Tout Wars AL Only Title Defense

On Saturday, Rick Wolf and I sat down at the auction table and set about to defend our Tout Wars AL title.  It is an honor to draft with and compete against the likes of Jeff Erickson, Chris Liss, Howard Bender, Doug Dennis, Nando DiFino and more.  It is even a greater honor to call these and all the Touts friends.  The proceedings began as they should – with the great Ron Shandler paying tribute to the friends and Touts we lost way too soon, Lawr Michaels and Steve Moyer.  With heavy hearts, but as Lawr and Steve would want and insist upon, we spent the next four-plus hours attempting to assemble a fantasy baseball championship squad.

The Strategy

Follow the SMART System and Rules of Engagement that has proven so successful and netted us not only a Tout Wars title in 2018 but also LABR and FSTA titles as well.  We budgeted $195-200 of the $260 mythical dollars on hitting and the remaining $60-65 on pitching.  Specifically, we set out to get one big time ace, one closer and then cherry pick pitchers we like cheap while loading up on hitting.  Why?  That strategy worked last year!  Seriously, it is also because we believe that after the top starters, hitting is just more predictable than pitching.

The Team

C:  Gary Sánchez $25 and Kevan Smith $1: The S in SMART stands for Scarcity.  There is no more scarce position in fantasy baseball than American League catcher.  Gary Sánchez is the only dangerous hitter in that group.  The only one!  Do we think he will hit .300?  No.  Are we afraid he will sink below the Mendoza line again?  No.  I see Sanchez hitting 30 bombs and far out-pacing all other catchers in every category other than stolen bases and thus, giving us a crucial leg up against the competition. 

As to Smith, we followed the do no harm second catcher principal and rostered a catcher who put up close to a .350 OBP last year and has consistently posted solid OBP’s in the minors. 

1B:  José Abreu $25:  The rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.  According to our friends at Fangraphs, Abreu hit the ball hard (almost 38-percent) which is greater than his career average, made contact at a solid rate (almost 80-percent) which is also greater than his career average, and hit 22 HR in fewer than 500 plate appearances.  All that went wrong was a fluke injury and some bad luck (i.e., his BABIP and HR/FB were substantially below his career averages).  Oh, and Abreu is 32, in a contract year, and raking in the spring while he plays for that final big deal.  Finally, if the floor is the 22 bombs and .325 OPB from last year, the risk is very low indeed.

3B:  Matt Chapman $25 and Chris Owings $4:  This is an OBP league.  Thus, Chapman and his 2018 .356 OBP is more valuable here than the .278 average would indicate.  As loyal readers know, Colton and the Wolfman like hitters who have a solid floor and room to grow.  Chapman has over 900 plate appearances despite being only 25.  He will likely outproduce his 2018 stats and they were nothing at which to sneeze: .356 OBP with 24 dingers. 

As to Owings, we find he is consistently undervalued as fantasy players look for specific roles and think Owings does not have one.  He does – a super utility player who will garner 450-500 plate appearances while qualifying all over the diamond.  Throw out last year’s injury-marred dud and focus on the player who hit 12 dingers and stole 12 bases in a little more than half a season in 2017 and get yourself a tidy profit.  We did. Also note that Owings posted a strong 39-percent hard hit rate, 77-percent contact rate and reduced how often he chased bad pitches in 2018.  This is a growth stock. 

2B:  Rougned Odor $22 and Eduardo Núñez $4:  Odor hit 18 dingers, stole 12 bases and posted a solid .326 OBP in just 466 AB last year.  If he does the same thing over a full year, he will be worth at least the $22 we paid for the 25-year old who has already amassed over 2,700 plate appearance despite his tender age.  Of course, we made the investment because we think he will do much more.  If you believe in advanced metrics, you are buying Odor.  His line drive rate rose by over 3-percent (16 to 19); his automatic out infield fly ball rate fell by over 4-percent and his hard hit rate jumped a dramatic 8.5-percent (to over 45-percent).  Want more?  Ok, in the second half, Odor hit the ball hard a full 50-percent of the time.  Yep, 50-percent.

As to Nunez, speed was very expensive at the draft and Mike Podhorzer’s hoarding of  many of the burners further skewed the market.  Thus, getting a guy who will play (Pedroia will not play full time and Devers will sit versus some lefties) and stole 64 bases in 2016-17 was too hard to pass up.  Indeed, Todd Zola immediately turned to me after the “sold” call came out and said Nunez could easily earn $15.

SS:  Asdrubal Cabrera $18 and Bo Bichette $3:  Team CTW owns Asdrubal everywhere.  Will he win MVP? No.  Is he eligible at 2B, SS and 3B which is valuable?  Yes.  Do we expect him to hit more HR in Arlington than he did in Queens?  You bet.  Sometimes you just have to roster boring veterans who will fill the stat sheet.  Even if Cabrera posts numbers in line with his prior three-year average despite now hitting in the better park (.334 OBP with 20 HR), we will be happy. 

Team CTW also owns Bichette in many leagues.  No, he will not start the season in the bigs but how do the Jays keep him down past the super-2?  His OBP this spring is .500 in 38 plate appearances with an OPS of almost 1.400.  I look forward to seeing this future star in Toronto this summer and raking in a profit of stats from our $3 investment.

First Tier OF:  Eddie Rosario $25 and Nick Castellanos $20:  Ordinarily, we will have at least two $30+ hitters. However, we went balance, even incurring the good-natured ribbing of Jason Collette as we continued to roster $25 hitters.  Neither Rosario nor Castellanos is Betts, Judge or Stanton but we think they were both undervalued at these prices.  Rosario is another of the classic high floor/room for growth hitters we favor.  At just 26, Rosario has over 2000 plate appearances and has hit 51 dingers, stolen 17 bases and hit .289 over the past two seasons combined.  Given that his OPS against lefties is up for three straight years, and both his contact and hard contact rates rose in 2018, a better 2019 is very much in reach (though we would take 2018 and profit!). 

Castellanos, in turn, has almost 3,000 plate appearances before his 27th birthday and continues to get better.  If he matches 2018 (.354 OBP with 88 runs, 89 RBI and 23 dingers), profit will be ours.

Second Tier OF:  Kole Calhoun $15; Leonys Martín $10 and Adam Engel $3:  I am not going to sugar coat it, none of these three are superstars.  However, Martin seems guaranteed playing time in Cleveland, will offer those scarce swipes and showed real growth before contracting the scary infection that ended his season and reportedly threatened his life (strikeouts down, walks up, chase rate down, hard hit rate up).  Fortunately, he is healthy now and apparently ready to take advantage of the skills growth.

Calhoun may be that .283 OBP guy of 2018 and sink our battleship but our deep dive showed something different.  First, he was very unlucky in 2018, registering a BABIP of around .240 despite a very strong 45-percent hard hit rate.  Second, he showed growth in the second half hitting the ball hard over 50-percent of the time.  Third, he had the lowest chase rate of his career.  $15 was more than we wanted to spend but pickings were thin so we grabbed the upside. 

Finally, we decided to roll the dice on Adam Engel and hoped that his second half portends good things to come.  This .207 career hitter known for his glove batted .260 with 4 dingers and 6 swipes in the second half of 2018.  If he hit like that for all of 2019, then 8 dingers and 12 swipes will be ours for $3.  However, we could get more.  The .247 BABIP from 2017 skews the stats on this young OF who enters his third MLB season with 800 plate appearances under his belt. Superstar? No.  However, a $10 player for $3, he could be.

Ace Starting Pitcher:  Gerrit Cole $35:   We made the decision to follow the same path as our title winning 2018 team.  Draft one ace (the A in SMART stands for Ace after all) and then cherry pick value.  Cole is an Ace’s Ace.  403 IP and 472K over the last two years scream "Ace."  Plus, he has four (yes FOUR) pitches that achieve a swinging strike rate over 12-percent. Oh, and he pitches for a good team so that win total should be secure.  Also, FIP says he was even a little bit better than his sub-3.00 ERA. 

Other Starting Pitchers:  Domingo Germán $4; Lance Lynn $1; Felix Pena $1; Brett Anderson $1; Felix Pena $1 and Jordan Zimmermann $1:  Unlike LABR where you cannot sit pitchers who get cold or have bad matchups without cutting them, Tout Wars allows streaming and free movement.  We used that freedom early and often in 2018 and plan to do so again.  In 2018, we studied the advanced data and came up with a number of $1 and $2 pitchers who we believed would outperform their price.  We did the same thing again this year.  To be honest however, I had hoped to get a better version of starters than the names listed above but each offers reason for optimism.  The Yankees already have rotation injuries so German will get his chance.  German struck out 102 in 85 innings and he has a proven his mid-90’s fastball, plus change and plus cutter get results.  Do not be alarmed by the 5.57 ERA as that is inflated by bad luck (62-percent strand rate) as the sub-4.00 xFIP attests.  If he gets 150 IP this year, we could have a 200K pitcher on our hands.  Oh, and the 18K with just 2BB in 11 IP this spring ain’t too shabby. 

As for Lance Lynn , we get it – Texas is not a great place to pitch.  However, neither was Yankee Stadium and Lynn posted a solid 3.34 xFIP and 25-percent K-rate in the second half.  With Lynn, I put a lot of stock in those second half numbers as he missed all of 2016 with TJS and it is often the second year post-TJS that shows true colors.  More reason for optimism:  Lynn posted a 50-percent ground ball rate in 2018 (key to keeping the ball in the park in Texas) and had the highest infield fly ball rate of his career (meaning that when he elevated, he often did so at a proper plane).  Finally, he cut his walks in half after the break, meaning the season-long 1.53 WHIP should not chase you away.  Lynn will not challenge Cole for the role of staff ace but should well outproduce his almost free price tag.

As for Felix Pena , we were targeting him for the reserve round not day 1 rotation.  However, with the fragile Angels staff, Pena will get his starts.  Altering his pitch mix was successful late in the year as he threw fewer fastballs and more sinkers.  Over his final 60 IP, Pena registered 50K and just 14BB while pitching to a 3.60 ERA.  The season-long advanced metrics also show reason for optimism:  43-percent ground ball rate; 11-percent swinging strike rate; and a 62-percent first pitch strike rate.  Also, I do not hate the 16K in 11IP this spring. 

As to Brett Anderson , we know he is fragile and that we will likely only get 100 IP (if that).  However, the A’s are good and have a good pen, so wins should be available.  Plus, whatever else you can say about Anderson, he does keep the ball on the ground as his 56-percent groundball rate from 2018 attests.  Other reasons for optimism – only 4 pitchers in the major leagues registered a higher chase rate than Anderson in the second half.  Will he be a $20 pitcher?  Heck no.  Can he earn $5 or even $7 in support of Cole?  Sure.

Finally, as to Jordan Zimmermann , he was pretty effective in the first half of 2018 (3.71 ERA) before trying to pitch through core muscle tears.  If healthy, he could return to that level and win some games against weaker AL Central opponents.  After all, this is a 32 year-old pitcher who was very good from 2011-2016 and who posted his second best K-rate since 2011 last year.  Again, he may not make it until May on our roster but there is upside. 

Relievers:  Álex Colomé $13; Wily Peralta $2; and Heath Hembree $2:  I like Colome but he is far from a sure thing.  On the plus side, Colome has posted solid WHIPs and ERAs over the last three years while saving 96 games (which would have been much higher had he not been traded to set up Edwin Díaz ).  In addition, his advanced metrics of 46-percent groundballs, 63-percent first pitch strikes and 13-percent swinging strike are reasons for optimism.  On the other side of the ledger, the Chisox have options should Colome falter (Herrera, Fry, Nate Jones ) and Colome’s one-year deal raises the risk he will be traded in July should the Pale Hose be struggling.

As to Wily Peralta , I do not get why he continues to go for nothing.  He saved all 14 of his chances last year after being anointed closer and Brad Boxberger is hardly a sure thing. 

Finally, Heath Hembree was just a shot at the Bosox pen that looks a mess now (and a shot at our good friend Howard Bender who called Hembree out at $1 and was already entering him on to the team Rotobuzzguy spreadsheet when he had to click “undo”).  

Bottom Line

We followed the plan of loading up on hitting.  That hitting is balanced and deep and the pitching staff has upside to support the Ace.  Time will tell if our plan worked but so far so good in our view.  Good luck to tall the Touts in 2019.