Sunday, February 28, 2010

My strategy: Point accumulation (Part 2 of 7)

This is the second in a seven-part series documenting my fantasy baseball strategy. Part one discussed my keeper theory. Now we'll explore how I utilize roster spots to accumulate points. But be forewarned: You're about to enter the Matrix.

The Urbana Premier League (UPL) where I play fantasy baseball is a 6x6 roto format. Since each team has 24 roster spots, you can think of each team as having 24 active players at any given time, and each player has 6 statistical categories associated with him. So in a way, each manager is managing his own matrix; and as the team matrices accumluate stats and are merged daily, they form a bigger and all-important matrix: the scoreboard.

When I look at my fantasy baseball team, I don't start by looking at the players. I start by looking at an empty matrix of roster spots that needs to be filled by players. Each roster spot is a valuable piece of real estate. Every player on my team needs to have a clear purpose for being there. Even players on the bench. Players who start for my team are expected to produce now. Players on my bench are expected to produce when a starter can't go. Period.

When looking at each starting slot where stats can be accumulated (i.e., catcher, first base, starting pitcher, relief pitcher, etc.), I kinda think of these slots as guns on a warship. Each manager gets the same size warship with the same number of guns (starting slots). Some guns might be bigger and others might be faster. But regardless, I want to be sending out a steady flow of gunfire from every gun on my ship. In order to accomplish this, I have two players available at each position whenever possible. That way if one player has a day off or gets a nagging injury that lasts two or three days, I have a ready backup already on hand. Gotta keep the bullets coming.

In a roto league where each stat counts equally (my league is 6x6) and points are determined by where you rank in each category, my stated goal is to pursue first place in each category. In order to be very competitive in each category, my team needs to be balanced. After all, how can you lead the league in R, HR, RBI, SB, OBP, SLG, W, L, SV, K, ERA, and WHIP, unless your team is good at hitting for power, getting on base, stealing bases, scoring runs, striking out batters, saving games, and keeping opposing hitters off base?

Now some people might say, "Wait a second, if you're truly in a competitive league, it's impossible to lead the league in every category." And to this I'd say that's likely true. But there's a difference between an expectation and a goal. And besides, there's something else at play here. Almost as important as how many points my team accumulates is where the points come from. My main emphasis is to have a balanced team.

Okay, so maybe this all seems obvious. After all, everyone wants to have strong hitting and pitching. But what I'm referring to here goes beyond a balance between hitting and pitching. I want balance from roster spot to roster spot. How do I achieve this? Whenever possible, I want players who can rack up points in multiple categories, and it's a bonus if those players have eligibility at multiple roster spots (positions). That way, in a sense, the points that my team puts on the scoreboard can come from anywhere and everywhere.

The reason that I want the best set of bench players possible is fourfold:
  • First, I want to foster competition at each roster spot. If a player slumps, then I'll put a hotter player in and won't reinstate the former starter until he plays his way back into my lineup.
  • Related to my previous point, I also like setting up platoons at as many roster spots as possible. For instance, last year I noticed that Michael Bourn's OBP against lefties was terrible, but against righties it was okay. So whenever he started against a lefty, I tended to bench him in favor of a better option. If you're able to play the percentages to your advantage, then why not?
  • Third, in the UPL (and most leagues) there is a cap on the number of games that can be played at any position. Most fantasy managers don't even come close to maxing out all of their "innings pitched" or "games played" at each position. However, by having multiple players eligible for each position, you can come close to maxing out each position at season's end. By doing so, you'll squeeze out a few more points along the way. 
  • Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, my strategy assumes injuries. I don't know when or where, but injuries will happen. When they do, I want to have a solid short-term solution in place. Necessity is the mother of invention; and like the Internet, my team is built to survive a disaster.
As described above, my team mimics a greedy algorithm by going through every single day trying to maximize production from every single roster spot. My team also is like a distributed system in how I try to avoid becoming too dependent on one or two players for overall team success. So if my strategy really can be summed up in this way, how might we expect my team to perform in a given season? In theory, by deploying a greedy algorithm, my team should get off to a relatively quick start; and when it loses a key player to injury, while the loss hurts, the distributed system of the team should still be able to play in a competitive manner.

So what did my team do in 2009? Well, I blogged on May 6 that my team had gotten off to a quick start. At the time, little did I know that on the following day my #3 pick Manny Ramirez would be hit with a 50-day suspension, and then the day after that my #4 pick Aramis Ramirez would hurt his shoulder and land on the 60-day DL. Sure, that made me nervous. But I had already done the best realistic planning I could possibly do for such an unexpected situation. I shifted some of my team's parts around, and we stayed competitive. Later in the season my #2 pick Carlos Beltran also was lost to injury. However, my team was still able to hang on to win the championship.

Now don't get me wrong. The fact that my team finished in first proves nothing about my strategy. The key here (at least to me) is that my team was able to get off to a quick start, and then despite significant personnel losses, stayed competitive. Those characterics seem line up with a strategy that claims to emulate a greedy algorithm running on a distributed system.

Earlier I mentioned that when I look at my fantasy baseball team, I start by looking at an empty matrix of roster spots that needs to be filled by players. But of course, things get more complicated when you start looking beyond an empty matrix. With a 24-man roster in our 6x6 UPL league, every team's matrix is 24x6 if you're looking at each player's counted stats. Although, there are really more than 6 numbers per player. We can add age as a number, plus we could try to rate how players are trending at any given time or in which matchups they excel. That 24x6 matrix can start getting much bigger when you consider all the ways a manager can rate the players.

But let's keep this simple. Fantasy baseball always comes down to filling the empty matrix of roster spots with players. In order to do this well, we need to do a good job of rating the players. In the next part of this series we'll discuss hitter evaluation; and then in part four we'll look at pitcher evaluation.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My strategy: Keeper theory (Part 1 of 7)

Welcome to the first in a seven-part series chronicling my fantasy baseball strategy as it applied to the 2009 UPL season. The primary purpose of this series is to document my current thoughts about how I approach the game of fantasy baseball. Along the way we'll look at some real-life examples of challenges my team faced in the 2009 season, and why I did what I did each step of the way.

Last October the UPL wrapped up its 9th season--and first as a keeper league. Naturally, going into the season I wanted to have a successful strategy, but I especially wanted to adapt well to this new format because the last time the UPL switched formats (in 2003, going from point accumulation to 6x6 roto) I struggled for 3 or 4 years trying to implement a solid strategy. Given that history, and the fact that I hadn't won the UPL championship outright in 8 years, I was very motivated to do well in 2009.

Part of the allure that people have with a keeper league, aside from the fact that it's more realistic, is that you can do more than just win a championship--you can build a dynasty. On the flip side, if you screw something up then it could cost you for years to come. So from that standpoint there's a little more thrill involved in a keeper league.

Like everyone else in the UPL, as the inaugural baseball keeper season approached in 2009 I had high hopes of fielding a team that would not only be competitive in 2009 but also for 2010 and beyond. So how would I implement a new strategy that enabled my team to be competitive now, yet still plan for the future? This was the fun new challenge of the keeper league. The rules of the game had changed, and with these new complexities, our strategies had to adapt. As I recall, there was quite a bit of talk regarding how we'd need to alter our approach to this new problem.

But after giving it some thought, I soon came to a very different conclusion. In fact, I nearly blogged about my new views regarding a keeper league strategy before the 2009 season started. However, two things kept me from doing so: 1) I didn't think anyone would believe me and 2) Why give away my strategy?

Well, there was also a third reason. If in fact my general approach to the 2009 season was better than my opponents, shouldn't it become apparent after 2 or 3 months? I mean, I'd look really silly if I wrote a long post in March about how my strategy was better than my opponents, only to find myself mired in 17th place come July. Now this doesn't mean I'd have to win the championship in order to prove that my strategy was solid, but at the very least I'd have to field a competitive team before anyone would take my keeper theory seriously.

So what was my keeper theory? Earlier in this post I asked the question, " would I implement a new strategy that enabled my team to be competitive now, yet still plan for the future?" And it's true that my initial thoughts about a keeper league centered around this question. However, I started to run into problems when I tried to settle on a logical way to alter my previous season's (2008) strategy for the 2009 keeper league. Starting in 2006 I had learned to focus more on players with high-OBP's and strong track records of performance over multiple years. In 2007, I like to think that I improved upon that strategy with my willingness to draft older players, so long as they had a strong (and recent) track record of performance. In 2008, I had the same basic strategy, although I did deviate from it in a few key ways and it cost me. So for 2009, would I cook up a new strategy or would I be better off trying to get closer to the 2007 strategy that carried me to a UPL co-championship?

In every UPL baseball season prior to 2009, we all had the same simple goal: win now. Everyone clearly understood that you needed to acquire the players who would perform the best this season. But with the introduction of a keeper league where you can keep many players from year to year, suddenly the reward system expanded. Not only was there there a reward for acquiring the best players of this season, there was also a potential reward for picking the best players of next season or beyond.

And this is where a formerly complex problem became rather simple for me. It's already very difficult to speculate on which players will perform the best this season. As we gaze further into the future, it becomes even tougher to predict which players will be the best in the years ahead. (For example, if you had to make predictions today, would you be able to better guess the 2010 All-Star team or the 2011 All-Star team?) For me, this part of the equation was settled: My best guesses will be guesses about this season.

Fortunately, the first part of my equation dovetails nicely with the second part. If indeed you dream of fielding a team that's highly competitive for 5 straight years, doesn't the journey of a thousand miles begin with a single step? How can you have a great team for 5 straight years without first having one great team? So here again my strategy became obvious to me: Go all in for this season.

By now it should be apparent what my keeper theory was for the 2009 UPL Baseball season: Don't change anything.

It's kinda funny. For years all of us in the UPL honed our fantasy baseball skills to become better and better at acquiring the best MLB players of today.  But when the rules were changed in 2009 to allow us to speculate on something far more difficult, picking the best MLB players of the future, most UPL managers felt some need to alter their strategy away from having a laser focus on picking the best players of today. Imagine my delight when one of my top opponents signaled a retreat from his previous strategy by looking more closely at age.

 Now, for those of you with a good memory, you might recall my post from last March 19 when I wrote, "This year it's a keeper league, so that alters the strategy--and raises the stakes." Some might argue that this is proof that I was planning to alter my strategy for the keeper league. But I ask you: Is psychological warfare not allowed in fantasy baseball? Is it morally wrong to lull my opponents to sleep by praising their drafts as better than mine? Is there an unspoken rule against predicting a newcomer to the league will finish in the top 3, when really I just want to put the league's target on his back instead of mine?

And besides, if you're looking for clues about my keeper theory from what I wrote last March 19, you'd get a better sense of it from the opening lyrics of the song in that post:
Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted--One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?
From the beginning I planned to play as aggressively as possible, just like in years past, in pursuit of the championship at season's end. So don't count me among those surprised that my team came out and tore the roof off like two dogs caged. That was kinda my goal.

Stay tuned for part two of this exciting series next week when I explore the finer details of point accumulation. And, in a shocking plot twist, we'll discover that the Chairman has more in common with Rup than he ever dreamt possible.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Welcome to Bloggerville, Pauly

I remember telling Pauly back in '08 that he should start a blog; and nearly two years later he's finally delivered the goods. Today is the world premiere of Pauly's Fantasy Hoops and Baseball Corner.

So what can we expect from Pauly's blog? Well, let's keep in mind that Pauly was the first ever to win the prestigious Charlie Hustle Award back in May 2008. Here's what I wrote about him at the time:
I had known for quite a while that my co-worker Paul was a baseball fan. However, it wasn't until this season that I realized just how passionate he is for both the MLB and fantasy baseball. Whether he's laughing his way to the bank in Vegas betting against over-the-hill pitchers, boasting about ripping somebody off in a trade, telling me about obscure sites to read for extra baseball knowledge, or spending all of his fantasy basketball winnings to pay $120 for's online TV coverage complete with 6 window screens at once with audio alerts for whenever one of his fantasy players is coming to the plate, Paul (a.k.a. "Pauly") has continued to demonstrate an unparalleled commitment to "America's Pastime."
I also should add the countless times I've discovered breaking MLB news in my email courtesy of Pauly. Whether it's Manny Ramirez's 50-day suspension or Mark McGwire's steroid admission, I often hear it first from Pauly.

I'm looking forward to reading Pauly's perspectives on hoops and baseball. You can check out his blog here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Decisions, decisions...

And so it begins.

The 10th season of UPL Baseball is upon us. This is our second year as a keeper league, and thus the first time we need to decide which players to keep.

The UPL allows 18 keepers. First, let's take a look at my roster as it currently stands:

Hitters leftover from 2009
Jason Bartlett
Michael Bourn
Billy Butler
Chris Coghlan
Carlos Gonzalez
Ryan Howard
Chipper Jones
Victor Martinez
Miguel Montero
Cliff Pennington
Aramis Ramirez
Manny Ramirez
Pablo Sandoval
Justin Upton 

Pitchers leftover from 2009
Homer Bailey
Juan Gutierrez
Dan Haren
J.P. Howell
Edwin Jackson
Chris Narveson
Chad Qualls
Wandy Rodriquez
Javier Vazquez
Brian Wilson

So how do you go about keeping 18? Do you go with a 50/50 split between hitters and pitchers? Or maybe 10 hitters and 8 pitchers? I'm actually leaning toward keeping 11 hitters and 7 pitchers, although I'm not sure about all the specifics yet.

In the UPL, we have hitting slots for eight fielding positions (all except pitcher) plus two utility slots. So that makes ten total starting slots for hitters. Let's go down my team's starting slots for hitting and see which top players I'd like to keep at each position:

C - Victor Martinez
1B - Ryan Howard
2B - ???
SS - Jason Bartlett
3B - Aramis Ramirez
OF - Manny Ramirez
OF - Justin Upton
OF - Carlos Gonzalez
Util - Pablo Sandoval
Util - Michael Bourn

So there are 9 hitters who I very likely see myself keeping. Now let's look at the pitchers who I currently plan to keep:

SP - Dan Haren
SP - Javier Vazquez
SP - Edwin Jackson
SP - Wandy Rodriguez

RP - Joe Nathan
RP - Brian Wilson

Okay, so there are 6 pitchers who I'll likely keep.

I've listed 15 players to keep, so I still have 3 openings. This means that Chipper Jones, Billy Butler, Chris Coghlan, and Miguel Montero (apparently I like alliteration) will be fighting for the last two hitter spots. And Chad Qualls and J.P. Howell will battle it out for the final pitching spot. (This likely will go to Qualls since I think he's slated to close and Howell isn't. But Juan Gutierrez could also get consideration here if it looks like he'll close instead of Qualls.)

In any case, at least I've started to think this through.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fantasy Baseball Hot Stove

Just discovered another fantasy baseball blog. If you're starting to think about the upcoming season, you might want to check it out. During this offseason, they're counting down the top 150 fantasy baseball players leading up to Opening Day. The site is Fantasy Baseball Hot Stove.

Note: Since Aramis Ramirez is one of my keepers, this post is of particular interest to me.