May 21, 2009

One of the more popular strategies in any form of fantasy baseball -- but leagues that use a reserve and head-to-head leagues in particular -- is that of streaming pitchers. This entails activating starting pitchers with favorable matchups. Leagues with weekly transactions look for hurlers scheduled for two starts or one start with an exceptionally good matchup. In daily leagues, it is often advantageous to have a solid, high-strikeout reliever active but to replace him when a starter with a favorable opponent is on the docket.

While effective, this process can be time consuming, and believe it or not, some people do not have the ability to commit as much energy as others to this part hobby, part obsession of ours. As such, the following is a review of the more pertinent factors to consider -- and a few to avoid -- when searching for a starting pitcher to stream.

Let's start with an extreme. The best matchup is when a star pitcher is facing a back-end guy at home, in a favorable park against a weak offense. I know, thanks Captain Obvious, how about telling me something I don't know?

Okay, now let's break that up into components. The first is the quality of the starter you are looking to deploy. The second is the quality of the opposing starter. Next is the venue: home or away? Hitter's park or pitcher's park? Last is quality of the opposition's lineup. We'll take them one at a time.

There is a rule of thumb in almost all of fantasy sports: always start your studs. In the past, fantasy baseball added the addendum unless they are going in Coors Field, but this is no longer the case. Of course the definition of a stud is open for debate. The best plan is to decide on some sort of cutoff and always start a pitcher that makes the cut, and look at these other factors if they do not. This cut is somewhat arbitrary and depends on your level of risk tolerance and league format. In rotisserie-style leagues, one way to designate is to pick a place in the standings for ERA and WHIP, and a stud is someone with better numbers. Those less risk averse may set that to be right in the middle, or league average. That is, they will start anyone league average or better. Keep in mind league average is relative to your league and its depth. The league average a starter in a 12-team mixed league will be better than that in13-team National League only. Those more risk averse may want the pitcher to be in the upper third, so they use the ratios for the 4th place team in a 2-team league as their cutoff. Others prefer to use peripherals like K/9 and BB/9 as their markers. Perhaps a stud is anyone with a K/9 over 7.0 and a BB/9 under 3.0. Again, this is dependent on your league and risk tolerance.

If the pitcher does not make the cut, it is time to consider the other factors. A simple way to do this is to use the plus/minus system. We will consider several things, and if favorable, we give a plus, if not, a minus. At the end, we will tally them up, and if there is a net positive, then that pitcher is a reasonable option to stream.

The first aspect to look at is recent performance of the prospective starter. Stats like ERA and hits allowed can be misleading in a small number of innings, so it is best to focus on strikeouts and walks. Look at the past 3 outings. If the pitcher has a higher K/9 in this span, give him a +1. If it is lower, then give a -1. Do the same with BB/9. If the rate is fairly close to normal, leave it at 0. Feel free to alter this system to taste, but the idea is to look at recent performance in terms of skills. In general, striking guys out and not walking them is not luck, whereas hits and even HR allowed can have a significant associated element of luck.

The next factor is quality of opposing pitcher. In rotisserie leagues, this should not be a consideration but in head to head leagues that award a big points total to victories, it has some merit. Give a +1 if the opposing pitcher is someone so poor you would not consider streaming if you could, a -1 if the opposing pitcher fits your definition of stud and keep it 0 if in between.

Now it is time to look at the park. If the pitcher is home, it is a +2, if it is away, give a -1. Yes, pitching at home is that important, regardless of the type of park. If the park is a pitcher's park, give a +1. Give a -1 if it is a hitter's park. Neutral parks are a 0. For the purpose of this exercise, the following can be called hitter's parks: Arizona, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago (AL), Chicago (NL), Cincinnati, Colorado, New York (AL), Philadelphia, Tampa and Texas. Here are the pitcher's parks: Minnesota, New York(NL), Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. The rest are neutral: Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles (AL), Los Angeles (NL), Milwaukee, Toronto and Washington.

The final aspect is opposition. You can choose whatever stat you want to use, whatever is easiest to use from runs scored, OBP, OPS or whatever you feel is most representative of the quality of opposition. If the team is in the upper third, give a -1, in the lower third score a +1 and in the middle, 0.

Now total them all up and if there is a positive total, give strong consideration to using the starting pitcher, and if negative, move onto another possibility.

The above guidelines are not set in stone; you can massage them to best fit your managerial profile in terms of what is important in terms of analysis and risk tolerance. It is more the overall concept that is most important. Sometimes it is helpful to break a problem into its components, look at the individual pieces, and then put it all back together.

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