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Thursday 22nd Feb 2018

National Fantasy Baseball Championship Cutline Primer

(Note - this was originally written a year ago, so some of the references are a little dated. They'll be updated for Platinum subscribers in early February)

New for the 2016 fantasy baseball season is a unique contest offered by our friends at the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) called the Cutline Championship. A complete review of the rules can be found HERE.

In brief, the Cutline Championship is a points-based, best-ball scoring format. The leagues consist of ten teams and use standard NFBC roster requirements and position eligibilities. There will be an initial snake draft to fill 36 roster spots then a pair of in-season FAAB periods. The first is the week after the season starts where you can add up to five more players with the second in early June where you can add as many as you want to a maximum of 46 roster spots. The regular season ends right around the All-Star break where teams will be entered into the Cutline Finals, Consolation Round or have their season end. More teams will be eliminated over the next nine weeks until a Cutline Champion is crowned in early September.

What follows is a primer for those entering the inaugural Cutline Championship. Even though the discussion will focus on that contest, many of the principles transcend into other formats so hopefully all Platinum subscribers can glean a nugget or two to help in their draft prep.

SCORING

The Cutline scoring is designed so that the ranking of the players by points emulates the ranking via standard 5x5 rotisserie scoring. The hitter’s correlation coefficient is .99 while pitcher’s is about .90.

A noteworthy difference between the Cutline and other NFBC contests is there isn’t a Friday transaction day for hitters. The scoring period for everyone runs from Monday through Sunday.

Points are awarded as follows:

HITTING

  • Home Run: 6 points
  • Stolen Base: 5 points
  • Hit: 4 points
  • Run: 2 points
  • RBI: 2 points
  • At-bat: -1 point

PITCHING

  • Win: 6 points
  • Save: 8 points
  • Inning Pitched: 3 points
  • Strikeout: 1 point
  • Hit or Walk Allowed: -1 point
  • Earned Run Allowed: -2 points

BEST BALL

For those not familiar, best-ball scoring means your optimum lineup will be determined automatically each week without you ever setting a lineup. The only team management required is the initial draft and the two in-season FAAB periods. The NFBC site does the rest.

The intelligence is designed to account for corner infield, middle infield, utility and multiple position eligibility. There’s no delineation between starting pitchers and relievers – your top nine arms each week contribute to your total, regardless of their role.

PROPER RANKING USING POINTS SCORING

As discussed, back-testing using previous season’s final stats was used to produce a system that correlates very well to 5x5 roto-scoring. That’s all well and good but it’s still essential to come up with a draft list incorporating principles intrinsic to points scoring.

If you play fantasy football you know where this going. The key to points leagues is rankings should not be based on raw points but rather adjusted points using the last player drafted at each position as a baseline. The idea is everyone in the league is credited with the number of points scored by the worst active player at each position so the person with that player essentially earns no useful points from that player.

Mathematically, find the worst draft-worthy player at each position, subtract those points from everyone at the position and re-rank according to those adjusted points.

Truth be told, this is by no means perfect, especially in a best-ball format. The calculation only works if one player occupies each roster spot all season – which is obviously not the case. In addition, the use of corner, middle, utility and players that are eligible for multiple positions skew the replacement level. Still, doing the best you can to determine replacement is better than ignoring it. Ultimately, draft flow comes down to varying expectations of player performance but having a starting point where, at minimum, the players are ranked accurately relative to each other is very beneficial.

HOW MASTERSBALL GENERATES CUTLINE RANKINGS

Let’s start with the easy part – pitching. There are ten teams with nine roster spots so the expected points from the 90th highest total is subtracted from all the hurlers.

Hitting is where it gets dicey. Here’s what we know.

  • Need 20 catchers
  • Need 30 corner infielders, with a minimum of ten each at first and third
  • Need 30 middle infielders, with a minimum of ten each at second and shortstop
  • Need 50 outfielders
  • Once those are all covered, need 10 highest left to be utility

Players with multiple eligibility are assigned a primary position according to this hierarchy:

C > SS > 2B > 3B > OF > 1B

This is how I view the strength of positions – you may see it differently. Your team, your call.

The projected points for all the hitters are calculated. The top-140 (ten teams, 14 roster spots) are examined to see if the above criteria are satisfied, starting with catcher and moving the hierarchy. If a position is short, the highest ranking player at that position is brought into the top-140, knocking out the lowest ranked player at a position that has not yet been checked. When finished, the top-140 should now consist of ample players at each position to fill all ten active rosters.

The lowest ranked player at each position is identified and those points are subtracted from every player with that same primary position. These adjusted points are used to rank hitters and pitchers together.

To reiterate, this process isn’t perfect, but it’s better than using unadjusted points. Because of the unique Cutline points system, the adjustment isn’t all the steep. However, to those playing in points leagues other than the NFBC cutline, omitting the adjustment is the biggest mistake made. The projected points for hitters and pitchers will be computed and it is wrongfully concluded that one is way more valuable than the other based on raw points.

GO BIG OR GO HOME

Before we go on to discuss some specific strategies, it’s necessary to set the proper mindset. Sure, there’s a league prize as the top-scorer in each ten-team league will pocket a nifty $250. Hopefully it’s obvious that the NFBC Cutline is a contest where you’re playing to win the whole kit and caboodle and not simply best nine others to double your money. As such, you’re going to need to take some chances along with being clever about roster construction to take best advantage of the best ball aspect.

Taking chances means jumping players with higher ceilings up the rankings. This doesn’t mean players with high stable floors but limited ceilings should be ignored. It just means you’ll need to increase your risk profile to defeat the thousands of teams trying to win the Cutline Championship.

There are three subsets of players that generally carry the most risk:

  1. Young players with a limited track record
  2. Foreign players
  3. Players with an injury history

Can Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor’s sustain last season’s power spike? Can Corey Seager maintain such a high BABIP? Can Miguel Sano continue to be productive despite so many strikeouts? Will the league adjust to Noah Syndergaard? Can Raisel Iglesias take the next step? These are all legit concerns that may worry conservative drafters. Sorry, but caution will not take down the Cutline.

Neither Byung-ho Park nor Hyun-soo Kim have swung at Major League pitch in anger yet. Kenta Maeda hasn’t thrown a pitch that counts in the bigs. Sure, we’d like to see if they pass the eye test in the spring but we don’t have that luxury. Risk averse players prefer to dance with the devil they know. Winning the Cutline requires venturing into the unknown.

You can’t mess up your first round pick, right? Those that agree won’t be starting their team with Bryce Harper or Giancarlo Stanton. What about Yu Darvish? Or Carlos Gonzalez? Something to keep in mind is with best ball scoring, someone will always be there to backfill an injured player. Even though you risk carrying an empty roster spot, you won’t be getting a zero – you just have one fewer option to fill your best lineup.

Or you can combine all three and draft Rusney Castillo.

Please don’t misinterpret the above and throw a dart at every pick. All I’m saying is you need to pick and choose instances to let your hair down and go outside your comfort zone.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF BEST-BALL SCORING

Consistency is a concept not all that relevant to standard rotisserie formats. You don’t care about the pathway; all you care about is a player’s season ending stats. However, the best-ball aspect of the Cutline affords several means to take advantage of the scoring to optimize your weekly scores.

Every player has a baseline expectation but there are factors that can raise or lower that expectation over the course of a scoring period – at least on paper. The idea is there will be some weeks a handful of players exceed their baseline and will be included in your total while others they fall below, to be replaced by some other players in a positive situation that period. Let’s take a look at some of these scenarios.

To be clear, the following should be applied to fringe players. The points of the better players will almost always end up counting in the best-ball accounting. However, there will be back-end players that have better and worse weeks that will find their way into your optimal lineup. It’s with these players you may want to look at a combination of what follows to maximize your week-to-week totals.

Home versus Away

Here’s some vitals to demonstrate the superiority a team has playing at home.

  PA HR R RBI HR% BB% K% AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+
2015 Home 90121 2473 10556 10077 2.7% 8.0% 19.9% 0.260 0.324 0.415 0.740 0.321 101
2015 Away 93506 2436 10091 9577 2.6% 7.4% 20.9% 0.249 0.310 0.394 0.704 0.306 92
2014 Home 90220 2094 9967 9428 2.3% 7.9% 19.9% 0.255 0.320 0.394 0.714 0.316 100
2014 Away 93707 2092 9794 9317 2.2% 7.3% 20.8% 0.247 0.308 0.379 0.687 0.304 93
2013 Home 90546 2305 10185 9708 2.5% 8.3% 19.3% 0.257 0.323 0.402 0.725 0.318 99
2013 Away 94327 2356 10070 9563 2.5% 7.6% 20.4% 0.250 0.313 0.391 0.704 0.310 94

Clearly, a player produces more at home. Note the homers are close home and away. This is due to the home team not hitting in the ninth when they have a lead. However, assuming the majority of your hitters hit in the upper half of the order, this isn’t an issues since they’ll usually get the extra plate appearance.

On the surface, this may seem like more of an in-season management ploy and thus not applicable for the Cutline but when you’re looking to win a tournament of this nature, you need help at the fringes.

Again, you’re not going to fade Paul Goldschmidt because of his schedule but you may look at the Diamondbacks schedule when considering Jake Lamb. To that end, here’s a review of the weekly schedules for each team (click HERE to download the spreadsheet). The heading represents the number of weeks each team has that number of home games. On the left is the first 14 weeks (before the initial cut) while the second is the nine-week playoff period.

  7 or 6 5 or 4 3 or 2 1 or 0   7 or 6 5 or 4 3 or 2 1 or 0
ARI 2 5 4 3   2 2 2 3
ATL 3 3 5 3   2 1 3 3
BAL 3 3 5 3   2 1 4 2
BOS 4 2 5 3   3 0 3 3
CHC 4 1 4 5   3 2 2 2
CHW 5 0 5 4   2 2 3 2
CIN 3 4 2 5   1 3 2 2
CLE 2 3 6 3   1 4 2 2
COL 1 3 8 2   4 0 3 2
DET 1 4 6 3   3 2 3 1
HOU 3 4 4 3   1 3 4 1
KCR 1 4 6 3   2 3 2 2
LAA 0 7 5 2   3 1 3 2
LAD 3 3 5 3   1 3 2 3
MIA 2 3 6 3   1 3 1 4
MIL 0 7 5 2   3 1 2 3
MIN 1 6 5 2   2 1 3 3
NYM 1 6 4 3   2 1 3 3
NYY 3 2 4 5   1 3 2 2
OAK 2 5 3 4   2 0 3 3
PHI 3 4 4 3   3 1 2 3
PIT 3 3 5 3   2 2 4 1
SDP 3 4 2 5   2 1 3 3
SEA 2 4 3 5   2 3 3 1
SFG 1 6 5 2   3 0 3 3
STL 1 7 2 4   0 3 2 3
TAM 2 5 3 4   1 3 3 2
TEX 0 6 4 4   2 2 2 3
TOR 2 3 8 1   1 3 2 3
WAS 2 5 3 4   1 3 1 3

We’ll save the detailed analysis for a stand-alone piece.

Park Factors

The key with park factors is there are several venues that are counter-intuitive. Some examples are

  • Yankee Stadium plus for power barely positive for runs
  • Kauffman Stadium crushes power but is slightly positive for runs
  • Both Citizens Bank and PNC Parks are plus for power but basically neutral for runs

Applying park factors to your rankings is also tricky as you need to do it in concert with the scoring system and type of player. The Cutline scoring system really favors homers so power hitters are really helped by parks that elevate power. Players that get hits, score runs and drive in teammates but aren’t sluggers aren’t hurt by Kauffman Stadium. With regards to pitching, as noted, Yankee Stadium isn’t horrible at all, unless you’re a fly ball pitcher.

Thinking about pitchers, it seems obvious that starters scheduled to go twice have a great chance of making your optimal lineup. Considering it’s a given to choose fringe pitchers with venues that hurt run scoring, going one step further and looking for parks with the maximum number of 6 and 7 home games in a week increases the chances of two starts at home – which will really pump up that pitcher for that week. There’s no guarantee your pitcher’s two start weeks coincides with two home games – all we’re doing is looking to improve the chances.

This is another topic that’s worthy of further discussion, especially since the analysis goes hand-in-hand with home vs. away. Look for it soon.

Handedness

Here’s a look at platoon splits from the past three seasons.

2015 OPS wOBA RC+
vs RHP as LHB 0.747 0.324 104
vs LHP as RHB 0.739 0.320 101
vs RHP as RHB 0.701 0.305 90
vs LHP as LHB 0.668 0.295 84
2014 OPS wOBA RC+
vs RHP as LHB 0.713 0.315 100
vs LHP as RHB 0.731 0.322 105
vs RHP as RHB 0.684 0.304 90
vs LHP as LHB 0.647 0.290 83
2013 OPS wOBA RC+
vs RHP as LHB 0.741 0.325 104
vs LHP as RHB 0.738 0.323 103
vs RHP as RHB 0.691 0.303 91
vs LHP as LHB 0.645 0.287 78

As expected, the largest spread is for left-handed hitters. Keeping in mind the idea is to embrace variance, using left-handed batters to fill out the back-end of your roster and reserves will lead to some weeks a team is facing a preponderance of righties, in theory increasing the lefty swinger’s performance over his baseline.

Contact Rate

You’re going to have to trust me on this but players with lower contact rates are generally more inconsistent than players that don’t fan as much. Combine this with a power hitter with a low contact rate and you have a highly variable player that will score very well the weeks he goes deep a couple of times while scuffling those periods the punch outs are prevalent. That’s fine – you’re approaching this with the assumption that with ample fungible players, someone will be in a good spot to cover your slumping slugger.

Stolen base specialists

One of the tricks of DFS is to identify pitchers and catchers (hopefully forming a battery) that are weak at controlling the running game. Sometimes you can find a team whose philosophy is to focus more on the hitter than runner thus allow an above average number of stolen bases. The repercussion is this puts base stealers in the inconsistent category when it comes to points-based scoring. Speed merchants will have weeks with multiple steals when they face the likes of Carlos Ruiz or Kurt Suzuki for a series. In roto, we often avoid these one-category contributors but in the Cutline, they’re perfect examples of players to target later – perhaps avoid early.

Multiple position eligibility and utility

According to the Mastersball projections, there are seven hitters that qualify at DH/UT only with just Miguel Sano and perhaps Evan Gattis expected to gain different eligibility. This means at least half of a Cutline league will have a player that can ONLY score points at DH/UT. This seriously hinders your ability to take advantage of a great week by a lesser player. Sure, he’ll bump someone, but the difference in points you gain isn’t as significant as compared to the edge if he filled one of your fungible spots. Of course, one way to counter the likes of David Ortiz or Prince Fielder blocking your utility is having a bunch of back-end players with multiple-eligibility. That said, having the utility spot as one of your intended spots for inconsistent players discussed above will really help take advantage of the variance and give you a handful of extra points each week.

Summing up

Yeah, I’m crazy thinking it’s going to take this sort of out-of-the-box thinking to win the Cutline – but I’m also right. Remember, this doesn’t apply to your early or even middle round picks. Let’s designate corner, middle, utility and two outfield spots for hitters (total of five) and four pitching spots you expect different players to occupy in your optimal lineup. That’s nine so beginning in Round 15 and through your reserves you focus on these highly variable players. Initially, that’s 22 candidates to fill nine spots. After one week that grows to 27 and eventually 32 players. Sure, there will be injuries but chances are you’ll always have more than twice as many options to take those nine spots. With those odds, there’s a good chance, most, if not all are filled by players enjoying a week over their baseline expectations. That’s how you win a contest of this nature.

As alluded to throughout this discussion, there are topics that require further treatment. Another is how to construct a best-ball pitching staff. Look for those discussions soon.

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