Tout Wars: Zola has little patience in mixed leagues

Different owners from the Tout Wars expert league will be submitting a guest Fantasy Baseball column to CBSSports.com each week. This week's columnist, Todd Zola, writes for FantasyBaseball.com, and he has been in the Tout Wars mixed league for all four seasons.

By Todd Zola

Hey everyone, gather around, I am going to let you in on a little secret. Chapter Five of the So-Called Experts Manual is entitled "Early Season Advice." It is filled with sayings like, "Patience is a virtue," and "It's a marathon, not a sprint." You want to know something? I may get in trouble with the so-called expert police and have to turn in my so-called expert card for writing this, but Chapter Five is outdated and is in need of revision.

You see, the majority of my Fantasy brethren were weaned on the deep "-only" leagues and have not really experienced the wonders of the shallow mixed leagues.

Before I go on, for a point of reference, a deep league is one in which no Molina is available and a shallow league is one in which only Bengie is rostered. Yes, this is the official rule book definition and "rostered" is so a word.

Anyway, back in spring 2005, the Tout Wars LLC made the sage decision to form a 12-team Mixed Universe league and I have had the privilege of competing in it since its inception. It did not take me long to realize that while the rules are the same as our 12-team AL-only and 13-team NL-only counterparts, the dynamics of the game itself are much different.

The primary difference is Mixed Tout Wars is not a marathon, but rather 26 little sprints. I would like to thank MLB for having a 26-week season so this analogy works that much better. The point is, in NL Tout Wars, the owner of Andruw Jones has no choice but to be patient with the struggling outfielder, as his replacement is probably someone like Justin Huber or Jose Cruz, whereas, yours truly can use Casey Blake until (if?) Jones gets it in gear. Similarly, I can reserve Rickie Weeks and pick Mark DeRosa off the free-agent pile while the corresponding NL owner has to decide if it is worth giving Luis Rivas or Ruben Gotay a shot. I am not going to release a struggling player, but with reasonable options on my bench, it is worth considering reserving a scuffling player until they begin producing.

But herein lays the problem, and why many old-school Fantasy enthusiasts frown upon the shallower format. It is hard enough to forecast a year’s worth of performance. It is generally accepted that you need three years of data as a foundation, 70-percent accuracy is the ceiling and a monkey can get you almost all of the way there. How in the name of Mike Fontenot are we supposed to be able to project next week’s production?

The short answer is we can't, or at least we have yet to happen upon the Holy Grail allowing us to do so. But trust me my AL- and NL-only veterans, it is impossible to sit idly by while Jones and Weeks sink my batting average into depths even lower than I expected from such batting average siphons.

In a moment, I will share what I do. But before that, there is something I need to get off my chest and I 'spose this is as good a forum as any to do so, so pardon me while I hop onto this here soapbox. Here is what I do not do. I do not start or sit hitters based on their history versus specific pitchers or even clubs? Why? The sample data size is far too small to yield any significant results. A batter being 5-for-15 with two homers and a double versus a particular pitcher is akin to his being 5-for-15 with two homers and a double on July 4th in years divisible by three. And while Bill James does remind us that extreme results in small samples can be real, consider this: Mickey Mantle struck out 12 times in 16 at bats versus Dick Radatz, in the other four at-bats he had three hits including a homer and a double. But yet, this batter-versus-pitcher data is being spewed about like it actually means something. I call this the Joe Morgan Syndrome. Just because someone of stature says something, it is not automatically true, or even relevant. Batter versus pitcher data has become standard fare in today’s baseball landscape. Announcers regurgitate it as it appears as a graphic on your TV screen. And sadly, even Fantasy Baseball sites have joined the fray.

OK, enough of that. I will get back on subject and share what I do look at as a means of determining which batters to start and which to sit. Obviously, the idea is to start the hitters with the best chance for success. As suggested, past performance versus specific pitchers is useless, but the quality of the upcoming staffs and the parks are pertinent, though I do not go overboard with either in weekly leagues; daily leagues is another animal altogether. I will use quality of opponent and parks as a tiebreaker.

The markers I pay keenest attention to are strikeouts, walks and H/BIP. I will start from the end and work back.

H/BIP stands for batting average on balls in play; it is basically a batting average exclusive of homers and strikeouts and is born out of work by Voros McCracken. For more details, type "DIPS" and "McCracken" into your favorite search engine. The league average H/BIP is generally .300, +/- .010 any given season. Most pitchers fall within that same range, but batters can establish their own baseline. When the H/BIP exceeds the normal baseline, the batter is usually deemed to be lucky, and vice versa. Many "hot streaks" are simply the result of some fortunate results on balls in play, while slumps are often nothing more than balls being hit right at fielders. Many utilize H/BIP as a measure of luck, but not too much can be gleaned from a small sample of data, as there are components of H/BIP (usually ignored by my fellow Fantasy pundits) that themselves are driven by skill. That is, there are instances where an elevated H/BIP is not simply a few more seeing-eye grounders finding a hole or Texas Leaguers landing safely. H/BIP is composed of three results: hits on fly balls, on grounders and on line drives. A fly ball is most likely to result in an out while a liner is most likely to render a base hit. I have some evidence suggesting there is some skill attributed to hitting a line drive as well as skill involved in a specific player's percentage of grounders becoming hits. The problem is the sample of a week's worth of data has too much noise to really tell us anything.

I will take the next two together as they go hand in hand. If a hitter is truly in a slump, chances are their walk rate is down as they are overanxious while their strikeout rate is up. These are the signs I pay the most heed. If a hitter has been whiffing more than normal the past week combined with impatience, they hit the pine. And as soon as they begin making contact, regardless of the result, they are back in.

If a hitter is not striking out at an alarming rate, but is in a perceived slump, I will look at the H/BIP. If he is hitting considerably fewer line drives than normal, I treat that as a slump and consider replacing, but if the LD%, FB% and GB% are in line with career norms, I assume this player is just snake-bitten and is not benched.

Another application of this mode of analysis is to stay ahead of the curve and prepare for when a perceived hot player crashes back to reality. Remember the April Chris Shelton had a couple of years ago? While the analogy is not perfect as he is probably not going to be sent down, check out what has happened to Mark Reynolds. He slugged five homers in his first eight games. But he also struck out nine times. A week later, he whiffed seven more times but was stuck on five dingers. The next week he hit another long ball, but also fanned another seven times. Today, he is at seven homers and 42 strikeouts in 28 games. An astute owner would have observed the strikeout phenomena and had a contingency plan in place in the likely event Reynolds struggled down the line.

It must be emphasized that while this sounds all scientific, it is still mostly anecdotal. But there is enough to the strikeout and walk data to warrant selective roster incorporation, lest your team be out of contention by Heartbreak Hill. Sorry, it's another marathon reference -- just type "Boston Marathon" and "Heartbreak Hill" into your favorite search engine.

You can e-mail Mr. Zola a question or a comment about this column to DMFantasyBaseball@cbs.com. Be sure to put Attn:Tout Wars in the subject field. Please include your full name, hometown and state. Be aware, due to the large volume of submissions received, we cannot guarantee personal responses to all questions.
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