Bringing Fantasy Baseball Into the StatCast Era
I’m ecstatic to be a part of Fantrax and their Fantasy baseball coverage for 2019. The level of talent and enthusiasm contributing to Fantrax is something I am fortunate to have an opportunity to become a part of and hopefully enhance. One of my weekly contributions will be “Trends and NoteWorthy’s.” It’s an article intended to shed light on the ignored and analyze the comings and goings of Fantasy baseball. It is a “Who’s hot, Who’s not – Did you know this and did you miss that?” look at Fantasy baseball. I thought, as my first contribution to Fantrax, that a broadly focused article about a few general aspects of Fantasy Baseball in 2019 before diving in and immersing both you and I into the analysis and the nuances of draft season was a good place to start.
The Super Bowl is history and it’s time to start thinking fantasy baseball. Leagues are already forming at Fantrax.com, so head on over and start or join a league today.
The Evolution of Fantasy Baseball
Major League baseball, itself, is changing and Fantasy baseball has to adapt on the fly along with it. Like a dance, when they zig we have to zag or risk being left behind. The way we examine baseball and the way we talk about players has been changing since Moneyball took analytics to mass media. Fantasy baseball started with four offensive and four pitching categories. 4×4 was standard in the early days of Fantasy baseball. With the acceptance of On-Base Percentage (OBP) as one of the most relevant evaluators of performance we stepped into the 5×5 world we frolic in today. However, we are moving further away from that 5×5 standard world now than ever before.
OBP was the big change then. Batting Average could be one of the places where change is made now. It is fighting a losing battle for relevance and while it is a foundational category of Fantasy Baseball, it has become borderline irrelevant to the baseball mass media establishment. Any analyst that quotes batting average in a discussion is dating themselves. Young up and comers writing about baseball see any serious discussion of batting average as a disqualifier of the person wasting their time talking about it and they have a point, in “regular baseball.” This is a battle that needs to be won for batting average, but it isn’t where change is needed most or where quality answers are hardest to find. The place where change needs to come is pitching and how Fantasyland adapts is difficult to envision.
The New Pitching Landscape
Starting pitchers are pitching fewer and fewer innings while relievers are still pitching too few. Sample sizes are an important part of Fantasy baseball and starters samples are diminishing while relievers workloads aren’t growing and their impacts remain relatively minor. That disconnect is what makes changes in pitching categories so difficult to envision. With the slow, methodical disappearance of the Quality Start and the rise of “bullpenning,” we are seeing the distortion of our base Fantasy pitching categories, ERA and WHIP, the delegitimization of the Win and the fracture of the disbursement of the Save.
Wins are another statistic that the modern day sabermetric media club are working hard to dismiss and they use it as a disqualifier of anyone that wastes their time discussing it seriously. Unlike batting average, we in the Fantasy game need to adapt along with them. Batting average is based on an identifiable skill while Quality Starts and bulk innings are foundational to Fantasy baseball. The smaller the sample size, the less legitimate the core stats of ERA and WHIP become. One of the limitations of closers and middle relievers has been their lack of impact on ERA and WHIP. With fewer innings being pitched by starters every inning is becoming more and more impactful and that results in more wide-ranging swings within a season and within weekly head-to-head competitions. Leagues have weekly innings minimums so that owners can’t game the system by starting only the best starters and elite relievers, who pitch extremely well and as little as possible.
These are a few of my baseball thoughts. Let’s expand on those and a few more before we begin the 2019 Fantasy baseball season.
A New Fantasy Baseball?
Changes in League Settings
With major league baseball changing Fantasy lovers need to consider making changes to our settings to adapt with them. Here are a few thoughts on the subject.
1. Cancel the Catcher
J.T. Realmuto was the leading scorer among catchers with 433 points in standard CBS points leagues. That was two points more than DJ LeMahieu, six more than Starlin Castro and one fewer than Andrelton Simmons. Ketel Marte scored 423 points while Yolmer Sanchez scored 425 in 2018.
Only five catchers hit 20 home runs or more, not a single catcher stole more than seven bases and among the top 15 scoring catchers only one batted over .300 (Wilson Ramos .306) and only four batted over .270. What this means is that there is almost no catcher worth much of anything in any of the Fantasy categories.
Position scarcity exists when a position has a few really good players that separate themselves from their peers followed by a significant drop-off. This was the case at shortstop before steroids and the juiced ball made them relevant. Fantasy owners should never draft a player who is significantly less productive than others playing at deeper positions purely because they are one of only a few worth owning at a position. Believing in tiering as a draft philosophy is one thing. Position scarcity drafting is panicking and entirely another.
At catcher, there isn’t a group of players that separate themselves from their peers. There is Gary Sanchez, who is the Travis Kelce and pre-2018 Rob Gronkowski of Fantasy baseball, to some degree J.T. Realmuto (the George Kittle of Fantasy catchers) and nobody else. That isn’t a group. That is an anomaly.
Catchers are irrelevant in today’s Fantasy world. Make it official by eliminating them from your yearly leagues. Unless you’re a masochist. Then start two. Either way. Commit one way or the other and let’s turn the page.
2. Adapt to the Death of the Quality Start
A quality start is defined as a pitcher throwing six innings or more and allowing three earned runs or less. It is used in some head-to-head leagues as a reactionary substitute for Wins and in most standard points leagues it’s worth 10 points. With “bullpenning” and an overall reduction in innings pitched by starters we are seeing fewer and fewer pitchers throwing at least six innings in a start. I have never seen 5 ⅔ innings pitched in the box scores as often as I did in 2018. Almost every single night one of my starters was one out short of the QS benchmark. Managers and front offices are transfixed by how drastically less successful batters are their third time through a lineup than the second time facing the same pitcher in the same game. It is most apparent in the playoffs, but we are seeing managers more and more proactive with the hook than we ever have before and that is killing the Quality Start and total innings pitched in the process.
Only 15 starting pitchers had 20 Quality Starts or more in 2018 and only 13 pitched at least 200 innings. The QS stat is becoming more of a bonus, like having points for a Grand Slam or as a random toss-in H2H category, than a legitimate way to define a pitchers outing. The QS stat is creating significant separation between the top of the starting pitcher pool and the rest. And, Quality Starts, along with innings pitched, are creating an atmosphere where “position scarcity” is becoming a relevant discussion for pitchers. Something that only existed at catcher, shortstop and to some degree second base, even 10 years ago. Leagues need to adjust to counteract the impact of fewer Quality Starts on their leagues.
A few possible solutions to the quality start conundrum:
- Eliminate the QS – When Quality Starts are rare they become more like a bonus than a legitimate benchmark to distinguish between a good or bad outing and bonuses have no place in serious Fantasy sports.
- Reduce it from 10 points to Five. – Like Wins, better pitchers typically win more games and pitch more Quality Starts than lesser ones, so reward them, but reward them less. I am against drastic change in most instances and I like reducing their impact better than eliminating it. Points Per Reception (PPR) formats were created in Fantasy football in order to balance the values of wide receivers and running backs because running backs were being prioritized overwhelmingly. We are getting to the point where the separation between the best and the rest needs format changes in order to reign in the growth of that separation.
- Redefine What a QS Is – Instead of a QS being defined as six innings pitched and three earned runs allowed or less, make it five innings pitched and possibly four earned runs or less. The QS is disappearing more because starters aren’t pitching as deep into games. They aren’t pitching as well either, but the biggest reason for the dying stat is the innings pitched aspect of the definition. Five innings pitched and four earned runs is FAR from what I would define as Quality?!?, but for Fantasy purposes, it is more reflective of the age we are playing in.
I am more in favor of changing the innings minimum than allowing more earned runs. Another slight change could be to define a quality start on a sliding scale. Define a QS as five innings pitched and three earned runs allowed or less, but if a pitcher throws six innings or more allow four or even five earned runs allowed to qualify. The more innings pitched the more earned runs allowed to qualify.
Redefining the QS is the best solution to the problem and reducing the minimum innings pitched is the best way to do it, but there are a few viable alternatives.
3. Change the Pitching Categories
This is what I am most excited about while I fully acknowledge that it has zero chance of catching on with Fantasy players. Eliminate ERA, WHIP and Wins. Leave strikeouts and add specific pitches and use swing-and-miss percentage or whatever metric best represents whether a pitcher’s specific pitch is good or bad. This is perfectly in line with what Fantasy sports are fundamentally about. Define a specific skill (like batting average or stolen bases or home runs), project it going forward, and then determine a value on draft day. Fantasy categories shouldn’t be intended to best represent what happens on the field. If that’s what your league wants then points leagues are the format for you. They should be a way of challenging owners ability to identify and quantify specific skills, project them for the upcoming season and then determine their value in the draft.
With fewer innings pitched from starters and still too few innings pitched from middle relievers, the core pitching categories are becoming less stable and run the risk of becoming illegitimate. ERA and WHIP are categories that use percentages. The smaller the sample size the less accurate and significantly less stable the results become. Allowing one earned in one inning is an ERA of nine while allowing seven earned runs in nine innings is an ERA of seven. That’s why ERA and WHIP are relatively meaningless statistics when determining a reliever’s impact in Rotisserie leagues and it significantly diminishes their value as a result. Earned Runs Allowed inaccurately distorts those categories when a season-long sample size is 60-70 innings pitched and with the reduction of innings pitched by starters, ERA and WHIP are becoming less and less legitimate. And, with fewer starting pitchers going deep enough in games to qualify for a win, more and more wins are randomly falling into the laps of low-leverage, low-quality middle relievers and in some cases on the shoulders of official scorers.
So how can we make the pitching categories more legitimate?
My solution is to keep strikeouts and I am alright with keeping saves because it is still predictive and it is projectable. Replace ERA, WHIP and Wins with whatever metric best identifies and quantifies the three or four most commonly thrown pitches. Fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. If a cutter or sinker is popular enough to justify inclusion in this group I am fine with that. I am also amenable with combining curveballs/sliders, similar to how some leagues use Holds/Saves, because they can blend together or be confused for one another and because most pitchers throw one or the other rather than both, since they are both “breaking balls.”
There are a variety of different metrics that evaluate a pitcher’s ability and quality, or lack thereof, with these pitches. Leagues can use K% or swing-and-miss percentage or some metric that combines K% and BB%. The specifics of which metric to use to determine who throws the best and worst pitches is another column for another day, but I like the idea. Discussing which pitchers throw the best and worst specific pitch may be minuscia for some, but it’s interesting to me. Lance McCullers has a knee buckling breaking pitch, as does Rich Hill, while Cole Hamels and Johan Santana had dominant careers embarrassing hitters with great changeups. I recall, during Jon Lester’s minor league career, the Red Sox limiting how often he threw his cutter because he relied on it too much to the detriment of the development of his other pitches. Specific pitch analysis is an in-depth way of analysing an upcoming game and not just an abstract, obscure sidebar.
Each pitch is like an individual skill, not unlike how power relates to home runs and how speed translates to stolen bases. And, like hitters, pitchers have on and off nights. Some nights the breaking ball is snapping off and others its hanging. Some days a guy is spotting his fastball and its unhittable, while others, it’s up in the zone and getting crushed. Specific pitches can have an unstable, weekly H2H impact that can also be normalized and quantified over the long term with larger sample sizes. Thats what Fantasy baseball is all about. When a guy is hot you ride it and if a pitcher seems to have lost it maybe he needs to sit that week. And, some teams on the whole or batters in particular hit breaking balls better than a fastball or vice versa.
All we need to do for specific pitches to be their own categories and function the same way our current pitching categories do is to make the analysis of each specific pitch and players ability, or inability, to throw them a routine part of the conversation. I freely admit that this is never going to catch on. But, with the change in the way baseball is managing their starting rotations and their bullpens, ERA and WHIP are becoming too unstable and less and less legitimate. Fantasy leagues need to find a way to adapt and this is one of those ways. Five years from now we will be at a point where Fantasy baseball needs a proven alternative immediately. Now is the time to test them out and see what sticks.
4. Don’t Have Holds
As I outlined up top, the challenge for owners in Fantasy sports is to identify a skill and assign the appropriate value to the players that best provide the most statistics in the appropriate Fantasy category. Holds don’t do that. Too many relievers provide viable Holds totals, irrespective of whether they are good or bad pitchers, and that diminishes the skill associated with the category. There is no reason to draft the best relievers before the end of drafts because Holds can be found in comparable numbers at the end of the draft or during the season on the waiver wire. Drafting middle relievers in baseball is like drafting kickers or individual defensive players in Fantasy football. There are a few players that excel because they are more talented than most – Dellin Betances and Adam Ottavino for example – while the rest of the field provide them randomly and without a direct correlation between talent and success in the category. Without skill a category is fundamentally random and has no place in serious leagues.
4. Don’t Allow Vetoes
A successful league needs to be run by a dictator. A fair and honest one, but it needs to have one decision maker. After a trade groupthink and mob mentalities often ensue, resulting in popular owners gaining favor and disliked ones being shortchanged. Every trade results in sore feelings and sparks knee-jerk, ill-conceived and poorly considered reactions. A momentary lapse in rationality cannot be how trades are allowed or denied and the only way to guarantee it is to have one honest, fair arbiter.
There are two scenarios where a trade should be rejected
- A) One owner colludes to help another. This is cheating and threatens the legitimacy of a league and cannot be allowed. Sometimes one owner chooses to help another without the second owners knowledge and sometimes both owners collude together. It is up to the commission to decide which and expel the violator and keep the owner if they were an unwitting accomplice.
This can be extremely tricky when fair trades are completed between a contender and a cellar dweller, putting more pressure on the integrity of the commissioner and making discretion crucial. In most yearly leagues there isn’t a legitimate reason why a team that has been eliminated from contention should make a trade, but they still can and they shouldn’t automatically be reversed. Commissioners should err on the side of caution and allow fair trades, even when one owner has zero incentive to make one, but they need to manage these circumstances very closely. Especially in leagues with owners that have played together for long periods of time and friendships/alliances and enemies/rivalries develop.
- B) Some players believe that if collusion or cheating doesn’t occur, a trade has to be allowed. The belief is that it isn’t one owner’s place to substitute their judgment for another’s, but this is not the best way to run a fair league, especially when there’s money involved. If open and honest negotiations result in an extremely lopsided trade that significantly impacts the competitive balance and the potential outcome of a leagues standings the commissioner has to disallow or assist in facilitating a fairer trade. Trading has become more and rarer in yearly leagues, but when trades without nefarious intent do happen that doesn’t mean they should automatically be allowed. Just because one owner is able to better swindle another, it doesn’t mean they should be allowed to profit to the detriment of the rest of the league. Stepping in like this should be rare and only in the most extreme cases, but a commissioner needs to be on the lookout to maintain the legitimacy of the final standings. This is even more important in money leagues.
5. More Best Ball Leagues – ½ and ¼ Season Leagues
Sustaining a league’s legitimacy while allowing late-season trades can be a difficult balance to maintain. One of the best parts of playing Fantasy sports is the draft and one of the more common problems for leagues is owners waining diligence. Many owners don’t participate in the waiver wire process, creating a competitive imbalance, and they often stop managing their teams once they have fallen out of contention. A way to avoid these issues is to play best ball leagues, which don’t allow trades or waiver wire claims. The format is designed for owners that like to “draft and dash.” And, for owners who like to trade or who believe the waiver wire is an enjoyable aspect of the Fantasy experience, they should play ¼ and ½ season leagues. These leagues allow owners to have multiple draft nights during the Fantasy season and they create similar circumstances to making trades and claiming players off the waiver wire in a draft format rather than trades with other owners and claims off the wire. It isn’t the same exact thing, but it’s close, without the speed bumps and limitations of leagues that have indifferent and absent owners.
You can follow me on Twitter @CJMitch73 and Talk Sports with me on Facebook in the group “A Podcast To Be Named Later.”
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