Arrival of `Forecaster' book will put spring in your step

ON FANTASY SPORTS

Commentary

December 15, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER

Every evening this time of year, I flip open the mailbox and hope to see a red, white and blue priority mail package.

And on the glorious day when I get my hands around that 2-inch-thick parcel, my fantasy baseball season begins in earnest.

Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster has arrived, and spring seems within reach.

I try not to bore readers with too many rave reviews of fantasy-related products, because I find most of the magazines and Web sites incomplete, superficial or just plain bad. But if you want to dominate your casual league or keep your head above water amid more intense competition, get the Forecaster.

Best of all, this comprehensive look at the next baseball season is available two weeks before Christmas. (Check Baseballforecaster.com or Amazon.com if your loved one might be interested.)

In my toughest league, a 12-team National League affair full of experienced owners, everyone comes to the draft armed with Shandler. It's not so much that we follow his touts blindly. It's more that without the book, you don't know what everybody else is up to. It'd be like going through church every week without a hymnal.

"It's the SI swimsuit issue for geeks," said league mate Jonathan Jacoby in an e-mail yesterday.

Shandler doesn't always produce the most cutting edge statistics or the most accurate projections (though they're very good). But he surpasses his competitors in applying statistical analysis to the needs of fantasy players.

For example, he led me to have an epiphany on pitching. I had always known on some level that the best pitchers threw strikes, overpowered weaker hitters and avoided big innings. But Shandler helped focus that by saying that if a guy doesn't strike out twice as many as he walks, doesn't strike out at least six per nine innings and can't limit opponents to one homer per nine innings, he's not worth buying.

He boiled the essence of pitching down to three simple statistical markers. And you'd be surprised how many well-known hurlers can't meet those marks. You also might be surprised at how many overlooked pitchers exceed them and thus qualify as sleepers for next season.

On the hitting side, Shandler looks past batting average (which can fluctuate wildly because of fortune) to underlying skills - power, batting eye and the ability to make contact. This helps you to avoid chasing last year's flukes and to spot potential surprises for next year.

The book might seem a little intimidating to the novice. It has no pictures, and every player - from Albert Pujols to Nick Punto - is reduced to a small box with a text blurb and rows of arcane-sounding numbers.

Shandler doesn't waste any time describing Manny Ramirez's flowing swing or Derek Jeter's clutch ability. He identifies the statistical trend he finds most interesting for each player and moves on.

Consider this summation of the Orioles' Jay Gibbons: "Power is for real and has yet to peak; look at his FB% [fly-ball] trend. The breakout comes in 2006."

It's terse, but it tells you that Gibbons is a player to watch and why.

First-timers will want to read the excellent glossary and introductory remarks first. But that doesn't take long and, in the end, Shandler boils it all down to lists of dollar values for next year.

A Virginia resident (though a New York Mets fan by origin), Shandler started cranking out fantasy analysis on the sly while working various marketing jobs. He went full time in 1994 and this year's Forecaster is his 20th.

For those who aren't sated by the annual, which costs $24.95, Shandler also runs one of the best fantasy sites on the net, BaseballHQ.com. (An annual subscription runs $99.)

I'll recommend some other fantasy products next spring, but if you're looking for a place to start, this is it.

My 2006 guide showed up Tuesday evening and my wife received but a cursory greeting before I buried my head in it. She didn't even bother to roll her eyes. She knows Shandler day is sacred.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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