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Fantasy baseball: A better way to play fantasy

Joey Gallo is one of many players who sees a jump in fantasy value with a change in format to 6x6. AP

The baseball world continues to get smarter, every year.

We've seen major league teams increasingly utilize shifts, cutting down the success rates of pull-conscious power hitters. We've seen managers ease off on bunts and cut down on steals, in order to avoid unnecessarily throwing away outs. We've even seen some teams super-specialize their pitching staffs, turning to such radical strategies as employing an "opener" -- including in the most recent postseason!

Over the years, fantasy baseball has improved in many ways as well -- with more and more leagues moving to points-based scoring or to rotisserie formats with more of a sabermetric leaning. If you haven't yet hopped aboard that bandwagon, 2019 is a prime time to do so.

Welcome to the seventh season of my suggested improvement to the traditional rotisserie baseball system: 6x6 scoring, which does away with such flawed statistics as wins and batting average and adopts more modern, skills-based scoring.

Perhaps your league has already made some changes to adapt to the changing sport. However, if yours hasn't and might consider it now, go back to read my detailed pitches from 2013 and 2014 for a fresh idea on a modern scoring system. This "modernized" scoring system with six categories apiece for hitters and pitchers -- one I originally proposed as far back as 2010 -- uses the following statistics, all of which are available on ESPN as custom league categories.

Hitting Categories: On-Base Percentage (OBP), Slugging Percentage (SLG), Home Runs (HR), Runs Batted In (RBI), Net Stolen Bases (SBN) and Runs Scored (R).

Pitching Categories: Quality Starts (QS), Innings Pitched (IP), Saves (SV), Earned Run Average (ERA), Walks plus Hits divided by Innings Pitched (WHIP) and Strikeouts per Nine Innings ratio (K/9).

Why these categories (briefly)?

On-Base Percentage (OBP): In addition to giving players a reward for earning walks -- one of the most glaring omissions from the original rotisserie rulebook -- OBP also does a much better job of measuring a hitter's ability to avoid making outs, which is his ultimate goal.

Slugging Percentage (SLG): The original rulebook also did a poor job of rewarding players for their ability to generate extra-base hits, at least ones that didn't clear the fence. Not all hits are created equal, which is one of the primary flaws with batting average, and SLG credits players for doubles and triples, while still granting extra weight to home runs, as that remains its own category.

Net Stolen Bases (SBN): I'd actually prefer to use stolen base percentage -- successful steals divided by total attempts -- in order to provide symmetry in "ratio" categories, meaning three on both sides (hitting/pitching). In ESPN leagues, where stolen base percentage is unavailable as a category, net stolen bases is a good compromise, rewarding players only for their success in the category while still penalizing them for committing costly outs. For critics of the imbalance of ratio categories, remember that both rotisserie 4x4 and 5x5 scoring also have imbalanced numbers of ratio categories on both sides.

Quality Starts (QS): It's one of the more divisive categories on the pitching side, yet it remains a stronger indicator of a starting pitcher's success in singular games than does the individual category of wins. Critics lazily claim, "A quality start means a 4.50 ERA," but that's disparaging the category's minimum qualification. Expanding the debate to all starting-pitching outcomes, here are the facts from 2018:

  • The combined ERA of all quality starts was 1.79, while the combined ERA of all starting pitching outings that fetched a win was 1.90.

  • There were more starts resulting in a 4.50 ERA or greater that earned a win (208) than there were minimum-qualification (exactly 6 innings, exactly 3 earned runs, for a 4.50 ERA) quality starts (176).

  • There were 143 starts resulting in a 5.00-plus ERA that earned a win.

  • There were 150 quality starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than one run allowed (whether earned or not) that failed to notch a win. By the way, a seven-inning, one-run outing results in a 1.29 RA -- and that's run average, before we even get into whether or not the runs were earned.

Innings Pitched (IP): It's another divisive category, but let's not forget what this truly measures -- outs. Putting it simply, innings pitched equals outs, or, at least, multiplying this number by three gets you the number of outs recorded by said pitcher. As outs are one of a pitcher's two primary functions -- the other being the prevention of runs -- it should be specifically rewarded. Adding innings pitched also helps neutralize potential RP-heavy strategies.

Strikeouts per Nine Innings ratio (K/9): Some might prefer to keep strikeouts as a counting category in the interest of simplicity, but that would also depress the value of relief pitchers to an extreme degree, while also opening the floodgates for streaming-starter strategies. Moving this to a ratio category rewards quality over quantity, while giving middle relievers additional value.

Thoughts on 'The Opener' and its impact on wins and quality starts

"The Opener," so dubbed by MLB Network's Brian Kenny and referring to the practice of a team starting a game with a relief pitcher who works his traditional one or two innings before giving way to either a "follower" or another short reliever, had a profound impact upon both the wins and quality starts categories in 2018.

The collective group of starting pitchers -- those handed the ball for the game's first pitch -- averaged just 5.36 innings per outing, earned the win in only 41.1 percent of their outings and had a quality start in only 31.2 percent. All three of those numbers were the lowest in the game's 106 seasons for which detailed box score data is available. Presumably, they were all-time lows.

As the rulebook win, on an individual basis, requires the starting pitcher to work at least five innings, while a quality start requires at least six innings of work, both statistics are technically impossible for any pitcher used in an opener strategy. The "follower" might pitch long enough in the game to be awarded a win using the "official scorers' judgment" part of the rulebook, but the quality start possibility is eliminated the moment the opener leaves before the end of the sixth inning. Interestingly enough, both the league's overall rate of wins and quality starts-per-outing declined by the same amount from 2017 to 2018: 2.6 percent.

Unfortunately, this development has a noticeable effect upon rotisserie scoring, whether 5x5 or 6x6, and it will become only more dramatic as more teams embrace the strategy. Last September alone, teams utilized the opener 52 times out of 816 games, or 6.4 percent. Should the 2019 seasonal rate approach -- or worse, exceed -- that number, it would deflate wins (in 5x5) and quality starts (in 6x6) enough that fantasy teams might have to overhaul their approach to drafting relievers. A strategy focusing on ERA/WHIP and saves (plus K/9 in 6x6) becomes increasingly wise the more big league teams take wins and quality starts out of the pitching equation.

I'm not quite ready to propose another adjustment to my current 6x6 system, but it is something I plan to revisit annually. One worry with reverting back to wins from quality starts is that, with relievers stealing more wins than ever, making that switch alone only further enhances relievers' value -- and not in a good way, since many will benefit from the "cheap win" where they just happen to be on the mound in a random inning during which their teams take the lead or for the game's 15th out.

What I'd like to see from Major League Baseball before potentially re-embracing wins is an overhaul of the category's official rules. Should the game place the responsibility of assigning the game's individual win entirely in the hands of the official scorer -- instead of doing so only when the starter fails to complete five innings -- with guidelines that the win should be assigned only to the game's most effective pitcher, whether it be the opener, the follower, a "key out in the sixth inning" lefty or even the closer himself (in which case the win would supersede the save), I'd be all on board with a return to wins.

Until then, let it ride with quality starts!

Players who most benefit from changing to rotisserie 6x6 scoring

These five players enjoy the largest bump in value by migrating a league from rotisserie 5x5 to 6x6 scoring:

Dellin Betances, RP, New York Yankees: We project him to lead the majors with a 15.6 K/9 rate. That would have a much greater impact on fantasy scoring than his 114 total strikeouts would in a 5x5.

Joey Gallo, OF/1B, Texas Rangers: He's one of the players most helped by the switch, since his .206 batting average last season was second worst among qualifiers behind only Chris Davis' .168, but Gallo's .498 slugging percentage was 28th-best out of those 140 hitters. Gallo's .312 on-base percentage, too, was within range of the .318 major league average, making him considerably less of a drain upon your ratio categories.

Rhys Hoskins, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: Only 18 players last season walked at least 12.5 percent of the time while also striking out less than 25 percent of the time, and only three -- Matt Carpenter, Jose Ramirez and Mike Trout -- hit more than Hoskins' 34 home runs. Hoskins is a well-balanced performer using 6x6 scoring who enters 2019 at a prime-age 25 years old, and hitting in the heart of a much deeper lineup.

Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees: Combining 2017-18 statistics, Judge's .409 on-base percentage and .584 slugging percentage both ranked third-best among qualifiers, but his .282 batting average didn't even crack the top 40. He's one of the game's most extraordinary performers in those two categories, as well as in home runs.

Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks: Only four pitchers who worked at least 100 innings last season had greater than his 12.10 K/9 rate, in what was his second straight year of reaching 12-plus in that category. That goes a long way toward making up for his modest 5.5 innings-per-start average and 1.33 WHIP in his four-year Diamondbacks career.

Others who benefit: Chris Archer, Matt Carpenter, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Tyler Glasnow, Josh Hader, Bryce Harper, Corey Knebel, Matt Olson, Alex Reyes, Carlos Santana, Kyle Schwarber, Justin Smoak, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto.

Players who lose the most value by shifting to rotisserie 6x6 scoring

These five players experience the largest drop in value by migrating a league from rotisserie 5x5 to 6x6 scoring:

Kyle Freeland, SP, Colorado Rockies: You'd think he's a good pick in this format since he finished sixth in the majors in quality starts (24), but that came with a pedestrian 7.70 K/9 rate that was below the league's average. Here's the other problem: Freeland is due for some regression after a very lucky 2018, and that puts those quality starts at risk as well. In 26 years of Rockies history, only six pitchers have managed as many as 20 quality starts in any single season, and only 30 had 15-plus such starts.

Dee Gordon, 2B/OF, Seattle Mariners: His low walk rate (4.0 percent for his career) ruins his on-base percentage, as his .327 mark the past five seasons combined ranked only 97th among 164 hitters who had at least 2,000 plate appearances during that time span. He couples that with practically zero power, as his .375 slugging percentage was ninth-worst among that same group. Using net stolen bases also deflates Gordon's worth, as he has averaged only 41 in that category, per 162 games played, during his big league career.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Kansas City Royals: If Gordon suffers from the move to on-base and slugging percentage, that switch utterly ruins Hamilton's prospects in the format, as his .297 on-base percentage from 2014-18 combined ranked 157th out of that same group of 164, while his .332 slugging percentage ranked dead last. At least Hamilton has averaged 50 net stolen bases per 162 games played of his big league career.

Miles Mikolas, SP, St. Louis Cardinals: He's almost the complete reverse of Ray, going more than a full inning longer in his starts (on average) with a WHIP that checked in at more than a quarter-point lower last season. Mikolas' 6.55 K/9 rate was fourth-lowest among ERA-qualified starters and it came with a lot of volume, so he's actually costing your team precious points in the category when you use him.

Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals: A No. 29 overall ranking is hardly a poor one, but it's a dramatic drop when compared to his No. 7 ranking using 5x5 scoring. Turner isn't really hurt in terms of standings gains points in 6x6, but he does lose a small amount due to his stolen-base contributions being diluted with the addition of a sixth offensive category. He's not enough of a walker (a 5.0 percent career big league rate) and doesn't have the top-shelf power (.157 career isolated power) needed to move the needle in the on-base and slugging percentage categories.

Others who lose value: Ozzie Albies, Jose Altuve, Tim Anderson, Orlando Arcia, Kyle Gibson, Ender Inciarte, Dallas Keuchel. Starling Marte, Whit Merrifield, Mike Minor, Roberto Osuna, Rick Porcello, Jean Segura, Jonathan Villar.

Rankings for rotisserie 6x6 leagues

Whether you're a rotisserie 6x6 veteran or new to the format this season, I'm here to help! Listed below are my top 300 rankings for this scoring system.

(For additional help, visit our Cheat Sheet Central in order to download full top 300 and positional-rankings cheat sheets for rotisserie 6x6 leagues.)