Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Looking Beyond the Numbers

by Howard Bender on June 21, 2013

lucroy2While putting bat to ball is a skill steeped in physicality, the game of baseball is a numbers game. Counting stats, rate stats, we are constantly inundated with a barrage of numbers each and every year and are expected to make sense of them and the trends that develop from them in order to be successful fantasy baseball owners. But what happens when the numbers just don’t add up? What happens when you’ve examined the trends and the results just don’t make sense? While most of the time the empirical evidence is sufficient, there are times when you need to look beyond the numbers in an effort to determine why a player is either hitting or not hitting; why a pitcher is thriving or crumbling on the hill. The use of statistical data is imperative to your fantasy success, but the human element of baseball cannot be ignored.

Prior to the 2012 season, I wrote a piece for The Fantasy Baseball Guide discussing this very point. The two examples I used were Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval and Rangers starting pitcher Colby Lewis, two players whose numbers during the 2011 season bucked the trends and left fantasy owners scratching their heads. Most were ready to give up on Sandoval, assuming that his first season was a fluke and that the lousy second year just might be more indicative of his true playing level. But what people didn’t know, at least those outside of the Bay Area, was that Sandoval was dealing with a bitter divorce and a horrible custody battle over his only daughter. Not to mention the fire which destroyed his mother’s house. The man affectionately known as the Kung Fu Panda was not the same happy-go-lucky guy in the clubhouse and it was obviously affecting his game on the field as well.

With respect to Lewis, it was a reversal of a statistical trend we had witnessed over the previous few seasons. Lewis was a rock-solid pitcher at Arlington over the years prior to the 2011 season. He wasn’t some lights-out ace whom everyone coveted, but his numbers in Texas were significantly better than they were on the road. His ERA was lower, his strikeouts were higher and he was giving up fewer home runs. But in 2011, we saw the opposite as home starts were looking a whole lot uglier. While most doing their research in 2012 were quick to point out the dimensions of his home ballpark, few people knew that Lewis and his wife had their first child that spring and he was taking an active role as a first-time father. The late-night feedings, the loss of sleep and the general stress that comes from the concerned nature of being a daddy for the first time obviously took their toll on him while being at home. On the road, however, it’s a nice phone call to the wife from the hotel and a much-needed full night’s worth of rest.

So when I wrote a piece called Catcher Stock Watch on FanGraphs the other day, one of the readers asked about Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy and pointed out the disparity between his home and road splits. I looked at the previous years and noticed that while there was some fluctuation, he was right. The difference between his numbers at home and his numbers on the road was much greater this year than in years past. So why the sudden change? There was nothing in his batted ball data that gave any indication as to why the difference was there, so I opted to look through the local papers a little closer and found out that, indeed, there has been a big change at home for the normally reliable backstop.

According to an article which can be found on the Brewers offficial MLB.com site, Jonathan’s brother David is a right-handed pitcher for the Lakeshore Chinooks, a collegiate wood bat club that plays home games just north of Milwaukee. While most of the players stay with host families, the younger Lucroy is living with his brother and family. Now I certainly don’t want to speculate on the relationship of the Lucroy brothers, but I can only imagine what it’s like to be a family man and suddenly have your 21-year old brother living in your house. Maybe the two have had a tumultuous relationship growing up and there’s underlying tension. Maybe the two are besties and are sitting up late at night drinking beers together. Whatever the case may be, the normal routine that the elder Lucroy probably had in years past has now been altered and could very well be affecting his game while he’s at home. On the road, he’s back to his original routine, but at home things have been upended in some capacity.

Now as I said in my piece in The Guide, this is obviously not an exact science and changes in a person’s life can have a variety of effects on him; some for the better, some not. But what it comes down to here is that we as fantasy baseball owners cannot overlook the human element of real baseball. These players are not robots programmed to play a game professionally. They are people who eat, drink, sleep, laugh and cry just as we do. Sure, they do it with fatter wallets and snazzy uniforms, but take all that away and they are fragile and emotional creatures just as we are and like us, changes in the personal life, both good and bad, can affect them at work.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dave Randolph June 23, 2013 at 2:05 pm

The point of this article should seem obvious to most people, yet it is rarely mentioned by fantasy analysts or in comment sections on the various websites. Probably for the same reason defensive play is not used in scoring….it is too difficult to quantify. But….personal issues play a huge factor in athletic performance and it’s important to be reminded of this periodically. It could be for the best….we don’t want Jerry Springer doing a weekly show on the personal lives of athletes and the effect on our roster selections…perish the thought! But the fact remains….numbers never tell the whole story….and thank goodness for that. The human element keeps us all on our toes.

PS Howard…remember the Player Comfort Factor ? This article validates my belief in PCF….thanks.

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2 Dave Randolph June 23, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Nearly forgot to mention another point….the effect of managers on players. Nobody likes working for a boss they don’t get along with. If I’m on the fence about a player in the pre-season draft I take a look at managerial changes made during the off season. I thought Farrell taking over in Boston would have a positive outcome (how could it not…following Valentine) and it has proven out so far. Despite Toronto’s current run, the Gibbons hiring made me nervous and the Jays have struggled most of the season. Francona seemed like just the thing for Cleveland…time will tell. Matheny has been a pleasant surprise in St. Louis where his managing style has been on the mark. Again…it’s all subjective….but it’s fun to throw into the mix.

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3 Howard Bender June 24, 2013 at 4:17 pm

No doubt, Dave. the PCF we discussed last year definitely plays a lot into my decisions when picking which players I like and as for managerial tendencies, it’s one of the reasons I didn’t pick up BJ Upton with his move to ATL. Fredi Gonzalez does not like to run — one of the reasons Bourn opted not to re-sign. I didn’t see him stealing bases at his usual clip which, to me, downgrades him a ton considering his weak average and mediocre runs scored.

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