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)

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