Opportunity + skills = production
It doesn’t get much simpler than that, right?
When it comes to this equation however, many fantasy players spend the overwhelming majority of their time looking for edges to maximize the “skill” component of that equation, while ignoring some simple strategies to maximize the “opportunity” side. One of the ways you can help maximize your opportunities to produce is effectively managing your bench, and constructing your team’s bench in a way that fits your profile as a fantasy baseball player.
Some leagues have weekly rotations while others have daily rotations, and this transaction-frequency influences bench-management strategy. I plan to address daily transaction leagues most directly, but will reserve some comments for weekly leaguers at the end.
At the most fundamental level, when you think about opportunity and your bench—or more broadly, your entire roster—the first edict of effective roster management is that you want as many players as possible, on any given night, in a position to be able to accrue stats for your team. Minimizing DNPs is the primary name of the game. This is a straightforward concept, but its practical implications may be a tad nuanced. This is where you must ask yourself the question that will largely determine what your optimal bench management style will be.
Are you a micro-manager?
A bench player does no good, no matter how talented he may be, if he doesn’t make his way into your line-up. So, ask yourself whether you have the time, desire, and will to do things like check starting line-ups within the hour before game times to determine whether your regulars are sitting. Do you have the patience to look into opposing pitchers, handedness and split data to determine the best match-ups among your fringe starters and bench players?
If you are ready, willing, and able to micromanage a bit, you should have a few bats on your bench that are above replacement-level. There are a few characteristics worthy of privileging, in addition to overall skills as well, if you are going to tilt toward the micro-manager route.
Players who are multi-position eligible are very useful. It’s always disheartening when you actually dodiscover one of your starters will be getting the day off, only to realize that, even though you do have a bench player, you can’t get him in your line-up. In fact, multi-position eligibility among your starters is a great trait too, as it offers a greater likelihood that you find a way to fit your bench players in when there’s an open spot. But, these are all advantages you have to work to manifest.
Think about your starting roster and which players, or rather which positions, are given the most time off. If you start Chipper Jones at 3B, you probably should have a 3B-eligible bat on your bench. If you have players returning from injury, who project to be given the play 2 games, take 1 off treatment for a couple of weeks, make a contingency plan. If you have players who sometimes are asked to sit against lefties, you’ll need a back-up who is eligible at the same position.
Players with extreme splits can be useful as bench players. Righties who kill lefties, players with outrageous home/road splits, switch hitters with one dominant bat side are all welcome if you’re willing to put the effort into deploying them correctly. This approach isn’t exactly about maximizing opportunity in a volume sense; rather it’s about getting the most out of your players. Some mediocre players perform as elite players when placed in a defined set of circumstances. There’s no shame in using them as such.
When it comes to pitchers, your mindset should be similar but with a lesser priority and added scrutiny. The dynamics of pitcher rosters are bit difficult, limiting your opportunity for gain under this model. You can play many starting pitchers at a time; often you’re stuck playing starters who aren’t even scheduled to pitch that day because they’re too valuable to drop, and you have more players position-eligible than players playing that day. You’re most likely to have only a few roster spots to toggle, and most likely those players are going to be middle relievers, along with the occasional opportunistic spot-start.
You can still try to turn your roster over to maximize the likelihood that your middle relievers get into games, and you can try to track which closers may be in line for a day off, but this is unlikely to have major impact on the standings over the course of a season. For the most part, find some useful middle relievers who get in a lot of games, leave them there, and hope they vulture some wins and saves, which giving you sterling rate stats.
The other key distinction between batters and pitchers is that, when it comes to your offensive roster spots, you should basically be trying to max them out, because it is very unlikely that you will succeed in doing so, regardless of the strength of your efforts. Pitching, on the other hand, is a zero-sum game in this sense. If you have an innings limit, chances are you are going to try to finish the season right around that number, so while an 0-4 from an offensive bench player played is nothing more than a tiny prick on your team’s AVG, there is real opportunity cost to just racking up appearances and innings without much thought.
For those of you in leagues that differentiate SP and RP (a pet peeve of mine, many of you know), you can still take advantage of multi-position eligibility by finding a dual-eligible pitchers and pitching starters as relievers or relievers as starters when advantageous.
But, overall, for micro-managers, I feel that your bench strategy should prioritize building a high-quality, flexible offensive bench of maybe three players who you can get into your line-up with some regularity, as well as on travel days. Note for OCD-level micro-managers, west coast bench players provide a tiny extra advantage, because if your starter is playing on the west coast, it does you no good to find out he’s going to be sitting if your substitute player’s game has already started.
What do you do if you are not a micro-manager?
If you are not a micro manager, your focus should be on the skill side of the original equation, even when it comes to the bench. Offensively, you should be using your bench more to position yourself to sustain injury, cold streaks from starters, and to minimize the impact of potential future trades. If you’re not going to be able to get these players into your line-up, then utility is less important than objective value.
For non-micro-managers, it can be a good idea to spend more of your bench resources on your pitching staff. It is not all that burdensome and labor intensive to keep track of when pitchers are playing, as this is information that is available days in advance. Therefore, non-micro-managers may want to focus on building depth in their starting pitching, as it is much easier to play the match-ups with pitchers than hitters. Rotate your fringe starters by looking ahead to future match-ups, or maximize the number of starters who have two-start weeks for those in H2H leagues with weekly scoring periods.
If the micro-manger, who often uses a shorter pitching staff, suffers injuries to a key pitcher that he needs to address, you’ll be in a position to capitalize, as you can offer a pitcher while still having quality play-able options deeper on your roster.
Also, instead of chasing middle relievers who may get a rogue save opportunity based on a closer’s likely rest day, non-micro-managers should take the long view and target middle relievers behind candidates for implosion and/or trade. Basically, you’re trying to set yourself for a windfall, as opposed to running ragged committing frequent petty heists.
Weekly transaction leagues
As a final note, weekly transaction leagues lend themselves toward the non-micro-management style of bench management by their nature. Owners have to decide on rosters in advance. They need deeper starting staffs to provide more two-start starter options. Often they face uncertainty about a player’s injury status going into a week, so having a high quality option to play many games in a row is of priority.
The one facet of the micro-manager’s portfolio the weekly leaguer may want to borrow is the extreme split player. Perhaps a lefty-killer is projected to get four or five match-ups in his favor that week, or a home-park savant is playing in the friendly confines all week. Those are mid-term opportunistic plays, and can be capitalized upon in weekly transaction leagues to tremendous gain, especially when your opponent lazily trots out a cadre of marginal power hitters set for a four-game series in San Diego.