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Strategy room: Trend toward better pitching alters hitters' value


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In years past, those of us who paid closer attention than others to player news gained all the advantage we needed to win. But those days are long gone as the proliferation of information in today's electronic landscape has leveled that field. As such, we need to find alternate means of staying a step ahead of our competition. This edge is best realized in game theory. Most serious fantasy gamers know the player pool. The best know how to most efficiently turn their production into points. Today, we will take what was intended to be an innocuous observation and see if we can morph it into some game theory that can help us win.

This past weekend on the Mastersball's discussion forum, a question was posed matter-of-factly concerning the quality of pitching so far in 2010. The observation was that pitching seems to be improved during the current campaign. Thanks to the wonderful job that does archiving data, April and May splits can be compared for the past several seasons in an attempt to corroborate this anecdotal contention.

Normally, it is not prudent to use surface stats such as ERA and WHIP to gauge pitching effectiveness, especially in small samples such as monthly data. As such, we will look at the accepted skill quantifiers of K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 starting in '05. Furthermore, for reasons that will become relevant when we bridge this discussion into the fantasy realm, we will break the data into starting pitchers and relievers. Actually, slicing up the data in this manner is even more of a reason to focus on the component skills since the monthly sample is being further partitioned.

During April and May in from '05-09, the strikeout rate for overall pitching has been steadily increasing, and sure enough, that trend continued this season. In fact, the present K/9 tops 7.0, as compared to 6.3 five seasons ago. However, the predominant reason for this is that relievers have really ramped up their game as the starters are actually sporting a lower K/9 that this time last season.

From '05-09, pitchers issuing walks have been slowly increasing, which is opposite to the skills exhibited by improved strikeout rate. However, this season, fewer bases on balls have been allowed. Curiously, the reason for this is a significant drop in walk rate for starting pitchers. This is curious because, with respect to strikeouts, relievers have displayed the greater skill in '10.

Of the three peripherals commonly investigated, home run rate is the one least trustworthy in terms of reliability as a significant portion of luck as well as skill comprises the metric. The skill involved with home run rate incorporates the pitcher's ability to induce grounders as well as striking hitters out, keeping the ball out of play. The luck comes in the form of how many fly balls allowed clear the fence as research suggests all pitchers cluster around the same level, with adjustments made for park effects. It is this luck component that most often skews a hurler's numbers in the short term. That is, in a small sample, a few unlucky homers really damage ERA, while an unnatural paucity of long balls lead to an artificially low ERA.

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With the above as a backdrop, it is quite interesting to note that homers in the first two months are down significantly from the same time frame last season, and are, in fact, lower than in March and April in any year from '05-09. Obviously, small sample size disclaimers apply, but this is noteworthy and may have some fantasy implications as we all begin to manage our rotisserie categories to maximize points.

Before we segue into the fantasy portion of our discussion, let us first examine the home run data in a bit more detail. Home run rate depends on three variables. We have already discussed how increased strikeouts reduce balls in play which lower home runs. This is part of the reason HR/9 is down this season. Another factor is the number of fly balls allowed. And so far in '10, the GB/FB ratio is leaning more toward grounders than in past seasons. Fewer fly balls mean fewer homers. The final factor is the percentage of fly balls that leave the yard. This factor is the most luck-driven, so with the sample size caveat noted, a lower percentage of fly balls are clearing the fence than in any of the previous five seasons.

All three of the components driving home run rate are positively contributing toward fewer homers this season. And while there is some concern that this could be a sample size anomaly, since two of the aspects, K/9 and GB/FB rate are under the pitcher's control and there is some evidence to suggest pitchers are exhibiting a bit more skill this season, it is not unreasonable to contend that pitching will continue to trend better while offense takes a bit of a hit.

While regular baseball fans take the above research and digress into a discussion about steroids, the fantasy gamer needs to consider how they can leverage it into helping their squad. If you are not fazed by the potential sample size issue and indeed believe pitching is on the upswing and offense is down, then there may be repercussions with respect to how you manage the categories to attain maximal rotisserie points.

If offense is down, it follows that the categories are more tightly bunched, especially those that have an element of run scoring like HR, RBI and runs. What this means is acquiring a hitter may have a greater impact on how many points you can gain. Obviously, everything depends on the distribution in your league, but whereas in the past trading for 15 more homers may have netted you 3 points, perhaps with the more bunched totals, you can get an extra point or two. The same holds true for the other counting stats as well. You may be able to earn an extra 3 or 4 points from the same style trade as compared to previous seasons.

Feeding into the idea of dealing for a hitter is the fact that if pitching is indeed improved, there should be ample help if you trade away pitching to fortify your hitting. As a rule, there is always more quality free agent pitching that emanates in season as compared to hitting, but this season, it appears to be even better.

It is clearly not ground-breaking advice to suggest it is fruitful to deal an arm for a stick. However, especially for those in keeper leagues deciding if they can compete, it is important to realize they may be able to make up more hitting ground than they think, while sacrificing fewer pitching points on the back end.

This is just one example of how to possibly benefit from the strong chance pitching is improving. But the better fantasy players should look to study their own league and decide themselves the best manner to exploit what appears to be an interesting trend with the 2010 player pool.

Todd Zola recently merged with where their combined staff features some of the most successful fantasy players in the industry. Todd's focus is strategy and game theory. He contributes to the Mastersball subscription packages as well as a free blog and is a frequent contributor to the site's public message forum. Todd is a veteran of Tout Wars and LABR and has multiple first place finishes in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and thinks the adage about teaching someone how to fish can be applied to managing your fantasy squads.