Fantasy vs. reality: Know the difference
May 27, 2008 9 Comments
I have a very ambivalent relationship in my head with fantasy baseball. On the one hand, reading about it when I was 10 probably had a direct influence on the fact that now I spend a lot of time playing with numbers in baseball. I’ve played fantasy baseball (although not this year, oddly enough) and I’ve even written about it here and there (and there and there). Plus, it’s a fun way to keep in touch with some friends and to have an excuse to talk about baseball all summer. It’s just that fantasy baseball drives me nuts as a Sabermetrician because it seems to me that, when watching actual baseball, we’ve gotten to a point where players are evaluated (at least by broadcasters and the general public) more by how good they are as fantasy players, rather than, well, real life players. After all, I bet most of the knowledge that people have about players on teams in other cities comes from fantasy-related publications, and if he’s good in fantasy, that must translate over into real life, right?
Maybe this effect is even carrying over into real life. Over the past off-season, J.C. Bradbury, who wrote The Baseball Economist, and operates the must-read Sabernomics blog, pointed out that over the past off-season, Brewers’ free agents Scott Linebrink and Francisco Cordero both signed four year contracts at roughly about the same time. If you cover up their “saves” columns for their careers, they both had roughly the same track record coming into the 2008 season. Why did Cordero ($46 million) get twenty-seven million dollars more than Linebrink ($19 million) over those four years? Saves, after all, are a fantasy category.
The problem, of course, is that fantasy baseball usually relies on a bunch of stats that make Sabermetricians cringe. The usual AVG, HR, RBI, SB, and R for batters and W, SV, ERA, WHIP, and K for pitchers in a 5×5 league are a mixed bag of stats when you evaluate them. So, I present to you 8 players who are much better in your fantasies than they are in real life and 8 players who you will overlook if you just use a fantasy lens. A lot of the explanations mirror one another, but they’re ways that the fantasy stats can fool you into believing that a player is better or worse than he really is.
(All stats were current as of Saturday afternoon when I wrote this. It doesn’t matter if the stats change a little bit. These are archetypes that will appear again and again in baseball so long as fantasy players are out there.)
Players who are much better in your fantasies:
1) Gavin Floyd (owned in 70% of ESPN fantasy leagues). Floyd has all the markers of a massive disappointment heading into the rest of the season. A lot of owners noticed him when he almost threw that no-hitter, and I have to say, the numbers so far are tempting. He’s 4-3, but with a 2.93 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. A fantasy owner’s… um, fantasy, right? Maybe not. The number one rule of looking at WHIPs is to know whether it’s the W or the H that’s driving that WHIP. If a pitcher is giving up a lot of walks, that’s probably not going to change. If he’s giving up a lot of hits, that very well could change, especially if he’s gotten lucky in the BABIP department. Floyd is walking 4+ batters per nine innings (more than he’s striking out). His BABIP is .177, well under the usual .300. Prognosis: that WHIP will not last, because Floyd will probably give up more hits. Sell high now while he still looks shiny. See also: Ryan Dempster (100% ownership), Tim Redding (24%).
2) Andy Sonnanstine (9%), is getting some nibbles because he’s picked up six wins (against only two losses) and three of those wins have been gems (a shut out, and two performances of 8-innings, 1-run). The 5.09 ERA and 1.32 WHIP are nothing great, but maybe out of a fifth starter spot, it’s nice to pick up a few wins. Plus, he leads the Devil Rays in wins, and they’re in a surprising second place, and “wins are what it’s all about!” Right? Not exactly. My colleague, Eric Seidman, has written about how a starting pitcher can get a little lucky with his win-loss record, not because he’s a good pitcher, but because his offense picks him up. Check out Sonnanstine’s game log for this year. He’s getting an average of 5.79 runs of run support, so that when he goes out and throws 6 innings of 3 or 4 run ball (a perfectly respectable… average… statline for a starter), which he often does, he’s still picking up some wins. With that said, it’s not like his peripherals are awful (or terrific), but right now, he’s one of the leaders in the category of “wins” in baseball, which means that there will be some over-valuing of him by fantasy owners. See also: Braden Looper (9%)
3) George Sherrill (100%). 17 saves so far. He might just make the All-Star team. And your fantasy bullpen loves it when he comes out to save the game. There’s a little tiny problem. Sherrill is like Floyd in that he’s living off of a .200 BABIP, and he walks more than 4 per nine innings. Uh oh. What’s more telling is that 62.7% of his balls in play are going for fly balls, although he’s only been burned by a home run twice. Sherrill will keep collecting saves, because Baltimore will keep throwing him out there, but that WHIP will go up, and if your league counts blown saves, do you really want a guy who plays in Camden Yards and gives up a lot of flyballs (and has dodged fate so far) as your stopper? See also: K-Rod (100%) at least this year .
4) Fausto Carmona (100%). The 4-2 record with the 3.10 ERA was deceptive. The 1.59 WHIP is not. But, is Carmona really a 3.10 ERA guy? Carmona’s FIP (which is an ERA projection that looks at the fielding independent stats of K’s, BB’s, and HR’s) is 4.56, and FIP has been shown to be a better predictor of future performance than actual ERA. Carmona has one of the largest spreads in that direction in baseball. So, Carmona, who is walking more batters than he strikes out and has managed to avoid the home run (principally because he’s one of the most extreme ground ball pitchers in baseball) is getting a little lucky. That ERA looks pretty, but it’s not real. See also: Gavin Floyd (again), Scott Olsen (77%)
5) Just about anyone who steals a bunch of bases and hits for a .310 OBP. That’s great that you’re so fast, but please, in order to use it, you need to get on base. And then there’s fantasy ball, where these guys find a home, because… well, at least they steal bases. See: Willy Taveras (95.2%), Carlos Gomez (100%), Joey Gathright (9%).
6) Carlos Lee (100%). And now a small rant against RBI’s. Just about every game that Carlos Lee has started, he’s hit behind Lance Berkman and Miguel Tejada, who are having amazing OBP seasons. Carlos Lee is among the league leaders in RBI. Is this because he is amazing? No. In fact, he’s got an OBP of .311. See also: Adrian Gonzalez (100%).
7) Cristian Guzman (100%). I bet you love that .300 AVG. But dig that .322 OBP. See also: Bengie Molina (98.7%), Jose Lopez (91%).
8) Ryan Theriot (100%). Theriot is, I suppose a nice little backup plan at SS for those who didn’t get Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, or Jimmy Rollins. After all, he’s put up a nice .320 average and has even stolen 9 bases. There’s one problem with that. Theriot is 9 for 16 in SB’s. Fantasy baseball usually counts raw SB totals (they should count net), so you don’t see the ugly side. Theriot also has the problem in real life that he’s not really a shortstop. But, why worry about defense in fantasy baseball. See also: Corey Patterson (14.4%).
Players who are much better in reality:
1) Brian Wilson (100%) gets his own category and a cheap reference to Barenaked Ladies. He’s put up 14 saves (on a bad team!) so he’s getting some ownership love, but he’s killing your ERA (5.49) and WHIP (1.63), right? Ah… not so. Wilson’s WHIP has a lot to do with his .374 BABIP (although his walk rate is above 4 per 9 IP). Still, his FIP is also 3.79, because he strikes guys out like crazy. Here’s a little tip. The guy who owns Brian Wilson in your league likes the saves, but is a little freaked out by the peripherals. First off, closers pitch about 60-70 innings per year, while starters go 180-210, so you shouldn’t be as worried about a closer with a high WHIP and ERA… but he’s a moron and he’s worried. If you have a closer who pitches for a losing team (remember that saves are team dependent) who has a better WHIP and ERA right now, maybe you’d flip him to that guy for Wilson and some other piece that you want from him. After all, you’re trading down.
2) Ted Lilly (99.8%). He strikes guys out (9 K’s per 9 IP), but is 5-4, with a 5.14 ERA, and you fantasy owners (and the North Side of Chicago with you) get ulcers on a regular basis over him. His FIP is 3.75. Does that make your tummy feel better? See also: C.C. Sabathia (ERA 5.14, FIP 3.80), although no one’s going to give up on him.
3) Darren Oliver (0%). A good relievers who get no saves. Ugh. See also: Damaso Marte (0%), Heath Bell (21.8%), and a bunch of others.
4) Joe Blanton (42.2%). 2-6 with a 3.87 ERA won’t get anyone in fantasyland excited. Blanton has a skill set that while it doesn’t translate into fantasy points, translates into good pitching performance on the field. He’s not a strikeout machine. But, he rarely walks anyone, keeps the ball on the ground, and has shown some pretty reliable numbers in keeping fly balls from going over the wall. It’s all very boring I suppose, but it does get the job done. See also: Paul Byrd (1%).
5) Garrett Atkins (100%). Atkins hits line drives. In real baseball, line drives are very likely to go for hits, sometimes of the extra-base variety. The problem for fantasy owners is that they don’t as often go for home runs. Who needs a corner infielder who doesn’t hit home runs? The nice part about real baseball is that the point of the game isn’t to hit the ball over the fence (although that’s nice.) It’s to hit it where they ain’t. (Yeah, I know, there’s no one over the fence.) But for this particular “problem”, Atkins doesn’t really get any love, being relegated to being drafted behind A-Rod, David Wright, Miggie Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez(!), and Chone Figgins. See also: Sean Casey (1%), and um, Chone Figgins (100%).
6) Brian McCann (100%). It’s hard to make the case that a guy like McCann doesn’t get some love. He was the third quickest drafted catcher on ESPN, but he has one of those fantasy profiles that’s just… a little… off for fantasy ball. But, in real life, he’s rather amazing. McCann’s greatest sin is that he prefers to hit doubles to home runs. And he walks more than he strikes out. Doubles help the batting average and perhaps the RBI, but walks do nothing. McCann also gets credit for having the time to run for President in the off-season. See also: Kevin Youklis (100%)
7) Adam Dunn (100%). I got into an argument with my brother about Adam Dunn last weekend. I told him I’d love to have him on my team, strikeouts and all. Dunn is the prototypical guy that fantasy players and casual real life fans hate: the three true outcomes guy. When Dunn comes to the plate, it usually ends in a walk, strikeout, or a home run. The walks are boring, the strikeouts are hard to bear in the moment, but the homeruns give just enough of that slot machine jackpot feeling to keep the guy around. In fantasy ball, the home runs are always welcomed, but the low batting average that comes from striking out a lot and having most of your other times on base be from walks make for a guy who always has a little waning label on him. You want to own him, but never as a first choice. Still, a guy like Adam Dunn, in real life, has a runs created per 27 outs (think: what would a lineup of 9 Adam Dunn’s do over a full game) of 8.06 runs, which puts him #10 among MLB outfielders. See also: Pat Burrell (100%), Dan Uggla (100%), Geovany Soto (100%).
8) Adam Everett (0%… yes, I know he’s injured). Defensive wizard. But he hits .230, and no one plays defense in fantasy ball. Still, in 2006, when Everett was healthy, he put up a number of 21 fielding runs above the average shortstop. What he lacks at the plate, he makes up for in the field on a real team. But if all you’re looking at are his offensive fantasy stats (you can read that with either emphasis), you won’t see that. See also: Omar Vizquel (2%).