Monday, March 29, 2010


Well, it's too late to do a piece on Fantasy pitchers, as we conducted our draft yesterday. Even if it wasn't too late, I looked at a couple of ways to do it, and I'm not even sure how to produce a meaningful graph on the subject - pitchers don't break down into neat, easy-to-color-code categories like position players do. If I come up with something in the near future, I'll be sure to post it.

In the meantime, I have something much more fun to report, analyze in-depth, and otherwise fiend on:


Here's how my team broke down, round by round:

ROUND 1 - I was randomly selected for the first pick! What a boon! I naturally decided to pick the best overall player in all of baseball, Albert Pujols. Sure he plays in a deep position, but there's no one else who even comes close to putting up his kind of numbers with his consistency.

ROUNDS 2 & 3 - From here on out, because we had selected the snake-draft system (where the draft order alternates every round, first to last for odd rounds, last to first for even rounds), I got to make two choices in a row. Since there were 10 teams in our draft, my next two picks were numbers 20 and 21.

With these picks, I took AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke and shorstop Troy Tulowitski. Greinke is arguably the league's best pitcher (next to Felix Hernandez), and I decided he was too good to pass up, even though the experts all say that you should usually gravitate towards NL pitchers, who get to face the opposing pitcher rather than the opposing DH. Tulo was basically MLB's second best shortstop last year, and puts up numbers comparable to an elite left fielder or third baseman at a much scarcer position.

ROUNDS 4 & 5 - Jonathan Broxton and Andre Ethier. Broxton is either the game's best closer or second best, depending on how bullish you are on Mariano Rivera remaining dominant at age 40, so he's a solid foot in the door regarding saves. Ethier, the game's second best right-fielder, should benefit from a full season of Manny Ramirez and another year of maturity.

ROUNDS 6 & 7 - Chone Figgins and Josh Johnson. I needed someone to steal bases and draw walks, and Figgins seemed like the perfect choice, given the possibility that he will spend significant time at second base this year for the M's. Johnson just got a big contract from the Marlins, so he should be pitching free of job security worries.

ROUNDS 8 & 9 - Shane Victorino and Shin-Soo Choo. And with that, my outfield is complete. How, you ask, since both Ethier and Choo played right field last year? Well, my friends, his 20 games in left field (against 124 in right) qualified Choo for the other corner spot, which means I get a right field quality producer for the price of a left fielder. Victorino's just pure scrappy talent: triples and steals abound.

ROUNDS 10 & 11 - Heath Bell and Lance Berkman. I admit it, I panicked here. Bell was a cinch, as it's pretty essential to have two dominant closers, and Papelbon, Joakim Soria, and Andrew Bailey just went in the previous round. For my next pick, I had my sights set on Kurt Suzuki, but I was really uneasy to draft someone ranked so far below slot. I didn't have a good enough awareness of the needs of other teams, and I went with a big bat to fill my DH slot (or so I thought). Had I looked closer, I would have seen that Berkman has barely done any running this spring and is a good bet to start the season on the DL. Suzuki went five picks later.

ROUNDS 12 & 13 - Jorge Posada and Clayton Kershaw. Nervous about my prospects of picking up a useful catcher, I sat biting my nails until I saw that Posada was still available. Kershaw is a good bet to break out and take on the responsibility of being the Dodgers' ace, if Joe Torre's handling of Matt Kemp is any guide.

ROUNDS 14 & 15 - Jose Lopez and Rajai Davis. Lopez was the only really productive second baseman left on the market, and ironically he might switch positions with my starting third baseman Chone Figgins. And if two guys who can steal bases (Figgins and Victorino) is good, why not add Davis and make it three?

ROUNDS 16 through 25 - From here on out I basically drafted a pitcher and a hitter each round. Pitchers: Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton who I'm banking on to eat some innings. J.A. Happ, who looks like he's developing quite nicely. Octavio Dotel as a sleeper closer; hopefully he's ready for the start of the season. And Matt Guerrier, a setup man; because we have Holds as a scoring category this year.
Batters: Ryan Ludwick, who will likely have Pujols and Matt Holliday on base quite a few times to knock in. Garrett Jones, who can fill in for my IF spot if Berkman falters. Erick Aybar, another scrappy basestealer and backup shortstop. Ian Stewart, to back up the other two infield positions. And Jack Cust who will serve as my full time DH.

I have another thing to admit: I goofed on the rules. I saw the "DH" spot, and I thought that anyone could occupy it. As it turns out, though, you need someone who actually qualifies as a DH (which doesn't leave you a lot of people to work with. Knowing this, I might have passed up Rajai Davis in favor of Julio Borbon, the projected leadoff hitter for the Rangers. He could have been by DH and then my sleeper Ludwick could have been my fourth OF. But the way it works out, I have more A's on my team, which is good, because I want them to succeed unqualifiedly.

Here's a graphical representation of my team. These are the guys I'll be rooting to succeed all season.

POS Name swp swp/g
3B Chone Figgins 2,108 13.3
CF Shane Victorino 2,077 13.3
1B Albert Pujols 3,196 20.0
SS Troy Tulowitski 2,304 15.3
RF Andre Ethier 2,223 13.9
LF Shin-Soo Choo 2,198 14.1
C Jorge Posada 1,447 13.0
DH Jack Cust 1,593 10.7
2B Jose Lopez 1,797 11.7
1B Lance Berkman* 1,826 13.4
IF Ian Stewart 1,456 9.9
SS Erick Aybar 1,481 10.8
CF Rajai Davis 1,477 11.8
RF Ryan Ludwick 1,584 11.4
1B/RF Garrett Jones 1,239 15.1
SP Zack Greinke 2,726 82.6
Josh Johnson 2,093 63.4
Clayton Kershaw 1,655 53.4
Roy Oswalt 1,289 43.0
Joe Blanton 1,454 46.9
J.A. Happ 1,557 44.5
RP Jonathan Broxton 2,152 29.5
Heath Bell 2,062 30.3
Octavio Dotel* 525 8.5
Matt Guerrier 861 10.9

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fantasy Breakdown: Position Players

In an effort to better prepare myself for my upcoming Fantasy Draft, I've analyzed the top-ten ranked players in each position (ranked by swp) and plotted them all on a graph for easy comparison. This method makes it easier to determine which positions are more valuable to draft in the early rounds, and which you can hold off on until later. First things first, here's the graph: explanation to follow:

Except for a couple of outliers, it kind of follows a nice-looking pattern, doesn't it? Regression to the mean is a powerful force.

Next, here's the legend, in descending order from average swp. Some of the colors are difficult to differentiate; I apologize - my graph-making sensibilities haven't progressed much beyond the third grade.

[1B] - RED = First Basemen (avg. swp = 2,455)
[LF] - BROWN = Left Fielders (2,194)
[2B] - BLUE = Second Basemen (2,168)
[RF] - ORANGE = Right Fielders (2,092)
[3B] - GREEN = Third Basemen (2,040)
[SS] - BLACK = Shortstops (1,998)
[CF] - PURPLE = Center Fielders (1,976)
[DH] - YELLOW = Designated Hitters (1,879)
[C] - GRAY = Catchers (1,577)

As expected, first basemen lead the pack in every rank. Led by such powerhouses as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and Mark Teixeira, first base proves again that it's the most reliable spot to find offense on the diamond. It's no coincidence that first base is also one of the least demanding defensive positions in the game, so it's easier to find a big bat without much athletic ability, teach him how to dig the occasional low throw out of the dirt, and watch him swing away.

DRAFT VERDICT: whenever in the draft you chance to draft a first baseman, chances are he'll produce for you. Also a good position with which to fill your DH slot.

The next least-demanding fielding position, left field, is next on the list. The far and away leader is Ryan Braun, a guy who converted to left after committing too many errors at his original position (third base) during a campaign in which he nevertheless won Rookie of the Year honors (2007). Two guys who made big free agent splashes this year (Jason Bay and Matt Holliday) flank someone who will likely make a big splash next year (Carl Crawford), then there's a sharp decline.

VERDICT: If you can get a good one fast, jump on it. Otherwise, don't depend on a left fielder to carry your offense.

Second base was anomalous this year, plain and simple. Among the top guys, Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, and Dustin Pedroia are the only good bets to repeat their top-flite performances. Aaron Hill was a straight-up fluke (there, I said it), Ben Zobrist and Robinson Cano will almost certainly regress toward the mean, and Brian Roberts has been dealing with a balky back. There's still a lot of potential here, just don't expect them to reach the same level as last year.

VERDICT: Considering these guys play in the middle infield, they've been pretty darn consistent, and promise to carry that trend through 2010.

One look at the line of right fielders from 2009 is enough to show us that we're no longer in the mid-to-late-90's, when guys like Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez, and Vladimir Guerrero absolutely dominated the sport. Right field has become a picture of consistency, featuring stars like Jayson Werth, Andre Ethier, and Bobby Abreu. These guys can still definitely carry your lineup, but they won't knock your socks off like the previous stalwarts of the position.

VERDICT: Right fielders are so consistent that you're bound to get a solid player no matter where you draft one.

The hot corner is not only one of the more dependable positions, it's also one of the more diverse. You have power guys like Evan Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman, and Mark Reynolds, but you also have leadoff-type hitters Chone Figgins (although he may move to second base in 2010) and Michael Young (who moved from second base, and then later shortstop). With Alex Rodriguez and Aramis Ramirez slated to play full seasons and David Wright hopefully turning back into David Wright, there should be a glut of good third basemen to choose from.

VERDICT: Go big or go home. There's a lot of talent here, but a good one can make your franchise, and a bad one will leave you wondering why you didn't pick up a good one in the early rounds.

A shortstop's main role is to be the captain of the infield, so skills with the glove have always taken the forefront over skills with the bat. That being said, the past couple of decades have always featured an elite group of shorstops: A-Rod and Nomar in the 90's, Rollins and Reyes in the 00's, and Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitski headlining the group heading into the 10's.

VERDICT: Unless you get one of the two or three superstars (Derek Jeter qualified here last year, but his age is bound to catch up to him), you're more likely than not to field an offensive placeholder at this position.

You run into the same problem with center fielders that you do with shortstops: your CF's main role is to take charge of your defense, and everything else is a bonus. Because of the speed necessary to cover a lot of ground in the outfield, you'll usually see center fielders steal a lot of bases (Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino), but occasionally you'll see one with a little pop as well (Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson).

VERDICT: Try to get a fast one, but don't sweat it if he's not a five-tool kind of guy.

If you have an eye for detail, you probably noticed that there's only five DH candidates. That's because less than half the teams in the majors feature the DH spot in their lineup, and of those teams, few employ a full-time DH. Two of the guys on this list (Jason Kubel and Jack Cust) played significant time in the outfield for their clubs, and a third (Adam Lind) could play left field in a pinch. The Angels will supposedly give Hideki Matsui a try in the outfield. David Ortiz, however, is not going anywhere.

VERDICT: Not at all important to focus on one of these guys, as you can plug any player into the DH slot. Only go after a full-time DH if he's a superstar and you have backups at all your other positions.

Last but not least, we have the catchers. Wait a minute - they're last and least. The top couple of guys (Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez) compare with the leaders of other positions, and there are a couple of serviceable guys below them (Brian McCann and Kurt Suzuki). But other than that, it's kind of an embarrassing crop of players.

VERDICT: If you have a choice between an elite catcher and a good infielder or a decent outfielder, definitely go for it. But don't pass up a chance to pick up a player who spends more time practicing the art of hitting than working with pitchers and studying the habits of opposing batters.

So there you have it: a graphical representation of the best position players in 2009. Looking at it closely, I'm not sure how much it really edifies the economics of the fantasy draft. But I had fun doing it, and I hope you had fun reading about it.

Next time (or eventually): A similar Graph, featuring Pitchers rather than Position Players.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dynamics of a Spring Training game

These games don't feel like regular nine-inning baseball affairs. They're not played the same way. They're not managed the same way. And they don't have the same purpose.

During the regular season, a baseball team tries to win as many games as they can. They have, for the most part, a set roster for which to accomplish this rather straightforward (yet, far from simple) goal. Coming into Spring Training, a team has a somewhat different set of goals; all with the final regular season goal in mind. Some of these goals include...

1) Warming up the regulars. Most teams have the majority of their starting positions filled before Spring Training even starts. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals know that Albert Pujols will be manning first base, and the Twins know that Joe Mauer will be behind the plate. The Yankees have four-fifths of their starting rotation all planned out: Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Javier Vazquez.

For these guys who are basically assured of a starting spot, Spring Training is a time to put in some regular work, get back in the groove of real-time game situations, and generally shake off some of the cobwebs from a long off-season. Pitchers are usually held to a strict schedule: one to three innings per start, just enough to work on velocity and location without getting fatigued. Batters will usually play only a handful of innings - again, just enough to work on the timing of their swings - before giving way to the replacements. Which brings me to the next goal...

2) Filling up all the roster spots. Some teams enter Spring Training with various roles yet to be filled. For instance, the Dodgers aren't exactly sure who will play second base. The Blue Jays have about three guys who could potentially close games. Nearly all 30 teams have at least some level of competition for at least one spot in the rotation. (Possible exceptions in this category: the Rays, provided David Price and Wade Davis turn out to be the real thing, the Braves, if Kenshin Kawakami's arm holds out, and the Giants, provided Madison Bumgarner meets expectations.)

For the players competing for starting jobs (or backup types competing for roster spots), Spring Training is an opportunity for them to show their stuff and prove they belong in the big leagues. And even though it's only preseason, the pressure's always on, since players generally don't get a lot of spring at-bats. These players who are on the fence have to show up to camp sharp and ready to play to the best of their abilities in a relatively small sample size.

3) Give the young kids a taste of the action. During the first part of Spring Training, you'll usually see a lot of players in major league camp who are basically guaranteed to either start the season - or play the entire season - in the minor leagues. After a couple of weeks, these guys will generally be sent down to minor league camp.

Teams let these kids play with the big boys for a couple of reasons. One is that when the regular starters are still on strict schedules or limitations, they need warm bodies to replace them during the late innings. And another reason is to give these minor leaguers some time playing against actual big league talent. Granted it's during the spring when nobody's at full strength. But players (good ones, at least) learn a little bit more about the game with each at-bat, and the more experience they get, the better players they will be in the long run. And better players help a team score more runs (and thus win more games) than worse ones...

With these different goals in mind, it's useful to look at Spring Training games not as a single contest between two teams, but as several mini-contests between two organizations. The first few innings resemble a regular season games, what with most of the regular starters on the field (or roughly half of them if it's a split-squad game) and a starting pitcher who's at least in the running for a rotation spot. As these guys get their regular work in and start coming out of the game for replacements, we can start to reevaluate the statuses of the players in the game: In the 4th or 5th innings, you could see a lineup entirely made up of projected bench players. Come the 7th or 8th innings, they'll mostly be either minor league veterans who have continually struggled to make the major leagues or greenhorns who are seeing their first action against the big boys.

If you want to learn about a particular organization's depth, and you're willing to keep every player and his role in proper context, watching a Spring Training game all the way through can be a fun and rewarding experience... but only for those of us with True Baseball Grit.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spring Training Week 1

Well, Spring Training is finally here! I happened to catch a few innings of various spring training games throughout this week, and I had some reactions. Here are some of them:

* Jason Heyward looks fantastic. I don't know if you've heard the stories about this guy, but I have: how he hits the ball so hard that Braves manager Bobby Cox says it sounds like it used to sound when Hank Aaron hit the ball. Or how he hits batting practice home runs so far - like, out of the stadium far - that the Braves had to install a safety net over the parking lot to keep cars from getting dented. He stands 6'4" and 220 lbs, and he's only 20 years old. 20 years old! Imagine how tall he'll be when he loses all his baby teeth.

In the first nationally televised game this spring (Braves vs. Mets on MLB Network) Heyward was 1-for-1 with two walks and a stolen base. The Braves' starting right field job is his to lose, and he's going to turn a lot of heads this season.

* The New York Mets are pussies. In that same game, the Mets were supposed to trot out most of their regular players to kick off spring training: third baseman David Wright, right fielder Jeff Francoeur, left fielder Jason Bay... you know, all the interesting guys. Instead, due to slightly muddy field conditions following a rainstorm the previous night, the Mets top brass got worried that one of their stars might slip in the mud, and instad pencilled in a starting lineup of all second/third stringers.

I mean, I know Mets players lost approximately a gazillion man-hours of playing time due to catastrophic injuries last year, but come on! It's the first game of Spring Training, you're up against one of your division rivals. At least give your regulars a couple of innings to start off Spring Training for everyone at home. Brian McCann and Nate McLouth and Yunel Escobar and Jason Heyward all came to play for the opposing team.

Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes weren't going to play anyway because they're recovering from surgeries, which actually made for kind of an important start for center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. At the end of Januray, Matthews was acquired from the Angels as a fourth outfielder. But seeing as starting CF Beltran won't be ready by opening day, Matthews can basically audition to hold his place for the first part of the season. So far he's made the most of his opportunities, competing with the likes of Angel Pagan and Fernando Martinez. We'll see how his job search continues.

* Roy Halladay will lead the Phillies' rotation. In a marquee matchup on Thursday, the Phillies faced off against the Yankees in a World Series rematch. The game featured an ace vs. ace matchup: big lefty power-horse (part powerhouse, part workhorse) C.C. Sabathia vs. newly acquired (from the Blue Jays, by way of the Seattle Mariners) Roy Halladay.

C.C. was a little shaky, allowing two hits and two walks in his two innings, which is to be expected after a long off-season, following a playoffs process during which he was a member of a three-man rotation. But Doc Halladay, by contrast, looked absolutely flawless: two innings, no hits, no walks, three strikeouts. His location was just spot on, even in his Spring Training debut. This guy is a special talent, and he will make the Phillies stronger.

I'm wondering how strong, though. Sure they got ace pitcher Roy Halladay, but they gave up ace pitcher Cliff Lee to get him. Pound for pound, Doc's probably a better, more valuable pitcher than Lee. But if they had somehow managed to net both of them, their starting rotation would be Halladay, Lee, Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, J.A. Happ. I don't want to say "unprecedented," but that would have been a veritable pantsload of talent there. As they stand now, three guys are competing for the Phillies' fifth starter spot: Kyle Kendrick, Antonio Bastardo, and Jamie Moyer (who does have another year on his contract). I guess GM Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't want to totally deplete the farm system by using prospects instead of Cliff Lee to trade for Halladay.

* Ben Sheets faces live batters for the first time in almost a year and a half. Oh, please let him stay healthy for the whole season. Ohplesae ohplease ohplease!

These storylines and more are just some of what makes Baseball such a compelling sport.