How to win your ESPN fantasy baseball league: New format means new strategies

We're just over a month into the season which means several weeks of gameplay using ESPN's new rules are officially in the books. Giving advice based on first-hand knowledge makes for a better user experience, so I've been playing in an ESPN standard points league composed of many of the people who bring you the Daily Notes article each day of the regular season. My personal experience with both points and head-to-head leagues is limited, so when I was invited to play in this 10-team head-to-head points league, I eagerly accepted.

Before the draft, I spent some time thinking about various roster constructs (we use an IL and three reserves). Ultimately, I decided to stick to my rankings then let things play out, keeping a close eye on what others were doing, both successfully and not so beneficial. In a league of this nature, my assumption was that the available player inventory would be such that I could tweak things after the draft. I knew experimentation, some via trial and error was necessary. However, making and winning the playoffs is the ultimate objective -- so I must win and not just treat this merely as a laboratory.

I landed on four particular areas of focus, hoping to identify the optimal approach while remaining in contention for a playoff berth. Things started swimmingly as I won my first two matchups. However, as it stands, I entered May with only a 2-2 record. So, what questions have I been trying to answer?

  • What is the optimal composition and deployment of the three-man reserve?

  • How important is it to use as many of the 12 allotted pitcher starts as possible?

  • What is the best use of dominant setup men, now that scoring includes holds?

  • How much roster churn is necessary via daily moves?

To be frank, the answers are still a work in progress. Here is where I'm currently at with each of them.

Reserve composition

There's a lot of crossover between the four questions, with the nature of the reserve list affecting each of the other three. For most of the week, I favor stashing my better starting pitchers not slated to pitch that day. However, there have been a couple of occasions on Monday and Thursday where a top hitter has an off day, and the best addition to the roster is someone else at his position, so I'll occasionally have batters reserved for a day.

Maximizing active SP spots

Of the four, this is the point still under the most investigation. I currently have five starters I am loathe to drop. Over the course of the season, a pitcher has a two-start week only 20% of the time. As such, I should average six starts a week from my main core, leaving six spot starts to cover. The plan thus far has been to use four of them by Friday, leaving two for the weekend.

  • If I'm behind, I'll identify the best two available streamers and pick them up, even if it means executing a drop I'd prefer to avoid. This may entail looking ahead to see if the Sunday matchups are more favorable than those on Saturday. Doing this often means that I'm getting the jump on my opponents in terms of making these pickups, which is certainly a good thing.

  • If things are close, I'll pick up the best available spot starters, assuming there are worry-free drops. If Saturday does not go well, only then will I make the "painful drop" to fortify Sunday's lineup.

  • Since I am not yet sure what constitutes an insurmountable lead -- or if one even exists -- some level of proactive moves are needed, even when winning.

  • If the available Sunday starting pitchers are too risky, Plan B is to identify either a closer or setup man in a good spot to contribute. This is where our new Bullpen Usage Watch section of Daily Notes comes in handy. Each morning, the closers with questionable availability are identified, as well as bullpens with winnable games. The best recommendation to garner saves and holds for the upcoming day's games is presented.

  • A last resort on Sunday is to attempt to determine if one of the usually active hitters will have the day off (a frequent Sunday occurrence) and fortify hitting instead of pitching. The caveat here is that while over the long term, hitting is easier to predict than pitching, on a one-day basis, favorable pitcher matchups are more reliable.

Best use of dominant setup men

Other than a faux pas I will soon reveal, the biggest mistake I have made over the past month is not having ample relievers in the active lineup. By rule, we are limited to 12 games started but there is no IP maximum. While this is easier said than done, optimal roster composition entails having as many relievers as possible active every day, while keeping stout hitting and starting pitching.

Rolling in what has been discussed already, with seven active pitching spots, no reserves dedicated to batters, and five core starting pitchers on the roster, there is room for five active relievers, minus the number of streamers to be used each day. (This assumes that no more than two of your team's core five starters are on that day's ledger.)

Optimally, the relievers will be closers, since saves are worth more than holds. That said, there are some dominant setup men who are better than lower-level closers because they fan more batters and are superior at limiting runners and scoring. This is the best means of deploying the non-closers who compile holds, in order to keep the RP portion of your roster at maximum potential.

There will be times when fewer than five relievers are necessary, such as the rare occasions where more than two starting pitchers will be on the hill that day. As mentioned, there will also be instances where a bat will need to be temporarily stashed on reserve. The biggest benefit of the new scoring system is that adding holds enhances the pool of relievers from which you can choose, and making the strategy of "playing matchups" with your bullpen a viable approach.

Roster churn

This is, by far, my biggest deficiency in a shallow league. I was weaned on single-league formats (AL- or NL-only) with no reserves. Sure, mixed leagues have been a thing for over 20 years, but practicing excruciating patience is in my DNA. Much of what I've been discussing here involves parting with players I would never dream of dropping in most of the leagues in which I play.

Of course, the pool of replacement players in shallower leagues facilitates roster churn, but it's still a hurdle to embrace the mindset, especially when playing against several opponents who sowed their oats in fantasy football where roster churn is commonplace. For them, carrying this attitude over to baseball is an easy transition. For me, not so much.

This season, the pool of available hitters and pitchers is far deeper than in past seasons, since both segments of the active roster have been reduced. Enlarging the number of free agents adds an intriguing layer of analysis, since identifying the best matchups takes more precedence. This is especially true on the pitching side of things, but being cognizant of matchups for "fringier" batters can generate an edge. Again, this may require the release of a useful hitter, but if his replacement has a looming series at Coors Field or a platoon edge on a HR-prone pitcher, the net result is more points.

Earlier, I alluded to a major lesson learned when it comes to the notion of roster churn. I was getting crushed early in the last scoring period. I spent some time looking things over and, in order to catch up, I'd need to make some uncomfortable drops, mostly to maximize active players in Thursday's abbreviated schedule lineup. I decided to make my normal moves and not sacrifice future matchups by getting rid of integral players.

As it happens, my opponent had several Braves rostered, including Charlie Morton and Spencer Strider who had their weekend starts washed out. I woke up on Sunday morning within striking distance, but I'd need to make several moves. The drops weren't that difficult as I was carrying extra batters on reserve and releasing A.J. Minter seemed fairly straightforward since Raisel Iglesias is slated to return soon and the weather in Queens was known to be bad last weekend, so Minter would probably not pitch. In fact, Saturday's game was actually postponed on Friday, so replacing Minter before lineups locked on Saturday was definitely in play.

Well, by the time the Sunday night ESPN game was over, I had lost by three points. I actually grabbed the lead late in the afternoon, but a couple of Phillies came through for my opponent. Picking up Brady Singer and his negative 13 points didn't help matters any.

The take-home message? Never take anything for granted. This seems like such cliché advice, best suited for beginners. Yet, I was a victim of overthinking, not wanting to release some players earlier in the week, a couple of which got injured and were easy drops by the weekend. It wasn't so much complacency, but by not taking advantage of some better midweek matches, I was forced to pick up Singer for his disaster as well as Kyle Finnegan, who I deemed to be a better option than the other available pitchers. Finnegan worked an inning, but it was in a non-save situation, and he surrendered a run and a hit. That alone wasn't enough to perpetuate the loss, but had I made some earlier moves, I may not have needed to select a risky Singer and hope that Finnegan would log a save.

In summary, the laboratory aspect of this league is still a work in progress, and at 2-2, I'm still very much in contention for a playoff berth. This is not to say those 1-3 or 0-4 should give up, but with only the top two in each five-team division battling for the championship, every win is crucial.

The takeaways

  • Never assume a loss until the week is over. This does not mean being reckless trying to catch up, but don't wait until the last minute to pull out all the stops. Smart midweek moves can get you within striking distance over the weekend.

  • Dedicate reserves to pitchers, unless it is a Monday or Thursday lineup and there are available hitters who are generally better equipped to add points than the available pitchers, and the hitter plays the same position as a batter with an off day who is too productive to be dropped.

  • Each day, your seven active pitchers should include a reliever in each spot not occupied by starter slated to pitch or up to two members of the core five starters who aren't one of your three reserves.

  • Your active relievers do not have to be a closer. Often, a better option is a dominant setup man whose innings, strikeouts and possible holds offer a higher point potential than lower-level closers.