Daily Fantasy Decisions: Get Ready For Opening Day

Editor’s Note: As part of our expanded fantasy coverage, this season Baseball America will dedicate a weekly column to daily fantasy baseball, a growing part of the fantasy landscape that offers a lot of flexibility to competitors. These stories will include general tips and strategy, as well as a list of players to target in your daily games each week. For the introductory column, Antonio D’Arcangelis reviews some of the basic rules to follow in composing your daily fantasy lineups, and a brief guide to some of the players he likes for Opening Day.

If you’re unfamiliar with daily fantasy sports, there’s a lot to take in, especially considering the level of competition on some of the sites. Most daily games operate on a salary cap basis, with participants selecting from a universal pool of players who are assigned salaries that fluctuate based on performance and vary from site to site. A player may provide excellent value on one site, and not as much on another, depending on their particular scoring system and salary adjustments.

You’ll probably want to try out different sites and strategies, depending on what format works best for you, and you’ll likely find one that’s a good fit. It’s an addicting endeavor, but one that provides ample rewards for the shrewd competitor. Some brazen individuals are doing this stuff full-time.

Like a homicide detective composes and narrows down a list of possible suspects based on means, motive and opportunity, a daily fantasy “grinder” (a preferred industry term) focuses on matchups, means and opportunity, among other factors. The players you choose to round out your squad need to have the means and opportunity to succeed, so they must be in the lineup on the day you’re playing them (preferably in the top half or middle) and getting productive at-bats for them to score points.

Unlike season-long rotisserie-based scoring, in daily games you’ll need to follow injuries more closely just to make sure the guy you’re targeting is playing—and not nursing a balky quad or dealing with an oblique injury that’s landed him on the DL. Pay special attention to primary catchers who may get a day off when a starting pitcher throws to a personal catcher, or veterans getting rest or missing the second half of a doubleheader. Conversely, secondary (defensive) catchers and utility players getting a random start can provide an ultra-cheap option (sometimes called a “punt”) to help you stay under the contest’s salary cap. Knowing which of these players to target (and when to target them) is essential to daily fantasy success in both guaranteed prize pool (GPP) tournaments and cash games (smaller leagues and head-to-head contests).

Matchups are also important. You’ll want to target a couple of cheaper platoon players (batters facing opposite-handed starters) and/or notoriously split-heavy sluggers doing the same. Relevant splits and park factors are worth considering, as well as personal histories against certain pitchers. Just don’t get too bogged down analyzing a glut of historical data. Most batter-facing-pitcher stats (or pitcher-facing-lineup stats) represent a smaller sample size and are not always reliable. Just because a guy has a homer and two doubles against a particular pitcher in nine career ABs doesn’t automatically mean he’s ready to mash on that particular day—especially if he’s currently in a 2-for-22 slump.

Speaking of slumps, it’s generally a good rule to avoid players in the midst of them. Hitters get hot and go cold; it’s an undeniable part of a game that’s played every day. There’s plenty of information right at your fingertips regarding how guys have been faring at the dish—use it.

Finally, it’s crucial that daily fantasy players follow the weather. Most sites count rainouts/cancellations as a goose egg for all involved, which means you’re not likely to be cashing in any tournaments if you’ve got one or more players on the roster with zero points. There are a few weather sites (Weather Underground is one that comes to mind) that give specific data regarding baseball and other sporting events. If there’s a huge storm threatening a game, it’s better to just avoid it. Play the percentages, and stay updated on last-minute lineups changes via Twitter and other newsfeeds.

If you have any additional questions about daily fantasy games and strategy, hit me up on Twitter (@LouisLipps). I’ll be happy to get to your questions when possible. On to my Opening Day recommendations:

Pitchers

• Stephen Strasburg, Nationals (@ Mets): Strasburg faces Dillon Gee and the Mets on Opening Day, and he’s one of the highest-priced options on the board. Regardless of his price, Strasburg was an impressive 4-0, 1.83 this spring. If you can make it work, he may be worth spending a little extra for the upside.
• Chris Sale, White Sox (vs. Twins): If Strasburg is option 1, Sale is 1A. The lanky lefty can post double-digit strikeouts, the Twins’ projected 2, 3 and 5 hitters are lefties, and the White Sox have an excellent chance at a win in their season opener.
• Sonny Gray, Athletics (vs. Indians): He’s not going to cost you top dollar, and he’s an exciting young ace who posted a 9.42 K/9 last season. If you’ve got your eye on more than one big bat, saving a couple thousand at pitcher will help you get under the cap.
• Jorge De La Rosa, Rockies (@ Marlins): De La Rosa isn’t Sandy Koufax, and he struggled a bit this spring, but he’s a dynamic southpaw who can get you a win and a few Ks on the cheap. He’s also pitching outside Coors Field in the opener. You’ll be taking on risk, but with him you could afford to load up on more fantasy studs at the positions.

Catchers

• Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers (vs. Braves): One of the top bats among backstops, Lucroy’s splits aren’t extreme and he’s a reliable plug-in at a pretty volatile position. He’s a safe play with some upside, and I’ll be targeting him in a few lineups.
• J.P. Arencibia, Rangers (vs. Phillies): This is a pure gamble. Arencibia strikes out at an alarming rate, but he’s a free swinger who can pile up the fantasy points, and he’s the projected catcher for Texas on Opening Day.

First Basemen

• Freddie Freeman, Braves (@ Brewers): Freeman had a breakout 2013 and uses an excellent batting eye to pick his spots for a shrewd-but-aggressive plate approach. He’s also a lefty facing the righthanded enigma that is Yovani Gallardo.
• Anthony Rizzo, Cubs (@ Pirates): Many experts included a Rizzo breakout in their bold predictions for 2014, and there’s no need to wait if you’re a believer. While lefthander Francisco Liriano (groin) has been medically cleared to start for the Pirates on Opening Day, I have my doubts he’ll last—even if he starts—more than a few innings. Rizzo is risky but makes an interesting contrarian play in GPP tournaments, where standing out from the crowd is a good thing.

Second Basemen

• Jason Kipnis, Indians (@ Athletics): I’m recommending Kipnis even though I will have Gray plugged in as my starter in a few games. He had a great spring, and many believe he could out-produce Robinson Cano this season.
• Anthony Rendon, Nationals (@ Mets): Like Rizzo, Rendon has been targeted as a top fantasy value for his low price, and I’m buying. He has a knack for getting on base and his power is developing.

Third Basemen

• Pedro Alvarez, Pirates (vs. Cubs): We still haven’t seen the best of Alvarez, whose power is starting to peak at age 27. Jeff Samardzija’s fastball gets hit, and Alvarez crushes fastballs. He’s my top 3B value play of the day, with the possible exception of . . .
• Mike Olt, Cubs (@ Pirates): Olt has colossal home run power and will likely get the start at third base if Liriano does indeed start for the Pirates on Monday. He didn’t hit any bombs in his 33 ABs for the Rangers last season, but he could make a big splash in the opener and eventually take over the job full-time.

Shortstops

• Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies (@ Marlins): Tulo is one of fantasy’s greatest assets when he’s healthy, and he seems to be over the minor calf injury that bothered him a couple of weeks ago. He’s more valuable in Coors Field, but still offers the most upside of any shortstop on Opening Day.
• Brad Miller, Mariners (@ Angels): You want value? Miller could be a steal on most daily sites. A good spring has a lot of people convinced he’s primed for a big year, but that all depends on securing the starting job and batting near the top of the lineup. Stay tuned.

Outfielders

• Ryan Braun, Brewers (vs. Braves): Braun can steal bases and hit home runs—the two most important attributes in fantasy. With his suspension behind him, Braun is a decent option to start off the season because of his depressed price. He’s a risk because of Julio Teheran’s electric stuff, but the Braves’ starter is a homer-prone flyball pitcher.
• Bryce Harper, Nationals (@ Mets): He’s developing a spectacular physique to go along with a great swing, and there’s a chance the additional power gets him near or over the 30-home run mark this season. Gee gave up 24 homers last season (sixth-most in the NL), so Harper’s a good upside play even at a costly price.
• Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins (vs. Rockies): Speaking of power, is there a more prodigious righthanded power bat in the NL than Stanton right now? At 24, it’s scary to think Stanton’s power hasn’t yet peaked, and it may be even scarier for De La Rosa, who has to face this monster in the opener. Stanton is the only bat on Miami I’d be targeting on Monday.
• Norichika Aoki, Royals (@ Tigers): The Royals’ new leadoff hitter could score an awful lot of runs this season and is a good bet to swipe 20 bases. As an effective lefty slap hitter, he’s a good option against righty power pitcher Justin Verlander, who had a down year in 2013 but looked great this spring. There’s some inherent risk facing Verlander, but I like Aoki’s tools and value.
• Kole Calhoun, Angels (vs. Mariners): Calhoun is batting leadoff for the Angels, and I’m bullish on his prospects at the top of that meaty order. He’s worth a look for your daily lineups throughout the early part of the season, and could be a breakout star in standard fantasy leagues.
• Grady Sizemore, Red Sox (@ Orioles): The Sizemore experiment could be a lucrative one for the Red Sox, and he’s a minimum salary option in daily fantasy. In 12 games this spring, Sizemore hit 333/.381/.462 and beat out Jackie Bradley for the starting gig in center field, where he’ll be roaming at Camden Yards on Monday.