Saturday, April 17, 2004

Numbers Freak by Len Vlahos

“My name is Len Vlahos, and I have an addiction to numbers.”

It’s true, I am a numbers freak. Who else can tell you how many loads of laundry he’s likely to do if he lives out his statistical life expectancy (2,140); which letter of the alphabet most often begins the last name of U.S. Presidents (H, five times); and of course, how many days, hours, and minutes to opening day (26 hours, 14 days, and 8 minutes as I write this)?

Obsessive compulsive? Yes. Cursed? A bit. But there’s a lot fun in this world for a numbers freak. In my case, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, handicapping horse races, and the granddaddy of all number-driven pursuits, fantasy baseball.

The league I play in (and also run as commissioner) is not your standard 5x5 league. In fact, we’re a 14x13 league. For real. Here are the stats we use:

Batting—R, 1B, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, SB, CS, BB, K, E, AVG, OBP, SLG
Pitching—GS, W, L, CG, SHO, SV, ER, HR, BB, K, HLD, ERA, WHIP

Using this many categories is not without its problems: Should Caught Stealing be weighted the same as Home Runs? Is it too easy for a manager to sit his pitchers late in the season in order to keep negative categories (Losses, Earned Runs, Walks) artificially low? (This happened in our league last year, which is why, this year, we’re tracking Games Started.)

But even with its imperfections, it’s the perfect league for a numbers freak. After my disappointing fifth place finish (out of 12) last year, I resolved to play smarter, play better, and win. And as any fantasy baseballer knows, it all begins with the draft.

I started working on my draft plan the (glorious) day after the (wonderful) Florida Marlins beat the (hated) New York Yankees in the World Series. The first question I needed to answer was, “What does it take to win?” We use a rotisserie scoring system, ranking each team in each of the 29 categories (we had two extra categories last year) from best to worst, with 12 points going to the best and 1 to the worst. So, last year, a perfect score would have been 348 (12 points in each of the 29 categories). The actual winner, a rascal named Eric (who won for the second straight year), had a final score of 233.5.

A little massaging of the numbers, and you quickly learn that averaging eight points (or 5th place) in each of the 29 categories is just about good enough to win. (That actually totals 232 points, but let’s not split hairs. And by the way, the average human head of a 30-year-old has about 300 follicles per square centimeter. You starting to get the numbers freak thing?)

So all I need to do is construct a balanced team that will average eight points per category. Ha! Easier said than done. But fear not, I have the numbers on my side.

Four months and 153 Excel worksheets later—yes, 153 Excel worksheets!—I’m starting to finally get my head around this. And if nothing else, I’ve learned a few valuable tidbits along the way:
  • Soriano is a sucker bet in the first round.
  • A-Rod is a bad pick in the top 3. (If you’re in a league with a lot of categories, it’s Pujols, Helton, Beltran.)
  • The Dodgers would be well served to get Wilson Alvarez into the back-end of their rotation.
  • Look for breakout years from Melvin Mora, Trot Nixon, and Placido Polanco.
  • Steroid rumors and a new ballpark notwithstanding, Gary Sheffield is a freaking stud.
But my data only applies to our crazy 14x13 league. In a 5x5 league, it’s completely different. One manager’s tonic is another’s poison. And that’s the most valuable thing I’ve learned—something Bill James learned and preached long ago—it’s really all about the data, and how that data applies to the situation at hand.

Don’t go into your fantasy draft unprepared. If you do your homework, you can build a good team, even one without a lot of stars. If you go in with little or no preparation, you’ll get what you deserve.

I fully expect my fellow managers to snicker at many of my picks on draft day, but that’s okay. The numbers will be on my side.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading all 776 words in this article.

No comments: