We are a fantasy baseball league whose draft is scheduled for April 14. Ten men enter (or nine or eight), and one man leaves.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Leave Him for Me

The case against Johan Santana
By Ron Shandler
Baseball HQ

There are some players who perform so steadily, and with such worthy skills, that you just assume the future will be a simple extension of the past. That leads us into complacency, which can be dangerous, especially in the early stages of a fantasy draft.

Such is the story of Johan Santana in 2007. In the past three seasons, Santana has posted phenomenal ERAs of 2.61, 2.87 and 2.77 in seasons of 228 IP, 231 IP and 233 IP. A clear first-round pick, right?

Not necessarily. There are several reasons to think twice about spending a first-round pick on Santana.

He has no upside.

Every player projection you see -- at Baseball HQ, in all the magazines and Web sites -- represents an average, or most likely outcome for the upcoming year. In truth, when you draft a player, you own the universe of possible outcomes, good and bad. For most players, one can envision not only scenarios in which the player falls short of expectations (such as by getting hurt) but also scenarios in which the player exceeds expectations. After all, few players are the best at everything -- even a No. 1 pick like Albert Pujols could surprise us with some steals.

Santana, though, is the best at what he does. Last year, he was almost one strikeout per game better than the second-place guy (Jeremy Bonderman) and a full quarter of a run than the next best pitcher in expected ERA, one of Baseball HQ's metrics.

In short, there is Santana, and there is everyone else. The odds of him improving his stats further or playing his way into more starts -- anything to increase his value -- are virtually nil.

So, when you draft Santana in the first round, you're banking on another 230 IP and a sub-3.00 ERA. Yet, given his lack of upside in skill, almost everything out of Santana's control has to break right for this scenario to happen. If Santana has any setback, he won't be able to recover by raising his game any higher than it already is.

He needs help.

In fantasy baseball, even a superstar pitcher like Santana has only so much control over his numbers. Getting 9.4 strikeouts per game means there are 17.6 outs unaccounted for. To land the prized "W," Santana still needs a solid supporting cast.

Fortunately, the Twins' offense is decent, and their bullpen is rock solid. The weak link is the rest of the rotation. The auditions this spring include two youngsters with upside -- Scott Baker (6.37 ERA last year) and Matt Garza (5.76 ERA) -- and two terror-inducing veterans -- Ramon Ortiz (5.57 ERA last year) and Sidney Ponson (6.25 ERA). If those players don't pan out, and Carlos Silva logs another 5.94 ERA, even the Twins' relief corps could break down. The impact on Santana would be more inherited runners scored, a higher ERA, and fewer wins.

He is not invincible.

If you want to know what it is like to be disappointed by Santana, you need only think back to last April. That is when Santana went 1-3 with a 4.45 ERA. It was Santana's first monthly ERA over 4.00 since May 2004. He responded with two months of 1.88 ERA… followed by another uncharacteristic 4.74 ERA in July. These aberrations were not the product of bad luck -- they featured "mortal" levels of 3.0 K/BB, versus Santana's overall 5.2 K/BB for 2006. Clearly, something was awry -- mechanically or psychologically, if not physically. And anything that goes awry once can do so again.

It is possible that these bad months don't spell trouble. after all, Santana recovered from a rough stretch in 2004 to have a terrific 2005. Still, these fits of mediocrity remind us that Santana is not a robot. During 2004-06, Santana had the third-highest IP total among active pitchers (693.1 IP), following Livan Hernandez and Roy Oswalt. When it comes to workload, the human body does have limits.

He is still a pitcher.

Overall, from the pool of players who are drafted in March, some lose a portion of their projected value by October: they get hurt, they grow old, better players come along, etc. However, the pool of pitchers loses about twice as much projected value as the pool of hitters. A main reason for this disparity is the greater risk of injury among pitchers. Not to mention the fact that pitchers play less than hitters, so a few bad outings hurt their stats. Finally, fantasy ball has a structural bias against pitchers: Whereas most every hitter can potentially contribute to every offensive category, pitchers are often shut out from one or more stats -- saves for starting pitchers, wins and strikeouts for relievers.

This bias is even more profound in the first round. Here is where fantasy owners must build their foundation of counting stats. The ratio categories -- ERA, WHIP and batting average -- can be managed at any time during a draft. Since hitters contribute to upward of four counting stats, and pitchers truly only two, you put your foundation at risk by drafting a pitcher that early.

The bottom line is pitchers are less valuable fantasy commodities than hitters, but you probably already know that. A hitter who suffers a power outage can redeem himself by stealing a few bases, batting .300, or just going on a power surge for a month. Pitchers, though, have a slimmer bag of tricks. Santana will never be able to supplement his earnings with a few saves, or make up for a blown win in one start by getting two wins the next time around. All he can do is what he already does: keep facing batters, one by one, trying for strikeouts and ground balls, avoiding walk, and hoping that his offense, defense and bullpen come through.

That's enough wishful thinking to shake us all out of complacency. In snake drafts, let him slide unless you find him in your lap in Round 2. In auctions, cap at $30.

Ron Shandler is the Editor and Publisher of BaseballHQ.com and author of the annual Baseball Forecaster book.

The case for Johan Santana
By Matthew Berry

Ron Shandler is as good and smart a fantasy baseball guy as I know, which is why we'll forgive the fact that he's bonkers on this one. Ron, being the "good one," wrote his article first, so I get to look at it but he didn't get to look at mine. That isn't fair, but that's life.

Here's something else that is also life. Everything Ron wrote about Santana applies for all pitchers. Pitching is a cruel mistress, we all know that. We're stuck having to use them in fantasy, so why not get the one sure thing that is so dominant that he allows the rest of your staff to be mediocre?

Consider that, while he wins a lot and gets as many strikeouts as anyone in the business, what truly sets Santana apart is that he also packs a serious impact with his ERA and WHIP multiplied by his 230 annual innings. For example, last season, let's say you screwed up your staff and had eight pitchers who threw 1,300 innings with a very ordinary 4.00 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. At best, you're middle-of-the-pack and probably toward the bottom. Add last year's Santana stats to that staff, and now we're looking at a very respectable 3.81 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP. It's that significant a difference.

The other thing to remember is that it's not just the fact that he's the best, it's the fact that he's the best by a lot.

Compare Santana to the consensus No. 2 fantasy starter, Chris Carpenter, who would only wrestle those figures down to a 3.89 ERA with a 1.26 WHIP while giving you 61 fewer strikeouts. Or, compare him to the acknowledged best strikeout man in the National League, Carlos Zambrano, who still came up 35 strikeouts short of Santana and would pull you down only to a 3.92 ERA, with no benefit to your WHIP at all.

Does he need to stay healthy? Of course. But he's spent less time on the DL the past few years than Albert Pujols or Jose Reyes, that's for sure. Does he need his teammates to help him out? Sure, but what player doesn't? If no one is on base, who is Pujols driving in? Or if Carlos Delgado keeps looking at curves instead of swinging, Reyes is stuck on second base a lot, ya know?

It comes back to the principle of multicategoricalicity, which is sort of a word. Those who do well in all categories are inherently more valuable than those who do one thing extremely well. In Santana's case, he combines both those aspects: He can lead the league in wins, strikeouts, ERA and WHIP.

Imagine if Pujols could steal bases like Reyes, or Carl Crawford could hit as many home runs as Ryan Howard. You'd draft them No. 1 overall, wouldn't you? Of course you would. So why on earth wouldn't you do it for a guy who can win four out of five pitching categories? Because that's what you get in Santana. And when Shandler and I go head to head in Tout Wars next week and when he bids on Santana (and he will), I will laugh the laugh of a victor ... and then bid one buck more.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is ESPN's new Senior Director of Fantasy. He was just as surprised as you to find out it's a real job. Read more of his analysis or play your league for free, with free live scoring, at ESPN.com


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