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April 02, 2006

Cracking the WHIP -- fantasy baseball advice

Among the many things in my life that I pretend to know something about is how to pick a fantasy baseball team.

This is my fourth year in a league with colleagues at work, the brother of one of them, and my younger son (who's been in the league since last year). We play the "wuss" version, which means no salaries, no keepers. We have a draft, and the only thing that limits you is the players who have been picked earlier. Then we use rotisserie scoring with a modified 5 X 5. (Actually, it's 6X 6. We've added strikeouts as a negative batting stat to the traditional R, HR, RBI, AVG, and SB, and we've added HR allowed as a negative pitching stat to the traditional W, K, Save, ERA, and WHIP.) Rotisserie scoring means that the teams in the league are ranked for each statistic. With 10 teams in the league, first place for a stat means 10 points, second place 9, third place 8, etc., and you add the points for all the stats to find your place in the league.

The way I do my draft is to put my picks in order by position. Then, I decide where the dividing line is between "A" picks and "B" picks (and sometimes "C" and "D"). If one position is running out of "A" picks, I might switch plans to grab the last "A" pick at that position.

For those of you who play in a league like this, I have a useful tip, which I think can be worth about 3 to 10 points in the overall standings. I figured this out my first year (after stumbling through the first half of the season having no idea what I was doing) based on a comment from someone else in the league, who, oddly, hasn't pursued its implications.

The tip is fairly simple: When you draft pitchers, or pick them up after the start of the season, you should place a very high emphasis on their WHIP. WHIP is short for Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched. If you have two similar pitchers, and one has a good WHIP, go with him. In fact, you should be willing to give up a little power (strikeouts) for a better WHIP.

The reason this works is that as the season wears on, teams tend to be fairly close together in WHIP. It isn't unusual for 6 or 7 of 10 teams to be bunched between 1.20 and 1.25 in WHIP. So if you can get your team's WHIP up from 1.25 to 1.19, you'll gain about 6 or 7 points in rotisserie scoring. If you move it from 1.22 to 1.19, that may be worth 4 or 5 points. In addition, low WHIPs correlate with low ERAs, so your focus on WHIP gives you a twofer.

For example, last year, Scott Kazmir of Tampa Bay had more than 8 strikeouts per 9 innings -- a solid power pitcher -- but his WHIP was a horrendous 1.46. No way I would pick him. In contrast, take a guy like Pedro Martinez. Toe injury and all, he's a much better bet. He also had more than 8 strikeouts per 9 innings last year, but his WHIP was 0.95. I admit Kazmir isn't really comparable to Martinez by any measurement. I simply used him as an example. My goal in selecting pitchers is to avoid anyone with a WHIP over about 1.22. If I pick someone with a WHIP as high as 1.25, I'll be very careful before activating him.

This seems to have worked for me. Not to boast, but two years ago (my second year in the league), I finished first of 8 teams, and last year, I finished second of 9 teams, missing a chance to win on the final day by stupidly gambling and starting four pitchers. This year will be the big test of my WHIP strategy, because I got a lousy position in the draft order, which was picked at random. I was 9th out of 10. (The order snakes back from last to first in even-numbered rounds, so the main thing you lose is a decent first-round pick, which is surprisingly important. I've had Albert Pujols for both of the past two years.)

So we'll have to see, but I'm pretty confident I can do the "wuss" fantasy equivalent of Billy Beane style moneyball, focusing heavily on WHIP for my pitchers.