Alliteration aside, the upcoming 60-game sprint to the postseason poses a unique set of circumstances for those participating in fantasy baseball. Amidst all the reports from team beat writers on how each one will handle its starting staff, past practice may allow savvy owners who prefer to stream how to maximize early season wrinkles to their advantage.
Terms such as piggybacking, tandem starts, openers and bulk innings will bubble to the surface once the season ensues. In an effort to stay ahead of the competition, it’s time to explore the ramifications of starting pitchers ramping up in the spring, then throwing side sessions the last three months leading up to preparing for the truncated season on tap.
Dating back to a 2011 presentation at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytic Conference, Greg Rubin presented how teams could reduce salary and pitching efficiency using tandem starters rather than the traditional five man rotation. This translates to a roster of shared starting pitcher roles with each working three-to-four innings minimizing exposure to a lineup then turning the game over to the high leverage relievers to close them out. It would require two closers on a roster to balance workloads.
Teams may not go to this extreme in 2020, however this premise could litter the landscape in the first two weeks of the season managing pitch counts and innings for starting pitchers for multiple franchises. Using tandem arms, for example Milwaukee could start Adrian Houser then bring in Freddy Garcia covering the first six innings of a game then turning it over to the bullpen to close it out.
Necessity forced the Rays into deploying the opener strategy in 2018 with great success. Tampa Bay used the opener strategy 55 times that season, generally exposing the reliever as a starter to face three-to-nine batters. As a franchise, the Rays finished the year with an American League best 3.61 ERA in the first inning. They went 46 - 38 with a traditional starting pitcher and 44 - 34 with the openers. Starters on the Rays worked three innings or fewer in 71 games. Last year, New York tread water with Chad Green making 15 appearances as an opener while three starting pitchers spent time on the injured list in 2019. Green logged 19.1 innings over these outings with a 3.72 ERA, 32:8 K:BB and 1.34 WHIP. However, the Yankees won 11 of 15 contests using a bridge to their high leverage bullpen, a team strength.
Analytics and effectiveness of starting pitchers continue to shed light on limiting times through the order exposure for success. With an every game counts mentality in a 60-game sprint, this could promote a shift in philosophy along with rosters expanding to 30 at the onset of the season before reducing to 28 then the final 26 until the playoffs. Going over the last three seasons, here’s how pitchers fared in the times through the order courtesy of research on Baseball-Reference’s Play Index:
First time through the order, Starting Pitchers:
2017 - 4.30 ERA, 1.295 WHIP, 2.83 K/BB and .731 OPS allowed
2018 - 4.05 ERA, 1.237 WHIP, 3.02 K/BB, .700 OPS allowed
2019 - 4.41 ERA, 1.272 WHIP, 3.07 K/BB, .730 OPS allowed
Second time through the order, Starting Pitchers:
2017 - 4.66 ERA, 1.390 WHIP, 2.47 K/BB, .779 OPS allowed
2018 - 4.21 ERA, 1.306 WHIP, 2.68 K/BB, .731 OPS allowed
2019 - 4.59 ERA, 1.349 WHIP, 2.81 K/BB, .776 OPS allowed
Third time through the order, Starting Pitchers:
2017 - 4.70 ERA, 1.438 WHIP, 2.22 K/BB, .801 OPS allowed
2018 - 4.54 ERA, 1.396 WHIP, 2.30 K/BB, .784 OPS allowed
2019 - 4.88 ERA, 1.401 WHIP, 2.67 K/BB, .803 OPS allowed
Increased traffic on the bases the third time through the lineup leads to more runs allowed and a reduced chance to win. Teams able to deploy multiple inning arms, especially after a starter leaves a contest could really thrive in the upcoming season. Last season also marked a tremendous spike in reliever innings almost 1,000 innings more than in 2018 while starting pitchers on average lasted 5.18 innings with a league average of a 4.54 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 2.89 K/BB ratio.
So what does this mean for 2020? For starters, learning the terms and adjusting to targeting late round second starters rather than mining save stashes or fifth starters on teams projected to win their division in an effort to stream for wins. It will require work, but if the opener strategy taught DFS players anything, there’s value in being the second pitcher on winning teams. In 2018, Kyle Yarbrough went 16-6 making only six starts among his 38 appearances during his 147-plus innings. Allowing an opener to face opponents lineups, Yarbrough entered the game fresh and benefited from his team’s run support fueling his win total. This needs to be accounted for in the upcoming season. Fantasy players want the second pitcher in any tandem or piggyback situation since the starter will not accrue a win working the first two-to-four innings as many teams suggest will be their plan opening the year.
As of this writing, Atlanta, St. Louis, the Dodgers, the Yankees, San Francisco and Colorado already announced they plan to limit their starting pitchers at the onset of the season with varying plans. This will be covered in more detail next week by league. However, knowing what the terms mean may provide valuable insight for fantasy purposes, so here goes:
Made famous by Tampa Bay, an opener faces the top of the lineup and works up to three innings before ceding to the “bulk” pitcher taking over. Even if the team leads when the opener departs, the bulk pitcher benefits if he pitches effectively garnering wins as evidenced in Yarbrough’s strong win-loss record in 2018.
Teams with depth at starting pitcher can use this system with aplomb using a starting pitcher on a pitch count or innings cap then following up with another starter bridging the gap to high leverage. Once again referencing the presentation by Rubin above, he surmised by limiting how many times a pitcher faces a lineup, a team can reduce runs scored while keeping its bullpen fresher. For the visual learners, a snapshot from the research:
Further down the research, it surmised teams could save almost 100 runs per season in this model using tandem pitchers with efficacy. Things will not always go to plan, but knowing who teams like Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York will use after its starting pitchers depart could yield very valuable wins for fantasy owners. Whatever pitcher on a given day will work after the starter as the tandem arm or piggyback starter could be more alluring in the first two weeks of the season making Kyle Wright working after Mike Soroka more valuable if he records the win. Protecting ratios will be tantamount to success as well so selling out for wins may not be for the risk averse. However, pitchers like Touki Toussaint , Freddy Peralta , Corbin Burnes , Jonathan Loaisiga , Dustin May and Ross Stripling could be tremendous late round targets in upcoming redraft leagues. Why stream starters when one can mine value in strikeouts and wins with arms like the ones listed.
According to statistics from The Ringer, in 2018, the average starting pitcher faced 23 hitters a game (not including the Rays starters). Last year, this number fell to 22 using the total batters faced on Fangraphs divided by games started. This roughly equates to two and a half times through the batting order. Deploying an opener limits the amount of time a starter faces the heart of the batting order. It closes the gap between maximizing innings and allows teams to determine which hitters they expose their pitcher working after the opener face. Pairing starters also speaks to limiting exposure to lineups which may yield more strikeouts making it difficult for hitters as the season starts with a three week window to get game ready. Especially with intrasquad scrimmages leading up to three exhibition games before Opening Day on July 23rd given no COVID-19 setbacks. For now, invest in learning how teams will utilize their added arm depth for 2020 and look for more videos like this one:
#Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake says Gerrit Cole threw three innings today, and Adam Ottavino threw two. Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Luke Voit were the hitters. Here's the video released by the @Yankees of Cole throwing in the Bronx. pic.twitter.com/eU5HzWr4KZ— Marly Rivera (@MarlyRiveraESPN) July 2, 2020
Be sure to stay with Fantasy Alarm across all fantasy formats to remain ahead of the competition and stop back on Monday for the American League outlook on team pitching strategies along with a shift to the National League on Tuesday. Until then, be well and stay safe this holiday weekend.