The Transition: Season-Long to MLB DFS
Let me start out by stating something very important: season-long fantasy baseball and daily fantasy baseball are NOT competing industries.
This is not an either/or, one is better than the other situation. If you love fantasy baseball and have been playing season-long leagues, DFS on sites like FanDuel and DraftKings will simply give you another avenue to view the game, more chances to play, some new metrics to look at, and maybe even a shot at a million bucks or so.
There have been tons of articles written about the basics of how to play DFS, so I am not going to walk through all of that information here. I’m going to assume you have a basic knowledge of how to play DFS. If not, or even if you’ve played before, I highly recommend you take the time to go through these daily fantasy lessons over at RotoAcademy.
Here is a snapshot of my most basic advice to new players:
1) Make sure you get your starting pitchers right. As a season-long player, this should be what you have the best handle on to begin with. The process for picking a pitcher for DFS is very similar to how you decide which pitcher to start on a weekly basis. On a day-to-day basis, pitching is more predictable than hitting. That goes for both good and bad pitching.
3) Know what your goals and budget are. Start small and stick with your plan. Poor money management can derail you faster than poor lineup choices.
4) Don’t try to become an expert right away. You can start playing DFS with the baseball knowledge you already have. I highly recommend that you start by playing just one type of contest at one site for very small amounts, even free leagues. Give yourself some time to just start making lineups and getting comfortable with the salaries and the scoring. You do not need to be incorporating every advanced metric, weather trend and ballpark factor on the day you start playing. Make sure you’re confident in the basics, and then slowly start adding in new research and strategies.
I am going to get into some of the statistical differences shortly, for those of you who enjoy splits, salaries and ballpark factors, but in my opinion the biggest difference between the two games has nothing to do with math or baseball statistics. I believe the biggest difference is psychological. You simply need a different mindset and mannerism to be successful at DFS.
— Night-to-night variance is a fact of life in baseball, and in a season-long league it is very easy to shake off. An 0-for-4 from Mike Trout is really no big deal, because you know he’s going to end up giving you the numbers worthy of the #1 pick by the end of the year. An 0-for-4 in DFS from your highest paid hitter can really sting. It is much harder to accept the variance when it costs you a big win. This leads into the next point…
— Getting burned by a player can lead to being unreasonably biased against them. You should always go into every day being willing to consider playing anyone. In your season-long leagues, you have probably faced this before, where you don’t draft the player who burned you last season. That is usually a mistake; you should draft based on this year with no bias, but you don’t, do you? In DFS, you face that problem every single day, and can miss out on a play you should’ve made. This also works in the reverse; when a player comes through for you in a big spot, you may spend more on him than you should the next day. You always need to start with a clean slate, which is easier said than done.
— When you win at DFS – and you will win – it can seem really easy. You will have winning streaks where you feel unbeatable, and it is extremely difficult not to get cocky, which can also make you lazy. If you are a knowledgeable season-long baseball player, you can easily throw together a fairly solid DFS lineup in 20 minutes that is good enough to win on some nights. The real trouble is when that team does win, you’ll think that’s all there is to it. And then when you lose for a couple nights, you’ll blame it on variance, and play the “if only I’d played that guy instead, I’d have won again” game. Over time, you will lose more often than you win to players who are spending the time day in and day out.
— I would say the biggest psychological issue is that with money on the line every single day, it is easy to make mistakes in the amount and types of games you play. For most DFS players, this is a constant struggle that we just don’t have to worry about in season-long leagues. You decide how much money you’re putting in at the start of the season, and you don’t have opportunities to try to make up ground after losses, or get carried away and double down during a winning streak. Make sure you know what your goals are, and stay within them. Make a plan for which types of leagues you’re going to play and how much you’re willing to put in. Keep a record of your play, and over time, you’ll be able to see what type of leagues you’re doing well in, and which ones are performing poorly. You can then change your strategy or focus more of your play on your strong suits.
— Another easy trap to fall into is to get stuck in the same pattern of roster construction if it works for you once. Again, this is similar to a season-long auction league. If you win your league one year by paying for two aces, and punting speed at the draft, then the next year, you immediately look to the same strategy. The problem with that is every day is different in both salaries and matchups; you should never go into a day without being willing to consider any possible roster construction.
There are a lot more issues and things you will need to get used to, but my number one piece of advice to people looking to get into DFS is this; it is really hard to win consistently over time in daily fantasy sports. Make sure you know what your goals are, and constantly keep track of how you’re doing. And, don’t forget that fantasy sports, first and foremost, are for fun. If you’re getting uncomfortable, then you are playing too much. DFS should enhance your enjoyment of the game.
Enough psychology talk. Let’s move on to some more baseball specific stats that are different in season-long leagues vs DFS, starting with the two main types of DFS contests.
Risk/Reward – Cash Games vs GPPs
One of the things you’ll hear a lot about is cash games vs GPPs. Cash games are Head-to-Head, Double-up and 50/50 contests where half or close to half of the entries win each night. Triple-Ups are often considered cash games as well. In these types of games, you want to go for safe, consistent players. GPPs (Guaranteed Prize Pools) are larger field contests where only a small percentage of entries will win, often with very top-heavy payouts. In these formats, you want to take on higher upside players, who are usually more risky. The season-long drafting equivalent of this is drafting a boring but stable veteran vs taking a chance on a young unproven commodity with high upside. I would recommend that when choosing what type of DFS contests to begin with, think about what kind of drafter you are in your season-long leagues. Do you draft Matt Carpenter or Kris Bryant? Matt Holliday or Mookie Betts? If you are a conservative player who leans towards the proven player, cash games are probably going to come more natural to you. If you are always reaching for the next potential superstar and taking chances, GPPs may be more your style.
Eventually, you will learn to play both types of contests, and the proper way to alter your lineups between them. The most basic example of how you might vary your lineup would be picking between Denard Span and Chris Carter. They may have the same salary and both with a good matchup. A projection system for the day may give them the same projection, say 5 fantasy points. But, you know a high contact leadoff hitter is much more likely to get you those 5 points, while not having a huge upside to get you 10+ points. Carter is much more likely to score either 0 or 10. So, Span would be your choice in cash games, while Carter would be your choice in GPPs.
For a few more details on contest-specific strategies, check out this RotoGrinders article on Winning Strategies for Daily Fantasy Baseball: Head-to-Head & 50/50 vs. GPPs.
DFS Specific Stats and Research
Most of what you need to know to play DFS you will already be familiar with, but you’ll need to become more used to certain stats. For example…
As a season-long player, I thought I had a decent handle on splits, but I quickly found that I had a lot to learn. Platoon splits are only moderately useful in season-long leagues, as you will always be starting your best players, and there are few opportunities to mix and match your hitters based on matchups. In DFS, you need to use this data every day. The most common situation is wanting to start your hitters against opposite-handed pitchers, but it is not just that simple. Some players have reverse splits, while some are all over the map and different from year-to-year. If something is obvious, such as starting Adam Lind against right-handers and sitting him against left-handers, then be aware that it is obvious to everyone. As with any stat, the larger the sample size, the more reliable it is. My advice early on is don’t go crazy spending hours and hours every day looking up every split you can find, but after you’ve made your lineup, take the time to look back at the data for those players against who they are facing that day.
Here is one area that is crucial to DFS that is not used at all in season-long games. The people making those lines are as sharp as they come, so don’t ignore the information. You should target batters in games with high totals, and at least in cash games, usually avoid most batters in games with low totals. One of the popular sayings in season-long is “don’t pay for wins”. Well, in DFS, with starting pitching being so important to your team, you can use the heavy favorites from Vegas and sometimes you will want to pay for wins.
This is another area I thought I understood pretty well, but soon realized there is a lot I either had wrong, or just didn’t know. Again, as with splits, everybody knows the obvious situations. Starting your pitchers in San Diego and your hitters in Colorado is great, but this type of information doesn’t give you an edge. It is easy to find lists of how many runs are scored in each stadium, how many home runs, etc. What I had never considered as a season-long player is that some ballparks are specifically more generous to RHB as opposed to LHB or vice-versa. Or, which ballparks are favorable to home runs, but not as favorable to doubles and triples. Different ballparks also affect strikeouts and walks differently. My advice for ballpark factors is when starting out, at least look at the basic data and make sure your pre-conceived notions are correct.
You will learn very quickly to check the weather forecast every day. There is nothing worse than losing players to a game that gets rained out. Beyond game delay or cancellation concerns, you should also at least glance at the wind to see if there is a strong wind blowing in or out. In some ballparks, strong wind has a massive effect on the scoring (Wrigley Field being the obvious case), and in other ballparks the same velocity of wind has less effect.
This is something I have not personally added enough into my DFS research yet, but it is something to be aware of. The thought of umpires having an effect on scoring had never crossed my mind in the slightest as a season-long player. But, it only makes sense, and the data backs it up, that some umpires have tighter strike zones which are good for hitters, while some have more generous strike zones, which is good for pitchers. The data is not as readily available as the other areas I’ve mentioned, but you may consider looking into it at some point.
You will find lots of different opinions and research on stacking in DFS MLB, which means using multiple players from the same team in your lineup. The idea is that if everyone on a team is having a big day, you want more exposure to that lineup. When Edwin Encarnacion hits a home run, if Reyes and Bautista are already on base, you’re getting not just the home run and RBI points from Encarnacion, but also the extra runs if all three players are in your lineup. The downside of stacking, of course, is if that team gets shut out, you end up with a lineup full of zeroes. For that reason, stacking is generally considered a tournament strategy, where you need to shoot for a high score, rather than a safe floor. It is not unreasonable to have more than one player from a team in a cash game lineup, but you probably don’t want five or six.
Using Season-Long Metrics in DFS
Many of the stats you already use to analyze players for your season-long leagues can be utilized for DFS. With salaries fluctuating constantly, you need to be on the lookout for players whose skills are better or worse than their salary indicates. Think of this like a drafting or auction strategy in your season-long league. You are looking for a player who is underpriced in 2015 based on a poor 2014, when you see evidence that a bounce back is likely.
One of the most popular ways to find breakout candidates for a new season is to find guys who under-performed during the previous year, more based on bad luck than bad skills. BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) and HR/FB% (Home Run/Fly Ball Rate) are two of the best tools that you are most likely already familiar with. There is a big difference between hitters and pitchers in the use of these two stats. Hitters all set their own benchmarks in these categories, while pitchers all tend to bunch near a league baseline, .300 BABIP and 10% HR/FB%. I tend to use these numbers more for hitters. If you want to see these numbers in action, here are a couple of my favorite examples of career years, and how they were explained by these basic stats. Look at the years surrounding the outlier and you will see clearly how these stats tend to revert to their baseline.
— Joe Mauer HR/FB% in 2009. Mauer’s 2007-2011 HR log looks like this; 7, 9, 28, 9, 3. Pretty easy to spot the outlier. His HR/FB% log looks like this; 7.2%, 6.5%, 20.4%, 6.7%, 5.4%. Almost nothing about Mauer’s game changed, except that he had good luck in HR/FB% – it was not a new skill.
— Michael Cuddyer BABIP in 2013. Cuddyer’s Batting Average in 2010-2013; .271/.284/.260/.331. BABIP; .298/.312/.287/.382.
As in the case of Mauer, it is incredibly easy to spot the outlier.
It is harder to see trends like these in a short sample size to use for daily games, but still, these two very basic metrics can be used to see if a player is struggling or succeeding simply due to good or bad luck, or a true change in skill level. The reason this is important to know in DFS is that the salaries fluctuate daily based on a players recent performance. At some point, a surging player needs to be avoided as his price climbs too high, and a cold player becomes a buying opportunity if his price gets too low.
When I see that a player’s salary has dropped substantially due to a slump, these are the first two numbers I look at to see if it may just be a case of bad luck. I look at the data from the past week, two weeks, and month, and compare to his historical numbers. Of course, the bad luck can continue and you can’t expect to always catch a trend reversal on the day it happens, but you want to find opportunities to buy players whose skills are better than their salary.
BABIP and HR/FB% are also useful stats to look at for pitchers, but these numbers are already taken into account in the stats that we are going to talk about next.
xERA, FIP, xFIP, SIERA
These are all tools to estimate what a pitcher’s ERA should be, if they had neutral luck. Each has a slightly different formula, but essentially they look at a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and home runs and even out their “luck” factors such as BABIP, HR/FB% and left on base %. These are quick and easy ways to see whether a pitcher has been a victim of bad luck as opposed to pitching poorly. In season-long games, you should be used to the idea of targeting pitchers who had an xFIP that is substantially lower than his ERA, and downgrading pitchers whose actual ERA was lower than these metrics. These tools can be used the same way for DFS; if a pitcher has seen their salary drop due to a string of bad starts, you can check to see what their xERA says their ERA should be over that period. There is not a consensus on which of these or other ERA estimators is the best, but all of them are better indicators of how well a pitcher is performing than traditional ERA.
The Eye Test
The two categories above, BABIP and HR/FB% for hitters and ERA estimators for pitchers, are even better when combined with scouting. You do not need to hire a professional scout to do your DFS research (though that seems like a fun idea); you can simply watch the games and pay attention to what you see. It is a little bit dangerous to put too much stock in what you see due to sample size, but there is a lot to be learned here. If you see that a batter has an unusually low BABIP over the past month, watch some at-bats and see if he’s hitting the ball solid, or if he looks tentative at the plate. Sometimes it is clear to see that he’s just been a victim of great defense or fly balls caught at the edge of the warning track. With pitchers, you can go back and watch a game to see what went wrong, and it is often very easy to spot. The simplest example would be if a pitcher gives up an unusual amount of hits in a game. You can look at each hit, and see whether it was a case of bloopers and slow grounders finding a hole, or whether he was really being hit hard. I personally always put the statistics ahead of what I see with my eyes, but when they tell the same story, then you really have something you can use to your advantage.
K/9 stands for strikeouts per 9 innings. Strikeouts are both one of the most important and most predictable stats in both season-long and daily fantasy baseball. Once a ball is put in play, the pitcher doesn’t have much control over what happens. But, strikeouts are totally under a pitcher’s control. You most likely already use K/9 or K% in your season-long prep, and they are the best tools to project strikeouts in DFS. One thing you may not have considered in your season-long play is that certain teams are much more strikeout prone than other teams, or strikeout more vs. left or right handed pitchers. You should look at both the K/9 of the pitcher, as well as the strikeout tendencies of the team he is facing that day. To further illustrate just how important strikeouts are in DFS, look at these two hypothetical pitching lines:
7 IP, 5 Hits, 0 ER, 2 K
6 IP, 7 Hits, 4 ER, 8 K
Assuming both are no decisions, which one looks like a better start? Clearly the first line, as a seven-inning shutout is a better start in real life. In DFS, not so much. On FanDuel, the second start is worth 10 points to 9 points for the seven-inning shutout. On DraftKings, the second start wins 17.3-16.75. Those strikeouts are huge in DFS, so do not ignore them.
As I mentioned at the top, you do not need to become an expert in every single area of daily baseball analysis right away. Start with what you know, get signed up and start making some lineups. As you go, you’ll learn what research you need to improve upon, and what type of contests best suit your skills and your personality. Best of luck this season, play ball!