Most fantasy analysis is directed at "roto" leagues. The "rotisserie" format is credited with being the original version of fantasy baseball, invented at a restaurant bearing that name in the 1970s. All the major expert leagues - LABR, Tout Wars, etc. - still abide those rules. The truth is, however, there has been a significant shift towards a wider variety of styles in recent years, especially towards H2H leagues. The advantage of H2H play is that you are rarely undone by a poor stretch early in the season or an untimely spat of injuries. Active managers adjust and find ways to squeak into the playoffs, where anything can happen, just like in the real thing. In one of my most competitive leagues last season, I began the year by going 0-8. In a competitive roto league, that abysmal April probably would've killed any title dreams, but because it was a H2H league, a couple deft maneuvers led to a strong finish and in October I walked away with the prize money. Because something like this tends to happen relatively frequently, owners stay much more active in H2H leagues. They can hold out hope for a season-saving hot streak until at least August.
The drawback of H2H leagues (if you choose to see it that way) is that the championship rides on your performance over a very abbreviated period of time. Usually the playoffs last no longer than six weeks, more often four, with the final two teams facing off during the last two weeks of the season (a.k.a. starting tomorrow). So, while you may have led your league in every statistical category in 2010, you can still be runner-up if things don't go your way down the stretch. To add to your frustration, there is the fact that many franchises will be limiting the play of their superstars and/or testing out inexperienced call-ups during this stretch, reeking havoc on your lineup. Basically, the landscape for the Championship round is completely different from everything you've done thusfar.
This year (assuming I survive the Tigers/White Sox game unscathed) through a minor miracle, I am playing in the Championship round in five H2H leagues. Three of those leagues are "weekly," so the lineups are locked when games begin on Monday. Here are some of the things I'm thinking about this evening:
1.) No Tomorrow
With everything riding on two weeks worth of production, you can't leave any holes in your lineup. It will be great if Jimmy Rollins and Josh Hamilton make their returns for the final few days of the season. If you have room to stash them on your bench, do so. But if not, in the words of Prince, "letitgo". In all likelihood, guys like Mike Aviles, Jhonny Peralta, J. J. Hardy, and Jed Lowrie are going to do a lot more for you than J-Roll, as much as I hate to admit it. Even in keeper leagues, though you're probably not going to drop a Rollins or a Hamilton, you should take a long hard look at your team, consider who your potential 2011 keepers could be, and make everybody else expendable. Don't get attached. Don't get sentimental. Dustin Pedroia will survive being cut from your World Series roster.
2.) Pennant Race Pitchers
One of the most frustrating parts of the H2H playoffs is that you don't get to set your rotation. Obviously, if I had my way, Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Cliff Lee, and Ian Kennedy would all get at least three starts in the next fourteen days. But, plainly, that's not going to happen. Halladay will no doubt be shutdown as soon as the Phillies clinch. Same for Lee in Texas. Kennedy could be limited due to the fact he's already about 25 innings past his previous career-high and Arizona is playing mostly meaningless baseball. You need to analyze your staff very carefully and prepare to make some unusual decisions.
Jairr Jurrjens has not been very good this year, but Atlanta doesn't have anybody preferable waiting in the wings, so it looks like Jurrjens will start three of their remaining twelve games, as the Braves attempt to squeeze into the postseason. Sure, he might lose all three, but nine times out of ten a three-start pitcher is going to be better than a one-start pitcher, no matter who they are. Comb the waiver wire for guys who still have something to play for, either because they're in a dogfight for a playoff berth or because they're trying to prove something going forward. Jake Westbrook is going to be a free agent come Novermber. Every quality start he registers for the Cardinals is likely to put money in his pocket. John Lannan was so bad early in the season he got sent back to AAA. He's been pitching gangbusters since his return and will be headed to arbitration this offseason. He'll want to have a strong evidence that he's still Washington's Ace. It's also worth thinking about guys like John Ely and Jeff Samardzija, who are trying to get into the mix for next season's rotation.
3.) Watch The Scoreboard
This is a facet of the "no tomorrow" approach, but if you play in a "category" league (as opposed to a points league), pay close attention to where your strengths and weaknesses lie, especially as you get close to the end of the first week. If you're down by ten homers, but ahead by two stolen bases, it may be time to drop Adam Dunn, Jay Bruce, and Mark Reynolds in favor of Michael Brantley, Jose Tabata, and Emilio Bonafacio. Also, don't overdo it with the pitching. If you have a solid lead in wins and strikeouts, and a slight edge in ERA and WHIP, don't rush to pick up Chris Capuano or Jeanmar Gomez just because your strategy is to stream starters. You've got the lead. If your opponent makes a little run, then you can resort to desperate measures, but don't post a 10.60 ERA on Tuesday night only to realize you would've swept the pitching categories if you'd just had the good sense to leave your damn staff alone.
4.) Play Defense
So, it's Thursday of the second week of the Championship and you've got a modest lead in strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. The next evening Bud Norris is going to be pitching against the Cubs. Now, you don't want Norris because he's liable to give up seven earned in three innings, but you also don't want your opponent to pick him up, because he's equally liable to strike out eleven Cubbies in seven innings. There's no harm in stashing him on your bench. First come, first serve.
5.) Not Every Season Ends On Sunday
Over the next two weeks, many players will be shut down. Players whose teams were long ago eliminated might be prepping for elective surgeries. Young pitchers might reach their innings limits. At the very least, several starting pitchers will make their final starts on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. Once their season is over, they are of no use to you. Drop the starter, pick up a middle reliever who can get you a handful of strikeouts and maybe a few innings of solid ERA and WHIP (if those are things you still need).
Finally, have fun. There's no guarantee you'll have the opportunity to play this particular aspect of the game every year. Get into it. Watch the Pirates play the Astros, so that you can see how your James McDonald pick worked out. Talk some shit on the message-board. Check the box scores under the table during a staff meeting. Bore your wife and girlfriend with braggadocio about your amazing Justin Masterson prediction. That's why we do this, after all. Isn't it?