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2012 Draft Prep: Head-to-Head strategies

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These strategies apply specifically to Head-to-Head leagues. For Rotisserie strategies or auction strategies, check out the guides specific to those formats.

In the beginning, there was Rotisserie -- a fun but flawed style of Fantasy Baseball that rewarded, at least for hitters, only the five most basic stats: batting average, home runs, RBI, runs scored and stolen bases.

And for years, that's how Fantasy owners defined a player, with his identity based in those five categories. Melky Cabrera? He's a legitimate five-category threat. Nick Swisher? He's fine, if all you need is homers.

So when the Head-to-Head style of Fantasy Baseball began -- as in the one inspired by Fantasy Football that uses points rather than categories -- it threw a wrench into the equation that Fantasy owners are still trying to fish out. Suddenly, every statistical contribution was on the table, subject to consequences both good and bad.

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Doubles? Triples? Walks? Strikeouts!? They all matter, just like in real life. Really, anything quantifiable is in play. Talk about system overload. It's enough to short-circuit the brain of anyone accustomed to seeing the game through Rotisserie-colored glasses.

So does that mean Head-to-Head play is a more accurate representation of real-life baseball? No need to think in those terms. Any game involving baseball and numbers is fun if you're into, well, baseball and numbers.

But the games are different, in more ways than one. While in Rotisserie, your success depends on your ability to narrow your focus to the few stats that have the greatest say in a player's performance, in Head-to-Head, you almost have to do the opposite. You can't just gloss over a player's numbers to understand the full scope of his value. You have to dig deeper. You have to see the unseen.

It's not all about numbers either. Health, role, streakiness -- they all define a player as much as his homers and steals do. And they have a greater say in Head-to-Head play, where a focus on the short-term is critical to surviving the long-term.

So if you're a Rotisserie convert still trying to wrap your head around the finer points of Head-to-Head play, take heed. And if you're a newcomer to Fantasy entirely, well, you obviously have something to glean from this guide as well. In it, you'll find the tips you need to free yourself from the categories and become a Head-to-Head honcho.

Winning on peripherals

Of course, with everything comes a tradeoff. If the addition of all those peripheral stats is really that much of a step forward for Fantasy Baseball, then everyone would be playing Head-to-Head by now. But sadly, the removal of the categories also eliminates the most strategic element of Rotisserie play -- the one that helps separate the lifelong players from the newbies.

In short, you don't have to worry about balancing your team's stats. Diversification is no longer an issue. Your players' contributions need not complement each other. If somebody hits a homer, he scores points. If somebody strikes out, he loses points. Good is good. Bad is bad. It's all so simple and straightforward that you might wonder how exactly you're supposed to gain an advantage.

Winning on peripherals, I call it. No, you won't have the satisfaction of bludgeoning your opponents with your instinctive ability to juggle five stats in your head at once, but with a more intimate knowledge of everything each player brings to the table -- and how those contributions fit into your particular scoring system -- you can still come out ahead.

For example, would you have guessed that Nick Markakis outscored Mike Stanton in standard Head-to-Head leagues last year? Or that Juan Pierre outscored Drew Stubbs? What about Chipper Jones, with all of his injuries, outscoring Martin Prado?

And that's just a small sample of some of the anomalies you'll find if you simply go to your league's "Custom Reports" page and sort by last year's numbers. Michael Young over Hunter Pence? Carlos Beltran over Ryan Howard? Gaby Sanchez over Mark Reynolds? It's madness.

No, it's Head-to-Head Fantasy Baseball, and it's open for exploitation year after year.

That's not to say you should actually draft those higher-scoring players over the lower-scoring ones. In some cases, such as Pierre and Jones, you might not want to draft them at all. But if you can pinpoint what they did to outscore their higher-profile counterparts, you'll know to target the players with similar characteristics at the appropriate times in the draft.

The difference is in all those stats that the average Fantasy owner takes for granted. In the case of Beltran and Howard, for instance, Howard had an advantage in runs scored and a big advantage in home runs and RBI -- you know, the usual stuff. He even had more at-bats, so it's not like health allowed Beltran to sneak ahead of him. So what did? Beltran had nine more doubles and five more triples than Howard. He also struck out half as much as the free-swinger. Altogether, he had a 75-point advantage in those three stats, which more or less eliminated the gap created by Howard's homers and RBI.

Obviously, doubles, triples and strikeouts don't count for anything in Rotisserie leagues, giving Howard the advantage in those formats. But in Head-to-Head, Beltran gets the nod. Or at least he did last year.

That addendum is an important one because, again, you're drafting for this year, and when looking ahead, factors like upside and projectability have a greater say in draft order than last year's numbers do. If you select a low-profile player over a high-profile player for no other reason than because you detect he's undervalued in your particular format, then all you accomplished was making him no longer undervalued. In short, you paid more for him than you had to, which simply isn't smart.

The point here isn't to have some oddball draft that puts you in a different stratosphere from the rest of the league. The point is to scope out the inefficiencies in perception by familiarizing yourself with your scoring format in a way that most people never take the time to do.

Let's use Markakis as an example since, unlike Pierre and Jones, he's someone who'll get drafted in every league. Should you draft him over Stanton just because he outscored him last year? Of course not. Stanton is a young player approaching superstar status who, despite his shortcomings, could easily leapfrog Markakis this year. But as valuable as Stanton was last year, knowing that Markakis outscored him -- and that he did it during what most people would consider a down year for him -- should change your perception of him on Draft Day. He's not just another ninth-round outfielder; he's the one to target at that point in the draft.

So who else fits the bill? Logan Morrison (walks, doubles), Lucas Duda (walks, doubles), Dexter Fowler (doubles, triples), Nick Swisher (walks), Billy Butler (doubles, strikeouts), Dustin Ackley (walks, triples) all excel in areas that could allow them to slip through the cracks on Draft Day.

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And that's hardly an exhaustive list. In fact, if you play in a unique scoring format, you might have a completely different one. The key is to figure out how the numbers work together in your particular format, and the best way to do that is to see them in action. You have a whole season of data at your disposal. Make the most of it.

Performance only half the battle

Of course, the differences between Rotisserie and Head-to-Head aren't all in the numbers. The transition to Fantasy Football-style play has also changed the basis for success. In Rotisserie, the stats begin to accumulate on Day 1, and yet no score is taken until Day 162. Nobody wins or loses anything until that final day. You can obviously monitor your progress along the way, seeing where your team ranks in individual categories and as a whole, but it's all subject to change until the final game has ended on the final day of the season.

In Head-to-Head, you can't simply wait for numbers to right themselves over time because you don't have the luxury of time. The season is marked by checkpoints that, once reached, are set in stone. Those checkpoints are obviously the Head-to-Head matchups that occur every week (or every day, in more obsessive leagues). Each week, the performance of your players relative to the performance of the other team's players determines whether you win or lose. Once your team records a win or loss, it can't be undone. All your studs happen to have a bad week at the same time? Tough. No matter how well they perform the next week, that loss still stands.

On the surface, it's a fundamental concept. We all follow sports here. We all know how wins and losses work. But recognizing that your season is actually a series of short sprints rather than a single marathon will change the way you construct your team.

Obviously, consistency becomes a priority -- brief spikes in production won't help nearly as much as steady production from start to finish -- and the two factors that most influence a player's consistency are streakiness and health.

Good luck with the first one, right? Yeah, a handful of players seem to have distinct high and low points every year -- Alfonso Soriano and Edwin Encarnacion come to mind -- but the majority of the league doesn't fit into one category or the other. Few players are objectively streaky or steady.

Youkilis is a productive Fantasy option, when he plays. (US Presswire)  
Youkilis is a productive Fantasy option, when he plays. (US Presswire)  
I wouldn't want to steer you wrong by claiming otherwise. I can tell you that, as a general rule, players who walk more streak less. Eyes don't slump, and as long as a player gets on base, he has an opportunity to score Fantasy points via steals or runs scored. Still, even the most patient hitters have their share of peaks and valleys. It's unavoidable.

Injuries, on the other hand, are a little easier to forecast. I'm not talking about the pitcher who breaks his leg on a liner back up the middle or the speedster who dislocates his shoulder sliding head-first into home. Those are freak injuries, and freak injuries are fluke injuries. I'm talking about the third baseman who constantly has a strained hamstring or a sprained wrist or a tight back or a sore foot -- you know, the commonplace injuries that aren't necessarily bad enough to put him on the DL but will hold him out for days at a time. Those can become part of a player's profile, and you can tell whether or not a player fits the description just by looking at his games played from year to year.

Take Kevin Youkilis. Sure, he hits for both average and power and generates plenty of runs batting in the middle of the Red Sox lineup. Any Rotisserie owner would be thrilled to land him in the early rounds because he's a genuine stud at the third base position ... when he stays on the field. The problem for Head-to-Head owners is that he hasn't stayed on the field for more than 136 games in any of the last three seasons. And he hasn't had a 150-game season in his entire career.

So why not take advantage of his sky-high production when he's in the lineup and compensate for when he's not by drafting a suitable backup in the late rounds? It'd be a brilliant solution if you knew exactly when the injuries would occur and exactly how long they'd last. But you don't, and the constant uncertainty might actually do your team more harm than the injuries themselves.

Say Youkilis gets hurt on a Tuesday. Well, since you just set your lineup the day before, you have no choice but to accept the zeroes for every day he misses and, most likely, one of those losses you can't get back. Say he gets hurt on a Saturday, misses a Sunday and is still up in the air heading into the lineup deadline Monday? Do you start him? If you do, you risk another week full of zeroes. If you don't, you risk not getting a full return for your investment.

It's not just Youkilis, of course. Players like Jose Reyes, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Chase Utley all fall into that injury-prone category. Drafting any one of them would leave you with the same dilemma every week. Those players may actually play two-thirds of the season, but you'll find yourself starting them only half the time for fear of all the zeroes.

Talk about a bad investment. Draft any of those players in the early rounds, and you risk getting only 50 cents back on the dollar, which is probably incentive enough to be a little more selective about who you target at that stage of the draft. Unlike in Rotisserie, it's not just about what a player does. It's about how he does it.

Resisting the itching for pitching

Here I go again prattling on about hitters without once mentioning the other half of the game.

Some might see that as a glaring oversight. For some, any discussion on Head-to-Head Fantasy Baseball would begin with one word: pitchers. It might end there, too. Yes, for that portion of the Fantasy-playing community, stockpiling aces is the only way to go for the simple reason that pitchers tend to outscore hitters in Head-to-Head leagues.

It's true. The five highest-scoring players in standard Head-to-Head leagues last year? All pitchers.

But is that really the best way to assess a position's relative worth? If the top pitchers outscore the top hitters, isn't it true all the way down the line?

Let's see ... the 15th-best starting pitcher (Felix Hernandez) outscored the third-best third baseman (Aramis Ramirez), the 30th-best starting pitcher (Jon Lester) outscored the sixth-best second baseman (Dan Uggla), and the 45th-best starting pitcher (R.A. Dickey), outscored the ninth-best third baseman (Kevin Youkilis). Yup, seems to be the case.

A player's value in Fantasy is relative to the other players at his same position, not the other players at other positions. It's why a shortstop like Troy Tulowitzki routinely goes off the board ahead of first basemen like Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez even though he's projected to score fewer points. The advantage he provides at his shallow position is greater than the advantage they provide at their deep position.

You have to fill every position. There's no way around it. Drafting Justin Verlander in the first round may give you the highest-scoring player, but if passing on a shallower position so early in the draft is what prevents you from assembling the highest-scoring team possible, what's the point? Your focus shouldn't be on where you can get the most points at the time you pick but on where can you get the biggest advantage. More often than not, it's with the position players.

And if injuries are such a concern in Head-to-Head leagues, that's just one more reason to avoid drafting pitchers early. Their profession is inherently risky because of the unnatural torque needed to throw the ball at such high velocities. It's why Tommy John surgery has become so routine. And with so many high-upside options available in the middle rounds -- the Jordan Zimmermanns, Brandon Beachys and Cory Luebkes all angling to become this year's Madison Bumgarner or Ricky Romero -- why expose yourself to such risk so early?

It's not so black and white, I know. Particularly in a year when all the injury-prone hitters -- the ones I already told you to avoid -- seem to be congested in the early rounds of the draft, you might have no choice but to invest in a pitcher or two with your first five or six picks. And that's not such a terrible thing. The main reason I suggest to pass on early-round pitching is because of the relative value of the hitters you could have instead, but if those hitters are full of the kind of risk that diminishes that value, then yeah, having a legitimate ace couldn't hurt, particularly since the wins and innings they provide have a greater influence in Head-to-Head than in Rotisserie.

But remember: The hitters are the priority. And if -- as will hopefully be the case with at least your first three picks -- you do have a shot at a reliable one, you need to make sure to grab him, because ...

The bench is no place for backups

They're called two-start pitchers, and they're a reality in any weekly scoring format. And in Head-to-Head leagues specifically, they often mean the difference between success and failure.

Rotisserie is different. With its emphasis on percentages, getting a second start from a lesser pitcher might simply mean twice the damage to your team's ERA and WHIP, giving you less incentive to make the switch from your established one-start options. But in Head-to-Head leagues, which emphasize totals over percentages, the extra innings accumulated in the second start often outweigh the repercussions of starting the lesser pitcher. It's not so excessive that you might actually choose to bench a one-start ace for whatever two-start schlub you can find off the waiver wire, but generally speaking, any pitcher worth rostering under normal circumstances is worth activating for a two-start week.

If that's the case, wouldn't a bench full of two-start possibilities make up for the lack of a bona-fide ace? Might it actually be the preferred way to go?

That's the idea, and it's yet another reason why hitters should take priority in the early rounds. With enough two-start pitchers -- again, not scrubs, but second- and third-tier players carefully targeted for their upside -- an ace becomes unnecessary. In fact, he might just get in the way.

Hitters don't have the same type of workaround.

Of course, to take advantage of that workaround, you have to be willing to pass on backup position players, which might go against your natural instincts. Yes, whenever a bench is available in Fantasy, the temptation is to fill it out the same way a real-life team would, with a backup catcher here, a middle infielder there and so on. But in standard mixed leagues, it's not necessary. Head-to-Head rosters are small. Not every MLB starter will make the cut. Typically, several will remain unowned at each position, so if you ever develop a need somewhere -- say, at second base because your starter went down with a knee injury -- you'll always have a replacement at your disposal.

And chances are if you were able to stock up on reliable hitters in the early rounds, you won't be developing too many of those needs.

In the meantime, you can use your bench slots as a way to protect the players that are actually worth protecting. Maybe in deeper leagues with inadequate waiver wires that feature nothing but major-league reserves, you'd need those bench slots for depth, but in standard formats, they're best used as a way to keep the best players from falling into the wrong hands.

Therefore, the only hitters you should bother stashing are the ones with enough upside to overtake your starters and become must-start options themselves. If they wouldn't be any better than what you could find on the waiver wire after the draft, why bother? Target a pitcher instead. Give your staff the added boost of an extra two-start option -- particularly if it's one with breakout potential -- and close the gap on the owners who invested in the big-name pitchers early.

It seems like such a trivial detail -- how you construct your bench in Fantasy -- but any little advantage you can gain, whether by maximizing roster spots, minimizing risk or uncovering statistical quirks, could be the difference between a win and a loss in a given week. And any loss could be the one that knocks you out of the playoff picture.

Head-to-Head, unlike Rotisserie, may not have the complication of categories, but with so many more variables to consider, it's its own juggling act. Fortunately, the more you begin see how those variables fit together, the easier you'll recognize the best and worst players for your particular format.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also send our staff an e-mail at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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