HQVAULT: When it's Time to Fish or Cut Bait

Over the nearly 20 years that BaseballHQ.com has been in existence, and going back another decade to the Baseball Forecaster newsletter, we have accumulated hundreds of articles on fantasy strategy. These reside in the Strategy Library section of the site, and many include timeless tips on all aspects of fantasy league play, at various times in the fantasy league calendar. In a series to run occasionally throughout the season, we will be highlighting selected articles from the Library as part of a HQVAULT series. We welcome reader interaction with these older articles in the comments section below. Enjoy! —Ed.

When it's Time to Fish or Cut Bait

by John Burson and Scott Monroe

At some point in the season, most GMs face the decision of whether to pursue the pennant or bow out for the year. This issue has less gravity for GMs in non-keeper leagues, because the only alternative to fighting is hibernating. But GMs in keeper leagues have a real choice. For second-tier teams in both leagues, this essay will examine ways of settling your course.

Run full-league projections
This is the single most important step that you can take. List the rosters, fill in both their year-to-date stats and their projected balance-of-year numbers, and compile the predicted standings. Yes, this exercise takes two hours or so, but the resulting perspective is invaluable. There is no wishfulness in the numbers. They may be off somewhat—no projections should be taken as gospel, and deviations from performance are inevitable, particularly as October nears—but over a full roster, biases should mostly offset.

From the placement of the top team in the predicted standings, and anticipating constructive moves by its GM, you can estimate how many points it will take to win. From the placement of your team—the categories in which you can gain ground, the areas in which you can deal from strength or weakness—you can estimate how many points you can amass. (You don't have to vie in all categories. In a tight race, where 70 points could take it all, you may be able to ditch one or two stats and still have a shot.) Now, take 90% of your total to account for bad luck and foiled designs. If your revised total is larger than the leader's, you're still in the race.

Run an upside/downside table
Unlike projections, this table doesn't isolate player stats. Instead, this simple table compares year-to-date and balance-of-year values for hitters and pitchers. For example, an upside/downside table of a typical generic pitching staff might look like this:

               Current  Balance 
Pitcher1        $8       $7 
Pitcher2       -$6      $11 
Pitcher3        $8      -$4 
Pitcher4        $4       $5 
Pitcher5        $5       $7 
Pitcher6       $18      $15 
Pitcher7        $1       $1 
Pitcher8       $10       $3 
Pitcher9       -$5       $9 
TOTAL          $43      $54 

This table gives the degree of upside or downside in your staff—here in this generic example, there's upside of 25%. This number is not perfect, because you probably have not owned all of your guys for the full season to date. Nevertheless, this number gives an idea of whether to expect better or worse performance from this crew than you've seen so far. Downsides beyond 15% suggest rough waters ahead, whereas a 15% upside indicates ready improvement without a need for trades.

Knock out a wall
Have you run full-league projections? Good. Now, delete your best hitter. What shape are you in now? What about your next-best hitter? What about your best hurler? If the loss of one player knocks you down five or more points in the standings, your roster may be too sensitive to an injury or out-of-league trade to survive the next three months.

Grade the bait
In a keeper league, the quality of one's keepers is as vital as the strength of one's stats, because keepers can essentially be "converted" to stats. Assign your keepers an "A," "B," or "C," depending on the player's potential, the gap between his current salary and likely future value, and the number of years left on his contract. With half a season to go, an "A" keeper may bring 4-5 points in the standings; a "B" keeper, 2-3 points; and a "C" keeper, 1-2 points. (As a rule of thumb, 10 HR = 10 SB = 33 RBI = 4 W = 6 SV = 1 point.) Do this exercise for the top three teams, too. How do you stack up? Do you have enough of an edge in keepers to make up for a deficit in stats? (This grading assumes 7-15 keepers. If your league allows fewer keepers, then the market for keepers shrinks, so ignore "C"-level guys.)

Grade the fish
Of course, bait won't catch fish in an empty pond. Identify the attractive non-keepers on the block in your league. Are there non-keepers in the areas that you'll need, of the values that match your keepers? (On average, a player adds one point to the standings for every $5 of projected value.) Your best chances are in a league where there are neither too few keepers, because one or two deals by your enemies could spell the end of trading, nor too many keepers, because you want your deals to deplete the talent pool for your foes.

Eye your diversification
Diversification refers to players whose fortunes are tied. Examples of linked guys include two starters on one MLB team, a starter and his closer, and a cleanup man and his leadoff man. In each case, the values of both players ride in part on the fortunes of each other or on those of other players on the same MLB team. A diversified roster—one with few tied players—reduces your risk and so limits your downside (but also your upside).

Now, your appetite for diversification depends on your outlook for the season. The further out of first place, the more risk your roster should possess. A team that is currently leading but is poorly diversified may be setting itself up for a tumble. On the other hand, a second-tier team with distributed talent won't be able to take advantage of lucky bursts of good performance among linked players. See if the make-up of your team matches your place in the standings.

Decide if you should punt a category
If you're considering punting a category, you are attempting to find a strategic way around some limitations that have borne themselves out on your roster, while still making every attempt to win the league or finish in the money. There's a lot to consider when determining if this is a viable strategy, including if you are bunched tightly in the other categories such that a small improvement can net you several standings points.  If there are wide gaps in many of the remaining categories, then punting might not have the desired effect.  You should also consider if there is enough time left in the season to implement a successful punting strategy.

When deciding to punt, you also must weigh the affect that your traded players will have on other categories as well. Here's a look at possible categories to punt, and what else is affected:

  • Saves: This is probably the easiest category to punt, especially if you play in a 5X5 league. Trading a closer will hurt you somewhat in ERA and WHIP, but the actual effect of trading away 30 innings of a good ERA and WHIP won't really have that much of an effect.
  • SBs: Much easier to do in 4X4 than in 5X5, since Runs are heavily tied to top-of-the-order speedsters. If you don't have Runs as a category, then punting SBs is definitely a viable option.
  • Wins: Also much easier in 4X4, since you don't have Strikeouts to worry about as well. Punting Wins is very viable in 4X4—you're basically going to a mid-season LIMA plan. But in 5X5, punting Wins also means you are likely punting Strikeouts as well.
  • HR/RBI: Very difficult to pull off in 4X4, and especially difficult in 5X5 since your top power producers also score a lot of runs as well. In standard roto, if your league's categories are so tightly bunched that you have a chance to win the other six categories by making improvements in each, then pulling off a "Sweeney Plan" might be possible.
  • ERA/WHIP: Easier to do in 5X5 than in 4X4, because you are adding as many mediocre starters as you can which will help in both Wins and Strikeouts. You need to be able to also finish well in Saves too.
  • Avg: Punting this category could work equally well in 4X4 or 5X5. If you're floundering in this category, might as well sell off any high average hitters for others that can help you in power, or SBs, or pitching.

Expect a fight

The biggest error that a GM can make in weighing his chances is viewing his foes as static. They aren't. It does no good to trade all your prospects to reach the leader, if he can then trade all his prospects to surge back ahead. If you're well behind the leader in both predicted standings and top-level keepers, discretion may be the better part of valor.

Let's say that your team passes muster. What to do now? It's time to drive home the title.

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