Categories League Primer (Fantasy Baseball)
The rotisserie format is still the most common type of fantasy baseball league. You do battle with everyone in your league for the entire year, trying to accumulate the best stats in (at least) 10 different categories over thousands of at-bats and innings. But head-to-head points leagues have grown in popularity in recent years. Taking a cue from fantasy football, you’re matched up against a single opponent each week, trying to win the week by totaling the highest number of points (which you accumulate through the traditional rotisserie categories), regardless of from which statistical categories they come.
But an under-appreciated type of fantasy baseball league is the one that combines the best of both formats – head-to-head (H2H) categories leagues. As with H2H points leagues, you draw a single opponent each week, and your only goal is to beat that one foe, make it to the playoffs, and take down the championship. But similar to rotisserie leagues, you’re competing in the typical 5×5 categories (usually), trying to make sure you’re scoring more runs, tallying more wins, and garnering more steals than your opponent.
Sometimes, as in H2H points leagues, you’ll get a single “win” or “loss” for the week, depending on how you fared in the 10 categories. But often, your team statistics are totaled up separately in each of the 10 categories, producing some combination of 10 wins, losses, and ties for each scoring period.
Whether you play with one win, loss, or tie for the week or break it down by each individual category, playing in a H2H categories league is the best way for those who are faithful to the rotisserie format to ensure that they’re engaged all year and getting the thrill of the head-to-head style.
But like any change in format, differences in strategies arise. So here are a few small considerations to keep in mind when you’re drafting in your H2H categories league.
Punting a category is ok
Generally speaking, punting categories in fantasy baseball isn’t a wise strategy, at least not in a rotisserie league. You limit your potential upside right off the bat, as your best case scenario drops from 120 points (in a 12-team league) to 109 points. And that means you pretty much need everything to break right in the other nine categories to have a shot at the title. But in a head-to-head categories league? Punting isn’t quite so taboo.
Let’s say, for example, that you punt steals. You’ll get just a handful for the season, and finish with by far the fewest steals in your league. But although your team may feel uncomfortable when you look at it coming out of the draft, your season-long steals totals simply aren’t relevant in a categories league. Your absolute worst case scenario is that you’re guaranteeing that you lose just one out of your 10 categories each week. That’s not nearly as damaging as coming in last place in a category in a rotisserie league.
Also, even if you try to purposely punt steals, you may find yourself winning, or at least tying, that category a few times during the season. Steals come in bunches, and no matter how many steals your opponent may tally over the course of the season, he or she may have that random off week in your matchup. And, of course, you never know when your one Pete Alonso or Nolan Arenado steal may come, which might be just enough to win you the week.
Go heavy on offense
In a rotisserie league, focusing on starting pitcher early is a strategy fantasy managers should employ. Drafting two or more starters who can not only provide elite numbers but add with them strong innings totals is a near must if you expect to compete for a fantasy title.
But it’s not the same in H2H categories leagues. Sure, getting reliable starting pitchers is still important in the format. But you’d be surprised how often you’ll be playing the matchups. Because ratio stats are far less important for pitchers than innings and strikeouts in H2H categories leagues (more on that below), you can squeeze a ton of juice out of your fantasy pitching staff by churning through two-start pitchers off your waiver wire each week, often as much as you can out of an elite starter with just one matchup that week.
Hitters, however, are much more reliable. Sure, there’s always the random fringe player who gets six games in Colorado and Philadelphia in a given week, but for the most part, you’re sticking with your offense no matter what. An 0-for-4 doesn’t hurt you nearly as much as a three-inning, six-run outing!
So, with that in mind, make sure that your hitters are the strength of your team in categories leagues. Go big on your offense – and especially power – early and often. You’re going to do a ton of mixing and matching with your pitchers.
Ratios aren’t nearly as important as you think
Ratio statistics such as batting average, ERA, and WHIP are obviously critical components to fantasy success generally. And they’re relevant in every type of fantasy baseball league, regardless of the particular format.
But they simply don’t stay on the same plane when it comes to H2H categories leagues. That’s because in any given week, your hitters could hit a rough patch, while your opponent and his team full of Joey Gallo, Miguel Sano, and Kyle Schwarber could face some soft matchups. Similarly, your team full of excellent starters should be great over the long haul, but those few six-run outings that they have each season will single-handedly lose you a week or two in a categories league.
Obviously, you want to draft excellent starting pitchers and hitters with good batting averages if you can. But, ratio stats, because they’re so volatile in small sample sizes, are a bit less important than counting stats in categories leagues, and you should remember that during your draft.
Not all production is created equal
In a rotisserie format, you’re just looking for the best production you can get over the long haul. If your players want to hit 10 homers one month and zero the next, it’s all good, so long as their numbers end up where they need to be at season’s end.
But in categories leagues, it’s a different story. Players, and specifically hitters, who are notoriously streaky are not ideal for the format. Although they may win you a week or two, they are certainly going to lose you a few, too.
When considering your draft rankings, focus on things like walk-to-strikeout rates for hitters. Generally speaking, those players are more likely to give you consistent production week in and week out.
Of course, that doesn’t mean to avoid every hitter that is prone to streaks. But when I’m making my draft rankings for categories leagues, I generally have high-strikeout and Rockies hitters a little lower than I do in my rotisserie ranks.
Use your bench spots for pitchers
As we talked about above, you’re going to likely be playing matchups more with starting pitchers in H2H categories leagues than almost any other format. In any given week, you’re going to sub in two-start pitchers and fringe starters for some of the more reliable arms that you’d just as soon leave in your lineup in other formats.
With that in mind, particularly in a deep league, use most, if not all, of your bench spots during your draft on starting pitchers. With eight or nine starting pitchers on your roster, you can pick and choose who you deploy each week and maximize your output each week.
Head-to-head categories doesn’t involve a massive change in strategy. But remembering these few key tips should allow you to maximize the return in your draft.
Whether you’re new to fantasy baseball or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Baseball 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with our Sabermetrics Glossary or head to a more advanced strategy – like How to Make Custom Fantasy Baseball Rankings with Microsoft Excel – to learn more.