The fantasy world is an ever-changing market. Each year fantasy owners have more information and more tools to help them make better-educated decisions. When I first came to the high-stakes market in 2004, I sat in my seat, and I took the player I thought was the most valuable to my team at that time. It was the purest time in fantasy baseball. It was about understanding the player pool and having vision within the draft. The better you can see the future, the better you could predict the draft flow and future opportunities.
Early Days of Fantasy Baseball
As each year passed, fantasy owners had more information to help them become better players. After the first year, fantasy owners had the winning results and the final category totals. Both of these pieces of information helped teams plan their strategy for the following year.
As the high-stakes fantasy market grew, fantasy owners had more draft results to help them make educated decisions within the draft. The draft flow was a massive piece of information for owners who had the foresight to see the critical components for their team development while understanding how they wanted to build their teams.
This next tool of information was called ADPs (average draft position). Each draft will be different, but fantasy owners now knew how other owners felt about the player pool.
In the early days of fantasy baseball, there was always an information edge. In the home leagues, there were fantasy owners who were more informed than their competition. The more knowledge a fantasy owner had, the bigger the edge over their competition.
The most challenging part of fantasy baseball is pitching. A fantasy owner with a full understanding of the pitching inventory had an advantage over his opponents. The imbalance of knowledge between fantasy owners created strategies like the LIMA plan, formulated by Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ.
The term LIMA means Low Investment Mound Aces. By understanding the pitching inventory, a fantasy owner had the opportunity to buy his pitching staff at lower prices. Sometimes a knowledgeable fantasy owner could find an ace for the small investment of $1 in auction leagues.
From a fantasy perspective, the LIMA plan is a great tool. It was a theory that fantasy owners must embrace to have success in this game. You are always trying to find top talent at a discount. Most of the early fantasy baseball games were American or National auction leagues, which stressed the importance of finding good players at low prices.
Next Generation of the Game
As the fantasy game evolved, mixed leagues became more prominent. The high-stakes market introduced the 15-team mixed league formats. It was a non-trading format, which put a premium on drafting and managing during the season. The bottom line in this game: it's you against the player pool. The goal is to out-draft your opponents and out-manage them during the year. Each team is competing with two goals; the first is the league prize, and the second is the overall title.
Understanding Draft Flow
Each year, the inventory flow changes after fantasy owners have a history of what has won in the past, plus they have an understanding of their failures. In 2004, the first round of closers went from rounds four to six. As the game has progressed, fantasy owners better understood that the closer position is more volatile each year. Therefore, they are more willing to push the position back or even cheat it with the hopes they can solve this problem on the waiver wire.
A prevailing theory early in high-stakes games was to cheat pitching. I've heard it over and over from industry experts. I'm going to build my offense and draft pitching later, which works in concept. It has a lot more success in leagues when some owners have an edge in knowledge.
Each year fantasy baseball owners spend more time doing research. They understand pitching is the toughest part of the game, and many times, it is the key to winning. A seasoned high-stakes player will do a better job of making comparisons between player positions while looking for an edge.
For example, if I planned to draft an outfielder in round three, I would look at the pitching inventory in that same round and compare it to a later part of the draft. If my initial plan were to draft a starting pitcher in round six, I would then compare the other hitters in that round. I would ask myself, am I gaining enough of an edge taking this bat in round three while choosing a particular pitcher in round six?
I would then reverse the pitcher's thought process in round three and the hitter in round six. It would create a series of decisions with the ultimate goal of trying to find the right path to a championship team. Each year there will be different draft opportunities, and a fantasy owner must find them to succeed.
In the post-steroid era, pitchers became much more attractive in the early round of the draft. The theory of cheating pitching is happening less and less. The new vision in a fantasy owner's mind is the Dual Ace concept.
In the early years of the high-stakes market, fantasy owners were more willing to push starting pitching back because it can change quickly based on injuries and information.
In 2010, fantasy owners went to the draft looking for two elite starters. As more owners sat down at the draft table with this thought process, it started to change pitching draft flow.
There were only a handful of starting pitchers drafted in the first four rounds in the previous years. With the Dual Ace concept, it forced fantasy owners to start drafting starting pitching earlier. In some drafts, it launched an incredible run on starting pitching.
In a non-trading format, you cannot solve your problems by trading. It forces teams to draft a more balanced roster when they are competing for an overall prize. If you cheat pitching and fail, you are at the mercy of the free-agent pool. Unfortunately, the competition for pitching is extremely tough.
A fantasy owner could sit down at the draft table and like seven young pitchers with upside. These players will get drafted anywhere from round 10 to round 16. When you reach that part of the draft, you'll be lucky to get two because other owners have the same feeling about the pitching inventory. If you miss on the key players, it forces you to draft players you feel have less upside.
A Changing Pitching World
In the high-stakes market in 2011, the Dual Ace concept continued. In that season, the owners from the front of the draft tried to improve their pitching, so they would draft two starting pitchers on the 4/5 turn.
When this happened, the owners in the middle of the draft felt like they were getting beat by the top pitching inventory going off the table earlier than expected. Many drafters responded by changing their draft strategy. In essence, they pushed their fourth batter back to the sixth round, and they started drafting more pitchers in the 4th round.
When the backend of the draft saw this happening, they began to see the quality of hitters in the late 5th round rise. It allowed them to change the way they drafted the nucleus of their team. Some backend drafters started to double up on elite starters on the 3/4 turn.
When more owners wanted two elite starters, it started a domino effect. Some drafts had massive pitching runs in the fourth round.
The Edge of an Elite Arms
Based on our SIscore research, it is relatively easy to show the impact of two foundations aces. Here’s a look at the top two pitchers in baseball in 2019 (I didn't use the 2020 data due to the small sample size):
In 2019, in a high-stakes league with 2,112 teams in a 12-team format with non-trading and once a week pitching moves, here are the final stats for the top 10 percent, top 20 percent, and medium for league stats for all the pitching categories:
Note: A fantasy owner doesn’t need to rank in the top 10, or 20 percent in innings pitched, hits allowed, or walks. In the above grid, I used the baseline for ERA and WHIP to back in the stats for hits to match the total for the higher number of innings pitched while using 3.0 walks per nine innings.
The goal of a fantasy owner is to build the best pitching staff possible with the best quality. Most of the time, a high quantity of innings leads to more back risk in ERA and WHIP while hopefully excelling their success in wins and strikeouts.
In the SIscore theory, we want to determine each player's value with a plus or minus score when added to your team based on previous league stats, final season stats, and the upcoming projections.
In 2019, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were the most valuable players in roto formats with five categories (Wins, ERA, WHIP, Strikeouts, and Saves). Here’s how each player finished in each category and their final value in SIscore:
A fantasy owner drafting Justin Verlander would essentially gain 16.07 league points or 15.25 fantasy points with Gerrit Cole's addition. The key here would be finding the rest of the pitching staff to give your team the medium league stats for the other five categories.
Note: All starting pitchers have the save losing value in saves (-1.49).
A Look at One Ace
If I subtract Verlander’s innings pitched off the medium inning total (1,350), my team would need my other eight pitchers to post a 3.998 ERA and 1.230 WHIP with 76 wins (86 wins divided by nine pitchers X eight pitched) and 1,258 strikeouts (1,415 strikeouts divided nine pitchers x eight pitchers). Here’s a look at Verlander final stats in 2019 added to those baseline medium stats:
Based on the earlier stats to finish in the top 20 percent in each of the pitching categories, Here’s how the new pitching stats matched up in those targets:
A Verlander team with a baseline of league average pitching stats would move almost to the top 20 percent in the league in wins (95 to 96), close to the top 20 percent in ERA (3.764 – 3.764), almost the top 10 percent in WHIP (1.159 – 1.157), and about the top 15 percent in strikeouts (1,558 – 1,525 was the 20 percent total).
Dual Ace Impact
Based on the same thought process, here’s a look at a team’s success if they happened to draft Verlander and Cole on the same team:
This team structure pushed this team to elite status in four categories (wins – 110, ERA – 3.529, WHIP – 1.107, and strikeouts – 1,604).
In this example, each fantasy team before the draft starts with 30 pitching points in a 12-team 5 X 5 Roto format. The Verlander/Cole team would most likely score 48 fantasy points in wins, ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts if they hit on the rest of their stats to fill the other seven pitching roster spots. If this team finished mid-pack in saves, the new total of pitching points would move to 54 or a net gain of 24 league points by drafting the best two pitchers in 2019.
The combined total of SIscore for Verlander and Cole from last year came in at 31.32. At some point, this team's edge in pitching is nullified at the top end when a gap at the top of each category opens up. This edge can turn into more flexibility to chase wins, strikeouts, or saves if needed within the league standings.
Finishing Off Your Pitching Edge
In the past, I've seen fantasy owners get the front of their pitching staff right, but they get beat at the backend. When you establish an edge in a draft, you need to follow through with a solid plan. You can't draft two aces over the first three rounds and then wait for 15 rounds for your next starter.
Today's fantasy owners are more in tune with the pitcher pool. A team needs at least six solid starters and possibly two more serviceable arms on your roster. A fantasy owner may find a couple of upside arms on the waiver wire in most seasons, but it is NOT a guarantee.
In a way, maybe we need to change our thinking of how we evaluate pitchers. Is a Justin Verlander or a Gerrit Cole worth 20 percent more than a pitcher with a 3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP?
(200 innings with 2.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP) = 55.5 runs allowed and 200 baserunners allowed.
(200 innings with a 3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP) = 66.6 runs allowed and 240 baserunners.
Any pitcher with an ERA over your goal (3.75 ERA in 2019 to reach the top percent) would negatively return on your team. The same goes for the WHIP category.
Fantasy owners know pitching is volatile. They also understand who has the most talent. In the changing world in the high-stakes market, it is tough to win consistently by cheating pitching. It can work in some years, and maybe it worked better in the early stages of fantasy baseball.
The top owners want to grab a couple of elite starters to start their team. They adjust to the changing flow of the inventory. They understand the tradeoffs at each position. Verlander and Cole were worth 20 percent more than pitchers with 3.00 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 2019. It's like deciding between a 30 home-run first baseman in round one and a 25 home-run first baseman in round two. The decision isn't that clear-cut, as there are more categories involved with the hitters.
When you see the past results from the high-stakes market, you can see where a Dual Aces team had an edge. You can also see where half of the league teams could have struggled with front-end starters if multiple teams were able to double up with Dual Aces.
In 2019, there were more failures on the ace front while batters hit a ton more home runs. MLB may have used tighter wound baseballs over the last couple of seasons to add more offense in games.
The Dual Ace theory is a great way to get an edge in pitching if you lock down two arms that pitch at a high level plus stay healthy. This season the lead starting pitching inventory flies off the board over the first two rounds, with some owners willing to pass on a potential elite five-category bat for a foundation ace.
This draft season, it is possible that one-third of the first 30 selections are starting pitchers.
Owning Dual Aces is the ultimate goal, but we must remember price points and the tradeoffs in the draft flow. Each change in game theory creates a different opportunity. Just remember we are drafting for 2021. Dual Aces may be necessary to compete in a contest with an overall title, but a fantasy owner can still win leagues with different game plans.