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Interview with Chris Liss of Rotowire

Chris Liss is RotoWire's managing editor and keeper of the RotoSynthesis Blog. His column Beating the Book runs weekly during football season on RotoWire, his East Coast Offense, Charging the Mound and Give and Go columns run on Yahoo Sports. Chris also appears weekly during football season on Yahoo! Sports' Fantasy Football Live. Chris a lifelong Giants fan who experienced deep soul healing and vindication every time Lawrence Taylor tossed aside tackles, tight ends and running backs before crushing quarterbacks while clubbing the ball out of their hands. Chris lives in Venice, CA and grows vegetables on his balcony.


RJK - What league format do you derive the most pleasure from?


CL - I like to play a variety of formats because each requires a different skill set. If I had to pick one, I'd say my 15-team mixed home league is the best. It's just deep enough that you can't swing for the fences on every pick, but not so deep that you're just drafting for at-bats. Plus, we're allowed to pick up minor leaguers before they get called up - it's always a tough call to spend one of your scarce bench spots on a lights-out pitcher who could be called up next week or two months from now.


RJK - How do "expert" leagues differ from buddy/family leagues?


CL - Expert leagues, and I'm generalizing here,  are "savvy." People look at Carlos Zambrano's declining K rate the last few seasons, and they think: "While the idiots in my home league will pay for his name, I know better." Of course, the Zambranos and Jeters are usually the best values in leagues like that. In a novice league, the best values are the lesser known players with great peripherals. The hardest leagues are like my home one where half the guys are savvy, and half are novices, and every year some novices become savvy. You really have no idea who's going to get drafted where.


RJK - What are you projections for Joba Chamberlain? Yovani Gallardo?  Edinson Volquez?


CL - Jeff Erickson does our baseball projections - I just absorb information, look at indicators and come up with a gut feel. I'd probably rank them Gallardo/Chamberlain/Volquez, and Chamberlain would be my top choice if I didn't think the Yanks might limit his innings. Volquez has as much upside, but that park and his on and off command give him more downside, too.  


RJK - Is BJ Upton the 30-40 guy many think he is or the 10-40 guy he was in '08?


CL - I hope it's the former since I bought him for $31 in LABR, but really Dalton Del Don was to blame because he was urging me to go the extra buck. (I'm a sucker for the Upside family). This was after Dalton totally ignored my suggestions in the NL auction the night before, and I have a feeling he's going to sorely regret not rostering Alfonso Soriano at $33. 


RJK - What is your opinion of Mock Drafting?  How much of it do you do and how much value do you place in doing them?


CL - I don't do it unless it's for our magazine and even then, I hope Erickson finds a sub. Part of the reason is it's in December, and I have no idea what's going on in baseball until February because I'm knee deep in football and hoops. I'm in enough real leagues every year, and so I'm a bit Iverson-esque about practice. 


RJK - I'm interested in fantasy heartbreak stories.  Give me your best fantasy sob story? 


CL - You know off the top of my head I can't think of any. Most heartbreaking losses happen to other people *against* me. I've had some terrible losses against the spread, though. For example, I was getting 5.5. points in this game. But my absolute worst was in Survivor. In 2000, I made it through 16 weeks  in a $12,000 pool (I was also 143-99 against the spread that year), and I started believing I had the gift of prophecy. Naturally, I turned down the three-way split that was offered, and lost in Week 17. The most heartbreaking fantasy loss I witnessed is part of my documentary "Sunday's Are for Football," excerpted here


RJK - Which league title are you most proud of?


CL - My 1998 record-shattering Hollyweird Fantasy Football league team was the greatest and most lucrative. It was my rookie season in a *16-team* league with a $500 entry fee. Not only did I draft Randy Moss and Fred Taylor in their rookie seasons (17 TD each), I had Gary Anderson when he broke all the kicking records and Vinny Testaverde (career year), Marshall Faulk (1300/900 season on the Colts), Jamal Anderson (17 TD), Keyshawn Johnson (11 TD), Eric Moulds' breakout and some others.  This was the league on which I subsequently shot the documentary. 


RJK - Who are the Non-Rotowire industry experts that you love to read the most?  What fantasy expert's game do you respect the most?


CL - I honestly don't read too much. I almost prefer not to know what everyone else thinks because I don't want to bias myself. I read the RotoWire stuff, and if I go off site, it'll be to Baseball HQ and Ron Shandler - he's like the Thomas Jefferson of the fantasy industry. I also read the Yahoo guys - Brad Evans, Brandon Funston, Andy Behrens and Scott Pianowski, but I almost consider them RotoWire guys at this point (and actually Pianowski used to be). As far as game, Jonah Keri is the best at a single-league LABR-type format. He came close to winning it all three seasons he was in it. Otherwise, there are a lot of guys who typically field competitive teams in most formats. 


RJK - What peripheral stats do you pay attention to most when looking for breakouts among hitters?  And pitchers?


CL - For pitchers I look at K rate, ground ball rate and walk rate. They need to have two out of three to be good, but whether they've had it in the past doesn't necessarily mean they won't develop it going forward. (This is an obvious point, but it's easy to lose sight of when you're obsessing over certain indicators.) For the most part pitchers progress and regress unpredictably and so you need to buy ones that were good once, or maybe that have great stuff, but aren't quite polished yet. So you look for raw scouting skills, signature starts, i.e., did a pitcher have a couple nine or 10-strikeout games last year, etc. You also want to look at BABIP and strand rate to see if the pitcher was lucky or unlucky, but you can usually tell from his ERA when compared to his peripherals. Also, because everyone seems to chase strikeout rate, there's often value with a modest 6.0 K/9 with good control and the ability to keep the ball on the ground, e.g., Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettitte.

For hitters, I don't care about walks at all - that's for real life GMs, not fantasy ones. Best case scenario you don't walk and you don't strike out like Albert Pujols or Vlad a few years back. (Now Pujols gets pitched around so much, he can't help but take 100 walks). But Carlos Lee, Aramis Ramirez (though his walk rate jumped, too) will get more HR and RBI because they don't waste fantasy at-bats by walking. I don't like strikeouts because they hurt batting average unless the player is a tremendous natural talent like Alfonso Soriano and can get away with it. But most can't, and when you K 130 times, that means you're 0-for-130 before you put balls-in-play into the equation. A ball in play always has a chance to be a hit. A strikeout never does, so high strikeouts lead to bad batting average unless the player has Soriano-like skills. 

Other leading indicators for hitters: extra-base hits, stolen base success rate and also age. Hitters' typically grow in their 20s until about 27 or 28, and so being 24 and getting at-bats is itself something to consider. 


RJK - You're known for thinking in terms of poker in many situations.  Which two poker analogies do you like to use the most when discussing fantasy strategy? 


CL - I use the concept of pot odds all the time for Survivor Pools because you don't only want to consider the likelihood of winning but also how many people will be left if you do get through. So, for example, if there were 1000 people in your pool, and you knew for a fact that all of them would take the Steelers at home against the Lions, you'd be better off taking the Lions than the Steelers. That's because the pot odds (or payout) if the Steelers won would be 1/1000th of the total pot, i.e., you'd still have a 1 in 1000 chance to win. But if the Lions won outright, you'd win the whole thing. Now, the odds of the Lions beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh are long, but they're nowhere near 1000 to 1. (Probably more like 20 to 1). So the Lions would be a better play there than the Steelers. In poker it's the same thing - whether you should call or raise depends not only on your chances of winning but also what the payout is if you do.

I suppose that applies to all risk/reward assessments in fantasy. It's not just whether a player with superior skills wins the job, it's also the stats he'd produce should he win it. For that reason, it's often better to draft a more skilled player who's the underdog for the job over a less skilled one who's the favorite. That's why we were telling people to take Mike Fontenot over Aaron Miles early in camp even though Miles was the favorite to win the Cubs second-base job.  (Fontenot has subsequently overtaken him, so it's a moot point now). 


RJK - You've hosted a fantasy show on XM radio for a few years now?  When XM and Sirius merged, many of the sports shows were put in limbo.  What is going on with your show and when can we expect it to be back on the air? 


CL - Our deal with Sirius-XM is totally dead. We were lucky to have a great relationship with XM's Senior VP of Talk/News/Sports Programming, but when Sirius came in and cleaned house, we were also done. Sirius management apparently felt fantasy wasn't big enough to deserve its own hourly show. We made our case, and they heard us out, but we might as well have been pitching a show about 15th century Iran. 


RJK - Talk to me about the Genius vs. Agnostic approach on draft day.


CL - In retrospect, I think I might have oversimplified the process with that distinction, but essentially the genius believes he can predict which players will perform better than their median expectations (based on their history, team context and physical skills), while the agnostic has no idea whether a given player will fail to meet or exceed his baseline expectations in a given season. The former therefore targets specific players he predicts will outperform the market, while the latter simply takes which players fall to him at below market prices. The genius is like a bettor - he picks the side. The agnostic is like the bookie - he takes whatever side you don't like plus the vig which comes in the form of the discount on his players. (If the genius overpays for his pet players, then the remaining ones must necessarily be at a net discount). The goal of the genius is to bet like a sharp and not a square. The goal of the agnostic is to be the house.  


RJK - With terrestrial and satellite radio on the ropes what are your thoughts on the future of podcasting?  


CL - Well, Jeff [Erickson's] podcast seems to be doing quite well - I don't know numbers - but it's well received and appreciated by a lot of the former XM listeners who have found it, and I plan to launch my own football-heavy one in July, a little after our NFL magazine is done. We'd of course jump at the chance to host another terrestrial or satellite show, but it's impossible to say if or when that will happen. 


RJK - Who's burned you in the past that you're staying away from?


CL - Frank Thomas (I think he was going through a divorce) and Randy Johnson (2003, No. 4 overall) have screwed up some of my teams in the past - but the former's possibly out of baseball, and the latter isn't exactly the foundation of anyone's roster. I can't think of any player I wouldn't draft under the right circumstances. 


RJK - Who's your fantasy man-crush and why?


CL - I like Alfonso Soriano this year because he's healthy, and he's always been a monster in that case. 


Lightning Round


RJK - What were you doing before you worked for Rotowire?


CL - I was freelance writing for Motor Trend (though another writer - basically doing his work and getting paid for it), writing screenplays which I was not able to sell and playing basketball four times a week. I also coached youth basketball at the local YMCA. That was after finishing law school, passing the NY bar, deciding I didn't want to practice law and moving to California. 


RJK - How long have you written/worked for Rotowire?


CL - I started freelancing for RotoNews in late 1998/early 1999. I was hired full time at Broadband Sports in 2000 (Fraudband to anyone that did business with them) as they had bought RotoNews a couple years earlier. When Broadband went bust in early 2001, we launched RotoWire. 


RJK -Which pick do you want in the first round of a 12 team Roto?


CL - I usually like picking on the ends - either first or 12th because you get two picks in a row, and you don't have to guess who's going to be there on the way back - it's easier to plan. But for Round 1, I like pick three - taking either Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols or Jose Reyes. 


RJK - Give me a young player (not Weiters, too obvious) that'll be picked 10th round or later this year and will be a top 40 player in 2010?  ie. Evan Longoria 2009


CL - Justin Upton. 


RJK - Give me two "post-hype sleepers" you love in '09.


CL - Rickie Weeks and Clay Buchholz.


RJK - Give me two rookies who will disappoint in 2009 necessitating a "post-hype sleeper" campaign in '10-'11.


CL - David Price, Travis Snider. 


RJK - Give me 3 end game OF who will turn a big profit in '09.


CL - Kosuke Fukudome, Ryan Freel, Gary Sheffield (if 6 games qualifies him). 


RJK - Give me 3 current set up men who will have 15+ saves after the closers in front of them lose their job due to ineffectiveness.


CL - Kevin Gregg, Dan Wheeler, Brad Ziegler


RJK - Cubs wins in '09 + games Milton Bradley plays in . . .   +/- 200?


CL - Over


RJK - More saves in '09 -  Marmol or Gregg?


CL - Our money's on Gregg to win the job outright this spring, so definitely Gregg. You can also get him a lot cheaper - at least until the end of the week. 


RJK - How many leagues do you currently play in?  Do you set yourself limits?


CL - I'm in five (AL LABR, mixed Tout Wars, RotoWire Staff, Yahoo Friends and Family, home league). And yes, I turn down many every year. 


RJK - Favorite Baseball announcer?


CL - Vin Scully, hands down. He makes watching a baseball game seem like going on a three-hour vacation. 


RJK - Early impressions of the MLB Network?


CL - I don't watch it. 


RJK - How do you consume the majority of your baseball these days?


CL - Online, and I'll watch games on TV but rarely SportsCenter/Baseball Tonight once the season starts. I'll go to an occasional Dodger game. 


RJK - Favorite baseball card growing up?


CL - Tough call. Maybe the '68 first year Tom Seaver with the cup on it. I bought for $4 at my first card show and foolishly traded it away. By the time my favorite player, Don Mattingly got into the league, the card companies had overproduced them. I loved the '75 set for some reason, too. 


RJK - Favorite baseball player growing up?


CL - Donnie Baseball.


RJK - Do you have a Hold 'em home game?  If so, with who?


CL - I have a poker game which is mixed, but includes occasional Hold 'em rounds, and we play every few months when people can get together. They're some guys I know from out here. One of them is kind of famous for political commentary (The Young Turks).


RJK - Favorite casino?


CL - I like Ceasar's and Mandalay Bay, probably Ceasar's the best. One of its restaurants, Bradley Ogden, has the best burger on the planet, and even though I've touted them numerous times in print and on my XM show, they've never acknowledged it.  Both also have great sports books and good poker rooms.


RJK - Favorite guilty pleasure on your Tivo?

CL - United States of Tara, Big Love, Real Time with Bill Maher, (I Tivo most of the HBO/Showtime shows when they're in season). The Brotherhood (Sopranos meets The Wire - though not quite at that level) is underrated. I also liked in Treatment. 


RJK - Who's in next year's Super Bowl?


CL - Giants/Ravens


RJK - Who's in this year's World Series?


CL - Rays and Cubs


RJK - Lastly, tell me about your documentary "Sundays are for Football".  What was the process of creating it like for you?  What's the next step to getting it picked up?


CL - If I had known in advance what it takes to make a coherent documentary, I never would have committed to doing it. Shooting it on my own, or with a cameraman hired for the day, was a lot of work, but that was nothing compared to logging and editing 50 hours of footage and getting it down to 68 minutes. The actual shooting was fun. The rest was work with intermittent hope and mostly despair. But miraculously it came out very well, and I'm proud of it. I don't know specifically what the next step is, though I follow up on any leads that I get. (Maybe I'll apply to a smaller festival soon - I only applied to big ones like Toronto and Sundance to which I had virtually zero chance of getting accepted). The excerpt I linked to earlier is here