Soft Innings Caps and ottoneu Strategy

For the last few months, a debate has been raging at ottoneu headquarters* about how to handle the innings pitched cap. See, games played is relatively simple – if your 1B plays your 162nd game today, you cannot start him tomorrow.

But when you have 1495 IP and have multiple starters and relievers set to go the next day, things can get a bit hairy. We’ve landed on a decision to use a soft cap and I’d like to give some insight into a) why we made this call and b) why you shouldn’t really care all that much.

Before diving into what we landed on, let me start by providing the guiding principles we used to make the decision. The first and most important was we needed a solution that was easy for players to understand. ottoneu can be relatively complicated as is and this issue didn’t need to add to that. Next, we needed a technically feasible solution that scales to huge numbers of leagues without causing performance issues or interfering with general game play. Lastly, we wanted something with minimal impact on player values, was difficult to game, and would not detract from the strategy that makes ottoneu so wonderful.

We basically considered three solutions. First, we considered a hard cap of 1500 IP, but dismissed this pretty rapidly. The biggest issue here is the implementation would be a disaster. We would have to track and time code every out (which really means every pitch, most likely) to figure out what counts and what doesn’t. You have 1499 pitches going into a night with three SP going at 7:00 ET – you theoretically could get one out from each and be done. But what happens if one gives up a hit – do you get charged with that run if it comes around, even though it technically happened after your innings cap was up? Or what if one of your guys implodes without ever getting an out, in the middle of which another pitcher goes 1-2-3? Yeah, it gets messy. So that is out.

Next, we considered a fairly radical change – looking not at IP but games started and relief appearances. You would theoretically get 162 starts and 400 (or so) relief appearances) regardless of how many innings you reached. This is easy to understand and track, easy to implement, but messes with player values and strategies. Suddenly I would rather have a guy who throws more innings per start, even if he isn’t as good. For example, if I had a rotation of guys who put up 162 starts of 6 innings each, with 9 K/9, .5 HR/9, 3 BB/9, and a 1.25 WHIP, that rotation would put up 4849.2 points. A rotation with the same BB/9 and WHIP, but a noticeably lower K/9 (7.5) and double the HR/9 (1), but averaging 7 innings per start, would put up 4895.1 points.

I don’t think we have to do a ton of analysis to know that 7.5 K/9 and 1 HR/9 are less than stellar stats, while 9 K/9 and .5 HR/9 are pretty impressive. But the better stats would be washed out by the 162 extra innings over the season. Now, we can argue whether or not a real team would rather get the extra innings than the better stats, but the reality is that player values in the ottoneu universe would change in a meaningful way.

I’d also add that I think the 162 starts/400 relief appearance approach does not reflect real baseball. The assumption built into that is that teams are built to get one start and 2.5 relief appearances per game, when they are really built to get 1458 total innings (plus some extras, minus some rain shortened games). If your SP goes nine, you get to rest your pen. If he goes three, you have to use your pen more (or pull another starter out of the pen to give you some length). The 1500 IP cap matches this – if your starters are workhorses, you get to rest your pen and use fewer, better relievers. If your starters don’t go as long, you have to use your pen more.

Finally, we considered (and landed on) a soft cap at 1500. In this case, you get credit for all innings pitched on the day/night you cross the threshold. In the scenario established above, you would get all the stats from all your pitchers that day, even if you ended up with 1520 IP. The advantage to this is that it is simple, both in terms of how easy it is to understand and how easy it is to implement. If makes little to no difference in player valuation, as the added benefits of having a bunch of guys who throw extra innings is limited to whatever value you can scrounge up in one day at the end of the year. The downside is the potential strategy implications of teams posting extra innings, and that gets us to the second point of this post – why you should not worry about this strategy shift. We’ll focus on points leagues, as the benefit of extra innings is much lower in roto leagues, which include rate categories.

First of all, let’s look at a best case scenario for a team whose goal is to game this system. They would, in the last week or so of the season, have to hit 1499 innings at the end of one night, and know that in the next couple days, they have a night in which they can throw five starters. They could stream to do this, but the auction system in ottoneu makes that hard – you have to know who you are streaming two days in advance and you have to win all the auctions. But, if you did this successfully and threw five complete games and threw five relief innings, you would end the year with 1549 innings pitched. At about 5 points per inning pitched, that gives you 245 extra points. Since you need at least 17,000 points to really be in contention, you are talking about a 1.4% bump.

And that is in the absolute best case.

More realistically, if you played things almost perfectly, you have three SP going that last night and get seven innings each, plus 2-3 relief innings. Those 24 innings would put you 23 over the cap and net you 115 points. A .68% bump.

But to do this, You would be in a race to get to 1500, which is not necessarily easy. You would have to use more pitchers and more innings all season long. You’d have to bump up your use of SP vs. RP and since RP put up more points per inning, this is likely to be a negative on your team. We assumed before that you would get 5 points per inning pitched, but all this extra pitcher usage would drain that. And if it drained you from 5 to 4.925, that would completely counteract the benefit you gained.

Your other option would be to spend an extra $20 on pitching, but that is $20 you cannot spend elsewhere.

All in all, you would be hampering your team for the first 95% of the season in the hopes that, if the stars aligned, you could max out your bonus on one day. But if the day you are supposed to hit 1499 you get one unexpected inning, or one short start, you either lose or seriously diminish your room for a bonus. If one of your SP gets scratched on your bonus day, or has a short start, or gets rained out, you lose your shot. It’s a pretty weak baset to put all your eggs in.

Which is why the strategic impact here is negligible. Come next September, if you find yourself in a position to grab some extra innings, by all means, grab them. But getting extra starts out of your 8th starter and forfeiting relief innings to get it done will prove to be a foolhardy choice.I am sure a couple teams will pull this off, but more will fail trying and the team that built the best possible 1500 IP staff will likely prove to be the one on top.

*We don’t have a headquarters.

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Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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Trey Baughn

Makes sense. Seems simple, and fair for all. Just make sure the site rules are updated so new owners are fully aware of the details.
Looking forward to a few posts about Ottoneu arbitration, which begins tomorrow.