Tout Table: How to approach the potential of a juiced ball

There’s scientific and empirical evidence the baseball is juiced. This week’s question posed:

With mounting evidence the ball is juiced (lower drag and huge spike in Triple-A runs using MLB balls this season), what measures should be taken by fantasy managers to best take advantage?

Derek Carty (RotoGrinders, @DerekCarty): Obviously, a juiced ball means more runs — which is good for hitters and bad for pitchers in an absolute sense. Many fantasy players will just take a stab in the dark at mentally adjusting player values, I’m sure, or run around like Chicken Little and push all their chips onto the hitting side. There are ways to quantify this change, though, so it doesn’t have to be an imprecise exercise. Ideally, this is something that gets accounted for in the projections you’re using to assess player value. When I realized this was happening a week or so ago, I began upgrading THE BAT to be able to detect changes in the league run environment and — more importantly — to decipher at what point this type of thing “stabilizes” the same way we can decipher when individual player stats stabilize. This way, we’re aren’t over (or under)-reacting to a sample size of just two or three weeks. We’ve definitely hit a point where this looks very largely real, if the physics studies we’ve seen about drag coefficients and whatnot hadn’t already told us that. Once you have players projected within this new context, it should be fairly easy to re-calculate values and make moves accordingly. The biggest question is whether players will be impacted equally. Certain things are obvious; flyball pitchers will be hurt more than groundball pitchers. But will big raw power hitters be impacted less than moderate power hitters? Since all hitters will projected higher and all pitchers lower, does that actually mean hitting is worth more if the intra-position values are all still relative? These are the more interesting questions at this point, IMO.

AJ Mass (ESPN, @AJMass): Assuming that this is indeed a trend and not just statistical noise, the fact that there are more home runs in the baseball universe means that each individual home run is slightly less valuable. Trading away someone like Jay Bruce-type whose early-season HR production has surprised for a Tommy Pham-type who will get you a few blasts along with a rarer stat (steals) is the way to go before the market self-corrects.

Rick Wolf (Fantasy Alarm, @RickWolf1): Actually, it is what you shouldn’t do anymore that is the outcome of this. Don’t pay top dollar for home run production as it will be easier to get across the board and lesser hitters will find more balls going over the fence. Invest in starting pitchers who go deep into games to maximize your strikeouts and players who run. As of today, there have been 540 games played with 700 home runs already hit. At that rate, there will be 6,300+ home runs hit which would eclipse the 6,015 hit in 2017 by almost 5% and crush last season’s 5,585 by 13%.

Mike Gianella (Baseball Prospectus, @MikeGianella): Hitter value is skewed even more toward the stolen base and batting average (we talk a lot about the former and way too little about the latter). For pitchers, middle relievers are even more vital than ever to protect your ratios. In deep leagues, use MRs over SPs when you can. In shallower formats, work the wire on starters and don’t be loyal to any but the top 15-20 overall.

Michael Rathburn (Rotowire, @FantasyRath): I agree with Gianella on the SB/BA front and MRPs becoming more valuable. James is also on point with targeting the weak offenses for pitching. I look at the lefty/righty team splits and who has the lowest ISOs to stream against.

James Anderson (Rotowire, @RealJRAnderson): We have to be more careful than ever before when it comes to sitting decent pitchers (Steven Matz types) against the top offenses, and we have to be more aggressive than ever when it comes to streaming pitchers against the worst offenses. I’ll start almost anyone against the Orioles, Marlins, Tigers, Indians, Giants, Royals and Pirates. I’ll also start almost any righty against the Blue Jays, and going after the Rockies and Reds on the road seems like a valid strategy at the moment. In order to avoid blow-up outings, it’s critical to roster at least one quality reliever who won’t get many saves but can be counted on for great ratios. Ryan Pressly and Adam Ottavino are long gone, but guys like Nick Anderson, Nick Burdi and Robert Stephenson are still out there in a lot of leagues. I think it’s too late to do much adjusting on the hitting side — it will require a ton of HR, RBI and R to be competitive in those categories, but it’s not like there are a bunch of sluggers sitting out on waivers that will help make up ground.

Ariel Cohen (CBS Sports, @ATCNY): If the ball is juiced and players are hitting more homeruns … Let’s think about what effect that has on the hitters and pitchers. All offense would be up, but I would think that hitters who hit more fly-balls would benefit more – a couple of more balls hit in the air will fly out of the yard. Players who hit more groundballs, although a few more may go for hits, won’t see as large an impact from a flyout turning into a homerun. Projections who break down power into FB & HR/FB components may adjust FB hitters projections more favorably – and assign a larger value to them. Give a bump to FB hitters such as Hoskins, Gallo, K Davis, Carpenter, Kepler, etc. The opposite goes for the pitchers … the fly-ball pitchers would be affected more, so the groundball and strikeout pitchers (low FB rates) would now be worth more. Pitchers like Corbin, Godley, Arrieta, Marquez, Marco Gonzales with low FB rates should benefit. FB pitchers like Verlander, Scherzer, R Lopez, Cole, etc. should get dinged, and may see a higher ERA than projected. In terms of lineup construct, some low FB relief pitchers may now be worth starting as well.

Alex Chamberlain (Rotofraphs, @DolphHauldhagen): Prior research (mine, others) suggests the players who benefit most from the juiced ball are the fringy ones. Home run distance is generally normally distributed, but with the juiced ball it skews ever-so-slightly toward shorter home runs, and the players with middling/league-average home run outputs, as a group, see the biggest gain. Don’t overpay via trade for premium power bats who, in a sense, are marginally less valuable with league-wide power on the rise. From a pitcher standpoint, home run rates are up for all pitch types, but it’s fastballs that have borne the greatest burden: home runs as a ratio of outfield fly balls have increased from 19.0% to 23.8% in the early goings. Again, all pitch types have been more vulnerable, but fastballs, disproportionately so. Make of that what you will (it’s fair to argue these league-wide pitch-type numbers are still too noisy to be worthwhile.)

Brian Walton (CreativeSports2, @B_Walton): Until I see data that indicates the increased home run rate is inconsistent at a statistically significant level across different classes of hitters, I see no way to act on the offensive side. However, if data shows an increase among top hitters is greater than for lesser hitters, for example, then one can react accordingly. On the pitching side, it would seem to add value to sinkerball pitchers and decrease those who have fly ball tendencies. Now that I think about it, the same could apply to fly ball vs. ground ball hitters. Again, there should start to be enough data available to test this rather than speculate.

Patrick Davitt (BaseballHQ, @patrickdavitt): Alex took most of my reply. The last time we had a juice ball effect, it was the Justin Smoaks who benefitted, not the Giancarlo Stantons. With Smoak, his wall-scrapers and warning-track outs nipped the extra 10 feet to sneak over the fence; with Stanton, the 430-foot blast became a 450-foot blast, but no extra points for added distance! If we had known this ahead of the season, obviously we all could have made adjustments to projected HR and the value of HR, so a few bucks would have moved from the Giancarlos to the Smoaks. In-season, I guess if there are owners in your league who aren’t aware of the situation, trade your Stanton for a pack of Smoaks (hee hee) that includes any kind of useful throw-in. The juice ball benefit will close the gap between Smoak and Stanton, so the throw-in gets a little extra added value.

Larry Schechter (Winning Fantasy Baseball, @LarrySchechter): Is there any evidence that Tim Anderson’s legs are juiced? He’s on pace for 63 SB.

Phil Hertz (BaseballHQ, @prhz50): I might try to move a homer guy for a base stealer, but at this point of the season in deep leagues, in which I mainly play, there’s not an imperative to do much adjusting .

Todd Zola (Mastersball, @toddzola): To Anthony’s point, there was a study published on Baseball Prospectus showing less drag on the balls for the week tested, which would feed into the conditions. The piece warns it was one week’s worth of baseballs and there’s variance from week to week, but the drag levels were lower than anything measured last season and were in fact reminiscent of 2017. Chances are the reduced drag is working in concert with the early winds to boost homers. Gratuitous plug alert: I recently wrote a piece for ESPN determining the sweet spot where added fly ball distance should manifest in the most added homers. My filters were batters with a high fly ball rate, good contact and 2018 average fly ball distance within the optimal range. I tagged 16 batters and some honorable mentions. I’m working on a companion pitcher piece for next week.

Scott Pianowski (Yahoo! Fantasy Sports, @Scott_Pianowski): We always want pitchers who miss bats, but I consider K/9 even more critical now. Contact is too risky. I had a soft spot for the Mikolas, Hendricks, Porcello types in draft season; not as horses, but as playable worker bees. I’m certainly concerned now (it’s adorable that all three guys had their best turn of the year this weekend, post-write, but I stand behind the point). At least there are relievers who breathe fire and can smooth ratios, but it’s no country for pitch-to-contact SPs. If I owned a Madison Bumgarner type, I’d be coyly trying to trade him, if possible. (I missed last week’s table, but I see nothing wrong with considering trades in April. You should always be looking for natural fits.)

Howard Bender (Fantasy Alarm, @RotobuzzGuy): The obvious answer is to start dealing off your HR-only guys for more well-balanced players and grab extra speed while you can. If I think a guy who is normally a 15-15 player can pop me 20-plus with a juiced ball, then the sliding scale should be attached to everyone. Maybe Jay Bruce pops 35 again, but is he more valuable than a Tommy Pham or Michael Brantley? I’d even go so far ….sorry Lawr, but you know I love you…as to trade a Khris Davis for a guy with much less power on paper and a strong starting pitcher who doesn’t pitch to a world of contact.

Derek VanRiper (Rotowire, @DerekVanRiper): I agree with Pianow, the pitchers who simply do not miss bats at a high rate but make value with their ability to log a lot of innings take a hit because significantly worse things are going to happen to them with the juiced ball. There are some streaming implications here as well, and if starting pitchers are getting hit harder, their innings will likely come down. With that, we might be wise to push strikeout-heavy, non-closer relievers even harder to pad ratios, as their collective impact might actually increase in 2019 as a byproduct of the more difficult environment as a whole.

Glenn Colton (Fantasy Alarm, @GlennColton1): I may be in the minority here but I would not change anything. I plan to stick to my knitting, follow the SMART system and Rules of Engagement, look for good matchups, undervalued players and to rid my teams of players unlikely to turn it around.

Jeff Boggis (Fantasy Football Empire, @JeffBoggis): I am relying more on more advanced sabermetrics and using this to my advantage in player acquisition through free agency and trades. For pitching metrics, strikeouts per nine innings pitched (K/9) and home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) provide me a way to see which pitchers are making hitters miss the ball, but also what happens when a hitter does make contact. For example, Jacob deGrom (14.9) and Matthew Boyd (13.3) currently lead the majors in k/9, but deGrom has a higher HR/FB rate at .417 versus Boyd at .125, so I prefer Boyd to deGrom. I also like to view and increase in HR/FB rate for hitters and try to spot trends from last year to this year. I’m looking for hitters with a home run to fly ball ratio of 15% or higher.

Jeff Zimmerman (Fangraphs, The Process, @jeffwzimmerman): I’m just going to pretend it’s 2017 (my memory is at least that good) and be careful with each matchup. The biggest change I need to incorporate is that the Triple-A teams are using this same high-flying ball. I used to bake in a little power boost when a player gets to the majors. Not, so much now.

Charlie Wiegert (CDM Sports, @GFFantasySports): I’m not buying it! Younger, stronger, better in shape players are hitting the ball farther. It will take more homers than yet year to compete in the category, but more players are hitting them. Maybe this will stop the nonsense of moving the mound back!

Ryan Hallam (Fighting Chance Fantasy, @FightingChance): I think this should change your strategy using your pitchers more than using your hitters. Chances are if this continues you will get more value out of your hitters than maybe you anticipated. However, now when thinking about using a two-start pitcher or perhaps a streaming option, the opportunity for it to really blow up your ratios (or grant you negative points in point based leagues) seems to have increased. Even guys like Steven Matz that are definitely rosterable couldn’t even record an out against Philly the other night. Perhaps your hitters that are off to good starts will stay performing well, but be more cautious of those pitching streaming options and really hold out for guys who are going against one of the more anemic offenses.

D.J. Short (Rotoworld, @djshort): These are all excellent thoughts. Nothing novel here, but with each home run, your surprising power hitter is less valuable. Knowing that it’s easier to compete in that area in this current environment, it makes plenty of sense to consider cashing in on the headlines of that early production in order to upgrade in other areas outside of power. This could be stolen bases, as some of you suggest, or a hitter with an excellent approach who has been unlucky or underperformed so far. Pitching feels particularly vulnerable right now, but I’d probably look at things like swinging strike percentage and soft-contact rate as my guide as far as a trade acquisition.

Scott Swanay (FantasyBaseballSherpa, @fantasy_sherpa): I’m not sure how you’d take advantage of it, unless you have the proverbial crystal ball to be able to tell which waiver wire options at this point are going to transform into the 2019 version of Max Muncy. However, I would try to combat this trend by using as many of my reserve spots as possible on starting pitchers (which has the added benefit of cushioning the blow of the inevitable injuries), then playing matchups to as great an extent as possible to avoid obviously unfavorable matchups.