Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fantasy Life

My buddy Kenneth (as crazy about the Cardinals as I am about the Twins) decided to start up a fantasy league for this season. He's set up an 8-team league on Yahoo with weekly head-to-head scoring. He didn't want to use the default fantasy categories, because he's enlightened enough to see the distortions inherent in some of those stats (like Wins and BA). He also wanted to rate players on their defense, in the hopes of creating value for some of the less impressive offensive players. But, since some of the members of the league are less stat-obsessed than others, he tried to keep things pretty basic. The categories he chose for our league are:

Position players: OBP, SLG%, HR, RBI, E

Pitchers: IP, ERA, WHIP, Ks, Saves

I've spent far too much time already contemplating which players I could draft to kick ass according to that scoring system. It's already been a lot of fun, and the draft isn't until next Sunday. The default draft rankings don't really apply, because they're based on the usual categories. I feel a little like Billy Beane in Moneyball: I'm looking for players with qualities that are undervalued by the rest of the guys in the league. I've got a good draft strategy put together - I'll discuss it next week (don't want to tip off the competition!).

While ranking the players myself, I realized that Kenneth probably didn't quite pick the categories as well as he'd hoped. For example, most of the guys who hit a lot of homers have a high slugging percentage and a lot of RBIs, and they get walked a lot. So he's created a system which favors middle-of-the-order boppers far more than speedy defenders. There are a huge number of stat categories that Yahoo will compile (though not the newer SABR things like Zone Rating). The process got me thinking about which 5 stats would favor the widest variety of baseball talents. We always hear about the 5 tools of baseball: hitting, power, speed, glove-work, and throwing arm. What would be the best way to set up a fantasy league around those tools? What 5 stats would include the widest variety of excellent pitchers?

For the first two, I think Kenneth hit the mark.

OBP is the best available measure of hitting ability. It favors players who not only hit for a high average (basically a measure of a batter's knack for hitting the ball hard enough for the fielders not to have time to make an out), but who draw a lot of walks (a measure of pitch recognition, plate discipline and, often, the ability to foul off tough pitches). While sluggers like David Ortiz led the majors in OBP last season, little guys like Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits were in the top 25, so it's a stat in which players of all sizes can excel.

Slugging percentage is the best available measure of power. Home runs could do this as well, but guys who hit a lot of home runs will also have high SLG%. Slugging values not just HRs, but also extra-base hits and BA at the same time. So a .264 hitter who smacks 40 HRs (Adam Dunn) can be out-slugged by a .322 hitter with only about half as many HRs (Chase Utley). Speedsters who can leg out triples can also score well in this category (Curtis Granderson finished just behind Dunn). SLG% works for more than just the big guys.

There doesn't seem to be an ideal category for speed - nobody's come up with a single stat that measures the ability to steal bases, cover ground in the field, score from first on a double, and beat out infield hits. Of the situations I just listed, infield hits would probably be the most telling over the course of a season, but since Yahoo doesn't compile those, I have to go with steals. SB% isn't as good a choice, because some players amass a good percentage by being sneaky, not fast. I think we can assume that, over the course of a season, fast players are going to attempt a lot of steals, and so will accumulate a lot of SBs. If their percentage is low, they just won't accumulate as many as they might have - buyer beware.

For glovework, I think fielding percentage would work better than errors. As I suggested earlier, I think Zone Rating would be best, but we're making due with what we've got. While fielding percentage is ignorant of a player's range (and dependent upon the good judgment of official scorers), it does, over the course of a season, generally reflect how likely a player is to field the ball cleanly and make a good throw. The players whose exceptional range puts them in position to suffer more errors will hopefully make up that value with their many stolen bases.

And for measuring arms, I choose Assists. This will do a good job of rewarding outfielders with strong, accurate arms, and catchers who throw out base stealers and field their position well. It may also make up for some of the troubles with fielding percentage by rewarding infielders who can get to more balls in the hole: more opportunities for errors, but also more assists.

For pitchers, I'd like to isolate their ability from factors like defense and ballpark as much as Yahoo's available stats will allow, while making middle-relievers as desirable as starters and closers. So my 5 scoring stats for pitchers would be:

IP: Indicates that a pitcher is durable and has the confidence of the manager.
Ks: A measure of the pitcher's stuff
BBs: A measure of the pitcher's control
HRs: Gotta keep it in the yard or you're in trouble!
ERA: The old standby. It's influenced by home park and quality of defense (and official scorer). But, over the course of a season, it's the best available stat for indicating how likely a pitcher is to keep their team in the game. Every pitcher is going to find himself in a jam; the good ones can get themselves out with little or no damage (one of the many reasons why Santana is making $20+ million/year and Kyle Lohse is currently unemployed).

By keeping saves out of it, teams in my fantasy league would have more incentive to draft Rafael Betancourt than Joe Borowski. As it should be.

Of course, it's easy for me to critique the league from where I'm sitting (the courch). Maybe I'll have to be the one to set it up next year.

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