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A Crash Course for MLB's Sprint Season

In true 2020-style, baseball is about to get funky. Maybe you’re excited about the idea of getting some strange baseball, or maybe the word “fluid” reminds you of the morning after your last visit to Taco Bell. Either way, it’s time to start sorting the chalupas from the chimichangas.

Let’s acknowledge that we’re venturing into uncharted territory. Even as the Rotoballer team has been working to unpack the rule changes, 60-man rosters, new schedules, etc., we keep getting more news, and that’s ignoring the fact that we don’t know which baseball will show up, which players might still opt out, or that games haven’t even begun.

Despite those limitations, we’re going to do what we can to make sense of this season, so without further ado, here is your crash-course guide for the sprint season.

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It’s Only 60 Games

It’s almost impossible to overstate how dynamic this season is going to be. While I’m not betting on the Orioles to make the playoffs, the sample of a 60-game season in 66 days is so frenetic that we’re going to see some absolutely meteoric performances and some epic busts. Normal baseball always has those, but consider this juxtaposition from the first 66 days of last season:

Player A 55 32 15 35 0 .246 .928
Player B 57 27 4 25 2 .259 .691

Clearly, Player A was more valuable for the first 66 days of the 2019 season, but the educated reader will not be surprised to hear that these roles had reversed by the end of the season and that Player B was far more valuable than Player A. As an experienced fantasy baseball player, you’ve known that was the direction of this section since the start of the last paragraph. Here are the identities and full seasons of those same players:

Dan Vogelbach 144 73 30 76 0 .222 .780
Yuli Gurriel 144 85 31 104 5 .298 .884

We know that sample size distorts the accuracy of results. While 60 games are just enough to start normalizing most player performance, the results are still noisy. That will be particularly true of streaky players. Managers will have to approach players like Edwin Encarnacion, Giancarlo Stanton, and Eddie Rosario judiciously. Over a full season, those hitters can be expected to generate their stats despite the concerns about injury or streakiness. However, banking on too many players like that could be problematic.

Let this caution be clear though, to win in 2020, you’ll have to take risks, and you’ll have to target some high-risk players to set yourself apart. As a sprint-season manager, I want some players with that type of potential because I’ll need some extraordinary performances to win. If I’m going to lose, I don’t really care if I finish fifth or 10th.

The point here isn’t to avoid streakiness and risk. It’s that we’ll have to manage it. In a 162-game season, I could draft Edwin Encarnacion and give him his two-month vacation whenever he got into one of his funks. This season, that’s going to be a total loss. You’ll always have one or two of those in a season, but this year, there’s less time for positive regression. Get your studs and rock-solid anchors at the start of the draft, then go collect your meteors, just try to avoid the Earth-smashing, life-destroying kind. 2020 has already been chaotic enough, thanks.

Moving to the other side of the baseball, I think I’m more committed than ever to getting an ace to start my drafts this season, and that’s with all of my concern about some of the top SPs being overpriced. We know that what sets elite starters apart from good-but-not-great starters is their consistency. I might not get elite value from my ace, but I’m probably going to get at least a top-20 performance from them.  If someone attractive falls, I could do the double-aces. After the elite starters, I might not take another pitcher until after pick 120 or 130.

Given the reduction in volume, managers should remember to prioritize hitters locked into a lineup spot at the top of the order. One home run or one steal may well be the difference in winning a league this season. Many of these bats will come earlier in the draft. Hitters like Bo Bichette, Austin Hays, Andrew McCutchen, and Kolten Wong are available at different stages of the draft and are likely to bat first or second for their respective teams.

Finally, the shortened season makes punting saves and steals during the draft especially dangerous. When you have five months to cull the waiver-wire and add players like Taylor Rogers and Oscar Mercado mid-season, you can make up for ignoring steals and saves during the draft. With two months, the margin for error drops to near zero.


Shortened Spring Training

For 2020, teams will have three weeks of Spring Training at their home parks. While players will be facing more major-leaguers or near major leaguers, the level of intensity for zero-fan, intra-squad games won’t match the work from Spring Training, which was already a few levels down from MLB in-season work. Scott Engel addressed this point in his recent Baseball-Insider article and in a previous one.

There is some dispute over whether hitters or pitchers will benefit more from the quick start, but the sources I’ve seen and heard all indicate that we’ll probably see pitchers scuffle through the first few outings as we normally do in early April. Some of that will be mitigated by weather, the use of openers, and tandem pitching starts. Still, it seems reasonable that pitcher performance may be even more erratic because of the combination of the short season and the quick preseason.


Hello Short Starts, Goodbye Innings Limits

Remember that Spring Training allows pitchers to proceed through fairly extensive and scheduled ramp-ups. The preseason routine involves doing more and more pitch mixing throughout longer outings. Certainly, they’ll be working up to their normal status, but we’ve all seen pitchers struggle in their first two or three starts as their managers declare that they are still rounding into form. The simple reality is that there will be some starters who don’t hit full speed until the second month of the season.

**After submitting this article for publication, Zack Meisel reported on Twitter that Carlos Carrasco was built up and ready to throw six innings already. If that is indeed the case for Carrasco and other top-100 starters, it will change the landscape of short starts and reliever use.**

The complementary point is that teams are more likely than ever to use tandem starters or simply rely on openers or long-relievers to protect starters from facing hitters for a third time. It may be easier to find strong ratios this season but harder to get wins. I’ll discuss how this impacts relievers in the section about expanded rosters.

Combine the higher stakes for each game and the shortened season, and there is no such thing as a pitcher with an innings limit this season. If you’re convinced that Jesus Luzardo is the second coming, you should draft him accordingly. Luzardo and other young SPs should not be too limited by an innings cap. Look for Frank Ammirante to cover this topic in an upcoming article.


The DH Goes Universal

The implications of a universal DH are relatively straightforward. NL pitchers are going to give up more runs this season than they did last season. The NL will probably still be the lower scoring of the two leagues because the AL teams are built to leverage the DH spot more effectively, but the difference is probably going to be an increase of about .1 to .2 in ERA and a corresponding shift in WHIP. There’s a difference in strikeouts as well, but it’s a bit more marginal.

That leaves drafters needing to devalue NL pitchers by about $1.5 from their preseason-March values. For instance, that moves a pitcher like Walker Buehler from being projected as the 15th most valuable player to the 22nd. For a pitcher like Zach Wheeler, it moves him from 142nd to 153rd. Obviously, those numbers shift depending on the projection systems, player-value weighting, etc. Regardless, drafters should apply a definite discount to the original price of NL pitchers from before the shutdown. Hopefully, I’ll have time to publish a longer article on this topic next week.

For hitters, fantasy managers find themselves in a veritable gold rush of outcomes. Everyone is looking at batters like Howie Kendrick, Dominic Smith, and Kevin Cron as potential bonanzas. Kendrick’s positional eligibility and balanced splits make him particularly attractive, but remember that if most of these hitters were absolute studs capable of hammering both lefties and righties, they wouldn’t need the universal DH to give them full-time jobs. To that end, if you’re looking to calculate the real increase to a player’s value, you need to use a player’s splits when you calculate the additional volume. Many of the new NL DH candidates are strong platoon players and marginal or unusable against their weak side.

For more names and ideas, check out Matt Wallach’s DH candidates in the National League.


Expanded Rosters and Taxi Squads Will Allow Teams to be More Aggressive

For teams with playoff aspirations and a particular weakness, we’ll likely see them use the expanded roster and taxi squad to add flexibility or options to shore up that weakness. That could mean that marginal fantasy players will lose playing time as teams try to leverage their opportunity for victories. Two of the most obvious example of that will be starting pitchers who struggle with the third time through the order or closers who are going through rough patches.

For example, regardless of whether Freddy Peralta has successfully added a new pitch, I fully expect that the Brewers are going to do everything in their power to limit him to two times through the batting order, especially early in the season. That might very well make him a stud for ratio stats, but it probably hamstrings his potential wins. I still want Peralta, but fantasy managers need to be cognizant of how that impacts a pitcher’s potential to earn wins. 2020 is likely to give us a higher percentage of tandem starts and bullpen days than any previous season.

Strong teams with sketchy closers or bullpens are going to experiment with using their best reliever in different roles. Alex Fast has written extensively on this topic, and Eric Samulski just released two articles about the ramifications. Both authors are required reading.

Eric’s article, “How to Draft Saves in a Shortened Season” is a must-read for recalibrating how to approach relievers: his premise is that teams without a clear understudy are more likely to stick with their established closer and that teams with strong setup men (or established committee patterns) are going to be more fluid with their approach. Eric offers far more insight and identifies specific teams and targets, so you need to give his piece your attention. His second article, “Why You Need Middle Relievers In 2020,” focuses on middle-relief pitchers and how to use low-cost relievers to boost your categories.

For me, I’m aiming for a star (singular) and scrubs approach with closers. I think we’re going to see reliever use that simulates what we normally see in the final two or three weeks of the pennant run: firemen being used in critical situations, multi-inning saves, and teams trying to ride two or three guys to eke out every win. My approach then is to get one of Hader, Yates, or Chapman if I can. After that, I’m just looking to diversify my saves at the lowest possible cost without putting myself in a position where I’m effectively punting saves. That will absolutely mean drafting setup men and committee guys who are afterthoughts for most managers.


Pool Play – Aim for the Shallow Central

Of the three regions (East, Central, and West), the Central has the clearest combination of weaker pitching staffs and weaker lineups. There are still some formidable players and teams, but where I’ve previously debated between Tim Anderson and Bo Bichette, I’m now set on Anderson. Likewise, in my personal conflict over Matthew Boyd and Dinelson Lamet, I’ve made my choice to target Boyd.

If all else is nearly equal, avoid players stuck facing the collective pitching staffs and batting orders of the East and West. Much better to have players who can capitalize against weaker opponents.


Make Lemonade

If nothing else, 2020 is the chance to experiment and try some different things in Lemonade Leagues*. Encourage your home league to try something unique: establish rivalry weeks, expand rosters, institute Sacko punishments, you know…fun, friendly things.

Similarly, consider new strategies: If you’ve never tried a LIMA strategy before, do it this season. Go stars and scrubs in auctions. Build a pitching staff based on streamers or middle relievers. Maybe you zig where I’ve recommended zagging, and you target as many streaky and upside players as possible. Experiment and have some fun. If we’re going to wander into the unknown of the 2020 baseball season, we might as well explore and enjoy the experience.

* Author’s Note: I spent 20 minutes googling and sifting through my podcasts to try to figure out who started using the term Lemonade League for their 2020 fantasy baseball league adjustments but to no avail. If you know, feel free to message me and claim it as your own or let me know who deserves credit for that term. 

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