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Punting Categories Strategy (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Dan Harris | @danharris80 | Featured Writer
Feb 13, 2021

Having grown up in a non-New England state and having spent the last decade or so in a New England state, I can tell you that there are several differences about the area that really stands out. When people ask if you like your “rum,” they’re not asking about your drink, but rather whether you like the space in the house where you are currently located. Despite the Red Sox having won several championships, an outsider is still not allowed to bring up the Mets to anyone older than 65.

And, of course, there is candlepin bowling. I grew up in New York and was in a bowling league for several years, so when my then-girlfriend’s (now wife’s) family suggested we all go bowling early on in our relationship, I was more than game.

But when we got to the alley, well, this wasn’t bowling at all. No, apparently, in New England, bowling means throwing a ski ball at some thin sticks with a frame that lasts three rolls, not two. It didn’t go well.

I should clarify that part about how many rolls per frame you get. A normal person who goes candlepin bowling gets three rolls per frame. My son, who loves candlepin bowling, takes two.

I can’t tell you exactly why. He takes advantage of anything he can to get a better score. He’ll use bumpers. He’s like eight steps past the foul line when he lets the ball go. But a third roll? Blasphemy.

I’ve pleaded with him. “This doesn’t make any sense; you’re ALLOWED to take a third roll. You’ll have a better chance at knocking more pins down. You’re almost breaking the rules if you DON’T do it.”

None of those points moves the needle for him. After years of arguing, the best I can get from him is that limiting himself to two rolls helps him focus on making sure those two rolls are perfect, and he really doesn’t feel like he needs a third roll to win given the extra effort he puts into the first two.

As the person who always gets paired with him on a team, I can tell you that his strategy is flawed and does not work. Wait, is my wife secretly paying him to do this so she and my daughter can win at candlepin bowling? Is that why we always go for ice cream afterward . . . . Diabolical.

Anyway, you get it, right? My son apparently doesn’t take advantage of his third roll, so he can put all his energy into the first two, which he believes allows him to knock down more pins with those first two than if he went in knowing he had a third roll.

Kid’s crazy, right? I agree. Oh, also, you now understand punting a category in fantasy baseball.

Ok, not exactly. But you kinda, sorta understand going into a rotisserie draft planning to punt a category. If you do, you’re my son going candlepin bowling.

As we’ll discuss here, punting a category isn’t always forbidden. In a H2H categories draft, it might even be encouraged. And at some point during your rotisserie league season, it might become necessary.

But knowing when, and more importantly, how to punt a category is the only way to determine if it is appropriate.

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The Basics of Punting

I’m sure you know this already, but punting a category means that a fantasy manager intentionally does not attempt to accumulate stats in a specific category. The thought process behind this is that by not wasting draft capital to address a specific category – say, stolen bases – you can strengthen your team in the remaining categories.

It seems simple enough. And in theory, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea. After all, drafting a pure base stealer at the expense of a much better hitter is a tough pill to swallow during a draft. But before you even consider whether to punt a category, you’ll need to understand the benefits of doing so within your specific format:

  • Points Leagues: Punting is not a thing.
  • H2H Categories Leagues: Fine to do.
  • Rotisserie: You’re my son opting to use two rolls instead of three.

Points Leagues

For points leagues, even if you’re desperate to punt a category, you can’t because there are no categories. You’re just trying to accrue the most points, whether they come from pitching or home runs or steals. In fact, other than making sure you’re filling out your roster, you shouldn’t worry about any particular category, let alone trying to punt it.

H2H Categories Leagues

If you’re desperate to punt a category, this is the format for you. In a categories league, you’re matched up against a single opponent each week in the various rotisserie categories. Your goal is to win more categories than your opponent.

Punting is acceptable in this format for two main reasons. The first is that because you are playing on a purely week-to-week basis, you might still be able to win a category that you’re trying to punt. If you want to punt batting average, that’s fine, but who is to say that your entire team won’t get hot for a week and bat .400? If you want to punt wins, who knows if your relief pitchers will combine for a seven-win week? Heck, in 2006, a league mate tried to punt saves, and Chien-Ming Wang wound up coming in for relief in a random game and getting a three-inning save! You never know what can happen in a random week.

The second is that unlike in a rotisserie league, punting a category doesn’t bury you for the season. If your team goes 0-for-the week in a rotisserie league, well, it’s almost impossible to recover from that big a hit to your batting average. But, in a categories league, once your weekly matchup is over, it’s irrelevant. There are no negative repercussions, other than you lost a category in one week.

Rotisserie Leagues

So, what are the problems with my son’s candlepin bowling strategy? Well, there are many, but the biggest one is that right out of the gate, he caps his upside. Even if somehow he could “concentrate more effectively” on his first two rolls, he has to nail one or both to come out ahead of where he would be if he just took all three rolls. Otherwise, he’s limiting his possible total score before he even gets started.

That’s what you’re doing if you punt a category during your rotisserie draft. If you’re in a 12-team league, congratulations, you’ve just capped yourself at 109 possible points rather than 120. Realistically, you need to finish with at least a 10 in every other rotisserie category to have a chance at winning your league.

Can you do that? Of course. But why in the world would you limit your upside before the season even starts? Suppose you punt steals and your top two pitchers get hurt? You’ve lost any safety net. You are setting yourself up for a situation where you need everything to go perfectly.

Now, as with everything in fantasy sports, there is some nuance. Suppose you don’t set out to punt a category, but as the draft unfolds, you realize you’re incredibly weak somewhere through no real fault of your own. In that case, you don’t need to spend every one of your remaining picks trying to address that category. But make sure you’ve at least given yourself some production everywhere, such that if you do decide to pivot once the season begins, you’re not starting entirely from scratch.

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If You Are Compelled To Punt In Your Draft, Here is How

Suppose you lost a bet where the punishment is that you absolutely had to punt a category in your upcoming draft. Under those circumstances, you want to make sure the category you’re punting is discrete, in that your lack of production won’t harm your standing in any other category. But, again, there are differences between your strategy in a rotisserie league as opposed to a H2H categories league.

Rotisserie Leagues

In a rotisserie league draft, there are three categories you can consider punting if you’re dead set on doing it. The first two are the classic ones that come to mind, where you can afford to garner little production in them without hurting your standing in the other categories: saves and steals.

Saves are obvious in that you can simply avoid chasing saves and instead focus on bolstering the rest of your pitching staff. Ignoring saves in your draft and for the season won’t impact your production in any other category.

As for steals, only 15 players stole at least 20 bases in 2019. To compete in the stolen base category, you need to be focused on it throughout the draft. However, if you ignore it, you can easily focus on hitters who are productive everywhere else instead.

Punting any category isn’t desirable for the reasons discussed above, but ignoring saves and steals in your draft should at least insulate you from hurting the rest of your team in the process.

Realistically, however, the ideal category to punt is batting average. More than any other stat, a player’s batting average fluctuates from one year to the next. Fernando Tatis Jr. batted .317 in 2019 and .277 in 2020, yet his quality of contact and strikeout rate vastly improved in the latter year, and his xBA was more than 40 points higher in 2020. Bad or good luck over a season can greatly impact a player’s BABIP and, hence, his batting average.

In other words, batting average is the ideal category to punt because even if you try to punt it, you might not be able to. So, ignoring the stat in drafts might not leave you punting a category at all, which is the best outcome.

Categories Leagues

As discussed earlier, punting in a categories league is a more than viable strategy. The downside isn’t nearly as significant as in a rotisserie league, and the weekly volatility of any statistic means that you’ll always have a chance to win that category. So, punting discrete categories, such as saves, stolen bases, and batting average, offers plenty of upside.

In a typical year, punting saves in a categories league isn’t just acceptable but almost desirable. If instead, you roster starting pitchers who qualify as relief pitchers, then you often guarantee yourself the victory in wins and strikeouts while taking the loss in only the saves category. But note that because of last year’s shortened season, the number of quality starters who qualify as relievers are minimal.

H2H categories leagues also offer you the rare opportunity to punt two categories, wins, and strikeouts, by neglecting starting pitching almost entirely. Instead, you can focus heavily on hitting in your draft and select only high-quality relief pitchers. This allows you to win all five hitting categories and three pitching categories in a week more often than not.

There are some caveats with the strategy, of course. You need to make sure you have enough innings to reach any minimum innings requirement. And even if you do, one bad outing by your otherwise dominant relief staff could cause you to lose ERA and WHIP. But, for the most part, the strategy should provide a high floor and keep you from almost ever suffering a devastating week.

Note: Some fantasy managers like to pursue this strategy in rotisserie leagues. You know how I feel about punting even a single category in roto leagues. I certainly would not advocate for limiting yourself to a best-case scenario of 98 points (in a 12-team league) by deliberately punting two categories. 

Punting Categories In-Season

At all times during your fantasy season, you should be assessing your fantasy team’s potential in every category. And, depending on your standings, there are times when your team’s best course of action is punting a category.

Consider a team that is strong in every category but two: saves and strikeouts. Your closers lost their jobs. Your pitchers kept leaving their starts early. By mid-season, you’re last in both categories, though there’s a plausible path to moving up the standings.

Unless you’re in a daily lineup league without an innings limit, it’s nearly impossible to make up ground in both categories by the midway point of the season. To make up ground in saves, you’ll need to start more relievers, which will make it difficult to improve in strikeouts. On the other hand, if you’re trying to gain ground in strikeouts, starting several relievers will usually limit your upside.

When you reach that point in the season, punting one of those categories is your best option.

Punting a category is not usually the best strategy, at least not during your draft, and especially not in rotisserie leagues. But, if you do go that route, make sure to do it correctly in a way that won’t negatively impact the other categories.

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Dan Harris is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyPros. For more from Dan, check out his archive or follow him on Twitter at @danharris80.

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