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MLB Daily Games Strategy: Getting What You Pay For

Renee Miller

Neuroscientist at the University of Rochester and author of Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is your brain sabotaging your team?. I cover daily fantasy basketball for RotoWire and write for RotoViz about fantasy football.

After the topsy turvy weekend of MLB DFS we just had, I was tempted to write about sticking with a process and avoiding tilt today. It's an important thing to remember, for sure. If you start to doubt yourself or your established, successful process for making daily MLB lineups, you're in trouble. I managed to avoid full tilt, despite cashing in only 44% of my cash games since the tumult began on Friday in Coors. This is basically thanks to a couple decent GPP finishes (36% cashes in tournaments). If you find yourself in the midst of a cold streak, I encourage you to read this article I wrote on the topic during basketball season. There are things you can do to make it better!

If not tilt, then what? I've wanted to get back to looking at starting pitching. I began this series, and my foray into daily MLB very focused on pitching. I've learned a ton about hitters and the stats we use to evaluate hitters over the past couple of months, how to find value in the splits, and how to predict the power that brings big fantasy points. However, whether I cash in any given night seems to come down largely to pitching.

I want to touch on three things in this mid-season look at SP strategy: 1) Does pitching for a winning team matter? 2) Do you have to pay up for pitching? 3) What pitching data correlates best with DFS points?

1) Does pitching for a winning team matter?

First, let's look at the division leaders and teams within 2.5 games of the division leader. These are:

O's, Jays, Tigers, A's, Angels, Brewers, Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, and Braves. Of the top 50 SP in daily fantasy (DraftDay scoring), 26 play for these 12 teams. That is a slight skew toward yes, the best pitchers for fantasy DO play for the best teams. But it is by no means an absolute.

Digging a little deeper we find that the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Pirates, despite being at the top of their respective divisions, have ZERO of the top 50 fantasy pitchers. The Nationals and A's have FIVE apiece! The Dodgers have four, Cards have three, Braves, Giants, Angels, and Tigers have two, and the Brewers have one.

Aces such as King Felix, Chris Sale, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Yu Darvish, Jesse Hahn and Jon Lester--who are all top 10 among active SP in terms of DD pts/game--do not play for the best teams.

In conclusion, you don't have to use a SP from a great team, even on a site like DraftDay, where wins are worth 10 points. Of course, you want the win so picking your matchup is important, but many of these top SP make their points by going deep in low scoring games and racking up the K's.

2) Do you have to pay up for pitching?

The first thing people told me when I started in daily MLB was SPEND ON PITCHING. I did, and generally didn't regret it. Still, it doesn't hurt to look for some value at this point in the season. For example, Hahn, Jake Arrieta, and Garrett Richards are all priced $1000's less than the other SP in the #8-15 range. This range includes Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Julio Teheran who are more expensive despite averaging the same or fewer fantasy points per game.

I went through and compared the SP I used over the past few days to the best SP over the same period. Since DD is a two SP site, my strategy is either to use one ace and one mid-low tier SP, or two top tier SP (usually when the top tier is lacking a true ace). So for example, I rolled out Clayton Kershaw with Jeremy Hellickson, Jake Arrieta with Gio Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir with Eric Stults, and Yu Darvish with Bartolo Colon. Only the Kazmir/Stults lineup was an across the board loser. In that slate, a Hyun-jin Ryu with Mike Minor lineup would have been ideal. Last night, while my Colon/Darvish duo did great, I could have saved a lot of money going with the optimal pair of R.A. Dickey and Vince Worley.

I think the bottom line is this. Paying up for SP is usually going to yield positive results and keep you in the game. Obviously even aces have bad games as I'm sure we've all been torched by nightmare inducing performances from Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Adam Wainwright, and as recently as Monday night, Madison Bumgarner. But by and large, the aces are expensive for a reason and that reason is a combination of their high, CGSO upside and their high 5 IP 2K, 3 ER floors.

There will always be a cheap SP that goes off, but predicting that is very hard to do. I throw darts at likely targets in satellites, freerolls, or other cheap multi-entry games. Sometimes you get Vince Worley or Yohan Flande, sometimes you get Clay Buchholz or Nathan Eovaldi. I still lean on the side of paying for pitching in your cash games.

3) What pitching data correlates best with DFS points?

If you read my strategy articles regularly, you know I love the advanced stats from FanGraphs. I was checking out their top pitchers ranked by different stats, as I am prone to do (see last week's ISO article for corner infielders), to see how they match the daily fantasy point rankings on my favorite DFS sites.

The top 10 SP on DraftDay are: Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Jesse Hahn, and Jon Lester. They range from 47.3 to 33 fpts/game.

Sorting by WAR (wins above replacement--basically the number of wins you'd lose if you replaced the SP with the league average) does a pretty good job, hitting six of the top 10 DraftDay pts/game pitchers. Interestingly, FanGraphs' WAR indicates that Corey Kluber, Phil Hughes, Jose Quintana, Jordan Zimmermann, and Dallas Keuchel are more valuable than their fantasy output thus far suggests. Also of interest is the fact that with negative WAR, their teams would actually be better off without Shelby Miller, Marco Estrada, Eric Stults, and Roberto Hernandez. LOL.

Sorting by K/9 might also be informative, given how heavily strikeouts are weighted in DFS. Doing so also hits six of the top 10 DD pts/game SP. This time, Strasburg, Jake Odorizzi, Kluber, and Greinke are the missing four.

Sorting by innings pitched on FanGraphs is the way to get Cueto and Wainwright into the top 10, indicating how important it is in DFS for SP to go late in games.

Starting pitcher is still your most important position. You pay for safety and most of the time that puts you in a position to win. Occasionally you get burned, but that's no reason to start Eric Stults (the slate was a 4-gamer and every other option was seemingly just as bad, in my defense. And to be fair, Gonzalez, Mikolas, and Volquez were equally bad or worse for more salary). If you're going to take a flier on a cheap guy, I like to do it multi-entry style so I can get exposure to a few of them. Most cheap SP are going to give you what you pay for.

Have a great week, and as always I hope you get more than you pay for. FWIW I'm leaning Cole Hamels and Tyson Ross at DraftDay.

Follow me @reneemiller01 to see how that works out tonight!