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Rethinking DFS Strategies for a 60-Game MLB Season

The 2020 MLB season is going to be weird. In a 60-game season, previous in-season game performance holds limited value, making game-to-game projections unusually difficult across the entire season. Consider what some player production looked like 60 games into last season:

That’s a small sample of oddities from early last year, but they highlight an important aspect of a short season: most player stats take more than a 60-game season to stabilize.


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Size Matters

Stabilization is defined as the point at which half of a player’s previous performance carries useful information about his future performance. According to research from Russell A. Carleton at Baseball Prospectus, stabilization points can be well over 100 PA for hitter stats and over 200 batters faced for pitchers. Here's a snapshot of some key stabilization points:

Strikeout Rate Walk Rate HR Rate BA OBP SLG
Hitters (PA) 60 120 170 910 460 320
Pitchers (BF) 70 170 1320 630 540 550

The market for DFS players is likely to overvalue limited data this year. As a result, DFS players should follow the following guidelines when setting their lineups in 2020.


Pay For Superstars

Superstars are a shortcut to certainty, making them especially valuable in what is the least certain season in DFS history. Finding superstars is relatively easy, as most of them should pass a basic sniff test of whether or not they’re an elite fantasy option.

For hitters, Mike Trout is the premier option, with Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, and J.D. Martinez all likely falling into the category as well. Superstars should have multiple seasons of elite production heading into 2020, but elite power hitters can establish themselves during the season with home runs, strikeouts, and walks stabilizing fairly quickly.

Pitchers are similarly easy to identify, with Gerritt Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer all comfortably locked-in as superstars, health providing. Cole’s 2019 performance illustrates how valuable superstars can be in terms of providing a high degree of certainty for high-level performance.

Cole averaged nearly 30 DraftKings points per start last season, dropping below 20 points only six times. With high-certainty, high-quality DFS picks likely to be in short supply this season, paying for superstars should be a featured part of the DFS strategy.


Avoid The Middle Class and High-Priced Non-Superstars

One of the more dangerous traps that DFS players can fall into is relying on unrepresentative samples of data to pick players. It’s likely to be an especially tempting trap in a 60 game season when even half of the season is far from enough to determine whether or not most player streaks are going to stick. 

Even in a normal year, hot players can see their value inflated after just a few strong performances. Although the hot hand in baseball might be real, DFS player prices appear to react strongly to a small number of hot games, with the price increases seeming to hold for longer than they likely should. Last season, Daniel Vogelbach saw his DraftKings price spike to over $5,000 after a hot start to the year, but his elevated price held through May even as his performance waned.

With only 60 games this year, the performance of middle-tier players is likely to be volatile and unpredictable. Nevertheless, many of those players will be relatively high-priced thanks to hot starts in an effectively meaningless number of games. That makes those players poor DFS values, and they should be avoided as a result.


Target Cheap, Underperforming, Volatile Players With Favorable Park Factors

This rule falls out of the other two to some extent, but it also stands on its own. Just as DFS prices are likely to react too extremely to early-season hot streaks, the prices are likely to penalize players too harshly for poor starts to the season. 

In particular, cheap, underperforming players whose production takes a while to stabilize should be targeted. For hitters, that means players reliant on a high batting average and OBP, a group that likely includes many active base stealers. For pitchers, it means soft-contact focused players who are less likely to rely on strikeouts and tend to outperform their FIP. Crucially, these players should have had higher expectations coming into the season than their in-season performance suggests; picking a player who is living up to expectations with poor performances isn’t a winning strategy.

The value in this tier of players largely comes from their volatility; by having their performance fluctuate, these players can keep their prices down while maintaining a high upside. Even so, park factors are one way to achieve desirable certainty in this category. Coors Field is an extreme example, but Rockies hitters posted a league-leading .884 OPS at home last season compared to a paltry .678 mark on the road. 

One additional way to get some degree of certainty in this tier is to target pitchers with hot fastballs whose performance has yet to improve. If a pitcher’s fastball velocity was up in his previous start but he performed poorly and his price is low, then he’s relatively likely to be a strong DFS pick in his next start.

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