Fantasy baseball: What every playoff-bound manager needs to know

Playoff season is a wild time for head-to-head fantasy baseball managers, and the challenge has heightened this season under ESPN's new standard-league format.

Monday begins our postseason, when the slate is wiped clean for the top four contenders in each league, who will square off for a pair of two-week matchups to decide their league's championship. While the nine-man lineup and seven pitching slots might have made things simpler for managers to steer themselves into our postseasons, emerging from said matchups could be considerably more challenging.

Baseball, after all, becomes a wilder, more unpredictable beast in September, as teams gear up for their own postseasons, or begin looking forward towards 2024. Here are some tips to consider as you formulate your playoff strategy:

Volume is king

You can't score fantasy points when you're not on the baseball diamond, so it follows that you want to maximize your games played from every available lineup position. Remember, hitters only lose points for strikeouts, meaning that so long as you avoid strikeout-prone bats and matchups against the most strikeout-oriented starters, you're better off getting a game from every lineup position every day than by adopting a cruise-control strategy with name brands.

This is why doubleheaders present tremendous opportunities in fantasy baseball -- and there are three of them currently remaining on the schedule: Chicago Cubs at Cincinnati Reds (coming up on Friday), Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies (Sept. 11) and Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado Rockies (Sept. 26). That last one is a potential dream for hitter pickups because it will be played at Coors Field.

With doubleheaders, remember that additional postponements could add more of them to the schedule, though many series would merely attempt to tack them onto games played the following day(s).

If volume is king, you want the teams that play the most often

As of Monday, the opening day of ESPN head-to-head playoff matchups, eight teams will be scheduled to play 27 times over the season's final 28 days, the Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Rockies, Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Phillies, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. Accounting for the aforementioned doubleheaders, the Orioles, Brewers, Mariners and Rangers will do so with only one day off apiece.

It's on the fewest games side of things where fantasy managers should take note, as the Reds are slated to play a league-low 24 times, split evenly between home and road games. Considering their roster is lacking in top-shelf talent -- Alexis Diaz (335), Spencer Steer (305) and TJ Friedl (257) are their only players with more than 250 fantasy points for the season -- they could push standard-league managers to do much more lineup cycling to navigate their days off.

Four other teams, incidentally, play only 25 times, the Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals.

From a weekly-lineups perspective, no team plays as many as eight games in any of the four full remaining weeks. The Nationals, however, have a pair of five-game weeks, and both of them look brutal from a schedule perspective, as their Week 22 includes two home games against the New York Mets and three home games against the Dodgers, while their Week 25 includes two road games against the Orioles and three road games against the Braves. The Nationals also play three road games against the Brewers to conclude their Week 23, and four at home against the Braves to conclude their Week 24, making their rest-of-the-way schedule particularly brutal.

The Tampa Bay Rays, too, have a five-game Week 25 -- in the season's final week -- with just two road games against the Boston Red Sox and three road games against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Motivated teams make roster better September fantasy targets

Teams playing September games that matter (meaning those with playoff spots on the line), are more likely to stick with their "A" teams until the end. By contrast, teams that lock up playoff spots -- and more importantly their specific seeding -- in advance tend to rest regulars, while teams eliminated from contention tend to shut down players with any sort of injuries and often audition youngsters for next-year roles.

This year, seven teams sport playoff odds currently ranging between 25-75 percent, all of which look like the best sources for consistent fantasy production through the end of the season: The Arizona Diamondbacks (41% odds of making the playoffs), Cubs (74% playoffs), Astros (36% odds to win the AL West), San Francisco Giants (57% playoffs), Mariners (33% AL West), Rangers (31% AL West) and Blue Jays (46% playoffs).

This is especially important when considering young starting pitchers with innings-cap concerns, as contention can press teams into pushing their arms further, helping keep these pitchers available to fantasy teams. Justin Steele of the Cubs, Houston's Hunter Brown, San Francisco's Kyle Harrison and Seattle's Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo all fit the description this season.

Stream, stream, stream

Streaming remains the name of the game in leagues with daily transactions and points scoring. Seven pitching lineup slots means only 70 active pitchers on any given day and, as teams are afforded 12 starts in a given week -- 24 in a two-week playoff matchup -- it's critical that you use all of them. Perhaps most importantly to those of you in tight matchups, remember that you can blow past the cap on the day that you exceed it, meaning that if you conclude Saturday's action with 11 starts -- or 23 in a two-week matchup -- you can roll with as many as seven starting pitchers, for 18 (or 30) total, on that final day.

To guide you in your streaming, the Forecaster currently grades the Rockies as baseball's only top-five matchup for both left- and right-handed opposing pitchers, with the Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Guardians, Orioles and Oakland Athletics the five most favorable for lefties, and the Detroit Tigers, Rockies, Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Giants being the five most favorable for righties.

On the opposite end of things, the Astros and Dodgers both grade out as bottom-five matchups for left- and right-handed opposing pitchers, with the Astros, Braves, Padres, Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals as the five least favorable for lefties, and the Dodgers, Astros, Braves, Red Sox and Blue Jays checking in as the five least favorable for lefties.

From an individual streaming-pitcher standpoint, among those available in a majority of ESPN leagues who you should consider are Brayan Bello, Griffin Canning, Reid Detmers, Harrison, Kyle Hendricks, Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Brandon Pfaadt, Grayson Rodriguez, Patrick Sandoval, Taijuan Walker, Gavin Williams and Woo.

Know your opponent

If your opponent is aggressive on the waiver wire and free-agent list, be prepared to keep pace or exceed that team's transaction activity. A cruise-control opponent, built around a majority of "set it and forget it" stars that have remained in the lineup for most of the season, is much simpler to plan around, as you can load up your lineup early in the week attempting to take command of the matchup. A mix-and-match opponent, by contrast, could force you to maximize your games and matchups at every spot, though those teams can sometimes be too aggressive on the free agency front and put themselves at risk of blow-up performances that put them in an early hole. Take a few minutes in advance of the matchup to get a sense of your opponent's style of play.

Early in the week, play for floors

Gaining the upper hand early in a matchup is critical to success. As my friend and colleague Eric Karabell astutely points out, digging a hole for yourself by taking unnecessary matchups chances is a poor strategy in the playoffs, so don't get too creative with your streaming starters or hitter pickups. Higher-floor statistical performers, such as Nico Hoerner, Yandy Diaz, Luis Arraez, Steven Kwan, Bryson Stott and Alex Verdugo, tend to be wiser early-week starters, as you attempt to build an early lead and take command of your matchup.

Late in the week, play defense -- or go for ceilings if need be

It's two-directions advice, dependent upon your matchup standing come Thursday or Friday (or Tuesday-Wednesday of the second week of a two-week matchup). Teams fortunate to have taken an early lead can continue to take high-floor players and avoid high-risk pitching matchups, forcing their opponents to take more gambles on risk/reward pitchers who could further put them in a hole. Teams that unluckily fall behind, meanwhile, need to take chances on the highest-ceiling matchups possible, including doubleheader hitters, lineups facing the awful Chicago White Sox, Rockies, Cardinals, Athletics and Royals pitching staffs, and any and all high-strikeout starting pitchers facing bottom-half lineups.

To take this weekend's schedule as an example, a team going the upside route will want to take Sandoval (@OAK), Eury Perez (@WSH), Canning (@OAK), Brown (NYY), Mike Clevinger (DET), Harrison (@SD), Andrew Abbott (CHC) and Mason Miller (LAA). A team "playing defense" is probably not going to want to chance it with Sandoval, Brown, Abbott or Miller, for example, because the downside for each is simply too great.

Don't waste roster spots

Going hand in hand with the former point, a team that captures an early lead shouldn't ever waste available roster spots. Any fantasy team should maximize every available opportunity, meaning rostering an active, in-the-lineup player in every lineup position possible while turning over its bench spots wherever necessary. Obviously, this doesn't mean to cut Freddie Freeman on his off day, but most players are fair game for turnover.

Still, even if one of your precious bench spots isn't needed to slot in an active player on a given day, consider your opponent's needs. Preventing a trailing team from scooping up the highest-ceiling starting pitcher for the day, even if only to position said individual on your own bench, is a valid -- and recommended -- strategy.