In a couple of notes and blog entries this spring I’ve referenced my affinity for using Middle Relievers, so in this entry I wanted to explain the references a bit more clearly. As you can see by the title of this entry we’re going to work some magic with numbers and turn a cheap SP into a legitimate Fantasy Ace with a little help from the red-headed step-child of fantasy baseball: the middle relievers. But before we work our magic with middle relievers let’s talk a little bit about the difference between pitching and hitting in fantasy leagues for general strategy purposes. This should help paint a clearer picture of how middle relievers can add value to your pitching staff.
By now, you’ve probably heard the mantra “Build through hitting” when it comes to drafting your fantasy baseball team. It’s an engrained strategy that’s written and talked about each spring and one that comes with a tremendous amount of supporting evidence. Evidence such as the difference in the volatility between pitching and hitting as well as the fact that hitters can impact up to five categories in traditional rotisserie leagues, while pitchers can only impact up to four categories are often cited. These are usually the primary and secondary reasons hitting is on the whole more valued than pitching. But one of the more important concepts and unheralded differences between pitching and hitting is the makeup of the categories: Counting vs. Ratio. Understanding the differences in composition between these two types of categories is essential to understanding how to manage them.
A “Counting” category is a category that is built on accumulation. Statistics achieved in this category cannot be taken away. The category, by nature, is only additive. As a result, performance can only move these categories upward. Examples of Counting categories include: Runs, RBI’s, HR’s, SB’s, Strikeouts, Saves, and Wins. A “Ratio” category on the other hand is a category that is built upon the interaction of a set of statistics. These interactions include both negative and positive performances and as a result the statistics accumulated in this category can move either up or down. Examples of Ratio categories include: Batting Average, ERA, and WHIP. Since these two category types are measured differently, it only makes sense that they should be attacked differently.
In a Counting category, the goal is a simple one: Accumulation. The more statistics you can acquire in that category, the better. Poor performance doesn’t affect these categories at all, so anyone can help! If the number of opportunities to acquire statistics was unlimited, you’d want to garner as many attempts at acquiring these statistics as possible, because there is only one way to attack the category, through accumulation!
In a Ratio category, the goal is a bit more complex. A ratio consists of a numerator and a denominator and both portions of the ratio can be managed. Using WHIP as an example: the ratio for WHIP is (Walks + Hits)/Innings Pitched. In the case of WHIP as a category, the lower the WHIP your team can achieve the better the result in the overall standings. So your positive contributions are Innings Pitched, while your negative contributions are Walks + Hits. The overall goal is to acquire the most Innings Pitched with the least amount of Walks + Hits. Thus, you can achieve this goal by either adding more Innings Pitched or by limiting the Walks + Hits. There is more than one way to attack the category!
Alright, so we’ve established the conceptual difference between Counting and Ratio categories and how they’re constructed. Now, let’s take a look at the difference in the construction of the traditional categories we use in fantasy baseball. In a traditional 5x5 league, four of the five hitting categories (SB’s, R’s, RBI’s, HR’s) are Counting categories, while just three of the five pitching categories are Counting categories (W’s, K’s, Saves). Since Saves represents one of the three Counting categories and Saves, for the most part, are accumulated through an entirely different skill set than the other Counting categories (Wins and Strikeouts), the pitching categories really break down more like this: 2 “Ratio” categories, 2 “Counting” categories, and 1 “Specialist” category. Ultimately the breakdown shows a distinct difference between the way hitting and pitching is valued in fantasy baseball. With 80% of your hitting standings made up of Counting categories, your goal is to build a team that will accumulate as many statistics as possible. Conversely since pitching has only two true Counting categories and two Ratio categories, pitching can be managed.
This is where the divide between elite hitting and elite starting pitching is driven further by category composition. We’ve always talked about the difference between an elite hitter being a five category player, at best, and an elite pitcher being a four category player, at best; but the gap is really wider! While an elite starting pitcher’s contributions can impact up to four categories, their contributions to the Ratio categories (ERA and WHIP) have the potential to be negated by other pitchers. Conversely, elite hitters’ contributions are for the most part made towards the four Counting categories, and thus cannot be negated. As a result, elite starting pitchers’ performance only guarantees positive contributions in two of the five categories, while elite hitters’ performance can guarantee positive contributions in up to four of the five categories. I believe this is one of the most unheralded reasons why Elite Hitting and a strategy of “Building through Hitting” are such strong principles in fantasy baseball. The accumulation of hitting stats is a necessity, whereas the accumulation of tremendous pitching stats is simply a luxury, because in the end pitching can be managed!
So, how exactly do we manage pitching? Well, I’m glad you asked! This is where the Middle Relievers step in!
Middle Relievers don’t seem to have a spot in traditional fantasy baseball. They don’t get Saves, and they don’t pitch often enough to be valued in Wins or Strikeouts and as a result they often go unnoticed in fantasy leagues sitting on the waiver wire all year long. But every year when you sort through the season-end rankings you’ll see Middle Relievers. As an example, sorting through Yahoo’s 5x5 2007 rankings a total of 5 relief pitchers finished in the Top 150 players overall without recording more than 5 saves. I point out that minimal number of Saves each of these relievers are contributing to point out that we’re not just focusing on Relievers that move into Closing roles over the course of the season, although this is an added benefit (if you own Middle Relievers you’re more likely to fall into some saves). So, if they’re not contributing in Saves and likely not pitching enough to make a significant dent in Wins or Strikeouts how on earth are these guys contributing to a fantasy baseball squad?
This is where we get back to the idea of managing a pitching staff and taking advantage of the Ratio categories. Let’s go back to the original title of this article and see how we can “manage” to turn Shaun Marcum into C.C. Sabathia through the use of middle relievers.
Last year C.C. Sabathia finished with the following numbers: 241 Innings, 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 19 Wins, and 209 K’s. As a result, Sabathia finished tied as the 2nd best starting pitcher in Rotisserie, contributing a $35 value to his owners.
On the other hand Shaun Marcum finished with 159 innings, 4.13 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 12 Wins, and 122 K’s. As a result, Marcum was a middle of the rotation fantasy starter in mixed leagues and spent much of the season sitting on waivers.
So how can we turn a Shaun Marcum into a C.C. Sabathia? This is where the use of Middle Relievers can really smooth out a pitching staff. Let’s add in one of the top middle relievers last year on top of Shaun Marcum and take a look at the impact, for this example we’ll use Pat Neshek.
Adding Neshek’s 70 1/3 innings, 2.94 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7 W’s, and 74 K’s on top of Marcum’s numbers and you end up with the following line: 229 2/3 innings, 3.77 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 19 Wins, and 196 K’s.
The Marcum + Neshek combination ends up with the same amount of Wins (19), 13 less K’s, and a slightly higher WHIP (0.03) and ERA (0.56) over the course of the season than your AL Cy Young Winner C.C. Sabathia!
While a Middle Reliever may not pitch as much as starters they do pitch enough to make a difference. The combination of low WHIP, low ERA, and high K Rates that the best middle relievers provide can do wonders for your pitching staff. Ultimately the middle relievers’ production smoothes out your average starters performance and enhances the total staff performance.
So, there you have it, with a little help from a middle reliever we’ve turned Shaun Marcum, middling fantasy starter, into something a lot closer to a fantasy ace. Ultimately, this is just an example of one middle reliever enhancing one starter, but the strategy is one that can be used for the entire staff. There are a couple of keys to utilizing the strategy effectively:
1) Avoid below average starting pitching! Keep your innings pitched lower
- This gets back to the ability to manage the numerator and the denominator in the Ratio categories. Starting pitchers will throw the bulk of your innings and as a result will have the most impact on both your WHIP and your ERA. So, if you have below-average starting pitching you are just piling up bad innings and making it more difficult to smooth out with middle relievers.
2) Focus your draft on superior hitting
- The reason you need superior hitting for this strategy to work most effectively is because it’s going to be difficult to lead your league in Wins and Strikeouts. So you need to have a dominant lineup finishing atop your hitting standings in almost every category. Luckily this should be easier since you can focus solely on hitting early in the draft
3) Utilize Bench Spots with Middle Relievers
- This is another reason you need great hitting, because you’re not going to worry about carrying high upside hitters on your bench. The bench spots need to be used for extra middle relievers. The more good middle relievers you have the more innings you can utilize them for and the more you’ll be able to compete in the Counting categories.
All three of these rules are essential to having success with a Middle Reliever strategy because they enable an owner to maximize the advantages the different types of categories inherently allow. With the understanding that any owner can effectively manage their pitching staff through the use of Middle Relievers, owners can more confidently invest heavily in elite hitting, a more predictable and valuable commodity.