When most baseball fans hear the word Tinker, they think of the player beginning one of the most famous double play combinations in the history of the game. For those that play in the NFBC, the word also represents a conundrum they face twice a week, whether or not to tinker with their lineup.
Those that began playing fantasy baseball within the past 10 or 12 years may not realize that the original incarnation of the game did not include reserve lists that may house active Major League players that could be freely inserted into your lineup, with the corresponding benching of a then-active player. The original reserve lists were comprised solely of players on the disabled list, in the Minors or perhaps traded to the other league if the league was an “only” format. In fact, once a player on your reserve was activated to a Major League roster, you had a set number of transaction periods to act on the player or he would be released back into the available player pool. For those wondering what you did with an under-producing player, the answer is grin-and-bear it. That’s right, you were stuck with the player unless you could replace him with someone coming off the DL, promoted from the minors or you could work out a multi-player deal so you could bump him off your squad. While there was a weekly waiver draft, only those that had a player on the DL, demoted to the farm or dealt to the other league in only formats were eligible to participate. FAAB was not part of the fantasy baseball lexicon.
With this as a backdrop, those relatively new to the hobby may now have a little better appreciation for why we old-school gamers espouse practicing excruciating patience with the players that less than a month ago, we drafted with certain expectations in mind. The reason is because we had no choice! But the practice did help teach us a valuable lesson. More often than not, your virtuous patience is rewarded as water almost always finds its level. And by year’s end, the player would produce as anticipated.
But the game has changed. Single league formats no longer dominate as Mixed Leagues have overtaken the landscape. The aforementioned FAAB (free agent acquisition budget) has become a popular means to replace anyone on your active roster, regardless of their status. And the advent of reserve lists in part comprised of active Major League players has introduced a completely new dynamic.
Now, instead of having to absorb the beatings given to Javier Vazquez, or wait for Carlos Lee to snap out of his doldrums, you can choose to bench the struggling performer until they right their ways. And because the available substitute players are of higher quality in Mixed Leagues than they are in the deeper single formats, the urge to tinker is quite tempting.
While it is simple to suggest just play your best players, it is human nature to want to tinker. Players look like they are in a slump or in a groove. And even though research suggests the difference between a hot streak and a slump is usually happenstance so it is best to just leave your better player active, today’s culture has us wired for immediate results.
In addition, there is a bounty of newfangled stats which we are just paining to incorporate in our analysis.
So what is an NFBC player to do? More often than not, practicing excruciating patience is still the right call. While it may be difficult watching a team or two rack up the counting stats because they remain injury- and slump-free, as the saying goes, it is a marathon, not a sprint. At some point, that team will suffer a key injury or have a player endure a prolonged slump. And you know what? The available replacements at that time are likely of poorer quality than early in the season, so relatively speaking, they may actually suffer more than the person wallowing early.
There is a new rule in the NFBC this season allowing hitters to be switched in and out of lineups on Friday. And while the intent is to help minimize the effect of mid-week injuries, it opens up the opportunity to micro-manage your squad with mid-week lineup alterations.
But preaching patience and practicing it is often easier said than done. There are actually two different conundrums present. The first is how long to stick with an underperformer, especially if we have reasonable alternatives. Hand in hand with these new metrics is learning the sample size necessary before their information yields statistically significant data. Really delving into this goes beyond the intent of this essay, but suffice it to say the answer is not weeks, but months, anywhere between two and five, depending on the measurement in question. So unfortunately, there is no “correct” answer to judge how long to keep Javy Vazquez or Carlos Lee active. The best thing we can do is focus on their component skills as opposed to their surface stats. Is Vazquez fanning batters at his usual rate? Is he walking people or allowing more homers than usual? If a player’s skills are intact, the best call is to ride the storm out. If their skills are not up to par, for instance if a hitter is fanning way more than usual, you may want to reserve him until his contact picks up.
The second scenario involves decisions with players at the fringes, both hitting and pitching. The depth of the NFBC Classic 15-team format is such that each team undoubtedly has a handful of players that are not complete no-brainers to leave active, with players of similar quality on reserve. In fact, some plan it this way, hoping to upgrade a fungible spot or two over the course of the season.
Compounding the issue is that there is no proven method to properly select what players will perform better in any given week. We all think we have a means that makes intuitive sense, but in fact, there are several studies that demonstrate these efforts are in a word, fruitless. For instance, it has been clearly shown that a hitter’s past history versus a pitcher is not predictive of future performance and vice versa. So while talk show hosts, beat writers, game announcers and yes, even some fantasy analysts like to talk about how someone is 6 for 11 with a pair of homers versus a certain pitcher, that is not sufficient reason to have that player active for that matchup. Similarly, if the hitter is 0 for 12, he should not be reserved solely because of this.
So are there any discernable factors that can be used to help with lineup decisions? Absolutely, we will start with hitters and then review pitching. This discussion is going to assume helping out in specific categories is not part of the equation as that supercedes any other analysis. We will discuss category management later in the season as it becomes more apropos.
It has been shown that a player’s skills are about 10% superior at home as compared to on the road. The actual percentage does not matter, the point is in the case of a tie, it is not just intuition but research data that dictates starting the player at home, hitter or pitcher. And while I am not a huge fan of park data, there are extreme hitter’s parks and extreme pitcher’s parks that indeed impact performance, so this too can be used as a tiebreaker. Another measurable factor pertains to base stealers as there are some teams more adept at controlling the running game and some completely inept, so if the choice is between a base stealer and power hitter of similar value, the opponent does matter. So long as you take the potential of a platoon type player sitting, you can simply count the number of games a hitter has, especially with the new Friday rule. And even though past performance in small samples is not indicative of future performance, if one hitter is slated to face a couple of the better starting pitchers while another will square off against typical middle of the rotation types, it is justifiable to choose the softer matchup.
Managing pitching shares a couple of the same factors as hitting, namely the home field advantage and park effects. It is also possible to identify strong and weak matchups based on quality of opponent, although as anyone who has done this will attest, results are far from foolproof. Perhaps the most difficult lineup decision is choosing between a lesser pitcher with a pair of starts scheduled that week versus a better one with a single start. Preliminary site research suggests it is always best to go with the better pitcher, unless the matchups are at home versus decidedly weak opponents.
To summarize up to this point, the most prudent means of managing your team is to allow the best players to do their thing and use a selected few factors to help make the decision on the fringes. But some of us are still too obstinate and want to find every edge.
An angle I am exploring is utilizing something Bill James reminds us, and that is extreme data in small samples might be real. As an example, previously, it was suggested that a player being 0 for 12 against a pitcher should not impact the decision to play him. But if that line comes with 8 strikeouts, perhaps there some reason for concern. And if the hitter that is 6 for 11 against a certain pitcher hit four homers and a double against him, maybe he does have a better chance for success.
In a similar vein, it was just suggested that the difference between hot and cold streaks are mostly luck, namely the fate of the batted ball. Did it find leather or land safely? But what if in the midst of a cold streak, the batter is striking out at an alarming rate? Maybe he is indeed struggling and should be reserved until the frequency of fanning fades. Or in a hot streak, what if he is rarely whiffing? Could this be an indication the player is truly in a groove and should be deployed over a historically better hitter? As it is suggested above, perhaps thus is a focus of some more site research.
But until we can clearly demonstrate a means of crunching a small sample of short term data to produce more reliable results than what is displayed by a larger sample, it is best to let history be our guide and play our best players so long as they are healthy and utilize our reserves only in the event of an injury. Then use the limited amount of cognitive analysis we presently have to manage at the fringes, maximizing the opportunity for success.