Daily Fantasy Baseball: How Important Is Spending Up at Pitcher?

Aces tend to be reliable, but they cost you an arm and a leg on FanDuel. How did 2019 lineups perform when you spent up at pitcher?

Major League Baseball is sadly on hiatus for the foreseeable future, but this does provide an opportunity to take a step back and hone our daily fantasy baseball skills for when it returns.

Earlier this week, I went through 2019 FanDuel results to see just how well stacks performed. Now, let's check out how another common strategy worked: paying up at pitcher.

In cash games, it's pretty much a no-brainer to secure a high-priced ace, as pitching performance is far easier to predict compared to hitters on a given night. After all, on most nights you can feel pretty good about rolling out guys like Gerrit Cole or Jacob deGrom and expecting them to perform well.

But does the same thing apply to tournaments? There's a bigger temptation to take more chances in GPPs, and value arms allow more flexibility in picking your favorite hitters.

With that in mind, let's check out how FanDuel lineups performed in 2019 based on pitching salary.

Acing the Test?

Typically, the top hurlers are priced around $10k and above. How did those lineups perform in 2019?

Pitcher Salary Average FanDuel Score
Over $10K 128.90
Under $10K 122.80

Well, then.

Right off the bat, we have around a six-point difference in average score between lineups that paid at least $10K for a pitcher compared to those that did not. That's pretty significant!

But what if we split pitching salaries into smaller buckets? Is there perhaps a sweet spot in the midrange that we can uncover? Or is there a dip in average score when we get all the way up to $12K or $11K?

Pitcher Salary Average FanDuel Score
$12,000 or Higher 129.6
$11,000 to $11,900 130.2
$10,000 to $10,900 127.8
$9,000 to $9,900 123.6
$8,000 to $8,900 122.3
$7,000 to $7,900 123.2
$6,000 to $6,900 122.6
Lower than $6,000 120.7

Not only do the $12K and $11K buckets perform extremely well -- they're actually the highest scores in the entire data set!

We then see a slight drop in the $10K range, followed by another dip after that. From there, there's little change from $9,900 through $6,000.

This would all suggest that while paying up at pitcher might initially appear to be a high-floor play that sacrifices hitting upside, that sure doesn't appear to be the case here. Instead, the extra salary that is left over to throw into your bats doesn't tend to outweigh the benefit of having a true ace anchoring your lineup.

It's also telling that there's no discernible difference in average scores from the mid-range pitchers on down. This isn't to say you should never pay down at pitcher, but it really looks like it should be primarily based around whether you truly feel a pitcher has elite upside and is mispriced, rather than paying down to specifically fit in an expensive stack.

Intuitively, this makes some sense, though. Lower-end pitchers are far less likely to dominate and give you a ceiling performance, like tallying double-digit strikeouts or pitching a complete-game shutout. As an example, a hurler pitching seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts and a win (plus a quality start) would net you a whopping 61.0 FanDuel points. For context, that's higher than the combined score of three solo shots (56.1).

On the other hand, while an army of Mike Trouts sounds awesome, we know that even the elite hitters in baseball can still go 0-for-5 in the best of matchups. Unlike NFL or NBA DFS, where volume and usage are so much of what separates the stars from the scrubs, batting order is the only thing that affects each hitter's opportunities to score fantasy points. Sure, we'd much rather get five plate appearances from Christian Yelich than Eric Sogard, but we're still talking about five or six chances at the plate compared to, say, 25 touches for Christian McCaffrey or 35 minutes for James Harden.

That leads to a ton of variance on a nightly basis, and that same variance allows lesser players to outscore their more talented teammates sometimes, which likely explains why devoting extra resources to your bats doesn't work out as often as we would like.

For instance, if you hit on your stack, and the Colorado Rockies are obliterating some poor sap at Coors Field, you don't necessarily need all the Rockies' superstars in your lineup to reap the rewards. When a pitcher is getting lit up, you could easily see a cheaper David Dahl or Ryan McMahon outperform that Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story you weren't quite able to fit into your lineup. Maybe Dahl came up with the bases loaded and delivered, or Story got robbed at the warning track and notched just a pair of walks. It happens all the time.

That isn't to say all batters are created equal -- obviously, they're not -- but this is why targeting team stacks tends to work better than just targeting individual hitters (more on that shortly).

But the key takeaway here is high-end pitchers are the better investment of resources over high-end hitters. A value pitcher is more likely to tank, and if that happens, your lineup is already sunk even if your star bats come through. On the other hand, if your ace pitcher posts a massive score, and your stack(s) hits, even lesser bats can come through for you if variance is on your side that night.

Stacks vs. Pitchers

To further emphasize the importance of paying up for pitching, let's compare the average FanDuel scores of paying up and down at pitcher with different stacking setups. When I looked at how stacks performed in 2019, four-man stacks came away with the highest average scores pretty much across the board.

Obviously, there's some overlap in data sets here -- a lineup can naturally have both a high-priced pitcher and a stack -- but the results are still telling:

Lineup ScenarioAverage FanDuel Score
Pitcher priced over $10K 128.90
Max four-player stack125.67
Max three-player stack123.85
Pitcher priced under $10K122.80
Max two-player stack122.74
No stack119.78

While four-man stacks vastly outperformed all other hitting setups, lineups with high-priced pitchers still won out with the highest average score.

It's worth remembering these are average FanDuel scores we're talking about, so we can't overlook exceptions on specific slates. Ace pitchers going through a bad stretch or coming off injury will occasionally be mispriced, and we'll gladly scoop up that value in those situations.

But this reaffirms that you should really pay down at pitcher only if you think he has a similar ceiling (or better) as the high-priced arms on the slate. And generally speaking, pitching should be prioritized over hitting -- no matter how great you think that pricey Aaron Judge looks against Jordan Zimmermann at Yankee Stadium.

Final Takeaways

The value of elite pitching in daily fantasy baseball isn't breaking news, but the chasm between lineups that paid up for pitching versus those that did not is noteworthy. Ultimately, the bottom line is we shouldn't let high implied totals or Coors Field deter us from rostering a slate's best pitchers. Even in tournaments, skimping on pitching seems to be a losing proposition more often than not. Paying up at pitcher and pairing him with the best four-man stack you can afford appears to be the best approach.