Play ball? With Shandler, it's never too early for baseball

ON FANTASY SPORTS

The Kickoff

December 14, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

The survival of my fantasy football season depends on a showdown with LaDainian Tomlinson this weekend. And he's playing against the Chiefs, who have been allowing 100-yard rushing days like clockwork.

So I figure that should bring a snappy end to a fantasy season that never seemed destined to end in glory.

But such gloomy thoughts are easy to push aside, because fantasy Christmas busted out on Monday. That's right, my 2007 Baseball Forecaster showed up in the mailbox. This early present from fantasy guru Ron Shandler is always the official signal that my thoughts should turn from pigskin to cowhide. Based on a few notes I received from readers in recent days, I'm not alone.

Of course, most of those notes suggested I keep mention of Shandler under my hat this year, lest more owners catch on to his terrific work. But I'm a populist when it comes to fantasy. The more adept, engaged players, the better.

For those who have missed the Shandler phenomenon, he's a Virginia resident who, 21 years ago, decided to apply his solid grasp of statistics to analyzing fantasy baseball. That doesn't sound so novel now, but for a long time, he was one of very few to apply Bill James-style work to the fantasy world. His annual books and Web site, BaseballHQ.com, became indispensable tools for hard-core players.

In my most serious league, I'd say seven or eight of the dozen owners show up to our auction toting the Forecaster. The phrase "Can I borrow your Shandler?" is as common that day as "Pass the chips."

Even if you don't buy all of Shandler's theories, you almost have to read him for counterintelligence purposes.

The man has a gift for cutting past the superficial meaning of a player's recent stat line to the truer indicators of skill. These are the rocks on which you want to build your projections for next year.

For example, he can look at Jake Peavy's drop from a 13-7 record and 2.88 ERA in 2005 to an 11-14 record with a 4.09 ERA this past season and say, "there's little to worry about."

Why?

Well, Peavy gave up an unusual number of hits with men on base and an unusual number of fly balls last year. But his command and ability to throw the ball past batters didn't go anywhere. So to Shandler's eye, Peavy was basically the same pitcher. That in turn means we should bet on a rebound toward the win total and ERA of 2005.

Of course, one of the first things you do when you buy a trusted fantasy guide is flip to the capsules on players you plan to keep for next season.

I was pleased to find Shandler relatively bullish on my planned offensive corps of third baseman Garrett Atkins, outfielder Matt Holliday, catcher Brian McCann and shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

I'm unsettled on my fifth keeper. Could be San Diego ground ball specialist Clay Hensley, who's cheap at $1. Shandler lists him at $13 so that would be a nice value, but he isn't enthusiastic about Hensley's lack of strikeouts and erratic control. So that gives me pause.

Could also be a $1 John Patterson. The Nationals' putative ace has an ideal combination of power and control when healthy, but he's almost never healthy. "Could be a bargain if healthy," Shandler says. Hmmm.

Until I got the book, I hadn't really contemplated keeping a $31 Rafael Furcal. But Shandler sees Furcal as one of the most valuable commodities in the National League for 2007, a peaking middle infielder who could hit .310 with 20 homers and 40 steals. My league is infamous for running up prices on star players (some of you may recall the $74 Pujols) so I often feel that having a star in hand at a reasonable price is better than trying to squeeze a few dollars of profit from a bargain that may never pay off.

Anyway, the particulars aren't important. My point is that the book started my wheels churning for next year and as a baseball and fantasy freak, that's a good feeling.

I'll give away one more Shand- ler tidbit for the 2007 season and then you'll have to pay your $24.95 for the rest. He's quite optimistic about Erik Bedard, noting the Orioles ace's run of dominant starts and saying that his upside could be 20 wins and a 3.00 ERA. Maybe that gives some comfort if you're an Orioles fan whose heart is not set aglow by the new relief corps and Jay Payton.

So merry Shandler Day everyone and to those who wanted me to keep him secret, sorry I couldn't give you a good night.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

For more on fantasy sports, go to www.baltimoresun.com/fantasy.

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