The Fantasy Baseball Implications of a 60-Game Regular Season
Ladies and gentlemen... we are back.
Opening Day: July 23 or 24
Season: 60 games
Location: Home ballparks
Health and safety: "MLB's foremost priorities" pic.twitter.com/PWOu9GolDh
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 24, 2020
In less than a month, we will be watching Major League Baseball at long last. Oh, how sweet it is.
We've been begging for a safe return to baseball for the past three months, and now we finally have a set date for when things will start back up. The real-world sports fans in us are giddy.
Our inner fantasy nerds may have a bit of apprehension, though.
For our entire lives, we've been playing fantasy baseball with a 162-game season in mind. We'd run a regular season from April through early September before closing things out with the playoffs. This is going to be just 37% of that 162-game total, and that's not accounting for when our fantasy regular seasons end.
Clearly, there are big fantasy baseball implications associated with this. So let's run through the most impactful ones now and see how it should alter our strategy when we finally get around to our drafts.
Embrace the Volatility
Over 162 games, baseball is a volatile sport. It takes 910 at-bats for a batting average to stabilize, and you don't even sniff that number in a full season. Now, we're getting basically a third of our usual sample. Everybody is going to be volatile.
This is true both due to the nature of rate stats and the impact of absences, whether it be due to health or injury. A 10-day stint on the injured list is 6.2% of a 162-game season, but it's 16.7% of a 60-game season. With a limited on-ramp to the season before opening day, we should expect players to miss time. It's going to play a massive role in fantasy.
As a result, no player is "safe." If you are drafting a player because you think their production is safe, the odds you're disappointed are monumental. We essentially need to ignore each player's floor because nobody has stability there.
This allows us to fully buy into volatile players. If the floor is bad for everybody, we can afford to take on risky players who have the path to a ceiling. So, if there are players you've been hesitant to draft due to concerns around risk, now's the time to take a bite of that apple.
Bank on Counting Stats
This ties into the previous point: rate stats take a long time to stabilize. That's especially true for the rate stats emphasized in traditional 5x5 roto leagues. As a result, we need to de-emphasize players who are reliant upon them in our drafts.
Last year, June 3rd was the day when the first group of players hit the 60-game mark for the season. Here were the top 10 players in batting average at that time along with where their batting average finished for the full season.
|Rank||Player||June 3rd BA||Full-Season BA|
Cody Bellinger and Nolan Arenado are hyper-talented players, so you maybe could have predicted they'd wind up there. But there's a whole lot of randomness in these numbers, lowering the value in players who are dependent on plus marks in this type of department.
The same line of thought would apply to pitchers, too, as both ERA and WHIP will take longer to stabilize than something like a player's strikeout rate. This is something we should account for with all players we're considering, regardless of position.
If you're projecting a player's batting average, ERA, or WHIP, a player with a better projection over 162 games will still have a better projection over 60 games. But the range of outcomes for all players gets much wider, meaning our confidence in the players who are elite in those departments goes down. As a result, we should put an extra emphasis on players who rack up counting stats.
For hitters, this means emphasizing homers, runs scored, RBIs, and steals. For pitchers, it means leaning more on strikeouts, wins, and saves. Perhaps more importantly, though, it means we need to downgrade players whose main appeal is providing a boost to your rate stats.
Adjust for Park Factors
Park factors are less about a 60-game schedule and more about when those 60 games will take place. Let's explain.
The dimensions of a park and its elevation influence park factors, and those two things will remain the same as usual. But temperature and humidity are also keys in dictating how hitter-friendly a game will be, and those are going to be dramatically different.
Take Target Field in Minneapolis as an example. In April, the average high temperature in Minneapolis is 58 degrees. The lower temperature favors pitchers, meaning we should downgrade hitters in that weather.
Here, though, we're taking April, May, and June out of the equation. The average temperature in Minneapolis in July is 83 degrees, followed by 80 in August and 72 in September. When you lop off the coldest months and let Target Field cook, it's going to alter the park factors tied to both the hitters and pitchers on that team in a meaningful way.
With this in mind, we need to elevate the expected park factor tied to all teams that play in cold weather during early months. This means jacking up relative expectations for their hitters while downgrading pitchers a bit.
The flip side is true, too. Some stadiums -- specifically those with domes, in the South, or along the coasts -- have more steady temperatures from one month to the next. The average temperature in San Francisco is actually higher in April than it is in July. Those parks -- which generally don't have the best park factor to begin with -- lose the one edge they have over other stadiums in that their temperature is higher earlier in the year. As a result, pitchers there can get boosts while the hitters get even bigger downgrades than they usually would.
Adjust for New Schedules
Teams are always a bit dependent on their divisions as schedules are heavily focused on pitting divisional rivals against each other. That's about to be far more true this year.
According to an FAQ column by Anthony Castrovince on MLB's website, teams will likely play 40 games within their division and 20 against the parallel division in the other league. So, the A.L. East would play 40 games against other A.L. East teams and 20 against teams in the N.L. East. That's obviously a big change.
Because of this, hitters in divisions with bad pitching will get a massive boost, and vice versa. FanGraphs' team projections include projected runs scored and runs allowed per game, though they currently reflect the regular 162-game schedule. You can use that at least as a guide to pinpoint teams that may deserve a bump up or a bump down based on the competition they will face. But for the most part, we just need to be cognizant of divisional strength and how it will impact individual players within that division.
The Addition of the Universal DH
Of course the universal DH becomes a thing the year Jose Martinez moves to the A.L. Of course.
The obvious here is that this is a win for all defensively inept hitters in the N.L. It also -- at least marginally -- inflates projected volume for every hitter in the N.L. as there's one additional hitter per team per game. That benefits everybody.
The other implication pertains to pitchers in the N.L. It's just not as easy to decipher the way it shifts.
On one hand, N.L. pitchers will no longer get to face opposing pitchers, which is a downgrade. Last year, N.L. starters had a league-wide 4.50 SIERA and 22.6% strikeout rate versus all hitters. For the A.L., those numbers were 4.59 and 22.0%, respectively. Part of that could be a talent gap, but facing pitchers is definitely not a bad thing.
But it could also help pitchers last longer into games. Pitchers get yanked for pinch-hitters earlier in games if the situation dictates it, a concern that is no longer in play. So while their rate stats may take a slight hit, it could potentially be offset by their ability to last longer in games. Whereas this situation clearly benefits some hitters in the N.L., the implications for the pitchers is certainly more mixed.
It's hard to deem anybody a "winner" in this situation given that the world is in the middle of a pandemic, so we're not going to do that. But there are some types of players who benefit from the way things played out.
The players who deserve bumps up relative to regular expectations are those who are volatile, rely on counting stats rather than rate stats, or play in poor divisions. Hitters, specifically, benefit if they play in stadiums that are colder in earlier months or if they play in the N.L. and were projected to lose playing time due to defense. Pitchers benefit if they play in stadiums that are cooler during summer months.
The downgrades go to hitters in those aforementioned cooler summer stadiums, pitchers in warmer summer climates, and players dependent on rate stats. These are all relatively minor tweaks, but combined, they can make a big difference. If you account for them while your leaguemates play things the way they always have, you should control a hefty advantage in what figures to be a wild season.