Tip Drill: The misunderstood fly-ball pitcher

The path to rotisserie glory was a lot simpler back in the old days, when modest upgrades made a big difference. If you read the USA Today team notes back in the mid-80s, you were probably ahead of the curve. Having cable in your off-campus college apartment in the late 80s could turn into an exploitable edge (heck, just having an off-campus apartment sets you up in college). The first person to get online access in the early-to-mid 90s certainly had a leg up on the stat pack.

Today, everyone is online and has routine access to a ton of information. The one-eyed man can no longer dominate the league of the blind; everyone has two eyes open, information at the click of a mouse, a high-powered phone.

There are some wise rotoheads out there who think the fake-baseball game is getting close to solved, with our drafts and auctions becoming a crap shoot as a result. There are no secrets anymore, the theory goes; no true sleepers. Too many people are using the same information and sources, too many people have similar methods.

To that, I say hogwash. Sure, our advantages come in more subtle ways today. But there will always be ways to beat the game; there will always be market biases to detect and exploit. And the more standardized your opponents become with their research and data collecting, the easier it will be to leverage the marketplace on draft day (or auction day). Use their scouting vanity against them.

Gene McCaffrey of Wise Guy Baseball is one of my favorite fantasy writers. His work is an engaging mix of math, science, philosophy and common sense. Gene understands that to get better answers, you have to ask better questions. And he refuses to accept that commonly-held opinions have to be right.

Today, he's writing most of my column for me. With Gene's permission, here's an extended excerpt from his excellent 2011 Annual. In his write-up on Oakland left-hander Tom Milone, McCaffrey underscores some sneaky facts about pitchers, ground balls and fly balls:

I didn't see [Milone last year], but he threw three pitches for strikes: 4-seamer, cutter and change. You can win like that. And he is an extreme flyball pitcher, which is a good thing and not a bad thing.

I guess it's time to substantiate this again. I had planned to drop this by-now-boring exercise, but damn near everything I read still chants "groundball good, flyball bad." No complaints. It should be an edge for us when lots of people believe something that is not true.

I hear you, Geno. Last week I read the Brandon McCarthy cover story in ESPN the Magazine, an interesting piece about how McCarthy reinvented himself into a ground-ball specialist. Exploring the story is well and good; concluding that McCarthy is now "one of the game's best pitchers" (as the story does) rings false. Maybe it's just how the Athletics are covered in the public eye these days; you start with the intended conclusion and work backwards. (Moneyball the book had a conclusion in mind before a page was ever written; as for the movie, go ahead and make up whatever pushes the story along. I liked both, but let's call a spade a spade.)

Back to the point, it's nice to see ground-ball love in the mainstream. This will help us in the long run. Returning to McCaffrey's Manifesto:

The reason you hear about he wondrous beauty of groundballers is that as a group they have lower ERAs than flyballers. Because they have lower ERAs, they also get more wins. These are categories we play for, and of course they are important. But we also play for WHIP and strikeouts, and flyball pitchers are better at both of those cats.

To demonstrate, I take all the pitchers who pitched at least 50 innings last year, and select the ones who were 5 percent or more above the MLB average in FB or GB rate. There are 99 groundballers and 65 flyballers this year, more groundballs and fewer flyballs than last year, if that means anything. But as always, big sample sizes. We see the exact same pattern every year:

The pattern is the same, although the groundballers made a comeback in their ERA edge, which had been dwindling in recent years. By the way, the MLB averages were down considerably from 2010, when the total ERA was 4.07 and the WHIP was 1.347. Add up all those edges, and you have yourself as close to a wash as can ever matter. Flyballers are every bit as good as groundballers. The real message from that chart is that pitchers with no pronounced GB/FB tendency are, as a group, not good pitchers. You can be great with no tendency, it happens, but you are not very good.

Take this further simply by adding traditional K/W standards. If you separate both the Gs and Fs who struck out at least six batters per nine innings and walked three or more batters per nine, we get this grid:

These numbers will do wonderful things to your place in the standings.

Well played, amigo. Thanks for sitting in.

Your mileage will vary with all of this data, of course. Some leagues are all about the spreadsheet and some aren't. If nothing else, just see the broader point: it's absolutely possible to find biases (and potential advantages) at any draft table, no matter how sharp the room might be. Just try to keep an open mind about all this stuff, and don't take anything for granted.

Maybe today's blog explains why Jered Weaver has been such a value for the last few years; he's been swimming uphill against a mountain of numbers. At least he has some intelligent people on his side as well (paging Rich Lederer to the white courtesy phone; pick up, please). Don't be afraid to swim against the current, gamers.

(Disclaimer on the way out: Yes, Gene McCaffrey is a friend of mine, and yes, you have to pay for his basic product. I'd recommend it to anyone and I wouldn't share the man's work if I didn't strongly believe in it. If it's not for you, it's not for you. But I think you'll like it if you check it out. I don't get anything if you happen to subscribe, other than the good feeling of knowing that I, in a manner of speaking, introduced two smart baseball fans.

If you want a listen to some McCaffrey theory, check out Baseball HQ's free podcast from 2/25; in the middle of it, Gene and HQ's Patrick Davitt — another sharp baseball mind, by the way — discuss rotisserie theory for about 15 minutes. You can find the podcast on HQ's website or on iTunes. McCaffrey will also be on the 3/3 program next week, talking about specific players. Get your notebooks ready.)

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