Punt your way to the front?

First, let me proactively respond to what I assume many of you will say to yourselves while reading this column; yes, I’m aware it probably would have been a better idea to write this column during the preseason…

I had some discussion over the past few days about how player value might be affected when by toggling a league’s format between rotisserie (roto) and head-to-head (H2H). The initial question was whether an individual category could be inherently more valuable in a H2H league than in a roto league. Not being aware of any research on this topic, I chose to offer a response that was more strategic than data-driven, which I will now tweak and appropriate into a formal column.

Simply stated, my thesis statement regarding value disparity between roto and H2H leagues is that discounting speed and/or saves can serve as viable strategy in a H2H league but not in a roto league. Secondly, streakier players may be preferable in H2H leagues, but only theoretically.

Perhaps most fundamental to my opinion on player value in respect to H2H leagues is the notion that punting a category is a legitimate strategic direction in the H2H format, so long as such a direction can be accomplished without massive ripple effects. What makes punting possible in H2H formats is the fact that the margin by which you lose a category does not matter and that you don’t actually need to “dominate” your league to win. Let me just offer a little more detail on both these points.

In neither roto nor H2H leagues does margin of victory doesn’t matter. But in roto leagues, margin of defeat is critical because you are still competing against the rest of the field for second through Xth place. H2H leagues are broken into scoring periods which produce binary results—either you get one point or no points.

One can easily win the regular season of a H2H league by winning two-thirds of the possible points. Roto leagues are traditionally less closely bunched than that; 80 points is not likely to be enough to win a 12-team, 5×5 roto league. In fact, I just looked back at my two most competitive 5×5 roto leagues going back to 2004 and calculated that the average league champion took 83.5% percent of the highest possible point total (which would be 100 points in a 12-team, 10-category league). The bottom line here is that there is a margin for error in a H2H league that does not exist in a roto league.

Taking the thumbnail above for the sake of illustration, this means you can forfeit only 16.5 percent of your highest possible score if you want to win a roto league. Taking a “1” in a single category in a 12-team roto league eats up roughly half of that leeway right off the bat. And, mind you, this margin for error could be smaller in any given season.

Now that I’ve beaten these not so revolutionary insights into the ground, we reach the question of which categories would make the most sense to punt, should one choose to do so. To me, the most likely categories are stolen bases and saves—the specialty categories. It’s obviously a bad idea to punt power because a homer is literally a run and at least one RBI as well and therefore by doing so you really take a hit in other categories. I mean, do we even meaningfully differentiate home runs and RBI as distinct categories during the mental process of making draft day decisions? And, while there are some players for whom prodigious power comes at the expense of dead batting average weight, there are plenty of neutral and even plus-batting average options who are plus sources of power as well.

Stolen bases are, by far, the most specialty category on the default offensive menu. So, by punting them entirely you can certainly supplement your power supply and go two-for-one, building strength in two categories as opposed to one. And, while one might be tempted to think that SBs are highly correlated with elite run totals, only one of the seven players who stole 40 or more bases last season scored 100 or more runs (Chone Figgins), while three of the five who hit 40 or more homers scored 100 or more times.

When it comes to pitching, a strategy I’ve implemented in the past, though rarely so, is punting saves completely. It is very difficult to consistently win the pitching rate stats without elite relievers; however, you can gobble up elite setup men for pennies on the closer dollar to fill that role for you. As a bonus, many of them also earn more vulture wins than closers do.

Without having to spend on closers, you can either invest more heavily in your starting staff (reducing the need for the elite relievers) or you can strengthen your offense. Then in the last few rounds of your draft, snatch up the Joba Chamberlains and Daniel Bards, and you’ll be fine. Middle relievers are fickle from year to year (there are many reasons for this, a column perhaps better suited for the non-fantasy side of this site), so there will almost always be options that emerge from nowhere for the plucking.

Another factor making both of these categories punt-able is that one’s advantage in such a category is relatively less reliable from week to week because of the combination of small supply and small sample size. Categories like saves and steals are likely to be close every week by nature. Additionally, a greater proportion of a team’s total prowess in saves/steals is wrapped in a lesser number of players than any other category—another factor exacerbating the potential evils of random variation.

I could beat these two horses even further, but I’ll trust I’ve made my case sufficiently.

The one additional point that I will make though is that H2H leagues also offer more opportunity to make strategic shifts with agility. In roto leagues, you can build cushions in categories and then deal from strength to retool with minimal impact on the overall standings, but H2H leagues are structured such that categorical leads have no carryover value from scoring period to scoring period. Therefore, if you choose to punt steals, you can immediately switch course and retool via trade and free agency if you feel it’s prudent to do so. You will not be facing a pre-existing categorical deficit you must make up before you begin gaining points. You may also wind up winning a week here and there anyway by accident. In essence, you are never truly punting anything for the entire season because the hole you dig is refilled periodically.

Aside from statistical profiles of players, the other thing to consider in terms of how a player’s value may be affected from format to format is whether he is a consistent or streaky producer.

In the theoretical, you’d expect that streakier players are better assets in H2H leagues because their hot streaks have more leverage on that week’s outcomes than the consistent but unspectacular contributor. The issues around this are manifold though. First, is consistency actually a discrete, predictable quality? Second, how stark would such a quality have to be to have meaningful impact? Third, the increased streakiness also increases the likelihood of the player producing meaningless surplus value in a given scoring period (not a problem in a roto league, as we just covered).

All in all, I’d consider the streaky versus consistent issue to be way more noise than signal and could not see an instance in which such a quality (real or perceived) could be a deciding factor in how I construct my team. Sure, it may be worth trying to ride a hot free agent for a stretch, or similarly mix and match your roster rotation from bench to starter, but these strategies don’t seem to be any more advantageous or dangerous in H2H leagues than roto leagues. The nature of the H2H league does leave you in more agony over each start/bench decision though.

Thus far, I’ve been fairly mitigating in the way I’ve talked about the possibility of punting, so I guess I should make it clear whether I would actually advise these strategies as opposed to merely acknowledging them as having some undefined amount of philosophical and strategic merit.

My preference is to attempt to stay competitive in stolen bases, but in H2H leagues I am less likely to draft the high-priced speedster than I am in roto leagues (something I’m already fairly unlikely to do). I would draft a Jacoby Ellsbury or Michael Bourn only if I think that player is legitimately the most valuable player on the board … and by a fair margin. But I can’t say that I punt. I still try to build a well-rounded team and spread my stolen base risk (and reward) across a wider cross-section of my roster.

As for punting saves, this is certainly something I consider a very legitimate strategy. I don’t always, or even frequently, practice it. However, that’s actually more because I’ve fallen into a pattern of doing something of the reverse. I often wind up building my pitching staff somewhat backwards, focusing heavily on offense and dominant closers, while picking upside pitchers and streaming opportunistically. I’ll use middle relievers too, if I have the room and they are actually that good, but I often depend on double-digit innings of high-quality bullpen innings on a weekly basis. I also think closers are more of a numbers game than basestealers, figuring that there are only 30 jobs to go around, while every player is a potential basestealer once on base. So, if I have more closers than my “fair share” and my closers are generally of good quality, I think I can win that category fairly consistently, while strengthening my staff’s rate stats.

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  1. John said...

    Derek, say I punt saves and pick up some set-up guys to compensate, like Bard. If Papelbon were to go down for an extended period and the Sox move Bard into the closer position, should I hold onto him, even though his saves are of no use to me? I’m guessing the best option would be to trade him, since he is now too valuable to simply release.

  2. 3FingersBrown said...

    Fantastic article. I’m with you 100% Rarely do I feel the need to punt a category in H2H, but I do draft closers late (or sometimes not at all and just play the wire). I too am loathe to draft steals early, since I’ll always find cheap steals late or on waivers – the next Michael Bourn…

    There was a nice article (I think it was on fantasybaseballjunkie.com but I can’t find it now) about how the categories correlate to one another. The author found that Runs Scored have the most impact on other categories and SB, the least.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...


    The idea is that you need relievers who post superlative rate stats and K-rates (some middle relievers also accrue wins at a similar ratio to innings pitched as starters, btw). So, as long as there are other guys out there to be had who fit this bill, Bard would be more valuable to one of your opponents than he would be to you. What makes this strategy potentially so lucrative is that it is rarely practiced, so you’ll likely have relatively little competition in the market for elite set-up men, especially in the draft.

    Additionally, by rostering these players, you may also have the head start on the closers in waiting situations. If you were practicing this strategy last year, you would have had Ryan Madson before Lidge went down, for example. These closer coups, though somewhat rare, transform the value of those players tremendously. …All of a sudden, you have a very valuable trade chip.

    …You also have roster flexibility if some of these players are generally replacable with other options on the wire. You can cut them loose to specualte on a bat for the short term, or you drop them to add bats on travel days. There are lots of very subtle reasons to like the no closer strategy in the H2H format.

  4. Charles Gates said...

    My strategy in a 12 team H2H league this year was to ‘almost punt’ saves.  I know, I know…punting needs to be an all or nothing strategy right?  I disagree.  In my draft I saw 2-3 other teams not drafting closers, instead stocking up on SPs.  To prevent a 0-0 tie in the Saves category when I was matched up against these teams, I took, effectively, the last closer off the board hoping he’d get me 1 save per week.  The opportunity cost was something like a deep bench player that wouldn’t accrue stats for me anyway.  As for the reasons stated above, I wouldn’t punt in Roto, but in H2H punting can make sense.  And ‘almost punting’ can be even better.

  5. Max said...

    While I prefer to build a H2H team that is solid over every category, I can understand punting saves (but it winds up being a gimmick like Texas Tech Football offense), not so much steals.

    It seems that most are in agreement that steals can be found late in drafts or on waivers.  I dont see the point in ignoring steals because the cost to obtain and properly maintain a speedster type on your roster is little.  In order to have fantasy value, this player is likely to wind up being useful in runs and average as well.  3-tool players should not be underestimated when building a team.  A single speedster combined with a couple of other moderate SB threats will either seal up steals, or at worst, keep you competitive every week.  You would really only have to dedicate 1 roster spot for the speedster allowing you to focus more on power elsewhere.  If you get one of those Willy Tavares 5-steal games from him and take a large lead, he can be benched for a HR threat.

    I have been in leagues where either by strategy or through attrition a team winds up with 1 or zero closers.  As I said above – I view it as a gimmick.  In terms of baseball, I would liken it to all those years when the Yankees would beat up on teams 3rd through 6th starters with their bats, hit their way into the playoffs, and get smoked by a team with superior pitchers.  Fantasy Teams without closers wind up beating up on teams who chose not to punt saves/bad teams through the brute force of owning more starters and piling up the Ks and Ws.  When they make the playoffs, they already start out being down 0-1 and get beat down the balanced team that didnt punt anything.  All it would take are a couple of bad starts from a bloated starting staff, and now you loose 2-3 and maybe even 1-4 (due to lack of Ws) on the pitching side.

    I understand punting saves more than steals – but have yet to see someone take either 1st place in the regular season or win a championship by doing so.

  6. Dylan B said...

    Depending on how the draft is going, I will sometimes punt saves in a H2H league, but that doesn’t mean that I punt them all year, as to the points Max stated(you need them come playoffs). I would try and take with my last few picks very good to excelent releivers who are 90% or more likely to take over the closer duties if the current one gets injured, traded or is ineffective. By doing this and watching the waiver wire for other guys who move into those same qualities I can typically end up with 1-2 closers by June/July, and if I want more, I would hopefully have the extra position players/starters on my team that I took when other teams were drafting closers to trade off to help me shore up that cat.

    Sometimes you may end up being lucky with this come playoffs if the team you are playing only end up looking at your total saves or won/lose record for the year and think that they can get away with benching some of their more volitile closers to ensure they don’t have their ratios effected.

  7. Millsy said...

    In a traditional 5×5 H2H league, I’ve come to the strategy of actually punting W and K to a certain extent.

    As you explain, there are plenty of middle relievers late that have much better ERA/WHIP than the starters any team can put together.  By drafting nothing but hitters (and 2 high up closers in the 8-13th round, say Bell/Soria/Soriano), then snatching up the likes of Mike Adams, Matt Thornton, Dan Bard, Luke Gregerson, Rafael Betancourt) you can end up with a powerful starting lineup likely to win at least 4 or the 5 categories in each session, along with a relief crew that ensures winning SV, WHIP, and ERA each week.  It is, of course, a sensitive strategy (and the likes of Luke Gregerson ruined my first week this year).  But in the long run, the WHIP/ERA/SV wins should pile up (can even take W in some weeks), while you shut people down with your hitters (I, too, tend to load on power, and put a SB guy or two on my bench in order to snatch the SB category when it’s close).

  8. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I’ve actually tried a similar strategy to Milsy’s in too, and did so last year. But, I added one wrinkle. I used my second round pick on Lincecum and took another fairly valuable starter in the 10th or so round (I think it wound up being Burnett). Other than that, I was all bats and top closers. Then I drafted a bunch of high K-potential starters late. I figured I’d have enough firepower to win Ks most of the time, and would be primed to sweep when Lincecum had a two start week.

    All in all, this is not all that different from how I tend to draft roto teams (I usually try to get one legit ace, but hardly ever take him that high). Last year, in that league, I finished a handful of games behind first in regular season and advanced to, but lost in the final round of the playoffs.

  9. 3FingersBrown said...

    Last season in my 12 team keeper league (OBP + QS), I drafted Gregg, Corpas and Motte pretty late as my bullpen. By seasons end I had gotten Franklin off of waivers and Aardsma and Bailey in trades. I was able to bash my way with offense and overwhelm teams in W, QS and K and often with ERA/WHIP with Haren, Shields, Lilly, and a cast of late round high K guys like Sanchez and Scherzer. Finished 7 games out in the regular season and won it all in the playoffs.

    Lesson learned in this league was that if I need closers, they’re always available around the deadline. Much like the way we usually see playoff bound teams sure up their bullpens in RL.

    Currently I have Fuentes (16), Rausch (23), Madson (20) and Gregg (FA) going for me.

  10. mafteechr said...

    One strategy I read about (and employed last year as an experiment) was to draft 5 starting pitchers the first five rounds, 5 closers the next 5 rounds, then draft the stolen base leaders in every position. The goal was win all 5 pitching statistics and stolen bases every week, hopefully giving enough to limp into the playoffs. I had a breakdown at the end of the season and finished 3rd, but it seems very viable.

  11. Transitory said...

    I’ve tried the pitchers/speed strategy a couple of times; it usually works out well for most weeks, but every so often you’ll get that one supposedly reliable starter who gets blown up and loses you the ERA/WHIP categories, and then you lose the week.  Or your opponent, seeing your pitching strength coming, can either stream starters to take W and K, or play just their ace and closers/middle relief to try to win ERA/WHIP with few innings.

    I’m trying this year in my money league a variety of that strategy, punting power only.  It helps that it’s a 6×6 league with strikeouts as the extra hitting category.  So I went after batters looking only at R/SB/AVG/K, guys like Ichiro, Pedroia, Polanco, Figgins, the speed-only guys, got 5 solid closers, and all-out on starting pitching the rest of the way.

  12. Josh said...

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned batting average yet.

    AVG varies so much from week to week that it is virtually useless in H2H. I feel like low average guys are almost universally underrated in H2H.

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