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Fantasy Baseball Head-to-Head Points Leagues: Introduction & Basic Strategies

If a look at fantasy articles found around the internet is any indication, rotisserie is by far the preferred scoring system of those imbibing in this obsession we call fantasy baseball. There's good reason for this: rotisserie is a successful system, requiring nuanced strategy. It helps that much of the roto world is a pretty standardized format, making writing for the system less tedious and the articles more accessible. (It is worth noting that roto systems become more complicated by the year, see the 7X7 system utilized in the Fake Teams Dynasty League as just one example of this trend.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that head-to-head points leagues either only exist in small pockets or that they are inherently inferior to the more popular (and original) rotisserie format. It is true that these leagues are gaining in popularity as fantasy football players make the leap to the superior fake sport, but don't let its entry-level status fool you: you still need a sound strategy and fantasy baseball know-how to win.

If you're not familiar with head-to-head points leagues, fantasy football is the closest comparison. Fantasy players accumulate points over the course of one week (usually) while facing off against an opponent. One major difference is that there is little consensus on what point system should be used (which certainly helps explain why articles for these leagues are hard to come by). Even the default scoring systems on ESPN, Yahoo!, CBS, and now FanGraphs differ widely from each other. For some this is a weakness, but I see it as a strength of sorts, as point systems are easily the most customizable of all fantasy baseball leagues. Negative stats, like Ks for hitters or BBs for pitchers, can only be expressed through rates in rotisserie leagues (BB/K, WHIP, etc.), but in a points league, simply assign a negative point value. No need for minimum at bat or innings pitched limits. Niche stats, like GIDP or CG, can also be added easily, if so desired.

Since your scoring system and mine are bound to be different, it's impossible for me to offer you specific advice about the value of stolen bases relative to home runs, for example. Still, we can offer generalizations about how this system differs from the default rotisserie style and extrapolate some strategies from there. Here are some basic truths that can help you should you decide to expand your fantasy horizons:

1. Your team must be built for the long haul. Head-to-head leagues will usually have a playoff system, so it's important that your team be at its best at the end of the year. Unlike fantasy football, you can't simply look at late-season matchups before your draft to find value. There's no way to know what pitchers will pitch in a given series that far out, and you never know which teams will still be fighting for playoff spots. This means consistent players should be valued more than streaky players. A guy who can give you 25 points each and every week will likely be worth more to you than one who grabs 10 one week and 50 the next. Be wary of myths and old wives' tales about first and second half performers, though. These generalizations are usually not based on sound statistical analysis. You also want to watch out for young or rehabbing pitchers that may be placed on innings limits late in the season. Riding Jordan Zimmermann to the playoffs and then not having a backup plan once you get there is no fun.

2. Pay attention to two-start pitchers and multi-position players. Because accumulation of points is the goal and you don't have to worry about rate stats, any player worth owning is worth playing if he's available. Owning plenty of players that are eligible at multiple positions will help you fill out your lineup on Mondays and Thursdays, when teams travel. Similarly, you want to start as many pitchers as your league allows, so if you're inclined to stream, opt for the guy who is likely to give you more innings in a given week.

3. Single-category performers don't have nearly as much value. In fact, the more balanced a player is, the more valuable. The more ways a given player has to score points, the less he will hurt you if one part of his game starts to lag. One by-product of the devaluation of players in the Juan Pierre mold is that the player universe is smaller than what you're used to if you're strictly a roto player. Also, positions like shortstop and second base have less well-rounded players than other positions, so these players will have more value.

4. Projection systems are your friend. Wherever you get your projections from, be it ZiPS, Marcel, Bill James, PECOTA, or any number of fantasy sites that offer them, make sure you set up a spreadsheet using the formulas from your system and plug in one or more projections to get a general idea of what kind of value the players in your universe can provide. Why guess, when you can be more precise?

5. Look for inefficiencies in your point system. The above strategies work regardless of your point system, but now you want to start exploiting inefficiencies for your own gain. Most point systems have some point of weakness, and your biggest advantage will be pinpointing those weaknesses and jealously guarding that information for yourself. Learn everything there is to know about the stats you can exploit. If pitcher strikeouts are your inefficiency, educate yourself on the peripheral stats that tend to lead to higher strikeouts down the road, and target those guys in the draft and through trades. Your league mates may even think they're taking advantage of you, when in fact the opposite is true. I've been in a certain points league for something like 6 years now, and every year some guy shows up at the draft with a default Top 200 list he downloaded from some draft kit, and invariably that person will draft Mark Reynolds in his normal rotisserie spot, even though our system heavily penalizes guys who strike out a lot. Meanwhile, closers fly off the board early and middle relievers sit undrafted until the very end, even though saves and holds are counted the same. Sure, the best closers will grab more saves than the best middle relievers grab holds, but I'm more than willing to let the other guys waste high draft picks, knowing I can grab points from other areas.

6. Don't worry about balancing hitters and pitchers. Points are points, whether they come from saves or home runs. Go where the value is. If that means you roll with the minimum amount of pitchers and load up on outfielders and corner infielders, do it. As long as you've done your homework and your own system is optimized to the league's scoring system, don't feel an obligation to have a balanced team. This doesn't mean, however, that positional scarcity isn't important. One major mistake rookies make is simply grabbing the players with the highest gross point projections. Instead, you want to focus on players that will outperform their peers by the highest margin.