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Stathead Sagas: Can Frontloading Innings Work?

Jack Moore

Jack Moore is a freelance sports writer based in Minneapolis who appears regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian and Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

If you play the Yahoo fantasy game, you have likely noticed a new note on your league homepage. This note asks: Why have points for my batters or pitchers stopped accumulating?

I was somewhat surprised to see this notice up on the site so early in the season. Yahoo's standard rotisserie leagues have game caps of 162 and innings caps of 1400. Nobody is hitting a game cap yet, but I suppose, technically, it would be possible to get to 1400 innings by the end of August.

I checked my five standard leagues and indeed, one of my opponents has already hit his innings cap: 1405.1 innings pitched, 86 W (second already and within striking distance for much of the league) 81 SV (good for eight points in a 12-team league), 1224 strikeouts (7.8 per nine innings; mediocre) a 3.85 ERA (just five points) and a 1.25 WHIP (six points). The owner of this team is in bad shape. His offense has a 1, 2, and 3.5 in HR, RBI and SB and with the trading deadline past, he can't use any of his extra pitchers (like David Price) to acquire improvements for the offense.

But the idea to me is interesting could there be merit to getting innings out of the way early? Every spring, at the beginning of the season, we hear talk about how the pitchers are ahead of the pitchers at this point, and if used correctly, top pitchers could be massive trade bait come June or July. So let's take a look at this harebrained strategy and see if actually has any legs.

First of all, in order to get this strategy off the ground, the bench likely has to be comprised entirely of starting pitchers. A team would consist of the requisite 10 batting spots (3 OF, no MI/CI, two UTIL), two relief pitchers, and then 11 starting pitchers. With 11 starters each taking five-to-six starts per month at six-to-seven innings per, we're talking between 330 and 460 innings per month probably about 380-400, to be most fair.

So come July 1, we'll be at 1200 innings, including the 60 or so from our two relievers. Save 200 more for, say, five or six relievers down the stretch to saw down the rates and add some much-needed high strikeout innings and you can bet to the 1400 mark without needing a single starting pitcher on the team from July onward.

Here's where those announcer anecdotes about the pitchers being in front of the hitters comes in is it actually true? Weather effects may also suggest that getting innings out of the cooler spring months as opposed to the dog days of summer would be helpful. These anecdotes, of course, have been wrong before, so let's take a look at the data:

The above data takes into account the last six seasons of play.

The narrative does support pitchers allowing fewer runs in the first half of the season as opposed to the second, but somewhat surprisingly it's not a continuous increase from April on to September. Instead, the bottom out comes in June. Unfortunately, reasons why this would happen escape me perhaps this is the point at which starting rotations become solid? I would be very interested to hear theories on this matter.

But, regardless, the point stands that the first half is more pitcher-friendly in terms of hits and run than the second half, even if strikeouts go up as the season goes on (another statistical oddity I can't quite explain). If you assume a team spreads out its innings evenly, it ends up with a 4.14 ERA, 1.360 WHIP and 1094 strikeouts. With 400 coming in each of the first three months and 66 in each of the following three, the result is a 4.10 ERA, 1.356 WHIP and 1082 strikeouts. So not much difference, although four points of ERA can be crucial in the right context.

At the very least, this means we're probably not costing ourselves any pitching points with this strategy. Which is good, because the lack of a legitimate bench means reaching the games played cap will be difficult and could cost the team points in the counting stats department. But, ideally, this would be balanced out by the trades made to ballast the offense down the stretch.

Consider some of the trades involving starting pitchers made in Yahoo Pro leagues this year:

James Shields for Desmond Jennings and Andre Ethier
Max Scherzer for Asdrubal Cabrera
Roy Halladay and Brandon Phillips for Matt Kemp and Rafael Soriano
Lance Lynn and Kenley Jansen for Matt Holliday and Edwin Jackson
Cliff Lee and Jered Weaver for Albert Pujols and Doug Fister
Stephen Strasburg and Kyle Seager for Ian Kinsler and Lorenzo Cain
Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Broxton for Joe Mauer and Alejandro De Aza

Just as some examples. The point being, good to elite hitting is available for starting pitching in trades and, considering pitching is better in the first half, the return on hitters should be even better than it looks.

Of course, there are some cons to this strategy as well. Either you have to go with a very weak hitting corps in the first half of the season or the 11-deep starting staff will be comprised largely of late-round pickups, diluting the quality of any aces in the rotation. It relies on the willingness of your leaguemates to trade with you, which they may not do if they sniff out your strategy. It also relies on trades even being an option this strategy can't work in the NFBC, for example, and other high-stakes leagues don't allow trading either.

But it's something I would very much like to see done in a mindful way at some point I may even try it out in a league or two next season. If the pitching is picked and dealt in a savvy way, I believe it could be a ticket to the top of the standings.