We all know that drafting is the best part of fantasy sports. It's why we spend months poring over statistics and scouting reports in preparation for the Christmas-like atmosphere of draft day. The beauty of DFS is the ability to draft a new lineup every day, fueled by the same competitive edge that motivates off-season research yet triggered toward the changing tides of in-season performance.
At the core of DFS is roster construction, with seemingly endless layers of strategy and potential applications of baseball knowledge to fill out the optimal lineup. There is an extremely high level of variation in the day-to-day performance of baseball players and teams, an element which factors into the unparalleled 162-game schedule and often acts to thwart the best laid plans of DFS gamers, but the underlying premise in each case is to reward performance over the long haul. It's a chance to get that player you missed in season leagues, to play that hunch on the undercover pitcher with a great matchup, or to root for the home team with a fat stack of the local nine, all dropped into the arena of competition among a pride of sports fans.
The premise is simple enough: construct a roster of two pitchers and eight hitters for under the $50k cap, earn points for their performance, and the squad with the most points wins. Yet the nuances of player context, head-to-head matchups, and especially the market create an intricate matrix of potential lineup configurations. It's the allure of the game, the focus of this column, and the ultimate test of a fantasy gamer's mettle. It's also the perfect topic for a lightly-scheduled Thursday in the fourth week of the season.
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Maybe I'm biased, being an admitted pitcherphile and all, but for this guy roster construction begins with the starters for the day. Pitchers simply have the greatest impact in terms of cost/benefit. Arms are much more expensive than bats, typically running about double the price on either end of the scale, and pitchers have the point expectancy to match. If aiming for at least 100 points from the daily roster, that means that two or more points are expected for every $1000 of cap space, and spending dough on starting pitchers is as much about avoiding land mines as striking gold.
The pitcher landscape of each day can be very different, with a truckload of aces on one day's schedule followed by a glut of mediocrity the next day. Pitchers will cost anywhere from $4000 to $13000 on Draft Kings, and the two-pitcher requirement opens the vault of options for how to pair the arms. A popular strategy is to invest in one of the top tier pitchers and then drop down a level (or more) to find a value pick for the second arm. Others invest heavily in pitching, planting both SP flags in the elite tier while dumpster-diving for hitters. There's also the risky approach of taking two low-priced arms with upside to allow for a bigger investment on the offensive side of the ball, a gamble that can pay off big in a GPP tournament but runs a lot of risk in head-head matchups.
Each day's stable of pitchers will determine my strategy moreso than any simple rule, but I do follow a general approach to roster construction that leans heavily on pitchers. I typically allocate between $16k and $20k on the two pitcher spots, aiming for an $18k total that will leave me with $4k per player remaining for the eight bats. I try to treat the $20k as a hard cap on arms, but will exceed that total by a few hundred fake bucks for the right set of pitchers. For this reason I rarely roster Clayton Kershaw, who has been in his own tier above $12k for as long as I can remember, unless I see a tremendous value in the shallow end of the pitcher pool. A starter's day can make or break the entire roster, so if there is a strong set of pitchers going with solid values (and favorable opponents) then I might go with two different lineups for a single time slot.
The key to a bad day in DFS is a pitcher who gets blown up, while the key to a good day is in the power of the offense – but not the other way around. Part of this truism is due to supply and demand: there are fewer pitchers to go around so there is much more overlap in their services (especially at the top), and on days with one or two clear aces it is common to see 75-percent or more of the teams in a 50/50 to roster the same pitcher. The bats, on the other hand, are much less clear cut. A hitter might average nine points a game, but he probably got there with a 27-point slugfest followed by a couple of O-fers. Any batter can have a bad game at any time, but the resulting zero will not preclude profit on that day; it happens all the time, and one big bat can sometimes cover for three or more bad ones. In contrast, a pitcher blowup can be worth so many negative points that the team gets a net zero out of its entire pitching staff.
The pitching expenditure will dictate how much payroll remains for the bats, with eight positions to fill out on the offensive side of the ledger. If a manager spends $18k on pitching, for example, then he has $32k left over for the bats, or $4000 per spot on the lineup card.
A common strategy is the stars-n-scrubs approach, spending around $5000 or more on each of four players and then $3000 or less on the other four, averaging out to $4000 per player. Do you want Mike Trout in your outfield? Then you might have to roster Roberto Perez or another cheap catcher to make it work. Got eyes on Tulo at short? Then chances are that you'll be taking a long look at Jeff Francoeur for the outfield. Sometimes a new player comes along who posts a hot streak before the market can adjust, (such as the ultra-low prices for Devon Travis and Jimmy Paredes last week), presenting an excellent opportunity for roster depth, that is while it lasts.
I tend to stick closer to the mean, looking to identify hitters within the $3500-$4500 range that I see as better value. There are often great hitters in this tier who are either facing a tough opponent or in the midst of a slump, allowing me to gauge whether his particular context outweighs the adjusted price. I will go higher when an elite player falls below the $5k threshold, as Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton have done on occasion this year, but I only go for the priciest players when there is a clear opportunity to strike. Typically, the marginal value is just not there for me to splurge on the biggest names.
The key to the above strategy is to start with my anchors, a.k.a. the players whom I believe to be the greatest values. This could be a $2500 player who just started earning playing time and is hitting second in the order against a weak opponent, or it can be an underpriced star who is facing a southpaw and mashes lefties. I select those premium values to establish my core roster, and then fill in around the edges based on the player pool that day. Sometimes this leads to a half-ass version of stars-n-scrubs and other times I can find a more balanced set of players, but these players on the edges are the ones that are subject to the whims of my last-minute tinkering of the roster.