One of the most popular in-season strategies is streaming starting pitchers, especially those hurlers with two scheduled outings in leagues with weekly moves. To that end, two of the most popular articles on ESPN.com are Tristan H. Cockcroft's Forecaster and the Daily Notes, both of which (in part) address favorable pitching matchups. In rotisserie scoring, the idea is to pile up strikeouts -- and hopefully wins -- while not inflicting any damage upon your ratios. In points leagues, simply put, favorable matchups avoid negative points. In formats with an innings or starts cap, the idea is to maximize efficiency.
Streaming pitching can be effective, but it's easier said than done. A study conducted on high-stakes contests with 15 teams per league showed that, on average, only 2-of-15 teams finished the season with better ratios than they would have had if they had stuck with just the pitchers they drafted. Yes, only 13 percent of fantasy managers were able to successfully manipulate their reserves and free agent pickups to improve those ERA and WHIP marks from what they would have been making no moves at all. It's not a coincidence that the majority of that 13 percent finished in the money.
Identifying favorable setups is already challenging, and several aspects of the 2018 season are poised to render it even more demanding. Before plotting your draft strategy, you need to consider all of the following areas and adjust your plan accordingly.
Additional Off Days
Teams are opening this season on Thursday, March 29, an early start which will add four more off days to the schedule. Some weekly leagues keep all weeks separate, while others will end up combining both the truncated opening week and All-Star week with another week to create a single week with double-digit days of baseball action.
That translates to there being (on average) 36 two-start pitchers available in each of the 25 scoring periods. Before the schedule change, there were 43. In other words, expect there to be seven fewer options per week this season, rendering it even harder to identify a favorable choice to activate from your reserves or pick up as a free agent.
Looking at this on an individual basis, the top hurlers tend to start around 32-33 games. They'll likely work both during the season's opening week and right after the All-Star break, leaving 30-31 outings for the remaining 25 weeks. This means even the best options will only start twice five or six times a year. It's hard to construct a strategy using this as the focal point.
Intrinsic to the math is that teams will continue to use the standard five-man rotation. At least one, the Los Angeles Angels, stated they're going with a six-man starting staff. The Texas Rangers also considered it, but Cole Hamels' dissent reportedly put the kibosh on that plan. The Tampa Bay Rays are saying they intend using a four-man rotation, but with a bullpen game (as necessary) to keep the starters on typical five-day rest. It's only one club, but this eliminates about six more chances to deploy a two-start option.
One of the integral aspects of spot starting pitchers is wins. In points leagues, getting the win helps mitigate any points lost from runs, hits and walks allowed. In rotisserie formats, wins are necessary to offset the likely worsening of ratios.
The recent trend has been for starters to pick up fewer wins, with the average length of outing per start to have similarly declined:
Intuitively, it may seem less likely to earn a win with a shorter outing. However, the opposite is true. This is probably a combination of deeper bullpens, plus the fact that clubs are more cognizant of the reduced effectiveness of starters during the third time through the order.
Here's a look at the number of wins in outings of at least five innings pitched. (Note: While there are a few extended reliever efforts that get added to this analysis (which is why the wins per season is slightly different than above), it's practically negligible.)
The number of wins in outings of 6.1 innings or less is significantly on the rise. The actionable conclusion is to focus on teams (hopefully with a strong bullpen) who tend to lift their starters before they start to work too deep into the sixth inning of games.
The other thing that stands out is the paucity of complete-game victories. Some points leagues award bonuses for this, pushing the better pitchers up the ranks by a few spots. Maybe this was a relevant factor in the past, but today, the number of these occurrences isn't worth accounting for on any cheat sheet.
Many leagues have an innings minimum, in order to prevent the deployment of a fantasy staff composed predominantly of relievers. While it's true there are more bullpen innings now than there have been in previous seasons, these are distributed among more arms -- as opposed to there being more innings per pitcher.
The result is added difficulty reaching those minimum innings limits. This increases the demand for spot starters in favorable matchups. The law of supply and demand dictates an increased cost for these opportunities. Additionally, this adds a premium to starters throwing upwards of 180 frames, which are increasingly becoming harder to find.
The current pitching landscape also makes things way more complicated in formats with an innings or games started cap. There's less margin of error, since you can't look to overcome one bad choice by compensating for it with a high volume of better choices. This also adds to the allure of the top pitching options -- both in the form of starters and relievers -- as well as increasing the demand for the more favorable matchups. Here again, the supply of good spot-starting scenarios is reduced, increasing the price of the desirable options.
The Moneyball of Middle Relief
Contrary to popular belief, Moneyball wasn't about on-base percentage. It was about taking advantage of an underpriced commodity, which Billy Beane happened to identify as the ability to get on base. The analogous asset in today's fantasy baseball game is high-strikeout middle relievers. This extends beyond saves or holds (if your league rewards those outings). Middle relievers can be "staff-savers" in almost every format.
In weekly rotisserie formats, the difference between a top reliever throwing three stanzas per week and a back-end starter who fails to last five frames is shrinking -- if it hasn't already flipped towards the reliever. Not only does the reliever check all the ratio boxes, but at least he has a chance for a vulture victory. The lesser starter doesn't last the necessary time required for a win. The only advantage the starter has is in strikeouts and, in many instances, that's not even the case -- especially with the number of two-start weeks on the decline.
In leagues with an innings cap, especially daily formats, populating your lineup with dominant middle relievers is a great way to optimize production. Here, the "K" category is really "K/9". The downside used to be falling short in wins. However, in the current climate, as mentioned earlier, some relievers do actually possess better odds at a win compared to those underwhelming spot starters.
Although not a middle reliever, the present landscape is more open to using a third closer in shallower mixed leagues. In previous seasons, the wins and punch outs from the seventh starter outweighed the hurt his efforts put on ratios. Now, the added saves often swing the pendulum towards the closer, since their strikeouts are closer in number to what your SP7 can offer -- with no significant difference in the affect on ratios. This is yet another reason for investing in an upper-tier anchor, as their innings and superb ratios helps absorb the impact of poor reliever ratios.
Unfortunately, there isn't a "one size fits all" approach to dealing with the pitching trends, especially give the plethora of formats and league sizes. However, as so much has changed in the pitching landscape over just the last three seasons, the prudent fantasy manager should recognize the trends and enjoy the edge over those languishing behind the curve.