2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: How to hit the ground running with a shortened MLB schedule
A half season would stress the need to hit the ground running, Scott White says. Here are some of the ways Fantasy baseball would and should change.
We still don't know if we're getting an MLB season in 2020. There are some dollar signs to sort out first. But if we do, we have a better concept now of the form it would take. We know it would begin in July, and we know it would last about 80 games. That's the most we've had to go on so far. It doesn't tell us everything, of course, but it does allow us to consider how we might attack a season that's only half the length of our usual one.
Which only raises more questions. Here are some of the biggest:
Yeah, let's start with the draft itself. Forget individual player values for a second. How does the actual process of building a team change?
I, of course have my own tendencies, which I've developed through experience, but I have no such experience for a season like we'll see in 2020. I only have theories, as is true for everybody, and acting on theories is always dicey. Itto come around to the idea that high-end starting pitchers are the most valuable asset in Fantasy Baseball, so you shouldn't expect any 180-degree turns from me without even a day's worth of data.
If any part of my process is going to bring me down, it's my faith in which players will break down over a 162-game season. I don't know exactly who it will happen to, but I have a pretty good sense of what will happen and how. I know, for instance, not to invest heavily in closers because the amount of turnover in that role is unparalleled. As many as half the pitchers we expect to lead their team in saves in Opening Day actually don't, and as new targets emerge on the waiver wire, you can quickly make up ground in the category. A little attentiveness goes a long way.
Likewise, I know to target upside for my bench, sometimes even stashing away potential prospect call-ups. It may cost me depth in the short-term, but I trust that the payoff will be worth it knowing how openings develop over time.
But there's the rub: Time is a luxury we won't have this season. Does it mean I should draft bankable closers and a boring bench? I don't like the sound of that. These are inefficiencies I've used to my advantage in the past, so am I really gaining anything by abandoning them now? Or is it more about what I'm avoiding losing? It's not uncommon with this approach for me to plod along for a few months before taking off midseason. Last year's midseason point is this season's end.
Particularly in leagues with a playoff system that'll carve up that short schedule even more, the top priority would seem to be to hit the ground running. In theory, it means you should play it safer in drafts. You can't afford to take such big swings and trust yourself to correct for them later. And yet ... and yet ...
You know how I've decided high-end starting pitchers are the most valuable asset in Fantasy Baseball right now? Safety isn't exactly what they're known for, which is why the buy-in for me was so slow. I've continued to hold mock drafts throughout the shutdown, getting a sense of how the landscape is changing as more information becomes available, and when it comes to those high-end starting pitchers, nobody is backing down. We've all accepted that they're essential for winning, so much so that we're also accepting their heightened volatility over half a season's time. Just look at some of those esteemed pitchers' numbers midway through last season: Jack Flaherty had 4.90 ERA and Yu Darvish a 4.98 ERA. Those are the most extreme cases, sure, but extreme cases happen over a smaller sample.
No matter how you break it down, you have to accept that luck will play a greater role in 2020. It just will. The person who wins won't be the one who uses the right gimmick or cleverest trick. It'll be the one whose players don't short-circuit for a couple months, their seasons instead playing out more conventionally.
How is anyone supposed to predict that? Well, playing it safer in the draft would help, but there are other factors to consider. I'll explain with this next question ...
Certainly, some have, and I think the clearest example is with Aaron Judge, whose rib recovery remains ongoing. The uncertainty around his status does Miguel Andujar's draft stock no favors, especially since he's already down a potential opening with Giancarlo Stanton back in the fold.
Josh Hader no longer seems as certain of retaining the closer role in Milwaukee with Corey Knebel now fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Prospective closers like Scott Oberg in Colorado and Will Smith in Atlanta will need Wade Davis and Mark Melancon to falter even sooner if they're to make a real impact in a shortened season.
But I want to focus on a starting pitcher shakeup I recently applied to my rankings. Workload has become such a separator today, with concerns about health and effectiveness rising as a pitcher goes deeper in a game. It's evident in how few pitchers throw 200 innings in a season, but for Fantasy the issue is not so much the cumulative loss of innings as how it plays out start by start. Earlier exits mean not only fewer innings, which themselves count for something in some formats, but also fewer wins and strikeouts — a gap that superior ratios often aren't enough to bridge.
It means that workload expectations alone can elevate some pitchers in the rankings. I'm talking about guys like Lance Lynn and Corey Kluber, who rank just outside the ace class of starting pitchers even though both have obvious performance concerns. Trevor Bauer, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler, to a certain extent, also fit the bill.
With the season cut in half, they're no longer going to have as much of a workload advantage, at least not a cumulative one, which means the gamble on performance isn't as worth it. Those same performance concerns don't exist for pitchers like James Paxton, Zac Gallen and Jesus Luzardo. For them, it was more a question of how they'd hold up over long haul, which isn't so long anymore.
It doesn't mean Lynn, Kluber and those others are no longer as deserving of a high pick, but if the goal in 2020 is to hit the ground running, as I outlined in my answer to the previous question, then you want the pitchers who you can be more confident actually will, regardless of whether or not they might have thrown 200 innings in a full season.
Looking back at my previous answer, it's possible I'm too sanguine about how each individual start will look for younger pitchers like Zac Gallen and Jesus Luzardo, and this question forces me to grapple with it.
I wouldn't expect an increase. A guy who isn't used to extending himself so deep into games won't suddenly be asked to just to up his innings total. Take Luzardo. Across three minor-league seasons, the guy has gone six innings exactly twice. I'm hopeful he'll do it a handful of times in his rookie season, but if he goes seven-plus more than once or twice, it's an upset.
Gallen is better equipped for it. He went seven innings three times just in his 15 major-league starts last year, so with no season-long limit in play, I suspect he'll be handled much like any other top-of-the-rotation arm. But early hooks are likely still in play for Julio Urias, Lance McCullers, Nate Pearson, Mitch Keller and Jose Urquidy, just to name a few.
And here's the humbling truth: Early hooks could be in play for anyone and everyone. It's just impossible to say at this point, and it'll remain impossible to say until we're actually seeing it play out. Part of the issue is that we still don't know how condensed the schedule will be. For a while there, they were talking weekly doubleheaders, but now that they're aiming for more like 80 games, it's possible they'll have as many days off as usual.
Even if the schedule is condensed, some more established pitchers may demand their typical workload regardless, and conversely, even if there are as many off days, we may still see early hooks for a while just because of the hurry-up-and-wait nature of the first spring training, and the expected brevity of the second one. It's all on the table, and so I feel like the middle stance is to assume each pitcher will go as deep into games as he was expected to go all along. We'll adjust from there.
I have no problem with stricter eligibility requirements. Limitations make the game interesting — they're what make most games interesting, as a matter of fact — and an unfortunate side effect of the way so many organizations emphasize versatility these days is that too many players are eligible too many places. It's not the biggest factor, but it's a contributing one to the death of position scarcity.
Still, CBS Sports' eligibility rules are considered stricter than most, and the standard is indeed five appearances for the current season (or 20 for the previous season). Any more than that puts your league on the stricter side of things.
And yes, there's a case to be made for reducing it in what will amount to a half season. Going from 10 to the standard five is something your league should seriously consider.
But I wouldn't want to go any lower than that. Eligibility requirements aren't what they are because it's representative of a certain percentage of the season. They're what they are because it's considered the minimum acceptable threshold for taking a position change seriously. Sometimes players are asked to play out of position for an inning — or even a play — to keep their bat in the lineup or spare a depleted bench. A manager might resort to such a maneuver once, twice or even three times in a season. But when it gets to be as many as five, it's probably not a gimmick anymore. It probably means the manager has a degree of trust in the player's ability to handle the position.
And in fact, we're counting on it. We don't want players to be eligible at positions where they just happened to appear, for the flukiest of reasons. We want them eligible at ones they can actually play. Otherwise, it's not being true to the real game it's supposed to model and instead is just acting as a loophole.
I like the thought. It's in the spirit of "hit the ground running" in that it's a proven skill set weighed down by durability concerns — ones that aren't as sure to pop up in only a half season's time. And I keep elevating Rich Hill in my rankings because of it.
He is — ahem — all the way up to 66th now.
Here's the problem: His particular durability concerns are the kind that could upend everything from the start. He's coming back from an elbow surgery that's kind of a half measure. A younger man might have committed to full Tommy John, but at 40, he's going the less traveled route. And a June return seemed like a fine estimate when it was still a long ways off. Now we're supposed to draft him like he's not even hurt?
For the record, he has said he should be ready for the delayed start of the season, and a couple strong spring outings would go a long way to assuring us he's really OK. I mean, the kind of numbers he has delivered over the past three years — a 3.30 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 — would certainly make him an asset, especially with the Twins offense backing him.
But investing too much in a 40-year-old coming off a risky elbow procedure just seems like a bad policy. I'll take a chance with a bench spot, but as my third starting pitcher? No way.
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