DFS Strategy: Factor in Relief Pitching


Don’t forget to factor in an opposing team’s bullpen when setting your daily fantasy baseball lineup.

In MLB DFS strategy, much attention is given to ‘handedness,’ which is DFS speak for the lefty versus righty matchup between pitcher and hitter. Handedness is a crucial factor in your MLB research, as many years of statistics have conclusively proven that certain matchups favor hitters, while others strongly favor pitchers.

In a vacuum, you would never want a lineup stack of lefties facing a left-handed starting pitcher, as the lefty versus lefty handedness battle favors pitchers by a margin beyond what would be needed to classify it as statistically relevant.

Conversely, your lefty starter facing an all right-handed hitting lineup is behind the statistical eight-ball before the National Anthem is even completed. There are exceptions player-to-player of course, but as a universal truth, the concept holds true.

While these universal truths of handedness are strong starting points in your MLB DFS analysis, there is a handedness issue that is vastly under-discussed in DFS research circles. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you heard a lot of talk about the opposing team’s bullpen? Exactly. Yet the case of a lineup whose construction is vulnerable to manipulation by the opposing manager through relief pitching matchups is a story that has dashed many DFS dreams.

When putting together your daily hitter research and analyzing the starting lineups’ numbers against the opposing starter, you should keep in mind the construction of the opposing bullpen and how it matches up against your lineup. Take the case of that juicy lefty stack you’ve been eyeing, which is going up against a run-of-the-mill right-handed starter in a ballpark with a short right field porch. What’s not to like? Maybe nothing, but we do not know this yet.

Now let’s say that the righty starter pitches for a top manager and that their bullpen has a couple of quality lefty specialists. Unfortunately, this will in fact be the case most of the time and is a big reason why teams are so hesitant to stack their lineups with more than two left-handed hitters in a row. Yes, you are still looking at a juicy matchup against the starter, but your optimal output window is shorter than it appears.

A couple of things can happen with your lefty stack against the middling righty. First, it can go as you expected for the starter, who gets hit hard and exits early after running up a high pitch count and fooling nobody. Great! But look a little closer, and you see the potential issue: you are likely only getting two AB against that starter. Therefore, your three-man lefty stack got a grand total of six plate appearances in an optimal setting, so for your stack to pay off in terms of a big cash in a GPP, you probably will need your hitters to be all of the ones who did the damage.

Sure it is possible, but consider that you will be sharing this stack with many who did the same primary research and also consider that the middling righty likely did a bit of pitching around at least one of your tough lefties during the barrage, effectively stealing one of the six prime plate appearances, even worse, setting up ducks on the pond for some righty in the lineup to knock home.

Assuming you did get some good production from your plate appearances, you now will be looking at a problem the rest of the game: a manager stacking three lefty hitters knows he will be seeing a lefty relief specialist at some point and his contingency plan certainly includes one of your hitters seeing the bench, with the remaining hitters now engaged in the worst possible handedness matchup a hitter can face: lefty versus lefty.

There is another possible outcome for your lefty stack: the times when the starting pitcher performs better than expected and has one of his good games. Great starters are extremely consistent, which is why their DFS salaries are so high. You are paying for the nearly guaranteed high floor, while middling MLB starters go in and out more often game to game. They are inconsistent, but they are still talented enough athletes to have made it to the top of their profession and those games where it all clicks can and will happen.

On the occasions where you have spotted a strong lefty stack against a middling righty starter for a team with either a substandard lefty specialist or a shorthanded bullpen, then you are looking at a much stronger DFS play. Even very good right-handed middle relievers are at a handedness disadvantage against a good lefty hitter.

The important lesson to take from the above is that while it is important to spot the positive batter versus starter handedness matchups, it is critical to take your analysis that extra step further than your competition will. Sometimes, what initially looked like gold appears to be merely copper when viewed from a slightly different angle.

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