How and Why to Lose at Fantasy Baseball

Fantasy Baseball Experts Jesse Seguin and Bobby Cross alongside Famous Bet Hedger and Car Purchaser Matt Cooper

by Darren Clarke, The Left Field Lark, March, 23, 2017

A Jig, a Dance, an Irrational Act

My scouting report for Brandon Belt from February 10, 2013-

What my eyes say– He’s really passive at the plate, which is fine if he’s going to assert himself more as he gains experience but I wonder… could be that I’m holding his lack of a chin against him too much… is that wrong do you think? To suspect that fate is dictated by chin genetics? If you follow my thought line it seems to suggest that your chin’s strength or lack thereof is attached to some will/boldness chromosome, or that maybe with each choice you make as a fetus/child your chin either juts out or recedes, depending upon the overall John Wayne-ness of your decision.

Notes– Brandon Belt 24 years old, 6’5″- My first thought when I look at Brandon Belt’s face is, “Where did that little kid steal a grown man’s body from?” Brandon Belt’s face suggests Degrassi High long before it suggests professional ball player (in between would be Burger flipping and aquarium expert, i.e. “No, you definitely don’t want to put the black molly’s with the neon tetra’s…”)… PS- Baseball Reference has his nickname listed as, “Baby Giraffe,” which really, really, works…

March is a fantastic month for me. March includes winter coming to an end, spring beginning, and most importantly March is when baseball returns.  There’s stuff I have to do in March that any adult has to do- Spring cleaning and taxes for example. For me though my main focus is on preparing for my Fantasy Baseball Drafts. It isn’t easy. In March the average inquiring baseball fan’s sensibilities struggle to not be overwhelmed by a veritable flood of hype and best case scenarios. The unlikely is suddenly likely, the impossible suddenly possible. In March more than any other month the internet enthusiastically offers our wildest imaginings, our silliest hopes, gas money- “Kennys Vargas Spent this Winter Working on his Swing with Manny Ramirez!” “Byung-Ho Park had surgery on his Hand- He’s Better Now!” “Aaron Loup’s velocity is up, he looks better than ever!”

Those of us that indulge in Fantasy Baseball have to navigate this sea of hyperbole, we have to analyze, we have to weigh, to crunch numbers, to consider trends and factors that create the possibility for significant change in players, factors like velocity drops, aging, park changes, position changes, organization changes, past dalliances with good luck and/or bad luck. For the fantasy baseball enthusiast there is  a zillion things to consider in the pursuit of winning your fantasy pool all the while trying to placate people in your home who are saying things to you like, “Are you ever going to put your computer down?” or, “So these games don’t even count?”

I am sharing my experiences here because I want to help. In an effort to ensure you are not limited by success I will provide you with an approach that will increase the likelihood of losing at fantasy baseball. So let’s get started.

My secret to losing at Fantasy Baseball is almost entirely predicated upon ensuring that the primary source for my player analysis is drawn from watching games and the players in question with my own eyes. Next I place a greater sense of importance on that scouting information than the hard, objective, numbers which I might acquire from any other sources, be it Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, or the guy who regularly wins my pool every year. I go with what my eyes see and my heart and intellect tell me.

Unsure of which available pitching prospect rated in Baseball Prospectus’s Top 101 Prospects of 2017 you want to pick? Albert Abreau at #82? Astro prospects David Paulino at #83 and Frankline Perez at #84? Maybe Sean-Reid Foley at #85? Frankie Montas #86? Alec Hansen at #97? Unsure of what middling major league starter to draft in the middle rounds- Tyler Skaggs? Patrick Corbin? Trevor Bauer? CC Sabathia? Mike Fiers? Watch them.

Case in point from my extended career in Fantasy Baseball- Domonic Brown.

“Here’s your boy Dominic Brown….”

This was the refrain from my friend Jesse Sequin at Buffalo Bisons games last year every time Domonic Brown came to the plate, “Here’s your boy Dominic Brown.” My only response was to hang my head in resignation and shame. If there was any doubt Domonic Brown was certifiably not a major league ballplayer his hitting .239 with little power over a full season for the AAA Bisons certainly cleared it up.

My scouting report for Domonic Brown in March of 2013-

 What my Eyes Say– I love how he looks this spring compared to watching games from last year where he looked like he had lost a little confidence… he has that sweet swing, but last year there appears to be something wrong upstairs… the dude has been banged up the past two seasons due to self-inflicted damage from trying to play defense- he’s kind of a defensive masochist… this is a guy who is 6’5” who appears to still be getting to know his body, he’s been beat up physically, he’s improbably been behind Ty Wiggington on the depth chart- I still believe there is a reasonable chance he could be a very good ballplayer.

Notes– Facing Washington at the end of the season, he just about kills lefty John Lannon in the first AB, his second AB he rips one down the right field line… in his third at bat versus Stemmer he watched a terrible hanging curve for strike two, and couldn’t hold up on a curve ball in the dirt for strike three. He also has a peculiar low rider mohawk hairdo thing going on… we’re talking about choices now, choices define. But what a swing… what a swing… 

Jesse and I run a keeper fantasy league baseball team (The Duke Temples) together in Scoresheet Baseball. Come late February and March of every year we look over the available players and as part of the research I bounce through the MLB.TV archives and real time Spring Training games to watch players in action. I then combine some quick and dirty stat analysis with my amateur scout/people watching observations. First and foremost I watch  the guys play- their swing, their approach at the plate, how they handle adversity, if they make adjustments or if they don’t, and in the field, can they catch? can they throw (or are they end of career Alfonso Soriano)? Beyond the fundamentals I watch them interact, I consider their face, their haircut, the way they carry themselves, anything and everything provided to my senses as I sit on my couch people watching. Finally, I send my breakdowns to Jesse who from time to time actually applies this scouting to deciding who we acquire.

In 2013 I was pretty high on Domonic Brown. While Mr. Browns’ new born deer approach to fielding and mohawk haircut made me nervous the dude had a sweet, sweet, swing. The former #4 prospect in 2011 via Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America had disappointed in the bigs and the minors leading up to 2013, but the swing was the thing.

My being wrong about Dominic Brown wasn’t immediately evident. In the first half of 2013 Brown batted .273 with a .535 slugging percentage amassing an impressive 23 home runs in his first 386 at bats. That kind of serious swinging got him on the 2013 National League All-Star team. It didn’t go well from there though and rather quickly Domonic Brown found himself in the International League in front of small crowds, crowds there were at times populated with people whose Fantasy League teams he had let down in the past.

The question- How did I get here? To balancing commonly accepted statistical performance metrics with ad hoc observations of the dangers of drafting someone with a sketchy 70’s porn moustache (Thank you for that lesson Travis Snider)?

Email to Jesse February, 2017

Tommy Joseph’s stats suggest that last years’ solid MLB results were more small sample size than real, they kind of shout that actually… mind you, in the minors he was always playing levels ahead of what his age would ordinarily suggest, still, look at his Baseball Reference picture, or at the plate in game action and his face states so definitively, “Replacement Level Ballplayer.” He’s like the #1 auto generated face for first baseman in every baseball video game ever… 

There is a need for context when it comes to appreciating how my relationship with baseball took shape. Beyond playing the game itself in my hometown of Thorold, Ontario, I started becoming interested in Major League Baseball in the late seventies and early eighties. There was no internet, the only magazine intermittently available in the Thorold Drug Store magazine rack was Baseball Digest, and baseball wasn’t on TV all that often. It may seem like the dark ages, and it kind of was, but I should mention that there was some super cool stuff out there, for example-  There was “This Week in Baseball,” with Mel Allen, his voice carrying infinite boyish enthusiasm, his voice was warm, it was simple, it was baseball, there was “The Scooter,” Phil Rizzuto, on Yankee broadcasts giving me lessons in the art of  being mildly engaged in watching a baseball game while simultaneously being earnestly engaged in telling stories.

More from that February 2013 email entitled, “Sick + Caroline’s in England= Winter Blizzard Scouting Assignment”-

Ty Wiggington– You know the potato chip guy you see at your local corner store re-stocking the racks who always seems a model of professional detachment? Ty Wiggington…. and now Darin Ruf is up, he’s like the potato chip guy’s goon, so if somebody messes with Ty Wiggington’s sense of professional detachment Ruf goes into action with Walt Disney style kung-fu…

Darin Ruf– This guy looks huge, he’s only 6’3″ but man he looks like a monster… didn’t get to AA until age 25 and he just crushed last year, he is what Mitch Williams would call, “Hay bailing strong.”

Speaking of Mitch Williams he was doing mullet-free colour commentary on the Braves-Red Sox game and advocated, at any and all times, throwing, “high heat.” I actually warmed up to him through the course of the game, but man does he say, “high heat,” a lot… weird to think that someone somewhere at some point, any point, thought, “What we need is someone to give us thoughtful insight… I wonder if Mitch Williams is available?”

Now, if you know anything about the Baseball Digest in the early eighties it, much like the Readers Digest, only went so far in terms of providing analysis of the world it applied itself to. The information Baseball Digest provided was essentially batting average, home runs, RBI’s, in conjunction with perpetuating what truths, half-truths, and lies, it cobbled together from people in the baseball industry. Walks, runs, doubles and triples, were not available, slugging percentage, range, FIP, velocity, BABIP and the potential for  the kind of objective analysis that information allows for wasn’t even a twinkle in its’ eye.  It’s against this bleak landscape that I was introduced to greater possibilities of baseball information.

1980-81-ish, Grade Nine, Denis Morris High School, and my friend/acquaintance, Steve, had lost a significant amount of money (in the context of Grade Nine, $30 maybe) to me betting on NHL games (I vaguely recollect betting on the Wings over the Leafs, as the Wings had my favourite goalie ever at that time- Gilles Gilbert). Weeks passed without payment when he finally offered to steal me books from Coles Book Store at the Pen Centre to cover his debt.

Steve returned a few days later with a bunch of crisp, brand new smelling, books. Among them was a baseball book that wasn’t actually the book I’d asked for. As opposed to the conventional baseball book I had requested this book had graphs and charts and prodigious amounts of stats and analysis, this book was an entirely different universe of baseball information, this book was frankly, at first glance, confusing, this book was The Bill James Baseball Abstract.

There is nothing more seductive to a teenager than someone not just suggesting, but actually proving, that adults don’t know jack. Here’s Bill James critiquing Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson’s school of likeable folk tales take on the virtues of the suspect Enos Cabell, “Sparky Anderson is so full of brown stuff that he doesn’t seem to have any words left over for basic, fundamental understanding of the game. I want to look at a player on the basis of what, specifically, he can do and cannot do to help you win a baseball game, but Sparky’s so full of “winners” and “discipline” and “we ballplayers” and self-consciously asinine theories about baseball that he seems to have no concept of how it is, mechanically that baseball games are won and lost.”

When I read this kind of inflammatory commentary now, whether it be in Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, or wherever, it annoys me because there’s no need for it. That which was once heresy is now the good word. Sabermetrics have the ear of the King and the common man alike being deeply entrenched throughout baseball organizations and and baseball culture. There’s no need to shout. But this was a different time.

In the early eighties it felt like it was Bill James (and by extension us, his disciples) against the world. Some antagonism seemed appropriate, it seemed necessary, and it seemed wonderful. My friend Mal and I, between breaks playing the the dice/card based baseball game APBA baseball, would read James’ imaginative, often times biting, commentary with delight. For us it seemed like the was tipping over the whole world. Simply stating something was a certain something wasn’t enough any longer. Either you could prove it, either you could qualify your assertions, or you were, “full of brown stuff.”

Looking back on it I can’t thank Bill James enough for providing me with an appreciation of the importance of engaging in the information around me, of dynamically analyzing new and old thoughts objectively, of pursuing as much truth as I could get my hands on, of being humble enough to constantly place my belief systems under the most intense scrutiny, of accepting that it’s okay to be wrong in the pursuit of being right.

If the question is how did I go from having an early jump start on understanding how to analyze and act on statistics, how did I go from the guidance of someone The New Yorker referred to as the, “Professor of Baseball,” to being someone who claims to be able to easily assist you with Fantasy Baseball failure the answer is actually pretty easy. Once I really thought about it, this flawed approach to Fantasy Baseball was the only one that worked for me.

I’m not going to say there’s something wrong with the altruistic pursuit of a perfect appreciation of what exactly equals what within a baseball game. I’m not here to criticize those who successfully interpret the vast amount of data available to them in order to consistently win Fantasy Baseball pools. I’m just here to say that particular methodology isn’t for me. I can put it on but it just doesn’t fit right. And in this particular part of the world known as Fantasy Baseball it is all about me. Baseball is not my job and lives don’t hang in the balance. This is about me and baseball, it’s less a tango more a fandango- “A jig, a dance, an irrational act.”

Email to Jesse, March 3, 2014-

“How I spent my Monday off… Some scouting… There is list at the bottom of this email with the available starting pitchers ranked… to me Brandon Morrow is heads and shoulders the guy available with the greatest ability to be special this season… can`t believe nobody has picked him yet…”

If you’re still unsure of who to pick from the prospects listed at the beginning of the article go with Alec Hansen because he throws a 95+ fast ball that gets more action on it as a game progresses and whose breaking stuff is absurdly fun to watch (unless you are a hitter) and as far as the middling pitchers go- Tyler Skaggs, hands down, with  Patrick Corbin at the two-spot and Trevor Bauer a distant third because his stuff just isn’t that exceptional and, as Terry Francona once said, “Who hasn’t suffered a drone injury before?”

Watch the players actually play, get it wrong, get it right, but get your imperfect self in the game. Given our limited time to really watch players, our limited experience with scouting, and our lack of access to know about the personalities of the people involved, there are obvious dangers in placing so much significance in such imperfect data, but as C.S. Lewis wrote in Four Lovers, “It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” We spend all this time on Fantasy Baseball, we might as well love it, and love it recklessly. I had a roommate in the 90’s, Scott, not a bad guy but the kind of guy that would put his initials in magic marker on the top of all his  various jars of sauce and condiments in the fridge, anyways, he would play the first person shooter game, “Doom,” for hours on end on the living room TV. The fact the living room TV was taken up for hours by, “Doom,” was kind of annoying in itself, but worse was the fact he was just so horribly tentative- He would hide behind a wall and quickly look out to see what was there and then frantically duck back behind the wall- Over and over. And I would say to him, “This is fantasy, pretend you’re brave.” Another quote to consider, this one from Keay Nigel, “Fear and control only diminish the glory and beauty of love, making it just another “mediocre thing in life.” This is Fantasy, don’t let it be just another mediocre, lifeless, thing, pick the guy you like from the home team, draft with your heart sometimes, don’t be afraid to lose, but if you do lose, do it with your own flair, your own style, your own panache, as Cyrano de Bergerac once said defiantly to an antagonist,  “… yet there’s something still that will always be mine…something I’ll take unstained out of this world in spite of you…my panache.”

Plus when you get it right, it feels so good.

From the March 2013 Scouting Report

Forecasts for Garrett Richards– ERA of 4.40-4.46

Notes– I really liked him last spring… main issues- a lot of walks per inning last season and doesn’t have a clear cut rotation job. WHAT A CURVE BALL- oh boy… this guys has a killer, killer, overhand curve, wow… his fastball is checking in 93-96, somewhat straightish, but still, it seems heavy. I really, really, like this guy.

Now, get out there and start losing with style. This is fantasy, pretend you are brave.