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Six league trends to stay ahead of in fantasy baseball

Kirby Yates was the only closer to reach 40 saves last season. AP Photo/John Minchillo

The one constant in baseball is change.

It's not enough to simply scout players and fill out a cheat sheet; it's important to also have a firm read on what's going on around the league as a whole. After all, many of the edges you might find during the draft-prep process center on league trends, things that could shift the values toward or away from a certain type of player.

Baseball has seen a significant amount of change over merely the past half-decade, but especially in 2019. It was a different, often strange season compared to those that preceded it, with many developments that have a strong bearing on fantasy baseball.

This edition of the Playbook brings you up to date on the happenings around Major League Baseball, to catch you up on trends you might have missed that could impact your rankings. Between the home run explosion, the new rules implemented for 2020, the rise in closer-by-committees, "the opener," the topic of position scarcity and the dearth of quality catchers, there's plenty to examine more deeply.

Each of the links below will take you directly to any of the six topics covered:

Happy Fun Ball: The home run surge of 2019.

The three-batter minimum rule instituted for 2020.

Closers by committee and the 2019 league-wide drop in saves.

'The opener': The rising strategy of starting a game with a reliever.

Position scarcity: The ever-shifting values at each field position.

The catcher talent pool: Should you wait on catchers?

Happy Fun Ball!

Major League Baseball saw a record number of home runs hit in 2019: 6,776.

That obliterated the previous single-year mark, set two years earlier, by 671 homers. To take the home run explosion of 2019 further, we saw the Minnesota Twins hit 307 homers, the most by any team in a single year; the Baltimore Orioles allow 305 homers, the most surrendered by any team; and 58 different players hit at least 30 homers, the most in any season by a margin of nine. There were countless new home run marks set in 2019, many more of which you can read about here.

With those records came a barrage of questions, chatter and speculation regarding the composition of the baseballs. While some scientific studies attributed the rising home run rates to decreasing drag on batted baseballs, the committee of professors selected by MLB to study the effects concluded that seam height on the baseballs and "changes in player behavior," including shifts in their launch angles and exit velocities, also were significant, contributing factors. Players weren't necessarily convinced, with some firmly believing that the baseball itself was juiced, by direction of the league. And the effects weren't limited to only play at the major league level; these changes had a pronounced impact upon Triple-A ball, which adopted the same baseball as the major leagues in 2019.

Whatever your opinion, there was a pronounced impact on fantasy baseball. In rotisserie terms, an individual home run was 9.6% less valuable than it was in 2018, 2.2% less than in the previous record-setting 2017, and a whopping 28.2% less valuable than in the pitching-rich 2014 campaign. It was the least a home run was worth in any single year since 2001.

To use players' raw totals to illustrate, a 40-home run season by a hitter last season was the rough equivalent of a 29-homer season in 2014. Essentially, Ronald Acuna Jr.'s 41 homers, accounting only for his performance in that category, was worth only a hair more than Lucas Duda's 30 homers hit in 2014.

The problem with this analysis, however, is that it's entirely reactionary, and therein lies the rub: No one truly knows whether the same baseball used in 2019 will be what's in play in 2020, and no one can truly predict the external factors that might influence it, either. This is one aspect of fantasy baseball that's entirely guesswork. That this season will begin and presumably end in entirely different times of year than in the past, meaning different weather effects, further complicates matters.

It doesn't help that the 2019 postseason spawned the question whether the baseball had already changed, restoring the one used in 2017 or something even less hitting-friendly. After home runs were hit in 3.6% of all plate appearances and fly balls traveled an average 324.0 feet in distance during the regular season, the homer rate dropped to 3.4% and average fly-ball depth to 320.5 feet in the postseason. Bear in mind the massive disparity in sample sizes, however, as playoff baseball represents only 1.5% of the volume seen in the regular season.

If you're thinking that spring training -- even the resumed portion -- might offer some hints, don't get your hopes up: The league's spring training home run rate in 2019 was 3.2%, only slightly elevated from the 3.0% 2018 regular-season rate, and remember that a large amount of those games are played in Arizona, an extremely favorable environment for hitters.

A key takeaway is to invest a good chunk of time in analyzing the new league trends during the opening weeks of the new season, seeking an edge before the rest of your fantasy league catches on to similar changes. Yes, that's too late to correct a draft inefficiency, but it's possible to correct things on the trade market if you notice an edge before your competition does. Hey, any small advantage helps.

As for how I'd handle the "Happy Fun Ball" -- as I call it since I loved the original "Saturday Night Live" commercial spoof of nearly 30 years ago -- I'd take the three-year league average of 6,155 and split the difference between it and the 2019 total alone, under the assumption that we're a lot more likely to see the baseball of 2019 than any substantial change. That'd mean a league-wide projection of 6,466 homers, a noticeable amount fewer than in 2019 but still easily the second-most in history.

That would still account for a massive surplus of home runs in my draft-day valuations, but it'd also assume a natural amount of regression, avoiding undervaluing the category as a whole. Either way, I think one assumption is clear: Until we hear official pronouncement of a change in the baseball itself that's being used, we should assume that power hitters will again be in abundance.

Fortunately, you can rest somewhat on the saying, "A rising tide lifts all boats." Any baseball statistic, after all, is valued on a scale comparing it to your respective league's replacement level.

The three-batter minimum rule

Perhaps the most scrutinized of the several rule changes announced by MLB this offseason, the three-batter minimum rule, which states that all pitchers will be required to either face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, might actually have become more of a forgotten discussion as a result of the delay to the start of the 2020 season. After all, it was to take effect for the first time during spring training on the very day MLB suspended spring games, March 12.

Managerial strategy will inevitably change as a result of the rule, and not merely the demise of the LOOGY (Lefty One Out Guy). No longer can managers freely mix and match single pitcher-hitter matchups, something that might manifest itself most noticeably in the ninth inning.

Last season, there were 92 instances of a reliever coming on sometime during -- rather than at the beginning of -- the ninth inning, up from 71 in 2018 and 51 in 2017. Conversely, 76 times a pitcher faced only one or two batters, a grouping that will entirely evaporate under the new rule.

That means that specialist-style closers might ultimately suffer the greatest loss in opportunities, as managers can't afford to have them locked into suboptimal matchups at the game's most critical point. A pitcher like Sean Doolittle, who has a wide platoon split, might need to be spared for lefty-heavy innings earlier in the game, or to face a key inning-concluding lefty, rather than be used traditionally in the ninth.

Conversely, a Taylor Rogers, who has had a 21-point wOBA split in the past two seasons combined and is less of a matchups concern, might be more apt to be locked into a traditional ninth-inning role. It might result in only 2-4 additional save chances over the course of a 162-game schedule, but any little advantage helps.

I wrote more extensively about the three-batter minimum rule on March 13, including identifying additional pitchers to move up or down in your rankings accordingly.

Closers by committee

This ties somewhat to the previous topic, including a greater in-depth discussion in the aforementioned March 13 column.

From a broader perspective, more teams shifted to closer-by-committee in 2019 than we had seen in years -- perhaps ever. Only one pitcher reached the 40-save plateau, Kirby Yates (41), the fewest to do so in any non-shortened season since 1989. There were 1,180 total saves across the league, granted one more than in 2017, but those were the fewest in any single year since 2000. The Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays all used definitive committees for a noticeable portion of the year.

Attachment to the save statistic has been dwindling the deeper we get into the 21st century, and while the three-batter minimum rule might help mitigate the decline of the "traditional closer," sabermetrically inclined managers such as Rocco Baldelli (Twins), Kevin Cash (Rays), Craig Counsell (Milwaukee Brewers) and Gabe Kapler (San Francisco Giants) are still likely to mix and match as they close out ballgames.

That's why top closers are slightly more valuable today than they might have been at any point so far in the 21st century, something that might be awkward to read considering all the fantasy advice during that time to take a go-cheap approach to save-getting. Consider that Brad Hand's 32 saves of 2017 were worth slightly less than the 30 saves recorded by Rogers, Alex Colome and Ian Kennedy in 2019. There was more of a premium on the category, thanks to its declining number.

It's not that you can't fill saves on the cheap, but it's a dangerous thing to take a passive approach to your categorical strategy without bearing in mind the league trend.

Think about this: If you're of the belief that a committee-based league spreads its saves across a greater number of individual candidates, then the categorical production you're receiving from the pitchers in your active spots decreases in turn. And if your competition is getting a 40-save season from one spot where you're getting 20 from two, you're both meeting at the same number but your opponent has the advantage of that second roster spot free to fill with someone else.

'The opener'

When Sergio Romo took the mound to start the Rays' game on May 19, 2018, the decision made by Kevin Cash taking into account his injury-plagued rotation as well as the opposing Los Angeles Angels' depth in right-handed talent atop its lineup, few might've thought it would develop into the fad it did in the 10 competitive months (plus two more postseasons) that followed.

"The opener," the name for the strategy a team uses when it calls upon a traditional reliever to start a game, in an effort to exploit a particular early-game matchup or simply piece together an entire game with relievers, took a significant step forward in usage in 2019. Using the criteria of only pitchers who worked two or fewer innings in at least 75% of their total appearances, there were 200 "openers" by that group in 2019 -- and it could be easily argued that there were many more, if you want to hand-pick them.

The quick reaction to all this is that the three-batter minimum rule might decrease usage of an opener, but think again: Those 200 "openers" averaged 1.36 innings pitched and 6.26 batters faced per outing. What's more, they all faced at least three batters in the starts in question, all legal outings under the new rule.

The invention of the opener has had a devastating impact on one aspect of fantasy baseball: It is killing the quality start, and it's not helping matters as far as the win category, either. In 2019, there were 1,794 quality starts, the fewest in any non-shortened season since 1967, a year in which there were only 20 big-league teams, and that came on the heels of a 2018 season in which there were only 1,996 quality starts. What's more, starting pitchers recorded only 1,449 wins last season, the fewest in any non-shortened season since 1972. The 1,515 wins notched by starting pitchers in 2018, too, were the fewest in more than a quarter-century.

Remember: An "opener" cannot, by definition, earn a quality start, as that is earned by a starting pitcher who works at least six innings while allowing no greater than three earned runs, nor can he be awarded the win, as those cannot be granted to a starting pitcher who fails to complete the fifth inning.

Couple that with a 21st-century baseball development most of us have known for some time, that being the increasing pitching specialization leading to decreasing workloads for starting pitchers, and it's getting harder every year to address either of these categories. In fact, we're not far off the point that leagues that use wins or quality starts need to have a serious discussion among their ownership as to whether they should continue with either category included.

Similar to the previous topic regarding saves, this development enhances the value of the players in the upper tiers, aces who typically provide the heftiest volume, the most stable skill sets and therefore the greatest odds at amassing wins and quality starts. A Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Justin Verlander, with those names merely listed alphabetically here, makes much more sense as a building block for a fantasy team now than, say, 10 or even five years ago.

Another drawback of the opener is that it depletes the pool of streaming-starter candidates, generally the back-of-rotation types who draw favorable single-start matchups. With an increasing number of those starts assigned to openers, there's less ability for fantasy teams to load up on them, chasing the wins or quality starts categories. That puts more emphasis on your draft-day strategy, even if slightly.

A final tip: Leave open a pitching spot for the long reliever, perhaps the "follower" to those openers, who is the most likely man to score the win due to his being the one who ultimately completes the fifth inning. In 2019, Ryan Yarbrough (8 relief wins), Felix Pena (8) and Jalen Beeks (6) were three of the pitchers most commonly used for lengthy relief outings, gaining greater chances of relief wins.

'Position scarcity'

If you're wondering the reason for the quotation marks, it's because of how overrated the concept of position scarcity has become in recent seasons.

While it was once true that middle infielders were more scarce in talent than the corner-infield spots or the outfield -- the 2010 Player Rater had Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki among the top 22 before a steep drop to the next three shortstops at Nos. 75 (Jose Reyes), 94 (Alexei Ramirez) and 95 (Derek Jeter), and no other shortstops within the overall top 125. The current crop is considerably richer in talent than perhaps we've ever seen at those spots.

To illustrate, let's use Player Rater data, specifically the scores with which we grade each player, which do not weight for positional impact. In other words, 20 home runs from a catcher is worth every bit the same as 20 home runs from a third baseman. The following chart breaks down value accrued by players at each position in 2019, totaling Player Rater scores for all who qualified there.

It should come as no surprise that catcher is the weakest position in fantasy baseball by far, something we'll get into in the next section.

It's the shortstops who stand out, and incidentally, this wasn't a one-year trend. Examining the 2018 Player Rater returns, shortstops also had the high marks with an 8.28 per-player average score and eight premium players, while first base had the low marks among field positions with 6.06 and two in those departments. You'd have to go back to 2017 to find an example of shortstop being a scarce position, as it had the low mark in terms of per-player average that season, but even in that season, second base graded as one of the deepest in the game.

With such 25-and-under names as Alex Bregman, Fernando Tatis Jr., Gleyber Torres, Carlos Correa, Adalberto Mondesi, Bo Bichette, Corey Seager and Amed Rosario, not to mention top-30-in-fantasy players (from 2019) Jonathan Villar, Trevor Story, Trea Turner, Ketel Marte, Xander Bogaerts and Francisco Lindor included among the shortstop ranks, it's no surprise that this once-thin position has become one of the deeper ones around. Second base also isn't too shabby: Torres still qualifies there, Ozzie Albies, Keston Hiura, Cavan Biggio, Gavin Lux and Brandon Lowe are among the 25-and-under talent and Villar, Marte and DJ LeMahieu were top-30 performers.

First base, by comparison, is probably as thin as it has ever been this century. Only 11 qualify for my top 100 overall, two of whom will play elsewhere in the field regularly this year (DJ LeMahieu and Max Muncy), and of those 11, five will begin the season aged 30 or older and only Cody Bellinger, Pete Alonso and Matt Olson, among those who look like true franchise chips, are aged 25 or younger. Another scary thought: Nine of the 15 first basemen I ranked sixth through 20th at the position begin the 2020 season aged 30 or older, and four of those are on the wrong side of 33.

While these positional trends have a way of fluctuating from year to year, not to mention that certain players fall into new eligibility and deepen the pool, the above data is compelling enough to eliminate any positional weight in your draft plans, at least in shallow mixed or ESPN standard leagues. Address shortstop just the same as you would the outfield, and if I'm to regard a single position as "deep," it'd be third base.

A tip to you dynasty-league managers: it's a good idea to think about your long-term plans at first base, considering the current talent pool and prospect ranks.

The catcher talent pool

You might've guessed that catcher was the weakest position in baseball, and it's that by a sizable margin, considering it had only .238/.309/.408 collective slash rates in a huge year for offense, and a .304 wOBA that was nine full percentage points beneath any other non-pitcher field position.

Where the "position scarcity" argument weighs thin, at least in shallow mixed, ESPN standard or one-catcher leagues, is that the advantage of paying a premium for a top backstop is mitigated by the limited volume that even the best catchers commonly provide. To put it again into Player Rater terms, last year's No. 1 catcher, J.T. Realmuto, finished with a lower valuation than the No. 16 shortstop (Fernando Tatis Jr.), the No. 15 relief pitcher (Alex Colome) and the No. 9 first baseman (Anthony Rizzo).

That wasn't a one-year development, either: Realmuto's No. 101 overall Player Rater finish was the best finish by any catcher-eligible player since Buster Posey finished 47th in 2015. The No. 1 catcher, on average, finished 115th during the past three seasons, which isn't nearly enough of a return to warrant pushing the top backstop in the draft into the top 50 overall, at least not in shallow mixed or one-catcher leagues. Another way to look at it: Only one catcher -- Gary Sanchez in 2017 -- has totaled at least 30 home runs and 90 RBIs in the past three seasons, while during that same time span there have been 125 such instances at the other positions.

That's not to say that a relatively early -- perhaps borderline top-75 overall, or top-60 in a two-catcher or 12-plus-team league -- pick is completely foolish for a catcher like Realmuto, who brings both polished offensive skills and among the highest likelihood of regular at-bats at the position. There's an "avoidance of a negative earner" angle to bear in mind at catcher. Still, in the past three seasons, seven of the 18 catchers selected 7th through 12th at the position on average brought positive earnings, and an additional 26 undrafted players also did so, strengthening the positional free-agent pool.

That certainly supports a wait-on-catchers strategy in 10-team standard ESPN (and most any one-catcher) leagues.