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Fantasy baseball points leagues 101: Key strategies to win

Nationals ace Max Scherzer was the top scorer in ESPN standard scoring in 2016, with 663. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the beginning, there was rotisserie baseball ... and that was pretty much the only fantasy format in town. However, as time went on and fantasy football surged in popularity -- taking over as the predominant fantasy sport to play -- more and more people began to use a similar scoring system in baseball: One week of games, head-to-head competition with one other team, each player's performance gets whittled down to a single point total.

Truth be told, at the top of the player pyramid, regardless of how you determine which major leaguers are the most valuable in your fantasy league, there shouldn't be a lot of variance. Any scoring format worth its salt is going to see the likes of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt and Clayton Kershaw rise to the penthouse when the time comes to evaluate their stats. Great is great, and I'd question any form of scoring that didn't recognize this basic fact.

However, the key to creating a winning points league team is to recognize that there is indeed divergence from rotisserie rankings. That's why ESPN provides fantasy owners with a separate set of rankings that can be used as a cheat sheet of sorts, in order to help you during the season as a sounding board for when you have to decide whether or not the time has come to make some waiver-wire moves or to pull the trigger on a trade.

While rankings can be a terrific shortcut to making decisions, it's still just a list of names. There's not a lot of room to explain why certain players are a lot higher or a lot lower in the pecking order than they are in rotisserie-based rankings.

In order to help you get a feel for the rationale for some potentially head-scratching placements, let's take a closer look at a few of the reasons behind the rankings of players whose value seems to wander off in an unexpected direction when looked at under a points-league microscope.


ESPN standard points-league scoring

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here's a breakdown of the standard scoring for ESPN leagues (we'll be referring to standard scoring henceforth):


Pitchers and hitters, apples and oranges

In the 2016 season, Mookie Betts led all hitters with 589 points, 21 ahead of Nolan Arenado and 25 more than Jose Altuve. That elite trio were the only hitters to finish in the overall top 10, however, as eight starting pitchers -- including No. 1 overall Max Scherzer, with 663 points -- all finished with more points than the No. 4 overall batter.

Because of the way points are awarded in ESPN standard scoring, pitchers will almost always take up most of the available spots at the top of the leaderboard -- but that doesn't mean you have to construct a roster made up entirely of aces in order to be competitive. Everybody has to start nine pitchers, so as long as you get a share of the exclusive group of elite arms, there's no need to obsess about it and ignore hitting altogether.

Clayton Kershaw, for example, is projected to earn 22.6 points per start in 2017. Altuve is projected to earn 3.17 per game. In weeks where Altuve plays seven times, that still leaves him short of Kershaw -- and if Kershaw has a two-start week, it's likely not to be close. That's why in points leagues, Kershaw mapped out as the No. 1 overall option. However, starting pitching can go sour, thus destroying your chances at a weekly result a lot more quickly than hitters can. One need only look at Masahiro Tanaka's negative-18 points on Opening Day or Raul Alcantara's negative-20 points in his two innings against the Rangers on April 7 to see how much damage can be done by a clunker. There are more than 20 pitchers who have earned double-digit negative points as of April 14, while only one batter -- Byron Buxton (-12) -- can claim such futility on the batting end of things.

Simply put, even though the scores all get added together in the end to see which team has won for the week in head-to-head points leagues, it's best to treat pitchers and hitters as completely distinct entities.


Key stats to consider

Pitchers get extra points for strikeouts, but they lose points for walks, hits and earned runs. That's why the key stat for starters is always going to be K/BB rate. Anything lower than 3.00 in that department and you're going to be anxiously counting strikeouts in an uphill climb to break even on a rather routine basis. That's why you'll see less enthusiasm in points leagues for guys like Cole Hamels (projected 2.81 K/BB), Carlos Martinez (2.55) and Felix Hernandez (2.72).

On the flip side, a low K/BB rate can drive a hitter's ranking up by a significant margin. Batting average is fairly irrelevant in points leagues -- unless of course, the outs you are making are of the swing-and-miss variety, since whiffs dock you a point. However, those batters who have demonstrated the ability to reach base just as often, if not more, via the walk, can completely eliminate the negative points brought about by failing to make contact with two strikes. That's why Joey Votto (projected 1.08 K/BB), Carlos Santana (1.07) and Jose Bautista (1.13) will typically see their stock rise compared to the likes of Trevor Story (3.82), Starling Marte (4.40) and Rougned Odor (4.88).

Another place to turn for some added points-league value is those players who have an on-base percentage significantly higher than their batting average. In terms of ESPN standard scoring, a walk is truly as good as a hit, since both a single and a walk earn you a point. That's why any player who has a difference in their OBP and avg. of .100 or greater is probably a lot more valuable here than in roto leagues. Examples for 2017, based on projections, included George Springer (.100), Matt Carpenter (.106) and Brandon Belt (.106).


Specialized stats not required

When you're playing in a category-based league, players who provide you with steals and saves end up being all the more valuable as the percentage of the overall talent pool who contribute significantly in these statistical areas ends up being quite small. However, in points leagues, there's no requirement as to where your points come from, just as long as they come.

As a result, one-category specialists simply aren't worth drafting as early on in the process in points leagues. Speedsters like Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton and Jarrod Dyson all see drops in value, since there's no particular need to fill a quota in stolen bases. But, at the same time, when you consider that 25 steals and 75 RBI is the same value as no steals and 100 RBI, you're actually going to see a boost for players like Kevin Pillar, Lorenzo Cain and Elvis Andrus.

Now, let's consider closers and the five points they'll earn you for each save. If the elite ninth-inning go-to guys are going to get three to four appearances per week -- presumably with the majority of those outings coming in save situations -- then you're looking at weekly numbers that could rival that of Madison Bumgarner, when they're successful. Additionally, because the runs that closers give up are frequently either of the inherited variety (and thus not counted against them) or limited to just a single blemish (given the situational use of when closers get summoned), you don't have to fear that a reliever is going to have a soul-crushing Jeremy Guthrie-esque outing.

That said, unless you're going to strategically go with a "one ace and all closers" pitching strategy (a personal favorite of mine) there's really no need to chase after relievers in points leagues -- especially given the constant uncertainty surrounding many teams' late-inning bullpen plans.


Trades: Even out the uneven

Finally, injuries will happen, and you're going to have to either make trades or work the waiver wire at some point during the season. The question I get asked most frequently from advice-seeking owners is whether or not a 2-for-1 deal makes sense for them. My answer is always the same: It's never a 2-for-1 deal. It's always 2-for-2.

If you're offered, say Paul Goldschmidt for Chris Sale and Albert Pujols, you need to factor in which pitcher you'll be using to replace Sale on your staff in order to make this call. Using 2017 projected points as a guide, Goldschmidt is going to give you more points per game (3.02 vs. 2.79) than Pujols. Assuming an average six-game week, that gives you a 1.38 bump in your expected per week output at first base if you make this deal.

So, by losing Sale, you'll need to insert a new pitcher who won't lose you more per start than that in order for the deal to make sense. In this case, that's 15.81 projected points per start, less the 1.38 bump, or 14.43 points. Apart from Sale, there are only 13 pitchers in the top-60 who are projected to reach that level of performance, so odds are you're not going to have a replacement good enough for this trade to make sense.

Using this thought process in weekly points leagues can go a long way to making sure you don't get fleeced just because you may be getting a big name coming back your way.