Fantasy Baseball Takeaways: John Means and the changing shape of MLB

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OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 30: John Means #47 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at RingCentral Coliseum on April 30, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
John Means joined the no-hit parade Wednesday. There will be more entries this year. (Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Congratulations if you had John Means in your first week of May no-hitter pool. Head to the window, and don’t forget two forms of identification.

Offense is hard, man. Hitting ain’t easy. We’re going to have more days like this.

Only a wild pitch on a strikeout — leading to a Seattle baserunner — kept Means from a perfect game Wednesday. He struck out 12 in all, no walks, no hits of course. Total domination. Lawnmower Man. 

Means is up to 4-0 on the year, 1.37 ERA, 0.67 WHIP. This is what a breakout season looks like. Means was drafted in a late pocket all spring (Yahoo ADP: 229), but he’s graduated to set-and-forget status. He’s doing everything we want — missing bats, throwing strikes, baiting hitters to chase, inducing weak contact. Even the career trajectory lines up, with Means putting it together in his age-28 season.

But speaking globally, I wonder how many mound dogpiles we’re going to see this year. How many no-hitters are to come? And what’s the fantasy takeaway to all this?

I eyeballed the no-hitter chart in the post-expansion era and found four different years with seven or more no-hitters. It happened in 1990 and 1991 — remember when Baseball Tonight was appointment television? — and fairly recently, 2012 and 2015. There were two no-nos in last year’s truncated season — Lucas Giolito and Alec Mills. (Mills isn’t even in the Cubs rotation this season; he grabbed a relief win over the Dodgers on Wednesday.)

By now you’ve heard about the curious offensive shape of today’s game. The current MLB average is .233, the lowest in history. The last time a season was this hit-unfriendly — the league batted .237 in 1968 — the mound was lowered the following season. An influx of expansion pitching also boosted offense in 1969.

Home runs and strikeouts smother baseball like never before. If you look at the highest per-game strikeout counts in history, the Top 16 are all from the 2000s. We’re currently at 9.04 per team, a new record. The average had never climbed past seven until the 2010 season; it’s been a runaway train since.

A 2021 team homers an average of 1.16 per game. That’s the fifth-highest clip in history, for whatever we take from about five weeks. The record came two years ago; 1.39 dingers per game in 2019.

Warmer weather will help somewhat, but this toothpaste isn't going back in the tube. The game has changed. We have to accept reality. 

So what’s a fantasy manager to do? Recalibrate expectations, and consider different roster constructions.

The Yahoo Friends & Family League is a 16-team mixer, with daily moves. We’re getting the best players on the field that we can, every night. The median batting average in the F&F is .242. Remember all those old jokes about Kris Davis batting .247 every year? That average would help you in 2021.

So try not to be a batting-average snob. If a player is producing and his average is slightly over the Mendoza, I’m not sweating it. Consider Robbie Grossman, who’s batting just .212, but with two homers and six stolen bases. He’s currently the No. 53 outfielder in 5x5 value, and remember position eligibility is extremely liberal in Yahoo. Grossman is a helpful player, even with that low hit count.

The other major change I’m taking with fantasy baseball 2021 is I’m steering into relief pitchers like never before. Just because low ERAs and WHIPs are falling out of trees doesn’t mean we need less of these innings — we need more wipeout innings. And it’s far easier to stuff it down an offense’s throat when you’re only asked to pitch an inning or two. Let it all hang out, pitch with your hair on fire, pick up a strikeout or two, hit the showers.

Wins continue to slide away from starting pitchers, as the non-stars are asked to do less and less. Games are more commonly won in the middle and late innings, by pitchers who weren’t listed in your morning paper. (Oh, right, the morning paper is as much a relic as Baseball Tonight.) My Friends & Family roster only has four starting pitchers on it, and I’m not using Dallas Keuchel for all of his starts. But I have eight relievers I’m happy to deploy, attack them on the world.

I’ll have to figure out strikeouts, I’m near in the bottom in that area. But I’m third in ERA, third in WHIP, second in saves despite not drafting them proactively — and third in wins. And that’s with eight teams having more innings banked than I do. Add it all up, and I'm in third place, primed to contend. (I know no one really cares about someone else's fantasy team, but I list these things to illustrate the general point.) 

Maybe you didn’t get into this fantasy gig to draft Chad Green, or to pick up Kendall Graveman, or to audit Giovanny Gallegos. But this is the way to contention. This is where the wipeout innings are. You need a handful of these guys, and they’re all over the place. Start with the winning teams. Know every reliever on the San Diego Padres. 

As for the hitters, don’t be a batting-average snob. If someone offers category juice and a reasonable slot, you can live with all sorts of averages that would have turned your stomach 10 years ago.

There’s a romanticism to baseball that no other sport can really match. It's a blast to draft deGrom and Tatis, a joy to watch Trout every night, a marvel to appreciate Acuna. The Buxton breakout is real and it's spectacular. But the fantasy battle is won in the trenches, in the middle innings, with players who will never headline a network promo. Let’s try to steer into that.