I’m ready to begin the initial top 500 for the 2021 Fantasy Baseball season. But I can’t flip the page until I finally, and reluctantly, examine what went wrong during the shortened and maddening 2020 sprint. This kind of feels like knowing you were going to get dumped in middle school and not reading the AOL Instant Messenger message for days. Because who didn’t start or end some relationships that way in the 90s? And my NFBC season felt like it dumped me on the final day.
Yoshihisa Hirano will forever have a spot in the dead part of my fantasy heart.
Something I think the industry struggles with – and make no mistake, I’m just a guy who plays a ton of fantasy baseball and has a blog – is admitting error or detailing what went wrong. It’s okay to miss, especially during 2020’s COVID-19. We’re not all Hall of Famers. In 2020, I won two home leagues, including going back-to-back in my first two years in a 15-teamer, and finished second in two others. Getting 48% return on investment isn’t bad, and experienced, good fantasy baseball players and analysts should often win or place in home leagues.
But I watched two of my three NFBC Rotowire OC teams go from the money - in second the final two weeks - to frustratingly missing the money. In one case, Yoshihisa Hirano’s final outing of the season – 0.1 innings, three hits, two walks, three earned runs and one strikeout – knocked me down in WHIP by a hundredth of a point, and the outing came after Aaron Civale was bombed by the Pittsburgh freaking Pirates of all offenses. And I’m a Pirates fan, for crying out loud. The PIRATES. They sucked! The only way I could watch them was with cheap beer. #analysis
How much of 2020’s results should be chalked up to the sprint nature? I think it’s fair to consider how managing a roster was influenced by the shortened season. Those chasing categories or dealing with injuries/COVID-19 likely had to be more aggressive and take on more risk. I know I did with young pitching acquired via FAAB. And if Sixto Sanchez didn’t lose some steam at the end, perhaps this column looks different. But like every season, there is a lot to examine and learn from. Let’s start with were I screwed up:
The decision to aggressively target Frankie Montas was my biggest mistake.
MISSES AND BAD LUCK RUINING GOOD PROCESS
--- Heading into drafts, I identified the closer market as very volatile, lacking depth, and a clear drop-off after top, established names. So, I selected Kirby Yates in the fifth round of two drafts. I wanted to aggressively target one of the top closers to get a strong base in saves with help in ratios. Obviously, Yates struggled before his season was over because of injury.
I think the process was right. Yates appeared in 60-65 games for three-straight seasons with remarkably consistent fastball velocity, xBA, and K%. He was established as the guy for a likely playoff team. In the past, he was a boost for saves and ratios.
Both teams with Yates struggled in ERA. With a heady move early to add Trevor Rostenthal from FAAB and selecting Brad Hand in the eighth round, I was able to finish with 30 saves (11.0 points) in league one while team two had issues all year finding saves and finished with just 13 in addition to just six total points from ERA and WHIP.
Seeing Liam Hendriks ranked 22nd on the final player rater with Brad Hand just 12 spots behind makes me want to sprint to the beer fridge because team one’s finish could have been different with that switch. However, the A’s have often rotated closers, occasionally played matchups or just experienced so much turnover in that role I sided with the Padres.
--- Part of the closer thought process was because I knew I wouldn’t spend early on a starting pitcher and instead wanted to spend in the middle rounds on starting pitchers I liked. A top closer, or two, would help make up for any ERA/WHIP misses with my starting pitching because I knew I’d likely be targeting high-strikeout pitchers – I finished 1st, 1st and 3rd in strikeouts - that could have some volatility in ERA/WHIP and were more risky boom-or-bust type arms relative to some safer, more boring and proven names. Hey, boring can win leagues, as I found out.
Looking back at drafts, my thoughts on fading starting pitching early were, for the most part, right. Take league one’s starting pitchers in the first four rounds, for example, with their final Razzball player ratings attached:
Gerrit Cole – 26th
Jacob deGrom – 35th
Max Scherzer – 144th
Justin Verlander – injured for the season
Walker Buehler – 263rd
Mike Clevinger – 224th
Shane Bieber – 9th (top SP)
Stephen Strasburg – injured for the season
Jack Flaherty – 264th
Clayton Kershaw – 39th
Lucas Giolito – 73rd
Luis Castillo – 121st
Patrick Corbin – 626th
Blake Snell – 150th
Charlie Morton – 440th
Yu Darvish – 14th (SP2)
average finish (not including pitchers out for the season): 152nd
Because of the highly unusual preseason, which included multiple Spring Trainings, I wanted to avoid spending top draft capital on starting pitchers because they were, in my opinion, at heightened risk of being injured or not throwing deep into games for a big chunk of their starts. If a pitcher had bicep soreness or some shoulder stiffness, that would mean missing maybe as much as 30% of starts.
Now, look at rounds 5-10:
Chris Paddack – 269th
Aaron Nola – 65th
Zack Greinke – 209th
Jose Berrios – 190th
Tyler Glasnow – 96th
Trevor Bauer – 15th (SP3)
Frankie Montas – 505th
Sonny Gray – 133rd
Brandon Woodruff – 75th
Corey Kluber – injured all season
Carlos Carrasco – 131st
James Paxton – 589th
Dinelson Lamet – 37th
Jesus Luzardo – 287th
Julio Urias – 221st
Kenta Maeda – 25th (SP4)
Max Fried – 66th
average finish (not including pitchers out for the season): 171st
Paxton, Kluber, Paddack, and Berrios were all major fades for me. Paxton always gets hurt; Kluber, who I wrote about extensively, was a guy the Indians tried to deal for years because they knew the decline and injuries were coming; Paddack and Berrios are guys I felt were overpriced.
--- Here’s my biggest miss of the season… Frankie Montas.
I selected him in the seventh round of both league one and two drafts, just two rounds after Yates. Where did I go wrong? Well, his 2019 was shortened by a PED suspension, but I thought the stuff and velocity looked the same during a very small sample when he returned. What I didn’t anticipate was the split finger.
His new out pitch – 40.3 whiff% and 27.0 putaway% in 2019 – was simply not the same in 2020, and he actually threw it less. Visually, he lacked confidence in the pitch, especially during the first month of the season when he threw it just 8.9% of the time and threw his sinker, his worst pitch, 52.5% of the team. After the pitch finished with a 3.2 pitch info value and 1.19/100, it posted -3.3 and -2.58, respectively in 2020.
Strangely, Montas posted a very similar K% in 2020, but his BB% jumped despite throwing more pitches in the strike zone and giving up contact at a least rate. Even stranger is this dumpster fire:
When counts reached 3-1 last season, Montas had a 58.69 WHIP, 175.50 BB/9, 1.000 BABIP and just to make it more confusing he also had a 94.7 LOB%. What in the hell? That reads like getting a zero on the SAT. In 2019, his FIP through 3-1 counts was 4.96 and his BB/9 11.25. Montas had a negative K-BB% through counts 2-1, 2-0, 3-2, 3-1 and 3-0. Basically, when the big righthander fell behind, he completely fell apart. Maybe he was injured? Or maybe he wasn’t as good as 2019. After punching out 13 in 6.0 shutout innings to end the regular season, Montas was bombed in the postseason.
And he fell apart on two of three Rotowire OC teams and two other home leagues. The lesson here, along with the PED-shortened season, is Montas’s 5.8 BB% in 2019 was easily the best in his career, and I went head-over-heels for the breakout continuing because of a new pitch. If I selected a safe starting pitcher earlier, I could have better survived the Montas disaster. Or I could have avoided him completely.
--- What didn’t help team one was two guys I was confident would eat innings with solid ERA numbers were lost for the season. Mike Soroka, who I selected in the 11th round, tore his Achilles during his third start. Marcus Stroman opted out. I felt both had upside to improve on solid 2019 campaigns.
Again, a quality starting pitcher who simply wasn’t a bust before Montas could have increased my margin of error with pitching in later rounds. I overestimated my ability to nail pitching in the middle rounds, despite landing on some hits, like: Zac Gallen (12th round on team one), Corbin Burnes (20th round on team three), and… well, yeah, starting pitching was an issue in 2020.
Mitch Keller was injured early. Civale lost steam late. Joe Musgrove was never right until the end when he looked like a Cy Young. I can’t figure out what in the hell happened to Luke Weaver. I went all-in on Robbie Ray’s mechanical changes with one share. Fail.
Upon review, it’s kind of amazing my teams finished 253rd, 260th, and 276th overall considering the pitching. It helped landing Yu Darvish on one team and Lucas Giolito on another while Glasnow returned quality value just not the ERA I hoped for. But I’m going to have to think about my starting pitching process.
There won’t always be guys like Ian Anderson, Sixto, Dune Dunning and Triston McKenzie to land via FAAB. Those aggressive FAAB adds, the result of me watching each of their starts, almost allowed me to pull off two mammoth comebacks. But in a way, they helped create a bit of a mirage because they were unlikely to keep up their dominant form and were susceptible to blowups.
--- Like closer, I wanted to spend early on a second baseman because I didn’t love the depth in the middle rounds and after the initial top guys, I didn’t want to spend on the position until the later rounds unless it was a multi-positional player.
In particular, I was all-in on Ozzie Albies, who I felt was a safe, fine value anywhere in the third round. I selected him during the third round for team two and team three. When he played, I was right because he finished 261st despite playing just 29 games.
But a guy I banked on playing the entire season, after playing 158 and 160 games the prior two years, ended up missing half the season with an injury, which affected all five categories.
Another guy I wanted at least one share of was Ketel Marte, who, along with all Diamondbacks hitters for the most part, had a bizarre year. After a breakout season with increased power was supported by the batted-ball data, Marte’s hard hit%, average launch angle, and average exit velocity were all similar. But his sweet spot% dropped significantly, and he hit just .287/.323/.409 with one steal. The contact rates went up, but the meatball% and FB% went down.
To put it into better perspective, Marte finished 399th despite playing 16 more games than Albies. I would make the Albies picks every time in a similar situation, but the Mate pick was an aggressive bet the power breakout was real because the stolen bases weren’t ever projected to be category-altering.
--- The post-hype sleeper I wanted everywhere was Andrew Benintendi. It wasn’t difficult to find a couple convincing areas to suggest a bounceback was coming, and the equivalent of a 20-20-type season. It didn’t. The lesson here? Hitting the ball hard at a high rate matters.
I still think I’ll end up with a share next season when he comes at an even cheaper discount. But the 10th round was a mistake. Team 1’s selection especially hurts because Maeda, Tim Anderson, Lance Lynn and Fried went a few picks later.
--- Losing two shares of Lorenzo Cain to an opt-out really stung. Was very confident his 2019 decline was related to injury and 2020 would produce good value for where I selected him (138th and 167th).
My research told me to aggressively draft Brandon Lowe everywhere. I didn't.
PLAY THE HITS AND TRUST YOUR RESEARCH…
--- I ended up with at least one share of Kyle Lewis, Didi Gregorius, Kyle Seager, Mike Yastrzemski, Travis d’Arnaud, Dansby Swanson, Trent Grisham, Brandon Lowe and Hanser Alberto.
But not owning more of Lowe really, really bugs me considering the amount of research I loved about him and the detailed writing I did about him. Sure, not all the research ended up playing the hits. But hit enough on those late picks where you’re different than the consensus and it could win the league if you can nail the top, which almost happened for team three with Mookie Betts at No. 7 and Fernando Tatis, Jr. at No. 18.
This can apply to FAAB adds too. Even though he ended up missing significant time for being a knucklehead, not landing Zach Plesac on any teams after a long analysis piece about why he was great was an idiotic error on my part. I’m the biggest Ke’Bryan Hayes homer in the fantasy baseball universe. Why did I only own him on one team? It’s not like he was expensive early when he was being added.
Countless hours of research is almost useless if you’re not going to trust it. If the research is extremely off-base, adjust that process next season. Mine, at least relative to a normal hit rate, wasn’t.
--- I need to treat pitching in the middle rounds as more of a scarce commodity I need to throw more darts at with sharper research. In the first 10 rounds of each Rotowire OC draft, I used just two picks on starting pitchers because of my confidence in the middle-round targets and future FAAB adds. I probably need to increase that to three.
Each league-winning team of my three leagues drafted Shane Bieber. Now, each year isn’t going to produce a SP as dominantly awesome as Bieber around picks 20-25, but it speaks to the value of nailing an ace. As I eventually dig further into roster construction for league-winning and top-ranked teams, I think I’ll find many teams with Bieber, Bauer, or more SP draft capital spent in the early rounds than I did. And that’s probably true for 2019 too.
Had I nailed the middle round better with the likes of Trevor Bauer or Fried instead of Montas and didn’t have bad luck with Yates, perhaps I win two of three leagues and this analysis reads differently. Regardless, spending barely any draft capital on early SPs puts pressure on nailing those picks later in drafts, although it would benefit me to target more safe ERA/WHIP options instead of the high-strikeout guys I was clearly geared toward.
Winning leagues isn’t just about acquiring the best value for each pick, although you’re going to win your leagues if you nail that. No one nails all picks, though, and category balance is crucial. A total of 27 category points for ERA/WHIP across three leagues isn’t going to cut it.
Plus, even if I nail the pick besides Montas, would I have competed for the overall? Doubtful. The Montas picks burned me heavily and I invested too much in the 2019 breakout, which wasn’t even a full season, because of the emergence of the split-finger. I’m talking myself into a post-hype sleeper Montas, aren’t I? Upon closer review, I think part of Montas’s 2020 breakdown had some fluke-like elements, but we can’t ignore a career as a reliever with a mixed bag of 29 career starts heading into the 2020 season.
Photos courtesy AP Images