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The Mad Professor: Strategic Stat Categories and Late Season Fantasy Moves

As the Dog Days get hotter, I offer some additional reflections on macro-level MLB data that impact



fantasy managers’ strategies as we look to shore up our teams for the playoff run.  Barring unforeseen injury, the good fortune of a rookie that lights up the board, a player that suddenly skyrockets above his norm, or your ability to use the Jedi mind trick to create lopsided trades, it is clear that the farther we get from Draft Day, the more quickly returns will diminish on any move we make.

So, is there a pot of gold out there? Is there one more hidden strategy that one can find to extract profit where there seems to be none?  Kinda hard to say.  But if we look at some data, we begin to see where strategy may pay off and where there seems to be no point—because returns are low.

Part of the problem, of course, is that once you discover some new vein of wisdom and let folks know about it, the jig is up.  Who would make a trade with Billy Bean after reading Moneyball?  I don’t pretend to offer anything close to that level of wisdom.  But I do think the data I discuss in this column are indicative of something for fantasy managers.  I just have not figured it out yet.  So, I really do welcome your comments.

Today I look at several additional counting stats: Saves, Quality Starts and Stolen Bases. Each of these is potentially a source of stability in any draft.  If you can lock up a couple of stud closers, you can dominate the Saves column.  Quality Starts remain little more than an award for participation.  But, despite the lameness of this category (3 ER or less in 6 IP or more), it does give us one more way (in addition to DIPS) to rank pitchers somewhat meaningfully.

As this week’s comments by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfredi indicate, the basis of the QS (IP by the starter) may become more of a factor if the league actually implements a plan to limit the number of RP used in a game.  As well, this will alter the generation of saves and holds.  (Frankly, it seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors.  What is the league really after?)

Closers implode at an alarming rate.  This forces us to go prospecting for Saves in midseason.  Whereas QS (and additional K) can be found by streaming a new pitcher off the waiver wire, the difficulty in collecting saves on the margin or, gasp, by streaming relief pitchers is considerable.

Finally, SB has become a category similar to Saves.  If you can lock up a couple of burners, you can dominate this category.  Your other option—to try to create a squad full of batters that will get you 15 SB each—is high risk.  Those sorts of speedsters are less likely to run because the SB is not really part of their arsenal.  Rickey Henderson is still retired.  But, while the use of saves and SB in fantasy can form a key part of a successful managerial strategy, I demonstrate today that these two statistics are undergoing important, but radically different changes.

Data Analysis

I went to our friends at FanGraphs and ESPN to look at recent historical trends in SB, SV and QS. The results are striking.  For those in the know, they may not be surprising.  But, they do impact our fantasy strategy…

Stolen Bases.  Since 1960, The MLB has averaged about 2600 SB per season.   The numbers skyrocketed in the 1970s and remained quite high until the early 2000s when they dropped precipitously from the peak of 5,114 in 1987 to a low of 3,569 in 2015.  The jump was due to the proliferation of prodigious speedsters and, no doubt, expansion.  More players can steal more bases.  The drop off is is due perhaps to the triumph of moneyball and probability analysis.   Regardless, speed (or at least, the willingness to use it) is getting increasingly scarce.  Unless you snap up the next Billy Hamilton from the rookie pool (and, he manages to be a version of Billy Hamilton that actually gets on base), you are not likely to find help with SB in July if you didn’t draft it early in the season.


Scatterplot of SB vs Season


Since 1960, SB totals have risen.  But, what is intriguing is that base stealing seems to have become a bit of a lost art in the 21st century.  As the graph below indicates, stolen base attempts (sbatts)  peaked in 1987 at a whopping 5,114.  That number has dropped steadily to 3,569 in 2015.


Scatterplot of sbatt vs Season


While runners have seen less of the green light since 2000, the aggregate success rate (sbpct in the next graph) continued to increase throughout the first decade of the 21st century.  The stolen base success rate has also gone up markedly since 1960. It peaked at 74.4% in 2007.  Since then it has dropped steadily to 70.2% in 2015  That is still a lot better than it was in 1967.  But still:  eight years of downward trending data is not something to be ignored.


Scatterplot of sbpct vs Season




So, the lesson from this?  (On the one hand, after Dave Roberts stole the greatest base ever in game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, no one really needs to steal bases anymore, now do they?  But, I digress…) Speed would have been a worthwhile investment until 2007 for sure.   But, something is up.  Despite the decreasing number of attempted steals, base stealers have also become less successful overall.  Is this due to poorer base stealing skills?  The development of more catchers with guns for arms?  Perhaps better communication among pitchers, catchers and infielders?  Regardless, steals are becoming scarcer; and even if you draft some speed, the likelihood of its paying off has been dropping for 8 years.

Quality Starts.  What do you know?  A mediocre stat performs…with mediocrity.  Since MLB started



counting these things, they have been amazingly stable.  Since 2000, the number of Quality Starts has been remarkably stable.  These data are drawn from ESPN.  They calculated the average number of QS per team per season (avqstm below).  Through 2015, the average QS per team per year has been 80 with a standard deviation of +/- 4.  The low mark in this period was 75 in 2000 and the high was 87 in 2011 and 2014.

This is amazing for its consistency.  Essentially fifty percent of every game played is a quality start.  (Congratulations for participating!  You get a trophy for having a pulse!) On average, there is almost no variation from year to year.  Of course this will vary from pitcher to pitcher.  But, in the aggregate (and speaking in very rough terms), there is a 50% chance of picking up a QS with a waiver wire or free agent pickup.  Those are not bad odds.  On the other hand, seeking a QS from the available player pool is essentially the same as tossing a coin and calling heads.

Scatterplot of avqstm vs Season


Starters, Relievers and Saves

So much is written about pitching.  It’s all pretty good stuff in part because pitching is absolutely measurable: IP, pitch count, balls and strikes, BABIP, DIPS, etc. But, when assembling your staff, what factors should you take into account after draft day?  With pitch counts, batters willing to take a few pitches, situational pitching and the increased specialization of relievers, we need to balance the likelihood of saves and holds against wins and quality starts.  How best to balance your pitching portfolio?

The number of saves per season in the MLB has increased steadily since 1974.  2015 was the pinnacle of this trend.

Scatterplot of SV vs Season


Along with this, the number of innings pitched by starters has also decreased over the same period.  Since 1974, the average total IP pitched by starters each season is 28,616 and relief innings average 12,591 (these data are from FanGraphs).  The graphs are a bit funky because they are affected by big dips in the strike-shortened 1981 and 1994 seasons.  Relief innings have increased steadily over time.

Scatterplot of Start-IP, Relief-IP vs Season


In fact, the ratio of starter innings to relief innings (strprat below) has gotten steadily smaller (this does not show clearly on the prior graph.  But in the following graph we see a marked shift over time. Over the last 42 years, the ratio of SP to RP innings has averaged about 2.16:1.  But it is also clear that RP are eating up more and more of the IP.  Since 1974, there has been a steady decrease in the ratio from 2.7 to a low in 2007 and 2015 of 1.8.

Scatterplot of strprat vs Season

Granted, these are average statistics. But that last figure has a big impact.  On average, SP are increasingly less likely to qualify for a QS.  By definition, a QS requires 6 IP.  That would translate into a SP/RP IP ratio (strprat) of 2 (with the RP picking up the last 3 innings).   A game with a ratio of 1.8 does not qualify as a QS.


Unpacking the data.

There is a lot of data here.  Some trends have clear impact for Fantasy strategy, particularly at draft time. The data indicate that as the season lengthens, your attempting to take advantage of scarce  categories is not likely to lead to much success.  SB are harder to come by.  Saves are increasing while QS are not. Lots to ruminate on here–and that is the stuff for another article.

Stay cool.


(Click the RED link to listen)

Major League Fantasy Football Radio: Join Ej GarrCorey D Roberts, and Coach Jeff Nelson live Saturday July 30th from 1-3pm EST for episode #65 of Major League Fantasy Football Radio. This is a live broadcast and we take callers at 323-870-4395 press 1 to speak with the hosts. This week we will break down the NFC South from an NFL and fantasy perspective.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”


(Click the RED link to listen)

Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio: Join Corey D Roberts, Calvin Martin, and Coach Andy Macuga live on Sunday July 31st, 2016 from 7-9pm EST for episode #74 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. This week is ALL about the trade deadline deals and how they effect us in fantasy.

Andy is the Head Baseball Coach for Borrego Springs H.S. in So Cal, and Calvin is a veteran owner in MLFB leagues as well as the commish of MLFB3.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

Unrepentant Red Sox fan and all things Boston. Deflategate was a joke. Boston Latin School is awesome. Harvard and Johns Hopkins alma maters... Besides that... Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Professor of Politics and Law at Washington and Lee University. Wrote for Ron Shandler's Shandler Park for two summers and have been on board with MLFS since 2011. Been at Washington and Lee since 1990 with a brief hiatus (2010-2013) in the Middle East. Currently developing that last word in Fantasy Baseball analysis. Married to Flor, Dad to William and Alex, and adopted daughter Reem. Soon to be father and law to Meaghann. Alpha male to the world's super-pup, Humphrey. Life is not bad.



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