The Encyclopedic Mr. Roto

Updated: July 19, 2012, 6:54 PM ET
By Matthew Berry | ESPN.com

When the phone rang the other night, it was my mom, calling with some bad news.

The Talented Mr. Roto

"Donald J. Sobol passed away last night," she told me.

If the name doesn't immediately grab you, that's OK. It took me a second as well. He wasn't a household name.

But as the author of the "Encyclopedia Brown" child detective series, Donald J. Sobol was a huge part of my childhood. I read the first book when it was first released and, like millions of others, was instantly hooked. I read that first book and the subsequent ones many, many times over the course of my childhood.

I read a lot as a kid. I read and reread all of "The Great Brain" series. I wore out "The Westing Game." And I must have read "The Horse That Played Centerfield" a thousand times. Any nonfiction sports book I could get my hand on, like "Greatest Running Backs of All-Time!" (complete with a profile about how great a guy O.J. Simpson was!), I instantly read and remember to this day.

But first and foremost for me was always young Leroy Brown, "Encyclopedia" to the world at large and, specifically, to the seedy underbelly of Idaville. No one ever got away with a crime in Idaville, you see. No one, ever.

Sure, Chief Brown was a great police chief, brave and honest. But the secret to Idaville's spotless record was Chief Brown's 10-year-old son, who had "read more books than anyone and he never forgot a thing."

Whether it was listening to a case his dad couldn't solve at the dinner table or being hired by one of his fellow schoolmates (at the very reasonable price of 25 cents per day, plus expenses), the sneaker-wearing Encyclopedia Brown solved his cases by paying attention to details others had overlooked.

Long, long before Harry Potter ever showed up, Sobol gave a nerdy kid powers over those who were bigger, stronger and more nefarious than him. But never smarter. And never beaten up, either, thanks to his best friend and sidekick, Sally Kimball, "the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete." Sally was the only one who could beat up Encyclopedia's frequent nemesis, Bugs Meany, leader of the local gang of toughs, "The Tigers."

Donald J. Sobol
Courtesy Penguin PublishingDonald J. Sobol, the mastermind behind the genius of Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown.

Sobol created a world that was both simple and intricate. The crimes were never that serious, but the attention to detail was. And while Encyclopedia never ages, Sobol was ahead of his time in creating a strong female character. As Donald's son, John Sobol, told The Associated Press for their obituary of his father, "That was groundbreaking back in 1963, when the series was first published."

Maybe it was because I grew up in a simpler time, with no Internet, iPhones or even many cable TV channels to distract me. Maybe it was because I was kind of a brainy kid who really loved reading. We moved around a lot (I lived in five different cities by the time I was 12), so maybe it was because books were always there for me when I was the new kid. Whatever the reason, I loved those books.

The New York Times obituary tells us that the books were rejected by two dozen publishers before finding a home and since then have been translated into 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. It mentions that, in 1976, Sobol won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the series. It discusses Sobol's unique format for a mystery series: Each book has 10 stories, they are all stand-alone books (so a child can read them in any order) and the answer to "whodunit?" isn't in the story, as Sobol wanted children to be challenged and try to figure it out for themselves. If they couldn't, they could always flip to the back for the answer. (To be honest, I flipped more often than not.) Multiple online obits mention that next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Encyclopedia Brown series. And in October, Sobol's final book, "Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme," will be published by Penguin. They mention all that and more, the way good obituaries about noteworthy people should.

But none of them mention that Sobol brought me to a different world as a child. That he opened my mind and did so by challenging me and making me think. That he taught me the importance of paying attention, that brains can overcome brawn, that a sense of wonderment is vital and to never just blindly accept what you are told. How crucial it is to seek out your own truth, that there is serious power in a question and anything is possible if you put your mind to it, even if you are a gawky 10-year-old in sneakers.

None of them mention how they taught me to love mystery. And how the books brought my mother and I closer together. My mom would also read the books and we'd talk about them, my parents would listen to me babble on about whatever EB book I was in the middle of. It's a tradition that continues to this day. Whether it's the newest Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais or any number of other authors, my mom and I will discuss whatever mystery we're both reading. And none of them mention the power of those books that, as a 42-year-old man, made me sad to have lost a man I had never met and hadn't read in close to 30 years.

But after reminiscing with my mom on the phone, I smiled.

Because I realized that in a few years I'll be able to share the books with my daughters, and with Encyclopedia's help, teach them what Sobol taught me. And that's gonna be fun as hell.

As you might imagine, I'm in a mystery sort of mood. So, as a homage to my favorite childhood author, I will tell you that one thing I've written above is completely and totally false. An Encyclopedia Brown mystery for you. See if you can figure it out. And of course, if you can't, the answer is at the end of the column.

And while you're thinking about that, I've put on my sleuthing hat. With William Cohen of ESPN Stats and Information as my Sally Kimball and ESPN Fantasy deputy editor Pierre Becquey in the role of Chief Brown, I'm going to tackle five mysteries currently plaguing fantasy owners.

The case of the disappearing act

They mystery is no longer "Why is R.A. Dickey good?" Now it's turned into "Why isn't he good anymore?" Dickey has now allowed five earned runs in back-to-back games, and in three of his past four going into today's start versus the Nationals. Should he be sold now while he still has value? Or is it just a blip and he's getting back to the guy who threw eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts versus the Dodgers?

Great question. As an ardent Dickey guy all season, this little stretch has me worried, too. In his first 14 starts, Dickey was R.A. Diculous; a K/9 over 9, walking fewer than two per nine and inducing ground balls at a 54 percent rate.

Here's what was different in his past four starts. First of all, his location has suffered. Over the first 14 starts, Dickey located just 35 percent of his total pitches in the upper third of the zone. In the last four? That number has ballooned to 51 percent of pitches.

Now take a look at this heat map that I totally drew myself. It's where at-bats have been ending for Dickey in his past four starts compared to his first 14. The difference is small but you can see that at-bats are ending more consistently up in the zone.

[+] EnlargeRA Dickey
ESPN Stats & InformationR.A. Dickey's pitches as seen through the eye of the Hubble Space Telescope. (Click above to enlarge).

Basically, this is leading to much more hard contact and only a 42 percent ground-ball rate. Most important perhaps is that hitters are ending their at-bats more often on pitches in the zone, which leads to better contact.

One other factor is that, in his most recent start in Atlanta, the average humidity was 81 percent and did reach 100 percent that day, something that doesn't help knuckleball command.

The final factor is, well, he's gotten a bit unlucky. Even if you want to say he was getting somewhat lucky in the first 14 starts (BABIP of .249), his BABIP shouldn't skyrocket to .342 like it has. Some of that is due to the struggles with location, but it's just a few starts; believe in the larger sample size. And even over these four starts, Dickey still had 24 strikeouts and just seven walks and allowed only one home run. He'll be fine and I'd buy low if an owner is panicking.

The case of the classic misdirection

Like any good mystery writer, Sobol often included "red herrings" to distract from the actual clues you needed to be paying attention to. And while I'm not saying Mike Trout's surge or Albert Pujols' early-season struggles are red herrings, they have done a nice job of obscuring just what Mark Trumbo is doing.

He has six home runs in his past nine games. He's the 12th-best player overall on our player rater. He's currently on pace for 46 home runs, 114 RBIs and a .309 average. The mystery is, can he keep this up? Is he now elite? Where does he rank among first basemen the rest of the year?

Well, let's start with the power. That's the easiest, and it's definitely legit. Check this graph out: His 11 "no-doubter" HRs this season (as classified by ESPN Home Run Tracker) leads the majors.

Most no-doubt home runs this season
Mark Trumbo, 11
Adam Dunn, 10
Josh Hamilton, 9
Jose Bautista, 9
Curtis Granderson, 8

Nice list to be on, eh? Thirty-six home runs in Triple-A in 2010 before crushing 29 in his rookie season last year, Trumbo is 26 years old and entering what is usually considered the prime years for power production.

And here's why, while I think the 46 home run pace is high, it's definitely within the realm of possibility. Trumbo's home run per fly ball rate is 26.5 percent this season. Definitely high, but not in a crazy no-way-that-continues way. He's right in line with other major league HR/FB leaders of the past five seasons.

Home run per fly ball leaders, past five seasons:
2011 Giancarlo Stanton, 24.8 percent
2010 Joey Votto, 25.0 percent
2009 Mark Reynolds, 26.0 percent
2008 Ryan Howard, 31.8 percent
2007 Jack Cust, 31.7 percent

But here's the thing: Trumbo doesn't even lead MLB in HR/FB rate. In fact, Dunn, Hamilton, Granderson and Robinson Cano are all sporting higher HR/FB rates this year.

Here's a list of first basemen I'd rather have than Trumbo the rest of this year: Miguel Cabrera. Prince Fielder. Albert Pujols.

Seriously, that's it. Votto would have been up there before the injury, and if I needed average and RBIs more than home runs, I'd still say Adrian Gonzalez. But for power, which is really what you want from your first baseman, it's Trumbo. As I've studied him more, I've moved him up significantly from where I ranked him when we did the top 250 reranks.

I can even make an argument for him over Fielder and Pujols, as it's pretty close, in my mind. Edwin Encarnacion is very close as well, but there's still an injury risk with him. Trumbo's a top-four fantasy first baseman and in the same class as these guys, and while people know he's been good, I don't think they realize how good … there may be an opportunity here for you to pull off a caper of your own.

The case of Dr. Alex and Mr. Rios

Let's play the blind résumé game. Here are two players over the past two seasons:

Player A: 127 runs scored, 30 HR, 115 RBIs, 35 SB, .238 average in 1,119 at bats.
Player B: 180 runs scored, 36 HR, 167 RBIs, 66 SB, .288 average in 1,202 at bats.

Even Bugs Meany knows you want Player B. So who is it?

Well, "Player A" is Alex Rios in the 2009 and 2011 seasons. "Player B" is Rios in 2008 and 2010. It can't really be an even/odd year thing, can it? I don't think so, but there's no denying how good Rios has been again in 2012: hitting .396 in July, .319 on the season, on pace for a 23/25 year with over 90 runs and 90 RBIs. He's a top-10 outfielder on our Player Rater.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rios
ESPN Stats & InformationAlex Rios' home run Sudoku reveals that if you make a mistake to him this year, he's gonna make you pay. (Click above to enlarge).
So if it's not an odd year/even year thing, what is it? Well, it seems like Rios was much more pull happy last season. In 2011, 62 percent of his hits went to left field, and only 10 percent to right. This season, it's 40 percent to left field and 22 percent to right. This may well be why Rios has excelled at hitting pitches on the outer half of the plate this season (.341 batting average on them versus .155 last season). So there's the batting average component. But what about the power?

To me, the answer is elementary! (Is that expression taken?) Here's another chart that I totally drew. Putting the little numbers in the boxes is what really takes the time. Such a pain! But it shows how Rios has done a much better job of capitalizing on mistake pitches. From 2009 to 2011, he had just seven home runs on pitches right down the middle. He already has six home runs on pitches in that location this year, and all of them have come inside the strike zone.

The case of quantity versus quality

Among the screams you heard when Votto went down with an injury was a high-pitched squeal by me. I have him in a 10-team ESPN league that I'm currently holding second place in, just out of first (CC @humblebrag). Given that ESPN standard leagues have only one DL slot and only three bench slots, it starts to get tricky. Especially with guys such as Troy Tulowitzki and Bautista and Stanton also taking up DL slots. Now, it's probably not likely you have all those guys, but in an auction format, it could happen. Or with trades. Or maybe you play in a league in which you don't have the DL slot and you need the bench slots for streaming pitchers.

One way or the other, the mystery before us is, with Votto now on the shelf for, let's say, four weeks, should you actually consider dropping him?

Let's say for argument's sake that he misses four entire weeks and returns to the Reds on Aug. 14. The Reds will have 47 games remaining in the season. Before Votto got hurt, he played 77 of the Reds' 78 games. Let's also assume that since he'll be returning from injury, he won't play every day, but instead 90 percent of the Reds' remaining games. That makes it 42 games left in the season for Votto.

Now what can he do in those 42 games? He gets about 3.6 at-bats per game, so that's 151 at-bats. Going by his career rates, we'd expect him to hit about eight home runs with 27 RBIs and 25 runs scored. We'll assume that since he was hurt sliding into a base that he'll curtail the stolen base attempts and maybe steal one bag the rest of the way. His batting average was .342 this season, fueled by a .398 BABIP. If he comes close to maintaining his strikeout and walk rates, and his BABIP returns to his career level of roughly .360 or so, he would hit .318, which is just slightly better than his career clip of .316.

So let's say Votto's projections for the rest of the season are .318, eight home runs, 27 RBIs, 25 runs and a steal in 151 at-bats. I'm not dropping him in a head-to-head weekly league and I'm not dropping him if I have a DL slot open, obviously. But if I needed a roster spot or I was in a league with no bench spots, yeah, I'd consider dropping him. The average will probably be tough to find, but in most leagues I believe you will be able to find better stats than eight home runs and 27 RBIs in two months. It all depends on the free agents available in your league and your roster flexibility, but it's not unthinkable, and it's why we took Votto off the undroppable list in head-to-head leagues.

The case of the sinister southpaw

Two first names? Usually a crowd pleaser. But in the case of Jon Lester, nothing could save this season. Will he ever turn it around or has Lester moved below "The Wandy Line" and past "Lincecum Limbo" to be droppable? Let's investigate.

Issue 1 is his strikeout rate going the wrong way. Since 2009, it's gone from elite to mediocre.

Jon Lester strikeout rate since 2009

2009 26.7 percent (ranked fourth in majors)
2010 26.1 percent (first)
2011 22.8 percent (18th)
2012 19.6 percent (53rd*)
* Out of 99 qualified starting pitchers

Issue 2: His curve isn't working, either. Opponents are hitting .327 against his hook this year, the seventh-worst mark among starting pitchers (with a 33.3 percent strikeout rate), compared to .200 last year (34 percent) and .136 (47.4 percent) the year before.

Issue 3: Lester, it appears, has lost the ability to pitch hard and inside on right-handed batters. Looking at his fastball and cutters against right-handed batters, he's generating fewer swing-and-misses with such pitches, as his rate has dropped from 22.7 percent to 22.0 percent to 16.4 percent since 2010.

Dude. Right-handed hitters are batting .351 against Lester this season. I hate to say it, but yeah, in 10-team nonkeeper leagues? Drop Lester.

And pick up an Encyclopedia Brown book for you or someone you love.

Answer to the Mystery of the TMR's fib

In the intro, I said I had first read the book when it was first released. And later, Donald Sobol's son mentions that the book was released in 1963. I then mention that I am 42 years old, which means I was born in either 1969 or 1970 (Dec. 29, 1969, to be exact). There's no way I could have read the book in 1963; I wasn't even born! I didn't start reading Encyclopedia Brown until the late '70s.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- didn't really draw those heat maps. Another case closed! Berry is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off.

• Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
• Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
• Best-selling author of "Fantasy Life"