March 20, 2019

Touring the Bases With…Tout Wars

April 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Not long ago the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) announced that it had partnered with Tout Wars, a fantasy baseball league founded in 1998 that pits the top fantasy baseball experts in the industry against each other.  On March 26, F.X. Flinn, a long-time member of SABR’s Board of Directors, awarded the very first SABR Trophies to 2009 A.L. champ, Lawr Michaels of CREATiVESPORTS, ’09 N.L. champ, Brian Walton of CREATiVESPORTS, and ’09 Mixed League champ, Chris Liss of Rotowire.

“Participating in fantasy baseball brings together many of the disciplines SABR supports,” remarked Flinn.  “The Tout Wars competitions, which by design bring together many of the top sabermetric analysts for shared public games, is squarely in line with SABR’s mission of promoting a deeper appreciation and understanding of the game we love.”

Ron Shandler, one of the founders of Tout Wars and a long-time SABR member, stated that he is “honored and gratified that we have forged this relationship. Fantasy baseball has become a vital part of the baseball experience and serves to keep fans connected to the game. The hobby fosters advanced analysis and understanding of baseball, and this recognition by SABR further validates our place in the celebration of our National Pastime.”

I was fortunate to discuss the new relationship forged between SABR and Tout Wars as well as this year’s auction with 2009 N.L. champion Walton, now of Mastersball.com;  ESPN senior writer Eric Karabell; Cory Schwartz, Director of Stats for MLB Advanced Media; and Peter Kreutzer, who’s been writing about fantasy baseball for more than 15 years for ESPN.com, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus, among others.

Mike Lynch: Please talk about the new partnership between SABR and Tout Wars.  What do you think it means for both organizations?

Brian Walton: I first joined SABR about ten years ago. I interject as much of the rich history of the game into my writing as possible. My joining SABR seemed very logical as I support the basic philosophy of their efforts. Once in, I have received support from a number of members on items that I was researching that held importance to me.

It is kind of early to tell about the SABR-Tout Wars relationship. Right up front, I want to make it clear that I have no “inside” information from either side, so these are my personal opinions and observations.

Certainly, the agreement will increase visibility of the Tout Wars leagues, which in turn should help the growth of the fantasy-related endeavors of the Tout members. After all, other than the competition, that is what the leagues are about – “touting” our businesses.

I am not an officer of SABR, so I am not speaking for them, but my perception is that their core market is aging, making their ongoing challenge sort of like the baseball version of selling Buicks. One way to attract the attention of a younger demographic is to tap into the tremendous success of fantasy baseball. Tout Wars offers a highly-visible vehicle for doing that.

I imagine quite a number of the current SABR members play fantasy games in some form, whether Strat, Scoresheet or newer forms, yet the SABR organization seemingly chose to ignore it for far too long. I see this as their initiative to tap a whole new potential subscriber base – the younger fan.

MLB ignored fantasy for many years, too. When they realized the dollar signs involved, they engaged. Unfortunately when they did, they came down hard, trying to establish ownership of the stats of the game to profit from every aspect of the fantasy business. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of some of the fantasy industry’s leaders taking on MLB in the courts and winning, the landscape would be very different today.

In an ideal world, SABR would have put their considerable muscle behind that cause since its potential impact to baseball beyond fantasy was tremendously broad. I always wondered why they didn’t engage and think they really missed the boat in not doing so.

SABR’s challenge will be to actually relate the two, history and fantasy, in a meaningful, ongoing manner. Tout Wars may be more of a symbol of that ideological change than it is a major bet in itself. I imagine the SABR board has some great ideas about how they want to try to accomplish change. To the extent Tout Wars can help, I expect we will.

Eric Karabell: As a longtime follower of both SABR and Tout, I think it’s terrific when two professional organizations with numerous members I call friends can get together with the goal being to promote the great game of baseball, and fantasy baseball. I hope I get to see the cool trophy up close!

Peter Kreutzer: I think the new partnership is a wonderful opportunity to find ways to merge parts of our communities. SABR has a rich history of research, much of which is of interest to fantasy players, but much more is of great interest to baseball fans who play fantasy. The fantasy players who value Tout Wars generate a lot of research into the game of baseball, too, not always with awareness of what’s going on at SABR. Our relationship, we hope, helps both constituencies find common ground and shared baseball purpose.

Cory Schwartz: As a member of SABR and a Tout Wars competitor I think it’s a very exciting partnership. To my knowledge SABR has never featured fantasy baseball in any way, so it’s great to see them aligned with a premiere experts league. Similarly, Tout Wars can only benefit from having greater exposure to an audience of such passionate, educated baseball fans.

ML: Brian, you won the 2009 Tout Wars N.L. championship; did you have a specific strategy going into the auction? What was your success based on last year—a fantastic draft? Timely acquisitions? A blockbuster trade? Luck? A combination of the above?

BW: A failed pitching-heavy experiment in 2008 led me to take a more traditional approach in 2009. I spread out my 70/30 auction budget, expecting not to spend more than $25 on any player while avoiding all $1 and $2 end-game gambles.

In the stolen base category, I look to diversify rather than put all my eggs in a Jose Reyes-type basket. An ideal target is a bargain with upside – in other words, a player not necessarily guaranteed a full-time job, but with potential (editor’s note: Brian grabbed Nyjer Morgan for $6 and Everth Cabrera for $3, and they combined for 67 steals).

Another consideration in selecting position players was to target toolsy youngsters with significant potential, yet have not reached it. The common theme is finding those that may exceed their draft price in value returned during the season.

I spent the most money here yet results were varied. On draft day, I went over $20 on only two selections, both of whom were disappointments, Jay Bruce ($23) and Elijah Dukes ($21). Yet Upton ($18), Pablo Sandoval ($17) and Mark Reynolds ($13) were crucial to my success.

In the pitching department, with a 13-team league drawing players from the 16-team NL, I acquire one emerging closer and look for others who may get saves later. On draft day, I would have taken either Chad Qualls or Heath Bell, leaving the higher-dollar closers like Jonathan Broxton to bigger spenders. I ended up with both of my targets, drafting Qualls and adding Bell later via trade.

Of course, there is more to a good season than just the draft. Smart pre-emptive free agent bidding throughout the season enabled me to grab a number of players that contributed when others went down with injuries. This was especially the case in pitching where I added both valuable starters as well as emerging closers.

ML: Eric, I see this is your first year in Tout Wars after many invitations. Why did you finally decide to join the league? Did you feel any extra pressure during the auction to prove your mettle among so many great competitors?

EK: I had been invited to join Tout Wars for many years, but scheduling issues with another long-standing league generally held me back. Hey, if you’ve played in a college league with your buddies for what is now 20 years, you have to stick with it. Now the dates work out. This is actually my second season in Tout. I enjoy the competition of experts leagues. No pressure, really. On auction day, just construct a team like normal. It’s just not as easy with this crew!

ML: Cory, this is your fifth year in Tout Wars. What’s been your best finish so far and to what do you attribute that?

CS: I finished third in my first season and attribute that purely to beginner’s luck. Of all the leagues in which I compete, Tout Wars is the one in which I struggle the most, since I’m not a great auction player and I’m competing against some of the most savvy folks in the industry. I finished sixth out of 13 teams last season and was very happy to crack the top half of the league!

ML: Peter, in this year’s auction you spent 52% of your budget on five players—Ryan Braun ($38), Roy Halladay ($30), Aramis Ramirez ($24), Lance Berkman ($23), and Chris Carpenter ($21)—leaving you only $124 to spend on the remaining 18 players (an average of $6.89). Was that your strategy going in or was that just how it all played out?

PK: My goal in any auction is to find the places where the room doesn’t value players as highly as I do. Braun was a player I hoped to pick off. He went at his price. The Tout Wars leagues are very wary of pitchers, so I feel I got a nice discount on Halladay and Carpenter. Ramirez is coming off a year of injury and came at a discount. Berkman is hurting and was similarly discounted. I don’t worry particularly about spreading my money around, though in some auctions that’s the way it works out. In this one, it didn’t.

ML: Cory, you spent 60% of your $260 budget on six players—Andre Ethier ($29), Mark Reynolds ($28), Jayson Werth ($27), Jonathan Broxton ($25), Brian McCann ($24), and Cole Hamels ($23)—which left you an average of only $6.12 for the remaining 17 spots on your roster. Was that your strategy going into the auction?

CS: I generally do tend to have a top-heavy roster in Tout because I believe the collective and individual expertise of this group means that no one will spend too heavily on any one player, since they feel they know the player pool well enough to build a deeper, more balanced team. Consequently, the best bargains are actually on the top-tier players; I paid a total of $156 for my top six players but projected them to go for $15 more in total than they did.

ML: Brian, in this year’s auction the most you spent on any one player was $21 for Dodgers first baseman James Loney and Reds outfielder Jay Bruce. But it looks like you had a pretty balanced draft, spending an average of $10 on the rest of your roster. Was that your strategy going in or was that just how it all played out?

BW: In this league, I am a “spread the risk” kind of player, so yes, I planned to not spend over $25 on anyone. At the other end of the spectrum, I do my best to avoid $1 throwaway picks that will likely contribute little. A team of solid contributors in the teens would be just fine for me – if I perceive they were purchased below value.

Last year, among my most valuable players in terms of return compared to price were Mark Reynolds ($13 at draft), Pablo Sandoval ($17), Nyjer Morgan ($6), Joel Pineiro ($3) and Tommy Hanson ($5). Not exactly the guys everyone was salivating over on draft day.

This year, prices on top players were a bit depressed early in the draft, which put pressure on mid-tier prices, with a negative effect on my plan. I found what I perceived as better values in starting pitching, which led me to a mid-draft switch. I upped my percentage of spending on pitching from about 30 percent to 38 percent. Including my reserves, I have nine starting pitchers and will deal from that strength.

ML: You spent “only” $257 of your $260 budget. What do you plan on doing with that extra three dollars (laughing)?

BW: Post-draft, prices paid for players can be material in only one case. Tout Wars has a reclaim process that enables one to recoup the original price of a player if he is later placed on the 60-day disabled list in the first half of the season or half his price if he goes down in the second half.

In the unlikely case that would happen, it would have been better for me to spend my entire final $7 on my last pick, Jaime Garcia, instead of bidding $4, therefore increasing my “insurance” by either $3 or $1 ($7 rounds down to $6 for this exercise).

However, this last selection was a bit different for me. I saw Garcia pitch this spring and am very high on his potential. I waited three-plus hours for his name to get tossed, but with no other roster spots remaining I finally had to do it myself. There was not another player I wanted nearly as much, so I held back a bit of cash to see if I had to push up the bidding to get him. I didn’t.

If I lose the league because I receive $1 or $3 less back for Garcia in the unlikely event he is out for the season, so be it.

ML: Eric, the most you spent on any one player was $20 for Rays utility man Ben Zobrist and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. But it looks like you had a pretty balanced draft, spending an average of $10.48 on the rest of your roster. Was that your strategy going in or was that just how it all played out?

EK: Early on I decided the middle-class of players seemed undervalued, so I thought I would avoid expensive players and see what I could build this way. I like the way it worked out, actually. In a deep league like this, my team shouldn’t crumble with an injury or two, since it’s balanced. All the stat categories seem covered. I generally don’t enter any draft/auction with a strategy I can’t tweak or even totally alter early on. Just see what the field allows and spend all your money.

ML: Cory, you spent $11 on Washington Nationals phenom hurler Stephen Strasburg even though he’s slated to begin the year with Double-A Harrisburg and isn’t expected to jump to Triple-A Syracuse until sometime in May. Obviously you expect him to be in the bigs this year, but what are your realistic expectations of him?

CS: I wasn’t planning on drafting Strasburg but my expectations are that he’ll earn around $15 this season. I expect him to dominate the minor leagues and make it to the bigs at some point in May, after which he’ll be an above-average, high strikeout starter. Ultimately I see him offering similar production this year to what Tommy Hanson did last year, and had Tout experts had the chance to re-draft at the end of last season, Hanson would surely have gone for more than he actually did on draft day.

ML: Peter, you spent a buck on enigmatic outfielder Elijah Dukes, who was recently released by the Washington Nationals and is currently without a job. He’s certainly worth risking only a dollar on but he has yet to live up to the hype. Is there a specific team you see him signing with this year and how do you think he’ll do?

PK: That he hasn’t signed yet suggests to me that he’s on some sort of probation, and may not sign anytime soon. If only Al Davis owned a National League team.

ML: Was there a particular player that you really wanted and was happy to get? Was there a particular player that you really wanted but lost out on?

EK: Not really. It was funny how the other guys thought my affinity for the Philadelphia Phillies affected my bidding. Hey, I just thought Raul Ibanez and Brad Lidge were undervalued! I never enter an auction saying I have to get a certain player, though I do seem to be getting Mr. Zobrist on way too many teams. He’d better remain a top 50 player!

BW: I had a number of players targeted that I rostered for what I felt were decent prices, including Loney, Chipper Jones, Everth Cabrera, Jay Bruce, Chad Billingsley, Roy Oswalt, Tim Hudson, etc. None of them are very sexy names. How exciting would it be to write about winning a league behind “old news” guys like Chipper, Oswalt and Hudson? Just fine with me, though.

A player that I really liked coming into the draft is the Cardinals’ Colby Rasmus. He had an injury-plagued rookie year, but is now batting fifth behind Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and seems lined up for a big year. I just couldn’t say “$19” though, for a player I saw as a $14-$15 value, so we will see if Rotowire’s Chris Liss’ pick delivers the goods.

CS: I wanted to get either Cole Hamels or Ricky Nolasco as my ace, so while I’m happy I got Hamels, I would probably rather have had Nolasco for $19, although that’s hindsight. I was hoping to grab Lastings Milledge because I think he’ll finally break through this season, but like many other mid-tier players he went for more than I thought he should, and since I already had the core of my outfield assembled, I had to pass on him.

PK: I try not to get too focused on wanting or not wanting players. I did go to full value on Braun, because Pujols and Hanley had gone to one team, and Braun was the next best hitter out there. I did tout Drew Stubbs in the preseason, so I was happy to get him at my price (and happier when he hit a grand slam last week). I also liked Felipe Lopez as a cheap sleeper, but he came up in the draft when there wasn’t much left, and I felt obliged to push him to full value.

ML: Was there a jaw-dropping move during the auction that had you nodding your head in approval or shaking your head in disbelief, or perhaps someone who went for much more or less than you expected?

PK: I think newbie Mike Gianella grabbing Pujols and Hanley Ramirez for $40 each, and then not stopping there, was the most interesting move. Those two are good bargains at that price, and that gave him a leg up on everyone from the git.

CS: I would never disparage another Tout owner, but I was extremely surprised by the salaries paid for Rickie Weeks ($24), James Loney ($21), Conor Jackson ($18) and Chase Headley ($17). On the other hand, I thought many of the top-tier players went for $3-4 less than I would have expected, creating more inflation in the middle tier, as I mentioned above.

BW: Not really. This is a group of very experienced players, well aware of many different measures of player valuation. They know what these players went for in other expert leagues and in many cases, know what their competitors published as values.

Few if any surprises here, though I like what ESPN’s Tristan Cockroft did with his pair of aces, Ricky Nolasco at $19 and Ubaldo Jimenez at $17.

EK: Actually I thought when I acquired Franklin Gutierrez for only $5 – when I had only that much to spend – seemed a bit odd. Perhaps people thought I was bidding on former Astros shortstop Ricky Gutierrez. I often nodded in approval at players who seemed undervalued that for some reason I didn’t try to get, but I don’t trash talk if I see an overvalued player. Maybe that overvalued player was mine when I brought up J.A. Happ for $5 and heard crickets. We won’t know the true sleepers or busts for months.

ML: In 2001, when I was still playing fantasy baseball, I had the good fortune of picking up Cardinals starter Matt Morris off the waiver wire before the season started and he had a career year, going 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA. Is there a particular draftee, waiver wire pickup, or trade that you’ve made over the years that still has you patting yourself on the back even years later? On the opposite end of the spectrum, is there one for which you’re still kicking yourself?

EK: Well, fresh in my mind is the foolish trade I made about a year ago, when I thought Joe Mauer’s back problems would be an ongoing issue, and I dealt him in my oldest keeper league for far less than his eventual MVP worth. I saved actual money on the deal, because I moved Mauer’s cost (and Joe Nathan’s, which has worked out), but around midseason remembered that those paltry savings would have been easily covered by winnings. Oh well. As for good moves, in that same league I have been fortunate; I owned Miguel Cabrera and David Wright when they were minor leaguers, and still have them both to this day, despite the cost.

PK: I was happy to pick up Adam Kennedy on waivers last year in the American Dream League, but the bottom line for me is that you make a lot of moves for really good reasons that don’t pan out, and some others for no reason that do, and it’s a little dangerous to think you have too much control over it. I look for the little edge my analysis and instincts give me to win out over time. At the level of competition we’re at, there isn’t any low hanging fruit.

CS: Unfortunately I don’t have many such success stories in Tout Wars, but I had a great run on the free agent market in my 15-team mixed NFBC draft last year, picking up Andrew Bailey, Edwin Jackson, Russell Branyan, Joel Pineiro, Chris Coghlan and Carlos Gonzalez. The six of them, and September addition Juan Uribe, were key players in my league-champion team, a run of success I hope to someday duplicate in Tout Wars.

BW: The key in waiver pickups is to anticipate a breakout before it occurs. Last April, I picked up an unheard-of youngster named Everth Cabrera in NL Tout for $3 FAAB. I held him while he spent eight weeks on the DL only to be rewarded following his return with 25 stolen bases that came “out of nowhere.” Every winning team can tell such stories, especially in a league as balanced as Tout.

On the negative side, in a 40-man roster keeper league we modestly call the Xperts Fantasy League, or XFL, I made a mid-season trade two years back as I was in contention and needed stolen bases. I gave up a kid named Jason Heyward to Ron Shandler as part of a deal which netted me Brian Roberts.

I fell short of the championship that year and to top it off, will likely have to endure the pain of seeing Heyward on Ron’s XFL roster for at least the next ten years.

ML: Brian, heading into the season, it looks like your team is projected to finish last. How do you feel about your chances of winning another championship?

BW: I assume you are referring to Cory Schwartz’ projected standings. First of all, at least one of my players has zero stats in his projections. In addition, I didn’t use his numbers to draft my team. Finally, as noted above, I went pitching-heavy in the draft for a reason. If I didn’t plan to make trades and stood pat all season, then yes, I would likely seriously overachieve in pitching and underachieve in hitting.

As I recall, last season’s projections from some had me as an also-ran, somewhere in the middle of the pack. So be it. I ran away with the league in 2009 and they didn’t. Maybe it will be the other way around this year. If any of us knew for sure which players would break out and which would stumble, then we wouldn’t need to play out the season, would we?

ML: How do the rest of you feel about your chances of winning a championship?

EK: I think this is a balanced team that should be able to compete, which is all I ask for once I leave the auction table. Many things will have to break right, and of course I’ll be prepared to upgrade the team during the season. Hopefully in September Mr. Lidge can keep both my Tout team and the Phillies in contention!

CS: Although I’ve never finished higher than third in Tout Wars I feel this might be my best team ever; my starting rotation is thin but I think Strasburg will provide a big boost later in the spring, and my offense may ultimately have enough depth to deal from for an upgrade. I can always dream!

PK: I’m always impressed by just how confident I am about my teams after the draft. I selected the guys I liked, generally, and that feels good. This Tout Wars team has a fair amount of injury risk built into it, and no closers, so winning is going to depend on some of my $1 and reserve picks (Tyler Colvin, Jim Edmonds, about both of whom I feel good) working out, and making effective waiver moves. I’ve got enough pitching to be in it, I think, but you know how that goes.

ML: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I wish you the best in the coming season and would love to chat again at the All-Star break to see how things are going for your squad.

PK: Thanks Mike. Anytime. Thanks for talking about SABR and Tout with your readers. We’re really happy to be starting something that we hope grows into something even more.

Mike Lynch is the author of Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League and It Ain’t So: A Might-Have-Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond, and the founder of Seamheads.com.

Comments

2 Responses to “Touring the Bases With…Tout Wars”
  1. F. X. Flinn says:

    Terrific piece Mike, thanks very much. I had a great time visiting with the Tout Wars folks and getting to meet many long time “friends on the web” in person at last. SABR’s board had been talking for some time about how we could acknowledge the importance of fantasy baseball to so many of our members and to the baseball industry generally, and Ron Shandler and I had been having the same conversation on and off for many years, and the idea of partnering with Tout Wars turned out to be a natural once it was voiced. I have high hopes for how this can be developed over time.

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