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A Different Strategy on Fantasy Baseball Pitching
Reggie Yinger | Sunday March 10th, 2013
Jason Motte recorded 42 saves and 10.75 K/9 in 2012. (US Presswire)
Jason Motte recorded 42 saves and 10.75 K/9 in 2012. (US Presswire)
As the traditional five-by five rotisserie or head-to-head approach to fantasy baseball begins to change, and leagues and owners begin considering categories that more closely align with true production, it may be time to consider changes to your draft strategy, particularly as it comes to pitching.

The categories that seem to be most effected are on-base percentage, slugging, and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OBP/SLG/OPS) versus batting average or quality starts, innings pitched, and strikeouts per nine innings (QS/IP/K/9) versus pitching wins and strikeouts.

In a standard six-by-six league where the categories are QS, IP, saves (SV), ERA, walks plus hits per innings pitched, (WHIP) and K/9, the conventional wisdom is that replacing wins with quality starts and innings pitched would add more categories to tilt the slate towards starting pitching and thus further decreasing the value the closer who used to contribute 1/5 of the total through saves and now only contributes 1/6. 

However, I would encourage owners to consider that now fully half of the categories on this league setup are averages based on nine full innings, moving the count there from 2/5 to 3/6.  What does that mean?  I would argue that this actually tilts the table more towards relievers than away. It may be worth your while to consider skipping starting pitching altogether and focusing on a staff of relievers in this particular set up.

Here's why:

The Pro's
  • Starting pitching is at best unreliable. Yes, you have a few studs like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw at the top, but four-to-five picks down the starter pool becomes a proverbial "crapshoot" with injuries, inconsistency and an inability to project whether a pitcher will or won't duplicate previous success or lack thereof this year.
  • Closers and set-up relievers are at least somewhat more reliable than starting pitchers, and given that if they aren't, they will likely lose that role to someone else who is getting the job done. Teams are much more quick to replace a struggling closer than to replace their front end starters (since in fantasy, if you are drafting a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, you are likely in trouble anyway - we'll remove that from the argument).
  • If a reliever has a bad day, he won't be around long. No more 4.0 IP, 6 ER, 10 runners (2.50 WHIP) lines on your slate anymore. A closer gets shelled and the game is over. He gets shelled often, he doesn't close games anymore. Yes the 2/3 IP, 3 ER, 3 runners (4.50 WHIP) line isn't good either, but much easier to recover from longer term and even in a weekly head-to-head league.
  • You can typically draft closers "cheaper" than you can draft starting pitchers given that most teams need more of them and most of your fellow owners are putting a premium on them. Based on the ADP table below, you can wait about five more rounds on average to get your closers than your starters, thus greatly improving your "spending" on hitting.
  • You don't need to have a pitching staff consisting of just closers to successfully implement a roster of relievers strategy. Many teams have top quality set-up men whose statistics (short of saves) match closely with their ninth inning counterparts and won't hurt you in the three "average based" pitching categories. Since you almost certainly have more closers than any other owner, the fact that set-up men don't provide saves won't hurt you, and in some cases, your set-up men can provide an innings pitched boost if they work on a regular basis.
For purposes of our argument, we'll take the Top 10 starting pitchers and Top 10 relievers based on average draft position (ADP) from Mock Draft Central for comparison. Arguments can be made on who does and does not belong on the list, but the changes to the list won't change the outcome.

Google Visualization API Sample
Starting Pitcher ADP Relievers ADP
Clayton Kershaw 18 Craig Kimbrel 30
Justin Verlander 23 Jason Motte 77
Stephen Strasburg 33 Jonathan Papelbon 81
Cliff Lee 39 Fernando Rodney 92
David Price 42 John Axford 109
Felix Hernandez 49 Joe Nathan 112
Cole Hamels 50 Mariano Rivera 117
Jered Weaver 55 J.J. Putz 118
Yu Darvish 60 Sergio Romo 122
Matt Cain 65 Tom Wilhemsen 124

Based on 2013 combined projections from CBS and ESPN Fantasy Sports, here's how the above drafted players stack up in those three critical categories (ERA, WHIP, K/9):

Google Visualization API Sample
Starting Pitcher ERA WHIP K/9 Relievers ERA WHIP K/9
Clayton Kershaw 2.57 1.04 9.30 Craig Kimbrel 1.83 0.85 15.76
Justin Verlander 2.83 1.09 9.06 Jason Motte 2.77 1.03 10.12
Stephen Strasburg 3.05 1.11 10.86 Jonathan Papelbon 2.83 1.09 11.30
Cliff Lee 3.06 1.06 8.59 Fernando Rodney 2.52 1.08 8.67
David Price 2.97 1.14 8.94 John Axford 3.24 1.30 11.60
Felix Hernandez 3.12 1.12 8.54 Joe Nathan 3.00 1.07 10.22
Cole Hamels 3.08 1.11 8.82 Mariano Rivera 2.33 0.99 8.07
Jered Weaver 3.08 1.10 7.50 J.J. Putz 2.67 1.03 10.51
Yu Darvish 3.33 1.12 7.62 Sergio Romo 2.35 0.94 11.11
Matt Cain 2.91 1.11 8.72 Tom Wilhemsen 3.41 1.23 8.49
Average 3.00 1.10 8.72 Average 2.69 1.06 10.58
The Top 10 relievers outpace the Top 10 starters in all three categories, and the disparity continues as owners move to the second and third tiers of ten for each. Clearly no owner can hope to get the Top 10 of either category, but the odds of getting three-to-four of the Top 10 closers with a strategy that targets them is much better than the odds of securing three-to-four of the Top 10 SP unless you are willing to neglect hitting altogether.

So, the strategy is to stock up entirely on effective closers and the top set-up men to fill your pitching roster. If you can complete your team with just closers, that is ideal, but pursuing set-up men in a "closer by committee" approach can help complete a roster if you can't get all closers.

The Con's
  • No strategy is without its drawbacks. Knowing that you are capitulating on 2 of 12 categories entirely can be a hard pill to swallow in a rotisserie or head-to-head leagues.
  • There are only 30 closers in baseball and the other owners in your league are going to want some of them too. Whereas, starting pitching abounds with at least 150 players to choose from across the major leagues, so scarcity will be a problem at some point that you have to factor in.
  • You can also bet that when you take your fourth or fifth closer, your fellow owners are going to at a minimum know they need to get their closer before they are gone, and potentially figure out your strategy entirely and attempt to block your attempt at cornering the market. So with the exception of Craig Kimbrel, the run on closers won't start until round 8 or 9, or potentially as late as 12 or 13 in 10-team leagues.
  • To execute this strategy, you will have to start moving earlier than that. As mentioned above, closers can be a "flavor of the month", so in leagues where transactions are hard to come by, replacing ousted closers can be problematic (Thus more credence to stocking up on set-up men as backup options).
The Strategy

As mentioned earlier, you can wait a little longer on pitching and thus improve your hitting by going after relievers, however, you cannot wait until the normal draft spot for relievers. Starting to attack closers in rounds five or six may make sense (earlier if you want Craig Kimbrel). Many owners will think you are a little nuts and overvaluing the closers until you get to about three or four of them around rounds 10 and 11, when they are thinking of starting to add their closer. When they make the run, it will be critical you continue to go after closers every round until they are all gone so that you end up with a minimum of six but hopefully seven or more. 

Your monopoly on closers may in fact cause some fantasy managers to take the opposite approach and tank relievers altogether and figure they will dump saves for the other five categories. If so, this will only help your approach, making more relievers available, and having other teams dip into the fourth and fifth starting pitchers pool to complete their rosters. When the closers are gone, presuming holds are not a category in your league, you can wait to fill out the rest of your pitching spots until late, as it is unlikely that anyone will be going after set-up men in any of the middle rounds, if at all. This should leave the remaining rounds for you to once again focus on hitting while waiting to complete your pitching roster near the end of the draft, while the rest of the owners shop for third and fourth starters in the same rounds.

One alternative, particularly for those in weekly head-to-head leagues, for those who either must have starters or those not willing to completely sacrifice IP and QS, is to not finish with set-up men, but instead draft starting pitchers into your final spots and look to stream starting pitchers based on match-ups, ballparks, pitchers who are hot, etc. You should have built up enough of an edge in the three "average" categories that you will have some room to handle a couple of average starts a week. Your total innings pitched will be less with the relievers, so one really bad start or two sub-par starts could damage you for the week.

So remember, following conventional wisdom and traditional strategies may not always be in your best interests as the fantasy baseball game adapts to different statistical categories. The sacrificing of two categories to win four may pay off in the long run. Remember that in a ten team rotisserie league, winning four categories outright and finishing last in the other two is the equivalent of finishing an average of 4th in all six categories which is no small task, presuming you want to be able to hit at all. In a weekly head-to-head format, all you need to do is split the six batting categories and you win the week, and possibly every week, if you take four of the six pitching categories regularly, and of course you will have been able to spend/focus more on hitting with this strategy anyway.

Reggie Yinger and Kenn Judd contributed to this article.
Reggie YingerReggie is a writer and the co-founder of Baseball Press. He enjoys fantasy baseball and hates when players bunt in baseball.