September 10, 2013
Ten Tips for Your Head-to-Head Playoff Run
For the fortunate souls who are still alive in the playoffs this season, whether they began last week or yesterday, this is when the year builds to its dramatic conclusion. It’s Rocky going through all of his training in the Russian winter, finally making it to the arena in Moscow. Will you avenge your loss from last season and put an end to communism once and for all? Have I been watching Rocky IV too much on the late shift? Yes, I have.
So whether you’re the first seed or the team that just snuck into the postseason by the skin of your teeth, the following 10 tips are here to help you maximize your performance when it matters:
1) Know your team’s strengths and weaknesses
The absolute worst thing you can do in a high-intensity situation of any kind, whether it’s fantasy baseball related or not, is to lose sight of what got you there. If your team is filled with mashers and high-end relievers, don’t start throwing starting pitchers out there who have decent matchups just to try to get lucky. There will be time for that if you get desperate, but those who start out a matchup in desperation mode will be calling it a season in short order.
2) Beat your opponent to the punch for streamers
There are seemingly a hundred places out there where you can find streamers for the following day, and you’re going to have to really be on the ball to get the ones that you want. The best way to do so is to look two to three days into the future and act in advance. So look at the matchups on Thursday or Friday and see who can help your team—maybe it’s Jeff Locke against the Cubs or Jason Vargas against the Astros. Just don’t wait until an opponent realizes that it’s time to act.
3) Don’t manage yourself out of the game
This is a similar concept to the first tip, but it’s a little more granular. The first few days of a playoff matchup, you are setting the barometer for the week, so don’t do anything which is out of line with what you’ve been doing (assuming it’s been working, as you did make the playoffs after all). If you’ve been consistently starting Edwin Jackson throughout the season, the playoffs are not the time to start benching him. And if you’ve been starting Nick Swisher all year and have a fringe player on your bench who has a great “on-paper” matchup that day, don’t make the switch. It’s the decision that goes against your better judgment that haunts you over an off-season rather than the one that carries forward a consistent approach from the previous five months.
4) There are exceptions to the previous rule
Of course, aside from not feeding gremlins after midnight, all rules have their exceptions—and here are the two biggest reasons to deviate. First, you have a player who is just white hot and can’t be benched. Say, Will Middlebrooks or Salvador Perez. It’s the player who absolutely blows up that can help carry you to a title, while if they turn back into a pumpkin, there’s only so much damage that one player can do to your chances—so if you think you have that player, don’t let him rot on your bench. Secondly, there’s a categorical reason to start playing with your lineup. If you are entering play on Friday and you have nine homers to your opponent’s two, maybe it’s worth benching Chris Carter for someone who can steal a base or get a few extra hits.
5) You can’t overemphasize playing time
Over the course of a long season, this isn’t something that you need to pay particular attention to, unless you have a very deep bench. However, the difference between a player whose team plays six games in a week and one who plays seven in a single playoff matchup can make a big difference—and that’s without taking into account individual contests. If Andy Dirks is your last OF and Detroit is only facing three right-handers this week, running him out there regardless may put a dent in your chances of winning. This may be more important in weekly leagues than daily leagues, but that’s only true if you’re really paying close attention.
6) Dead weight will drag you down
Bench spots are worth their weight in gold come playoff time, especially in leagues that have any sort of transaction cap per scoring period. And if you’re holding onto a player you are fairly confident is not going to play that week, he better be really good to justify holding onto him throughout. This happened just last week with Julio Teheran, who will have gone 11 days between starts when he toes the rubber today for the Braves. In a relatively shallow redraft league, cutting him was not only an acceptable strategy, but likely the right call to give yourself the best chance to advance.
7) If it’s been a rough week, live it up on the weekend
This one feels pretty self-explanatory, but you absolutely do not want to just get down about your team’s chances heading into the weekend if you’ve gotten off to a bad start. Get back in there and fight it out by picking up and/or playing as many high-risk options as you can get your hands on. Of course, this works a lot better on the pitching side than on the hitting side (where it’s not a recommended strategy). The dynamic changes if you are in any sort of keeper format, but throwing caution to the wind in a redraft league is often a better idea than just sitting around and hoping something good will happen. If a waiver-wire outfielder is playing the weekend at Coors or a replacement level starter is pitching at PETCO on Saturday, make the move and keep your fingers crossed.
8) One-category guys get more valuable as the week goes on
This also ties in with the “anything goes on the weekend” suggestion, but when categorical desperation comes in, one-category players are going to come in handy. And when this comes up the most is if you’re trying to go after either power or speed. If you already have players like this on your bench, it means you don’t have to fight with your opponents for them on the wire, so be prepared.
9) Don’t even look at your opponent’s matchups
This goes without saying, but we all do it anyway. If you let individual matchups on your opponent’s team dictate what you decide to do with your roster, you’re playing the hand of fate on both sides. The game of baseball is so delicately unpredictable that figuring out which of your own players are going to do well or poorly in a short burst is hard enough—don’t try to complicate the situation.
10) Enjoy the ride—you asked for this
Head-to-head leagues can add a new layer of fun over the course of the season, but come playoff time, it’s a cruel mistress. Don’t be one of those owners who loses in the first round of the playoffs and then complains about the league format. You signed up for the league knowing full well that the champion would be decided by an all-too-brief matchup, so the responsibility is yours. If you don’t want to have it decided this way, play in a rotisserie league instead.
Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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