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Fantasy Baseball: Category Deflation - Pitchers

Calling all roto players! As you all prepare for the shortened season, I'm sure you are wondering how your strategies may change and how to approach certain categories, particularly for pitching staffs. Well, I have been thinking about the same things as you and will lay out some of my thoughts on how you can view certain statistics a little differently for this unique 2020 season.

I will be focusing on categories that will be deflated/devalued due to the shortened season, or rather categories that will be harder to draft for or predict. Each league has its own rules and categories, but, after considering the five categories in standard leagues (wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, saves), I believe that wins and saves will be the two most deflated categories.

I will start each category by explaining why I think it will be deflated in a 60-game season and then mention some pitchers who will be most affected. With the season fast approaching, let's dive into the analysis!

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Wins

It is no secret that wins are difficult to predict/tie to a pitcher's performance because a lot of effort behind earning a win comes from the rest of the pitcher's team (the team has to field well, score runs to support the pitcher, etc.). Further, a starter must pitch at least five innings to qualify for a win. This second point is one that will hinder starters more with a shortened season. Pitchers have not had as much time to get stretched out with the shortened Summer Camp, and some managers have already discussed easing pitchers into innings or keeping them on relative innings limits per game. Additionally, the shortened season means that every game counts more, so starters will likely be on shorter leashes.

This won't impact stud starters as much, who have established trust with their managers but will definitely hurt mediocre/back-end starters. Starters who could pitch five innings and win a game 6-5 in 2019 likely won't last that long in the 2020 season. Those potential wins will instead be scattered across middle relievers who come in to stop the bleeding, making those wins very difficult to capture from a fantasy perspective.

So, which of these "mediocre starters" will be hurt most by this phenomenon in the 2020 fantasy season? As a rough indicator, I pulled a list of average shortest innings pitched per game started (IP/GS) for qualified starting pitchers from Fangraphs.

 

 

Not surprisingly, there are a bunch of starters who were streamers and overall fantasy values throughout the 2019 season but also had some rough patches (Wade Miley, Julio Teheran, Jose Quintana, Anibal Sanchez). A comparison of these pitchers' ERA and SIERA indicate that they outperformed throughout the season. Given potential regression in 2020, these are some of the pitchers who may perform at a lower level than they did in 2019, which means they will be less likely to hit the five-inning threshold.

However, there are some higher-end fantasy names towards the top of this list, such as Robbie Ray, Dakota Hudson, and Max Fried. Ray's short outings make sense because he throws a lot of pitches, both in strikeouts (31.5% strikeout rate) and walks (11.2% walk rate). I think Ray's strikeout upside outweighs his proclivity for walking hitters, even in a shortened season. However, his fantasy value will be hurt if he cannot pitch with more control.

Hudson had the same walk issues as Ray (11.4% walk rate) but without the strikeout upside (18% strikeout rate). Combine that with his poor batted-ball profile (exit velocity and hard-hit rate in the bottom-30 percent of baseball) and I fear that Hudson will get hit hard with the negative side effects of the shortened season. Finally, Fried has both strikeout upside (24.6% strikeout rate) and control upside (6.7% walk rate). Given that 2019 was his first full season in the big leagues, his inning count was likely watched closely. However, the shortened season makes an overall innings limit irrelevant, so I think Fried is a solid option for this fantasy season.

Saves

My logic for thinking that saves will be deflated this season is similar to that of wins. Each regular-season game holds so much more weight for a team's playoff chances, so teams cannot afford to blow leads late in games. As such, bullpen usage may look different from how it has been in the past. Again, well-established closers who are trusted by their managers will be given the ball without fail barring multiple complete collapses, making them even more valuable for fantasy this season.

However, teams that have a pair of late relievers where one is usually a setup man and the other is the closer could find that those roles could be flipped depending on which pitcher is playing better lately or what the particular game situation is. Teams like the White Sox (Alex Colome and Aaron Bummer), Twins (Taylor Rogers and Trevor May), Nationals (Sean Doolittle, Daniel Hudson, Will Harris), Braves (Mark Melancon, Will Smith, Shane Greene), and Rays (Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado) will make things very difficult for fantasy players this season.

Further, teams who are undecided on a single closer or are thinking of using a closer committee (Orioles, Mariners, maybe Mets) will also make things tricky in pinpointing sources of saves. Owning any one of the above-mentioned players in these sets will likely net you some saves, but those saves will be more spread out across your fantasy leagues because there will be more players getting a piece of the saves pie.



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