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Fantasy Baseball Basics: Learn How to Play & Win From a High-Stakes Champ

Five-time high-stakes champ Shawn Childs gets back to basics when he discusses rotisserie categories, the player pool, team structure and much more

Fantasy baseball is a great game, especially for a sports fan that loves to watch baseball. A season covers about 180 days or about 26 weeks. Most of my experience in the fantasy baseball market has come in rotisserie-style leagues. This type of format has 10 categories to earn league points, with five coming from batters and five from pitchers.

I used the data for 2019 for target info due to a short sample size last season.

Rotisserie (Roto) Categories

Batting Average (BA) – Each team adds up their total hits divided the number of at-bats by their starting hitters on their fantasy team to come up with their overall team batting average. 

If you have the highest batting average in your league, your team earns the first place points in this category. (Note: League points are determined by the number of teams in each league or competition. If you have 12 teams in your league, first place is worth 12 points. Second place is worth 11 points, and so on, with the last-place team earning only one point). 

In a 12-team league, fantasy owners trying to finish in the top 20 percent in batting average should set a goal of .271 based on the high-stakes market results in 2019.

Runs (R) – This is the total of all runs scored by the starting hitter on your team. 

The goal for runs should be about 1,200 runs in 12-team leagues or 86 runs per player in leagues with 14 offensive players.

Homeruns (HR) – Each team adds up the number of home runs by their starting hitters. 

A fantasy owner will need over 375 home runs to finish in the top three in the home run category in 12-team leagues (about 27 home runs per batter).

Runs Batted In (RBI) – This is the total of all runs driven in by your starting lineup.

In a 12-team league, the target number should be about 1,150 RBI (about 82 RBI per batter).

Stolen Bases (SB) – Each team adds up the number of steals by their starting players.

Overall, stolen bases have trended downward over the last few seasons in major league baseball. In 2019, a fantasy owner only needed 135 steals to finish in the top 20 percent in an event with 2,112 teams. My sense is the goal in 2020 should be about 140 steals (10 stolen bases per batter). 

Wins (W) – This is the total number of wins by your fantasy pitching staff (only players in the starting lineup).

Typically, I try to manage my team to get enough starts in the year to earn four wins per week, which is 104 wins over a 26-week season. In 2019, the final target number was 96 wins in the high-stakes market.

Earned Run Average (ERA) – Each team adds up the number of earned runs allowed by their pitching staff divided by the total number of innings pitched times nine innings to determine their team ERA. The goal is to have the lowest ERA in the league.

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A fantasy owner needed an ERA of 3.745 to finish in the top 20 percent in 2019, with 2,112 teams entered in a 12-team high-stakes event. I would use 3.50 as my target number in ERA in a 12-team format this season. 

Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched (WHIP) – This is the trickiest of stats for new fantasy owners to handle. WHIP is a way to get the value of each pitcher's skill set. All hits allowed are added to the total number of walks allowed divided by the total number of innings pitched by your starting pitching staff to come up with each team's WHIP. The lowest WHIP earns the most league points.

A fantasy owner needed a whip of 1.180 in 2019 in 12-team leagues to finish in the top 20 percent. 

Strikeouts (K) – Each team adds up the total number of strikeouts from the pitchers in your starting lineup each week.

Some pitchers have posted some impressive strikeout totals over the last couple of seasons, which raised the bar to compete in this category. In 12-team leagues, a fantasy owner will need about 1,525 strikeouts to finish in the top 20 percent in 2020.

Saves (SV) – Each team adds up the total number of saves by their pitching staff to compete in this category. 

A Fantasy team will need about 82 saves to be competitive in saves in 12-team leagues. 

League Structure

A standard 12-team Roto league will consist of about 30 rounds. Each fantasy owner will select a player in each round while filling in their starting lineup, including 14 hitters and nine pitchers. The 14 batters consist of two catchers, one first baseman, one second baseman, one shortstop, one third baseman, one middle infielder (second base or shortstop), one corner infielder (first base or third base), five outfielders, and one utility (any batter). Most teams will draft seven starting pitchers and two closer (pitchers who pitch in close games that earn saves) for their starting pitching lineup. 

The seven bench spots can consist of any players you desire. In 12-team leagues, it would make sense to have a couple of extra starters plus a third pitcher with a chance at saves. The last four bench slots could look like this: one upside young player with future playing time, one backup outfielder, one backup middle infielder, and one backup corner infielder. 

Player Pool

Once a fantasy owner has a feel for each category on the hitting and pitching side, it's time to learn the player pool.

To help you get a feel for each position's possible value in 2021, I put together a table of average stats for most of the positions (No DH Slot) this year based on the final 2019 stats.

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In most seasons, first base, third base, and the first two outfield slots offer the most production to a fantasy lineup from the hitting side. The shortstop position moved to the third most impactful offensive position in 2018 and fourth in 2019. The value on the right under the TOTAL column shows the impact of each position's stats within a 12-team league environment using (SIscore). Just for comparison, here's how each position stacks up based on SIscore value:

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When learning to develop a winning fantasy roster, the goal is building a foundation of strong batters and elite pitchers while finding complementary upside players later in the draft. If you make your draft decisions based on the previous season results, you are in for a rude awakening. Each year, players rise and fall, with plenty of them battling injuries. It's crucial to find rising stars that will be drafted earlier in the next draft season. 

Compare Players With Different Skill Sets

Here's a look at three different skill set of players to give you a feel for some decision within the draft:

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Note: I used the stats from 2019 projections for these three players as they filled the needed variance I was looking to compare in this example. 

Each player has a similar SIscore – Betts > 12.88, Turner > 12.86, and Arenado > 10.25. 

In 2018, Betts posted the highest SIscore (12.89) in baseball, followed by Max Scherzer (12.64). By drafting either player, a fantasy owner would gain over 12 fantasy points in the standings if they were able to draft the average player stats for the remaining starting roster spots for their team.

In comparison, Trea Turner ranked 9th in SIscore rankings (8.11) in 2018, and Nolan Arenado finished 12th (7.23).

Mookie Betts was the second-rated player in the SIscore system (12.88) in 2019 based on his projections at Sports Illustrated, which was a step below the best player in baseball – Mike Trout (16.28). Trea Turner was the 3rd ranked option based on impact value headed into 2019 within a 12-team league, with Arenado coming in 5th. 

Based on the 2019 projection, Turner would have helped a fantasy owner gain about 9.13 fantasy points in the standings in stolen bases while adding another 4.72 points in batting average and runs. His skill set builds your foundation in stolen bases if he delivers on his expected production in speed, which will allow a fantasy owner to commit more roster slots to power. Also, Turner will enable a team to accept some batting average risk at some point in the draft. 

In the case of Betts, he has a top-of-the-order opportunity with a chance to contribute in all five categories, never mind more upside if he makes a further step forward. Based on his 2019 projections, he'll offer about 12 more home runs, 34 more RBI, and 33 fewer steals than Turner with batting average and runs falling in a range where either player should post a winning total.

Arenado dominates Turner in home runs and RBI while offering strength in batting average based on his low strikeout rate. His steals fall short in this comparison, but his total SIscore will rank better than 98 percent of the 2019 batter inventory.

How They Finished

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Based on the final 2019 stats, they ranked 10th (Arenado), 12th (Betts), and 13th (Turner) in SIscore ratings for hitters. Arenado came the closest to his projections (.314 with 112 runs, 41 home runs, and 130 RBI), but the overall player targets for this year changed due to the significant increase in power in major league baseball. Betts underachieved in four categories, and Turner missed five-week of the year to cost him a top ten hitter ranking. 

A fantasy team could have still won with their league with any of these players. 

Building Blocks

Each decision a fantasy owner makes early in the draft dictates direction for future picks. Building a potent offense requires multiple selections with favorable timing needed at various times during the draft.

If a fantasy owner started with a power/average hitter such as Arenado, the goal would be to find another speed player later in the draft while also looking to find as many power/speed players as possible over the next few rounds.

A team that starts with Turner will turn to power-hitting outfielders or corner infielders with his next few selections in drafts.

The idea behind drafting Betts is to start with a balanced foundation to allow your team building to have more flexible paths during each draft. 

Offensive Foundation Puzzle Pieces

I listed Betts, Arenado, and Turner as my compared players as these three players all fit my game plan to build the foundation of my offense. After my first three batters, I want to have a high batting average base with a combination of 75 home runs and 75 steals. By doing this, I can create easier outs in some categories while also adding more flexibility in each draft's decision-making. 

Elite Speed with Power and Average: The player that comes to mind for me is Carl Crawford in his prime. From 2004 to 2007, he hit .304 while averaging 97 runs, 14 home runs, 73 RBI, and 53 steals. His skill set is one of the most unique in fantasy baseball. He set a massive floor in speed while adding four categories with league average stats or better. In 2021, Trea Turner has the talent to be a better piece to start a fantasy team. Remember, typically, there is only one player that fits this category in many draft seasons.

High Average/Plus Power: The players I think of when trying to identify this skill set in my team development are Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, and Miguel Cabrera. These players had a chance to hit well over .300 with a floor of 100 runs, 30 home runs, and 100 RBI. The drop off in steals by Mike Trout puts him almost in a dead heat with Juan Soto to anchor a fantasy team in batting average and power. Soto gains a slight edge due to age, and he wants to steal more bases.

Balanced Player: The goal here is to find the best 20/20, 25/25, or even 30/30 player to start as a top three-piece to your hitting offense while adding help in batting average. Fernando Tatis, Ronald Acuna, Mookie Betts are the best three options in the 2021 draft season.

If you play in a trading league, sometimes it becomes more about acquiring assets. As the season unfolds, each player's performance will set up future trades. Trading in fantasy baseball is never easy, and most fantasy owners overvalue their players. 

Top 25 Hitters (2019)

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On the Pitching Side

Over the last two seasons, multiple impact starting pitchers set the stage for a first-round fight for your lead ace. The closing pool lacked strength with saves down across fantasy formats. Here's a look at some of the pitching slots to build a fantasy roster for a 12-team 5 X 5 Roto format:

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All starting pitchers will have no production in saves, and each closer will offer minimal value in wins and some success at times in strikeouts.

Here's how the closer position would rank when compared to the starting pitching inventory:

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Learning to Build Your Pitching Base

Based on the above grid of pitchers, a fantasy owner can see the edge created by drafting an ace starting pitching. Each year, the starting pitching pool will change, forcing fantasy owners to make different evaluations on who to take in drafts. 

By following this chart, a fantasy owner should draft his first two starters before his first closer. If the top end starting pool has depth, two aces can separate your pitching stats from the field if the pitchers pitch up to expectation. If starting pitching flies off the board early and the depth is questionable, a move to an elite closer like Josh Hader from 2019 does make sense. He ranked 9th in SIscore (5.93) for pitchers.

The next decision comes when to start adding your second closer. Based on the SIscore rank last year, the second group of closers ranked sixth in roster construction for pitchers. Most fantasy owners will take the second closer before their fourth starter and sometimes before their third starting pitcher. This decision is dependent on league size and draft flow while also considering the changes in the value of the player pool from year to year.

How to Identify an Ace

Using the SIscore, a fantasy owner can get a feel for a player's possible value between different positions. It will help identify potential underlying values. Here's a look at the top 24 pitchers from 2019 based on SIscore rankings:

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By looking at the highlighted yellow line, a fantasy owner can see the baseline of an ace. In 2019, a pitcher needed 15 wins with a 2.86 ERA, 0.991 WHIP, and 238 strikeouts to be considered an ace. Keep in mind that those numbers are influenced by the excellent seasons by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

The second yellow line shows a pitcher with 15 wins, a 3.41 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, and 199 strikeouts. 

For a fantasy owner to create a winning pitching staff, he should be looking to beat both target lines of stats, which is what SIscore is expected to help you do.

Following up with earlier examples for batters, a fantasy owner will need to decide between a hitter or a pitcher in the second or third round in many drafts in 2021. Any pitcher with 15 wins or more with a sub 3.00 ERA and 200-plus strikeouts will offer an edge from the starting pitching position. A beginner fantasy owner won't understand pitchers' high failure rate due to injuries until he plays the game, so this decision isn't as easy as clicking a button in the draft room. Pitching comes with a ton of injury risk.

These are the type of decisions a fantasy owner will embrace once he develops a feel for the game and becomes more passionate about the player pool.

Closing Options

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In 2019, the top 12 closers averaged four wins, 31 saves, and 97 strikeouts with a 2.38 ERA and 0.976 WHIP. Josh Hader gained his edge with massive strikeouts (138) with an advantage in WHIP (0.810) and saves (37). His SIscore (5.93) was well above the rating (1.54) for the average of the top 12 closers. Overall, the closing inventory had a down season again last year. 

The second group of 12 closers averaged five wins, 23 saves, and 77 strikeouts with a 3.03 ERA and 1.128 WHIP. Using two closers made it difficult to reach the medium target number for saves (66). With fewer saves produced by two relievers, it required fantasy owners to add a third closing option to be competitive in the saves category, which came with an expense in wins and strikeouts. 

Top closers will get drafted in the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds in most 15-team fantasy drafts while being discounted slightly in 12-team leagues. They offer an edge with 40-plus saves and elite strikeouts when added to a low ERA and WHIP. Unfortunately, saves can be found in all areas of the draft plus be available in the free-agent pool. It's just a matter if a fantasy owner wants security over the ensuing battle for closers later in the draft and on the waiver wire.

In some cases, a top starter and top closer may offer a better foundation than the Dual Ace strategy. 

As great as each player may look on your roster, names don't win fantasy championships. It's about acquiring the best stats in each category, which comes down to drafting, free agency, and team management. 

In today's fantasy games, fantasy owners will have ADPs (average draft position) to help understand the draft flow and completed results from previous seasons to show what it takes to win at all levels. 

I know this is a lot to take in on the surface, but this insight will be much more evident when playing fantasy baseball.

Final Thoughts

Here are some early guidelines I would go by when you start building your Fantasy roster:

1. Batting foundation – Focus on trying to find three batters that combine for 75 home runs and 75 stolen bases with my first three batters plus offer an edge in batting average. This goal could be achieved with three of your first five picks if you believe draft flow creates the right path for your team structure.

2. Pitching foundation – Try to roster two aces plus one reliable closer. By doing this, you position yourself in all five categories on the pitching side.

3. One solid catcher – Invest in one solid catcher inside the first 12 rounds. It's important not to get beat at the catcher position. A fantasy owner may find one catcher on the waiver wire, but two would be a tall order.

4. Batting order – The batters that hit in the top five spots in the batting order offer the most value if they get full-time at-bats. It would help if you had leadoff-type hitters for runs and cleanup-type hitters for RBI. 

5. Back-end pitching – Make sure you finish your pitching staff. It doesn't make sense to invest in early pitching if you give away your edge later in the draft. Please pay attention to WHIP, as it is the most critical fantasy category.

6. Closers in waiting – If you happen to roster a strong second closer, it's always nice to have a third option on the bench. League size will determine the availability in the draft pool. If you are weak at the second closer position, it's essential to follow the closers who are struggling and try to roster the next option in line for saves.

7. Double starters – A new fantasy owner can quickly get beat in wins and strikeouts by not pitching enough starters in weekly lineup leagues (These are leagues when you set your lineup once for the week). Starters that pitch twice a week give you two chances at wins and strikeouts. If you live on the waiver wire, you will invite ERA and WHIP risk. There is a delicate balance between starting a reliable pitcher and a waiver wire arm with double starts each week.

To win in fantasy baseball, a fantasy owner must understand what it takes to win, learn the player pool, get a feel for the draft flow, and most of all, make good decisions while on the clock in drafts. It starts with coming up with a draft plan or style, which varies from year to year and from fantasy owner to fantasy owner. 

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