H2H Strategy: Category vs. Points Leagues (2021 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. H2H formats mostly break down into two styles of play: points leagues and categories leagues.
If you’re new to points leagues, the primary goal (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 RBIs, 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.
All the Pretty Horses (Innings Eaters Rule in Points, Ratios in Categories)
More advanced analytics, service-time manipulation, and the expansion of the injured list have allowed teams to shuttle pitchers up and down from the minor leagues while reducing a starter’s exposure through the 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 affect the way we approach fantasy drafts. Gone are the days when most back-end 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, only 12 starters pitched 200 innings or more, and only three of them had a WHIP greater than 1.20.
It goes without saying that 2020 will always be an anomaly full of outliers. But if we adjust for the season shortened because of COVID-19, 17 starters pitched 70 or more innings, which was as close to a “workhorse” as any pitcher could be given the circumstances. Only two of those pitchers had an ERA over 4.00. If we expand that list to include pitchers who threw 68 innings, we get 22. Of those, 12 had a double-digit K/9 rate.
All of this is to say, the horses of old — pretty as they were — have become a rare breed. 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.
Lance Lynn, Mike Minor, Eduardo Rodriguez, Jose Berríos, and even Marco Gonzales were more valuable in 2019 points formats because each pitched more than 200 innings. In a shortened 2020 season, Lynn (again), Germán Márquez, Kyle Hendricks, Aaron Civale, Antonio Senzatela, and Framber Valdez saw the increased value of pitching 70+ innings.
Categories leagues generally care less about innings, rewarding ratios instead. Kyle Freeland’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., Corbin Burnes) 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 to mix and match your lineup to avoid a disadvantage in too many categories. If your opponent is loaded with low-average power bats, counter with average, speed, and run-scoring to gain an edge if you don’t want to stream some home-run potential off the waiver wire.
Conversely, if your opponent appears to have a speed advantage, troll the wire for stolen-base assets if you don’t have a leg up in other categories like power or saves. This means 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 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 pitchers.
It’s fine to punt a category if you have a decisive advantage in most 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 an advantage.
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 if he’s not also hitting doubles and home runs, batting for a solid average, and scoring runs (e.g., Whit Merrifield) 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 many 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 only in categories leagues. Jonathan Villar can single-handedly win the stolen base category most weeks, but he finished at the bottom of the league in xSLG, xBA, and wOBA. He’s a massive liability in a points league that doesn’t reward extra for stolen bases. A walk is worth the same as a single in most points leagues, so high-OBP batters like DJ LeMahieu and even Mike Yastrzemski have an edge.
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 only the ones with high K/9 rates who lead the league in saves make a noticeable impact. Josh Hader (13 saves, 14.68 K/9) was worth nearly double Mark Melancon (11 saves, 5.56 K/9) despite notching only two more saves last year.
Finally, starters who qualify as relievers are like aces in the hole since you can play them in RP slots and accumulate a bevy of points via wins, innings, and strikeouts. 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 when building a roster on draft day.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you navigate your season. From our Lineup Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball season.