The Sweeney Plan revisited

By Phil Hertz

Ever since fanalytic baseball became popular, owners of teams have been trying strategies to maximize their chances of success. For many if not most Baseball HQ readers, the strategy of choice in some manner or form has been and continues to be the LIMA plan. Before LIMA, however, owners attempted numerous other strategies that met with varied success. One such plan was the “Sweeney Plan,” so named after an owner in the American Dream League who used it successfully about a decade ago.

Under Sweeney, an owner goes into the draft with a plan to deliberately ignore all players who hit homers and drive in runs. Instead, the owner in building his or her offense concentrates on high average/speed guys and then fills the roster with players who won't hurt a team's batting average. In 2013, Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn, among others, would fit the definition of the players such an owner would seek to build the offense around. The idea is that by getting a couple such hitters, one can allocate more dollars to pitching and thus dominate the pitching categories.

Alex Patton, who together with Peter Kreutzer, used it successfully at the outset of Tout Wars, estimates that you can put together a Sweeney team with as little as $100 on offense. That, of course, would leave an owner $160 to put together a top-flight pitching staff.

As you can imagine, there are inherent problems with this strategy, starting with the most obvious – you've immediately punted two categories. That means that, in a 12-team, 4x4 league, your maximum total is 74 points – last place in homers and RBIs and first place finishes in the other six categories. Of course, expecting to finish first in every other category is an expectation not often fulfilled.

Other problems that arose over the years included the possibility that someone would notice your strategy and bid up the Carl Crawfords of the world. There have been very few players who have been consistently among the stolen base leaders, and the relative dearth of players who make a living stealing bases inflates their value. Also, one has to remember that even the best pitching expenditures can often backfire -– remember Tim Lincecum last season.

And, there are rules that all but preclude use of the Sweeney strategy. For example, many leagues now have At Bat minimums, making it difficult to put together a roster that will win the batting average category without more of an investment than $100. Sweeney also is problematic in 5x5 leagues, since in all likelihood, a roster composed of a couple of base thieves and space fillers would not be very competitive in Runs Scored. That in turn would mean an owner was effectively punting three categories. While such a strategy might avoid a bottom of the pack finish, it is not going to produce a contender.

So, if the Sweeney Plan is fraught with so many problems, why waste your time considering it? The answer is, with a couple of tweaks, Sweeney may prove to be a strategy you can consider using. Indeed, over the past few years, there have been owners who have succeed with a modified Sweeney plan.

Under a modified Sweeney, there are two major changes from the original plan. The first is that, instead of trying to win the stolen base category, you try to dominate the category. The other is that, in addition to the speed/average players you build around, you want to try to get one or two legitimate hitters, preferably with a modicum of speed; i.e., a likelihood to steal a dozen or more bases. Thus, looking at last year's National League players, you would have wanted to start not only with Michael Bourn, who with not much support would likely have guaranteed a first place finish, but at least two and preferably three other base stealers.

By dominating the category from the start of the season, the owner is free to start trading the base stealers as the season proceeds. Thus, for example, if a team has a big lead in stolen bases, one can move Reyes or Bourn or Altuve to an owner who is badly trailing in stolen bases. The owner obtaining such a runner could well envision a gain of several points and might well be prepared to give up significant value for such a gain. The owner trading the speed would have the option of shoring up his pitching if one or more of his pitching acquisitions had not worked out or, more preferably, obtaining a power hitter. The owner could do this a second, or even a third time later in the season to acquire the statistics in the category in which he or she can make the most gains.

The need to have a couple of “normal” hitters from the outset is to enable the owner to contend for at least a few points in homers and RBIs (and runs) when he starts dumping speed. Thus, the owner can't be in a position of falling dramatically behind in homers and RBIs during the first 10 weeks of the season, but if the owner can stay within shouting distance of a couple of teams in each of the power categories, then he could potentially gain four or more points over a true Sweeney Plan owner.

That, in turn, means that the overall potential points would go from 74 in Sweeney to 80 or more in Sweeney modified. Further, if one is really working the standings, one can direct the stolen bases to a team competing with your main competitors in stolen bases. Thus, by directing the steals to someone near the bottom of the pack, but not contending for first place, you may be helping that team to pass the team who is competing for first place overall in the stolen base category.

A real life example of how this worked:

June 1: Mod. Sweeney team first in SBs by 34; last in homers by 12.
End of season: Mod. Sweeney team still in first by 15; 8th in (an 11-team league) homers.
Those extra three points in homers (and two additional points in RBIs) was part of the difference in a two-point victory. The other part was the ultimate sixth place finisher passing the ultimate second place finisher in stolen bases.

Notwithstanding, the modified Sweeney Plan is not advised in every, or even most, situations. While it can work, you are still faced with problems in making it work. Not the least of which is the lack of consistency already noted in base stealers -– it only takes a groin pull to make a Brett Gardner significantly less valuable than you thought. Also, while the lack of big stealers seemingly means you can corner the category with only a couple of players, it also means that you must get those guys, and that could well drive up their cost significantly (and if you're in a keeper league, it's probable that they might not be available).

A second drawback... the need to get a solid hitter or two, combined with being judicious with the supporting cast, will mean that less money is available for pitching and that means an increased risk of not finishing near the top in the pitching categories. The modified Sweeney Plan would probably cost $130-150 on offense, unless one was lucky.

So when should you I go to the modified Sweeney Plan? One situation would occur if, during the draft, you were consistently being outbid for big boppers, but determine that you could grab a couple of the jack rabbits for less than market value. Another scenario would be as part of a two-year plan in a keeper league.

Assume that in year one, things went awry due to hitting injuries; for example, you drafted Troy Tulowitzki, Pablo Sandoval and Logan Morrison. One could, during the first season, trade your remaining power hitters for speed/average guys who are relative bargains -– last year, for example, one could have targeted Altuve, Ben Revere or Jarrod Dyson. Typically, it's easier to trade power for speed during the year so you might very well find other teams willing to make such a deal.

Such a strategy could help in two ways. First, you might actually improve your current season finish by gaining points in stolen bases and average. Even if such an improvement doesn't put you in the money, the improvement could be important if your league parcels out picks or dollars based on finish. The second and more important benefit would be to position you for the next season with speed/average bargains which would make the modified Sweeney Plan a viable option.

Bottom line: Don't necessarily be going into your draft planning to use the modified Sweeney strategy, but do have the strategy tucked away if things don't go the way you anticipate at the draft or once the season gets rolling.