ALTERNATIVE: LIMA-inspired value starting pitchers for DFS

This time last year, and in the 2015 Baseball Forecaster, we recommended the SP-Centric approach to Daily Fantasy Baseball (DFS), and noted four crucial factors to consider when building a lineup. Though starting pitchers account for just a small percentage of a DFS lineup (11% on FanDuel, 20% on DraftKings), building around starting pitchers can provide a solid base with a higher level of predictability, while it allows more consistent hitters to fill out the rest of a lineup under the constraints of the salary cap. Expensive, top-flight aces like Clayton Kershaw (LHP, LA) and Felix Hernandez (RHP, SEA) will severely constrict flexibility for your hitters, so finding the values at SP on a given day can assist in building a more balanced lineup.

Dating back to the introduction of the LIMA Plan 16 years ago, a tenet of BaseballHQ.com's approach has been to not spend top dollar on starting pitching. That philosophy extends to the DFS space too, where targeting lower-priced but high-skilled pitchers can free up needed dollars to build a monster offense. LIMA has been discussed at length here at BHQ over the years—mostly in relation to auction leagues. Patrick Davitt extended the conversation to keeper leagues, and now we can evaluate starting pitchers with high LIMA grades where we can use our four factors (Run Totals/Wins, Split Analysis/Park Factors, IP/DOM, PQS DOM/DIS) to find values for our DFS squads.

First, a quick refresher from the BHQ Glossary:

The LIMA Plan focuses on better allocation of resources. When fantasy leaguers pay big bucks for pitchers, they are not only paying for expected performance. They are also paying for better defined roles, which translates into more innings, more wins and more saves. But roles are highly variable, changing often during the course of a season. The LIMA Plan says, let's invest in skill and let the roles fall where they may. In the long run, better skills should translate into more innings, wins and saves anyway. And as it turns out, pitching skill costs much less than pitching roles do, and so in LIMA, we spend very little on arms.

We still have long way to go before Opening Day—roles and rotations have to be set, and we’re still processing information in preparation for draft season. Plus, the operative initial in DFS is ‘D’ for Daily—each day’s set of games is a new canvas on which we analyze and construct. There’s no way—nor any reason—to know exactly which starting pitchers to consider during the first week of April’s DFS action. But we can throw some names on the backburner once our favorite pastime is underway.

Reviewing every starting pitcher’s LIMA grade in the 2015 Forecaster from A to Z produces slightly over a dozen worthwhile candidates. Of the 16 identified, only three are graded out as an A this year, while the remaining 13 grade out to a B or B+. Before we jump into the names, let’s recall what we’re looking for, and why:

Run Total and Wins: Target a starting pitcher on a team favored that day and with a low combined projected run total. The other team’s starter is mutually exclusive, but if your vetted SP for the day is slated to take the mound opposing a recent Triple-A call-up, pitching on the road with a 4.5 Ctl, you may have a situation to take advantage of. Wins are also a by-product of run support, so if you do not believe in the offensive strength of Phillies, Rays or Mets this season, use SP from those teams with extreme caution. A win nets you four points on either of the aforementioned sites, which also equates to four innings pitched or four strikeouts on FanDuel. This point scoring system leads us to our most important factor for assessing DFS pitchers.

IP and K/9 (Dom): As the LIMA Plan states, we invest in skills—and skills lead the way for more innings, wins and strikeouts. Last year we recommended looking at SP who surpass seven innings and those with K/9 over 7.5. With aggregate increases in Dom last season from the previous season, it would behoove us to set a new K/9 base at 8+. Since a win in FanDuel equates to 4 IP or 4 K, it’s imperative to put a greater impetus on innings pitched and strikeouts—in fact, DraftKings award 2.5 points for every IP and 2.0 for every K, so the value of a win falls secondary to the importance of IP and K. IP and K are more easily projectable with the aces, but as we scout and track our lower-salaried SP throughout the season, we will be able to come to better decisions when constructing our lineups.

Split Analysis & Park Factors: Very simply, most starting pitchers perform better at home. In 2013, combined ERA among all pitchers was 3.82 at home and 4.21 on the road. That aggregate ERA decreased further in the pitching-dominant 2014 season with similar splits. Most DFS sites deduct points for earned runs, so avoiding fly ball pitchers in power-friendly parks would serve as one good example. A few of our more seasoned LIMA candidates have splits and histories in specific parks that we can extrapolate. For the inexperienced youngsters, we either take them for a spin on a given day’s perfect matchup or keep them in our back pocket for their next rotation turn hoping that a great performance does not increase his price dramatically.

PQS DOM/DIS: PQS logs and DOM/DIS splits can enhance decision-making by rewarding consistency within our lineups and helping to avoid potential landmines. Danny Salazar (RHP, CLE) serves as a great example where DFS points racked up via strikeouts (9.7 K/9 in 2014) can be neutralized by negative ERA points if he has a couple of bad early innings. It all goes downhill from there—a 40-pitch first inning with 3 ER likely subdues his chances of staying in the game longer and collecting points via IP and K, eventually losing out on a four-point win. Looking at Salazar’s 40% / 35% DOM / DIS split from last season can play into your decision making. Has he figured something out with his control this spring to hope that DIS% starts to trend downward?

To sum it up, consider all of the following: home parks, pitchers parks, run support, durable innings-eaters, weak opposing SPs, low combined run totals, advantageous splits vs predominantly LHB or RHB lineups and most importantly expected DOMs over 8.0. Let’s take a look at our candidates:

LIMA Grade Name Throws 2014 IP 2014 K/9 2015 K/9 (proj.) 2014 Home Park Index DOM/DIS %
A Brandon McCarthy, LA R 200 7.9 6.7  0.910  56% / 6%
A **Marco Gonzales, STL L 159 7.8 7.8   1.006  40% / 40%
A **T.J. House, CLE 159 6.5 6.5  0.982  39% / 28%
B+ Roenis Elias, SEA 164 7.9 7.8  0.890  48% / 17%
B+ Danny Salazar, CLE 171 9.7 9.5  0.982  40% / 35%
B+ **Shane Greene, DET 145 7.8 6.9  0.979  43% / 29%
B+ **Trevor Bauer, CLE 199 8.2 8.0  0.982  46% / 27%
B+ Michael Wacha, STL 107 7.9 7.8  1.006  47% / 21%
Homer Bailey, CIN 146  7.7 7.6  0.962  70% / 9%
R.A. Dickey, TOR R 173 7.2 7.1  1.031  65% / 9% 
Derek Holland, TEX  L   45 7.1 7.4   0.981 100% / 0% 
Francisco Liriano, PIT  L  162 9.7 9.4  1.042  62% / 17%
**Jesse Hahn, OAK  R 116 8.0 7.6  1.022  58% / 8%
**Kevin Gausman, BAL  R 157 7.2 7.9  0.981  35% / 20%
Zach Wheeler, NYM  R 185 9.1 8.8  0.918  59% / 19%

**includes Minor League stats

Salazar, Wheeler, Liriano and Bauer rank highest in K/9 in the group, but they also have a major flaw in common—documented issues with control, with propensity for high WHIPs. When these four are grooving, they are unhittable, but the wheels can quickly fall off. Highly volatile arms are best used for large-field tournaments (GPPs) as opposed to 50/50s and cash games.

Bailey may be priced at a discount in April following a sub par 2014. The end-of-season ratios (3.71 ERA, 1.23 WHIP) don’t tell the whole story. After a 4.39 / 1.35 first half, Bailey pitched 40 innings of 1.98 / 0.93 before a forearm injury in the final month of the season derailed his strong rebound. He maintained a strong DOM/DIS (70% / 9%), and a healthy Joey Votto should help with the offense’s run support. Bailey is a bit behind other Reds starters in spring training camp, which should further discount his price when he is ready to return sometime in mid-April.

Two of our "A" pitchers (House, Gonzales) still have to win spots in their respective rotations this spring, but both lefties are solid prospects who showed glimpses of dominance in the majors last season. Both should be at or close to minimum salary to start the year in most DFS games.

Our third A ranked pitcher, one of the NL's newest arms (McCarthy) threw for over 175 IP for the first time in his career and makes an advantageous move to a pitchers park in Dodger Stadium. His offense should provide plenty of run support, and if he can build on last year (6% DIS, career-high Dom, 2.91 2H ERA in the AL), McCarthy will be a sneaky and cheap SP to pivot off expensive aces with when the matchup is right.

Our list contains a wide range of players with different situations—breakout candidates (Hahn, Gausman), injury bounce backs (Holland, Wacha) and even an oldie-but-goodie (Dickey). Not all of them have our preferred 8.0 K/9, but each have various other factors in their favor, such as solid base skills and indicators, friendly home parks or the ability to rack up points with innings pitched. Most importantly, all have one important factor tying them together—they all have high LIMA grades ready to provide a high rate of return at their below market prices in April. Whether you research and find your own candidates or track from the list above for that perfect matchup, the mission is the same—target upward trending, high-skilled, cheap starting pitchers that will ease your DFS team’s salary cap to allow higher-priced, more consistent hitters. 

 

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.