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Jonathan Bales: Should you ever be contrarian at pitcher?

Jonathan Bales: Should you ever be contrarian at pitcher?
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Should you ever be contrarian at pitcher?

This is an excerpt from Jonathan Bales’ newest book Fantasy Baseball for Smart People: How to Profit Big During MLB Seasona tutorial for making money playing daily fantasy baseball. You can buy it as an e-book, paperback, or PDF.

I’m going to play a little true/false game with a couple statements regarding cash game/GPP strategy, all of which I’d say the general public believes to be accurate. Using my research and data from DraftKings, I’m going to attempt to either confirm or dispel these notions.

1. You should pay up for pitching in cash games: TRUE

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There are a variety of ways that we can analyze the merits of a specific approach to daily fantasy baseball, two of which I believe can greatly enhance our understanding of league-specific strategies.

The first is to study player and stat consistency. The reason that quarterbacks have so much more consistency than wide receivers from game to game is because the former have a more sizeable sample of relevant plays (maybe 35 passing attempts versus a handful of targets for pass-catchers). The same is true in baseball; pitchers have way, way more opportunities than batters to “show their stuff,” so it makes sense that they’d have a higher level of consistency and predictability.

The same idea holds within the pitcher position, too; since pitchers typically approach or surpass triple-digit throws in a given game, it’s more challenging for a bargain-bin arm to outperform an ace than it is for a min-priced shortstop to outperform Hanley Ramirez, for example.

And remember, the more randomness, the more we should be looking to save money. If outfielder production were theoretically completely random, we should never pay more than the minimum price for any outfielder; there just wouldn’t be any incentive to do so.

On top of that, the primary stat that DraftKings rewards heavily for pitchers—strikeouts—is also one of the most consistent on the seasonal and nightly levels; the same pitchers are the ones who continually whiff the most batters, and those elite arms tend to cost the most money. FanGraphs has a really cool correlation tool showing that the strength of the correlation between strikeouts in Year Y and Year Y+1 is around 0.71. Compare that to just 0.31 for ERA.

The second way to determine if it’s intelligent to allocate a high percentage of cap space to pitchers is to see if such a strategy has led to success in the past. That’s why all of the DraftKings data in this book is so cool; it gives us a “glimpse into reality,” so to speak. We can make all sorts of hypotheses about what should work in different league types, but at the end of the day, the historical daily fantasy results are what matter most.

For example, even though strikeouts are the most consistent pitching stat and even though it makes sense to pay for consistency in cash games in theory, the pragmatic value of such a strategy depends on DraftKings’ pricing. If they were to jack up the prices of high-strikeout arms too much, we might have a really good theory that ends up being useless in practice.

So, without further ado, here’s a look at the typical salary cap allocation for cashing versus non-cashing 50/50 lineups on DraftKings…

chart2.1The historic data confirms the idea that successful cash lineups allocate a higher percentage of their cap space to the pitcher spot than unsuccessful lineups. The difference of 0.5 percentage points is small, but significant over a sample of 10,000-plus leagues. For reference, 0.5 percent of the salary cap on DraftKings is equivalent to $250.

2. You should punt pitching in tournaments: FALSE

There are really two distinct schools of thought when it comes to GPP pitcher selection. Some people are firm in their belief that you should always pay for the best pitchers, while others argue that you should be willing to roster a low-priced arm in tournaments.

Like most issues, I’m somewhere in the middle on this one—and of course the “right” decision is specific to each slate of games—but I’d say I lean toward generally paying top-dollar for elite arms in GPPs. There are a variety of reasons for this.

The first is that, though I’m what many consider a contrarian GPP player by nature, I’m not really willing to go against-the-grain as much at pitcher. That’s due to the nightly consistency, along with the types of offenses I typically utilize; I like to “underpay” for cheaper stacks with upside, then go big with my pitchers and “other” batter spots. Every day is different and that’s not a firm, no-matter-what strategy, but it’s usually where I find myself.

Plus, the data once again supports the idea of paying up for arms in all league types…

chart1.1Again, the difference is 0.5 percentage points. Note that winning GPP lineups have spent less on pitching than winning 50/50 lineups, but I think that’s just a reflection of daily fantasy players as a whole being more willing to punt a pitcher spot in tournaments, which drags down the overall allocation. The important part here is that successful GPP teams are spending more money on pitching than GPP lineups that don’t cash.

I have some other really cool data on balancing value with ownership in both the batter and pitcher selection chapters that I think will provide even more evidence that, even if you’re trying to be contrarian in large-field GPPs, pitcher isn’t the place to do it.

Like this analysis? You can download Jonathan’s free e-book—A Guide to Winning at Daily Fantasy Sportsright here.

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