade, and David Ortiz‘ power outage (as of late July) I thought my house was built on sand. I had gotten lucky so far with a few players that couldn’t be expected to continue; Jeremy Guthrie and Brendan Harris for example. My NL offense was floundering a bit and my NL pitching was smoke and mirrors after Jake Peavy and Tom Gorzelanny (Claudio Vargas and Sergio Mitre were my next best starters). My NL team had dropped to fourth overall, while my AL team was still in first (both leagues are totalled and added together to determine the standings).

While in a very deep league these guys can be serviceable, I felt I needed to make a big move somewhere. As it turned out I was approached about my interest in A-Rod, and of course I was interested.

There are two ways you can go about handling your weaknesses. One is to try to shore them up, and this is what most players will do. Often it is the right strategy. But after Furcal flopped I could not risk making another trade for an NL hitter. Two failures would spell disaster for my chances. There simply weren’t any available NL hitters that could make a big difference and the opportunity cost of another bad trade was exorbitant.

The second alternative is to simply make your strengths unassailable. Rather than shoring up weaknesses, you make your strengths even stronger by trading from weakness. When to choose one over the other is a matter of context and judgment and great care is needed if you plan to make your weaknesses even weaker, but it may often be correct. In my experience it is rare for a co-owner to trade from weakness. Most owners automatically dismiss such trades out of hand, reasoning that they can’t make themselves weaker.

In this instance I completely mortgaged my future, trading Troy Glaus at $23, Felix Hernandez at $10 and Tom Gorzelanny at $12, all of whom were solid keepers. In return I got A-Rod and Carlos Villanueva, who has turned out to be a good keeper in a deep league at $6.

Readers of my blog know I am a huge fan of Carl von Clausewitz, who touted the power of defensive strategies. He opined that defensive strategies are often to be preferred to attacking strategies:

It is easier to hold ground than to take it. It follows that defense is easier than attack, assuming both sides have equal means. What makes protection and preservation easier? It is the fact that time which is allowed to pass accumulates to the credit of the defender. He reaps what he did not sow.

A failure to recognize the innate advantage of a defensive strategy was clearly seen in the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, near the end of the Civil War, demanded that the North be brought to battle despite that fact that the South’s lead general, Joe Johnston, was a defensive master. If the South could hold out until the elections Lincoln might be defeated, and the South could then have won by politics what it could not on the battlefield. Davis instead removed Johnston from command and gave it to the aggressive General John Hood who promptly took the North to battle and lost Atlanta to Sherman.

Back to Fantasy Baseball: the assets I gave up for A-Rod were all keepable. Felix is still a good pitcher and an excellent price for next year. Gorzelanny, about whom I wrote in my very first column here, was a hidden gem that two experts tangled over at the auction and he is also at a very good price for next year. Generally, when you have a chance to win you simply must do everything you can to win with no eye to the future at all. Trading future value to improve your chances of winning this year must be done in all cases, no exceptions.

At the time, I calculated the potential AL standings. There are a total of 176 points for the team that can sweep first in all categories. I thought there was a good chance I could get 160 or more (from my 145 points at the time) by obtaining A-Rod. In our league we have BA+OBP/2 as a category, and it counts double, so that each spot is worth two points. At the time of the trade I was in sixth in that category but well within striking distance of first. Plus, as an ancillary benefit I could convert my second place position in HR, Runs RBI and Total Bases to first place, netting a very valuable three extra points.

So, my calculations were that A-Rod could net me 10-15 points in the AL, essentially making my AL position unassailable. If buttressed by a turnaround from David Ortiz so much the better.

The trade off is having to hold on for dear life in the NL and pray that my underperforming NL team in July, which followed up with a terrible August, would turn it around in September. You simply can’t control everything. The NL teams were all relatively close in talent so I thought there was no reason to think that I would finish the worst of the four or five teams in the hunt. Trading from weakness is not a strategy for worrier.

So my thinking was that getting A-Rod even at the cost of my second best NL pitcher and two other good keepers was worth it. To be fair, Gorzelanny had been a bit lucky at the time. But the risk was that the NL ERA and WHIP categories were close, as was NL Wins. But you simply can’t ever predict everything. I took what I believed were “sure” points in the AL and would roll the dice in the NL.

As insurance, I demanded Carlos Villanueva. Not only was he pitching well but given that I had Claudio Vargas and Dave Bush, both of whom were on the rocks, I thought there was a good chance he would get some starts. This was a great bit of fortune. Not only has he gotten starts he has pitched well. At a minimum he was a great vulture win candidate at the time of the trade.

So far it has turned out well though I am still hanging on and as of this writing my lead is down to single digits. I have gained points since the days of my 30 point lead, and yet the lead has shrunk due to a tremendous rush by a guy who I also consider to be a very tough owner (and who bid me up on Gorzelanny).

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I have gained most of those AL points and now sit at 155, with 137 in the NL. In the NL I reserved all starting pitchers except for Peavy, Villanueva and Chad Billingsley (who has since surged). This allowed me to hold my ground in NL ERA and WHIP and even to gain a few precious points in these two hotly contested categories at the possible cost of wins. But it is a fool’s errand to chase wins anyway. My second place opponent, delighted at seeing Sergio Mitre get shellacked in early September, was dismayed to see that he was on my bench!

It is still very close and there are no guarantees. But all you can do is get as many points as you can. I felt that if I lost to a legit team (the colluders have all somehow fallen out of the race thankfully) with a point total 15-20 points higher than the typical winner so be it. Right now I am still in first, having been there since April, and am simply holding on. As Clausewitz pointed out, with every day that passes I gain and my opponent loses.

Of course, if you are not in first you may think that defensive strategies may not be correct. But you may still find that they often are at least in terms of hitting the money. You may not be able to win purely on defense if you are not in first, but you certainly can cash. And if the prize is a four figure payout it may be well worth it. Sometimes you need to honestly assess whether you can win and it may be better to take what is there and do the best you can. Better to be Joe Johnston than John Hood and Jefferson Davis.

In determining whether to go on the offensive or not depends upon your points gained calculations, risk factors and projections for the remainder of the year by the players involved and some hard thinking about the various possibilities presented. Few fantasy GMs I have met think about the fact that they may do better by rolling the dice on their weaknesses and should trade not from their strengths but to their strengths. Yet if the context is right it may be clearly correct to do so.

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