Ask Rotoman February 4, 1998

Know the difference between a lutz and a flip? How about a Diamondback and a Devilray? If not it’s time to dig in and Ask Rotoman.


Dear Rotoman:

Who are the best players who are in the final year of their contracts? These are usually the guys who have a great year.

“Counting Down”
Washington DC

Dear Down:

You are wrong. The best players in the final year of their contracts are not usually the guys who have great years. Although sometimes they do.

Somewhere around here I have a study done by someone that convinced me there was absolutely nothing to the idea. Absolutely nothing. But I can’t find it. So let me run with some anecdotal info, and if anyone wants to argue, bring it on! If I have to I’ll redo the study.

Last year, some of the best free agents-to-be included Pedro Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Daryl Kile and Jeff Blauser. And each turned in what could be considered a career year. Nice, but that isn’t proof. Because last year some of the other best free agents-to-be included Kenny Lofton and Fred McGriff, who bombed.

The notion of the “free agency incentive” implies that ballplayers don’t work hard except when cash is on the line. And while I have no doubt that in some circumstances that’s true, in most cases I just don’t buy it. By the time you’ve made it to free agent status, you’ve already likely made millions of dollars. It would be nice to make tens of millions more, but at that level the real motivation has to be competitive. Nobody’s life changes because they’re making $7 million rather than $6 million.

But perhaps it’s more important to remember that players don’t generally become free agents until after they’ve played a number of years. Which means they’ve grown up and are generally entering their prime years as they go for the ultra-contracts. They are at their physical and mental peaks, in general, so it shouldn’t be any wonder at all that these are their best years.

And, there is another factor: Have you ever noticed that sometimes you’ll hear a word used you don’t usually hear, some 25 cents word like, say, “indubitably,” and then you’ll hear it over and over? Or you’ll see a story in the paper about, say, someone choking on a fish they tried to swallow on a dare, a story you’ve never heard before, and then over the next week you’ll see a couple other similar stories. And naturally you wonder, What’s up? And you think there must be some kind of a trend.

Free agents successes work the same way. When you look at a list of the big free agent signings after 1997 the big names are the guys like Martinez and Kile who had monster years. It’s hard not to think, “If only I went after guys in their free agent years…” But that’s because free agent busts, like Lofton and McGriff don’t make the list of big signings. Their value has dropped.

So, because I’m a sport, the best free agents-to-be in 1999 are reportedly: Randy Johnson, Robbie Alomar, Mike Piazza, Mo Vaughn, Bernie Williams, Kevin Brown, Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Mesa, Dante Bichette and Charles Johnson.

Other interesting names are Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, Pat Meares, Darren Dreifort, Armando Benitez, Sean Berry, Royce Clayton, Jimmy Key, Carlos Perez and Bobby Jones.

Most of these guys can be expected to have good years in 1998, because they are of that age and/or skill-level where good years are to be expected. Most of these guys will also sign with the teams they’re already with, many before the season starts. But the ones who don’t, who have great years and sign with new teams in 1999, will look next year like they’re really in it for the money.



Dear Rotoman,

I’m in a rather unique league where ten teams play each other head-to-head weekly (team #1 vs. #2, #3 vs.
#4, etc.) A weeks play runs from Friday to Thursday, Game one is Fri-Sun, game two is Mon.-Thurs.,
Game three is total of both halves. Our scoring  system is distinct. Batters get one point each for HR, R, RBI, SB, SF, SacB, and H. Therefore, a solo HR is worth 4 pts., due to the H, RBI, R, and HR!

Are there any spreadsheet systems out there that I can use to evaluate players in both leagues based on this format? I’d appreciate any help. Current fantasy rankings available in mags don’t rate players as we score them.

“Especially Unique”
Niagara Falls NY

Dear Uniquely,

I run your letter simply to point out that there are a million variations on the game we love called roto (or fantasy). And, obviously, we can’t cover all of them. In fact, when it comes to prices, it is hard for us to cover any of them.

Every week I get mail from players of Scoresheet Baseball (they love it!), AL Roto Leagues with 12 teams (they love it!), NL Roto Leagues with 10 teams (they love it!), Combined fantasy leagues with 12 teams (they love it!). Oh, you get the picture. Which is great and all, but makes me shudder when I read the preseason fantasy baseball magazines with their shiny pricing systems, because I know that for most people those prices are wrong.

Which means that there is a great advantage, unless you play in a league that uses the standard roto rules, to devising your own pricing system. The specifics of how to do this are too numerous to go into here (if there is enough outcry for it maybe we’ll devote a Big Question to the process in a couple of weeks), but the basic elements are always the same:

1-List all the players with your projections of how they’ll do in the year ahead. This can come from Bill James (good) or Alex Patton (better) or someplace else (workable) so long as the system is logically consistent.

2-Devise a ranking system to determine which players will be drafted or purchased in your league. That is, if you have a 10 team league with 14 hitters each, list which 140 position players are the best. Make sure to have enough for each position. You’ll likely end up with catchers who don’t hit as well as some outfielders you can’t draft. Do the same for pitchers.

3-Add up the stats of all the players you expect will be drafted in each category that counts.

4-Compare each player to the total in each category. Add up the comparisons (usually a percentage) for each player and make a ranking.

5-If you distribute players by draft, rank them in order. If you distribute them by auction, you’ll have to convert their relative values to dollar values.

6-Don’t forget inflation.

It isn’t a small job, which is why there are any number of bean-counters getting paid to provide prices. But if the prices aren’t tailored to your league, while they may still be useful as an analytical tool, they’ll be pretty much worthless during the draft.

Which is why coming up with your own prices is a good way to get an edge at your draft/auction.



Pedro Martinez: A breakout year, a record contract, a new league. I can’t think of a reason he can’t do it again, albeit with an AL twist. But it was a great year and figures in the end to be one of his best.

David Justice: It doesn’t sound like Dave is going to be ready until May, at least in the outfield. I’m not saying ignore him, but don’t expect a repeat of 1997.

Jeff Frye: I’m not sure why you’d sign a guy like Jeff to a three-year deal. But I know why you’d like to have him on your team. He can play everywhere and most likely will.

Russ Davis: He keeps getting older, which is what happens when you get stacked behind some stars and then get hurt. He strikes out too much, or maybe you’d prefer I say he doesn’t walk enough. Whatever. If you have him for, say, $6, you’ve got a winner.

Charles Johnson: Was awarded a raise from $290,000 to $3.3 million. He has a lifetime average of .241, OBP of .331. He will be a free agent next year, I hear, and is poised to actually earn those millions. He’ll do it because he’s ready, not because he’s in it for the money.

Shawn Green: For all the years of disappointment, he’s only 25 this year. Like Willie Greene he may not have been as good as some would have liked, but he’ll have a fine career. Don’t let him go cheap.


Hey Roto,

I’ve heard some conflicting news about Arizona. Will it be a hitter’s park like Colorado because of the thin air of the desert or will it be more like the other National League ballparks. Will the retractable dome have any effect? What have you heard?

“By the time I get to Phoenix”
Boston MA

Hey Rotoman,

Part of my strategy as a Fantasy Baseball player is to play the ballparks. I was just wondering if you knew what the ballpark for Tampa was going to be like. Is it a hitter’s park or a pitcher’s park or just your average stadium? Just wondering.

“Devilish Ray”
Eugene OR

Boys, Boys, Boys,

Both the BOB and the T-Field (I’m getting pretty sick of brand name ballparks) are domed. The Diamondbacks’s roof is retractable, while the Devil Rays’s field is simply closed in.

What does that mean?

Some things to think about:

The ball generally carries well in Arizona, and the BOB is expected to be a hitters park. In spite of the dome the BOB will have natural grass. The idea is to leave the roof open most of the time, but cool the place down each afternoon so that it’s comfortable for game time. That makes me think of rising cool currents rushing up into the hot Arizona night sky. So I’ve got Matt Williams pencilled in for 50 HR.

T-Field is sized like Yankee Stadium. It has artificial turf, but will have a full clay cut out in the infield, rather than the carpet between the bases. Which should make for some bad hops on those fast-rolling grounders. From experience we know that domed parks are especially susceptible to quirks in the ventilation system. Advance word from St. Pete is that pitchers are going to like it there. I’ve got a good feeling about Wilson Alvarez, if he can get the ball over the plate.

Ultimately, the mysteries of ballpark characteristics can only be explained after the games have been played. I don’t think anyone knew in advance, before the Oakland Coliseum was closed in, that it would go from an extreme pitcher’s park to a hitters park. My recollection is that the new Braves park was expected to favor hitters, if not quite so much as Fulton County Stadium. But last year that wasn’t the case.

The practical advice is favor pitchers in Florida, hitters in Arizona, but consider any sort of big edge a risky play. If you get right and Jay Bell whacks 32 homers, then you did good, but chances are the effects won’t be as extreme as they might be.

And in the end there is simply too much we don’t know.


Rotisserie report: Day 4 — Complex situation

Hot Prospects
The Eck at the plate
T.J. Mathews
Dmitri Young
Jose Oliva
Lou Brock (just because)

Cooled Down
Rod Correia
Aaron Holbert
Trip Cromer
T.J. Mathews (on the base paths)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — I didn’t recognize him at first. Back behind a hangar-sized storage building at the Busch Complex, not far from the parking lot, some Cards were taking batting practice. Just a few people looked on, and as I wandered over half of them left. There is a strange quality walking up to the fence during BP.

The players inside seem oblivious. They horse around, do their work and complete what look like but aren’t unprogrammed agendas without regard to the fact that they’re inside a fishbowl. And outside, bug-eyed and distorted in the weird refraction that happens between a ball field and the seats, are the fans. Fans who may chat and chatter, but whose heart and eyes stay resolutely on the field. All their energy and attention is focused there. The only time that changes, really, is when a ball comes crashing out on the sidewalk, like a guppy recklessly jumping to the floor from its bowl.

All of which interests me (why do we so much enjoy watching others do things?) and maybe explains why I didn’t recognize him at first. He stood in the cage, right-handed, taking some nice cuts at some pretty fat (and slow) BP meatballs.

The coach who was tossing these cream puffs was shouting out situations, like “two out, man on second,” and such. Now he shouted, “Man on first, hit and run” and the batter called back, “Hit and run?” It was then I recognized him, as the Eck dribbled a ball through the pretend vacated hole at second base. The perfect hit-and-run. Well, probably.

Pitch Him Inside

Just two observations after watching Dennis Eckersley take batting practice: He swings like a pitcher, which is something of an endorsement: He’s spent all but four of his major league seasons pitching in the American League. And he doesn’t like the ball high and tight. A couple of those BP pitches rode up and in a little, chin music at a dirge’s tempo, and the Eck seemed upset.

Watching the pitchers practice hitting is fun. They aren’t very good, for the most part, and spend most of the time working on bunting and going the opposite way (as if, in a key situation against Ramon Martinez or Rod Beck, these lessons would actually be practical), but they also can surprise, and they get genuinely, boyishly excited when they give the ball a ride. What can I say but, that’s nice.

What isn’t nice, and which I suspect will eventually end up being the reason for the adoption of the DH in the NL, is the risk of injury the pitchers face. I don’t know who was batting when it happened, I was mostly watching Todd Stottlemyre shag flies in center. The coach was calling out scenarios and a few Cardinal pitchers, including Eck, were running the bases, rather undramatically pretending to advance on each batted ball. But this ball, the ball in question, was hit hard, on the ground, foul not far from third base and caught T.J. Mathews on the heel or ankle. He tumbled to the ground, rolling forward while the ball skittered away toward the fence. In a brief moment, the world inhaled sharply.

T.J. Mathews is supposedly, by mid-year, going to be the Cardinals closer. Although he has just three career saves, I’m not going to be the one to pooh-pooh the idea. He strikes out nearly one per inning, and has never had an ERA above 3.15 in four professional seasons. Eck is meant to be his mentor. Anyway, T.J. jumped right up after his spill, which wasn’t that bad, really. He smiled, though I detected the strain of worry there. The others laughed. The moment passed and BP resumed. But if I were Tony La Russa, who isn’t used to pitchers running the bases, I’d have blanched.
But La Russa wasn’t there. He was over on field 2, having a chat with a collection of marginal Cards, like Rod Correia, Trip Croomer and Aaron Holbert.

Actually, these guys are young enough and have been around enough, that maybe they have some sort of future in the bigs. But it’s a marginal future. For instance, Holbert stole 62 bases in 1992 in Savannah, and 45 the next year in St. Pete. But last year, in Louisville, he swiped just 14 and was caught six times, so he isn’t a base stealer. Also last year, his on-base average was .297 while his batting average was .257, so he isn’t much of a hitter either. But he’s just 23, it was his first year in Class AAA, and you never know. He’ll get more chances; he’s getting one now.

The Wizard in Action

On field 1, Ozzie Smith was working out at shortstop, taking throws from Geronimo Pena, who was fielding fungoes hit by Red Schoendienst. Enough has been written about Ozzie and his contract and his quest. I wanted to know about his shoulder, which he says is fine and which the doctors say is fine, but it wasn’t until the intrasquad game that we got to see it work. Suffice it to say that Ozzie is proud of what he’s accomplished and doesn’t yet think it’s time to hang it up. I hope he’s right. Heck, just about everyone in the world but Royce Clayton hopes he’s right, but it would seem that time isn’t in Ozzie’s favor.

One of the great things about watching the morning practices is listening to the players talk about their skills with their coaches. At one point I overheard Mark Sweeney describing his weaknesses at the plate to hitting instructor George Hendrick, and explaining what he was doing to overcome them. Actually, Sweeney’s minor league averages have been consistently good, so not many opponents have caught on yet; still, I’m not going to spill the beans here. I’ll wait until later, when maybe it will matter more. But by then he’ll have figured out how to hit with more power, or he won’t be in the majors.
Or he might be. John Mabry is supposedly the Cards first baseman this year. He looks good standing in the batter’s box, though I couldn’t decide if his stance was more Hal Morris or Paul O’Neill. In either case, you get the picture. He’s a modern hitter. His swing is O’Neill’s, but thus far his numbers have been so-so. Mabry strikes out a fair amount and doesn’t walk much. Sweeney’s numbers are better. Neither seems to be a whiz in the field. Neither has thus far shown much power. Sweeney, 26, is a year older. I’d keep an eye on this one.

A father walked over to his teenaged boy, who was leaning against the backstop, and said, “Lou Brock’s out there, hitting flies.” Which he was, behind a net screen. The boy asked if Brock was “a player,” and his father said he was, then gazed away into the outfield.

The intrasquad game was completely different than the one staged at Ed Smith by the White Sox. This game seemed totally ad hoc, La Russa standing amid a crowd of players shouting out rules. Each team bats two innings in a row, then switches to the field. If you don’t run the ball out it’s a run for the other team. He said losers were to buy the cold-cut spread for the next day, though a more potent wager seemed to be the winners getting out of the second trip to Fort Meyers to face the Twins. Tom Pagnozzi said, “Sheesh, we better win,” when he heard that.

The game was pitched by coaches, batting practice style. The balls were fat, and though an ump called balls and strikes, rarely did a hitter see more than two pitches. Danny Shaeffer hit a homer in the first inning. And Clayton, appropriately, hit a sharp grounder to Ozzie, who threw the ball on the line to first. It was the one strong throw I saw Ozzie try to make all day, and it was strong. But then, he is coming off surgery.

Struggling with the Bat

The most colorful at-bat belonged to Dmitri Young, a 22-year-old with a big old round butt and quick, defensive smile that you’ve got to believe is genuine, but have to surmise comes with a story attached. In his second at bat he couldn’t get the weighted donut off the head of his bat. He slammed the handle down into the soft ground, getting more and more frustrated the less it moved. Which was nil. The veterans smiled openly at the ludicrous sight of this strong, large man jabbing the bat into the ground helplessly. When he finally took another bat and struck the donut, dislodging it from the barrel, they laughed openly, if not ungenerously.

Young strode to the plate and swung through the first pitch. The vets were still smiling at this rambunctious man. He took the second pitch at the knees. “Strike!” the ump shouted and Young’s head whipped around. “What?” Now the guys on the bench were rolling, this guy was so tightly wound as to challenge one of his coaches calling balls and strikes. Young stepped back into the box and pulled the next ball high into the blue noon sky and ultimately well past the 325-foot sign in left field.
Needless, perhaps, to say, the crowd went wild, his teammates went wild, and Dmitri Young’s smile seemed nothing if not genuine and big-hearted. He’s a hero. I’m a fan.

Finally, the other story of this day was Jose Oliva, a man who over the past few years seemed to have taken his big stick and long homers in the minors and played himself out of a true shot at the big leagues. I saw him in a game in Richmond two summers ago against the Mets farm team. The opposing third basemen, supposedly hot prospects, were Butch “Who was too” Husky and Jose “I’m shaped like an olive” Oliva. They seemed arrogant, were fat and didn’t make much of an impression short of round and no thanks.

Last year, too, in Atlanta, Oliva did not impress. So I had more or less written him off as a head case, a waste of talent. But during this intrasquad game at the Busch Complex he was the star, Dmitri Young notwithstanding. Diving stops on sharp grounders, strong throws to second and first, a tough running over-the-shoulder catch while heading out into left field.

Perhaps more impressively, he was animated, and seemed to attract his teammates’s good graces. It’s too early to say for sure he’s matured and improved and is ready to displace Gary Gaetti (who, by the way, looked more than ready to play and battle, if necessary, for his job), but Oliva is a trim young man who always had a fearsome stick. Keep an eye on him.