Catching is the Cruelest Position

By Peter O’Neil
Fantasy Baseball Canada

What branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?
— The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot

A lot of fantasy players who made big investments in catchers are hoping that April is indeed the cruelest month, and that things will get better, because it’s certainly been a rough one for owners of studs like the disabled trio of Brian McCann, Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit.

There’s bad news all around. Owners of Russell Martin, Chris Iannetta, Geovany Soto, Ramon Hernandez, Kelly Shoppach, Kenji Johjima and Chris Snyder all expected more. Martin is sure to bounce back, though perhaps not as much as owners expect, and his zero-for-two record in stolen base attempts appears ominous for a player who derives so much of his fantasy value from steals.

Some of the others, like Iannetta, face playing time questions if their struggles continue.

Matt Wieters owners, meanwhile, will be unimpressed with his strikeout rate so far this April in AAA, a level he was supposed to dominate en route to a call-up many expected would come as early as next week.

For those of us replacing the injured, or demoted, the pickings have been slim and grim:  Brian Scheider was struggling before he got hurt, and veterans like Jason Kendall and Greg Zaun look like they might not be able to make it through the year without facing forced retirement.  Jesus Flores and Rod Barajas have had nice little runs but they’ll come back to earth.

Are there bright spots? Absolutely.  Victor Martinez and Jorge Posada are bouncing back strong from tough years, Benjie Molina remains an RBI machine with remarkable durability considering his body type, and Brandon Inge has been a spectacular reward with owners who had the foresight to be optimistic about what he could do while being settled in a single, non-catching position for a full year.

Yes, it’s early, but first impressions are often powerful, and I’m wondering if this experience will have an impact on next year’s drafts and auctions.

Those of us who have been at this for more than a few years remember when closers went for sky-high prices, sometimes in the first round in drafts.  But in recent years it has become more and more clear that relievers often lose their jobs, or break down, which in turn means that saves can be acquired fairly cheaply. I’ll never forget the year I decided to “punt” saves by waiting until the very end of a draft to take three relievers who were merely candidates to close coming out of spring training. All three, including Eric Gagne, turned out to be 30-plus save closers. I won the category running away, and I’m pretty sure my experience had a deflationary impact on closer prices the next year.

There are experts who already have been urging fantasy players to avoid making big investments on catchers because of the injury risk and the wear-and-tear that impacts players like Martin — even if they don’t end up on the DL. I predict that the once-burned, twice-shy sentiments of owners this year, who are now looking enviously at the gleeful Inge owner in their league, will have a deflationary impact on catchers’ prices  in 2010. For those of you in keeper leagues I would suggest you assemble your team with this in mind.

Panic? Or Don’t Panic? Which Is It?

by Peter O’Neil

Many fantasy baseball experts admonish those who express nervousness over a high-priced superstar’s slow start. “Don’t panic!” they say. “Players always revert to their norm.” Others chirp in on public forums: “It’s only April, the stats are meaningless.”

And the most obnoxious will annoyingly declare:  “Gee, I wish you were in my league. I’d take you to the cleaners, offering you my red-hot Chris Duncan for your slow-starting Carlos Lee.”

It is of course true that you should never trade a slumping elite player for a hot-starting unknown.  But given all the available information and expertise out there these days, are there really players in remotely serious leagues who make those kinds of deals?  Even if they did the scorn heaped down on them assures they will too petrified to do it  again, and the beneficiary would earn a “shark” reputation that could make future trading difficult.

To me the real question is this: Should we really be so quick to dismiss April stats? Is a star’s slow start, or an unheralded player’s heroics, really meaningless?

I have always felt that April stats are fairly significant.  And I’d like to cite some research I’ve been looking over, produced by one of fantasy’s top gurus, to back up my views.

Ron Shandler’s 2009 edition of the Forecaster reproduced his study of the 2005 season that looked at players who had surprisingly good, or bad, years, and sought to determine if these breakouts and breakdowns were identifiable by the end of April.

The study concluded that a little over 40 per cent of hitters and pitchers who earned $10 more than projected for the whole season were red-hot in April.

More than half of hitters (56 per cent) and 3/4 of pitchers (74 per cent) who earned $10 less than projected were also identifiable in April.

Shandler’s conclusion was that, for other than pitchers about to have lousy years, “April was not a strong leading indicator.”

The study also looked at major breakouts — players earning $20-$25 more than predicted — and found these were identifiable in 45 per cent of the cases. His conclusion: “April surgers are less than a 50-50 proposition to maintain that level all season.”

I love the research, so once again the fantasy baseball community has benefited from Shandler’s great work. But I have a different perspective on the conclusion.

If everyone in fantasy agreed that 100 per cent of players off to amazing, or miserable, starts in April were going to maintain that level, then this study would poke a pin in that balloon. But we know that’s not the case.

The fact is that the vast majority of fantasy participants are inherently skeptical of players who come out of nowhere to start strongly.   They might find it interesting that Chris Duncan is hitting more than .350 right now, but how many would pay a price to have him on their teams?

Similarly, while owners might be a little worried right now that David Ortiz is well under the Mendoza line, it’s going to be a while before they give up on the idea that their star asset will come back with a vengeance. Of course, experts constantly urging them to be patient and assuring them that players revert to the mean reinforces this view.

So I doubt very much if fantasy players realize there is at least a 40 per cent chance the player performing well above expectations will remain that way, and that more than half of the league’s slumping hitters, and three-quarters of struggling pitchers, won’t recover.

A second study, also by Shandler, reinforced my view.

Last May he proposed a theoretical trade of hot April starters (including Fred Lewis, Ryan Doumit, Kyle Lohse, Chipper Jones, Cliff Lee among them) for strugglers (like Robinson Cano, Justin Verlander, Kenji Johjima, Austin Kearns, Adam Laroche, and Roy Oswalt). He suggested tongue somewhat in cheek that the buyer of the slow starters would have to be nuts to accept such a group of struggling bums as Oswalt and Cano.

Of course, his point was that the former group of overachievers were obvious sell-high candidates, while the underachievers were ideal buy-low opportunities. He said the goal of this column was to “prove that early season mass hysteria” about hot or cold starters “is really tiresome.” He stated as fact that his underachievers would out-earn the overachievers, and made a joking reference to the absurdity of anyone who would rather have Lohse over Verlander.

But the result was a shocker, to me and I assume to Shandler. The 10 so-called overachievers actually performed better the rest of the way, with Lohse playing a key role by clearly pitching better than Verlander.

I think these results open our eyes to changing realities. Shandler deliberately chose the overachieving Doumit among the group of players he wanted to trade away, and cited the underachieving Johjima as an ideal target. The message here was obvious: the smart money should be betting on Johjima, since he had a longer track record and the projected stats were so much better.

Yet here we are a year later and Doumit is an elite catching option and Johjima is unrosterable in numerous formats.

Things change, and sometimes the signs are obvious in April.

So what can we do as fantasy players with this information? Well, that’s a tough one. Ideally, fantasy experts should be doing a version of the 2005 study every year to give us more information on the springtime genesis of breakouts and breakdowns.

But until then? I’m not advocating panic trades, of course. It’s still going to be tough figuring out which of your hot starters is headed for a career year. And it will always be hard to try to sell struggling players, particularly if you have a reputation of being one of the smarter cookies in your league. People will assume you know there’s an underlying problem.

But if there’s a shark in your league trolling for slow-starters, and offering some flash-in-the-pan who’s leading the league in RBIs, don’t necessarily assume you’re about to be duped.  There’s a not-unreasonable chance that you could be getting a stud for a dud.

(Peter O’Neil is the Paris-based Europe correspondent for a Canadian news agency. He writes for

Peter O’Neil: Etiquette!



As a father of three children between ages 11 and six I probably spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with manners: “Devin, elbows off the table please.” “McKenzie, don’t talk with your mouth full.” “Will, stop firing your Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast gun in Aunt Ruthie’s ear.”

So I’m particularly conscious these days of the social interactions surrounding trade negotiations.

Trading is at its best when you are honestly sharing ideas and information, keeping doors open, testing bottom lines, and finding the best deal that leaves both sides happy. In my experience this never happens if an owner involved in the negotiations is quick to spit venom at the first sign of a so-called “insulting” offer, or simply ignores e-mailed suggestions he doesn’t find appealing. Why even consider making offers to people like that?

I’m far from perfect on this front, but after giving this matter some thought I’ve come up with some dos and don’ts that I think make trade talks pleasant and build, rather than raze, bridges.


*No one likes the silent treatment. Try to respond promptly to a trade offer or e-mail query, even if it’s just a “thanks for the offer/idea but no thanks.” It’s pretty frustrating going to the trouble of putting together an offer, developing a rationale, and have it sit in someone’s in-basket for a week or longer. I know of someone who forgot about an offer he made in that situation, and it was finally accepted after the player he sought went on the disabled list. Now that’s both rude and unethical.

I realize some people will pester others with offers and not take no for an answer. A firm “thanks but I’m not interested” should be applied, and after that it makes total sense to ignore further contact.

*Throw in a few pleases and lots of thank-yous, the latter even if you get what you perceive to be a low-ball offer. “Thanks for this! I don’t think that would work for me, I’m not really a fan of Kevin Millwood and I’m pretty attached to King Felix, but when you’re ready to part with Peavy let’s talk.”

It might turn your stomach to laugh off a ridiculous offer but you only catch fish if some of them are nibbling.

*Conversely, try to respect your league-mates by doing your best to make sure the offer doesn’t insult the other person’s intelligence. Remember, even if they accept a low-ball deal the long-term impact could be negative, because if that person is burned they’ll be twice-shy. The other downside, of course, is they start to mistrust your offers even when they are legit.

I have some friends who say that respect means you should never make an offer without providing meticulous research to prove the deal is beneficial to the other guy. But in this era when everyone’s hyper-busy that’s not always realistic. It might be fairer to say: “Sorry, I’m busy, not sure if you want a steals guy and no time to check, but if you have a need for speed B.J. Upton is available for power.” The other guy doesn’t have to do any research at all to simply bang out on the keyboard “yes” or “no.”

*Respect confidences and privacy. It’s not ethical in my opinion to take elements of a private trade discussion public on a league forum without the permission of the other person.


*Say anything in trade discussions you wouldn’t say at a social event with acquaintances. For instance, calling an offer ridiculous or absurd is inflammatory, insulting and counterproductive. Maybe you think the insult is just, but if you want to trade with that person again why would you alienate them? And trust me, word will get around if you are abusive and others won’t want to deal with you either.

I received a very reasonable offer from someone this year, delivered politely, and I said no. He asked for a counter but I just didn’t have the stomach to offer one. Why? Last year he called an offer I made ridiculous and when I objected to his tone he said something along the lines of: “This isn’t a tea party, you know.” Well, he may think a fantasy baseball league encounter is the equivalent of a longshoremens’ night out at the local pub, but that’s not my style. I face enough stress, and challenging people, in my day job.

*Assume the person making what seems to be an obvious low-ball offer knows it’s a low-ball offer. It’s very hard to be objective about your own players. You follow a player through his minor league career and pick him in the March draft, he hits .340 in April with six home runs, you’re giddy as heck, feel like a genius, and suddenly notice an established player is hitting .196 in April with two rbis, and has a bothersome hammy. You listen to experts constantly chanting the mantra “buy low, sell high,” so you make an offer legitimately believing it’s fair, and then you get a response a treats it like a slap in the face. I remember touting Jeff Hamilton last year in late April and I got heckled a fair bit, but I legitimately believed I’d struck gold. I think his performance since then has proven that, when healthy, this guy is a stud. But when I flogged him in early-2007 trade talks some of my leaguemates treated me like a snake oil salesman.

Last year I broke my own rule and responded to an offer by saying something along the lines of, “Please be serious.” I had dangled the league’s best closer, looking for a starter, and was offered a rookie pitcher with a 5.00-plus era. But I think I let my disappointment over the lack of decent offers from others get the best of me, and I took out my frustrations on this poor guy. Maybe he’s in keeper leagues where this phenom is considered gold, and perhaps he actually thought the kid was about to have a huge second half. I felt badly, as the guy did take offence, and I think I unnecessarily burned a bridge.

*Harass or argue with someone who turns you down, unless they say something that you believe is fundamentally incorrect. Even then it’s probably best to begin with: “I realize we aren’t going to do this deal but I just wanted to point out that I think you are underestimating my player’s value because of…”

*Don’t always ask for offers without coming up with your own. Do some legwork yourself. I was in a league with a guy with the attention span of a three-year-old who would break most of the aforementioned rules. He’d post on the forum: “Offers! Where are my offers? C’mon guys, I need to make a move.” And when we actually sent him offers, by email or even by phone, he didn’t even respond.

To sum up, be polite and respectful, and don’t abuse the anonymity the internet age provides you. Pretend an e-mail is a phone call, and an actual exchange is a live conversation. Ask yourself: “Is this something I’d say face-to-face?” AND, most important, remember that no one views players exactly the way you do.


(Peter O¹Neil, who covers Europe from Paris for a Canadian news agency, is a
former stock market columnist for the Financial Times of Canada. He won the
2007 Rotoman¹s Regulars non-keeper title and is multiple winner of the Brian
Baskin¹s Fantasy Baseball League based in Ottawa.)

Getting the Willies: Peter O’Neil on the Colorado CFer

In early March I posted a tip in a fantasy baseball forum I frequent after noticing that Willie Taveras had stolen 94 bases over the past three years against right-handers, but just seven against lefties. Obviously the much larger number of ABs against righties magnified this bias.

I was looking into Taveras’s splits because I was considering ways to maximize his speed while minimizing the power void. I advised forum readers to follow my plan and bench him against lefties. I did that until – doh – I sat him against Jonathan Sanchez and lost a three-SB night. I assumed it was a blip, that Sanchez perhaps was brutal in holding runners on.

But in checking his split stats this year on Yahoo I have discovered that this is part of a trend. He’s 16-1 (up to June 13 games) in 160 ABs against righties, and 13-1 in 50 ABs against lefties! He’s had 11 singles and three walks against lefties so I think it’s safe to assume he’s attempting to steal every time he gets on base against a southpaw.

I think this is a pretty significant development. He’s already on a 69-sb pace, according to CBS Sportsline, despite sitting a fair bit due to his crappy BA. His OBA of .294 is way below his career .333 OBA.

If he starts hitting a little better and wins back his manager’s confidence, and goes back to playing full-time, what’s this guy capable of? Granted, the fatigue factor would eventually set in if he’s playing every day, and maybe he’s running wild to prove something and will be less motivated if told he won’t sit again. And of course his pace now is inflated by his wild-running weekend.

Still, in pre-season many of us who thought about drafting him looked at a player who had been averaging around 30 steals a year and wondered if he could break out to 50 in a full season in Coors.

Now he appears to have a new skill. It should be fun for his owners to watch him use it, and the development raises questions about what Taveras could or should fetch on the trade market.


(Peter O¹Neil, who covers Europe from Paris for a Canadian news agency, is a 
former stock market columnist for the Financial Times of Canada. He won the
 2007 Rotoman¹s Regulars non-keeper title and is multiple winner of the Brian
 Baskin¹s Fantasy Baseball Pool based in Ottawa.)

The Myth of Buy Low, Sell High by Peter O’Neil

(Peter O’Neil will be contributing fantasy baseball columns from time to time.)

In early May fantasy guru Ron Shandler published a list of 10 hot starters, among them Fred Lewis and Kyle Lohse, and proposed trading them for another 10 out-of-the-gate stumblers. That list included fantasy favorites Robinson Cano and Roy Oswalt.

“I am trading away 28 HRs and a .355 batting average for 8 HRs and a .172 batting average. Heading out is a 1.94 ERA; coming in is a 5.61 ERA. I’d have to be completely out of my mind, right?” Shandler wrote on his site.

“We’ll check back in October.”

The point of this column was to wisely and usefully stress the importance of being patient with slow starters. He was also urging subscribers to follow the old stock market adage: Buy low, sell high, which he said is not something “that fantasy leaguers do easily.”

Really? As an owner of red-hot Fred Lewis at the time, I began a thread on his website¹s forum under the title of this column ­ The Myth of Buy Low, Sell High.

“I can’t count how many times in the last two weeks I’ve floated Lewis’s name in trade talks. Zero interest. If anyone took him it would be as a throw-in,” I wrote.

“You regularly see on this and other sites a reference to a player: Sell high; to another, Buy low.
But where are all the guys doing these deals? It reminds me of a saying from high school I once heard: Everyone is getting laid except the girls. In my experience these trades almost never happen. And when they do, and the results are as predicted, that newby has learned his lesson and never does it again. The shark who pulled off the heist gets a bad reputation and it
becomes harder and harder for him to make deals.

“So in fact I suspect that at minimum nine owners out of 10 would take the team of established stars, like Oswalt and Cano, over the other list.”

The debate began with someone helpfully explaining that curious imbalance I noted involving high school boys and girls: “Guys were getting sex hand over fist.”

As the debate turned more serious, several agreed with my point. The classic buy-low, sell-high trade “still doesn’t happen in my league. Ever,” one poster wrote.

“Candidates you think you can ‘sell high’ are perceived by everyone else as players that will revert to their original projections. Candidates you think you can ‘buy low’ are held by their owners because they’re just slumping.”

Another poster was one of several who argued that my basic “myth” argument was flawed.
“Nearly every day, I read of a lopsided trade completed by a poster on these forums that provides a counter-example to the notion that buy low, sell high trades are only a myth. Some of us say it isn’t happening in our leagues, but clearly it happens in many leagues.”

The last post I’ll cite came from someone who also challenged my argument, but also made the point that is fundamental in this debate. “With the internet making all sorts of secondary stats easily available as well as tons of expert analyses, owners are smarter than they have been in
the past. And most of us are hardcore-type rotogeeks who choose not to play in leagues with unsophisticated owners, anyway.”

So I considered these responses in early May as I started crafting an earlier draft of this column which led to the final product you¹re reading now. I made the point that one might have to start being counter-intuitive and contemplate taking advantage of the fact that hot starters’ values are
discounted, while the slow-starting superstars like Miguel Cabrera are always assumed to be on the verge of a huge breakout.

“If your player has started slowly, and you see a valid reason to question whether touts were right to hand him such lofty projections, it might not hurt to put feelers out that you’re ready to trade,” I wrote.

“You should have absolute faith that with quality players, the sharks will smell blood when think they have a shot at getting these players at 50 cents on the dollar. You shouldn’t sell them that low, but it may indeed be a wise move to trade at a slight discount or even no discount at all ­ particularly if it means getting back break-out player who might not turn out to be a
flop after all.”

Early in the 2007 season, when Michael Young was off to a miserable start and I was desperate for a shortstop, I offered to the owner my recently-acquired free agents who had started strong ­ Josh Hamilton and closer Al Reyes. I also gave him Juan Uribe, but he could have easily
received my struggling Troy Tulowitzki had he just asked. I was going to waive Tulo but instead, after the Young trade, dealt him for a useless middle reliever.

This was a classic buy-low (Young’s price presumably being deflated) and sell-high (I paid next to nothing for these three players). In fact, it turned out that I gave away a closer and an emerging stud OF in exchange for a modest downgrade at SS. Even then I had to twist the guy’s arm to give up Young, his third-round pick.

My point here is that even when you get someone to agree to a deal like this, you always have to discount severely the current value and future potential of your hot starters in order to overcome the overwhelming skepticism about April surprises. Everyone recognizes a buy-low, sell-high
deal and the last thing anyone wants is to be fingered by leaguemates as the Nervous Nellie who panicked and sold a costly pick to the league shark.

So you have to seriously wonder if it’s better to be on the sell-low side of the ledger sometimes. More recently I read of a sell low trade in which someone dealt slow-starting Corey Hart in early May for Casey Kotchman and George Sherrill. But did he really sell low? Hart started slowly in the power department, raising doubts about pre-season projections of a 25-25 or 30-30
season, though has recently picked up the pace. Still, I think the Hart owner got close to full value: ­ a closer and a solid emerging first baseman. Hart has only had one great season in the bigs, and the 2007 year was powered by two huge months.

Then in mid-May managing editor Ray Murphy produced a column titled: Buy High, Sell Low.

“The advice is ubiquitous at this time of year, both here and at other sites: ‘He’s a good buy-low candidate.’ ‘Sell high while you can,’ Murphy wrote.

“Some would say the words have lost all meaning, as executing this strategy is now impossible in all but the most elementary of leagues,” he said, citing the thread I started.

Murphy, who had never been exposed to my unpublished argument about the potential wisdom of selling low, suggested that owners consider turning the strategy “on its ear” and went on to identify “buy high” candidates whose fast starts were indeed legitimate, including Kerry Wood. (Potentially, and this is my point rather than his, these buy-high candidates could come at a
slight discount because owners might have their own doubts about the players’ ability to sustain their current performance level.)

Murphy’s readers were also advised to consider “selling low” on some slow starters that he didn’t think have either the skills or opportunity to turn it around, like HQ spring training favorite Jason Kubel.

So is buy low, sell high really a myth? Not completely. We¹re all human, so many of us are prone to eventually getting impatient with an underperformer, making us more inclined to sell. And it’s natural to become euphoric when a sleeper pick emerges as an April-May all-star. These emotions remain dynamics in any trade considerations, just as fear and greed will always be
factors in the stock market.

But I think it’s important not to beat yourself up because a fantasy expert declares smugly that it’s too late, you¹ve missed a golden opportunity to sell high on or buy low on a particular player. Because increasingly that opportunity isn’t really there, or isn’t particularly golden if it is.


(Peter O¹Neil, who covers Europe from Paris for a Canadian news agency, is a
former stock market columnist for the Financial Times of Canada. He won the
2007 Rotoman¹s Regulars non-keeper title and is multiple winner of the Brian
Baskin¹s Fantasy Baseball Pool based in Ottawa.)