Meta-Trends for 2018 Fantasy Season

This past weekend, I was in Phoenix for Baseball HQ’s First Pitch forum. It’s an intensive few days of catching up with old friends and focusing on the upcoming fantasy baseball season. There was an underlying theme of the weekend, the fantasy baseball game is being forced to change. Some game facets have experienced some massive adjustments. The following are some of the meta-trends which have quickly popped up over the past few seasons.

Home runs are way up

A few days ago I wrote the following incorrect statement about Carlos Martinez for a 2018 player preview.

His 1.19 HR/9 will likely drop back below the league average.

It was pointed out to me, his home run rate was below league average. I was for sure it was not near 1.20 but I was wrong. Here are the recent league-wide HR/9 values.

2014: 0.86
2015: 1.02
2016: 1.17
2017: 1.27

I remember when the HR/9 hovered around 1.0. Not anymore. Some other pitching stats are feeling the effects of the jump like ERA, but the root cause is more home runs.

I believe from the provided evidence from too many sources, a different major league ball is causing the spike. Hitters are taking advantage of the change and putting more balls in the outfield seats.

I’m of the mindset that MLB will not change the ball this upcoming season. I can’t see why. Most fans enjoy the long ball. Maybe something will force MLB’s hand to change the 2019 ball but for now, owners should expect the live-ball era to continue.

With home runs everywhere, here are few rules I am using moving forward.

1. I’m not investing in power-only hitters. They need to provide some other skill like AVG(OBP) or SB. I’ll be able to find power later in the draft. In the too early mock draft, Mark Trumbo and his 30 projected home runs went on average 186th overall. Steals used to be acquired late. It’s now home runs.

2. Don’t give up on pitchers in-season because they got lit up with multiple home runs in back-to-back starts. Good pitchers are going to have long-ball stretches. If a pitcher gets blown up, look at the non-home run stats. If the pitcher went 5 IP with 4 HR, 6 K, and 1 BB, stick with them. If projections say, he’ll be better, believe them. I saw too many good pitchers hit the waiver wire after a bad start or two. Patience needs to be used for starters along with a little more digging into why the blowup occurred.

Use the DL to skip a start

The 10-day DL performed as expected, it caused pitchers to miss more starts. I stated the following back in December when the rule came out.

After thinking over the changes from a 15-day to 10-day disabled list, the major impact I see is more clarity in playing time. I could see more players go on the DL, especially pitchers, but the time missed will likely be the same as the 15-day DL. Unless more details come out about the change, I don’t see the new DL rule affecting fantasy play much at all.

I was mainly right. While I haven’t completed my own DL database, at the conference some presented numbers were provided. In 2016, there were 478 DL trips with 31,329 days lost. In 2017, it was 531 trips or 30,278 days lost. Players spent less time on the DL but more trips (11% increase). Most of the trips jump was from pitchers.

It seems like the extra trips keep injuries from getting worse and therefore keep better players on the field. The most reported fantasy problem was when a team got hit by a bunch of these small DL stints and don’t have enough DL slots. This DL rush has been an issue for years. In previous seasons, the player would not have played and had a red cross next to his name. Now it’s says DL. In both instances, the player wasn’t playing.

Additionally, if fantasy teams dealt with all the 53 additional DL trips (probably some players are not good enough to for consideration or done for the season), in a 12-team league, it works out to an additional 4.4 DL trips. Or 3.5 for a 15-team league. For a 12-team only, it’s 2.2 trips. And again, this is all trips. Some won’t matter.

Now, for changes moving forward.

1. I’d not worry about adjusting league rules for the few extra DL trips with players spending less time on the DL (65.5 vs 57.0 days). If owners feel they need to make a change, make it small. Maybe an extra DL slot.

2. Some MLB teams will abuse the limits of the 10-day DL by skipping pitcher starts. During this time, they’ll add a reliever. The Dodgers abused this rule the most. Most teams don’t have 87 often injured useable starters like the Dodgers. For now, I’d just stay away from Dodger non-elite starters. They are replaceable. Additionally, be on the lookout for other teams who may do it. The Yankees could be an option with a ton of ready arms in the high minors.

Starters aren’t going as far into games

For a couple of decades, starters have been seeing their innings thrown decline as teams began to specialize their bullpens and limit the pitches thrown to prevent injuries. Now teams are taking it a step future.

Teams are beginning to understand the penalty pitchers experience as they go through the batting order each additional time. Since the early 90’s, the average number of innings thrown by starters has hovered around 6 IP.
Here’s the average innings per start since 2011.

2011: 6.0
2012: 5.9
2013: 5.9
2014: 6.0
2015: 5.8
2016: 5.6
2017: 5.5

The issue now is that starters need at least five innings to qualify for a Win. Here’s the number of Wins handed out to starters over the same time frame.

2011: 1716
2012: 1738
2013: 1658
2014: 1706
2015: 1673
2016: 1628
2017: 1640

Starters aren’t being left in long enough to qualify for as many Win. Here are the number of starters (min 20 starts) who averaged 6 IP per start.

2011: 90
2012: 79
2013: 89
2014: 86
2015: 64
2016: 57
2017: 43*

Since 2014, we’ve seen the number of six-inning starters got cut in half. In a 12-team league, owners will likely only have 3-4 of these guys.

This trend is not going to change and I could see starters go fewer and fewer innings to take advantage of the times-through-the-order penalty to get to their lights-out relievers. Here’s how I’d adjust.

1. I’d target the high innings per start pitchers from 2017*. They are likely to keep throwing late into games. Most long inning starters are aces but a few weaker pitchers make the list. If looking at similar pitchers later in a draft, these few guys are preferred targets.

2. With managers having a short leash with weak starters, it’s probably not advantageous to stream starters for Wins and Strikeouts. A high-quality middle reliever may get just as many strikeouts and steal a handful of Wins while putting up outstanding WHIP and ERA numbers. And these relief studs may eventually become closers. After talking to many people this past weekend, I expect to see some offseason studies on this topic.

Conclusion

Three meta-trends are changing the fantasy game and owners need to adjust or they will be left behind. The biggest change is the increase in home runs with pitcher usage next and an increase DL stints last. I feel not focusing most of a team’s resources on home runs will be the biggest advantage. I heard owners saying they are going to double down on home runs. While home runs do generate Runs and RBI, so does having a higher AVG (OBP). Adjusting to the change might be hard but try the approach in a few mock drafts and see how it works out. Owners may be surprised with the results. Otherwise, it’s time to start finding those undervalued players.

* Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Clayton Richard, Jeff Samardzija, Gio Gonzalez, Jesse Chavez, Rick Porcello, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Leake, Ivan Nova, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale, Alex Cobb, Danny Duffy, Corey Kluber, Brad Peacock, Yu Darvish, R.A. Dickey, Dallas Keuchel, Dylan Bundy, Carlos Martinez, Alex Wood, Gerrit Cole, JC Ramirez, Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark, Jimmy Nelson, Marcus Stroman, Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke, Jose Urena, Aaron Nola, Zack Godley, Luis Severino, Justin Verlander, Ervin Santana, Michael Fulmer, Tim Adleman, Cole Hamels, Parker Bridwell, Trevor Williams, Ty Blach, Antonio Senzatela



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Jeff writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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OTMHeartBBC
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Paying for aces is now worth it since its alot tougher to stream and mine a pitching staff in free agency.
Rostering ace setup men is now the norm.
The Adam Dunn/Chris Carter types are ever more expendable.

if you used these rules to draft in 2017, you probably won. But reusing the same rules in 2018 draft would be folly.