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Openers and Closers: How to Navigate the Pitcher Pool in 2020

by Alex Altmix | @Altmix_23 | Featured Writer
Jan 13, 2020

The influx of “openers” and the decline of traditional closers have combined to undeniably alter the landscape of fantasy baseball. Long gone are the simplistic days of drafting pitchers by opportunistically grabbing quality starters throughout and waiting around until the final rounds to grab a few save-snaring sleepers. So, how do you best navigate the pitcher pool in 2020? Let’s find out.

Check out our early consensus rankings for 2020 fantasy baseball drafts >>

“Opening” Thoughts
Pun absolutely intended. Openers were used across Major League Baseball more in 2019 than ever before. A closer examination show’s how that affects fantasy. 

Wins are the stats that openers affect the most.
Paying attention to who is opening for a team and who will “piggyback” off the opener is a lot of work, no doubt. Understanding that can often be the key to picking up an extra win and swaying a matchup, however. For example, Ryan Yarbrough was an under-owned player for almost all of 2019. He finished with over 10 wins, but he rarely started many games. Finding players similar to Yarbrough, but who will emerge in 2020, would give your team a significant leg up on the competition.

The actual opening pitcher offers very little value unless he is also used in other ways.
It’s standard practice to scour the waiver wire daily for probable pitchers. Unless you’re going to hang on to an opener in hopes of future saves, wins, or strikeouts, they’re best left on the waiver wire. The only real help that openers typically provide comes through a minimal boost to ERA and WHIP. 

New-age pitching trends affect overall stats more than individual players.
If you’ve paid much attention to openers, you know that the Tampa Bay Rays essentially invented the fad and have used it more than anyone else. Even they, however, are discussing scrapping the idea for 2020 since they have five quality starters. Players are only as productive fantasy-wise as the opportunities they are put into. Pitchers like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were so valuable last year not just because they were good (they were really good), but also because they pitched a lot for one of the best teams in baseball. So, what about everyone who isn’t like those top guys? Well, their stats have all suffered! Most pitchers aren’t pitching as often, going as deeply into games, and accruing as many stats as they used to. Pitchers like Verlander and Cole have become more valuable as the entire rest of the pack has slipped further behind.

Closer Carousel
Only 11 pitchers finished 2019 with 30 or more saves; that’s fewer than one player per team in a standard league. Let’s examine the players that finished with just under 30 saves: Sean Doolittle, Edwin Diaz, Carlos Martinez, and Ken Giles are a few of them. How confident are you with one of those players being your top closer? If that’s not enough to convince you that the top closers are going to fly off draft boards in 2020, I don’t know what will. Saves were down across the board last year in baseball, and there’s no reason to expect that trend to change. The top closers are going to come off the board fast, and if you want one, you’ll need to pay up.

Winning Woes
If those closer stats weren’t enough to scare you, get a load of this. Only 12 pitchers in the MLB registered more than 15 wins. That’s only one pitcher per team in standard fantasy leagues. Furthermore, only 61 pitchers even registered 10 wins. A handful of MLB teams did not have their number two starter register double-digit wins. Yikes. That’s where baseball is in 2020. Fantasy managers must act accordingly.

2020 Pitcher Strategy
I’ve rarely paid up for pitching early, and it’s always worked — until last year. The state of pitching around the league has changed to the point where you must mold your draft strategy around it. ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts have either remained constant or improved. But starters are recording fewer wins, and closers are recording fewer saves, period. And we already know why. Craft the pitching half of your draft around wins and saves; the rest will take care of itself.

So, think of your strategy along these lines. We already know that only 12 pitchers recorded more than 15 wins last season, and only 11 of them recorded 30 or more saves. Let’s assume the same thing happens in 2020. If you could somehow acquire three of those starters without breaking the metaphorical bank, that would put you at a massive advantage. To expand on that, let’s say you also get 2 of the top 11 closers we’ve already discussed. Of course, the rest of your roster would matter, but you would have already put some major distance between yourself and the rest of the league. 

Get Two Early
We’re going to play by the rules that nine highly drafted pitchers finish in the top 12 in wins in 2020. By that standard, which should be fairly accurate, means that nine of the top 12 pitchers in wins should be gone by around the end of the 4th round, according to FantasyPros’ ADP. The lesson? Keep it simple and draft two starting pitchers by the end of the fourth round.

Buy in Bulk
The positive takeaway based on the top-12 pitchers in wins last season? At least three of them were completely unexpected. If you thought Marco Gonzales, Dakota Hudson, and Lance Lynn would all be top-12 pitchers in wins, raise your hand. No one? Okay. Load up on starting pitching late! With the way pitching will be in 2020, all but one or two bench spots should be dedicated to pitchers. Treat your bench pitchers like lottery tickets. Expect them to fail, but if just one hits, it will be worth your while. Not only do they make solid stashes, but they’ll also consistently help your team out (assuming it’s not a weekly lock league). 

2 x 9 On Closers
If you’ve ever played in a highly competitive league, you know that closers tend to go a little earlier than ADP says. If you’re not in a very competitive league, you may be able to sneak this rule a little later than the ninth round. Just like how we wanted a competitive advantage on starters, we also want a competitive advantage on closers. To find a way to do that, take two closers by the end of the ninth round. After that point, the chances of drafting a 30-save player will become very slim. Yes, the waiver wire can be fruitful, but we’re talking about the draft right now. Banking on sleepers like Matt Barnes and Jordan Hicks clearly did not work out last year. 

Buy in Bulk
Sound familiar? No reason not to do the same with closers. Just make sure you have two solid closers in case none of the bulk works out. 

Post-Draft Strategy
You may have found yourself adding up those numbers above to no avail. The truth of the matter is that drafting three of the top-12 pitchers in wins isn’t very likely while only spending two of your top four picks on the position. The hard work comes in after the draft. Lance Lynn, Dakota Hudson, and Marco Gonzales all went undrafted in most leagues last year. Find those players and pounce on them when the time comes.

“Closing” Thoughts
Sorry, one too many pitcher jokes. Pitching matters in fantasy baseball in 2020 though folks. Don’t slide through the draft ignoring it and think you can manage your way to success. It just won’t happen. Pay attention and draft for wins and saves; if you do that, ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts will take care of themselves. Grabbing two top starters and closers will help put you on solid ground.

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Alex Altmix is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Alex, check out his archive or follow him @Altmix_23.

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