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Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Focusing on Pitchers Early (2021)

by Mike Maher | @mikeMaher | Featured Writer
Feb 22, 2021

 
Over the last several years, the fantasy baseball landscape has changed. More formats have emerged, advanced metrics have grown in popularity and availability, and competition is stronger than ever. And with those emerging formats and growing competition has come new and advanced strategies. We no longer see fantasy leagues where fantasy managers simply take the best player available at their draft slot based on their rankings or tiers.

The most common strategy, especially among casual fantasy baseball managers, is to pair one early pitcher with a few bats through the first four-or-so rounds. They try to play things safe and build out a balanced roster while filling out their daily lineups, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there are other ways to get the most value out of your picks, depending on your league format and categories.

Many fantasy managers enter drafts with specific strategies in mind in order to extract the most value from their picks or corner the market at positions of scarcity. In this space, we’re going to talk about a somewhat polarizing strategy: focusing on pitchers early. Below are some of the benefits and reasons this strategy makes sense in 2021.

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Getting your supply ahead of the demand

With the aforementioned strategy of many fantasy managers taking 1-2 pitchers in the first four or five rounds, that means somewhere between 15-20 pitchers are likely to be drafted in the first four rounds ahead of a run on arms in the middle rounds. Regardless of where you land in the draft order, you should be able to get one of Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, or Shane Bieber in the first round and pair him with the likes of Trevor Bauer, Jack Flaherty, Yu Darvish, Walker Buehler, Lucas Giolito, Aaron Nola, Zac Gallen, Max Scherzer, or Clayton Kershaw in the second or third round.

Regardless of the order, it’s likely you’ll be able to walk away with two of the names above in the first three rounds, which would give you a great foundation and allow you to focus on balancing out the rest of your roster in the next several rounds. I included my top 35 SPs for 2021 below. After the names above, you have a second wave that includes Luis Castillo, Ian Anderson, Stephen Strasburg, Zach Plesac, Sonny Gray, Zack Greinke, and others. Is there value and potential to be found in this wave? Sure. But there are also more question marks.

And if you don’t focus on pitching early, you’re going to be fighting the run on pitchers in this second wave with all of the other fantasy managers who focused on hitting early. Pitching always looks deep at the beginning of a draft, but it disappears quickly, especially when the run on SP2s begins.

 

It’s easier to find quality bats in the middle rounds

The catch-22 of filling out a fantasy baseball roster is that there are always more bats than pitchers, but you also usually have more daily lineup spots to fill for hitters and need a deeper bench, especially in daily lineups leagues. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find good value in the middle rounds. As we showed above, the quality of starting pitching starts to deteriorate pretty quickly once you start getting into the 20s and 30s. And even worse, you’ll usually discover that several fantasy managers in a given league probably have the same opinion on many of the middle round arms.

It isn’t easy to find bats at the end of drafts, but it is still easy to find value in the middle of drafts, especially if you are targeting categories. Consider this: the 50th overall batter, according to FantasyPros ECR right now, is Paul Goldschmidt. Number 60 is Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 70 is Kris Bryant. 80 is Byron Buxton. 90? Tommy Edman. 100, Max Kepler. Let’s look at the same slots for pitchers: Aaron Civale (50), John Means (60), Brady Singer (70), Matthew Boyd (80), Taijuan Walker (90), Spencer Howard (100).

This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison because of how many hitters you will need versus how many pitchers you’ll draft, but you get the point. If you spend early draft picks on pitchers likely to be great or at least above average, you will still be able to find startable bats in the middle rounds. Focus on hitters early and ignore pitching for too long, and you’re going to be taking big swings and hoping they aren’t big misses.

It’s contrarian

An underrated element of focusing on pitching early is that, as we have discussed, it isn’t the most popular strategy. It isn’t necessarily as contrarian as it used to be, but it still isn’t the norm. That means you are more likely to find some market efficiencies in the middle and later rounds when others are scrambling to fill out their pitching staff, and you’re already confident in yours. Think about it this way: if 10 or 11 of the fantasy managers in your league head into a draft with a strategy of taking either the best player available regardless of position or focusing on hitters early (two common strategies), they’ll all be directly competing with each other for the same players. If you’re one of the only contrarians focusing on early pitching, you’re shopping at a different store, often with better prices.

Legit aces protect your entire pitching staff

Fantasy managers love the pitchers in the middle rounds because you can find some real gems who turn into aces, like Shane Bieber a couple of years ago or even Trevor Bauer last season. The problem is that if you build your staff around mostly pitchers from those rounds, there is a good chance you are going to miss on a few of them. Or, perhaps more likely, that pitcher will be good-but-inconsistent throughout the year. If you run into too many rough outings in a row or in close succession, things can snowball on you quickly.  In both head-to-head and rotisserie leagues, bad performances can derail your stats. Having legit aces that you grab early in drafts protects you from those bad performances because you will be getting 150+ innings of excellent production. That balances out the bad performances, often to the point where you barely notice them because the rest of your production is so solid.

MLB is deadening the baseball

Is the juiced ball era completely over? Probably not, but there was a report a couple of weeks ago that MLB was deadening the baseball in 2021. On top of that, five more teams are adding humidors for ball storage. Major League Baseball seems to realize that their juiced ball experiment that began sometime in 2016 has gotten out of control, and they are trying to reduce the number of home runs. Just like it was unclear which hitters would benefit the most from juiced baseballs, it’s unclear who this new deadened ball is going to hurt the most (other than the obvious candidates with lower exit velocities and shorter home run distances). And if hitters are going to be harder to project in 2021, that’s all the more reason to focus on pitching early in your drafts.

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Mike Maher is an editor and featured writer at FantasyPros and BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive, follow him on Twitter @MikeMaherand visit his Philadelphia Eagles blogThe Birds Blitz.

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