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Should You Even Draft a Catcher in Fantasy Baseball?

If you play in a traditional 12-team 5×5 roto auction league with 25-man rosters and a $200 FA budget per season, you might constantly feel like there is solid waiver-wire talent out there, but your roster is too stacked to cut anyone. So, you offer your league-mates a trade of two or three mediocre players for one of their better players, but they are facing a similar roster crunch and immediately see right through your pernicious plan. It can be tempting to cut the lowest-production, lowest-upside player on your roster, which in many cases is the $1 catcher you drafted. But is that catcher really providing value to your roster? Let’s break it down.

Let’s say you draft Realmuto this year for $10 and expect a line of 13 HR, 53 R, 58 RBI, 7 SB, .275 AVG (Steamer projected line, ~500 PA).  The other cost of drafting Realmuto is the opportunity cost of his roster spot. In a typical fantasy week, there are three or four days where your typical starting lineup is not intact. Whether it’s because a team is having an off-day or one of your regular starters is DTD with a bruised toe, holes in your lineup are bound to happen. A smart streamer can look for good matchups and plug those holes. If you have unlimited pickups allowed in your league, then there is no cost to picking up a player if you have an open roster spot. In my league, I can pick up players for $1 on free-agent days (M/W/F).

This begs the question: if you are streaming to fill in holes four times per week over 26 weeks of the regular season, and each game you plug in a streaming player you get 4 PA, then that is going to equal just over 200 PA and cost you around $78 FAAB (assuming three pickups per week * 26 weeks, and one of your streamed pickups fills holes twice in one week for a total of four fill-ins). What does a slash line of 200 PA for a waiver-wire bat look like?

Kevin Pillar screams waiver-wire bat. His Steamer projection reduced to 200 PA looks like: 5 HR, 25 R, 20 RBI, 5 SB, .270 AVG. That’s quite worse than Realmuto’s line in every way excepting AVG. It amounts to a little less than 50% of Realmuto’s line at the cost of $78 FAAB. Now you could argue that maybe amidst all your streaming you end up picking up a Jonathan Villar 2016 breakout type of bat and end up sticking with him and getting immense value, but that’s easier said than done. Maybe you are also going to research pitcher vs. batter matchups on a daily basis and you get an edge there, but that is also easier said than done.

How does the 200 PA of Kevin Pillar compare to a $1 draft day, bottom of the barrel catcher’s line? Even poor Jonathan Lucroy is projected by Steamer to beat this line: 10 HR, 44 R, 46 RBI, 2 SB, .268 AVG. Other such luminaries projected to outshine it include Tucker Barnhart, Christian Vazquez, and Tyler Flowers. Pretty much any catcher who is a starter and can bat .250+ for a season will put up much better counting stats than the Pillar line.

Long story short — even though your catcher’s line may look meek, and they don’t play every day, making your roster look thin, it will still likely be better than waiver-wire lineup hole streaming. Better to save your FAAB cash for other needs. If you play in an unlimited transaction league, you would still need about 500 PAs of Pillar to exceed the Realmuto line. That’s a lot of transactions, and you might not have time to get all the necessary PAs in. Punting C is like heeding the siren calls — it can be very tempting, but also a dangerous and costly exercise. Staying the course with the catcher you drafted is usually the best call in terms of value per FAAB dollar spent.

Do Teams that Strike Out a Lot Steal More Bases?

This is a question that intuitively would seem to be answered by: Sure, why not?  The assumption was recently made in the comments section of this article by an FG writer:

Think about it — if you are Rougned Odor and you are on first base and, say, Joey Gallo is at the plate, there’s a good chance he’s going to cool down the stadium with some high-powered fanning.  He’s not exactly known as a high-contact guy.  There’s a roughly one-in-three chance that his at-bat is going to end in a backwards K sign being held up by someone in the stands.  So ‘Ned might decide this is a good time to steal because the ball isn’t likely to be put into play in the air, where, if caught, he would have to double back to tag.  Maybe he’s also thinking that, like Brad Johnson alluded, the break-even point for a steal (famously ~75% success rate as calculated by Bill James in Moneyball, ~66% in this more recent FG article) is lower if the guy at the plate is likely to cause an out, specifically a strikeout which normally doesn’t allow a runner to advance like a bunt, grounder or long fly might.

On the other hand, maybe Odor doesn’t have such a cynical view of Gallo, and doesn’t change his mindset on the basepaths.  Maybe he doesn’t try to assume what Gallo might do, so he doesn’t go for any more risky of a steal than he otherwise might.  So maybe he isn’t stealing at a higher rate than normal if the guy at the plate is a K machine.  Heck, maybe Joey Gallo is a specifically bad example here, because, though he does whiff a lot, he also hits a lot of home runs, which might cause a runner to take fewer risks when waiting on the outcome of his plate appearance.

So, let’s looks at what the numbers have to say.  I ran a simple correlation analysis between team stolen-base totals and team K%.  Here’s what I got:

So, no real correlation to be seen here.  But perhaps that shows that it could be a market inefficiency.  In 2016, the Brew Crew led the league in both K% and stolen bases.  Even without John Villar’s big SB season, they are a top-five SB team.  Below is a chart from last year — in yellow are the top five teams in both total SBs and K%.

Perhaps the Rays should have been trying to steal some more?  Though some of these anomalies could just simply be explained by personnel issues — maybe teams like the Orioles just have no one who can steal on the entire squad?

Here’s the same chart, for 2015, just for sugar and giggles:

For the Astros, this is starting to look like a trend — Orioles too.  I think my final answer to the question posited by this post is — Hmm, not sure exactly.  But maybe?

Building a “Smart” Team from Scratch – What Would You Do?

If you had a team that was in complete or semi- “rebuilding” mode, and you wanted to start quite nearly from scratch, and implement some of the smartest analytical techniques into your team philosophy, what might you do?  In the rest of this article, I detail some examples of what said hypothetical team might want to do.  I assume that the team has a middle-of-the-road farm system and an average operating budget, and that they want to accrue wins as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.  I also assume that they have installed all of the state of the art ball and player tracking systems in their major and minor league ball parks that they possibly can.

What’s first?  Well, the ballpark.  Build the field to have a lot of foul territory–mimic the current Oakland A’s stadium.  Even though park factors seemingly have no effect on wins, I think mimicking the A’s would be a good choice for cost efficiency.  This move would allow you to stockpile high FB% pitchers who are going cheap nowadays.  It would enable you to take cheap, mediocre pitchers–the price for pitching is getting out of control nowadays–and give them a chance to put up great numbers.

Next, infield shifting–do it more.  No one shifted more than the Orioles last year, and studies have shown, along with even player anecdotes, that there should be even more shifting done than the O’s did.  Use opposing batter spray charts to determine where and when to shift, and do it as much as possible.  You might even look to hire more multi-position eligible players as they might find it easier to handle shifting abilities.  Ben Zobrist might be the most important player for the Tampa Bay Rays, defensively.

Next, develop and train hitters who can pull the ball with power.  It would be nice if your team was full of guys with all-fields power, but they are more rare, and thus more expensive.  Start teaching them to bunt well from the minors in order to be able to beat the eventual shifts they will see in the majors.  Hire the foremost bunting coach in the world for your staff.

Pitch framing–teach it from the minors and don’t let players like Jose Molina get signed by the Rays for so cheap money.  If possible, make clones from Molina DNA.

Keep your best relievers in the 7th, 8th, or high leverage situations only.  Sign a cheap closer each year from the scrap heap and watch him go to another team the next year as a free agent!  Game the system to keep your best young relievers stuck at a low price.  Their low save totals will help keep their arbitration numbers down.

Try to sign your best young players to long term deals.  The more Dustin Pedroias you can accrue the more payroll flexibility and WAR you will have at your disposal.  This one is easier said than done.  But if you can pull it off, you will make your team more attractive for incoming free agents.  And don’t be afraid to commit long-term to speedy players, as the data seems to say they age well.  The more tools a player has, obviously, the less risk his contract is if one of the tools breaks down.

Speaking of signing free agents, try to stay flexible in your 5th SP or 4th OF spot.  It seems like there are always guys left over at the end of the FA signing season who are forced to sign bargain contracts–Ervin Santana and Nelson Cruz, for examples from this year.  Try to find cheap platoon solutions when you have a player who struggles against a certain type of pitcher.

At the end of the day, this article is just a collection of some of the ideas that a mediocre team could implement to try to win now and for the near future.  Many teams are already implementing some of these ideas.  If you have any further “smart” hacks that you think should be the gold standard for teams looking to improve in a cost-efficient manner, I’d love to hear it in the comments section.

Salty and Grandy’s Moves Away from the AL East

This post is inspired by this fine post, which was inspired by this fine post. While this post would be more interesting with more data (pre-2013, is it out there?), I invite you to look a little bit more at how infield shifts might be affecting some players who changed teams this offseason.

The teams of the NL East, as noted by scotman144, conservatively used infield shifts in 2013, combining to just simply match the league’s most furious shifters, the Orioles. The NL in general avoided shifting, as NL teams combined for 9 of the bottom 10 spots in the Jeff Zimmerman-provided rankings. So perhaps, if all of these teams continue their shift-cynical ways, the ideas which I am about to hypothesize will hold merit.

I filtered the data on “WHICH PLAYERS HIT INTO THE MOST SHIFTS AND THE EFFECT ON THEIR BABIP?” to find out which players had the greatest discrepancy between BABIP with shift on vs BABIP with shift off. Then I limited the data to only those who had more than a few times having hit into the shift. Obviously small sample sizes are at play here so it would be nice to look at 2012 and prior data as well.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit into the shift 90 times last year with a 0.300 BABIP. His non-shift BABIP? .416. So perhaps his BABIP luck last year will regress, but so may his number of times seeing a shift, which could be good for his prospects in Miami.

Curtis Granderson missed a lot of time last year but when he did play he almost constantly got the shaft, er I mean shift. I wonder if he realized how much this was hurting his BABIP (shifted BABIP = 0.256, career BABIP = .303) and consciously moved to the NL East for this reason. If so, kudos to him or his agent.

Seth Smith also got shifted on quite a bit, at the tune of a .257 BABIP with shifts on. He hit an astounding .339 without the shift. Lastly I’d like to mention Robinson Cano, who, despite being shifted on 85 times last year, barely saw any noticeable difference in his BABIP with or without the shift. Take that shift! I’d like to see Cano try to grow a beard now that he’s out from under the the fascist anti-beard boot of the Yankees.

Do you want some more AL East shift data to chew on? Well take out your Red Man and munch on this: Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano didn’t quite like their experiences of getting shifted on. Carlos got it 71 times for a .268 BABIP, where Fonz got it 62 times for a .274 BABIP. Both of these players should see nice HR bumps but let’s not discount the potential for a low shift-related BABIP for these players moving to the AL East full-time. I expect AL East teams to continue to shift aggressively — the data suggests they all ought to be doing it more. Perhaps this is the year NL teams start to shift more as well, but you never know?