Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Fantasy Sports

How I talked myself into B.J. Upton’s breakout season

I play in a keeper fantasy baseball league that uses an auction system, and is a points system based on linear weights, so your runs and RBI can suck it. This morning, I made the decision to bring B.J. Upton back for one year at $10. Upton represents everything that this league doesn’t reward — fielding, speed, raw home run numbers — so I have spent the last three hours trying to talk myself into this being a bad idea, but I think it’s actually a good one. The statistics are one thing, and they are the main thing; they predict a year much like his last three, which would make him slightly less valuable than $10, in our system. My pause is this: Every anecdotal factor — every single one — is in his favor, as far as I see it. It’s a predictor’s no man’s land. It’s the rare time that the sides are equally weighted, as far as I can see.

Upton was once the top prospect in the game, and he has turned in a slightly above-average career through six full seasons and two partial ones. He had one great year, in 2007, at the age of 22. Since then, he has consistently hit around .270/.320/.430, albeit with a heap of plate appearances. He’s been success as a quantity, though not necessarily at the quality the Rays expected. The Braves signed him for 5 years, $75 million a deal that reflects his durability and the twinkle in the eye most free agents are for most teams. They see good things, and a lot of them. They see a very good baseball player, and teams need very good baseball players.

So why pull this for a guy who’s been good-at-best in the aggregate for the last six seasons? I think it works because Upton is a low-risk, high-reward proposition for the Braves. As a fantasy owner, he’s somewhat riskier, because I’m betting he’ll be good this year, instead of at some point in the next three years. But I think if he’s ever going to put it together beyond the perfectly respectable level he’s achieved, it would happen now, for several reasons.

The first reason he might be better this season is the new contract, which pays him almost twice annually the $7 million he earned last season in Tampa, itself almost twice as much as his previous high of $4.8+ million. Like the Patriots, the Rays are always playing the angles, locking up talent below market rates. Like the Patriots, I can’t expect this to endear itself to players in the long run. I think that a large contract has as much potential to calm an athlete as it does to throw him into complacency, a trope that rarely plays itself out — players who don’t fulfill the terms of huge contracts, like modern-day Alex Rodriguez — shouldn’t have been offered the contracts in the first place. For a player of Upton’s self-assuredness, I’m guessing that he’s more likely to fold comfortably into self-assurance, instead of being the player who “vexed his adherents, because he’s clearly a gifted five-tool player who can carry a team when it matters.” Unrelated to the contract, I think Alex Gordon is a good precedent for Upton’s career arc, albeit one without the wonderful age-22 season. Scouts can be right or wrong, but in the aggregate, they are quite good at identifying baseball talent, and Gordon was every bit the prospect as Upton, though more or less a complete disaster until two seasons ago. Upton’s talent has never been an issue, nor was Gordon’s aptitude for the game, but both have had trouble harnessing it. Gordon has become an above-average player, quite possibly a good one. It took him five years, and he broke out at age 27. Upton is 27 right now, and will be until August. If the dam is going to break, this would be a natural time for it to happen. To be clear, I’m not talking about a Jacoby Ellsbury-like breakout, but one like Adam Jones’s last season, which, at .287/.334/.505 would be a great landing spot for Upton.

The second reason I think it could happen is that he’s playing with his brother. Jeff Sullivan crunched the numbers at FanGraphs to see if siblings improved if they were on the same team, and the answer was: Not really! “It turns out baseball is a complicated game the outcomes of which can’t be determined by one’s emotional state,” he writes. “Play with a brother in April and, chances are, come July or August, it just feels like regular baseball.” Being wicked smaht, however, he throws in this caveat:

Of course, what applies generally doesn’t have to apply specifically, and the Upton brothers are unique, like all sets of brothers. Both are known for their incredible raw skillsets, and both are known for not consistently reaching their ceilings. Maybe each will be motivated in Atlanta by the presence of the other. Or maybe B.J. will just be happy to be away from Tampa, and Justin will just be happy to be away from Arizona. Maybe they don’t improve. Maybe they stay the same, or even get worse. At the end of the day, they’re just two teammates in major-league baseball who know each other pretty well.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, I think the combination of B.J. being away from Tampa, and taking on an elder-ish statesman role on a high profile team alongside his struggling younger brother, will be good for him. I’m not sure this works out for Justin, anecdotally, but he’s already owned for $31. Obviously, BJ at $10 is a better bet than Justin, but the question is whether it’s a good one. I think BJ is good for Justin. It’s possible that being an oldest brother with the initials “B.J.” is clouding my judgment. It’s likely, even, but it doesn’t make me wrong. At the very least, I don’t see how it would hurt B.J. This is obviously a major judgment call, but it’s on these margins that desktop scouting happens. There’s an argument that it’s a hobby from which to stay away, like picking stocks unless you’re really good at it, but forget it, Marge: It’s fantasy baseball.

Finally, I think the Braves provide a better environment for Upton than Tampa’s wonderful free-for-all. Part of growing is accepting that you need to change, and if Atlanta’s slightly more strict ways can have a positive effect on Upton, and get him to wait on juuuuust a few more pitches, the benefits will expand disproportionately to the costs of instilling them. This is always true, but this is why change can be important — even if Upton is nothing I say he might be, and does in fact use his contract as an excuse to dog it, the barriers to getting messages across in a new environment are necessarily easier to cross than they are in a static situation. If the Braves can get him to stop swinging even a little bit, they’ll make out well. I think they’ll do it, and I’m betting my fake money that it’ll be this year. I feel just good enough about it, but these are the margins at which I have to work.


On Video Games: Tiger Woods 10

When I was younger, I once lamented to a friend that some day we’d have to give up video games. I meant that we’d have to grow up, and growing up likely did not involve them, and he looked at me like I was crazy. “I’ll still play video games when I’m an adult,” he said, and he was the last person I expected to hear say that.

I think we were both right. I was just in his wedding, and I think that’s a conclusive sign of some sort of maturity, especially at our age. And at the wedding he told me how much he loves Tiger Woods 10 for the Wii. Full disclosure: I had never really played the Wii until his bachelor party this summer, and even then we were playing just the rinky-dink yet amazing games that come with the system. I returned from the bachelor party (at the Jersey Shore!) on Sunday. Monday, on my way home from work, I went to Target and bought a Wii… and had immediate buyer’s remorse which didn’t quite go away with hours of playing Wii Tennis, so I basically shelved it for awhile. After the wedding I wanted the Tiger Woods game, though, but it never came up again until another friend wanted to decompress after a Business School exam last Friday and suggested we take some swings. The Wii Sports games can only amuse you for so long, so I suggested I should just buy the Tiger Woods game, and I did.

We had a great time playing the game, but when the friend left, I was struck by something like a remorse that went beyond just the $80 I spent on the game and controller upgrade. It was a deep shame, really, that I was 32 years old and spending money on a video game to be played primarily by myself, behind closed doors, something I had long sworn that I wouldn’t do. I had played video games in the years since high school, and played a lot of them, but I always played them with people: They were a form of social interaction, however lowbrow. Now I was living alone, and spent a bunch of money I could have spent on picture frames or art or whatever on a game that simulates a sport I don’t even like.

So what happened? I played the everliving shit out of the game. After avoiding it for a few days based on actual, full-time work, I popped it in Tuesday night and played about 60 holes. I might have been ashamed at myself for doing so, but I wasn’t about to stop. Not that night anyway. I put aside plans to go to the gym (because I’m running a four-mile race Sunday morning with little training) until Wednesday. I woke up Wednesday with sore arms, which I thought would be an impediment to playing the game more and push me to the treadmill, which I loathe more than the real game of golf (at least you’re doing something). I was wrong. I played 120 holes.

On Thursday, my arms were sorer than before, and I planned all day to come home and play the game, but when I got home, I just couldn’t do it very effectively. I missed shots I could have made and realized that I simply had played too much, and in doing so saw where I had matured and still had room to grow up.

Do I still think video games are the provenance of children, on a fundamental level? Yes. But I think the bigger concern is the attitude one takes toward video games. If I was “missing” the shots I was “missing” yesterday 10 years ago, I would have been furious at myself, even if I didn’t want to admit it. Everything I did at any moment had to be perfect, which was the source of my problems; it wasn’t that I was playing too much XBox. Getting over that was one stage of maturity, and most assuredly a more important one that simply “not playing video games” in order to give me some false sense of maturity. My friend is naturally more even-keeled than I am, and spent more of his early twenties sitting around playing video games than I did without any sort of deleterious effect, but I suspect that married life won’t give him decreasing opportunities to wield the “club.” It’s probably waning as we speak, but maybe his rounds on the “course” are the few refuges from full-onset adulthood—ones that he most certainly knows, and fully accepts, are fleeting.

For me, playing the shit out of this game has had the opposite effect. I was so determined to “grow up” that I tried to just go around a very fundamental step: Living comfortably on my own, doing the same things I did as a child, and seeing their limits clear enough to transcend them. Playing Tiger Woods 10 fills my time with something that is necessarily worse than what I’d like to replace it with, but it’s better than avoid playing it on the grounds that doing nothing will lead me there.

Fantasy Basketball: A Love Story

I play fantasy basketball. I love it. I like it far more than fantasy baseball and fantasy football. Fantasy baseball, because I play in a league that’s too cutthroat to thoroughly enjoy. Fantasy football, because fantasy football is the worst one out there.

(This is the sound of you screaming at your computer monitor.)

Allow me to explain.

I like playing fantasy sports because it allows me a direct engagement to the games without having to watch them all the time. Fantasy stats have, in effect, replaced the League Leaders section in the daily paper and the Team Statistics page from the Sunday Globe with which I grew up. Then and now, if you ask me about a player, I’ll have a pretty good idea as to how he’s playing.

Baseball is the most quantifiable sport: that’s what makes fantasy baseball, or at least the league I’m in, such a grind. There are no secrets to unearth in the day to day—everyone knows exactly how good every player is, and everyone’s just hoping to get lucky. Of course, the way to get lucky is to learn before the auction, and make your own luck, which is the inverse of how I like my fantasy sports. To that end, in the five-year history of my league only two people have won it. They’re the best at preparing, and God bless’em.

Fantasy football is the exact opposite of fantasy baseball. You can prepare all you want, and it doesn’t mean diddly poo. Randomness is the name of the game, not leastwise because the scoring system rewards things all out of whack with how they are actually valued in football. Running backs are routinely the most valuable players in fantasy football; if you were starting a franchise from scratch, you’d never pick a running back first. I stopped playing after I invented a “better” scoring system (and it is better), but still realized that I learned far more from just watching the games and obsessing over the actual stats than I did from fantasy. Football doesn’t need to be any better.

Basketball falls into a happy medium of stats and scouting. Unlike baseball, team factors play into how a player will perform. Unlike football, you can make educated guesses as to how players will progress indepedent of their team. Unlike both sports, the “standard” scoring system does a remarkably good job of capturing a player’s actual. accepted value. In baseball, the numbers determine the best players. In football, the masses do. In basketball, fantasy stats might as well be the arbiter.

To that end, every season I learn more about basketball from fantasy that I do by watching. In baseball I have the numbers, and in football I have the games. Fantasy basketball opens me up to the NBA, and that’s why I love it.