Every year, I swear I’m not going to let it get to me. I consider wins to be the most random category in fantasy baseball, and I don’t tend to like randomness in fantasy sports. It’s why I often regret playing fantasy football by October, it’s why head-to-head baseball leagues drive me a little crazy, and it’s also probably why I got bored with daily games more quickly than I thought I would.
Stat-wise, there’s enough randomness in even a huge sample size of games and player statistics. Injury-wise, you can do weeks of research to determine which players are less prone to getting hurt, and it may all amount to nothing: Kyle Schwarber can still end up done for the season in early April. (Or, if you’re like me, you might draft Will Smith as your only potential closer in an NL-only league to only to see him sidelined before spring training is complete, because he seriously hurt himself… taking his shoes off). Luck is a huge factor in fantasy no matter how much research one does, so playing in a deep league where stats are accumulated over the course of a 162-game season can be grueling, but I enjoy feeling like there’s at least a decent measure of skill and preparation that an owner needs in order to have success in this format.
Which brings us back to my least favorite category in fantasy baseball: Wins. No matter how well-prepared I think I am to suffer the slings and arrows of ill-timed bullpen meltdowns or the sudden lack of run support from an offensively potent team, it seems to hurt more and more each season. I don’t think Quality Starts is the perfect answer, but it sure seems like a better alternative… though I’m evidently in the minority in thinking so. In the league I’ve been in the longest, we’ve made several stat adjustments over the years. We’ve gone from straight strikeouts to K/BB, to K-BB, back to K/BB. We've used On Base Percentage and Total Bases as categories. We’ve even changed the roster makeup of our teams a few times. But any time I’ve suggested doing away with the Wins category, my plea has been quickly shot down. Are my league-mates embracing the randomness that I disdain? I’m not sure, but I do know that if I can’t get a group of people that I know well and have been playing fantasy baseball with for over a decade to budge on this issue, it’s difficult to hold out much hope in changing the fantasy baseball landscape as a whole.
Sunday, in the NL-only league I referenced earlier, I watched two of my team's starting pitchers, Aaron Nola and Justin Nicolino, face each other. Since getting two wins out of this matchup was, of course, not possible, I had to hope that one win for my team would come out of this game. With the Marlins up 3-0 after five innings, I was liking my chances given how impressive the Miami bullpen has looked this year. But when the Phillies managed to tie the game, my hopes for a win were dashed… until, in what seemed slightly miraculous at the time, the Phillies scored two runs off of David Phelps to take the lead in the game with Nola as the pitcher of record. Cutting to the chase, the Phillies won the game… but not until after they’d blown and re-taken the lead with Hector Neris pitching. Once again, my fantasy team went winless for the day, as Nola and Nicolino were the only two starters I had going. All I could think about was the point or two that my team desperately needed -- and might have gained -- if we used quality starts, which both my pitchers ultimately turned in.
What have I tried, or at least considered trying to pad my wins stats? I’ve thought about avoiding staff aces and drafting more middle-of-the-rotation guys so that they’ll theoretically have softer pitcher-vs.-pitcher matchups each turn through the rotation. I’ve considered getting more innings eaters (who should stay in games and therefore get more decisions) into my lineup, while not being as inclined to draft young pitchers whose pitch counts innings may be limited. But this ultimately wouldn’t make sense. Even if more wins were guaranteed from the middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater types (and they certainly are not), should I really be targeting Colby Lewis or R.A. Dickey while moving guys like Carlos Martinez and Jacob deGrom down my draft board? Of course not – even when filling out a rotation at the end of a draft, it would be foolhardy to place any real value on a few potential wins, which may well never come to fruition anyway, at the expense of WHIP and ERA.
And what about decent pitchers on horrible teams -- should I avoid all pitchers on teams that I think will have losing records? Again, why miss out on players who could provide value in ERA, WHIP, and Ks (and may even do just fine in the wins category when all is said and done.)
In shallow, standard rotisserie leagues, middle relievers are irrelevant -- but could finding the right ones be the answer in very deep leagues? I’ve certainly tried to figure out which (non-closer) relievers might provide a nice bump in wins, but this hasn’t been the magic key to the wins category for me either, as vulture wins never seem to be as predictable as I’d like. Last year, the only two pitchers who got more than five wins without starting or saving a game were Brandon Maurer (7 wins) and Chasen Shreve (6); so far this season they have one win between them. And speaking of bullpens, it occurred to me that perhaps I’ve overlooked a potential connection between a strong bullpen being able to protect leads meaning more wins for a team’s starters. In 2015, Tampa Bay was second in the majors in the holds with 113 and second in saves with 60. But their team's leader in wins, Chris Archer, had just 12, tied with seven other players for 35th in MLB. The 2015 Rays may be just one example, but I had trouble finding bullpen numbers that correlated to wins in a meaningful way.
In 2016, Collin McHugh and Jimmy Nelson each have as many wins as Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner... they are all tied with four. No one should be surprised that Jake Arrieta has six wins, but did we think he'd be tied at this point with Erasmo Ramirez? And while it's hardly shocking to see Chris Sale leading the majors with seven wins, he has more than half of his thirteen from all of last season. Randomness already abounds, and I have to be okay with that. In each of my leagues, I tried to draft the pitchers that I thought would have the best combination of WHIP, ERA, and strikeouts. Hopefully, the wins will follow. And when they don't, I'm not going to give up trying to discover new ways of predicting them, even though I don't hold out a ton of hope that it's going to do much good. While it may lead to a great deal of frustration, cutting through the randomness is the kind of challenge that someone who enjoys playing fantasy baseball should embrace, right?
In the meantime, if there’s anyone out there who plays in a league that uses quality starts or some other metric in lieu of wins, I’d love to hear about it. If I can ever convince my fellow owners to make the switch, would it finally bring me relief, or just present a new set of frustrations? And if nothing else, it might be nice to vicariously enjoy a fantasy baseball world where I don’t have to worry about spending the last week of September figuring out whether or not the Reds bullpen blew enough of Brandon Finnegan’s Ws to cost me my NL-only league championship.