No matter what the format of your fantasy baseball league, in nearly every set up half of the points/values your team accumulates will develop as a result of the pitching staff you assemble at the draft or auction and then adjust via trades, free-agent pickups, or waiver wire claims during the season. Certainly, not all your pitching stats will come via the starting pitchers on your roster, as you will undoubtedly have some relievers on your staff. While there are methods to employ mostly middle relievers and closers as the backbone of your pitching roster, most fantasy players tend to employ more starters than relief specialists when compiling arms for their rosters.
In many league formats, however, there are more hitters employed in the active roster than pitchers, either starters, relievers, or simply pitchers. Unless your league rules forbid it, though, you are free to fill your bench with arms as opposed to bats, to take advantage of the simple fact that pitchers do not take the field every game, or even most games in a week. The sad state of affairs is an ace is unlikely to contribute more than three times every two weeks of the season. Thus, when populating your rotation, it is important to focus on a handful of guiding principles.
REAL-LIFE FACTORS IN FANTASY BASEBALL
First, in these days of restricted pitch counts and injury concerns (real or imagined, the jury is out on that question), your top starting pitchers (SPs) must be capable of providing significant innings pitched. Not only providing high inning counts, though, as a lot of poor performances will tank your counting (wins/quality starts, strikeouts, and other more esoteric pitching stats used in deeper leagues or points leagues, such as walks, shutouts, home runs allowed, etc.) and ratio stats (primarily ERA and WHIP, but also K/9, BB/9, etc.) quickly and dramatically. The advent of six-man rotations and the use of the opener pitcher (followed by a “headliner”) has interfered with the traditional role of the SP on a team’s rotation, as well, and drastically reduced the counting stats that measure wins and quality starts (QS). So, seek out durable starters that will keep runners off the bases and not touching home plate, and who pitch for teams that have not adopted the opener strategy as a general technique. A suggestion that may carry water is to find a pair of ace-quality SPs early in your draft or auction process. Taking an SP in the first two rounds has been frowned up strongly as a draft strategy, at least until recent times. In these days of limited options to the roster, a pitcher who will provide 200 quality IP, let alone a pair of them, that notion of only focusing on hitters in the first rounds of your draft is losing its cachet.
Also, if you limit your pitching staff to only those who start in your active roster, you will be limiting your flexibility to take advantage of two-start weeks or simply good to great matchups during the season. A key component to compiling your roster is to locate and acquire those players who provide the most “bang for the buck” and with the pitching portion of your team providing half of the stats your team will utilize in competing against the other teams, having a strong pitching staff will go a long way toward cementing your statistical base throughout the season.
As noted above, pitchers will provide both ratio and counting stats. Concerning one important counting statistic, namely strikeouts, it is helpful to have arms on your staff that are going to be on the mound for a significant number of innings, as the more batters faced, the better the chance that a third strike will be tallied by the hurler. Naturally, you will need to target pitchers that are effective at missing bats for this potentiality to be realized, but that is generally evident by studying a ratio stat, the pitcher’s K/9 rate (strikeouts per nine innings rate).
The other counting stats in a typical fantasy scheme have to do with victories, quality starts (QS), and in certain formats, losses (see points leagues discussed below). Wins have ever been an ephemeral thing for fantasy owners to pursue, unfortunately, which led to the suggestion that QS could serve as a fairer, more dependable valuation tool for SPs. Alas, with the trend toward limited pitch counts, many starters come an out or a few outs short of accumulating the necessary six IP to even be eligible for the stat to matter. If you want a measuring stick for wins and/or QS, avoid any but the aces on teams that reside in the basement of the league standings and instead target SPs on winning teams, and look to those teams that score a plethora of runs.
Ratio statistics, notably ERA and WHIP, are no guarantees to follow through from season to season. Any pitcher can see his ratios take a major hit (or drop into the other end of the pool, and become extraordinarily attractive) in any particular season. That being said, it is helpful to use three-year averaging to determine which pitchers are good at limiting baserunners by hit or walk, and keeping those hitters who do reach base, from coming around to tap the plate. Seek out those SPs who consistently provide sub-3.50 ERAs and/or sub-1.25 WHIPs, or those who are demonstrating a trend to pushing those ratios down as their experience grows in the pitching ranks.
Fantasy leagues, it is well known, are not cookie-cutter schemes by any means. The formats are many and varied and limited only by the league platform’s stat categories. The main formats fall into several groupings, however, which are:
Within those formats, leagues can further be differentiated by employing keeper or dynasty formats, auction player selection as opposed to snake (or other configurations, such as straight, third round reversal, etc.) drafts, or one-and-done (where an oversized roster is drafted and no in-season pickups are allowed). Let us examine the three main formats noted above, and discuss some variations on the drafting procedures available to fantasy players.
It is essential that you know your league’s rules/constitution/bylaws inside out before your draft takes place. Knowing if you will have to arrange for a minimum number of starts or innings over the season or per scoring period, or if you have a maximum limit on those particular stats, for example, can be a determining factor in who you target for your roster. Learn the idiosyncrasies of your league setup, and you may gain an advantage over your fellow owners, or at the least, not hamstring your efforts to compete.
Roto leagues generally have 4 (the original format) or more stat categories that collect value for a team. Some of those will apply only to relievers (saves, holds, etc.) but the bulk of the stat categories apply to all pitchers. In a roto format, your goal should be to finish among the top three in each stat category to have a chance to take the title. Depending on how large the league is, you may want to wait on filling your rotation. A 10-team league will have more pitching available in the later rounds than a 12 or 14 team league. A suggestion to consider, however, is that you snag an ace in the early rounds (first maybe, certainly by the third round) and also give thought to picking up your SP2 early on, too. With the limited number of SPs that approach 200 IP in a season these days, you want to snap up a couple of durable and dependable arms to anchor your rotation. In a snake or straight draft, look to see how your competition is dealing with their pitching. If the other owners are being patient about adding arms to their rosters, then you can be more patient with the rest of the pitching staff acquisition, too; do not figure on picking up a whole slew of late-round gems, though, or your staff’s counting and ratio stats will suffer.
In points leagues, your pitchers will provide value based upon the particular counting stats they contribute throughout the season or a different assigned scoring period (weekly is the tendency in head-to-head leagues). Wins, QS, strikeouts, and IP will generally add positive value while losses, earned runs, and walks will be negative events. Thus, drafting aces on winning teams who miss a lot of bats are prized and will be a priority to compete. Do not hesitate to take a top-tier SP early on, and taking a pair of aces can assist in building a strong point base from the opening week onward. Looking to pitchers’ ratios is not to be discounted, either, as the negative point-producing events, such as earned runs allowed and walks, are part and parcel of the ERA and WHIP a pitcher produces throughout the season. Although IP is important, innings pitched by your staff that consistently result in baserunners will ultimately be harmful to your efforts to seek the league title.
Head-to-head leagues work on a weekly scoring period system, and thus your initial rotation will need to be adjusted as the season progresses due to the desire to populate your team’s weekly rotation with productive two-start pitchers. To enter the draft figuring that you can constantly juggle the staff, however, is a fool’s errand. As with the other league formats, you will want to draft a pair or three of strong performing arms, preferably aces that you will use every week, and then benefit every other or third week when they get the two-start bonus. Grabbing three top pitchers in the first 6 rounds is one technique that is favored when putting together an H2H team. Whether the league works on a point basis or category won basis, having a steady productive base that you can work around a week in, week out will make your efforts that much easier. If you can draft a strong base for your pitching staff, then you can take some chances later in the draft with rising youngsters or SPs that are coming back from an injury that you get the sense are ready to regain their prior form.
If you take anything away from the three league format discussions, it is to target some aces early in the draft. Do not believe that you can wait on pitching, and generate sufficient roto or point stats to compete for the league title. Populating your rotation with good to mediocre arms will result in middle-of-the-pack finishes, at best. Target those high inning arms that have excellent ratios and you will be able to contend. Find those high strikeout hurlers that also provide ratio value and you will put forth a staff that will allow your team to profile among the top teams in your league, at least on the pitching side of things.
Once you have your anchors for the pitching staff, then you have some alternatives available in the manner you fill out your rotation. If you believe you can target young arms ready to develop, those who “fly under the radar” among your league mates, then you may be able to concentrate on hitters for those middle rounds of the draft. If you are less confident about your talent scout tendencies, then a route to pursue is to alternate a pitcher every two to three rounds, concentrating as always on those who will see significant inning work while racking up league average (or better, preferably) strikeout rates and below league average ERA and WHIP stats (the 3.50 or less ERA and 1.25 or below WHIP SPs are those to target). To locate those SPs, find a source of projections you trust (Fantasy Alarm, hint, hint) and do not ignore the three-season averages for established pitchers.
Every draft has its rhythms and frequencies. The key to a successful draft is to be able to adapt, improvise and overcome as the action progresses. Knowing the scope of players available on the draft board, preparing before the draft by studying the potential breakout stars, and understanding what the veterans offer will allow you to make wise selections throughout the entire draft. Knowledge of the available players, especially in keeper situations, will pay great dividends for your fantasy baseball endeavors and will avoid the panicked, hasty selection of a pitcher you will rue adding to your team.
Good luck and godspeed in all your fantasy efforts.