Daily Fantasy Baseball: Why It's Smart to Pay for Top-Tier Pitching

Baseball's top pitchers present a combination of upside and floor that position players don't, and this has key implications for daily fantasy baseball.

Balling on a budget ain't easy, y'all.

In my first apartment out of college, I tried to avoid energy costs whatever way I could. I suffered through the heat of the summer, and I was determined to do the same with the cold in winter.

That doesn't end well when you live in Minnesota.

I made it until the early part of December without budging. One night, though, I was eating dinner in the living room, and I saw this strange puff. There were two options: I had inhaled mold, and my lungs were on the verge of sacrificially lighting themselves on fire, or I could see my breath. Inside. It was time for a change.

Sometimes -- even when you're on a strict budget -- you've got no choice but to pay up. That's a lot how pitching works in daily fantasy baseball.

The best pitchers on a given slate are going to run you a good chunk of the total salary you have to play with. However, with the points you get from pitching and the consistency and predictibility of pitchers relative to hitters, this is a loss you just kind of have to take.

Let's go through this to explain why it's (more often than not) important to pay up for pitching both in cash games and tournaments.

Positional Volatility

Whenever a pitcher toes the rubber, you can basically count that they're going to throw around 100 pitches on the night. That gives you a sample size of 100 tiny, individual events off of which to judge the night. That number drops to four or five with batters.

When we are able to expand sample sizes, our abiity to predict the outcome increases. This is huge when it comes to comparing pitchers to hitters because the discrepancies in the sample sizes are so grotesque.

You could have the entirely perfect process, selecting the optimal batter on a given night. However, if that hitter fails to capitalize in his first four plate appearances, he may never get the chance to prove that process correct. Pitchers can flop and bite you, too, but they have infinitely more chances to correct any rough patches.

Let's play out a hypothetical here using the pricing from the opening day of the 2016 season on FanDuel. You can choose one pair of players. You can pay up for pitching and get Clayton Kershaw while settling for Brandon Belt at first base, or you can fork over the salary for Paul Goldschmidt at first and use Felix Hernandez as your pitcher. Which should you choose?

You could make a case for either direction. Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game, and Goldschmidt is the best first baseman. Based on our conversation above, it should seem obvious that Kershaw is the better choice anecdotally, and the data backs this up.

Let's compare these two options based on each player's average output (based on FanDuel's scoring rules) during the 2015 season. Basing analysis on averages is a flawed way of thinking, but it can be useful here as it will illustrate expectations for each option.

The table below shows the combined averages of the two choices along with the "Floor" and "Ceiling." These are simply the marks that were one standard deviation in each direction from the average. In a cash game, you're looking to maximize floor, so you'll focus on that mark. For a tournament, you want upside. This makes it seem as if Kershaw is the best choice regardless.

Combination Floor Average Ceiling
Kershaw & Belt 32.12 59.27 86.43
Hernandez & Goldschmidt 17.79 50.49 83.20

Although the gap closes as you go up, the combo with Kershaw wins at every level. That should illustrate why this strategy is one to use both in cash games and in tournaments.

It's not as if this example decided to pilfer some low-level pitcher to prove a point. Hernandez had a 3.38 SIERA that season and a 23.1% strikeout rate. He was a quality option, but that wasn't enough to make up the gap that Kershaw's floor and upside provided.

The key point here is this: on a given day, it's a lot easier to replace the production of a high-level hitter than a high-level pitcher. When you're forced to choose between rostering either a quality pitcher or a quality hitter, the choice should be the same almost every time.

You may think that you can successfully pinpoint a low-cost pitcher who will break out, but these performances rarely occur. There were 134 games in 2014 and 2015 in which a starting pitcher recorded at least 66 points on FanDuel; Kershaw accounted for 12 of those, and seven different pitchers controlled over 35% of the sample. The odds of pinpointing when one of the players not in that group pops off are low, no matter how skilled you are.

On the flip side, it's easier to do this with hitters. On the day before the slate referenced above, the Mets' Lucas Duda cost $2,600, putting him $600 above minimum price. That same guy had seven multi-homer games in 2015, the second highest total in the league. You can find high-upside position players for not a lot of dough, but doing so with pitchers on a regular basis is a daunting proposition.

DFS Implications

You don't always need to pay for the most expensive pitcher on a given slate, but you do need to try to find which one will be best that night.

My research always starts with the pitchers. I'll look at them, their matchups, and the Vegas lines, and I'll select two or three who I deem to be the best options. Only then will I look at price, and even that will only be used as a tie-breaker.

Whether you want to win a head-to-head or take down a large-field tourney, nailing the best pitcher on the board will drastically increase your odds of success. The top performances -- more often than not -- will come from guys who will cost you a pretty penny, but as we've seen, that doesn't mean they're not worth it.

You'll sometimes be able to find low-cost pitchers who you think have a shot to post big point totals. If you can do that, then you definitely should roll the dice on them. But if you're simply picking them because they're cheap and not because they have top-shelf upside, it might be time to re-evaluate.

Just like with paying for heat in a Minnesota winter, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. Good pitching is hard to find, and when you do find it, it's going to cost you quite a bit. But when the choice is between paying for a top-notch pitcher and a top-notch position player, more often than not, it'll be optimal to bite the bullet and give the hurler the nod.