- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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We're at that stage of the year when categorical management in rotisserie leagues is paramount. If you're not examining your categorical standing on a daily basis, you're forfeiting valuable opportunities to improve in the standings.
Let's use one of the industry's expert leagues, the National League version of Tout Wars, to illustrate. Three teams stand well ahead of the pack -- fourth place is 13 points behind third -- and the three top contenders, me, Seth Trachtman and Steve Gardner, have a mere nine-point gap as of the morning of Aug. 19. That might not sound like a tight race, but look closer.
Examining runs scored: All three teams are within 11 runs for the season, a three-spot swing (remember, as any contender passes a fellow contender in a category, it's a two- rather than one-point swing). Here, the second-place team overall leads, third is second, and first is third.
Examining on-base percentage: These three teams are within .009 of one another, with the third-place team overall leading, second place second and first place third.
Examining ERA: These three teams are within 0.16 of one another, with the first-place team overall first, second place second and third place third.
Examining WHIP: These three teams are within 0.047 of one another, with the third-place team overall first, first place second and second place third.
And finally, examining strikeouts: These three teams are within 37 K's of one another, with the first-place team overall first, second place second and third place third.
Combining these findings, it's clear that the team in first needs a strong finish on the pitching side; it's vulnerable to both teams behind it in both ERA and K's and could stand to lose as many as five of its own rotisserie points combined -- meaning not including the gains by the other contenders in the process. On the hitting side, meanwhile, the second-place team is vulnerable in runs scored and on-base percentage, with a swing as wide as three rotisserie points -- again excluding the contenders' potential gains -- in those categories. The second-place team, too, could gain merely by moving up in ERA and WHIP. The third-place team, meanwhile, can quickly close that nine-point gap with a surge in K's and ERA, gaining four rotisserie points plus the contenders' losses.
In short, it's five of the 10 rotisserie departments that in all likelihood will decide the Tout Wars race, and it's for that reason one should expect those teams to particularly address those areas, even if it results in a trade with an appearance of being beneath value despite being smart for the teams in question. This is where fantasy leagues see the Anthony Rizzo-for-Ben Revere style trades that so often get individual owners up in arms over "fairness."
On paper, yes, Rizzo for Revere is a foolish trade for the majority of fantasy owners. But considering categorical context, there's absolutely a circumstance where it makes sense.
In that vein, trades aren't the only route toward addressing categorical need. Today, let's nominate a few sleepers in two of the easier ones in which to make up ground: stolen bases and saves. Some of these names might be readily available in your league. Others might be available at low cost via trade.
Jordan Schafer, Minnesota Twins: Raise your hand if you knew he was a member of the Twins. Now keep it raised if you knew he was starting at this point for the Twins, with starts in 10 of their past 13 games. And now keep it raised if you knew this: Schafer is one of only six players to have stolen at least 20 bases in each of the past four seasons, 2014 included. Presumably, few of you still have your hands raised, judging by his 4.7 percent ESPN ownership. Still, Schafer possesses two critical traits of an undervalued speedster: a high walk rate, 10.3 percent in his career and 9.9 percent this season, and aggressiveness on the basepaths, evidenced by his attempting steals on 23 percent of his career opportunities (per Baseball-Reference.com) and 33 percent this season.
Jarrod Dyson, Kansas City Royals: In case you haven't heard, the Royals have one of the most favorable schedules remaining of any team in baseball. That's good for a team that, looking at its roster, will maximize matchups going forward. It's also good for Dyson, a player who will neither walk nor start as often as Schafer yet is more of a contact-oriented hitter who could enjoy better fortune on balls in play against weaker teams. Dyson brings the Royals quality defense, a key trait in nightly lineup selection that maximizes his chances of late-inning pinch running and defensive replacement moves. In short, he should be the fourth-outfield type who should tally 75 to 100 plate appearances in the Royals' final 38 games rather than being the traditional see-him-once-a-week-maybe types. With his speed, Dyson could manage as many as 15 more steals given that opportunity.
Ender Inciarte, Arizona Diamondbacks: Like Dyson, Inciarte brings a critical asset to his team, that being quality defense that should earn him regular at-bats going forward. Frankly, it's fitting that he is picking up the at-bats vacated when Gerardo Parra was traded; Parra was a defense-oriented player, and Inciarte is the speedier player of the two. Inciarte is also the best contact hitter of any of these three sleepers, with an 11.9 percent strikeout rate in the majors after 12.5 percent during his minor league career, so it's not unthinkable he could bat between .270 and .280 despite a low walk rate. If he does, he would get on base nearly 32 percent of the time and be another legitimate candidate for an additional 15 steals.
Jeurys Familia, New York Mets: No one stands out more as a "he could get every one of his team's remaining save chances" among current setup men. The reasons are endless, the simplest being that, since May 12, the date that current Mets closer Jenrry Mejia made his first relief appearance of 2014, Familia has outpitched Mejia by a significant margin. Familia has a 1.60 ERA and 1.16 WHIP and is 16-for-20 in save plus hold opportunities; Mejia has 3.10, 1.48 and is 19-for-22. That Mejia has admitted to pitching through a sports hernia, not to mention profiles as a long-term starting pitcher, increases the logic behind a role swap in the coming weeks. Yes, Vic Black could be another such candidate, but as with Mejia, Familia has outpitched Black and carries no less the profile of future Mets closer.
Wade Davis, Kansas City Royals: Again, it's a sleeper saves pick. When a closer for a contending team, like Greg Holland, complains of fatigue, the first thing you should do -- if you have the bench space -- is handcuff him to the next-most likely candidate. That's Davis. He has pitched the eighth inning in 16 consecutive appearances, earning nine holds in the process, including doing so in seven of the past nine appearances by the comparably productive Kelvin Herrera (the other most logical candidate), who mostly pitched the seventh inning before Davis. Herrera might be the one more widely available in AL-only leagues, in which case Herrera could slot in fine here, but it's Davis who has the Holland-esque stats that could paint him a top-10 closer given the chance.
Pat Neshek, St. Louis Cardinals: His is another pick of a next-in-line for a contending team; the playoff-hopeful Cardinals cannot afford to sit through too many Trevor Rosenthal stinkers. Neshek has pitched as effectively as almost any reliever this season, but recently he has been untouchable. He has a 0.92 ERA and 0.61 WHIP in 19 appearances since July 1, 16 of those working the eighth inning and resulting in nine holds and two saves. Most importantly, Neshek has narrowed his formerly wide lefty-righty split, limiting left-handed hitters to .145/.169/.246 rates after .315/.367/.556 in 2013. Fantasy owners might think of Carlos Martinez, Jason Motte or Seth Maness first as fill-ins among Cardinals relievers, but it's Neshek who should and probably would get the next chance if a switch is needed.
Tristan H. Cockcroft offers up sleeper options in saves and steals for the stretch run.