The face of fantasy baseball has changed dramatically over the years. For those who have participated in fantasy baseball for many years, we can remember when our league commissioner faxed the league standings and team statistics to each member of the league every Monday morning. When it was just called “rotisserie” baseball, long before the invention of that late-bloomer fantasy football, whose radical new head-to-head “points” system eventually infected fantasy baseball, when Rickey Henderson was the number one overall pick every year.
Now technology has brought a new era to fantasy baseball. We no longer have to wait until every Monday morning to see how the week’s worth of games affected the league standings. We no longer have to follow how each of our players did every day by pouring over the box scores published in the daily newspaper. Now we can see who’s doing what at any hour of any day with a touch on the screen of a device you can keep in your pocket or hold in your hand. We can literally see our score in the league change with every live swing of the bat and pitch of the ball.
But some changes are not so dramatic and noticeable. Some changes in actual major league baseball can change fantasy baseball in subtle ways. In ways that you overlook until a handful of seasons have passed, and you suddenly realize trends you observed and philosophies you followed three years ago are no longer valid. If your league mates realize these changes before you do, it might cost you some money (or pride or satisfaction or restful night sleeps).
In the past couple of seasons, some new philosophies have pervaded major league baseball, and in the coming seasons, some new rule changes will either take place or will at least be proposed. Let’s examine how some of these changes in actual baseball could affect fantasy baseball.
Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Rays introduced the opener. Many thought it was a desperate move by a team lacking starting pitching. If the experiment had failed, everyone would’ve forgotten about it by now. But it did not fail, and now almost every team in major league baseball has employed an opener, and the Rays are American League champions. The invention of the opener has changed fantasy baseball. It has been disastrous for head-to-head points leagues. The only possible decision an opener can get is a loss because he’ll only pitch between one and two innings. So that’s someone who can only hurt you in head-to-head leagues. However, in roto leagues, this change has been very beneficial because relievers who serve as openers now have SP eligibility. So now you can fill your SP slots previously occupied by starting pitchers not starting that day with relievers who might get you a hold.
The opener’s invention has also spawned the invention of the follower or the bulk reliever who comes into the game in the 2nd inning and pitches 4 or 5 innings. While this follower or bulk reliever could be of value in points leagues if he qualifies for a win, he is of little use in roto leagues because there’s no way he can qualify for a quality start. Also, a manager will oftentimes not identify who the follower will be before a game, so there’s no guarantee you’ll have the follower in your lineup that day.
Another trend in actual baseball in recent years that have affected fantasy baseball is the proliferation of shifts. What used to be an oddity is now commonplace. The year they won the World Series in 2017, the Astros shifted 34% of the time. The next year they shifted 43.5% of the time. In 2019, 17% of every plate appearance in the majors ended on a shift, up from 13% the year before. How has this affected fantasy baseball? Simple. The decrease in batting average and the increase in home runs. In 2000, the average team batting average in MLB was .270. In 2019, it was .252. That is a huge decrease when you consider how many at-bats we’re talking about. During the same period of time, the average number of home runs hit by one team in each game increased from 1.17 in 2000 to 1.39 in 2019, which was the highest such figure in major league baseball history. When you draft your fantasy baseball team or decide which free agent to acquire, you must realize that players who can hit for a high batting average are more valuable now because there are not many of them around anymore. Similarly, if you want to draft someone who can garner you a bunch of home runs, think again. There’s probably a lot more of them available later on in the draft. Now, it’s worth noting that the increase in runs scored from 2000 to 2019 is negligible. In 2000, each team scored an average of 4.78 runs per game and 4.83 in 2019. So the same number of runs are being scored…they’re just being scored differently now. So the shift really hasn’t affected your choice of players who can score runs and drive in runs. It’s also worth noting that there seems to be a movement afloat that would ban shifts as a rule change sometime in the future. So if that ever happens, know that it will affect your fantasy baseball decisions in the opposite direction.
A rule change that has already been enacted is the 3 batter minimum for relief pitchers who enter a game. This change has turned the lefty specialist into an endangered species. Before the 3 batter minimum, a lefty specialist who played for a good team could come into a game with a lead, pitch to one lefty hitter, and get a cheap hold. This scenario would be very valuable on a roto fantasy pitching staff. He didn’t even have to get that single batter out, as long as his team still held the lead. But now that every reliever has to face a minimum of 3 batters (unless he gets the final out of an inning), you have to scrutinize a lefty reliever’s splits before drafting one. You probably want to avoid any lefty reliever who has a poor split versus right-handed batters. Sorry, Jesse Orosco, Javier Lopez, and Jerry Blevins. Your brethren are about to take a hit in both actual baseball and fantasy baseball.
Another proposed rule change soon could be the universal DH. Statistics back up the fact that National League pitching without the DH has been superior to the American League. With the increased amount of interleague games over the past few years, the discrepancy has leveled off slightly; in 2019, the average team ERA in the American League was 4.60 versus 4.38 for the National League. The average team FIP in the American League was 4.58 versus 4.43 in the National League. And the average team WHIP in the American League was 1.35 as opposed to 1.32 in the National League. If you were one of those fantasy baseball managers who liked to proliferate their pitching staff with National League pitchers, you’d probably have to abandon that philosophy if the universal DH comes. Interestingly enough, however, strikeouts remained the same from league to league in 2019. American League pitchers averaged 8.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, and National League pitchers averaged 8.9 strikeouts per 9 innings. So if you thought you were gaining an advantage by selecting NL pitchers to pad your strikeout totals, you were operating under a false presumption. Just a final note if the universal DH is adopted. When the American League adopted the DH rule in 1973, the average team home run total jumped to 129 from 98 in 1972, and the average team batting average jumped to .259 from .239 in 1972.
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