H2H Strategy: Category vs. Points Leagues (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
Rotisserie baseball will always be the standard and preferred format for many fantasy baseball players. However, with the rise of fantasy football, head-to-head formats have continued to evolve across the diamond. The thrill of a one-on-one matchup each week has its allure, even if rotisserie’s season-long accumulation of stats will always have its own charms. For the most part, H2H formats can be broken down into two styles of play: points leagues and categories leagues.
If you’re new to this, the primary goal in points leagues (like most fantasy football leagues) is to score more total points than your opponent in a given week. Each significant baseball action is assigned a point total, and you draft and start players who will generate the most points. You don’t care how they score, so long as they do.
On the other hand, categories leagues require that you beat your opponent in certain stats each week (e.g. hit more home runs, knock in more RBI, rack up more wins, finish with a lower ERA and WHIP, etc). Think of it like a one-on-one rotisserie matchup that lasts just one week, with the victor being whoever wins the most categories.
With two distinctively different styles of play, the format will determine how you draft players for your team.
All the Pretty Horses (Innings Eaters Rule in Points, Ratios in Categories)
More advanced analytics, service-time manipulation, and the expansion of the disabled list have allowed teams to shuttle pitchers up and down from the minor leagues while reducing the amount of exposure a starter feels when going through a lineup a third time. Specialized bullpens have become the soup du jour, and quality of innings has replaced quantity as the new standard of what makes a starter valuable.
These changes have affected the way we approach drafting fantasy teams. Gone are the days where most backend starters get the chance to gut their way past the fifth inning. The 200-inning milestone, a stat once worth millions of dollars to mid-tier starters who could give you innings, has turned into an exclusive club of elite strike-throwers who are good enough to consistently see the seventh inning and beyond.
Consider that, in 2019, only 15 pitchers cleared the 200-inning threshold, and only one of them (Trevor Bauer) had an ERA over 4.00. In 2018, there were only 12 starters who pitched 200 innings or more, and only three of them had a WHIP greater than 1.20. The horses of old, pretty as they were, have become a rare breed. And in points leagues, which typically reward starters for their innings and/or a quality start, a starting pitcher’s ability to last well into the seventh inning or beyond while collecting a quality start and a K/9 over 7.00 get high priority.
Categories leagues generally care less about innings, rewarding ratios instead. Jon Gray’s bloated ERA and penchant for getting blown up in any given start could single-handedly cost you ERA and WHIP. You’ll usually only take a chance on starters like this if they possess elite strikeout stuff (e.g. German Marquez) or play on teams with loaded offenses to increase the likelihood of a win. More often than not, however, focus on acquiring pitchers who keep the ball in the ballpark and notch strikeouts to give you a better chance to compete in more than one category each week.
Matchmakers’ Delight (Balance and Depth are Paramount in Category Leagues)
In category leagues, you have to look hard at your opponent’s roster heading into each matchup since you may have to mix and match your lineup to avoid a disadvantage in too many categories. If your opponent is loaded with low-average power bats, you can counter with average, speed, and run-scoring to gain an edge in your matchup if you don’t want to try to stream some home-run potential off the waiver wire.
Conversely, if your opponent appears to have a speed advantage, you’ll troll the wire for stolen-base assets if you don’t have an advantage in other categories like power or saves. What this all means is that you’re better off drafting a balanced team that enables you to compete in as many categories as possible, if not all categories, so you aren’t scrambling to the waiver wire to compensate and fill holes. You’ll need to compete for power, speed, average, and scoring with your hitters and ratios, wins, saves, and strikeouts with your arms.
It’s fine to punt a category if you have a decisive advantage in the majority of others, but balance and depth is the surest way to find yourself in the title mix. Plus, a balanced and deep roster better enables you to bench players in line with your opponent’s weaknesses while stacking your lineup in other areas to gain advantages in different categories.
For example, if you have four or five closers, but your opponent only has one or two on weak teams, you can start just two or three and double down on starters. This way you’ll take strikeouts and wins while still winning saves and hopefully staying competitive with the ratios. Matchmaking is the name of the game. Do what you got to do to get that rose at the end of the week.
Points leagues don’t discriminate nearly as much. Unless a league rewards extra points for stolen bases, a speedster holds little value unless he’s also hitting doubles and home runs, batting for a high average, and scoring runs (e.g. Jonathan Villar) to rack up extra points. You don’t really care how your team accumulates points, so long as the players pile them up. Your goal is simply to outscore your opponent each week, not outperform them in certain categories.
If You Build It, They Will Come (What Skills Matter in Categories and Points Leagues)
Since points leagues typically prioritize the same skills valued in real baseball, you want to target hitters with a high OPS and pitchers who go deep into games and strike out a lot of batters. Power is king regardless of format. A home run produces points for the dinger, the run, and the RBI-even more so with men on base. The same goes for categories leagues, where power helps you win multiple categories like HR, RBI, R, and OPS.
Speed should be prioritized in categories leagues only. A player like Mallex Smith can single-handedly win you the stolen bases category most weeks, but as someone who finished at the bottom of the league in xSLG, xBA, and wOBA, he’s a massive liability in a points league unless that league rewards extra points for stolen bases. A walk is worth the same as a single in points leagues, so high-OBP batters like Michael Brantley and Jeff McNeil have an edge there.
Additionally, middle relievers have tremendous value in categories leagues since they can do wonders to suppress ratios and help compensate for any blowups your starters may endure. Reliable closers can be premium assets, as they typically provide Ks, solid ratios, and saves. However, middle relievers usually don’t generate enough innings, Ks, or consistent wins to merit a roster spot in points leagues. You’ll typically have to roster closers in points leagues, but they often have a minimal impact unless they’re netting saves at a record pace like Edwin Diaz last year.
Finally, starters who qualify as relievers are like aces in the hole since you can start them in RP slots and accumulate a bevy of points. Meanwhile, relievers who qualify as starters are gems in categories leagues since they can slot into SP spots and improve ratios.
Take these strategies and gain an edge where it matters most in how you build your roster when it comes time to draft.