Weekly Notes: April 18, 2008

Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about this week:

  • I had planned to explore this in depth, but I got way too far off-topic with what I was writing to even think about posting it.  Here’s the condensed version: This week in the Wednesday night Bible class I’m teaching (3rd-5th grade), I had the opportunity to answer a difficult question about a doctrinal issue that makes the Churches of Christ unique.  I knew my answer beforehand, and it’s not what a majority of the church or its elders believe.  So, I was placed in the position of having to choose between advancing what I believe to be the truth and placating the elders and the kids’ parents by giving a politically correct answer.  I think I emerged unscathed, but I didn’t really tell the kids what I believe.  I mostly just read a few Bible passages and left it up to them to decide what they believed.  Ultimately, I was satisfied with the way I handled it, but since I deal mostly with adults, I’m not used to thinking about how to wield my influence (deserved or not) over kids.
  • I’m satisfied with last night’s episode of The Office for the first time in a while.  I’m afraid the show’s peak has passed, but last night’s “Chair Model”  (SPOILERS) had a solid balance of funny lines (“I don’t want to be the one that got away”), awkward moments (Michael’s “date” and trip to the graveyard), and effective plot-moving personal scenes (Pam’s sympathy for Michael, Kevin’s relationship struggles, and Jim’s engagement ring talking head scene).  B.J. Novak wrote the episode, so he’s probably an even better writer than he is acting the part of Ryan.
  • I didn’t watch Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, but I got the impression from reading snippets of the transcript that ABC has very little interest in helping Americans figure out which candidate is the best for our country.  The only remaining candidate whom I care to support (Obama) was subjected to some ridiculous questions that have very little bearing on his ability to handle the office of President.  ABC chose to increase ratings and focus on the easy talking points (Rev. Wright, Obama’s careless “bitter” remark) while avoiding the issues that ultimately matter.  I thought it was a strong opportunity for people-powered independent media to step up and distance themselves from the major networks, which have mostly been a letdown this campaign season when it comes to covering real issues.
  • There are a lot more major leaguers born in August than in July, and it’s no coincidence.  Slate had an interesting piece this week, revisiting some older research to suggest that little league baseball’s age cutoffs have an effect that lasts all the way into the major leagues.  It’s a quick read and quite interesting.  If you plan on preparing your children for that kind of path, you’d better start planning before conception.
  • Did you know that the next frontier of baseball analysis is already here?  I’ve been reluctant to really dive into it, but Pitch F/X will be the next stomping ground for the sabermetric community to learn about how the game works.  I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it before, but if you’re unfamiliar with this system, Mike Fast can get you thinking about it with this THT article.
  • The Braves continued to mock Pythagoras in Florida by losing another one-run game on Wednesday and then blowing out the Marlins last night.  I’d rather be on the 2007 D-Backs end of the spectrum than on this side, but at least I can take solace in the fact that aside from the bullpen, my team still looks pretty good on paper.  It’s still early, and they’re certainly not that far behind in the division.
  • It’s a good thing I didn’t try to stay up until my fantasy team was done playing last night.  Willy Taveras and Brian Fuentes are the only players I have from the Rockies or Padres, who last night played the longest regular season baseball game (by innings) in 15 years.  It ended just an hour and a half before I woke up, at about 4:21 this morning.  The Rockies won 2-1 in 22 innings, and Taveras went 3-for-10, scoring both runs.

Hopefully I’ll get motivated to write some more substantial posts in the coming weeks.  I’ve been sticking to the Braves-and-Notes formula for too long, but I have to come up with some ideas first.

What's going on?

It’s been a while since I checked in.

  • My fantasy baseball draft is Saturday, so I’m spending pretty much every free minute between now and then preparing for it.  Baseball season kind of sneaked up on me this year, since HU’s basketball season lasted longer than usual.  Combine that with the D-I tourney’s late start (March 20), and I have a bunch of things to track in the sports world.
  • I haven’t forgotten about reviewing HU’s last game and the season as a whole.  I’ll try to mix that kind of thing in with some baseball posts starting next week.  One thing I have learned in my last few months of blogging is that I shouldn’t give myself deadlines for posting stuff.  While I try to keep the content coming, I’m not going to make myself feel bad for going a week or more between posts.
  • Getting back to baseball, I’m going to try and keep up the same thing I was doing last year, with regular reviews of the previous week’s Braves games.  I may cut back on my own stat tracking and just point you to FanGraphs and some other awesome stat sites for the good stuff.  They’ve added some great pitch-type data in the last few weeks, by the way.
  • Throughout the offseason, I’ve been trying to figure out what the Braves are going to do for regional TV coverage of the 45 games that will be broadcast this year on Peachtree TV, an Atlanta local station that was formerly the TBS local feed.  I have Charter cable service in Ringgold, and as of yet, they have not officially announced an agreement to broadcast the games throughout the rest of the Braves’ TV footprint.  Comcast has agreed to carry them on CSS, which they jointly own with Charter, but opening day is less than a week away, and there’s still some question as to whether those games will be available for Charter subscribers.  More discussion can be found here.
  • I’ve been mostly pleased with my cable service over the years.  I had Comcast when I lived in Hamilton County, but when I moved to Georgia, my options were to get Charter if I wanted cable, or to use Ringgold Telephone Company’s TV service, or to get satellite TV.  Since the only acceptable internet option was Charter (some people don’t mind DSL, but I can’t stand the slow speed, especially at RTC’s high prices), I went with what I understood and chose cable TV.  After making the move to HD, though, satellite has caught my interest once again.  Aside from their handful of ESPN Sunday Night and FOX Saturday appearances, I won’t be seeing any of the Braves’ regular broadcasts in HD on Charter, despite the fact that both FSN and SportSouth (and apparently Peachtree) have HD feeds.  The only problem for now is that neither DirecTV nor Dish has confirmed that they will get the Peachtree games.  I’m leaning toward Dish if they do get the games, since like cable, DirecTV doesn’t offer the regional sports networks I want in HD.  Dish also has an awesome DVR service, from what I understand, and it’s cheaper than DirecTV.
  • Moving on to basketball, my brackets had a rough weekend, with my “official” bracket falling to the 31st percentile on ESPN.  I had the Devils losing in the title game in that bracket, but I still feel good about my other Final Four teams for now (Louisville, Kansas, Texas).  The path is easier for UCLA with all the upsets in the West region, so I think they should emerge from that group.  Ken Pomeroy has an excellent analysis of the remaining field at Basketball Prospectus.  My “by the numbers” bracket, in which I basically just picked the Pomeroy favorite in each matchup, is in the 98th percentile.  Perhaps I should rely less on my own instincts.  It’s too much fun to take some risks in filling out my bracket, or I would turn that in as my official one every year.

That’s all for now.

Weekly Notes: February 21, 2008

I didn’t do any notes last week, so here’s what’s going on:

  • Let’s start with a quick comment or two on today’s big NYT story about John McCain’s relationship with a lobbyist: I don’t much care about the adultery angle, nor do I think this was a sinister plot by the Times to destroy the GOP.  The most devastating timing of the story would have been in October, and because of McCain’s financing arrangement, it looks like he was going to be fine without receiving the Times’ endorsement.  So, the theory that they endorsed him to weed out the other guys, then dropped him at the first chance, doesn’t seem to hold up.
  • What concerns me about McCain is his inability to avoid ethical conundrums, when he has staked his recent political career on being the Republican campaign finance reform go-to guy, even against his party’s wishes.  To me, the story is substantive enough to be damaging from that perspective, but I already disagreed with him on enough issues that I probably wasn’t voting for him anyway.  Even though the NYT conspiracy theories are still a bit too far-fetched for me to believe, I fear that the spin on this story will be about the timing of the story’s release and subsequent accusations of the mainstream media’s supposed liberal bias, thus uniting Republicans who otherwise weren’t ready to back McCain and/or Huckabee.  I’m sure we’ll find out more about this in the coming days, if not later today.
  • Harding is up to #6 in the latest regional rankings, with four games to play.  I think a 4-0 finish would probably be enough to move into the top 5, which is important because a top-5 ranking in the final poll pretty much guarantees an NCAA Tournament berth (since there are 8 spots and 3 automatic bids for conference champs).  Winning the GSC Tournament is the only sure-fire way to make it, but I thought I’d throw this out there.
  • Right now, based on Log5 predictions of the remaining GSC games, Harding’s most likely finish is 3-1, which should be enough to maintain first place.  The two worst teams remain on their schedule, but Arkansas Tech and Christian Brothers are also left.
  • I try not to link every post from FJM, but here we go: This Is What We’re Up Against.  My favorite line among many good ones: [Referring to A-Rod vs. Jeter] “You would never, ever want a guy scientifically proven to be dramatically better at fielding.”
  • Melissa and I brought home two kittens this past weekend, and we’re having plenty of fun with them.  Glance at some pictures here.
  • Right now I’m reviewing some options for fantasy baseball leagues, since I’ve become dissatisfied with CBS over the last year or two.  I suppose not winning will do that to you, but what bothers me most is the roster setup, which mandates a very short bench.  CBS leagues have a 22-man active roster with just two bench spots, which isn’t enough for someone like me, who wants to hoard as many guys as possible.  More seriously, though, it’s just not as much fun when starting 2-3 injured players is a viable strategy.  If anyone’s had a good experience with a paid league, I’m all ears.  I’d rather not step back down to a free league, since those inevitably have only half the league paying attention by July.

Any other thoughts?  Leave them in the comments.

Fantasy Cornerstone: Buy low, Sell high

I don’t intend for this to be part of a series of fantasy baseball advice posts.  It’s not like you should listen to me as opposed to people who write for ESPN, Sportsline, or whatever other site you use.  After all, I’m in eighth place right now in my 10-team league.  Still, that won’t stop me from trying.

An important concept to realize over the first month of the season is that the stats are virtually useless for telling you who’s going to be good the rest of the year.  The sample size is just too small to say anything meaningful.  Then again, teams will make decisions on players based on early-season performance, so you’ll see a long hook for guys like J.J. Hardy and Heath Bell, who are probably playing a bit over their heads right now.

Hardy is especially important to me because he’s on my team this year.  My league is one of many online leagues where it’s very hard to trade, but I swapped Henry Owens for him straight up a week or two ago, and I’m already looking to deal him again.  It’s possible that he’s breaking out right now, but I’d rather move up in the world of shortstops (I already did, since I had Omar Vizquel before) than hang on and find out.  I’m looking for guys like Jimmy Rollins and Jose Reyes, if the other owners will even listen to me.

It’s important to be able to identify players like Hardy, since there’s more to buying low and selling high than just looking at the players’ basic stats.  I’ve used a little Excel trick (web queries) to create a master stats file for 2007.  It grabs current stats from major sources like Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times and puts them in an easily sortable Excel file, which I can then manipulate in whatever way I want.  It makes sifting through the current stats easier than just looking at players’ profiles on my league homepage, and it tells me a lot more, too.

For instance, I can see that J.J. Hardy’s PrOPS (predicted OPS based on batted ball data) is .903, a full 100 points short of his current OPS.  PrOPS is a great tool for making decisions early in the season, since it helps sort out some of the inconsistencies of simply looking at a player’s actual production.  The more accurately I can figure out a player’s actual performance, the better the value I can get for him.  While I might be able to expect Hardy to settle in with a .900 OPS (still great for a shortstop, by the way), I might want to move him in case someone else sees his .339/.396/.606 line and thinks he’s a superstar.

At the same time, I can also figure out players on whom I should buy low.  If someone’s under-performing on his OPS (a negative OPS-PrOPS) by a significant amount, he’s likely to recover well (assuming his team hasn’t already benched him by then, a la Wilson Betemit).  Fortunately for me, Ryan Howard, my #4 overall pick, is on the short list of players who should return to their normal level of solid performance (PrOPS of .979 compared to an OPS of .781).  For the same reason, Chris Snelling may have been a great buy-low guy for Oakland.  His .875 PrOPS in the NL will make him a solid reserve for Billy Beane if the A’s ever get healthy.

For pitchers, I think the best way to evaluate over- or under-performance is through DIPS (defense independent pitching) theory.  A good portion of the variation in pitching stats is due to the performance of the defense.  While it’s hard to find a good version of DIPS online, THT does a pretty good job estimating it with Tangotiger’s similarly-named FIP (fielding independent pitching).

FIP is a very simple formula that uses only walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed (the “three true outcomes” that a pitcher can control best) to predict future performance.  It does that well, just like PrOPS, actually predicting future ERA better than ERA itself.  THT even goes a step further with an “expected” FIP based on even more factors.  The bottom line is that you can use either in a FIP-ERA formula to figure out the good buy-low/sell-high players at this point in the season.  The more luck you can filter out of a player’s performance, the better off you are.

The top names on the buy-low list includes another one of my own guys, Milwaukee’s David Bush.  With a 6.03 ERA, you’d think he’s a prime candidate to lose his rotation spot once the Brewers call on Yovani Gallardo (a current stashee on my roster, and one of the consensus top pitching prospects in baseball).  However, Bush has an FIP of just 3.45 and an even lower xFIP of 3.28.  Needless to say, I won’t be falling for anyone trying to use this strategy against me with him.  Bush’s track record and solid command so far this year suggests he’ll turn things around, which is more than can be said for another prominent Bush right now (sorry, I had to).  Other guys on my list include Aaron Harang (FIP of 2.64), Matt Belisle (2.38), and Anthony Reyes (4.01, and another one of my guys).

On the other end, I’d sell high on Brad Penny (FIP of 3.63 compared to a 1.64 ERA), Tom Glavine (3.27/5.06), and Rich Hill (1.73/3.51), the last of whom I’ve been aggressively shopping from my own team.

This strategy is one of several key areas of in-season fantasy play, and it’s perhaps the least used, from what I’ve seen in fellow reactionary owners.  While it’s fun to ride out a player’s hot streak, the chances are that it will end (and for some, badly).  Some fantasy owners are good at scouring the waiver wire for prospects and hot players, while others make the most of playing the right matchups.  After the draft, there’s still plenty of work to do, and mastering this area will help you stay on top all season.  Or, if you’re in my boat, it can at least give you hope that you won’t be in 8th place all year.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

(NOTE: Stats are through Sunday, 5/6)

Analyzing the standings before the season

It would seem like an exercise in futility to try and predict your fantasy league’s standings before the season even starts, but to me it’s actually worthwhile.  Actually, I find it important to do so during the draft, because it can help you see which categories are worth chasing the lead in and which you can ignore for a while.  Last night, it helped me see that I was high in the rate stats (batting average, ERA, and WHIP), so I could focus in the later rounds on power categories, maybe steals, or strikeouts.  The result is a fairly balanced team with a chance to win pretty much any category except saves, which (as usual) were highly over-valued.

For all this talk about my detailed draft strategy, my team is perhaps not as good as I would like.  In years past, I’ve predicted that I would get 80 of a possible 100 points (scoring goes down from 10 to 1 in each category based on team standings), which would destroy the competition in most leagues.  This year, I’m predicting just 68 points, but enough for a win in a very close league.

The way I make these predictions is not just by taking the league’s standings based on my player projections, although that is the main idea.  I actually take each team’s z-score for a category, which tells me how many standard deviations above or below average each team is in each category.  While that means five teams could finish with six points in a category in my estimates (in other words, it’s not going to be accurate in that way), it seems like a better way to get a feel for where each team stands at the start of the season.

Below are my predicted standings using that method:

Hitting
Team Order Name AVG R HR RBI SB Total
1 1 West Coast Fresh 8.3 9.2 7.3 8.0 3.7 36.5
2 7 Connor’s Maulers 2.0 10.0 7.7 9.3 6.7 35.7
3 4 Just Over The Wall 9.1 5.7 7.6 7.0 5.8 35.2
4 8 Daffy DingersIII 1.0 9.2 10.0 10.0 4.8 35.0
5 6 CFM 7.2 6.0 7.2 8.6 3.9 32.9
6 10 GOBIGORANGE 2 7.9 6.9 4.0 3.6 10.0 32.4
7 2 downtown2 3.9 4.6 9.4 9.5 3.1 30.5
8 5 Diphthongs 6.9 6.9 1.0 3.5 6.1 24.5
9 3 Twitchy Cansecos 10.0 2.8 2.9 1.0 7.4 24.1
10 9 Scatmanners 6.3 1.0 8.9 3.9 1.0 21.0
Pitching
Team Order Name ERA WHIP W SV K Total
1 5 Diphthongs 10.0 9.1 7.3 4.2 6.0 36.6
2 4 Just Over The Wall 8.1 10.0 6.7 2.0 6.0 32.8
3 3 Twitchy Cansecos 8.1 5.1 3.1 9.0 4.4 29.7
4 6 CFM 4.9 3.1 2.7 10.0 4.6 25.2
5 9 Scatmanners 1.0 1.9 10.0 1.0 10.0 23.9
6 7 Connor’s Maulers 3.2 3.4 3.1 8.8 4.3 22.8
7 8 Daffy DingersIII 3.2 1.0 1.9 10.0 3.8 19.8
8 2 downtown2 4.3 3.2 2.9 6.2 3.1 19.8
9 1 West Coast Fresh 4.4 2.3 1.5 7.8 3.2 19.3
10 10 GOBIGORANGE 2 1.9 1.3 1.0 8.6 1.0 13.8
Totals
Team Order Name Hitting Pitching Overall
1 4 Just Over The Wall 35.2 32.8 68.0
2 5 Diphthongs 24.5 36.6 61.1
3 7 Connor’s Maulers 35.7 22.8 58.5
4 6 CFM 32.9 25.2 58.2
5 1 West Coast Fresh 36.5 19.3 55.8
6 8 Daffy DingersIII 35.0 19.8 54.8
7 3 Twitchy Cansecos 24.1 29.7 53.8
8 2 downtown2 30.5 19.8 50.4
9 10 GOBIGORANGE 2 32.4 13.8 46.2
10 9 Scatmanners 21.0 23.9 44.8

As you can see, I actually do predict myself to finish first, so the draft wasn’t a total disaster.  (Since I’m using my own projections for this analysis, it would be a disaster if I didn’t predict that.)  The column for “Order” is the team’s draft position.  The draft was “snake-style,” where the teams reverse the selection order for even-numbered rounds.

From these standings, it looks like I’m only slightly above average in power and steals, and actually slightly below average in runs.  Saves are a loss for me, unless both Wheeler and Linebrink become their teams’ closers mid-season.  Moving up from there, I’m moderately above average in strikeouts.  Even though I have seven starters, having a guy like Maddux reduces my potential there.  I’m hoping Rich Hill really turns it on, though.  Wins, ERA, and batting average show me as about a full standard deviation above average, which is pretty comfortable.  Then we have WHIP, where I expect to win the category unless Lieber’s replacement is a very low-end starter.  The total of all this comes out to a win for me, and a second place finish for my friend (and #5-picking draft neighbor Doug).

If I can work out the details on a better estimation method than this (I have an idea for one, but I’m not sure it will work), I’ll post those later today.

The 2007 jfwiii All-Stars

Or, in other words, my fantasy team.  I drafted my team last night, and as usual, there were plenty of surprises during the draft.  I’ll get to those in a minute, but first, I have a disclaimer/explanation:

I know no one really cares about anyone else’s fantasy baseball team, unless it’s another team in your own league.  Fantasy baseball is arguably the lowest-maintenance fantasy sport, especially when you play with rotisserie (category accumulation) style scoring.  That’s what I do, and I play in an NL-only league, which makes my team even less interesting to some baseball fans.  At any rate, this post is mainly here to serve as an introduction to the “meat” of what I want to write about, which is my fantasy strategy, rather than just my fantasy team.  I feel like I need to share the team details first, however.

So, here’s my lineup for a 10-team NL-only league with 5×5 scoring (which, if you’re not familiar, includes batting average, runs, homers, RBI, steals, ERA, WHIP, wins, saves, and strikeouts):

C – Ronny Paulino (PIT)
C – Miguel Montero (ARI)
1B – Ryan Howard (PHI)
2B – Ray Durham (SF)
3B – Scott Rolen (STL)
SS – Omar Vizquel (SF)
OF – Jason Bay (PIT)
OF – Jeff Francoeur (ATL)
OF – Willy Taveras (COL)
OF – Chris B. Young (ARI)
OF – Corey Hart (MIL)
U – Scott Thorman (ATL)
U – Wes Helms (PHI)

P – Ben Sheets (MIL)
P – Dave Bush (MIL)
P – Anthony Reyes (STL)
P – Rich Hill (CHC)
P – Greg Maddux (SD)
P – Dan Wheeler (HOU)
P – Orlando Hernandez (NYM)
P – Scott Linebrink (SD)
P – Jon Lieber (PHI)*

*Will be dropped this week for an injury replacement…he was my last pick anyway.

Overall, I’m mildly pleased by my team.  I thought the rest of the league did a fantastic job at the draft, with at least 4-5 other owners consistently taking picks off the top of my board.  I’m pretty solid in every category, perhaps with an emphasis in batting average and ERA/WHIP.  Obviously I’ve pretty much punted saves, but I do have two closers-in-waiting (Wheeler and Linebrink) who should help me out in the rate categories even if they never finish a game.

Where did I go wrong?

Well, the #4 pick may have been the first place, because I didn’t take the guy who was theoretically at the top of my draft board.  Every year, it seems like pitchers are undervalued, but when I follow my spreadsheets, I always end up way ahead in pitching and needing to make up ground in hitting.  I decided to adjust for this in my head and take an unconventional-for-me balanced hitting/pitching approach.

For a few years now, I have been using the method that noted sabermetrician Tangotiger seems to think is the most reasonable way to value players in fantasy.  Basically, the idea is to take the players you expect to be drafted, find the standard deviations of each of the stat categories, and use that to figure out how many SDs above average each player is in each category.  The mathematical way of saying that would be to find each player’s z-score for each category, and add them all up into one rating.  You also have to find a player’s real contribution to the team in batting average, ERA, and WHIP, rather than just using the rate stats themselves.  Tango explains all that and more in the post linked above, and you end up using what he calls xH (and I guess x.  Then you adjust for positional strength (I use replacement level at each position) and you’re done.  It’s actually simpler than it sounds, although I make a few additional adjustments during the draft to reflect my own team’s changing composition.

As it turns out, I had a bug in my spreadsheets that may have caused me not to draft ideally from the middle rounds on.  I pretty much had to wing it at the end of the draft because of this bug, but I don’t think it affected my team substantially.  It caused me to weight several of the categories and one of the positions improperly, but since I was mainly looking for players at specific positions at that point, it probably didn’t affect me too much.

Next, I’ll look at the standings I would predict for my league using my own player projections.  It would be a shame if I didn’t come out on top using my own system, but we’ll see how I did.

Opening Day on the Senior Circuit

…”The Senior Circuit” being the name of my Sportsline fantasy baseball league, that is.  I’m starting to lose count of how many years I’ve been playing fantasy now, but I think it’s probably about the 10th year I’ve had a team that I drafted (instead of one of those other online salary cap-style leagues).  I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and I’ve now finished first or second in every league I’ve played in for the last four years.  Each time, it was a Sportsline Gold NL-only league with 10 teams, since I don’t really like the AL, and I don’t follow it as closely.

This year will hopefully be the same story, although I’ve probably been fortunate to have done so well recently.  It’s hard to expect to do that well, even though I’d like to think I really know what I’m doing.

Tonight will be the first step toward another successful year, and in many ways, it is the most important one: the draft.  It’s vitally important to be able to draft well, and most people in Sportsline Gold leagues do a fairly decent job, so I’ll have my work cut out for me.

This week on the blog, I’ll share a little bit about my strategy and my team for this year.  I’ll also look at the projections I used for drafting and talk about some of the more interesting players, draft steals and busts, and a run-down of the Braves roster for 2007.  All of this will culminate in my yearly predictions post, where I will predict each team’s record, postseason results, and some of the award winners.  Hopefully I can do all of that before the Final Four games on Saturday, but we’ll see.

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