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Knowing When to Cut Bait on an Underachiever (Fantasy Baseball)

by Michael Waterloo | @MichaelWaterloo | Featured Writer
Jun 7, 2020

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Jack Flaherty put together two totally different seasons in 2019. In the first half, he struggled with his command while posting a 4.64 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP, making those who drafted him question their decision. There were questions left and right on message boards, podcasts, Twitter, and other mediums about whether or not Flaherty he was droppable, because managers were, frankly, fed up with him.

Then the second half happened, where Flaherty put together a historic performance with a sub-1 ERA and sub-1 WHIP, striking out nearly 34 percent of batters faced. Image the instant regret that those who had cut Flaherty felt as they saw the way he performed down the stretch. 

Flaherty is just one example of a player who starts slow but picks it up eventually. There are multiple guys every year who follow the same path, but there are others who don’t quite figure it out. In the same year, look at Khris Davis, who was the most consistent player in fantasy for four straight years, posting a .247 average with 40-plus home runs (in three straight years). 

That’s why Davis’ cool start to 2019 didn’t concern managers. Collectively, we’ve seen Davis put together streaky performances before, but we could always bank on the numbers being there by the end of the year. Well, they weren’t, as Davis, who played injured throughout the season, hit .220 with 23 home runs, and he became an afterthought in 2020 drafts.

Those who held on to Davis throughout the year regretted not trading him or dropping him for a replacement-level player. 

Knowing when the cut bait on a player is one of the hardest decisions to make, as you run the risk of either losing out on future production or of holding on to a player too long. Here are some ways to decide when enough is enough.

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Mine the data

The best thing that you can do is try to discover why a player is struggling. Look at their peripheral numbers and see if there is something that stands out. Take a look at their BABIP. See if their ground ball rates are higher than usual, if their launch angle has changed, if they’re hitting more infield fly balls, if they’re generating fewer swings and misses, or if they aren’t getting the calls that they should from the umpire. There can be thousands of reasons as to why a hitter or pitcher struggles, but you need to do some leg work to see why.

Realize that hot and cold streaks can happen at any time

The larger the database, the more accurate your conclusions can be. If a player struggles out of the gate for three weeks, it’s more noticeable and headline-worthy than if a player struggles for three weeks in the middle of June.

It’s important to give a hitter enough plate appearances to put together useful data (you need at least a season’s worth to really parse through accurately, but we can’t do that here). That’s because you have to ignore both cold or hot streaks, and only a large sample size will help you accomplish it. 

Sunk cost doesn’t exist

Over the past decade, folks in the fantasy community have discussed when the best time to cut a player is. The rule was that the capital you invested into a player determines how long their leash is. If it’s a last-round pick, you can cut them immediately if they struggle. If it’s a first-round pick, they get the benefit of the doubt for the whole season. For each round, you add or subtract a week for when it’s OK to cut them.

Lol.

The thing is, once you make the investment in the player, whether you hold on to them or not is irrelevant. The investment was already made, and whether you keep them or not doesn’t change that. It’s like a player who a team signed to a really bad deal, but they keep playing that player to justify the contract. He’s hurting them every time he takes the field, but the team feels like they have to play him because they signed him to that large-money deal. 

But the thing is, the team has to pay the player whether they are playing for them or if they are riding the bench. If there is a replacement player in the minors or on the bench who can offer better production, the team is hurting itself by forcing the player with the bad contract to take the field.

It’s the same with your fantasy team. If you invested in Davis in 2019 and he was actively hurting you, but you didn’t pull the plug after an extended period of time, it’s on you for leaving a player in your lineup just because you spent an early pick on them. Davis clearly showed no signs of turning it around, and it wasn’t a 2018 Matt Carpenter instance where he was putting up bad numbers with fantastic peripherals.

Instead, as the Davis manager, you could have floated him out there for a trade, or you could’ve just cut him to find someone on the waiver wire who would offer better production than what Davis had been giving you.

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Michael Waterloo is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @MichaelWaterloo.

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