It’s the middle of June and, as of this writing, Major League Baseball and the players have yet to reach an agreement on the 2020 season. We know one thing – it will be short. Presently, the likeliest plan is for somewhere around 50 games. So let’s talk about a 50-game season.
It’s natural to want a formula for victory: “Follow these six easy steps and you will win your league.” You want to read that article, don’t you? I’m trained in clickbait headlines so I know you want to read my six easy steps. They’re sooo easy.
Sadly, I do not have a formula for you. I cannot offer you the single best way to skin this
cat fantasy campaign. Instead, we’re here to think about how to solve a new puzzle. And as with the proverbial cat (or any fantasy game), there will be quite a few ‘correct’ solutions.
My number one piece of advice is to sample all of the strategies in the marketplace. Read about the countless ways one might approach a shortened season. These range from playing normally to some pretty unusual adjustments. Pick those you find most intriguing and incorporate them into your draft plans. Also, consider which fit best with how you play fantasy baseball. If you’re reflexively patient, use strategies that reward sticking with your draft picks. If, like me, you’re a waiver hawk, plan to use the wire aggressively and draft accordingly with high risk, high reward gambles.
As the season approaches, we’ll be inundated with novel analysis from all the usual resources. Matt Williams recently posted a useful Twitter thread which includes his findings of 50-game trends for classic bat-first sluggers. Think about a typical low-average, high-power campaign. You can expect occasional outbursts of four to eight home runs in a week, but you might also find a 25-game slump with truly miserable stats. These Khris Davis, Franmil Reyes, and Aristides Aquino types have the capacity to carry or ruin your season over any given 50-game stint.
A shortened season is upon us, & w/ that a new set of circumstances & parameters for #fantasybaseball.
The long grind of 162 games that allowed for patience, adjustments, & a certain brand of strategy are out the window.
— Matt Williams (@MattWi77iams) June 14, 2020
More than ever, mock drafts are your friend. I recently participated in a 12-team 50-game mock draft with the CBS crew and some other industry folk. I used it as an opportunity to test an Aces and Aces strategy – namely, I selected two ace starting pitchers and a bushel of ace-relievers under the theory that an elite reliever will throw just a handful fewer innings than a typical mid-tier starter. You can read about my thoughts and approach in more detail here.
The short of it is pretty simple, I used this mock draft to get a feel for when I’d need to select specific high-value pitchers and how the other components of the roster would fit into place. I learned I might prefer to eschew top and mid-tier starting pitching entirely in a 50-game scenario. My next mock will probably emphasize early-round hitters, mid-round relievers, and late-round dart-throws like Nate Pearson. At some point, I’ll also test out a more traditional draft strategy.
— Speaking of the next mock, I am organizing a 12- or 15-team draft for Monday at 1:00 pm ET. If you would like to join, please DM me on Twitter @BaseballATeam. We will use FanTrax and standard deep rosters. Several members of the RotoFanatics crew will also join the fun. —
Getting a firm sense of the different touted strategies goes beyond just selecting those you want to use. During the draft, you’ll also find it’s easier to identify what your rivals are attempting to accomplish which could open up valuable pivots or snipes. In-draft adjustments are an advanced skill and merit a standalone article. For now, let’s just say this – in a condensed season, any opportunity to accrue value is paramount.
It’s not uncommon for drafts to clump around certain types of players. Auction drafts are especially notorious for this effect. Dollars will be inefficiently spent chasing anything the room perceives as scarce. And not every room has the same perceptions. In a snake draft, runs on closers and catchers are the most common. Consistently finding yourself on the right side of a run – and not by reaching too early – is a special talent.
After the Draft
Once the draft is in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to really get down to work. The second spring training is going to offer a confusing mire of information. In all likelihood, it will be far more misleading than traditional spring training if only because it’s much shorter.
The best fantasy managers will monitor this sparse data with tangible desperation. Spin rates, velocity, swing adjustments, and new or healed injuries will offer the most fertile opportunities. Usage patterns, lineup construction, and statistical output will be both important and prone to red herrings. If it’s not practical for you to stay ahead of your competition in this high effort manner, you can take solace in knowing your rivals may overreact to tiny samples. Plan to scoop up the boring veterans they mistakenly cut.
While I’ve identified usage patterns and lineup construction as potentially misleading, it remains important to use them once the games become real. We want as many mid-lineup, everyday hitters as possible. Players who fall out of these roles in certain situations take a big hit in value – especially if your league uses a shallow bench.
Let’s use Michael Conforto and Joc Pederson as examples. We know the Dodgers have a surplus of quality players. They love to hide Pederson from left-handed starters. Over his career, he has a miserly 57 wRC+ against same-handed pitching. Similarly, Conforto is a consistently below average hitter versus left-handed pitchers. He might find himself either down in the order or riding the pine when southpaws are on the docket.
By ADP, you’ll find outfielders like Michael Brantley, Oscar Mercado, and Franmil Reyes near Conforto. All three are safer bets to play on a daily basis. Pederson is (mysteriously) available 100 picks after Conforto so your full-time, mid-lineup alternatives like Adam Eaton (bland), Justin Upton (rough 2019), and Andrew McCutchen (recovering from major injury) have blemishes.
If you’re already holding players who fall into platoon roles, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to cut bait. A platooned player is a rested player, and they’re positioned to maximize their output on a rate basis. In daily moves leagues, some clever management of the waiver wire could help you to chase much-needed stats on days when your lefty slugger is avoiding Clayton Kershaw. Maybe Jon Berti is playing against Noah Syndergaard – Berti stole four bags off a Thor-Tomas Nido battery last season. Or perhaps lefty-masher Domingo Santana is paired against a bad southpaw.
The pitching side of the ledger will require perhaps the most attention – both in terms of identifying talent on the waiver wire and deciding when to use, bench or cut your already rostered players. Potentially damaging matchups against the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and other super-offenses will be too risky for all but the most elite pitchers. Off in the other direction, preying upon bad clubs like the Tigers and Orioles will be very popular. If you intend to stream pitchers against bad lineups, plan to roster them at least a couple of days in advance of the targeted start.
More teams are likely to follow the Rays lead with an Openers and Followers approach. Openers can’t earn wins – they’re mostly all downside. Followers will, on occasion, earn very easy wins. However, that doesn’t mean you should blindly use any ol’ bulk reliever. You still want the components to surpass a certain quality check.
What we’ve covered here today is really just the tip of the iceberg. My intent is to point you in the right direction as you approach thinking about a shortened MLB season. As always, it’s wise to select strategies and tactics that emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You’ll also want to be mindful of value. On rare occasions, that can mean abandoning a well-laid plan because an opportunity is just too good to pass.
Most importantly, the best way to win in 2020 is through good old fashioned effort. Do your research for the draft, then stay on top of every scrap of news until you cross the finish line. It’s become fashionable to say the 2020 season is a sprint rather than a marathon. But honestly, fantasy sports are always a sprint. It’s just this time, a higher percentage of participants will reach the finish line.