Last week, I discussed how little a fantasy squad’s ERA and WHIP is likely to move at this point in the season. Because of how many innings teams have already logged and how few will be logged between now and October 3 (both at the team and individual player level), it would take a lot to move the chains very far. I closed out the article noting how this can create some interesting strategic considerations, most prominently the decision to… gasp… chase wins.

“Don’t chase wins” has become a cliché in the fantasy community, something every good player knows is fantasy suicide. Except it’s not. This cliché was born, in part, from the sabermetric movement in general—you know, the one that says wins are a terrible gauge of a pitcher’s value. While this is generally true (at least in the sense that there are better gauges of pitcher value out there), it doesn’t have anything to do with fantasy baseball. Regardless of the utility of wins to judge a pitcher’s talent, we use it as a category in fantasy baseball. End of story. The link should end there. Yet, a lot of that stigma has carried over to the fantasy world.

Of course, the advent of this adage can also be attributed to the inherent variability of wins. Wins are harder to predict than ERA and harder still than strikeouts, so much so that many pundits will tell you to forget about wins all together, to just draft skills—implying that wins are wholly unpredictable. Except they’re not. ‘High variability’ just means that there is a larger spectrum of possible outcomes, but the mean expectation doesn’t change.

Hopefully you haven’t found yourself in a close race for wins, as your final position will be determined in large part by luck, but if you have, there are ways to improve your chances of collecting points while others are shrugging their shoulders, throwing up their hands, and calling it a day. Today, I’ll go over some of these considerations.

Wins are largely a numbers game
Just because you’re chasing wins doesn’t mean you’re playing roulette. There are ways to stack the odds in your favor. There are ways to chase wins intelligently, and this is the easiest one. The owner who is trotting out a full staff of nine starting pitchers is going to be a heavy favorite to accumulate more wins than the guy who is slogging along with six starters, a couple closers, and a middle reliever. And because of what we know about the relative immovability of ERA and WHIP at this point in the year, you can afford to risk a couple of clunker outings for the prospect of cheap wins. You want to know who I’m starting in Tout Wars right now? Anibal Sanchez, Mike Fiershey, they’re pretty good, Derek… wait for it, dear reader… Fernando Abad, Joe Kelly, Casey Kelly, and Wily Peralta, with Justin Germano on my bench, ready for duty at a moment’s notice.

Relievers collect wins too
If the prospect of relying on mediocre starters for wins hasn’t scared you away yet, let me give it another shot: use relievers… no, no, relax, take a breath, breathe, I’m not done… in certain situations. Most notably, use relievers in leagues that have innings caps when you know you’re going to reach the cap. My research has shown that an elite set-up man effectively becomes a 15-win pitcher on a per-inning basis. Take advantage of the fact that Jason Grilli and Mike Adams are freely available on waivers. You won’t even have to hurt your ERA like you would when you start Abad and he gives up five runs in four innings. Grrr…

Consider Skills and Context
While the “chase skills, not wins” platitude is a bit misguided (or at least simplistic), it’s not as if skills are unimportant. All else equal, a good pitcher will win more games than a bad pitcher. Also consider context. A pitcher with a good offense will win more games than a pitcher with a poor offense. A pitcher facing the Astros is more likely to win than a pitcher facing the Yankees. All of these things are important. I wrote an article that took a cursory look at how some of these things factor into pitcher wins last year that might be useful to go over.

Do your homework
It sounds simple, but by merely running a few numbers to project out the rest of the season under various circumstances, you’re going to give yourself a big advantage. It will help you plan how many starting pitchers you should use, how good they’ll have to be, and may even prevent you from going overboard with the use of Abad types (or let you know that it’s okay to use a few more).

Happy win-chasing, readers!

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
I totally agree with your advice about using relievers for leagues with inning caps. When in such leagues in the past, I employed that strategy for the entire season by using two very good setup men to augment my starting pitching staff. They can really stabilize your ratios and help with Ks. Add to the fact that they can typically add 10+ wins between them, and it can have a huge impact in roto leagues.
Derek, I've enjoyed reading this series all year. Thank you for your research and strategies. In addition to looking at the team the pitcher is facing it's also nice to look at the opposing pitcher, if you have the luxury to stream pitchers.
Not that you should need it, but a reminder about Colorado SPs is probably good. With their pitch counts, they might not qualify for the win even if they leave with the lead in the 4th/5th inning.
That would make the COL relievers good vultures at the end of a season in an IP limited fantasy league.
For streamers chasing wins- what do you think about starting both pitchers in a game where scoring appears to be at a premium (so as to avoid a potential double hit in the ERA/WHIP categories)? In leagues where you aren't penalized for losses this seems prudent, and maybe even in leagues where losses count, if the W category is hotly contested and the L category isn't as big a concern, or if a W is simply more valuable than an L (like in points leagues)...
Depends on the situation. I wouldn't do it normally because your expected value of W/game is guaranteed to be less than 1. While using two SP in two different games would likely give you an expected value higher since you have the ability to win two games with the same number of starters.
Yea, but I'm not as worried about W expectation, as I am trying to get a "for-sure" W that is likely to be awarded to one of the two SP's. Also, dealing with the small sample size of the last month of the season, so any expectation will fluctuate. I guess knowing the % of wins attributed to starting pitchers would be a good stat to have here.

Two other things- First, say I have Bumgarner going against the Cubs last week. I could have easily streamed Volstad, preserved my averages, and picked up a win in the process that normally would be expected to go to Bumgarner. This late in the season (small sample size) a double chance at the W may help counting stats as someone has to get the win, unless of course it goes to a RP.

Second, while two SP's in 2 separate games gives chance at two wins, depending on depth of league, there might not be viable options to go this route (quality win options on the wire), while picking up a lesser valued SP to go head to head with a SP already on your team (Volstad) is much easier.

I'll be honest, every time I try this, it doesn't seem to work out, so maybe that's my answer, but just curious as to what others thought?
I play in a league with 2 dedicated RP slots. Some years I have found myself in the "punt saves" situation, where, even if not in last, the gaps are wide enough to not close. Even if it's worth keeping at least one closer to maintain position, another can be traded (or dropped if hurt, and not replaced), and then I like to grab one or more overlooked setup guys. You won't get a lot of innings, but the ERA is microscopic, a few Ks, and if you look for the right guys, you have a decent chance of vulturing Wins.

This year I took it one step further. Halfway through the draft, decent closers hadn't been available to me, so I punted from day one. I found starters with RP eligibility and have used them instead. (Started with Feliz and Bard, passed through Samardizjia, now have Fiers and Villanueva)
My lead in Wins is ridiculous, Ks and K/BB are ok, just unlucky that I never found a trading partner who needed wins and had some hitting to offer me in return...