When in Doubt, Don’t Sub Out

Written by: Joseph Mangano

We’ve all been there before when trying to set our starting lineup.  On one hand, we have a stud player pitted against a tough pitcher.  On the other hand, we have a more marginal starter seemingly blessed by the fantasy gods with an advantageous match-up.  Assuming we’ve only room for one of the two options, which one of these players is the better play in this situation?  As always, the answer is—well, it’s complicated.  Owing to the neutralizing effect top pitchers can have on good hitters, within the confines of a particular day, a better-than-average batter might be the way to go.  While there are clear elites at various positions, especially at first base, in the outfield and within teams’ starting rotations, there is a lot of talent to be had; otherwise, with all the injuries suffered across the league this year, fantasy team owners just might have had cause to raise the proverbial white flag and give up on their season.  Anyhoo, to this notion, pitting, say, James Loney against Bruce Chen could prove more fruitful than keeping Paul Goldschmidt in against Clayton Kershaw.  Heck, pitting Chris Colabello against Chen might even be more rewarding yet.  On any given night, a lesser-owned player might rise to the occasion and make the highlight shows for that date.

So, what’s so complicated about this concept?  Well, Avril Lavigne, what puts a wrinkle in the need to decide between a regular and a replacement at a particular position is the idea that knowing precisely when to substitute a backup for a star is a tricky art indeed.  In fact, even when all the predictions/projections say to choose one batter over another, often enough, the opposite will happen.  Coming into a recent game between Pittsburgh and San Francisco, with Vance Worley as the probable starter for the Bucs, it looked like a fine time to stack Giants hitters, as the boys of AT&T Park are a talented bunch and Worley has been, shall we say, inconsistent as a starting pitcher over the course of his career.

The end result?  A complete game for the Pirates’ pitcher, with only four hits surrendered, one walk allowed and zero runs given up.  Only the switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval had multiple hits on the day for San Francisco, and if you were taking a flier on left-handed Gregor Blanco against the right-handed Vance Worley, you were sorely disappointed.  That same day, the likes of Ryan Goins, Munenori Kawasaki, Marc Krauss, and Jeff Baker all scored better.  In fact, Gregor Blanco wasn’t even the highest-scoring Blanco on that date, with little-used Andres Blanco of the Philadelphia Phillies earning this dubious honor.  Could you have predicted all this would transpire?  Maybe.  Is it likely?  No.  So, does it make sense to switch your everyday starters in and out of your starting lineup just to try to take advantage of some supposedly succulent batter-versus-pitcher match-up?  Unless you’re harboring some crystal ball or something at your location, maybe not.

What’s more, just as a chosen substitute may or may not make all of your fantasy dreams comes true against an apparently inferior starting pitcher, so too might it be short-sighted to assume your star hitter won’t succeed against a top pitcher.  For one, even the Felix Hernandez’s of the world have their off nights.  Speaking once more of Clayton Kershaw vis-à-vis Paul Goldschmidt, as dominant as the young left-hander has been this season (most seasons, at that), in a mid-May start in Arizona, he flat-out laid an egg. 1.2 IP, 7 ER, multiple walks.  A very un-Kershaw-like outing, to say the least.  And as far as Goldy was concerned?  On the night, he went 4-for-5 including two home runs, scoring five times, driving in six runs, and even walking once, leading the Diamondbacks to a pasting of the Dodgers 18-7.

Of course, not all of this damage was done off of Clayton Kershaw, and yet this leads me to my next point: even when a batter doesn’t fare tremendously well against the opposition’s starter, hope yet springs eternal as various members of the other team’s bullpen come into the game.  Frequently, all it takes is one good swing on one hanging breaking ball or similar pitch, and with a round-tripper, a given hitter can instantly resurrect his performance that night. And while I would encourage you to try to fill up your starting lineup as completely as possible if you have the opportunity to set it daily, should you discover late that one of your stars is getting a routine day off and won’t be in his team’s starting lineup for the day, he still might have a chance to gain you some points as a pinch hitter.  Starting at first base or coming off the bench, Miguel Cabrera is still Miguel Cabrera, and unless his whole team’s off for the day, I would think twice or even three times about sending him to your bench.

In leagues with unlimited pickups, we often relish the opportunity to take on and play a free-agent batter as early as the same day or the next.  While I’m certainly not here to rain on anyone’s parade as it regards transactions, this sort of “open door” policy might be considered both a blessing and a curse.  For while it’s great to be able to make roster changes and tweaks on the fly, by the same token, we can easily get “trigger happy” with all the adding and dropping, such that we find ourselves continually looking for a better day-to-day option, trying to predict the next hitter to have a big game, when we might simply leave in the man we have in hand, ride out any rough starts/stretches and wait for that multi-hit or home run game to come.  It’s not an easy strategy by which to abide, for our tendency is to want to try to control or manipulate something, anything, to make our team better, but frequently, by doing nothing, we might be doing the right thing.

What is particularly bothersome to me about the quickness of certain fantasy owners to change around their lineup without giving their regular starters a real chance to accrue points is that they may be blinding themselves to their original (and correct) instincts, especially as it concerns batters whom they acquired through a preseason draft.  If you drafted, say, Ryan Braun, assuming he is healthy enough to play and starting (several times this year, that hasn’t been the case, it should be noted), by all means, you should be starting him as part of your roster.  He’s an everyday player for the Brewers, and accordingly, you should treat him like one.

In my mind, I feel like this is somewhat of an obvious example, but even so, I regularly see advice dispensed on different sites recommending hitters based on match-ups against weaker pitchers, and at that, the kinds of hitters who are owned in all leagues and theoretically should be above swapping in and out but sporadically.  The kind of hitter who possesses the power to sock a dinger or two any day of the week.  But I suppose the writers of these features on these sites feel compelled to make these suggestions because people really do need to be told not to mess with their lineup.  These kinds of people strike me as the same type for whom fast food restaurants must provide warnings on their cups of coffee and tea that the contents may be hot.

Accompanying the idea of lacking trust in the players you drafted, trying to “get cute” with match-ups, if you will, I feel also speaks to a questionable attitude of risk management on the user’s part.  By keeping a player out of your starting lineup when facing a quality starting pitcher, you are not only preventing them from losing you points, but from them gaining you positive results as well.  You are playing not to lose rather than to win, when by allowing for more risk, your reward stands to be that much greater.  I’m not saying this strategy always works, but true to the nature of baseball and hitting specifically, even a 30% success rate is cause for celebration.  Especially if a number of those 30 hits out of 100 involve your batter going yard.

In closing, bear in mind this reasoning applies largely within the context of day-to-day and week-to-week roster management.  For those hitters with whom we’ve been patient over the first half of the 2014 MLB season and who have yet to find “their stroke,” we might have to come to terms with the notion that this stroke might not be coming at all—or at least not this year.  Then again, who knows?  Maybe B.J. Upton will all of a sudden go on a tear.  Chances are that won’t happen, though.  Speaking of the likelihood of future events occurring, it has often been remarked with respect to horse racing and betting on long-shots that the horses don’t know the odds.  In an age in which we have an umpteen number of statistics, match-up ratings, projected Game Scores and even heat maps for batters, it’s important to know our players generally either don’t know the odds for or against them—or simply don’t care.  As far as I’m concerned, in this regard, ignorance is bliss.

One thought on “When in Doubt, Don’t Sub Out”

  1. Nice job John,
    I’ve yet to enter the DFS arena for just the reasons you mention. I like to trust particularly my bats to do what they should. It’s also time consuming to do a daily look at hitter vs pitcher splits, day/night, park factors, etc. I just have neither the time or energy for it.
    I’m not a big daily lineup guy either, with just one league set up that way (of 5).
    So…where my guilt lays is with SP, not bats. I might even bench Wainwright from time to time :)… Not my finest moments.
    There are guys that do the DFS really well I assume. To me it could be a science but it feels more like trying to get cute to me too. 162 games is a long season….lots of time for guys to fail and succeed. Guessing when each will happen isn’t something I’m adept at.

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