Steven is an endurance runner, writer and coach. He has run multiple races from the Mile to the Marathon.
It Happens to a Lot of Fantasy Baseball Owners...
Whether you had a terrific draft and bad luck wrecked your team, or you missed it entirely and autodraft screwed you, or anywhere in-between, you end up with a crappy fantasy team and there isn't any clear path to suitably rebuilding it.
Most casual owners will just abandon the team early. But, if you're not ready or willing to do that, if you still want to compete in the league, or perhaps you're in a paid league and you're not ready to give up on the $50 or whatever fee you paid to enter it just yet—fear not!
In my 20+ years of playing fantasy baseball, in anywhere from random public leagues to competitive leagues with friends all the way to the harrowing world of paid leagues with prizes... I've won multiple outright titles and made the top-tier playoffs in most of my leagues. Over the years I've learned how to overcome bad luck, bad drafts, or both!
I'll go into midseason steps I personally take to remedy poor rosters and turn them into competitive rosters before it's too late.
I typically play in head-to-head leagues where lineups and rosters can be changed daily. Some of this advice may not be as applicable for leagues where rosters are set weekly, where it's important to estimate prior to a given week how many games a player will play.
All advice should still apply to roto leagues, though of course be mindful of league limits on games played for each position as the season ends.
Fix: Make Sure You've Got 2+ Hitters for Every Lineup Slot
Personally, I draft (or handle an auction) with the intention of creating roster redundancy: I want to finish the draft/auction owning at least two hitters for every lineup slot on my team, as well as 2+ closers and starting pitchers taking up all my other pitching slots.
With this, if my desired starter isn't playing on a given day, I usually have an available replacement that allows me to start an active player in that slot. Even if the backup isn't as productive and risks lowering my team average, he still gives me an opportunity to compile runs, RBI, perhaps stolen bases and home runs. Since all non-average hitting categories are scored cumulatively, piling as many stats in those categories as you can is your best bet.
Owners often end up with only one player available at one or more slots. Or perhaps one of their options at a position isn't playing, gets hurt, or otherwise isn't performing. You can and should fix this as soon as possible!
If you only have one guy at a position, or an injury/benching/etc reduces you to one guy at a spot... go to your league's free-agent list and search by the needed position(s) for available players who are playing regularly and are at all productive. Get the best one available and you're set for now.
In most leagues (which have about 8-12 fantasy teams), you should have plenty of options: Lots of starters go untouched in the draft and remain available all season. In 16-20 team leagues, it gets a lot tougher to find free agents, with more talent spread out among more teams. But in my experience, even in competitive 20 team leagues, there should be at least a few useful free-agent starters available at every position. There's usually no reason you shouldn't be able to create redundancy at every lineup slot.
Even if the best available guy is a semi-regular (say, the left-handed hitter in a platoon, or a guy who splits time with another semi-regular), if he's producing he's better than you not starting an active player at all.
(What about closers, specifically if you're short on them? We'll get to that in a bit.)
Fix: Find and Ride Hot Hands From Available Free Agents
What you often find on the free-agent list is a smattering of unknown or marginal players who happen to be hitting very well over the last 1-2 weeks. While you may not necessarily have a dire need for that player's position(s), his bat probably is an upgrade over an active player on your roster at that position. Get him and start him while he's hot!
Sure, he may not be as good as his recent stats suggest, and he may be due for a regression to his old self. But if he's hit well over the last 7-14 days, chances are good he's seeing the ball well and things are clicking. He probably will continue to hit like this for at least the next few days. Sure, there's a risk he goes Singing Frog on you and the hot streak is gone the second you play him, but chances are you're dropping a marginal hitter who wasn't producing much for you in the first place. Worst case scenario, he gives you what the other guy was giving you.
Better yet, there's always the chance you find a breakout star no one had on their radar, and I've done this many times. My favorite personal example of this came way back in 1999, I was in a 12 team head to head league and needed to upgrade my outfield roster I took a flier on this kid on the Kansas City Royals who happened to be hitting somewhat well. He probably hadn't been touched because the other owners avoided Royals players, knowing the team was bad. I added him while he was hot, and it turns out he never cooled down: He was one of the best hitters on my team that year and I made a deep fantasy-playoffs run.
That kid? He was a 22-year-old named Carlos Beltran, having the first of what would be many great seasons in a terrific career. And, of course, he certainly wasn't available on the free-agent wire the next year!
Bringing in hot hand hitters is worth the gamble. Take advantage and get those hot stats in your lineup.
Fix: Relentlessly Stream Starting Pitchers
I admit I probably neglect starting pitching in a fantasy draft more than most owners. I may draft one or two good pitchers but typically just snag a bunch of lesser SP's in the draft's later rounds.
They're always plenty of the latter pitchers available... and usually for a lot of good reasons.
- They're not consistent or proven pitchers.
- They don't consistently amass a lot of strikeouts.
- They tend to give up runs or have many horrible outings.
- Their ERA/WHIP isn't so great.
- They play on bad teams and thus don't get many chances at wins, assuming they pitch deep enough into games to get those winning chances.
Sure, going back to what I said about hot hitters, perhaps there are some sleepers in the pitching bunch, with the potential to have breakout seasons. But what usually happens is some pitch reasonably well, and some don't do that well or lose their rotation slot, requiring that I drop and replace them.
That's often by design because I resort to (and recommend) the dreaded practice of streaming:
Streaming: Adding a starting pitcher to your fantasy baseball roster right before he makes his next start, immediately dropping him after his start, and then adding a different pitcher due to start the following day.
While you ideally want a fantasy roster with 4+ reliable starting pitchers, you can and as needed should use a remaining roster slot to stream guys as needed... especially if your pitching as a whole is struggling to keep up in your league. You are likely short on strikeouts, short on wins, and streaming guys can help you compile both.
Sure, your ERA and WHIP every week will basically be a crapshoot. But if you are looking for help with pitching, it probably already is. Playing the matchups at least gives you a fighting chance at posting a decent WHIP and ERA.
How do you effectively stream pitchers?
- Figure out which pitcher(s) on your staff aren't pitching well and need to go. Drop the offender(s) and use the roster slot(s) as your streaming slot.
- Typically make a roster move for the stream early in the day, when the most SP's starting the next day are available. The longer you wait, the more likely other owners will have acquired some of those good streaming SP's. You're probably not the only owner who will be streaming!
- Look for pitchers scheduled to start the next day. Most league interfaces allow you to filter free-agent pitchers by showing probable starters for the next day's games.
- Display recent/season stats, and usually avoid guys who have horrible ERA's. Some starting pitchers are just bad, period. Typically, a guy whose ERA is at least in the 4's or better could have some sort of streaming potential, and anyone at 5.00 or higher usually just isn't good.
- However, even with 'bad' pitchers, do review their individual player stats for their game logs. Guys may have begun the season badly and could be improving, but their overall rate stats still look poor. Sometimes, as an example, you might snag a decent pitcher on the rebound following a few good starts in a row... just because his 6.00ish ERA is scaring off other owners.
- Beyond this, you will want to consider who the pitcher is facing and where he is pitching. If he's facing a good lineup like the Red Sox or the Cubs, streaming him is a big risk because he could get shelled. If he's facing a poorer team like the Marlins or Padres, they could allow him to tiptoe to a good outing.
- Also, consider the stadium: You will want to learn a bit about Park Factors and how certain parks are friendlier for hitting or for pitching. In some cases, pitching at a given park might help the pitcher: Examples of pitcher-friendly parks include Dodger Stadium, Petco Park (Padres) and the Oakland Coliseum (A's). Conversely, some parks are hitter-friendly thanks to weird dimensions or short home-run-friendly fences, and streaming pitchers there may not be a good idea: Examples include Yankee Stadium, Citizens Bank Park (Phillies) and of course the high-altitude Coors Field (Rockies)
- If you really want to get hardcore about matchups, you can look up a pitcher's platoon splits (how he does vs lefties or righties if he's facing an opponent with a lot of one or the other), or how he does in day games vs night games, even the recent weather and wind patterns if you notice a consistent pattern that could help a pitcher (such as the wind blowing in from the fences, or the temperature being somewhat cold). These factors are admittedly a roll of the dice in terms of projectible results, and some have had better fortune utilizing this data than others. It can be worth considering if you have multiple options and cannot decide on a stream pitcher.
Streaming pitchers can be a useful way to close the gap with an otherwise ineffective fantasy pitching staff and help you win any given week in a head to head league. However you decide to commit to using streaming, take advantage of the opportunity to improve your team's pitching performance.
Note: Many leagues may have a roster transaction limit, admittedly in part to counteract compulsive streaming, and of course you will need to respect that. Ideally, you would never need to stream pitchers, but situations do emerge where you need that help.
If a league roster limit only allows you to stream once or twice per week, that's fine. Streaming a good matchup once is often better than never doing it at all. Make your moves count, and make sure to end each week 1-2 moves short of the weekly transaction limit in case you need to make a change elsewhere on your roster.
Fix: Deal a Star for Multiple Productive Pieces
You may have a star player on your team who is a prime performer but, as Emmitt Smith once famously said about his Dallas Cowboys, he's a diamond surrounded by trash. He could hit .400 with Barry Bonds stats, or strike out 15 guys a night while running a rock bottom ERA, but your team is still near the bottom of the fantasy standings.
It may suck in principle to trade your star player, but if your roster has a lot of weaknesses then trading him may be worth it, if a deal can land you multiple productive regulars in return. The key here is that you don't want to make a one for one trade: You either want the other owner to offer you multiple productive players, or offer to take one or more lesser, unwanted players of yours while sending you back several productive players. The goal here is to downgrade one roster spot while in turn upgrading one or more others.
For example, let's say you have OF Mike Trout, and as he tends to do he's hitting the ball exceptionally well. But you also have a lot of lesser (and, for the sake of this example, unmentionably anonymous) players across your infield. Your 2B and SS slots are basically marginal guys who can hit for a bit of average but are not helping your other stats.
Perhaps you can propose a trade where you get, say, SS Jean Segura and OF Andrew Benintendi. Benintendi, of course, is a clear OF downgrade from Trout, but he's certainly more productive than many other OF options. And of course, Segura is a good SS, certainly way better than your current options. If you make that trade you will have an extra player and need to drop a player from your roster to complete it, but you can just drop one of your trash SS players.
Plus now, if Mike Trout gets hurt or otherwise can't play, you don't lose whatever quality production your roster had. The risk of an injury to a good player is now spread across two guys, rather than one guy owning all that risk. If one of your new guys gets hurt, you still have one productive player remaining.
Obviously any trade requires two interested, willing owners to tango. The best way to put a proposed trade on the table is to initiate one yourself, but inviting trade proposals and being open about your desired return will improve the possibility of your desired offer. Plus, such a deal doesn't necessarily have to meet specific needs so much as the guys you get back can be started regularly and will produce.
The extra net production at multiple spots may be worth losing one great player in a trade. If your superstar isn't helping you win, utilize his value in a trade to get you multiple lower-tier guys who might help you win.
Bonus Trade Tip: Knowing that closers are almost never available on fantasy free agent wires... if you're short on closers and need saves, look for a trade with an owner who has 3+ reliable closers, and ask if he'll trade you an active closer as part of the trade. If the owner agrees, this provides the added benefit of filling a typically hard-to-fill need.
Fix: Sneak a Couple of Effective, Reliable Setup Relievers Onto Your Pitching Staff.
Having just mentioned the difficulty of finding closers for your pitching staff... one sneaky way to improve your pitching staff is to go after pitchers most owners don't want: Setup relievers and other regular relievers who currently don't get to close.
These pitchers are typically guys who throw hard and, while they can't pitch many innings, they can throw max-effort and blow away a lot of hitters when they do pitch. They often strike out 9+ guys per 9 innings, and don't allow as many runs per-9 as starting pitchers. While they do tend to walk more hitters (a key reason many of them are relievers!), they are still very effective in the 0-1 innings they pitch every couple days or so.
If you start a couple of these guys on your fantasy roster, you will usually see a slight but useful boost in your strikeout stats and your ERA. Depending on their control, they may also help your WHIP. They usually don't provide wins or saves, but the boost to the other three pitching categories is worth the lack of contribution to wins and saves.
But! Depending on which relievers you acquire, you may have a substantial chance at saves down the road! A substantial number of teams (roughly 1/3 of MLB teams) change closers during the year, usually because the incumbent closer gets hurt or pitches badly. Usually the new closer is a current setup reliever on the team. If/when you acquire a reliever, that guy could possibly become a closer during the season!
Along with adding relievers to pad your pitching stats, you can lean towards speculatively adding relievers that stand some chance of stealing his team's closer job later in the year. Such outcomes are admittedly somewhat random, though watching the news with a keen eye and keeping tabs on every team's closer situation can clue you in to which relievers stand a better chance of becoming new closers than others.
This approach is not necessary but, especially if your team's lacking saves, adding relievers with such closer potential could be worth a look. Even if you don't need relievers, however... if your team's lacking key pitching stats, a productive reliever could have a quietly positive effect on your team's bottom line.
Fix: Take Advantage of Daily Matchups
Once you have a lineup of hitters you trust, you may improve your chances of good days (and it turns good head to head weeks, or good roto seasons) by playing or not playing hitters depending on a given day's matchups.
1. Quality of opposing pitcher
You may want to bench most hitters when they face an ace like Max Scherzer or Chris Sale, and you may tend to play a hitter if he's facing a pretty bad pitcher. Consider superstar hitters who hit everyone well an exception (play them no matter what), and if a hitter's bad versus everybody then he shouldn't be on your team at all.
2. Statistical splits
Sometimes a lesser hitter may be a better matchup because he's facing an opposite-handed pitcher (for example, a right-handed hitter whose split stats shows he hits left-handed pitchers very well, and he's facing a lefty starter that day). Or vice versa: Perhaps a lefthanded slugger hits terribly against lefty pitchers and one's starting against him that day (if the slugger's manager doesn't just bench him for the game: they often tend to know when their hitters struggle in certain matchups). There's quite a few okay to decent hitters who become great matchups because of the pitcher they're facing, and vice versa.
Know your hitters' splits (every baseball website that provides stats typically also provides data on individual player splits), and be ready to make moves to take advantage.
3. Quality of opponent
This goes beyond just the starting pitcher. A certain team may be very good defensively, which can rob hitters of hits. And vice versa: An opponent may be poor defensively, which could turn a few likely outs into hits for your hitter(s). It may be worth going to an advanced stats site like Fangraphs or Baseball Reference, and learning which teams have the best and worst rated defenses.
Going back to pitching: Perhaps the opposing team's bullpen isn't good, and even if the starting pitcher might be a tough matchup for your hitter, his relief pitching teammates are prone to surrendering more runs in the later innings. Conversely, if you know a hitter's opponent has a great bullpen, bear in mind that a good matchup in the first 5 innings could become a bad one for your hitter in the later frames.
This is one of the most overlooked components for fantasy owners in determining matchups, but might actually be one of the most important. Obviously, the danger of rain can impact a player's production, especially if the game is rained out. But a more common concern is the wind, which once it sustains a pace above 5-10 mph substantially affects the flight of any flyball put into play.
When the wind is blowing towards the outfield, long flyballs can turn into home runs. When the wind is blowing in from the outfield, possible home runs and extra base hits die in mid-air and often turn into easy flyouts. And of course, teams that play under a roof don't need to worry about the wind or weather.
While the jet stream in many cities leads to a mild and fairly consistent wind pattern with occasional extremes... others are prone to extreme swings and occasional high winds.
The best example of a typically calm environment is, of course, any indoor or covered stadium, where the wind cannot interfere. As for outdoor environments, the best example of a calm environment with few extremes is Angels Stadium, the home park of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The weather here is usually clear and the wind is usually not too strong. The wind patterns tend not to get strong enough to affect how the ball flies all that often.
The best extreme example, conversely, is the Chicago Cubs home stadium Wrigley Field. Given its Midwestern location and the proximity to Lake Michigan, the stadium is prone to higher winds and dramatic swings in its wind direction. Sometimes the wind blows in heavily, knocking down all fly balls, and the scores end up very low. Sometimes, the wind blows out heavily, and Wrigley turns into a launchpad of home runs hitting the bleachers and other high scoring. Players and fans at Wrigley often never know what kind of playing environment they're going to get before the game begins, and it does substantially affect how both teams involved perform.
The wind's effect on batted balls has become a greater factor to hitters in recent years, as players have focused more on actively trying to hit the ball in the air. Previously, the traditional line-drive-focused 'swing on top of the ball' hitting approach meant more batted balls were of the line drive and groundball variety, largely unaffected by wind. By trying to hit more flyballs, hitters' outcomes are now more at the mercy of the wind.
Some fantasy baseball platforms show weather data and some don't. For example, Yahoo will show you in each game's weather info which way the wind is blowing, while ESPN will not. It may behoove you to do some outside research either way, learn which direction each team's baseball diamond faces, and look up the weather to see which way the wind is blowing that day to figure out which way it will blow relative to the hitter's perspective.
Ultimately, all other things mostly equal, you will want to play the hitters playing where the wind is blowing out at 5+ mph, and avoid hitters playing where the wind is blowing in at 5+ mph. And again, if a hitter is a great player or having a hot streak you can elect to ignore that data either way.
This is a lot of info to consider, and if your fantasy baseball season is going well you probably wouldn't go too wrong not considering any of it, to set and forget your lineup only to maybe substitute a player for an inactive regular as needed.
But for most fantasy owners, their team is not where they want it to be and could use some substantial improvement. These are time tested strategies I have used to finish in playoff position of most leagues I have participated in, and even win multiple leagues outright over my 20+ years of fantasy baseball experience. Put any of them to use, and chances are likely you will see positive results.