The return of multi-game slates brings the return of tournament strategy, as Thursday kicks off the non-ridiculous portion of MLB’s playoffs. Both ALDS series should be a blast, with the Red Sox and Rays squaring off and the loaded White Sox and Astros lineups going toe to toe at 4:07 p.m. ET. All four teams will have a quality pitching option on the mound, and these games have relatively low totals on the board in Vegas, as is common with October baseball. With only four teams to choose from, getting a bit different with roster construction is a positive move. Gamers can take a hitter against rostered MLB DFS pitchers in this format, though it is better to limit that exposure to one, two at the most, with the hopes that their damage comes against the bullpen later in the game. Getting to mini-stacks and multi-team constructions is viable in this format as well, though the correlation between hitters from the same team is still critically important to capture as well. Utilizing individual Ownership Projections alongside our Top Stacks Tool should help elucidate which are the best MLB DFS picks of the night.
MLB DFS Tournament Strategy: Top HR Options
Home runs are the holy grail when making MLB DFS picks. Finding the right combination of sluggers who will knock one, or better two, out of the park to drive in the teammates you stack with them is critical to winning GPPs. Identifying the likely home run hitters is trickier than just looking at the big names. Using a model of my design, based on a blend of several predictive statistics for the batter-pitcher matchup, I will give each team one of the top choices. However, it will not always be the absolute top-ranked player, particularly when there is an obvious star in that spot every day.
Home Run Ratings
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Scale: 5-10 Average; 10-20 Good; 20-25 Very Good; 25+ Great
Boston Red Sox: Hunter Renfroe — 10.14
Chicago White Sox: Yasmani Grandal — 4.30
Houston Astros: Jose Altuve — 7.22
Tampa Bay Rays: Nelson Cruz — 10.32
This is intended to capture the full range of home run upside for each team. It is not meant as a stack ranking and does not account for pricing or popularity — only home run potential. The first column is the average rating for the full projected lineup (pitcher bats not included in non-DH games), and the second is for the top six hitters in the projected lineup.
MLB DFS Picks: Pitchers, Optimal Stacks & Leverage Plays
This section will feature a few standout MLB DFS spots and teams to look at for potential plays on DraftKings and FanDuel. Ensure to check out the Awesemo Ownership Projections for critical updates and monitor the top stacks tool throughout the day for changes.
On the Hill
With four solid options on the mound for their teams, we can take a look at each starter individually. It is worth noting that, as was the case in the one-game playoffs over the last two days, managers are far more willing to get into bullpens early in critical playoff games, though this format is less friendly to the relief pitcher play for the most part. If one were inclined to look in that direction, targeting a narrative of a pitcher getting blown up early and looking for a long reliever who may cover two to three innings, or looking at a highly likely high-leverage arm like a closer or setup man is the best of the bad bets.
The visiting White Sox will have veteran rotation anchor Lance Lynn on the mound to face the excellent Astros lineup. Lynn threw a low-for-him 157 innings over 28 starts, pitching to a 27.5% strikeout rate and a 3.81 xFIP with a 1.07 WHIP. Lynn walked seven percent of opposing hitters this season and he had a low 25.7% CSW but a steady 12% swinging-strike rate. He allowed just a 34.4% hard-hit percentage and a 5.7% barrel rate with 87.7 mph average exit velocity. Lynn’s .302 expected slugging percentage against is a 92nd percentile mark, while his .191 expected batting average against is in the 91st. Lynn is an excellent starter, but he is facing a deadly lineup. The Astros active roster was first in baseball creating runs 16% better than average against right-handed pitching this season. The team had a .177 ISO and a 4.05% home run rate in the split, both of which were above average on the season, and they limited strikeouts to just 20.3%, the second-lowest mark in the league against righties. Lynn is the most expensive pitcher on the blue site and third out of for by cost on DraftKings. While all four pitchers will be owned across both sites, Lynn is the only positive leverage play on the pitching board, particularly on FanDuel where his ownership is just half his projected probability of being the top pitcher.
On the other side of the contest, Lance McCullers brings a high strikeout rate at 27% but an unsightly 11.1% walk rate that could be his undoing against a lineup as good as Chicago’s. McCullers threw 162.1 innings over 28 starts this season and had a 3.69 xFIP, a 1.22 WHIP, 11.6% swinging-strike rate and 31.4% CSW. He allowed just a 5.3% barrel rate but gave up a 40.4% hard-hit percentage. With that contact coming at just a 5.1-degree average launch angle, the power threat against McCullers is minimized, which can be seen in the suppression of the White Sox numbers in the home run model. The White Sox active roster had a surprisingly low .164 ISO and a 3.50% home run rate against righties this season, both in the middle of the league. They struck out at a 22.6% rate in the split, coming up better than average at avoiding the strikeout, while their run creation mark sat sixth best in baseball at nine percent above average. McCullers is targetable for sequential hitting and run creation when he is not pitching to peak form. The White Sox make for a quality hitting play when facing the most negatively leveraged pitcher out of our four options, but McCullers stands an equal chance of posting a dominant start. This is a spot to undercut the field, while still rostering a large share of the Astros’ starter.
Eduardo Rodriguez leads the Red Sox into Tampa Bay to take on a Rays team that dominated the AL East division all season. The Rays; well-built lineup ranked sixth in baseball with a collective WRC+ 12% better than average and they had a .176 ISO with a 3.81% home run rate in the split. Tampa Bay’s active roster struck out at an aggressive 24.3% clip against southpaws, the only mark that falls below average, but they will be dangerous against a pitcher who has struggled with bad luck and happenstance, while pitching quite well, all season long. Rodriguez pitched to a 4.74 ERA this season, but he had a sharp 3.43 xFIP and a 3.32 FIP, while posting a 27.4% strikeout rate and walking seven percent. Rodriguez had a .363 batting average on balls in play allowed and just a 68.9% strand rate. For what he could control, he was also quite good at avoiding quality contact. He allowed a 6.8% barrel rate but limited hitters to a 33.6% hard-hit percentage. Rodriguez is the least expensive pitcher on DraftKings and is consequently drawing significant attention on the slate. He is negatively leveraged on the FanDuel slate as well, but with all pitchers other than Lynn owned at similarly high levels it is fine to roster him in tournaments.
Rookie lefty Shane McClanahan is the low man on the list by name recognition, but he is highly competitive with the other options on talent and by the numbers. Making the leap to full-time major league starter directly from Double-A this season, McClanahan threw 123.1 innings in 25 starts for the big club. He posted an excellent 27.3% strikeout rate with a 7.2% walk percentage. He had a sparkling 3.23 xFIP with a 1.27 WHIP and a 14.8% swinging-strike rate. McClanahan did allow a significant amount of premium contact, however. He comes into tonight with a 10.7% barrel rate and a 45.4% hard-hit percentage and a 91.7 mph average exit velocity allowed, and his .429 xSLG is a 28th percentile mark. Against a lineup that packs as much power as the Red Sox, McClanahan’s propensity for hitting the fat part of the bat could get him into a touch of trouble. Still, he grades as a quality option among the list of four. He is projected for roughly efficient ownership and should be rostered in tournaments.
Chicago White Sox
On a normal day, the White Sox would likely be the featured stack in this space, they lead the slate as the most positively leveraged team among the four options on the slate. Chicago is under-owned by comparison to the competition and there is a targetable statistic on the mound for the opposition, McCullers’ inflated walk rate is the highest, by far, among the four starting pitchers. The White Sox projected starting lineup has an average on-base percentage of .348 and an average walk rate of 9.8%, they can potentially exploit the free pass. Chicago typically starts a lineup that is playable from one through nine. Things get started with an excellent leadoff man and premium MLB DFS shortstop, Tim Anderson. Anderson struggled with some lingering injuries that forced him out of the lineup down the stretch, but he hit 17 home runs and stole 18 bases in just 551 plate appearances while slashing .309/.338/.469 and creating runs 20% better than average. He is followed by an outstanding list of hitters including Luis Robert, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez and Yasmani Grandal. Grandal finished this season with a 23.2% walk rate, a 53.2% hard-hit percentage and a 13.3% barrel rate that translated to a .240/.420/.520 triple-slash with a .280 ISO and a WRC+ 59% better than average, with 23 home runs over 375 plate appearances. Yoan Moncada stands out from the back-half of the lineup, but quality can be found among Leury Garcia, Gavin Sheets and Cesar Hernandez.
The Astros rival the White Sox for the number of times mentioned in this space throughout the season. The team seems to come up with positive leverage on slate after slate, despite leading baseball in many offensive categories. The All-Star lineup that Houston runs out night after night is frequently extremely expensive, but that is not the case on this slate, everyone can be rostered. The lineup begins with Jose Altuve, who hit 31 home runs and posted a .211 ISO as a leadoff man. Outfielder Michael Brantley brings veteran quality and an excellent hit tool to the second spot in the lineup and is then followed by two power bats in Alex Bregman and the excellent Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez blasted 33 home runs and had a .253 ISO while creating runs 38% better than average this season. Anyone who has read this column knows Yuli Gurriel is the least appreciated man in MLB DFS. He slashed .319/.383/.462 and created runs 34% better than average while going under-owned every night this season. The back end of the batting order features two All-Star-caliber players in Kyle Tucker and Carlos Correa, with Jake Meyers and Martin Maldonado rounding out the starting lineup.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox bring a high-quality lineup to Tropicana Field tonight. The team included veteran slugger JD Martinez on the ALDS roster after he missed the farcical first-round contest against the Yankees. Martinez typically slots into the middle of a loaded Red Sox lineup that includes several excellent options. The leadoff hitter for Boston most nights this season has been Enrique Hernandez, who managed a .250/.337/.449 performance in the role while creating runs 10% better than average. Hernandez hit 20 home runs and had a .199 ISO. He is good at keeping the ball in play, with just an 18.8% strikeout rate as well. Hernandez is cheap but will be very popular across both sites. A significant amount of power and premium contact follows in the lineup, with Hunter Renfroe, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Martinez if he plays, Bobbly Dalbec and Kyle Schwarber appearing in some order. Outfielder Alex Verdugo will land near the back end of the lineup, where he stands a shot to surprise at just 15.4% ownership and a $3,200 price tag on DraftKings. Verdugo had a strong season, slashing .289/.351/.426 with a WRC+ seven percent above average, but he struggled badly against same-handed pitching, with a .228/.269/.286 triple-slash and an anemic .058 ISO in the split. He may sit, depending on the configuration of the lineup, which swings on the availability of Martinez. The lineup rounds out with Christian Arroyo and Christian Vazquez as add-on options for full stacks. The Red Sox will be very popular, and they rank at the bottom of the four-team list by the probability of being the top-scoring stack.
Tampa Bay Rays
As documented in his pitching section, Rodriguez has been far better than his basic numbers may suggest to the casual fan. He has been very unlucky and suffered from things that are out of his control. He has strikeout ability and there are heavy strikeouts in the Rays lineup when facing a lefty, yet still, they lead the stacks board on both sites. The team is simply that good for run creation and there are several individual hitters with ridiculous upside against southpaws. The projected lineup for Tampa Bay kicks off with last year’s playoff superhero, Randy Arozarena. After his splashy debut in the postseason, Arozarena put up what is likely to be a Rookie of the Year performance, slashing .274/.356/.459 with a .185 ISO, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. He is affordable but popular on both sites. The Rays have another potential Rookie of the Year winner in Wander Franco. Franco made 308 plate appearances, famously stretching an on-base streak to a shocking 43 games. That mark tied Hall of Famer Frank Robinson for the longest in MLB history by a player 20 or younger, a mark that had stood alone since 1956. The pair of young rising stars is followed by grizzled veteran destroyer of southpaw dreams, Nelson Cruz. Cruz has a ridiculous 6.03% career home run rate against left-handed pitching, enough said. Yandy Diaz, Austin Meadows (despite the lefty/lefty matchup), Manuel Margot, Jordan Luplow and Joey Wendle all offer points of quality up and down the Rays lineup. Catcher Mike Zunino has also been featured in this space numerous times throughout the season. Zunino hit 33 home runs in just 375 plate appearances this season, finishing second among catchers. The league-leading total of 48 put up by Salvador Perez was remarkable, breaking the 45-homer catcher record set by Johnny Bench in 1970. Perez’s total came in 665 plate appearances, a 7.22% rate. Zunino hit home runs at an 8.8% clip. Zunino is highly popular on the DraftKings slate, where the position is required, but he is at worst efficiently owned on the blue site, making him a solid tournament play.
HR Call: Bobby Dalbec* — Boston Red Sox
* This has been mentioned in this space repeatedly, but Dalbec is in elite company when filtering for barrel rate among hitters with more than 450 plate appearances this season. He is projected for less than 20% popularity on a two-game slate tonight:
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MLB DFS Tournament Strategy: Leverage, Home Runs, Optimal Picks | Today, 10/20/21
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