Fantasy Baseball

Texas Rangers Exec. Matt Vinnola Talks Moneyball

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Matt Vinnola has been the Texas Rangers Director of Baseball Operations since 2009, assisting General Manager Jon Daniels with day-to-day operations and other functions within the department. Before that, he worked in the front office of the Colorado Rockies for 12 years – including their “Rocktober” in 2007, when they completed the fifth-greatest comeback in MLB regular-season history. This past week, Vinnola talked about how the ballclub has tried to exploit market inefficiencies at a marketing conference called “Acceller Summit 2012.”

“It’s all about creating competitive advantages,” said Vinnola, whose Rangers have won the American League championship in both 2010 and 2011. Fantasy Baseball owners can certainly understand that concept as they try to get every leg up on their adversaries as possible, reading as many articles, player updates and projections as they can.

Moneyball, Brad PittDue to the popularity of the book “Moneyball,” as well as the movie, I asked him if all of the teams have begun to use statistical analysis as a much bigger part of their player evaluation, and he agreed, it’s becoming the norm more than it is the outlier. “You have to evaluate other teams and other GMs too, not just the players,” he said. “You have to know how they run their teams.”

I do wonder, though, when these statistical-analysis-heavy teams, like the Red Sox and Rays, become the majority, and which teams will then have to “think differently,” in order to get a competitive advantage? What will they do to be different? Horoscopes and psychics?

According to Vinnola, it all comes down to one thing. “Outs,” Vinnola said. “Outs are the most precious thing in the game because you only have 27 of them and no one is going to give you any back.”

One of the ways to measure a team’s success is by taking a team’s total salary ranking against the other 29 teams, and subtracting their ranking in win percentage. That’s how you know when a team is outperforming other teams, and it places them on a level playing field for the most point.

 

A Walk’s As Good As a Hit

The past decade’s love affair with on-base percentage and OPS has spurred a lot of other stats, including wOBA, ISO and xFIP. “Remember that old commercial, ‘Chicks Dig the Long Ball’?” Vinnola asked. “Well, it’s not ‘Chicks Dig the Ball-Four.’ And they don’t have Ball-Four Contests.” But despite a bases on balls being an unsexy stat, it really has held the key to much more.

Vinnola explained a few of the different ways how a team’s advancesscscouts have been able to help the team,. This included when they saw that Rockies OF Matt Holliday  would look down right before he stepped off the bag at first base to count off his leadoff steps. That resulted in picking him off during Game 2 of the 2007 World Series against Boston.

But the biggest “game changer” for the Rangers was when they realized they were sellers during the 2007 season, and decided to move Mark Teixeira to begin their commitment to a rebuilding phase. The decision on who to trade him to came down to the Atlanta Braves and L.A. Angels.

Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers

Elvis Andrus was the Braves' second-best prospect in 2007, and he has gone on to steal an average of 34 bases over the past three seasons. Photo Credit: Keith Allison

The Rangers used their knowledge of the market and of the other GMs’ tendencies, to decide that Teixeira should be traded to Atlanta. The Braves decision-maker at the time was legendary John Schuerholz, but he was in his last year as the GM, which meant he might want to make a big splash before going out. The Braves also had a great farm system, with a glut of great Dominican Republic prospects. The package the Rangers eventually received from Atlanta consisted of:

  • An 18-year-old Venezuelan shortstop in rookie ball
  • A 22-year-old switch-hitting rookie catcher
  • A 21-year-old LHP in Double-A
  • A 19-year-old Dominican RHP in rookie ball

That package of players turned out to be a huge part of why the Rangers are back-to-back AL champions, working on a third straight trip to the World Series.

  • Elvis Andrus, an All-Star shortstop that started for the Rangers at age 20
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has since been traded to the Red Sox
  • Matt Harrison, which is now the team’s No. 3 starting pitcher
  • Neftali Feliz, who won 2010 AL Rookie of the Year, and has moved from closer to starting pitcher

 

Fantasy Owner’s Takeaway

Fantasy Baseball owners should understand that their job isn’t that much different than from an MLB general manager. (Outside of the multi-million dollar salaries, the incredible pressure and the access to thousands of professional athletes.) Here are three keys to success I learned from Vinnola and Moneyball, and how we can apply them to your Fantasy Football teams:

Exploit Market Inefficiencies

  • Do flexible roster limits on your team allow you to pick up/trade for injured players and keep them on your team while your backups play?
  • Do your opponents place too high a value on high draft picks? Trade down, or wait until after the trade and trade a superstar for a glut of talent.
  • Are saves worth more points in your Fantasy Baseball league than wins?

Knowledge of the Market

  • One month into the season, are you aware of the shifting player values, or do you still think some struggling players are still first-round picks?
  • Are there a few teams looking for help in saves or steals that you can trade with?

Scouting the Other GMs’ Tendencies

  • Do a few owners in your league come from Boston, which means they might place more value on Red Sox players than you do?
  • Can you predict the draft’s first-round by looking at the first rounds of previous seasons? How late does each owner usually wait to draft a starting pitcher or a closer?
  • Which owners lose interest in late July as Fantasy Football drafts begin to gear up?

Hopefully, you were as entertained by Matt Vinnola’s thoughts. It was a pleasure to listen to him speak. I gave him my begrudging congratulations for his team’s success (I’m a Rays fan, and the Rangers knocked the Rays out in ’10 and ’11).

David Gonos spent 5 years as a CBSSports.com Senior Fantasy Writer and three more years writing with SI.com. Over the past 17 years, his work has been published on NFL.com, MLB.com, FanDuel, FoxSports.com and USA Today. Since 2001, he has been tracking down the Top 50-plus Free Fantasy Football Draft Tools online. You can contact David Gonos here.

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