Fantasy 101: Common DFS Strategies and Pitfalls
Diving into DFS isn’t always a smooth transition for seasonlong experts. Used to working the waiver wire and trade market to meet long-term goals, playing for one day requires a completely modified blueprint.
Starting pitchers suddenly matter more, but relievers are irrelevant. Also, platoon players dismissed in season-long leagues demand attention here when their number is called. There are multiple factors to juggle when submitting a DFS lineup. Let’s run down some of the most standard strategies and detail some associated fallbacks when applicable.
Betting and Weather Forecasts
Before firing up FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and your other sites of choice, take a macro look at the slate. Vegas would hemorrhage money without sharp minds setting the spreads, so look at each game’s betting line and implied total. It’s a good way to see which matchups hold the most appeal while identifying starting pitchers with the highest probability of etching out a win.
When done consulting the oddsmakers, see what Mother Nature has to say. You especially don’t want to mess with a starting pitcher with a bout with rain in the forecast. There’s too much risk of a rainout or a lengthy delay ending his evening early. Balls also travel farther in warmer conditions, and wind could blow fly balls out of the yard or turn them into harmless outs. Not every DFS player has the time or energy to double as a meteorologist like Mike Trout, but at least try to take a quick glance to exploit or avoid any truly noteworthy developments.
Searching for Splits
Depending on the site, platoon players can be an immense source of profit. Some contests let a part-time player fall under the radar despite getting an opposite-handed opponent. While the concept is by now taken for granted, 2018’s data validates the notion that left-handed batters are particularly dependent on splits.
|L vs. L||.234||.305||.363||7.9||24.2||82|
|L vs. R||.251||.330||.423||9.8||21.3||103|
|R vs. R||.246||.308||.404||7.2||23.0||92|
|R vs. L||.253||.323||.417||8.9||21.7||100|
It’s worth noting, however, that the gap lessened in a 2019 campaign where power (and punchouts) rose across the board.
|L vs. L||.247||.316||.404||8.0||23.6||88|
|L vs. R||.254||.331||.444||9.6||22.0||101|
|R vs. R||.247||.312||.423||7.6||23.9||91|
|R vs. L||.262||.332||.455||8.8||22.4||104|
Be sure to never assume, and study each player on a case-by-case basis. Righty Yasiel Puig suddenly couldn’t hit lefties after scorching them early in his career. Then he bounced back in 2019, so splits often aren’t static. Plenty of lefties, such as Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy, have had no trouble handling fellow southpaws.
Splits are a vital proponent to DFS success, but they’re also dangerous when deployed early in a season. A fractioned data point is too unreliable to trust after a month or two, so look at career norms rather than the new campaign’s 45 plate appearances. Those discrepancies can present buying opportunities if current outputs look more like random variance than a new trend.
Don’t limit the research to hitters. Some pitchers carry wider handedness splits than others. Take Kenta Maeda, whose career .255 wOBA against righties jumps to .326 wOBA against lefties. While a viable when opposing a righty-heavy lineup, he’s exploitable for those who brandish the platoon split.
DFS players differ on the viability of using batter-vs.-pitcher data. The sample sizes are often too small to reach any meaningful conclusions. For example, it’d be foolish to play Jon Berti against Jacob deGrom because he went 5-for-12 with a home run against the ace in 2019.
That’s not to say BvP numbers are useless every time. If Steve Pearce is starting against J.A. Happ, it’s difficult to ignore the role player’s dominance (11-for-36, five walks, two doubles, and six homers). Although far from a substantial sample size, there’s at least some meat on the bone with tangible power to boot. Most importantly, the outcome makes sense given Pearce’s longstanding success against southpaws.
It’s worth taking a perfunctory glance at head-to-head matchups, easily accessible on DailyBaseballData.com, just in case something pops off the page. However, gamers shouldn’t make any lineup decisions solely from these trends. A hitter with noticeable success against his opponent is also more likely to become a chalk play, so keep that in mind when competing in tournaments.
Pay Up for Pitchers
Although modern usage is also challenging this philosophy, seasonlong gamers often prioritizing hitters over pitchers. Position players are safer long-term investments who come with less health and performance volatility over a full season.
In DFS, however, pitching is paramount. When healthy, Trout always deliver eye-popping results from year to year. Yet even he will endure plenty of o-for-4 lines over the course of a season. An active and elite ace is far more likely to deliver when on the mound. Because most sites’ scoring systems place a premium on wins and innings, they also offer a significant advantage over a dicier upside play unlikely to work more than six frames.
Even though they will cost a fortune, deGrom and Max Scherzer will prove virtually impossible to fade when facing the Marlins. If they earn a win with double-digit strikeouts in seven shutout frames, those without exposure will face an immense uphill battle in cash contests. Don’t automatically fade them in GPPs either, as rostering one of these studs will require some lottery-ticket bats anyway.
Exceptions can be made, particularly when a solid but unspectacular pitcher gets a golden matchup. Just don’t get too cute and punt the position with a bottom-of-the-barrel flier. There’s a much better chance of finding viable hitters discounted with a platoon advantage.
Stacking is a DFS staple, and it’s especially useful in MLB contests. When the stars align, don’t be afraid to load up on one team. A poor pitcher is typically the inspiration for a stack, but the ballpark and weather also play a hand. Expect plenty of gamers to stack one or both teams when the Rockies play host at Coors Field.
The ultimate goal is for one of your players to drive in teammates also in your lineup. This way, stackers reap all the rewards of an offense’s success. Stacking creates an elevated ceiling, but it can also backfire severely if a targeted pitcher tosses a gem. Even Jordan Zimmermann has a good outing occasionally, but gamers should keep loading up lineups against his opposition. Although stacking is more synonymous with tournaments because of its risk-reward nature, it’s also a viable cash-game strategy (particularly in Coors). Those in tournaments, however, may want to seek a more creative combination than a squad’s top-three hitters. The next section will further examine why players should chance it in all formats.
Embrace Volatility (in Cash and GPPs)
DFS players must drastically alter their strategies when shifting from cash and GPP contests in other sports. In the NFL, cash contestants should chase high-volume players. GPP gamers, however, must think more about explosive plays.
The same thinking is tougher to translate to the diamond. Because baseball is so difficult to predict from a daily perspective, the lines get blurred. Aside from a select few aces, no players can truly be deemed safe. Again, Trout might scorch two liners right at outfielders in a hitless game. This can make MLB DFS a daunting endeavor, but those who succeed often do so by welcoming the chaos.
Sure, it’s not a terrible idea to play a high-OBP hitter leading off against a middling pitcher. A lineup full of Adam Eaton types, however, can only go so far without taking some chances.
Although a three-true-outcome slugger might seem like a GPP-only play, Joey Gallo is a tempting cash option when a vulnerable righty comes to Arlington. Chase power upside in all competitions and hope a strong process pays out in the long run. This approach, of course, requires some patience and the willingness to endure some bumps along the run. Don’t get too discouraged by a rough patch if the outcomes don’t indicate suboptimal strategy or decision-making.
Just like seasonlong leagues, MLB DFS requires commitment and persistence to withstand the grind. While a trickier field in which to consistently win, a skilled and informed contestant can still come out on top by accepting risk.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)