DFS preview: Strategies for selecting starting pitchers
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SI.com is spending the last week of spring training giving you a DFS primer for the 2016 baseball season. If you missed any of our previous DFS columns, you can find them below.
From day to day, the most important player on a baseball team is the starting pitcher. Mike Trout can go 0-for-4, and the Angels can win (but, let’s be real, that doesn’t happen frequently). Bryce Harper can strike out three times, ground into two double plays and make an error in the outfield, and the Nationals can get a victory. If Clayton Kershaw allows five runs in three innings, the Dodgers are going to lose.
That’s one way in which the daily fantasy game mirrors real life. Your lineup construction should start with your pitcher (or pitchers, depending on where you play DFS). Part of this owes to practicality. Pitchers are the most expensive players in the DFS world. When the Dodgers visit the Padres on Opening Day, it will cost FanDuel players $11,000 to roster Kershaw. Trout, meanwhile, checks in at $5,000, facing off with a $10,700 Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. The price discrepancies are generally the same on DraftKings. It’s awfully hard to fill out your offense if you don’t know how much you’re spending on a pitcher.
Practicality, however, is not the only reason that you should make your mound decisions before moving into the batter’s box. Your chances of succeeding in a daily game decrease significantly if you get a poor performance from your pitcher. You don’t necessarily need him to light the world on fire, and you definitely don’t need to automatically spend all the way up for one of the best available pitchers that day, but you do need your pitcher to turn a profit. You can win if your first baseman struggles or if your third baseman has the worst game of his professional career. Your pitcher is the one player whose success is non-negotiable.
Understanding that starting pitcher is the most important position for your daily team is just half the battle. Now, you actually have to fill that spot on your roster.
One pitcher vs. two pitcher
Let’s start with the fundamental difference between FanDuel and DraftKings: FanDuel games feature one starting pitcher, while you need two for DraftKings. The scoring systems between the sites used to be drastically different, but FanDuel increased its pitcher scoring this year to basically match up, with respect to pitcher scoring against hitter scoring.
DraftKings still values pitcher performance slightly higher for two reasons. The first, of course, is that it requires double the starting the pitchers. The second is that it includes more categories for pitches, on both the positive and negative sides. Below is a chart of the scoring systems for pitchers on both sites.
Rolling the dice on a pitcher is clearly more prohibitive on DraftKings than it is on FanDuel. You’re losing points for every single batter who reaches base on anything other than an error on DraftKings, whereas FanDuel only penalizes you if those guys come around to score.
What should be obvious, regardless of where you play your daily fantasy baseball, is that you do not want to screw up at pitcher. There’s simply no reason to try to win on the arm of Mike Leake, and I like Mike Leake in season-long fantasy. While hitter performance over 162 games tends to be reliable, it’s quite volatile from day to day. In this context, pitchers are more bankable, and it’s clear that you cannot afford to miss on them.
Recent performance and overall ability
There is plenty of evidence that suggests riding the hot hand in this way works well in the short term. Every season we see a huge number of pitchers go on electric runs for five or six starts. Last year, Arrieta did it for the entire second half. Sometimes, you simply want to get in while the getting’s good.
But perhaps the most important factor in recent performance is control. Pitchers thrive on having sound, repeatable mechanics. If a pitcher’s control has faltered in the recent past, there’s a good chance that something is off mechanically. That’s the sort of pitcher you want to avoid. Let him prove to you that everything is back on course before you buy back in on him.
Of course, no player is going to deviate from his established mean performance for too long. That’s where overall ability enters the discussion. If a pitcher’s performance over his last month’s worth of starts looks like a significant outlier from the rest of his career, it probably is, and he’s probably going to return to the norm sooner rather than later, whether it be good or bad. On the flip side, an underperforming pitcher with a solid track record should get back on the right path in the near future.
We call these foundational inputs because neither should assume a plurality of the decision-making pie. You can’t choose your pitchers without considering what they’ve done recently and how good they are generally, but those two factors only set the scene.
You already know that matchup matters greatly for a pitcher. Outside of the obvious, however, what factors within a matchup should you be considering?
As we discussed in the DFS stats column, start with splits, both for the pitcher and the opposing team. If you’re thinking about rostering, say, Chris Sale, check how that team hits against lefties. What’s their wOBA against left-handed pitching? Will their key hitters have the platoon advantage against Sale? If so, is Sale particularly good at neutralizing righties? If not, how do the lefties in the opposing lineup handle same-side pitchers? You should explore all of these as you’re making your pitcher decisions.
At the same time, you’ll want to be evaluating the opposing lineup’s metrics regardless of pitcher handedness. We looked into why wOBA is so important in the stats column. It’s not just meaningful for individual hitters, but for teams, as well. A low wOBA team is ripe for exploitation. You’ll also want to check in on a team’s strikeout rate. Pitchers can rack up a ton of fantasy points by missing bats, and even some of the best teams in the league strike out a lot. As an example, the Cubs and Astros were first and second in the league in strikeout rate, with the Cubs checking in at 24.5%, while the Astros whiffed 22.9% of the time.
The opposing team’s recent performance also matters for your potential pitchers. A struggling team could be one that you want to target, especially since that doesn’t always get baked into a pitcher’s price. Any team dealing with an injury to a big bat is worth exploring as well. That, too, is something that can get lost with respect to pricing a pitcher, but can help him provide his owners with more value.
Yes, this is inherent in the DFS game, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention it. Opening Day, in fact, is a great illustration of the difference price points can makes, given that there are so many top-tier starters in action. Is Madison Bumgarner worth $10,600 when you can start Corey Kluber and save $1,000? What about reaching all the way down to defending AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel at $9,400? Bumgarner might be the easy choice if all things were equal, but they aren’t. Make sure you play around with price points before setting your lineup.
All of these inputs matter when filling your required pitcher spots, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t win if your pitchers fail. This is the one spot on your roster that you absolutely have to nail to succeed in daily fantasy baseball.