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How to Win: Wins

Wins are as mercurial a category as any you'll find in fantasy baseball. According to ancient sabermetric tradition, it was Storm Davis and his 19-win season in 1989 that helped us to realize that last year's wins don't tell us much about what kind of pitcher someone is. After all, Davis had pitched quite poorly that year and went on to have a terrible rest of his career. The flip side of the coin happened this year, with Cliff Lee and his paltry six wins. The Phils weren't as good as they had been recently, but come on, six wins? For a pitcher with a 7.39 K/BB and a 3.16 ERA? Something here isn't fair.

You were perfectly aware of this unfairness, of course, and you've been hoping to exploit it successfully for quite some time. Unfortunately, that's a little easier said than done. Last year was a pretty good year for pitchers winning a lot of games, so we'll take a look at the leader list, not because it's likely to tell us next year's biggest winners, but because it might give us a hint as to what type of pitchers might be giving us value in the category.

2012's Top Winners:

21 Wins: Gio Gonzalez
20 Wins: R.A. Dickey, David Price, Jered Weaver
19 Wins: Johnny Cueto
18 Wins: Matt Harrison, Lance Lynn
17 Wins: Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale
16 Wins: Matt Cain, Wade Miley, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, A.J. Burnett, Madison Bumgarner, Kyle Lohse, Tim Hudson, Yovani Gallardo, Phil Hughes, Max Scherzer
15 Wins: CC Sabathia, James Shields, Ian Kennedy, Zack Greinke, Barry Zito, Stephen Strasburg
14 Wins: Clayton Kershaw, Clayton Richard, Jason Vargas, Mat Latos, Adam Wainwright, Ryan Vogelsong

As you can see, there are some wide disparities in skill, team quality, and pitcher type on this list, which is exactly what you would expect. The good news is that it can't be completely random; the majority of these names are guys you count on to be among the best pitchers in baseball.

Set those aces aside for a moment, along with guys like Sale and Miley who surprised us by pitching like them last year. What about the other guys, why are they here? Blind luck. Definitely some of it. But maybe a little more. Harrison, Lynn, Lohse, Kuroda, Hughes, Hudson, Zito, and Vogelsong all pitched for playoff teams last year. The three who didn't pitch for playoff teams all came from very pitcher-friendly parks: Burnett, Richard, and Vargas.

How much of this is signal and how much is noise? It's honestly hard to tell for sure. After all, Vargas was pitching for the same team as Felix Hernandez, and won one more game. We probably aren't going to be confused about which one is the better draft choice. All got several more wins than Edwin Jackson, even though he pitched for the best team in baseball. So it's definitely a noisy pattern, but it seems to make sense logically: great pitchers tend to get some of the higher win totals, and most of the other good win counts come from the ranks of the pretty good who play on good teams. Plus Barry Zito, for whom “pretty good” is a bit of a stretch.

Decent Pitcher, Good Offense

The goal here isn't to target the top aces out there, instead it's to find some mid-draft starters that might be extra helpful in wins. What they do in other categories is their business.

Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster (BOS); Jake Peavy, Gavin Floyd (CHW); Anibal Sanchez (DET); Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton (LAA); Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes (NYY); Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando (TEX); Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson (TOR); Mike Minor, Paul Maholm (ATL); Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey (CIN); Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers (MIL); Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn (STL); Dan Haren (WAS); whoever ends up filling out the Dodgers' rotation.

Obviously there are quite a few pitchers who make it into this category. Some are sleepers for other reasons, and others have touched ace status before and could do it again. There are a wide variety of price tags that count as “mid-range” and I recommend getting a couple of them. You never know who next year's Matt Harrison or Lance Lynn could be. They could even do it again.

I'd also consider paying a little extra for those with shutdown bullpens. In case of a tie, consider pitchers from Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis, and the Yankees a little more highly than others.

Turning Signal Into Strategy

Quantity is the name of the game in Wins, just as it is in Strikeouts. Getting good pitchers won't be enough to take this category—you need lots of pitchers, pitching lots of innings to come away with the lead at the end of the year, or just to win it week to week. There are two basic routes you can go for this category: streaming and non.

Streaming (In Full and in Part)
If you really want to win this one, stream. Rotate as many starters as you can on and off your roster and soak up the joys of wins and whiffs. Your ERA and WHIP won't like you, but maybe you weren't going to do well in those categories anyways.

There are problems with streaming of course: unhappy commissioners and leaguemates, weekly instead of daily changes, limited roster moves, and innings limits. There's also the fact that most streamed pitchers are sort of bad (or really bad in a deep league) and likely to hurt you in ERA and WHIP disproportionately to how much they help you in Wins and Strikeouts. Plus, the more of your league that streams, the worse the options are for everyone. Given all those drawbacks, I don't like this strategy much. (Also, I don't think it's terribly fun, but that's for you to decide, I guess.) The only time I'd stream would be in a shallow head-to-head matchups league, which is what a lot of the public leagues out there are.

If full streaming isn't right for your team or your league, a sort of measured streaming might be. Isolate next week's best two-start option off the waiver wire and snatch him up. Keep him for the week and drop him after his second start for next week's top candidate. In most leagues, chances are this will be a pitcher on the fringe of being worth hanging onto, so he's probably decent. You can try padding your win total this way without hurting your ERA and WHIP too badly, especially if you get to play specific matchups. You can do this with two pitchers a week, I suppose, but any more than that and you're just streaming and subject to its downsides. I think this one is best for a head-to-head league.

If you play in a league with weekly changes, then you're already all over those two-start guys, sometimes weeks ahead of time. Keep on keeping on.

What if you don't stream?
There are a few options open to those who cannot or should not stream. First of all, in a head-to-head league, expect to lose to the streamers when you play them. Even if it's not really a good idea, these leagues always have some streamers. Against the others, though, and in any roto league with an innings cap, you still want to get ahead of the competition.

One thing you can do is bulk up on mid-draft pitchers. Don't just take one or two from the back end, but take three or four across multiple strata. What I normally do, is  grab two aces and then sit on starters for a long time. This strategy seems to work well in a number of contexts (especially my offense), but it can be a detriment in the wins column. By filling out your starting rotation a little earlier you can bring a few more wins in without hurting your rate stats. This strategy could have netted you guys like Harrison, Lohse, Kuroda, and Hughes last year. If it did, then you were probably pretty happy. Of course, it might also have gotten you Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, John Danks, and Shaun Marcum, so maybe you weren't too enthused. If you do go this route, expect to play with a short hitting bench (or none at all, in a shallower league).

Pay extra for pitching. This one is simple, and it's the opposite of a strategy I suggested when talking about Runs Scored. Whether you're in an auction or a draft, you can always unbalance your team. In select leagues it might even be a good idea. If you think you can get all the hitting bargains, maybe you can afford to pay a little extra for a truly great pitching staff.

If you play standard roto, I definitely believe you should max out your IP. If you can get good pitching, do it. If you can get lots of it, do it. Once you've built up a good Wins total, trade a couple good starters near your deadline—trade 'em cheap if you have to—preferably for closers. Then, as you near your IP limit, start dropping starters in favor of the best relievers on the waiver wire. It won't be a game changer in the rate stats, but it won't hurt and it will let you tack on some strikeouts too.

A Few Final Words
There are a lot of things that go into a successful year in the Wins category, and only some of them are under your control. Complicating matters further, is the fact that slight changes in your league rules can make big differences in how to win, Wins. The strategies of your opponents will come heavily into play too. The good news is this: with a decent starting staff, you can probably expect to be near the middle of the pack in wins. Normal variations of luck could be enough to vault you up to the league leaders in the category, while paying attention to the waiver wire and the play of your own pitchers should be enough to keep a decent staff from foundering on luck alone.

If there was a category that I would give up trying to win it would be this one. Not that I would punt it—not by a long shot. But playing to win in this one is likely to leave you shorted in another category or three. Instead, I recommend aiming for that mid-pack ranking, and hoping to land near the top.  At the end of the day, though, someone who spent too much on the quantity of their pitching is probably going to win this one. I should know—I did exactly that last year.




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