Most fantasy leaguers have, at one time or another, played in leagues that have usage requirements. Most common is a minimum number of innings pitched, generally 900 or 1000. These and other similar restrictions are generally intended to limit the use of unorthodox strategies, such as the all-reliever pitching staff.
Online leagues, however, often deal with the reverse problem: rather than punting a category, players will try to steamroll a category through sheer volume. With daily transactions and lineup changes available, a diligent player can work the major-league schedule to their advantage. By piling up significant numbers of lower-end ABs and IP, it is possible to compile a significant edge in the quantitative categories.
But, after watching this phenomenon for a few years, online services are starting to fight back. Some approaches are more creative than others, but they center around the same theme: maximum usage limits. Typically, an online league will impose a maximum limitation on games played by position, pitchers games started, or total innings pitched. Once the maximum is reached, all subsequent performances that would count toward that maximum are not credited in the standings. For instance, once a team's maximum number of pitcher's starts is reached, no statistics from future starts are counted for that team.
These rules can be rather intimidating to a newcomer, but in fact in most cases are not designed to be that oppressive. In many cases, the worst mistake a player can make is to be overly concerned with these limits. Let's take a look at the various types of restrictions, and their strategic implications:
Games played by position
A limit of 162 games played per position is probably the least restrictive of the maximum usage limitations, but also offers the least flexibility. In this post-Ironman era, it is rare for a player to play 160+ games. Even so, for all but the streakiest of hitters, it is difficult to pinpoint when a hot streak is about to go cold, or vice-versa. As such, micro-managing against this limit is likely to yield minimal benefit. Perhaps the only consistently sound strategy is to sit down a hitter when an elite pitcher looms on the schedule, or to activate a backup for a few days for a trip to Coors Field.
As long as serviceable backups are available, it is advisable to chase this maximum limit as closely as possible. The only drawback is a possible drag on your BA, but that should be mitigated by boosts to the quantitative numbers, which inevitably results from more ABs of all but the worst quality.
Pitchers games started
Perhaps the most common maximum usage limit, if only because it is used by ESPN for their thousands of leagues. There are several keys to working within this limit:
- Remember, this is a limit, not a target. Nowhere in the rules does it say that 160 or 180 starts must be your goal. In fact, in this age of offense, each pitcher start is simply another opportunity to damage your ERA and Ratio. In a standard eight-category league, the only benefit to more starts is the pursuit of more wins. As has often been chronicled on this site, such a pursuit can be perilous.
- In a 5x5 league, there is more benefit to a greater volume of starts, but the risks remain high. Pursuit of K's will often lead players to take greater risks with starters. However, bad starts are not likely to provide much help in that area, so it is advisable to proceed with caution. Often, a flotilla of skilled middle relievers can provide at least the same strikeout boost, without the same ERA/Ratio damage.
- Vulture wins become of paramount importance in such an environment. A win gathered without incrementing your start total is particularly valuable. For those with the opportunity to make daily roster moves, it can be effective over the course of the season to stash high-skill middle relievers on your bench, and rotate them onto your active roster in between SP appearances. In effect, what this leads to is two or three lineup slots occupied by a constantly rotated group of starters. Middle relievers and closers then fill all other spots. As long as the relievers are sufficiently skilled, the extra IP gained here should lead to more IP, hopefully more vulture W's (and K's if applicable), while staying within a games started limit.
Total innings pitched
Much of the advice from the 'maximum games started' restriction applies to a cap on innings pitched as well. A typical innings cap could be 1300 or 1400 IP. Such a limit is far from oppressive, and in general can easily be avoided by not overstocking on starting pitchers. For those who may encounter a lower limit, it is important to keep an eye on your team's season-long IP pace. Simple solutions, such as not activating a pitcher for his first appearance(s) back from injury, skipping starts in Coors Field, and not piling up too many innings too early in the year, will help keep your pace in line. Again, the contributions of middle relievers will be of great benefit.
In general, it is not advisable to manage your team day-to-day with these limits in mind. Especially early in the season, your pace against these limits is only of minimal consequence. Injuries will typically slow all paces as the year goes on, and it is not difficult to align yourself within a pitcher's starts or total innings limit, simply by sitting lesser pitchers for short stretches as the year goes on.
Similarly, it is foolhardy to put too much emphasis on your opponents' positions against these limits. Occasionally, a fantasy leaguer who is not familiar with pitching limits will stock their roster with middle relievers from Opening Day. Their hope is that eventually some teams (who have exceeded their starts or innings pace) will need to sell off quality starters at bargain prices, and will seek low-inning relievers in return.
This strategy never works, for a few reasons. First, it is very rare for anyone to get into trouble with a maximum limit before September. By then, the impact of a trade is minimal, even if the trading deadline has not passed. Second, any player with a modicum of skill will start by selling off their weakest starters, while retaining their higher quality ones. Many of those pitchers being sold, then, do not represent an improvement from a high-skill reliever.
Philosophically, the best approach is usually to leave your best talent in the lineup every day, and let those players produce over the course of the season. Then, limit appearances by other players to situations where you feel they have a reasonable chance for success. You should then end up well within your league's maximum usage limits come season's end, and hopefully at the top of the standings as well.
Ron Shandler began publishing statistical reports for baseball analysts and fantasy leaguers in 1986. Since then, his enterprise has grown into one of the largest information providers in the industry, producing quality products continuously and over a longer period than any other fantasy baseball company.
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