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DFS decisions: Hitters and pitchers

Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw is costly in DFS play, but he's often worth the lofty price tag. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Having touched on the decision-making processes that you must master to succeed in MLB daily fantasy sports (DFS) in Part 1 of this series, then tackling the factors that should guide you to target certain teams in Part 2, we're finally ready to talk starting pitchers and hitters.

While I can get lost in the stats pages at FanGraphs, ESPN or Baseball-Reference as easily as anybody, when it comes to drafting a starting lineup for daily fantasy baseball, I prefer a simple approach. Like we talked about last week, it's not the number of statistics you use to make your decisions, it's whether you're using the best stats to maximize your score.

Since scoring differs on different sites, I'll highlight what you need to know specifically if you play on one of the two most popular DFS sites: FanDuel or DraftKings. Be sure to check the details if you're playing on DraftDay, Fantasy Aces or another site since lineup requirements and scoring are really different. In fact, I usually tell people to try playing on a few different sites and see what fits your style and preferences best.

Starting pitcher on FanDuel

In FanDuel contests, you draft one starting pitcher and eight fielders using $35,000 in salary. SP salaries range from $11,700 (for Clayton Kershaw on Opening Day) to around $6,000 (for guys like T.J. House, Odrisamer Despaigne or Tyler Matzek). You earn fantasy points for wins (4 points), strikeouts (1 point), innings pitched (1 point each, includes fractional scoring) and shutouts (1 point), and you lose 1 point for giving up an earned run. There are no deductions for hits and walks allowed.

With wins prioritized at 4 points, you can see why I emphasized targeting SP on teams with very favorable Vegas odds in last week's article. This will usually, depending on the number of games on the slate, narrow down the top pitching options to perhaps three to five guys.

Starting pitcher on DraftKings

The first major difference is that you start two SP on DraftKings, along with eight hitters, in a $50,000 salary cap format. Pitcher salaries range from $12,400 down to a minimum of $5,000. Wins are again worth 4 fantasy points, but K's are 2 points, IP are 2.25 points each and there are bonuses for a complete game (2.5 points), a shutout (2.5 points), and no-hitters (5 points). However, your SPs also lose 0.6 points for walks, hits and hitting a batter with a pitch. Earned runs deduct 2 points each from your score.

Wins are slightly less of a priority at DraftKings. Though obviously you still want your pitcher to be in a good spot to win, you're forced to be a bit more cautious with hits and runs allowed. Therefore, target low-scoring games and know you can make up for a low-scoring loss with enough strikeouts and long outings.

General pitching philosophies

1. Pay for pitching: The most common thing you hear in MLB DFS (I hope) is this strategy. On FanDuel, where you get one and only one SP slot, you absolutely must get a lot of fantasy points from the position. It's pretty rare that it's worth it to punt the SP slot, but we will cover those exceptions in next week's strategy article. I don't necessarily mean you need to spend 33 percent of your salary on Kershaw, but I'm OK with it if you do, because you probably won't regret it. He has yet to lose an Opening Day start, and forgive me if I don't think the retooled Padres are the team to end that trend.

2. Find high usage and K/9 guys: Pitcher pricing depends heavily on standard pitching metrics such as ERA and WHIP, and on DraftKings especially, those stats do matter. You can rack up fantasy points two ways: with outstanding pitching, and with disastrous hitting. You'll maximize fantasy point production from your SP by targeting IP and K's. This is the outstanding pitching approach.

Among SP priced in the midrange, you can sometimes find big differences in the number of innings per game they pitch. For example, Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto are priced similarly to begin 2015. Cueto averaged 7.1 IP in 2014 and Greinke averaged 6.3. Don't overlook an advantage like that even if it costs a couple of hundred dollars more.

The SP with the highest K rate of 2014 is, not surprisingly, Kershaw, with 10.86 K/9. Also averaging more than 10 K/9 were Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Stephen Strasburg. Of these most elite five, Kluber was an absolute bargain for DFS last season. Madison Bumgarner, Greinke and Felix Hernandez are also strong K guys with high win potential, while guys like Tyson Ross, Francisco Liriano and Jake Odorizzi get you cheap strikeouts with a lower win probability.

You can boost the K rate strategy by targeting teams that strike out a lot ... and by avoiding the teams that strike out the least. Great plate discipline can trump ace pitching in terms of daily fantasy points. Last year it was smart to specifically avoid starting pitchers facing the Royals; they struck out as a team 119 times fewer than the next-lowest team, the A's. Teams to rack up K's against in 2014 included the Cubs, Astros, Marlins and Braves ... all of whom I think look like good targets again this year. Getting to pitch to the opposing SP in National League matchups is a factor I use more in a tiebreaking situation between two really similar starters.

3. Target the lowest team totals: We can again use the Vegas lines to pinpoint the projected lowest team totals. This is especially important on DraftKings, where you're not going to be able to pay for two elite starting pitchers on most nights. Try taking one elite SP and one in an elite situation. The Braves will be a very popular team to target this season, as will the Cubs, Mariners and Diamondbacks. While some say the Marlins fall into this category too, I like their lineup quite a bit and will gladly pay under $8K for Mat Latos, Henderson Alvarez or whomever gets the first start versus Atlanta on April 6 as my second starter.


Hitters on FanDuel

You're filling out the rest of your lineup -- C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS and 3 OF -- with the remainder of your salary cap. The hitters will range in salary from $2,200-$5,100 on Opening Day, though the ceiling can rise during the season. Fantasy points are awarded for hits (1 point), doubles (2 points), triples (3 points) and home runs (4 points). Walks, RBIs and runs each earn 1 point, and a stolen base is worth 2 points. Outs result in a 0.25-point deduction, so efficiency does matter on FanDuel.

Hitters on DraftKings

The DraftKings minimum is $2,000 and the most expensive fielders are also starting the season priced at $5,100. You have the same lineup requirements here, though the scoring is a bit amped up. Singles are 3 points, doubles are 5 points, triples are 8 points and home runs are 10 points. Runs, walks and RBIs are 2 points each. Steals are worth 5 points, but getting caught stealing is a 2-point deduction. There is no penalty for causing an out. Therefore, you can go for power without regard for batting average on DraftKings. Stealing efficiency, however, is important. Steals can bump up your score by a lot, but a reckless runner can quickly undo the good he did getting on base for you.

General hitter philosophies

1. Power wins Daily Fantasy Baseball: If your lineup doesn't produce home runs, it's really hard to win daily fantasy baseball games. Last week I talked about how to identify teams that are likely to score a lot of runs and therefore produce an abundance of fantasy points. Completely independent of those daily team rankings, I evaluate and rank hitters according to their OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) and ISO (isolated power) against left- or right-handed pitchers (whichever they're facing that night). Note that I don't care if a player has good splits against the pitcher he's facing -- though there's more on that below -- I just want to know who the best hitters facing RHPs and LHPs are that night. If you prefer to use weighted on-base average (wOBA), go for it. Both OPS and wOBA are preferable to batting average or on-base percentage because extra-base hits and home runs are emphasized in DFS scoring.

If I can find a hitter with good power facing the handed pitcher he dominates on a team likely to score a lot of runs, I have a player who's a lock for my lineup. I always start by determining who the best hitters are, then sort out the salary compromises later. The best options are not always the most expensive. If you take an unbiased look at the numbers, you can limit your tendency to buy more expensive players in less good spots. Sometimes Scooter Gennett is a better play than Robinson Cano even before you consider their salaries.

2. Batting order matters: Players in the top 5 spots in the batting order see more plate appearances than those in the 6 through 9 spots. More at-bats gives you more chances to score fantasy points; it's the equivalent of touches and targets in the NFL or minutes in the NBA. Batting order is priced into players' salaries, so look for shifts in the lineup that might give a cheap No. 8 hitter a shot to bat fifth in the order for a night. Be smart with this strategy; it doesn't work with truly poor hitters, and I typically try to use it for players on very good offenses only.

3. Chasing steals: Finding cheap speed to fill a last outfield spot or a tough middle infield spot is a great strategy. I already mentioned that your approach to stolen bases must be more conservative on DraftKings, given the CS penalty. Part of that is to make sure you're avoiding elite catchers who are capable of controlling the run game from behind the plate. Fortunately, there aren't too many in this category (Salvador Perez, Yadier Molina and Russell Martin come to mind). The other part is to target efficient runners. For example, last year Jose Altuve and Billy Hamilton both stole 56 bases, but Altuve was caught stealing only nine times. Hamilton was thrown out 23 times. Jose Reyes was another one of the most efficient base stealers in the league in 2014 (30 SB, 2 CS).

But I said cheap speed, and no one I mentioned yet is inexpensive ... because cheap speed is opportunistic and sometimes inconsistent. When Jarrod Dyson leads off, he's a perfect candidate for cheap speed at $2,800 on FanDuel (though he's $4,100 on DraftKings). He had 36 stolen bases in 2014 (tied for sixth in the majors) and was caught only seven times. The emphasis is on opportunity when you're looking for value, though there are sometimes when paying up for speed is warranted.

4. Salary inefficiencies: Earlier I said that I ranked hitters according to their power versus LHPs and RHPs and didn't care if they were better or worse against that side. That's true to start, but if a guy is priced according to his mediocre average and he has significant splits, you can get a much better hitter for a much lower price. The key is to look for platoon guys. We might not have it quite as good this year as Derek Norris/John Jaso were for near-minimum salary in 2014, but keep an eye on likely platoons Corey Dickerson/Drew Stubbs, Sam Fuld/Craig Gentry and Scott Van Slyke/Carl Crawford for 2015.

DFS success ultimately depends on who you have in your lineup and how they perform. This week we looked at the factors you should prioritize in selecting starting pitchers and hitters. Your job is to use the data to put yourself in the best position to score fantasy points -- that's the process of DFS. You can't control the results on the field, but over time, good processes will produce good results. So pay for SP with a high K/9 rate and a long leash facing bad, strikeout-prone opponents. Pick out the best hitting options at each position based on team totals, OPS versus the correct handed pitcher and spot in the batting order. Look for platoon situations to exploit to save some money and focus on efficiency if you're eyeing stolen bases. Next week we'll take a big-picture look at some lineup construction strategies.