StrategyJune 8, 2007

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Spot Starters: Another View

By Bob Hoyng

Spot starting pitchers can often mean the difference between success and failure in fantasy leagues. Injuries, poor performance, or streaming needs in head-to-head leagues can send owners scouring the free agent pool for good pitching matchups. The most important issue to examine is the skill of the pitchers in question and there are many ways to look at that. Another very important aspect to consider is the matchup, and that’s what we’ll discuss here.

The season is now over one third of the way done and at this point the numbers put up by the teams can tell us a lot about the quality of their offense. Below we’ll examine the four main categories that a starting pitcher can effect using various tools to rate the teams. In each section our ranking will be based on the team’s standard deviation (StDev) within that category. For all categories but the overall, I’ve listed the teams that vary strongly from the average – over one standard deviation from the norm. This will allow you to focus on the truly extreme matchups – both the matchups to target as well as those to avoid. The teams with positive standard deviations are the good teams (we’ll want to avoid those) while those with negative standard deviations are the bad teams (we’ll want to target these matchups).

Two final notes. First, the statistics in this article reflect all baseball games through June 4th, 2007. Second, several of these tables base their information on equivalent runs (EQR). This is a statistic from Baseball Prospectus that tries to cut the luck out of runs scored and focuses instead on how well teams are doing the things that lead to run scoring. For more information on this visit Baseball Prospectus.

Working for a win?

Wins are pretty simple – you have to score more runs that your opponent scores. I’ve used the EQR both for and against for each team and plugged them into the Pythagorean Win Expectation formula detailed below the table. No big surprise at numbers 1 and 2 – the Mets and the Red Sox are offensive forces that also bring good pitching to the table. I found the Padres and Athletics a bit surprising since I viewed both of their offenses as being a bit anemic. Good pitching for both clubs make them tough teams to beat though.

The bottom four teams on the list didn’t surprise me either. The Royals, Nationals, Pirates, and Devil Rays are just bad. The reasons may vary for each team but the results are the same – they get beat more times than not. The Cardinals and the White Sox are a different story. The last two World Champions have battled injuries, age, and ineffectiveness and have struggled mightily so far. From the make-up of both teams, their prospects for the rest of the season don’t look much better. Both teams would make excellent spot starting opponents that other owners might avoid based on the glories of previous seasons.

Red Sox0.6311.66
White Sox0.419-1.03
Devil Rays0.405-1.20

Note: EQWin% applies the Pythagorean Win Expectation – RF^2 / (RF^2+RA^2) – to the EQR for the team and the EQR against the team

Eying your ERA?

Similar to wins, we’ll target teams to help our ERA based on the EQR. Unlike wins, the team’s pitching is ignored though – we’re focusing only on the equivalent runs computed for each team.

No real surprises here other than the one we’ve already covered – that the two previous World Champions flat-out stink. The Tigers, Red Sox, Indians, and Yankees (but especially the first three) are your teams to avoid. The Astros, Pirates, Nationals, Cardinals, and White Sox are your teams to target for your spot start matchups.

Red Sox3181.87
White Sox202-1.88

Note: EQR = 5 * OUT * EQA^2.5 where EQA is derived from (H + TB + 1.5*(BB + HBP + SB) + SH + SF) divided by (AB + BB + HBP + SH + SF + CS + SB)

Watching your WHIP?

WHIP is even simpler than wins or ERA. WHIP is simply a measurement of how many opposing players get on base, so we need look no further than the team on base percentages to find our targets here.

The Red Sox and the Indians aren’t surprising at the top, but their 2.14 and 2.05 standard deviations here throw up a red flag. Honestly I would avoid these two teams with many of your regular starting pitchers. They can grind even the best pitchers into a pulp by getting on base at an obscene rate that leads to consistent scoring as well as damage to your WHIP.

Meanwhile, it’s five of our usual subjects at the bottom – Cardinals, Royals, Nationals, Pirates, and White Sox.

Red Sox0.3632.14
White Sox0.309-1.65

Searching for Strikeouts?

This category can be surprising since striking out doesn’t necessarily hurt your team’s offense. There are several teams – the Mariners, Dodgers, Angels, Cardinals, and Twins – that do an outstanding job at avoiding strikeouts. The Red Sox are fairly good in that regard too but nowhere near those top five.

Meanwhile, the Padres, Devil Rays, and Marlins – especially the latter two – are great targets if you’re searching for strikeouts. Both teams strike out in well over 20% of their plate appearances. If you figure your starting pitcher goes 6 innings and gives up 7.5 baserunners (1.25 WHIP) that’s about 25 batters faced through those 6 innings. If over one fifth of those batters are going to strike out we’re looking at over 5 strikeouts in those 6 innings – a rate of over 7.5 k/9. That’s a terrible k/9 rate for a team’s hitters to allow the opposition, and remember that they accumulated that rate against average major league pitching. Your free agent list should have plenty of starting pitchers that are much better than the major league average.

Red Sox14.3%1.08
Devil Rays20.7%-1.65

Note: K/PA% was determined by taking K / (AB + BB + HBP)

The Best of the Best (and more importantly the Worst of the Worst)

So which teams are the best and the worst matchups for spot starters? Taking the average of our four categories we get our top five and bottom five teams. If you need help in a specific area, then the breakdowns listed above would be more useful. If you just want the best possible matchup overall, then the teams listed below are your best and worst bets.

To start off, I would never, ever spot start a pitcher against the Boston Red Sox. In fact, looking at these numbers I would think twice about starting any pitcher against Boston. They’re just that good in every facet of the game and the chances of anything going right against them is fairly slim.

The Tigers, Mets, Indians, and surprisingly, the Angels round out the top five. A lot of the Angels’ ranking is tied up in their pitching and contact skills though. They’re safe (though nowhere near ideal) for a spot start as long as you realize your chances of a win or a strikeout are both reduced.

At the bottom, the Devil Rays deserve a special warning. These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays. No wait… that doesn’t quite work. These aren’t your slightly older brother’s Devil Rays. This team can and will score runs – in fact, they’re almost an average team at run production! What gets them to number five on our list of teams to target for spot starts is the fact that their pitching stinks (especially their bullpen) and they strike out at prolific rates.

The other four teams in our bottom five are a perfect list of teams to target for spot start matchups. The White Sox, Royals, Pirates, and Nationals are doing very little right on the diamond this year. Take advantage of those teams at every opportunity.

Red Sox1.69
Devil Rays-0.89
White Sox-1.11

The Loveable Losers (known as Bob in the parlance of those not addicted to fantasy sports) is a computer programmer and numbers junkie from New Carlisle, Ohio.
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