Sunday, April 25, 2010

My strategy: End game (Part 7 of 7)

This is the final post in a seven-part series documenting my fantasy baseball strategy. We've focused on winning now as opposed to the future, formulated a system to accumulate points, filled our roster with quality hitters and pitchers through the draft, and have made good trades and waiver wire pickups to safely navigate the league's rough waters for much of the season. We're in contention for a championship. Now it's time to seal the deal and bring it home.

Growing up, I was a big Ohio State football fan. (Okay, so I was a skinny Ohio State football fan, but you know what I mean.) In 1993, the Buckeyes started 8-0, and for the first time in years their fans were buzzing about a possible Rose Bowl berth. Next on their schedule were the Wisconsin Badgers, and I'll never forget reading this quote from OSU's star running back at the time, Raymont Harris: "I can smell a faint smell of roses. But right now I smell Badgers. And the roses smell a lot better." Unfortunately, the Buckeyes went on to only get a tie against the Badgers. Then after a win against Indiana, OSU finished their season with a 28-0 loss at the hands of their archrival, Michigan. No Rose Bowl for the Buckeyes.

During the 2009 UPL baseball season, my '90 Reds were in first place for much of May, June, July, and August. When the calendar had turned to September, I was feeling good about my chances. But the defending champ, C-Lauff's Team IamJabrone, was still close behind and eager to play the spoiler. I couldn't help but have flashbacks to 1993 and thinking like Raymont Harris: "I can smell the faint smell of a championship. But right now I smell Jabrones. And the championship smells a lot better."

Motivated to avoid the same type of collapse that had cost Harris and the Buckeyes a Rose Bowl trip 16 years earlier, I was now obsessing about the end game.

The start of the end

In any roto baseball league, my end game thinking starts shortly before the trading deadline. In the UPL, this deadline tends to be about the middle of August. So in late July I'm taking a hard look at how the categories are playing out league-wide and what types of trades could help my team. (Obviously, in a keeper league, if you feel that you have no shot at winning the championship, your focus at the trade deadline should be to do whatever best sets up your team for the next season.)

The end game in theory
And down the stretch they come! Just remember, if you're not willing to furiously whip your horse for extra performance at the end, somebody else will.

In March and April of a fantasy baseball season, I'm primarily picking players who I think will perform the best over the long run (6-month season). But by late July, two big changes have occurred.
  • We've collected 3+ months of real data on players. Thus it's slightly easier to project how a player will perform over the final 10 weeks of the season when making that projection in July, as opposed to March. 
  • We've also collected 3+ months of data on our team as well as our opponents' teams. So now we have a slightly better idea as to which categories will be most critical down the stretch.
In other words, early in the season I'm looking to acquire players who, given time, will perform the best during a 6-month season. But once it's down to the end game, I'm looking to acquire players who have the best chance to put up big numbers in the critical categories that I'll need to win the championship.

Back in part two, I wrote at length about the importance of team balance and trying to win all of the categories. And while it would be nice to win all of the categories, come late July you'll have a more realistic view of the scoreboard and what your team can actually accomplish. I wouldn't punt on any categories in late July or early August, but I would be willing to start emphasizing some categories over others for the purposes of making a trade.

For instance, in 2007 I was willing to trade the reigning AL MVP Justin Morneau (power) for Carl Crawford (steals) at the trade deadline because I saw that SB was the one category that I could gain the most ground on my main opponent (O.N. Thugs). And since I still had plenty of power on my team, the trade worked out as I closed the gap and finished in a tie for first with the Thugs.

As we move deeper into September, the end game comes into sharper focus in terms of which categories will be crucial. And here we can employ some strategies that would be crazy in June, but just might be necessary in September and October.

End gaming the system

Last August (2009) my team was sputtering. We weren't hitting or pitching particularly well, and while I wasn't going to panic, I knew that I needed to make a move. My main opponents were likely to make deadline deals to get better, and I had to do the same. So what move would best improve my team?

As I explored many trade possibilities last August, one thing started to become clear. I had an injured Carlos Beltran who likely would provide no further production in my quest for victory in 2009. And yet he still had some decent trade value for what he could likely do in 2010 and beyond. In looking at which players might be available in a trade, the fact that future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones had batted .400/.500 (OBP/SLG) over the past month with 6 homers really caught my attention. If Chipper could do anything close to that over the final 6 weeks of the season, he could help me in five categories (R, RBI, HR, OBP, and SLG). So Phatsnapper and I made that deadline deal in mid-August.

As the 2009 season winded down, many categories stayed in play. But on the offensive side, one category did start to stand out as especially important: steals. Over the final few weeks, I took every available opportuntiy to borrow a speedy guy from the waiver wire and place him in my lineup for a shot at an extra steal. And in the final week of the season, I was still looking at potentially +/- 2 points (4 point swing) in the steals category alone. With much smaller and much less likely possible point swings in the categories of HR, RBI, OBP, and SLG, I played Michael Bourn over Manny Ramirez at every chance. The reason being that Manny hitting 2 homers and 6 RBI in a single game might not raise my team point total at all. But Bourn getting 3 steals in a game could be the difference between losing two points or gaining two points in the standings. (Note: My other outfielders were Justin Upton and Carlos Gonzalez, so Manny was the only one in that group who wasn't much of a threat to steal.)

On the pitching side of things, I employed many spot starts over the past month or so of the season. I picked up and dropped several different pitchers, such as Pedro Martinez, Doug Fister, Barry Zito, and Andy Pettitte, and put them in games where I thought they had good matchups. Overall, this worked out okay for me. Not great, but okay.

Where things got interesting, though, was the morning of the second-to-last day of the season. My team was nursing a slim lead when I looked at the pitching stats and saw the following:
  • Can't go up in W points
  • Could take 3 losses and go down 2.5 in L points
  • Could gain or lose a half point in saves
  • Unlikely to see movement in any other pitching categories
In terms of likely pitching outcomes, by playing my pitchers I was looking at anywhere from gaining a half point to losing 3 points that otherwise wouldn't have happened. After examining all the scenarios, I determined that my best move was to bench all of my pitchers for the remainder of the season (Saturday and Sunday). That was Plan A. I also had a Plan B. Depending on what happened on Saturday, I might change my mind on Sunday out of a need to play my pitchers. One possibility was that somehow Westy's Sluggers would get a surprising number of W's and catch me in that category. Another unlikely event would be for IamJabrone to get way more K's than I expected. So on Saturday morning I not only benched all of my pitchers, I also picked up two likely Sunday starters, Homer Bailey and Chris Narveson, just in case I needed to make a miracle comeback that would include wins and K's on the final day.  

 Sometimes you need a Plan B to win. This holds true for most things in life, but especially for feel-good sports movies.
As we now know, the Beltran-for-Chipper deal didn't really work out for me. Chipper had some nagging injuries and slumped a bit. Although, he still gave my team more than Beltran would have in September. Time will tell if that deal hurts me in 2010, but I can't second guess it. At the time, I was looking to be aggressive and win in 2009. Chipper was swinging a hot bat at the time of the trade, and so I went for it.

Fortunately, Chipper aside, my offense did step up down the stretch, and on the pitching side, I didn't have to bring in my pitchers on the final Sunday. In fact, you could say that things came up roses for the '90 Reds.

Thank you for reading this series about my fantasy baseball strategy in the UPL. I've had fun pondering and documenting my various tactics, and of course, I'm still open to new ideas. I enjoy the discussions with other players, and my hope is to keep learning.

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