Not Just For the Sad and Lonely: A Defense of Fantasy Baseball

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Hong-Chih Kuo doesn't exist unless you play fantasy baseball.

Playing fantasy baseball is a lot like watching the English Patient. It’s long, tedious and in the end you really aren’t sure if it was worth all the trouble. It’s the overlooked little brother of fantasy football; kind of nerdy and viewed with all the same skepticism of Dungeons and Dragons(by the way Randy Johnson has a nice slider +5, but you have to equip him with the enchanted Hands of Tyman first). Sure there aren’t 20-sided dice, but fantasy baseball isn’t exactly something you want to bring up on a first date. The season drags on from March through September, or roughly the gestation period of an American Black Bear. Unlike football, where you have to check your roster about once a week, fantasy baseball requires that you look at your roster every day for seven months to avoid the embarrassment of leaving Ty Wigginton in your lineup even though every else in the league knew that he was out with a pulled hamstring (not something that is easily lived down). I mean you could go on a three-day vacation and by the time you come back, your whole season could be shot! Kaput! Gone in the blink of an eye.

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

The ultimate prize. Was it worth seven months of your life?

Additionally, there are numerous other traps that first time fantasy baseball players can fall into. Wanting to get as many starts as possible, an owner may pick up pitchers every day and plug them into their rotation. This seems like a good idea until you realize that there is a maximum number of innings allotted to a team’s pitchers and once you cross this threshold you no longer accumulate stats. You then wrap your mind around the horrific truth that you have banked your playoff hopes on pitchers like Jeff Weaver and Livan Hernandez, the only ones available on the waiver wire, and burst into bitter tears. By gosh you could burn out your pitching staff on mediocre starts by July if you really worked at it, and where would that leave you? In a quite a pickle, that’s where. Also, a number of players that seem valuable in real life, like Derek Jeter or Bobby Abreu, aren’t nearly as much of an asset on your fantasy squad, and are overvalued year after year by new fantasy players (you get exactly 0 points for leadership or clutch hits). Stats like steals mean just as much as homeruns in most leagues, leaving baseball fans turned fantasy players wondering if Willy Taveras is really as valuable as Ryan Howard (not quite).

With all that said, why would anyone in their right mind want to commit to a season of fantasy baseball? Well, the reasons are as endless as the hairs on David Hasselhoff’s chest.

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

The Crown Prince of Fantasy Baseball

First and foremost, baseball has always been the most stat driven of all sports. Even most casual fans can identify the significance of such numbers as 61 (Roger Maris’ single season HR record), .406 (Ted Williams average–the last man to hit .400) or .304-56 HR-147 RBI (Ken Griffey Jr’s 1997 MVP season). Fantasy baseball gives fans a chance to see these numbers or records as they are actually happening; certainly any fantasy baseball owner won’t forget Lance “the Big Puma” Berkman setting a career high with 18 stolen bases last year because it may have helped them knock off a hated rival to win their league, but just about everyone else outside of Houston will. Fantasy baseball also allows fans to understand the importance of such complex statistics as WHIP (walks + hits/# of innings pitched, a great way to gauge the efficiency of a pitcher) or BABIP (batting average on balls in play, the league average is around .300). For example, a player with a low BABIP, say .280, is probably suffering from bad luck and is due for a breakout, which is something a casual fan will probably overlook. Following this principle, expect Evan Longoria’s average to improve this coming season.

Moreover, fantasy baseball allows you to discover players that normally go unheralded. For instance, Hanley Ramirez and Ian Kinsler are two of the top 10 players in fantasy baseball (thanks to their combination of speed, power and high average) but they normally get lost in the shuffle of higher paid players in large media markets. Think of Ramirez and Kinsler as the indie music of baseball, they’re so great because no one else knows about them (but thankfully, they don’t wear flannel, slackline or drink out of mason jars). Playing fantasy also allows you to discover the next crop of young players. Many owners will draft prospects who are in Triple-A at the beginning of the year and then salivate (like dogs after bacon) over their minor league stats until they are finally called up. Names like Max Scherzer, Travis Snider and Andrew McCutchen might not mean much to you unless you play fantasy baseball; it’s a great way to learn about the future all-stars of the game before anyone else does.

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

Did Pete Rose have it right all along?

The MLB season is a long one; no one will contend that point. So why not add a little spice to a 162-game season by having a little something riding on each game? Of course Pete Rose thought the same thing and look where that got him, but I digress. No longer will a July series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres be as pointless as another installment of The Land Before Time series. Owners of Nate McClouth and Adrian Gonzalez will have no choice but to pay attention to the games and chart their players’ performances. It’s not quite turning water into wine, but the ability to turn something meaningless into something meaningful, now that’s fantasy baseball’s true gift to mankind.

So the next time your friend mentions an upcoming fantasy baseball draft,  don’t call him a pale worthless excuse for a human being (sticks and stones may break but bones, but words will hurt forever). Instead, ask him if you can join and tell him you know all about WHIP and BABIP. After all, you do get a shiny little trophy if you win; isn’t that worth seven months of your life?

Best site for fantasy baseball: http://sports.yahoo.com/fantasy

Derek Jeter Is a Bum. Here’s Why.

Yet another error, what a putz.

Yet another error, what a putz.

Derek Sanderson Jeter (what a silly middle name) is widely regarded as one of the best players in the game. Many baseball fans would even go so far as to call Jeter one of the greatest shortstops of all-time (yes, even better than Rich Aurilia!) He’s clutch, handsome and dates more supermodels than Donald Trump. Jeter has been given the nickname “Mr. November” for his heroics in the 2001 playoffs that were delayed because of the events of 9/11. He is one of the most popular Yankees ever (sandwiched somewhere in between Paul O’Neill and Glenallen Hill) and is a likely first ballot Hall-of-Famer. Additionally, he runs a charitable organization, saves orphans from burning buildings, cured polio and blah, blah, blah…

Sure Derek Jeter is a good player, not even Alex Rodriguez would deny that. But it seems that he is a good player who has been magnified into a “great” player by the New York media. This guy gets more positive coverage than George Bush that damn water-skiing squirrel.  Heck, there are probably Yankees fans that think Jeter will save their immortal souls (I do recall hearing his name mentioned in the Book of Macabees).

Jeter was one of a trio of talented young shortstops in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that also featured A-Rod (moved to third, admitting taking steroids) and Nomar Garciparra (whose talent disappeared quicker than Alan Thicke after Growing Pains was cancelled), and out of the three is the only productive, drug-free member left. You could also throw Miguel Tejada into the conversation, but he might end up in jail, and never got the publicity of the other three.

The fact that the others have fallen off the map, or can’t stay out of the media for all the wrong reasons, is another factor that has led to Jeter’s puffed up reputation as a superstar. However, one could reasonably argue that Jeter was the fourth best shortstop out of this group. Let’s quickly compare the best year’s of these four players:

Derek Jeter 1999: (.349 BA-24 HR-102 RBI-19 SB-134 R) finished 6th in MVP voting

Alex Rodriguez: 2007: (.314 BA-54 HR-156 RBI-24 SB-143 R) Won MVP

Miguel Tejada 2002: (.308 BA-34 HR-131 RBI-7 SB-108 R) Won MVP

Nomar Garciparra 1998: (.323 BA-35 HR-122 RBI-12 SB-111 R) 2nd in MVP voting

Is Jeter even the best shortstop on his own team?

Is Jeter even the best shortstop on his own team?

While this is only a small sample of the career of these players, it should give an indication that Jeter was not far and away the best shortstop in the game during his heyday–and maybe not even one of the top three. Jeter has never won an MVP award and has only finished in the top five twice. By comparison, A-Rod has won 3 MVP Awards (1 with a big asterisk) and finished in the top five three other times. Only two times in his career has Jeter led the league in any offensive category, finishing first in runs in 1998 and first in hits in 1999 (if you want to get picky he led the AL in singles in 1997 and 1998–watch out Ichiro!)

Additionally, Jeter has benefited from playing in what is the perennially one of the best lineups in baseball with the Yankees. Between 2002 and 2007 New York never finished outside the top 3 in the league in runs scored and led the league three times. While Jeter probably still has a couple of seasons left, he is no longer an above average shortstop offensively, and his current career numbers compare to those of Barry Larkin, Ray Durham, Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker. Granted these aren’t terrible players, but they certainly aren’t superstars either.

And what about shortstops like Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins; better players than Jeter who get far less recognition because they play in smaller markets? Ramirez (who you’ve probably never heard of unless you are from the Sunshine State or play fantasy baseball) is one of the most exciting players in the game, and at only 25, is already more polished than Jeter was at the same age. Fresh off a 30-30 season, Hanley Ramirez would be the toast of New York if he joined the Yankees. If Jeter played for Florida he would be more overlooked than the TV show Freaks and Geeks.

Jeter just realized he was the worst defensive player in baseball.

Jeter just realized he was the worst defensive player in baseball; this was his reaction.

But it’s not only offensively that Jeter is vastly overrated; a close examination of his defensive abilities also leaves something to be desired. He won three Gold Gloves between 2004 and 2006, but many in the league point out that this was due to his reputation rather than his performance in the field. Jeter may have less errors than other shortstops, but that’s because he doesn’t have the range to get to balls deep in the hole that are routine for players like Omar Vizquel or Orlando Cabrera. In 2008, baseball stats guru Bill James named Derek Jeter the worst fielding shortstop in MLB, and another of the voters for the Fielding Bible called Jeter “the least effective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position.”  Ouch!

Now, to dispel some more myths about the suddenly human Derek Jeter. He was given the nickname “Mr. November” because of his clutch play in the 2001 playoffs. Just exactly how clutch was he you ask? Well, Jeter went 2-17 (.118 BA) against the Mariners in the ALCS before summoning up the strength to hit 4-27 (.148, 0 walks-6 strikeouts) against the Diamondbacks in the World Series. In the Yankees epic collapse against the Boston Red Sox in 2004, it was Captain Clutch himself who saved the day by hitting a robust .200 in the series. And let’s not forget who allowed Luis Gonzalez’s fateful hit to fall in during Game 7 of the 2001 World Series…that’s right, Derek Jeter. Would an average defensive shortstop have made that play? Only God himself knows…

Good player or great player? You be the judge.

Good player or great player? You be the judge of Derek Jeter.

Now, at this point, some may come to the defense of poor Jeter and point out that he won the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996. Of course Bob “Green Eggs and” Hamelin won that award in 1994 and Pat Listach won it in 1992. For god sakes Ben Grieve won the ROY in 1998–Ben Grieve!! Well, his supporters would fire back, what about the time Jeter won the All Star Game MVP in 2000? No one will deny that fact, but someone might be kind enough to point out that he joins an illustrious list of players including Jeff Conine, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Terry Steinbach as recipients of that award.

Derek Jeter is a consistently good player, not great, who has benefited from playing for one of the best teams of the past two decades. He has come through in some clutch situations while failing in others. Jeter is an above average offensive shortstop, but certainly not one of the best of all time, or even the past decade. He is greatly overrated defensively, and currently is adequate at best but more likely a detriment to the Yankees’ defense. Jeter isn’t even the best shortstop in New York (Jose Reyes) or even on his own team (A-Rod)! His skills continue to erode and he may soon have to be shifted to the outfield or first base where his value would diminish further. Even in his prime he wasn’t the best shorstop in his division, let alone all of baseball.

So why then, is Derek Sanderson Jeter hailed as one of the greats of the game? You tell me…

P.S. He never did saved those orphans from the burning building, hates apple pie, cheated on an 8th grade biology test and uses hair plugs. Are those traits of a great player, or just a good player?

Division by Division Breakdown: NL Style

Don't despair D-Backs, you're the best of the worst.

Don't despair D-Backs, you're the best of the worst.

Though long regarded as the little brother of the American League, the NL has quietly improved over the past few years and captured last year’s World Series thanks to the dominating Philadelphia Phillies. Though they still can’t win an All-Star game (apparently they count for something now), the National League has more quality teams than the AL and will look to go back-to-back in the 2009 Fall Classic.

NL West: Yikes! Winning this division is a lot like winning VH1’s Tool Academy–it doesn’t count for much. Three-and-out in the first round of the playoffs for whichever one of these teams sucks the least.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (86-76): Flush with young talent, the D-Backs should capture this weak division with continued growth from Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Justin Upton. Also boasting one of the best pitching staffs in the NL, including the 1-2 punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the snakes should slither in the playoffs after faltering down the stretch last season.

2. LA Dodgers (84-78): The Dodgers could move up or down in this division, depending on where Manny Ramirez ends up. The team lost starters Derek Lowe and Brad Penny to free agency and were so desperate for pitching that they invited Jeff Weaver to spring training (yes Mariner’s fans, that Jeff Weaver). Joe Torre may be a magician, but he just doesn’t have enough cards up his sleeve to pull this one off.

3. San Francisco Giants (79-83): Arguably the most improved team in the NL West, the Giants have all the pitching (Tim Lincecum-Randy Johnson-Matt Cain) to win, but with the heart of the lineup consisting of such fearsome sluggers as Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina might have a difficult time scoring enough runs to support their staff. Rumor has it Barry Bonds is still available…

4. Colorado Rockies (74-88): This team isn’t particularly bad, but they aren’t particularly good either. They traded away their most consistent offensive threat, Matt Holliday, for some pieces off  Billy Beane’s scrap heap in Oakland, and mostly treaded water in the off-season. Expect consistent mediocrity throughout the year. Sorry Dave.

5. San Diego Padres (64-98): Will challenge for the worst team in baseball but little else. The Padres should trade Jake Peavy before the season is over, leaving the pitching staff in the capable hands of Chris Young, Josh Banks, Cha Seung Baek, Mark Prior? Don’t feel too bad for San Diego fans, they can always console themselves with a cold one on the beach soaking up the sunshine…KC Royals fans, not so much.

NL Central: This division has more teams than any other, so that’s something. Three of these teams could compete for a playoff spot, but it is unlikely that anyone will challenge the Cubs for the division.

1. Chicago Cubs (96-66): Sure the Cubbies will win the division, but everyone knows that they will choke in the postseason, so does it even really matter? This team is better than last years squad which won 97 games, thanks to the addition of Milton Bradley and a full healthy year from Rich Harden (why does everyone laugh when I say that?) Lou Piniella’s team is the class of the National League, but have yet to prove it in October. Will this be the year the curse ends? No.

Can Ankiel lead the Cards to the playoffs?

Can Ankiel lead the Cards to the playoffs?

2. St. Louis Cardinals (87-75): Any team with Albert Pujols has a chance to contend, as proved by last year’s overachieving Cardinals. The offense will be one of the better top-to-bottom in the NL with A-Pu, Ryan Ludwick and Rick “The Natural” Ankiel. The pitching staff is the real question mark, and counting on a full season from Chris Carpenter is kind of liking counting on John Rocker and Jesse Jackson collaborating on a book–unlikely.

3. Houston Astros (85-77): Houston was making a strong push for the playoffs last year before hurricane weather forced them to play their home games in Milwaukee (I looked it up, it’s not in the state of Texas). The Astros should be a solid squad once again, assuming the weather holds up and Miguel Tejada doesn’t end up in jail. Mike Hampton returns to the home of his 22-win season, but his year should be considered a success if he manages to throw 22 pitches.

4. Milwaukee Brewers (79-83): The Brew Crew were the surprise of the NL last year, making it to the playoffs for the first time since 1982. Don’t expect them to go back-to-back though, after losing ace pitchers CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency. Prince Fielder and Ryan “Brains and” Braun are the meat (or tofu in the case of Fielder, a vegan) of a good offense, but it won’t be enough for them to repeat last year’s success.

5. Cincinnati Reds (78-84): The Cincinnati Reds have the look of a team that will be good in a few years, chock full of young talent like Jay Bruce and Edison Volquez, but they also have the look of a team that will struggle mightily this year. Granted they will be better than the Bengals, but not by much.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94): The Pirates, currently in year 15 of a 30-year rebuilding plan, will stink worse than two-month-old milk. At least it’s a scenic town…

NL East: Probably the best division in the the National League, the NL East has four teams with a shot at making the playoffs. Problem is, only two of them will get in…let the fighting commence! (* denotes wildcard winner)

1. New York Mets (95-67): No really, they won’t collapse down the stretch this season. Thanks to the additions of JJ Putz and Francisco Rodriguez, New York should have just enough talent to eek out a win in this tough division.  With potential Cy Young winner Johan Santana and the dynamic duo of Jose Reyes and David Wright the Metropolitans will be a handfull come playoff time. Do I smell a Subway Series brewing?

Can the Phillies remain top dog in the East?

Can the Phillies remain top dog in the NL East?

2. Philadelphia Phillies* (93-69): The defending champs bring back the bulk of last year’s team and should be considered a serious threat to win it all again. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard lead the offense, while Cole Hamels and septuagenarian Jamie Moyer key the pitching staff. This division race should go down to the end of the season and will decided by the bullpens (hint: don’t expect another perfect year from Brad Lidge).

3. Florida Marlins (91-71): Despite selling off their top talent seemingly every year, the Marlins are still a darkhorse to win the division. Lots of young talent on both sides of the ball–led by the pitching staff of Josh Johnson-Anibal Sanchez-Ricky Nolasco and the keystone combination of Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, will power the fish to a surprising record. Keep on eye on young centerfielder Cameron Maybin, 2009 may be his coming out party–of the baseball variety that is.

4. Atlanta Braves (84-78): The Braves had a difficult off-season, losing out on free agents Rafael Furcal and Ken Griffey Jr. and allowing John Smoltz to jump to Boston. The pitching staff was bolstered by the additions of Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami and Atlanta signed fan favorite Tom Glavine hoping that he still has something to offer (besides a startlingly resemblance to Bob Saget). Not a whole lot to get excited about on the offense, besides Chipper Jones and Brian McCann. Look for Bobby Cox to increase the all-time record for ejections substantially this season.

5. Washington Nationals (70-92): The NL version of the Mariners, the Nats have a bigger collection of washed up stars than the Surreal Life. The addition of Adam Dunn was a pleasant surprise (who joins a growing list of Cincinnati Reds’ castoffs including Austin Kearns, Wily Mo Pena, Cory Patterson and Dmitri Young–who, if they aren’t good enough for the Reds, well, somethings are better left unsaid) but their “big” pitching acquisition of Daniel Cabrera (8-10, 5.25 ERA in 2008) leaves a little something to be desired. It’s hard to tell which is worse: the relationship between Democrats and Conservatives on Capitol Hill or the Washington Nationals. Cover your eyes Nationals’ fans, it’s going to be a long year.

Coming Soon: Playoff Previews and World Series Winner!!