Building backwards?

Those who have kept up with the position-by-position dynamics of fantasy baseball have noticed the emergence of pitching depth in the past few years. There are two predominant and opposing schools of thought regarding how to work with this dynamic from a team-building perspective. One view tells us that depth allows us to deprioritize pitching in your draft/auction because adequate quality players at that position can be found late and cheap. The alternative view preaches that because adequate quality players are so abundant, an extra premium should be placed on acquiring the elite pitchers, as that’s where the top teams will separate themselves from the pack.

In most situations I play out the first perspective when building my team. In one of my leagues this year, a co-owner and I were attempting to work this strategy again, but as the season began to play out we found our team somewhat accidentally employing a different strategy altogether. We’ve been doing okay with it, and are currently holding down second place in a very competitive 12-team mixed league.

I’ll spare you the details of how we got where we did, except to say that trading wasn’t really involved. Ostensibly, we wound up with a pitching staff that looked like it was built in reverse. Only one starter we drafted has remained on our team the entire season (others were lost to both injury and performance), but we hit several homers on our bullpen construction and have a really solid core anchored by Aroldis Chapman, Jim Johnson and Ernesto Freire. This core has been supplemented by a revolving door of elite non-closer relievers and a few part-time closers we managed to land.

We are holding our own with 38 pitching points as I’m writing this and have spent most of the season somewhere between the third and sixth best staff in terms of total points held. So, this got me to thinking: Is this strategy viable—meaning both doable and reasonably likely to yield success—if you tried to do execute it consciously?

I’m not sure there’s an objective way to analyze that question, so I’d rather pose it for discussion instead. To start off, I’m going to list some benefits, drawbacks, assumptions, and risks for this approach. I hope we can all discuss whether they translate into a hit, a dud, or something in between.

Strengths

  • Avoids spending high draft picks/cost on elite starting pitchers, leaving more for offense
  • Elite middle relievers, on whom this strategy relies, are abundant and often free
  • Enables much roster flexibility—not as highly invested in starting pitchers, can drop for bats on travel days, as well as stream for favorable match-ups.
  • No matter what, you have to compete for saves, and this option will leave you with elite options in that category
  • Advantage in pitching rate stats

Weaknesses

  • Disadvantage in pitching counting stats.
  • Employing this strategy compels owners to reach for certain relievers to ensure acquisition

Risks

  • Disadvantage in counting stats could be too great. This could be more of a strategy to place or show, but not to win; similar to “punting” strategies
  • Strategy relies heavily on acquiring a player like Craig Kimbrel or Chapman. Owner is in real trouble if he’s beaten or outbid on them; risk of overpaying for elite closers
  • Potential to accumulate too much “surplus value” in saves category

Assumptions

  • League allows daily and unlimited transactions
  • Elite closers can be acquired in later rounds or less expensively than elite starters
  • Identification of elite relievers is as accurate as identification of elite starters
  • Pool of elite non-closing relievers is readily available
  • Owner is able to correctly identify cheap, quality starting pitchers
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Comments

  1. Scott said...

    I do believe you are basically outlining “LIMA”:  low investment mound aces.

    if it’s 5×5 h2h then this is a very sound strategy since you’ll probably have a leg up in ERA/WHIP/SV so long as you make your minimum innings. You’ll spend late(r) picks on bullpen aces and hopefully draft a killer offense by eschewing big name SP’s in the first 10-15 rounds.

  2. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Scott,

    I don’t want to open this can of worms again because the definition of “LIMA” has been discussed here many times, and suffice to say that it is a bit contested.

    Overall, I’m somebody who works on LIMA principles, though I may not actually execute the exact plan as originally conceived. That said, I think there are two characteristics here that distinguish it from LIMA proper.

    One, you are not deprioritizing elite pitching. In fact, you will most certainly have to spend at least 1 pick in the top 100 on a pitcher. You’re just buying elite closers instead. Perhaps instead of selecting starters in rounds 5, 10, 14, 18, and 20, plus relievers in round 9, 13, 17, and 21 (something that might resemble a typical draft of mine), the first two or three pitchers you draft are relievers.

    Two, the efficacy of the LIMA plan is likely to change as the depth and replacement level of starting pitching does… not to mention the gap between the adequate LIMA archetype and the truly elite SP. I’m not sure the textbook LIMA approach has been tested extensively and had the results of those tests discussed publicly in the many years since Shandler named it and its foundation penetrated the casual fantasy baseball circle.

    So, I’m not sure this actually is LIMA. And, I’m not sure LIMA’s merits have been robustly and completely evaluated in the current age of more highly-skilled casual gamers and even further evolved expert analytics and strategy.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...

    …The other novel thing about this approach is that it places a premium on the exact players who most experts consider the most overvalued – closers.

    In a sense one of the questions this method asks is whether it is easier to find breakout closer/reliever studs late/on the wire, or easier to find starters.

    We drafted Chapman, for example. But, we also drafted Marshall (he was the first closer we took). So, this plan would have likely yielded a similar result had that switch never happened. …Chapman didn’t NEED to become a closer, but he did need to be a complete beast.

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Haven’t had time to read this yet, but the answer to the question is yes. I’ve done it multiple times.

    I’ve also done the spend 90% of the budget on pos players and won AND I’ve spent 75% of a budget on pitching and came 4 runs short of winning.

  5. Will H. said...

    Brad is the best streamer – and probably bests FBB player – I’ve played against, but this year questions one assumption, that elite rate stats are a given with this strategy. Streaming has led, this year at least, to good but not great standings, and when you combine three of them (k/9 is really a rate stat) you are hurt if the winds blow the wrong way even if you are a really smart streamer. In our 5×5 he is second (and, in full disclosure, I am worse than that) but better rate stats is the biggest issue (apart from the #1 player’s team remaining insanely healthy). So there is some risk there, which might lend credence to the suggestion that it is a place/show strategy… making it still more profitable, but a no-doubt low ratio ace could help mitigate the vagaries to ratios that streaming involves.

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