MLB Rookie - Lesson 03 - Stats to Start: Pitchers

Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Baseball for Smart People—a 197-page book created to help you win playing daily fantasy baseball on DraftKings.

Daily fantasy baseball is really two separate mini-games in one: daily fantasy pitcher selection and daily fantasy batter selection. Picking your pitchers is much different than finding quality bats because pitchers are so much more consistent from game to game. Whereas it’s very difficult to be confident in even the game’s best hitters, you can set your watch to Clayton Kershaw turning in a quality start.

Because of that, there are different ways we must approach our daily fantasy baseball strategy when selecting pitchers versus hitters. For one, it makes a lot more sense to pay up for top pitching since they offer production on which you can count. Actually, strict dollar-per-point value probably doesn’t matter that much for pitchers because there’s more value in obtaining a consistent source of points. In that way, it’s okay to overpay for top arms.

On top of that, there’s a huge opportunity cost in bypassing the top pitchers. Whereas you can often replace the production of Mike Trout or Jose Bautista with a cheaper batter on a semi-consistent basis, it’s not as common to see a low-priced pitcher outperform the big dogs.

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If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that the most successful DraftKings lineups allocate a higher percentage of their salary cap to pitching than losing lineups. That’s true not only in cash games, in which consistency is king, but also in GPPs.

Due to the nature of pitcher consistency, I think we should pretty much be looking for the same basic traits in pitchers, regardless of the league type. Here are the top three basic stats I use to select my arms on DraftKings.

K/9

DraftKings values pitchers strikeouts very heavily. I examine a pitcher’s K/9 and match it up with the same stat for his opponent to help me create an initial strikeout projection (which must be adjusted for projected innings pitched, of course).

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Here’s the cool thing about strikeouts: not only do they give your pitcher upside, but they’re also the second-most consistent stat (behind ground ball rate). You ain’t getting any points for your pitcher forcing ground balls, which means you should be focused on paying up for high-strikeout pitchers at all times.

I’ll sometimes forgo a little bit of strikeout upside to take on more safety in cash games. A pitcher like Stephen Strasburg has massive upside in every game, for example, but he’s probably a better GPP than tournament play because his tendency to get pulled from games early limits his floor.

Even so, this is the most important stat you can examine when selecting your pitchers. Even if a pitcher is the favorite to win a game, I won’t use him if he can’t be counted on for consistent Ks. That’s particularly true in the instances when I decide to use a medium or low-priced pitcher; in those situations, the pitcher absolutely must have the ability to whiff a lot of batters.

Also note that you can study the Vegas player props to get a sense of a pitcher’s strikeout upside, too. Vegas has a clear incentive to make sure their player props and lines are accurate, so I always examine those props to see which arms have the highest strikeout potential in a given day. When combined with the moneyline and projected run totals, strikeout props can be one of the most useful tools in your daily fantasy baseball pitcher selection arsenal.

WHIP

WHIP—Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched—is a very common statistic nowadays. It’s also a much better indicator of pitching strength than the more commonly used ERA. Actually, ERA is super volatile, especially in the short-term, while WHIP accurately tracks a pitcher’s ability to keep runners off of the bases.

One way that I like to use WHIP—which predicts future ERA better than past ERA—is to compare it to a pitcher’s current ERA. If a pitcher appears to be throwing well with a low ERA and maybe a decent record to start the year, but he has a high WHIP, that’s a sign that he’s probably going to perform worse in the future. The opposite is true, too; a high ERA and poor record combined with a low WHIP is an indicator of potential value.

We always want to emphasize predictive stats over explanatory ones. WHIP is more predictive than ERA, and thus more useful to us. And because explanatory stats—things like home runs and ERA and other very common stats—are often priced into DraftKings salaries, we can find value by looking for players who are actually struggling in those areas more than they should be.

HR/FB

HR/FB—Home Runs per Fly Ball—is a statistic that’s similar to BABIP for batters. Actually, you can use BABIP for pitchers, too, and it can be even more useful since you can more quickly acquire a large sample size of plate appearances. When pitchers have allowed a high BABIP—well above .300—that’s actually a good thing because it means they’ve probably been unlucky with where balls have fallen when put into play.

HR/FB is a stat that, like BABIP, is governed heavily by randomness. Certain pitchers will allow more fly balls than others, but the rate at which fly balls turn into home runs is typically around nine percent for most pitchers.

When a pitcher has seen 20 percent of his fly balls go over the fence to start the season, he might be pitching poorly, but he could also be doing okay and just experiencing poor luck. In general, a high HR/FB rate in the short-term is a good thing (assuming we know the pitcher is good) because it suggests positive regression in the future.

Splits

As with batters, all pitcher stats should be broken down by splits. Lefty/righty splits are a little bit less important for pitchers than hitters just because pitchers rarely face lineups that are filled entirely with one handedness of batter.

Still, offenses will often load up on the handedness of batter against whom a particular pitcher struggles, so southpaws often see righty-dominated lineups, for example. If a team’s lineup doesn’t change much from game to game, you can simply analyze team splits versus lefties/righties to see how they perform against each type of pitcher. All else equal, we want lefties facing offenses that struggle against southpaws, and vice versa with righties.

Ultimately, though, your pitcher selection strategy should begin with strikeouts and then move from there. It’s okay to “overpay” for top pitching to acquire that consistent stream of fantasy points.


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Continue Reading MLB Training Camp

MLB Rookie – Lesson 01 – Welcome to Daily Fantasy Baseball
MLB Rookie – Lesson 02 – Stats to Start for Batters
MLB Rookie – Lesson 03 – Stats to Start for Pitchers
NEXT LESSON MLB Rookie – Lesson 04 – Scoring Tips and Tricks
MLB Rookie – Lesson 05 – Using Player Cards to Build Lineups

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