FANALYTICS: The 2014 Tipping Point

Back in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called "The Tipping Point." He described how a series of small events can build to a critical mass and reach a "tipping point" where great change can occur. He gave examples of societal changes, like fashion trends and drops in crime rate, that could be attributed to seemingly unrelated events.

In baseball, we have experienced tipping points as well. Bullpen usage 30 years ago was much different than it is today; we never outwardly recognized the small changes that have led to closers becoming specious, 9th-inning-only specialists. More significant has been the impact of performance enhancing drugs in the 1990s and early 2000s. We watched the amazing achievements of individual players in awe, but didn't piece together what was going on until offensive records started falling unabated.

I believe we may be reaching another tipping point now. Somewhat in response to the pushback on PED use, the environment that the game is being played in now is changing. We have been observing a series of individual events and trends over the past few years, but nobody seems to be trying to put the pieces together to see where it all might lead. I don't know if we are on the brink of great change, but I would not be the least bit surprised to see something big happen, and perhaps as early as this year.

Here is what we all know has been going on:

Batting averages have been in a precipitous decline. Since 2007, league-wide BAs have dropped 15 points. In part, this has been driven by the improvement in defensive metrics and measurement which has allowed teams to better position fielders to reach batted balls. In at least equal part, a huge breed of new, young pitchers has emerged, performing at elite levels upon call-up and dominating opposing batters (and there are more coming). These pitchers and defenses are also becoming more adept at controlling the running game, and as such, stolen bases were way down last year.

These are not isolated, stagnant events. They are all inter-related and trending. We have no reason to believe any of these will cease or soften, so as long as these trends continue we need to pay attention to where they might lead.

What might our game look like if we reach a tipping point?

As defensive strategizing continues to shape offensive performance and pitching continues to dominate, batting averages could continue to decline. Perhaps no more than a handful of players will manage to hit over .300. Scoring will continue to decrease and the value of in-game tactics will soar.

For fantasy purposes, what type of player will survive in this scenario? Pure power hitters. The home run is the only event that evades all this defensive maneuvering. Big swing/low contact bats will retain a great deal of value because all batting averages will be pushed downward. The home run is what will separate them from the pack.

Perhaps the only thing that might prevent us from seeing the full impact this year, or at least soften the change, is the rash of young pitchers heading out for their first and second Tommy John surgeries. This might be in response to reduced PED use (or perhaps increased use!). Without this variable, these trends might reach critical mass even faster.

How should fantasy leaguers react?

First, buy big power. Fill as many roster spots as possible with power bats, regardless of any other deficiency. Pay fully for those with solid contact skills but any hitter who can go yard regularly has more value than ever before.

More and more, solid skilled pitchers will become almost interchangeable commodities. Behind Clayton Kershaw, there are dozens of arms that are all serviceable; potentially any one of them could put up solid across-the-board stats. During the recently-completed First Pitch Forum tour, we conducted an exercise where we reset the baseline for each player by combining 2012 and 2013 performances and filtering out the most outlying month from each season. On the pitching side, the result was a mass compression of the rankings; for instance, the 3rd and 10th ranked pitchers were separated in projected value by less than $5, and every pitcher had a baseline ERA between 3.30 and 3.60.

Can you really tell the difference between Madison Bumgarner and David Price? Danny Salazar and Michael Wacha? Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Estrada? Or even Price and Wacha and Estrada? Recent research has shown that our draft day pitching purchases account for less than 60% of the stats our teams will accumulate during the season—more than 40% of those stats are acquired in-season—so why should we invest heavily in arms at the draft table?

Given that current projection models are not accounting for all these changes, projected rankings and dollar values need to be manually adjusted. Of course, you need to buy into all this first. I'm not trying to persuade you beyond all reasonable doubt. I'm just trying to open your eyes to some possibilities.

I decided to buy into the speculation at Tout Wars last weekend.

Tout Wars' decision to swap out BA for OBP could not have come at a better time. Several top analysts have managed to win top-level competitions by punting batting average; we needed a way to temper that effect and this change is perfect.

And in fact, a hit list of the best hitters to target might be one that looks solely at high contact rate, high LD/FB rates, high PX level and high walk rate. Something like this: There are only eight players that fully meet all of those criteria:

PLAYER            MM Code   bb%  ct%   PX   L%   F%	
================= ========  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===
Wright,David      4335 DBC  12   81   125  21	38	
Encarnacion,Edwin 4255 BAC  13   86   148  20	45	
Abreu,Jose        4245 ADF  12   80   145  22	43	
Bautista,Jose     4235 DBD  15   81   143  15	46	
McCann,Brian      4135 BBC  11   82   132  20	43	
Ortiz,David       4055 DBC  13   82   156  22	40	
Utley,Chase       3335 FCA  10   85   106  19	41	
Carpenter,Matt    3235 ABD  11   81   106  26	35

These are all great picks for an OBP league. Mark Teixeira is also on this list if he's healthy. If we remove the walk rate component, however, we can cast a slightly wider net.

PLAYER            MM Code   ct%   PX   L%   F%	
================= ========  ===  ===  ===  ===
Beltran,Carlos    4245 CAB  82   138  22   40	
Quentin,Carlos    4033 FCA  82   132  20   44	
Lucroy,Jonathan   3335 BBF  85   103  22   38	
Lowrie,Jed        3325 FBB  83   120  20   48	
Hill,Aaron        3245 DBF  86   115  21   41	
Beltre,Adrian     3245 BAB  87   117  21   40	
Gonzalez,Adrian   3235 AAC  83   113  23   37	
Chisenhall,Lonnie 3233 BDA  80   118  21   41	
Cabrera,Asdrubal  3225 BAB  80   105  22   38	
Seager,Kyle       3225 AAA  81   112  22   44	
Ramirez,Aramis    3135 CBB  84   114  20   41	
Walker,Neil       3135 BBA  81   107  23   38	
Ross,Cody         3123 DCB  80   115  20   41	
Moustakas,Mike    3015 ABA  81   108  18   47	

Essentially, these are the most likely survivors of an environment where we reach the tipping point of pitching and defensive dominance.

The above names were prime targets for me, and I managed to buy three of them. The rest of my roster was focused on accumulating power bats, avoiding OBP sinkholes and a LIMA-style stockpiling of high-skilled arms regardless of role.

 
POS  BATTER            $$   Prj  MAYBERRY
===  ================  ===  ===  ========
CA   Avila,A           12   12   3215 BCD  Power, solid OBP
CA   Hanigan,R          2    2   0013 CBC  "First, do no harm"  

1B   Encarnacion,E     33   38   4255 BAC  On the list and at a discount 
3B   Chisenhall,L       3    4   3223 BDA  On the list
CI   Guzman,J           3    9   4233 ADA  Power, qualifies at 1b/of

2B   Johnson,K         15   13   3215 ABA  Qualifies at 2b/3b/of
SS   Reyes,J           26   31   2545 FAC  Unplanned but bidding stalled
MI   Punto,N            2    2   1213 DFB  Qualifies at 2b/3b

OF   Jones,A           30   27   4345 AAA  1 year removed from .334 OBP
OF   Beltran,C         25   29   4245 CAB  On the list and undervalued
OF   Jackson,A         20   25   3525 BAD  Across-the-board production
OF   Springer,G         9    8   4303 AFF  Always need a wild card
UT   Saunders,M         8   11   4315 ACC  Power, some speed
SW   Hoes,LJ            3   10   1323 ACB  High OBP, SB upside

Res  Maxwell,J               4   4403 DDB  Power, replaces Springer 

POS  PITCHER           $$   Prj  MAYBERRY
===  ================  ===  ===  ========
SP   Salazar,D         17   23   5503 ADA  High skill, huge discount
SP   Smyly,D           15   17   4403 BDD  High skill
SP   Hughes,P           4   -1   2303 DBA  A low cost speculation
SP   Morrow,B           2    3   3403 FBB  History of skills upside 
SP   Ramirez,E          3    0   3201 DDC  Hot '13 arm, now healthy
SP   Hutchison,D        3    2   3401 FFF  Ditto
RP   Allen,C            3    5   4510 ADA  Buy skills, not roles
RP   Farquhar,D         4    2   5510 ADC  Ditto
RP   Jones,N           14   11   5531 ADB  Role does have some value
 
Res  Phelps,D               -5   2301 DCC  Pitching backup
Res  Workman,B              -3   3301 AFF  Another mid-season wild-card
Res  Bell,H                  3   4500 ABB  Proven closer skills

In retrospect, I should have drafted more power. The unplanned Jose Reyes purchase threw me off course a little, though he is clearly a good commodity to own. Maxwell will initially slot into Springer's slot, and when Springer is promoted, the odd man out may end up being the speedy Hoes. We have to maximize the power.

Perhaps the best thing about this team is that nobody has written about it. No analyst has tabbed me as a team to beat. Heck, nobody here even thought to start a forum thread to analyze my roster. Given that our pre-season expectations are typically far off from reality, my sub-radar effort has to be very good news.

Onward...

RON'S HITS & ERRORS: For those of you who have not heard, I am running one-month fantasy leagues at ShandlerPark.com. These are salary cap games using many of the rules that I have been writing about here over the years (it's a modified 4x4 game). You get $300 of faux-cash to purchase 32 players (23 actives, 9 reserves). During the month, intra-roster moves can be made twice-weekly. We are running all 15-team mixed leagues with prizes to the top 7. You can play the Upper Deck game for free in April by using the discount code "1404free." Deadline is this Sunday at 9pm ET. Join us!
 

 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.