Written by: Joseph Mangano
Far be it from me to denigrate a virtue as noble and special as loyalty. In fact, as it relates to the game of baseball and other sports played professionally, as fans, a number of us could probably stand to see more of it between players and clubs. Seemingly gone are the days when athletes would remain with one team for the totality of their careers, or close to that. Instead, as regards our national pastime, players like Prince Fielder and CC Sabathia are on their third team and counting, and even when players are staying put, purists cry foul when they see members of rival teams cordially interacting with one another during warm-ups. Back in the day, key figures on these opponent warring factions would literally hate one another. Like, if they were to see each other in the street, they might not even shake each other’s hand. That kind of antipathy.
For better or for worse, Major League Baseball and other pro leagues aren’t like that anymore. While diehard fans still feel that sense of team pride no matter what, franchises treat operations first and foremost as a business, which deep down we know all teams are, but we are able to put this aside or otherwise endure it as followers of the sport. As clubs approach their players under such a mindset, so to do these “assets” understand they are simply commodities to be valued/traded, and when we see them elect to change affiliations as a result of free agency, it is no wonder when they choose a higher-paying contract, as there are no other guarantees besides the money, and even that may be subject to restriction and revision down the road. And yet for some reason, maybe because of the escalating sums they’re being offered, we tend to jump to vilify the players, not the executives, even though it’s the executives/agents making these offers in the first place, and we’d probably be as keen to jump right to another opportunity for better pay if we were in their shoes, cleats, whatever. People change jobs all the time. Other than the numbers involved, is there really that much of a difference between us and them?
From our perspective as fantasy team owners, we find ourselves having to do the same type of thing an MLB team executive has to do with a real roster and other big-picture concerns. And herein, we come across the kinds of considerations with respect to keeping a well-familiar player or kicking him to the curb to which we’ve alluded from the beginning. A certain undercurrent of belief exists among fantasy owners across sports in the notion of sticking with “the players that got me here.” It’s an admirable sentiment, to be sure, even if it comes part and parcel with the belief that by standing by your men, so to speak, you will be rewarded for your loyalty. Just the same, how a player or players got you to your current position is largely—if not completely— irrelevant. Much like how we want to believe that if a number is called on a roulette wheel or other similar contraption with even odds, it is less likely to be called on the next spin (all options are equally likely no matter which ones preceded them), we want to believe that by holding fast to a given player, he will either continue to find success or discover it once again.
Only one problem: your player doesn’t know you own him. If he somehow were aware you exist and could play harder on your behalf, that would be one thing. However, I’m 99.9% sure he has never heard of you, and thus, your fidelity to him not only is unrequited, but it has no bearing on future events. In fact, often times, we can stick with a player beyond his apparent usefulness or in spite of his troubles simply because he is a household name or has served us well in the past. Recently, in a league, I was wrestling over the decision of whether or not to bench/drop Boston Red Sox closer (former closer?) Koji Uehara, someone with whom I fostered a championship squad last season, in light of his recent struggles as well as the news manager John Farrell would try to limit his work in the month of September. After all, Las Medias Rojas are not going to the postseason, and at Uehara’s advanced baseball age, we as fantasy baseball fans are always on alert for signs of related decline. I ultimately chose to employ him as recently as the night of September 5, when Koji-san was afforded another save opportunity, this time against the New York Yankees. If you’re aware of the game results, you know this did not work out in my favor. Home runs to Mark Teixeira and Chase Headley later, Koji Uehara had blown the save and lost the game for his team, his third blown save and third loss in his last five appearances. It’s oft been said that curiosity killed the cat, but blind faith in the face of contrary evidence just might kill you as a fantasy baseball team owner.
Then again, there is always the possibility of erring on the side of too little loyalty. Or perhaps “loyalty” is too strong a word, but whatever word best encapsulates the notion you can be too quick to dismiss a more talented option when the workings of a modified Law of Averages might dictate he is due to rebound, call it that. Going back to the Red Sox and, well, at least a former member of their pitching staff, in 2013, Jon Lester looked like a disappointment coming into the All-Star Break . In the first half of the season, despite possessing a winning record (8-6), “Lest-ah” owned an uninspired 4.58 ERA and 1.37 WHIP, ceding more hits (127) than amassing innings pitched (125.2) and averaging three home runs allowed for every four games started. Ouch. In particular, June was a tough month for the left-hander; after seeing ERAs in the low threes in April and high threes in May, Jon Lester’s earned run average for the next 30 days skyrocketed to a figure of 7.62, with 24 ER allowed in five games started, not to mention at least eight of them coming via the long ball.
And how did Lester finish his 2013 campaign? Like the champion he is. In 13 games started, the native of Tacoma, Washington posted a 2.57 ERA, going 7-2 in this stretch with a WHIP of 1.19, and getting taken deep only about once every four games as opposed to three times that often before the break. Without parsing through all the data from that time period, I can’t give you a deeper analysis as to why he was that much more effective in the second half or how he combated serving up gopher balls beyond the probable notion he wasn’t leaving the ball up as much, but whatever the case, it would have been very easy to give up on Jon Lester, especially if you were expecting a lot better from him when you drafted him. On my end of things, in a redraft points league I played with friends, I did not begin the season with him on my staff, but rather picked up him after he was outright waived by a disgruntled—and to be fair, less involved—owner, and in the end, my team was better for it. By the way, in an illustration of how things can dramatically change from year to year, some of my other starters from the previous season: Mike Minor, Jarrod Parker, C.J. Wilson and Travis Wood. In 2014, I’d be lucky to still be relevant with them on my team, especially with Minor missing time to start the season and Parker missing its entirety after needing (another) Tommy John surgery.
This is just one case, however, and for every pitcher who struggles in the first half and manages to turn his season around, there are bound to be as many or more who just don’t recover. After drafting him in at least one league this season only to watch him fail miserably right out of the gate, I’ve harped on Justin Masterson a lot in my writings. But it’s not as if this is completely undeserved. Seeing him perform as poorly as he did in Cleveland, I wasn’t expecting some sort of magic revival when he became a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. That Masterson now finds himself working out of the bullpen for the NL Central crown hopefuls only goes to prove the point that sometimes a down year stays down. Moreover, in the case of Jon Lester, I got my pitcher off the scrap heap; it wasn’t as if I drafted him, and honestly, I don’t know that I would’ve stuck it through with him if the roles were reversed between the other owner in that league and myself.
Getting back to the central point, though, in choosing whether or not to “stand by your man,” notably during a period in which he has had his difficulties, know that these are the times that try a fantasy baseball owner’s soul. Even with all of the stats with which we are bombarded on a daily basis regarding previous season performance, in-season individual stats and specific batter vs. pitcher splits, roster management/lineup setting is an inexact science. And while it probably would behoove you in most situations to clinically and dispassionately approach the buying and selling of players, we can’t pretend as if our personal feelings and prejudices don’t come into play. Maybe you think Brandon “Dat Dude” Phillips is a great guy and one of the most fun to watch in Major League Baseball. I would tend to agree. And maybe because you like him so much, you kept him around perhaps longer than you should have. Granted, the unknown behind his DL stint added a bit of a wrinkle in that you thought the layoff might change things, but deep down, a part of you probably considered he and the Reds might not bounce back. Or maybe fond memories of Chris Davis going yard on the regular and helping elevate your team to the forefront of your league last season made you persist with trotting the Baltimore slugger out week after week. Alas, even with 25+ HR on the year, his production hasn’t superseded the disappointing nature of his sub-.200 offensive year. Truly, the fantasy gods giveth, and so do they also taketh away.
So, what’s the moral of the story here? That we are base creatures ruled by our passions, such that we hold only a modicum of control over the way we approach our team? Well, no, that’s not it at all. Rather, we should understand that playing emotionally is a reality for many of us (myself included), and hearkening back to the image of the die-hard fan, as regards ideals of fidelity, I think a lot of that same undercurrent of wanting players to stay with the team that first signed them exists even in the transaction-heavy game of fantasy baseball. Besides, it’s not like we’re talking about trading stocks or securities. We’re talking about the valuation of real people, some of whom we might actually appreciate as devotees of the real-world MLB team for which they play. I am a Met fan, and own Lucas Duda in a league. Dude has been slumping a fair bit lately, and I’ve already gone and researched possible replacement candidates, picking out the most plausible stand-ins. And yet I just simply can’t seem to click that “Drop” button and send Duda and his beard with him. Gosh darn it, I still want to believe.
Really, despite falling back on what amounts to little more than cliché, in the end, regarding whether or not we fold and wait for a new hand or ride out the one we’ve got, we just have to take things a day or week at a time, and certainly, one player at a time. Sometimes guys stay hot from start to finish, with only the most occasional of lapses. Other times, as noted, they begin the year frigidly, only to catch fire after the break or yet more suddenly. And, indeed, too often, some players just never get even lukewarm. If we could predict this sort of thing with any certainty, it wouldn’t be much of a game, now would it? Without question, it wouldn’t be very fun. Trust me on that count.
Got time for one more cliché? Good. Regardless of the strength of belief in some of your players, that you believe in your team and continue to try to improve counts perhaps most of all. In a game based on a 162-game regular season, that effort can do a lot to improve one’s chances over time is a powerful thing. I don’t know about you, but I feel stronger already.