Roto vs. H2H: How Does Your Strategy Change? (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
In a previous article, we reviewed the two most popular head-to-head (H2H) formats in fantasy baseball: points and categories leagues. In this space, the goal will be to compare the key differences between fantasy baseball’s original and most classic format (rotisserie) and the week-to-week matchups that are hallmarks of H2H leagues. More importantly, we will examine what strategies should be used for each.
H2H is more of a single match tournament where you have to beat an opponent each week to advance further up the standings, either by scoring more points or winning more categories. “Small sample size” is often shunned in baseball, but it’s all the rage in H2H leagues where a hot pitcher or batter can literally win you your matchup.
Rotisserie is essentially a battle royale where the goal is to outlast all the other teams over the course of a long season. In a rotisserie format, the bumps in the road that come with small sample sizes are smoothed over across an entire season. In contrast, big weeks or brutal ones can often result in H2H format teams finishing the season with point totals that don’t always reflect their record.
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Built to Last
Normally, a horrible month in H2H by one or two core players in your lineup can cost you valuable ground in the standings right before playoffs start. However, the goal of rotisserie is to rank as high as possible across all categories by the time the season ends. You usually don’t care Ozzie Albies slumps to a .159 average with a .468 OPS as he did in the first half of last year’s shortened season if that OPS climbs more than 450 points to .953 in the second half. Thus, your goal in rotisserie is to build a roster that can last through the rigors of a long season and still finish with stats that look good on the back of a baseball card.
Most rotisserie leagues are 5×5, which means there are five hitting (typically AVG, R, HR, RBI, SB) and five pitching categories (usually W, SV, K, ERA, WHIP). One drawback with rotisserie is that you can easily fall behind in enough categories early enough that you have virtually no chance of winning your league by September. Thus, a balanced drafting strategy will allow you to avoid getting obliterated in any category early.
You want hitters that can help you across the board (ideally, 20-20 types like Tommy Pham or Starling Marte, or just players that aren’t an absolute zero in other categories). Later in drafts, you can add single-category only players to help you gain an edge, and you can use them as tradable assets to help you fill other holes once you’ve put some distance in those categories between you and other teams. This doesn’t mean you should pass on a player like Nolan Arenado just because he won’t ever run. Context matters when you’re looking at a player whose performance is superlative in four of the five categories.
It’s best to prioritize hitters early since they are more predictable. You’ll have a better chance locking up AVG, HR, RBI, R, and SB by taking elite bats in as many positions as possible. Simultaneously, somebody else hopes Max Scherzer doesn’t break like Justin Verlander finally did or that Trevor Bauer’s Jekyll and Hyde ERA will finally stabilize. You can find strikeouts late in drafts, and even wins can be obtained by focusing on second and third starters on teams projected to win 90 or more games. This is not to say it’s foolish taking a pitcher like Scherzer early – just that there’s usually less volatility with elite bats. If baseball has taught us anything, it’s that the game is often not kind to high usage arms.
Catchers have become black holes where fantasy stats are sucked inside, only to collapse and die. There are only a small handful of backstops considered fantasy assets. Despite the temptation to overdraft J.T. Realmuto and “gain an edge” at the position, the prudent move is to wait. Even the best catchers are unlikely to move the needle much with their stats – at least not as much as other position players – so you’ll end up over drafting a catcher for a marginal advantage. In 2019, Mitch Garver largely went undrafted, yet he produced one of the top catcher lines by the end of the season. Last year, the ghost of Travis d’Arnaud was a top-5 catcher.
When it comes to arms, you don’t want to obsess over last year’s win totals. Wins are largely out of a pitcher’s control, as even fine performances often result in a no-decision thanks to a pitiful or luckless offense. Therefore, you’re better off targeting starters with a high K/9, a low ERA, and a low WHIP (anything 1.20 and under will play quite well).
Despite what some experts say, it’s best to avoid elite closers, as they often get overdrafted when a better value is still on the board, and it’s not uncommon to see more than a quarter of closers drafted end up out of a job at some point during the season. Closers are the most volatile position in baseball in terms of job security. Let someone else reach for big-name closers while you round out your hitting categories instead. A speculative arm drafted in the last round could easily end up with 25 saves by the end of the year. In fact, if there was ever a category you could “punt,” to some extent, it would be saves. It’s entirely possible to come out of a draft with only one or two established closers yet finish the season with half a dozen guys all earning double-digit saves for you.
Mashup or Matchup
A good mashup somehow manages to take tracks from seemingly unlike genres only to blend them in a way that sounds fluid and harmonious. Building an H2H categories team is a lot like that – grabbing a little of this and a little of that and piecing it together to make some magic. The goal is to build a team that matches up well with any other team. Most people focus on certain categories too much – stock up on power hitters early and often, load up on starting pitchers and closers to corner the pitching categories or take speed guys early to guarantee you win stolen bases (SB) every week.
While it’s possible to still win with those strategies, they’re more likely to put you at a disadvantage in most leagues since you’ll be shorthanded in so many other categories. The best approach is to focus on hitters early – specifically, the elite, well-rounded ones that have the potential to go 30-30 or 20-20, coupled with arms in the top 10-30 range. Many of those arms have a very good chance to emerge as top-10 options anyway, and bats like Mike Trout, Juan Soto, Christian Yelich, and Ronald Acuña will make you a favorite to clean house in nearly all the hitting categories (plus stolen bases, in Acuña’s case).
Whatever you do, don’t draft speed-only guys. Players like that have value in rotisserie because they can wrap up SB for you before the All-Star break, and you can dump them or trade them once you’ve built an insurmountable lead in steals. However, in H2H category leagues, guys like Jonathan Villar may win you SBs for the week but cost you a host of other hitting categories, and thus your matchup with them. Consider that Mallex Smith (a league leader in steals in 2019) hit just .133/.170/.178 over 47 plate appearances before being released by Seattle last year.
At some point, you need to draft some starters, and you should draft a boatload of them. They have a tendency to break like wine glasses and that fast you swore you’d gut through after the holidays. The more arms you have, the more likely you are to win Ks and wins. The trick is waiting, though. You want to aim for the arms ranked in the top 10-25 range, stockpiling hitters, while others draft the big-name starters.
Like with rotisserie leagues, you can always load up on closers late. You can leave a draft with only two established closers but finish with six or seven in the final months as teams play musical chairs with their bullpens. However, you’ll need to be very familiar with the speculative closers on each team and pay close attention throughout the season to jump on guys sitting on the waiver wire before they take over the role. All that being said, it’s best to leave a draft with at least two secure closers, so you aren’t scrambling all season. You just don’t need to overpay for them.
I’ve seen other strategies work in the past, like going all-in on pitching, average, and speed early, but that was before the new “launch angle” era where the offense is on the rise, and the league wants to keep it that way to maintain fan interest. The point is to avoid overpaying for a value that can be found later in the draft and to know when to zig while others zag. Prioritize hitters that contribute across the board and focus on value with pitching later, and you should win more titles than not, enjoying those flags that fly forever (in your head, at least).
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Paul Ghiglieri is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Paul, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyGhigs.