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Dominating Your Head-To-Head Fantasy Baseball League

A lot – maybe even a majority – of fantasy baseball advice is geared toward rotisserie leagues, and for good reason: Roto leagues are probably the "purest" way to play this game.

But if I can be heretical, rotisserie leagues (especially the non-keeper ones) are also not that fun. Don't get me wrong, it is a pure format, and the best team does tend to win, but it also only marginally feels like a game. This is supposed to be a game, right? If your team falls into a deep hole by June or July, you're more likely to abandon it than to bother making desperation changes to your roster, because once you're behind, you're probably going to stay there. There is no Great Equalizer known as the fantasy playoffs to let your mediocre roto team get hot, sneak in on the back end, and make a run at the title.

Head-to-head leagues, on the other hand, introduce the luck factor (the very same one that I constantly complain about in fantasy football, but not to the same degree), so they lose some of that purity. But they make up for it with the addition of direct competition, and they're more like real baseball; after all, no team wins the World Series because it stole the most bases or had the most saves over the course of 162 games.

The week-to-week drama (especially in leagues that simply award a win or loss for the week rather than using the category breakdown) keeps things interesting the whole way; even a team that doesn't have a chance to make the playoffs can play spoiler late in the year.

Okay, okay, Andrew, you like head-t0-head leagues. We've got it. Now tell us how to win 'em.

For the purposes of this article, I'm going to be discussing categorical H2H — also known as H2H roto — leagues rather than points leagues (a horse of another color that will be covered by my colleague James Anderson on Friday), focusing particularly on mixed leagues with daily changes. Weekly H2H leagues do exist, and I play in one, but let's just pretend they don't for now.

There are a few areas where the distinction between roto and H2H is particularly apparent:

1. Starting pitching depth.

In rotisserie, where there are innings limits, the most important thing is the quality of every inning you get out of your starters. If a guy can't reasonably put up at least 7.5 K/9 in tandem with impressive ERA and WHIP, he basically has no place anywhere on your roto roster. You're arguably better off getting no innings at all out of that roster spot than you are rolling out, say, Jeremy Guthrie.

But in head-t0-head, the Guthries and the Wade Mileys and the Brandon McCarthys of the world do indeed find their place on your roster, because the very best thing you can do in head-to-head is maximize your innings every week.

That has powerful implications for your roster makeup; on an ideal head-to-head roster, there should be approximately one bench hitter (maybe two), and every single other guy on your bench should be a starting pitcher. You're going to rotate all of those pitchers into your lineup every time they start (with the possible exception of starts in Colorado), because your goals are to win Wins and Strikeouts while having a good-enough pitching crew to be competitive in ERA and WHIP.

Having a "true ace" like Clayton Kershaw isn't as important because of week-to-week ERA and WHIP volatility; what you want is a deep crew of promising starters. This, in turn, affects the way you draft.

It's already commonplace to spend the majority of your auction dollars on hitting, but that doesn't tend to shake out the same way in snake drafts. So what are you going to do? You're going to build an unassailable hitting crew in the early rounds, and you're going to spend the entire back end of your draft grabbing starting pitchers with upside. (Like who, you ask? This year, I'm fond of names like Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Jake Odorizzi, Danny Duffy, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor, Carlos Rodon and Daniel Norris.)

2. Star hitting or bust.

We've already established that you're not going to be swapping hitters in and out of your lineup very often, since you only have one extra guy on your bench. That means that you want to severely discount the following types of hitters:

  • Platoon players. If you only fit into the lineup when you're facing right-handed pitching, and you're a black hole all the rest of the time, I don't want you on my team, because anyone who's on my team is going to be in there every day.
  • Injury-prone players. Listen, I love Carlos Gonzalez as much as anyone, and I think he'll bounce back this year. But I don't want to deal with the roster issues that crop up when one of my everyday hitters often finds himself in the "day-to-day" category. There's no avoiding injuries in this game, but it pays to be risk-averse in this respect.

So that's why it's good that we're going to be spending our early draft picks (or the majority of our auction dollars) on the safest, most productive hitters we can find. We're going to stack our lineups with the biggest, baddest, most powerful bats out there, because their value is actually even higher in H2H than it is in roto. Replacement-level hitters are useless. Go for the gold (-schmidt).

3. Elite closers are a waste.

What are you going to get out of a given closer in a given week? Three innings? Four? When you're maxing out starts, as you should be, that's a drop in the bucket. That means you can go for cheap, unexciting closers (but preferably with decent job security — hi there, Addison Reed!), because all that matters to you is the almighty save. The difference last year between amazing closer Greg Holland and horrible closer Joe Nathan was 11 saves and 21 runs — aka, about half a save and a little less than one run per week. That ain't much.

4. The unbalanced approach.

Head-to-head leagues are much friendlier than roto leagues to the concept of punting categories. Hate closers? Well, there are nine other categories (assuming this is a standard league) into which you can invest your draft picks or auction budget. There's much more room for strategy in head-to-head because you don't need the balance or consistency that are prized in roto formats.

Power cost too much at auction? Draft a team of speedsters and high-end arms so you can win the pitching categories, plus steals and runs, every week. It'll make everyone hate you, but hey, you'll be a near-lock for the playoffs!

Or maybe you don't want to spend on speed, and cheap speed isn't nearly as cheap or speedy as it once was, so you draft an offense of plodding power hitters. Why not? Don't be afraid to get creative, keeping in mind that you don't need to win all the categories — you just need to win more than half of them.

How about you, readers? What's worked for you in H2H? What hasn't? Let's kick this can around in the comments.