Roto vs. H2H: How Does Your Strategy Change? (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
In a previous article, we reviewed the two most popular head-to-head (H2H) formats in fantasy baseball. In this space, the goal will be to compare the key differences between fantasy baseball’s original and most classic format (rotisserie) and the week-to-week matchups that are hallmarks of H2H leagues. More importantly, we will examine what strategies should be used for each.
Rotisserie is essentially a battle royale where the goal is to outlast all the other teams over the course of a long season. H2H is more of a single match tournament where you have to beat an opponent each week to advance further up the standings, either via by scoring more points or winning more categories. “Small sample size” is often shunned in baseball, but it’s all the rage in H2H leagues where a hot pitcher or batter can literally win you your matchup. In a rotisserie format, the bumps in the road that come with small sample sizes are smoothed over across an entire season, whereas big weeks or brutal ones can often result in H2H format teams finishing the season with point totals that don’t always reflect their record.
Built to Last
A horrible month in H2H by one or two core players in your lineup can cost you valuable ground in the standings right before playoffs start. However, the goal of rotisserie is to rank as high as possible across all categories by the time the season ends. You don’t care if Aaron Judge hits like he’s swinging a wet noodle for a month in the summer, watching his average drop 20 points with only three home runs, like in August of 2017, because he still went on to finish with 52 bombs and a .284 average by season’s end. Thus, your goal in rotisserie is to build a roster that can last through the rigors of a long season and still finish with stats that look good on the back of a baseball card.
Most rotisserie leagues are 5×5, which means there are five hitting (typically AVG, R, HR, RBI, SB) and five pitching categories (usually W, SV, K, ERA, WHIP). One drawback with rotisserie is that you can easily fall behind in enough categories by June that you have virtually no chance of winning your league by September. Thus, a balanced drafting strategy will allow you to avoid getting obliterated in any categories early. You want hitters that can help you across the board (20-20 types, or just players that aren’t an absolute zero in other categories). Later in drafts, you can add single-category only players to help you gain an edge, and you can use them as tradable assets to help you fill other holes once you’ve put some distance in those categories between you and other teams.
It’s best to prioritize hitters early since they are more predictable, and you’ll have a better chance locking up AVG, HR, RBI, R, and SB by taking elite bats in as many positions as possible while somebody else hopes Clayton Kershaw doesn’t break or Max Scherzer doesn’t finally hit a wall. You can find strikeouts late in drafts, and even wins can be obtained by focusing on second and third starters on teams projected to win 90 or more games. This is not to say it’s foolish taking a pitcher like Scherzer early — just that there’s usually less volatility with elite bats. If baseball has taught us anything, it’s that the game is often not kind to high usage arms.
Catchers have become black holes where fantasy stats are sucked inside, only to collapse and die. There are only a small handful of backstops considered fantasy assets. Despite the temptation to overdraft one and “gain an edge” at the position, the prudent move is to wait. Even the best catchers are unlikely to move the needle much with their stats — at least not as much as other position players – so you’ll end up overdrafting a catcher for a marginal advantage. In some cases, like with Gary Sanchez and his .186 average in 2018, overdrafting can backfire tremendously.
When it comes to arms, you don’t want to obsess over last year’s win totals. Wins are largely out of a pitcher’s control, as even fine performances often result in a no-decision thanks to a pitiful or luckless offense. Therefore, you’re better off targeting starters with a high K/9, a low ERA, and a low WHIP (anything 1.20 and under will play quite well).
It’s best to avoid elite closers, as they often get overdrafted when a better value is still on the board, and usually, more than a quarter of closers drafted are out of a job at some point anyway. Let someone else reach for big-name closers while you round out your hitting categories instead. A speculative arm drafted in the last round could easily end up with 25 saves by the end of the year. Closers, even the best ones, are too volatile to trust with early round picks. In fact, if there was ever a category you could “punt,” to some extent, it would be saves. It’s entirely possible to come out of a draft with only one or two established closers, yet finish the season with half a dozen guys all earning double-digit saves for you.
Mashup or Matchup
A good mashup somehow manages to take tracks from seemingly unlike genres only to blend them together in a way that sounds fluid and harmonious. Building an H2H categories team is a lot like that — grabbing a little of this and a little of that and piecing it together to make some magic. The goal is to build a team that matches up well with any other team. Most people focus on certain categories too much — stock up on power hitters early and often, load up on starting pitchers and closers to corner the pitching categories, and take speed guys early to guarantee you win stolen bases (SB) every week.
While it’s possible to still win with those strategies, they’re more likely to put you at a disadvantage in most leagues since you’ll be shorthanded in so many other categories. The best approach is to focus on hitters early — specifically the elite, well-rounded ones that have the potential to go 30-30 or 20-20, coupled with arms in the top 10-20 range. Many of those arms have a very good chance to emerge as top-10 options anyway, and bats like Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Christian Yelich, Ronald Acuna, Alex Bregman, and Manny Machado will make you a favorite to clean house in nearly all the hitting categories.
Whatever you do, don’t draft speed-only guys. Players like that have value in rotisserie because they can wrap up SB for you before the All-Star break and you can dump them or trade them once you’ve built an insurmountable lead in steals, but in H2H category leagues, guys like Billy Hamilton may win you SBs for the week, but cost you a host of other hitting categories, and thus your matchup with them.
At some point, you need to draft some starters and you should draft a boatload of them. They have a tendency to break like wine glasses and that fast you swore you’d gut through after the holidays. The more arms you have, the more likely you are to win Ks and wins. The trick is waiting, though. You want to aim for the arms that are ranked in the top 10-25 range, stockpiling hitters while others draft the big name starters.
Imagine having the number 1 pick last year. You could have waited on arms and drafted Mike Trout in Round 1, Jose Ramirez and Manny Machado at the turn, and Christian Yelich in Round 4 before finally taking Aaron Nola as your top starter, followed by Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, and Blake Snell to round out your staff. All those pitchers mentioned above finished as top-10 arms in most leagues, yet none of them were drafted as such. A team like that wins you league bragging rights more often than not and if you think a team like that is too far-fetched to build, I started one H2H categories draft last year with those exact same four hitters and enjoyed a championship by season’s end with starters and relievers found later in the draft.
Like with rotisserie leagues, you can always load up on closers late. In fact, in the league I mentioned above, I left the draft with only one established closer, but finished with six or seven in the final months as teams played musical chairs with their bullpens. Yes, you’ll need to be very familiar with the speculative closers on each team and pay close attention throughout the season to jump on guys sitting on the waiver wire before they take over the role. All that being said, it’s best to leave a draft with at least two secure closers so you aren’t scrambling all season. You just don’t need to overpay for them.
I’ve seen other strategies work in the past, like going all in on pitching, average, and speed early, but that was before the new “launch angle” era where offense is on the rise, and the league wants to keep it that way to maintain fan interest. The point is to avoid overpaying for value that can be found later in the draft and to know when to zig while others zag. Prioritize hitters that contribute across the board and focus on value with pitching later and you should win more titles than not, enjoying those flags that fly forever (in your head, at least).