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The Z Files: Five Things Learned From DFS

Todd Zola

Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He's the defending champion in NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was nominated for the 2015 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

The real title should be, ďFive Things Learned from DFS That Helped Me Prep for Seasonal LeaguesĒ but itís too long to tweet and still leave room for a pithy introductory comment. As I have been evaluating, projecting and profiling players, I've borrowed some of the thought processes from my DFS experience, in varied ways. Hereís what I mean.

1. Be careful about over-ranking players that previously helped you win

Truth be told, this is true for all players you appear to favor more than the market for whatever reason. With DFS, the reason is they helped you win money. The best personal example I can cite is Seattle Mariners shortstop Ketel Marte. Weíll get more into DFS later but suffice it to say, I more than dabble but my volume isnít anywhere near what others play. My primary focus is cash games but Iíll join the tournament fray frequently as well. Last August and into September, I rode Marte as my cheap shortstop to many cash finishes.

After the club dealt Brad Miller to Tampa, the only real competition for the opening day shortstop job is Chris Taylor. My moneyís on Marte, but where do I draft him? Having so much exposure, I watched a ton of his at-bats. While I know enough not to trust a six-week sample through untrained scouting eyes, I saw a polished hitter. I look at the shortstop position and past the up-and-comers at the top, I see the same old dreck. Marte offers some upside since you really donít know how many bases heíll steal in a full season. Based on his history the floor seems to be about 20, but who knows, maybe he can swipe 30, or even more?

This is a story for another day but my draft approach isnít to worry where Iím taking a player relative to ADP but rather whether he meets my expectation for that draft spot. That said, ADP can still help flesh out exactly how long to wait and still get the intended player. The NFBC ADP for Marte is late 15th round. I grabbed him in the 12th in Mixed LABR and 13th in a recent NFBC DC express. My personal ranking is early 11th round so I opted to push him a round or two and grab another solid player in the 11th.

Had I not reminded myself not to jump too soon, I may have been tempted to draft Marte in the 11th or even 10th to make sure I got him. The take-home lesson is: regardless why you like a player (maybe he helped you win not just in DFS but seasonal play as well), be disciplined and donít overpay. Itís better to not get the player and go in another direction than waste assets making sure you do.

2. Backups to aging, noodle-armed catchers make intriguing end-game plays

The DFS connection is that any time Kurt Suzuki or Carlos Ruiz was behind the dish, the opposing team's base stealers are strong plays. Looking at their respective squadsí depth charts, you see John Ryan Murphy and Cameron Rupp.

Astute fantasy enthusiasts are already aware Rupp took over the lead role from Ruiz down the stretch but that was more because Ruiz stopped hitting. The fact he also canít throw may pave the way for Rupp to start the season as the primary catcher, elevating his rank above the other sludge at the back end of the catcher pool.

Twins manager Paul Molitor has already indicated Suzuki has the leg up for the starting catcher role but after watching the receiver throw in the spring, perhaps he changes his mind. Minnesota gave up Aaron Hicks to acquire Murphy so they must see something. Itís really not hard to envision Murphy taking over from Suzuki, perhaps as early as Opening Day.

Most fantasy players will observe Rupp and Murphy playing behind a couple of aging veterans having seen better days. But knowing the added factor that both are among the worst at containing the running game may accelerate a reduction in playing time.

3. Batting order matters

The dictum in DFS is to focus on players in the top five spots of the batting order. Not only are they in the meat of the order, thereís a better chance of a fifth trip to the dish, especially away from home (at home, the club doesnít bat when winning in the ninth inning). In seasonal leagues, most are aware that a top of the order hitter receives more chances, but they may not realize the extent.

On average, thereís a difference of 17 plate appearances between spots in the order. The difference between hitting second and seventh over the course of the season is over 80 plate appearances! Thatís like taking a hitterís expectation and subtracting 18 games.

Letís circle back to Ketel Marte. The key will be where the Mariners decide to hit Kyle Seager. Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Adam Lind will hit in the meat of the order. Seager could return to the two-hole or slide to fifth with Lind sixth. Seth Smith and Chris Iannetta slot in next. That leaves either first, eighth and ninth or first, second and ninth. Marte will play. The remaining two spots will be some combination of Norichika Aoki, Leonys Martin and Franklin Gutierrez. I purposely tempered my expectation for Marte since itís quite possible Aoki leads off followed by Seager, putting the shortstop at the bottom of the order. But he also can hit first or second, giving him up to 100 more plate appearances. Now the 30 or 40 steals referenced earlier arenít as implausible.

Another middle infielder in a similar scenario is Kolten Wong. The two most likely scenarios for the Cardinals' second baseman are hitting second or seventh. Thereís your 80 plate appearance difference. Matt Carpenter seems secure at leadoff, but who follows, Stephen Piscotty? Perhaps. Randal Grichuk? Maybe. Why not Wong? He has as good a chance as anyone. Rank him assuming Wong splits time and if he ends up in the two-hole, yahtzee!

To a lesser extent, Xander Bogaertsí place in the order frames his rank. He hit third most of the second half. Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia are entrenched up top. David Ortiz cleans up. Where does a healthy Hanley Ramirez bat? Does he usurp third, pushing Bogaerts to fifth or does Hanley slide down to the five hole? The difference is only 35 at bats or so. Right now, the market seems to think Bogaerts will remain in the three hole, at least thatís the way heís being drafted with a late fourth round ADP. If he drops down a few spots, itís not like heíll be a bust but his production will suffer and thereís not much wiggle room with an ADP of 58.

4. Young pitchers are worth investigating

If you play DFS with any regularity, you've no doubt been frustrated several times after stacking against a seemingly poor first-year pitcher. Last season, more rookies made their debut than any year in recent memory. This isnít just the crop of wonderful prospects that were promoted but a bevy of non-prospects that were summoned mostly due to injury. Nothing gets the juices of a DFS grinder flowing more than taking advantage of a lousy pitcher. Lo and behold, the rookie class time and again surprised, foiling the pig-pile perpetrated by those picking on the sub-par prospect.

The narrative is that pitchers have the edge before hitters get a book on them. Nowadays, it isnít a book but video. The assumption is their luck will run out sooner rather than later and they will soon be a victim of hitterís stacks instead of frustrating them. Not so fast, Skippy. It takes digging and not shrugging off success as a small sample anomaly, but each spring a handful of promising pitchers can be unearthed.

Jerad Eickhoff comes to mind as an example of a popular DFS choice to keep an eye on this spring. The Philadelphia Phillies were rolling out a wretched combination of journeyman hacks and unproven rookies with less than stellar minor league resumes. Eickhoff, however, recorded an impressive 2.65 ERA with a 1.04 WHIP spanning eight starts. Embellishing this was a season-ending run of four seven-inning efforts, the last two featuring ten whiffs each. Yeah, by the end of September many teams are mailing it in which is why you need to do some due diligence. Eichkoff was acquired by the Phillies in the Cole Hamels trade which itself should suggest heís not just another guy. Both in 2014 and before being promoted last season, Eickhoff sported a K/9 north of 8.0 with good control. So sure, heíll be hard-pressed to match last seasonís 8.7 K/9 and 2.3 BB/9 over 51 innings but his history suggests the decline wonít be too precipitous.

Adam Conleyís first seven major league appearances, three of which were starts, did not go well. He recorded an unsightly 5.81 ERA and 1.52 WHIP. However, he turned it around with eight starts, pitching to 2.78 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. Chances are, unless you are a Miami Marlins fan, a relative of Conley or a DFS player, that eight-game stretch went under the radar. Conleyís minor league numbers arenít as impressive as Eickhoffís but theyíre not terrible. It appears Conley will break camp in the rotation and even though Marlins Park underwent renovation, bringing in and lowering the fences, itís still expected to play pitcher-friendly. You could do worse than picking up Conley late and streaming him at home until he proves worthy of road deployment.

5. Rich Hall carved out a nice career after sniglets jumped the shark

Some of my fondest memories growing up are with my mom, watching the original, daytime David Letterman show featuring Rich Hall. Hall then went on to popularize sniglets, words that arenít but should be in the dictionary on HBOís ground-breaking Not Necessarily the News.

What?

Who?

Hall?

You sure?

Apparently the guy that dazzled down the stretch for the Boston Red Sox was Rich Hill, not Hall. Iím sorry, I thought Hill was an injury-prone journeyman that had thrown a total of 153 big league innings since 2008, sporting a 5.41 ERA and 1.69 WHIP, so hopefully you can understand my confusion. I mean, thereís no way this guy started four games, tossing 29 frames with 36 whiffs and only 5 walks down the stretch. Thatís silly.

But it happened, much to the giddiness of DFS players everywhere. Now with Oakland, Hill will get a chance to show his fastball-curve combo wasnít a fluke. Whether you think it was or not, the cost to find out is minimal and even though heís working in the American League, O.co Coliseum is a great venue to stream pitching, so Hill is definitely worth a shot.