Fantasy baseball certainly keeps us on our toes. After dealing with shortened seasons and labor disruptions in recent years, the MLB front office decided to throw 2023 fantasy managers another massive curveball in the form of several rule changes.
Any manager who struggled this year should take their results with a grain of salt, as trying to navigate the changing landscape in real time took plenty of skill and luck. However, for the first time in years, we should have some year-over-year consistency heading into the 2024 campaign.
Those who wrap their heads around the takeaways listed below will head into the offseason with a clear vision of where things should go from here.
Stolen bases have become plentiful
The first takeaway was the most predictable one before the season began, but it is still worth noting that the predicted rise in stolen bases came to fruition. For example, we have already doubled the number of men who reached the 25-steal benchmark a year ago. Ronald Acuña Jr. will post the second-highest steals total since the year 2000, and there will be at least six players who reach the 40-swipe plateau.
The disappearance of steals scarcity also ties into some volatility in the category, as we have several players such as Esteury Ruiz, CJ Abrams, Willi Castro, Ha-Seong Kim and Josh Lowe who are among the stolen base leaders despite starting 2023 as late-round picks or waiver-wire dwellers. After years of feeling pressure to attack the steals category early in drafts, managers now have the option to sprinkle in a few base stealers at various points in the selection process, and to attack the category via the waiver wire as well.
Starting pitchers are throwing us curveballs
To me, this feels more like a blip on the radar than a sustainable trend. But I must report that the dominant starting pitcher temporarily went extinct in 2023. As of this writing, just two qualified pitchers have an ERA under 2.80 and one hurler (Gerrit Cole) owns a WHIP under 1.00. Finally, outside of Spencer Strider, no starter is going to post an eye-popping strikeout total.
There are still plenty of effective starters around the majors, and these men remain vital to creating a winning fantasy squad. But the lack of separation at the position means that 2024 drafters may want to value quantity over quality, by starting their team with a few star hitters before grabbing several hurlers and hoping that a few of them show improvement.
Closers aren’t going anywhere
As it turns out, the demise of the closer position was greatly overstated. Many baseball analysts predicted in recent years that more teams would go to a closer-by-committee scenario, where the top bullpen arms were regularly scrambled in the final frames on the basis of matchups. And while Major League managers occasionally head in that direction, they generally stick with the status quo of rolling out the same man for most save chances.
Nearly half of all teams will have a 30-save reliever this season, and most of the pitchers who reach that benchmark are the ones we predicted during March draft season. The impact of bullpen stability for fantasy purposes is that managers will need to grab a couple closers at some point in their 2024 draft, as they cannot count on regularly finding ninth-inning men on the waiver wire.
The Braves offense is a juggernaut
Atlanta was an offensive juggernaut this season. Just three teams are within 100 of their current runs scored total, and their .844 OPS is 47 points ahead of the second-place club. And unlike other teams who led the league in offensive effectiveness in recent seasons, the Braves are already committed to bringing every key member of their lineup back next year. In fact, the six most prominent members of this group are all under 30 and each have a contract that keeps them in Atlanta for at least four more years. Drafters in 2024 will want to make sure that they get at least one piece of this productive group.
Batting average remains hard to find
The cumulative impact of the MLB rule changes (primarily the limitations on defensive shifts), has led to a year-over-year increase of six points in the leaguewide batting average. Six points is a notable increase, but we are still far from where we were 15-20 years ago, when we would regularly see league-wide averages over .260. We will finish the season with fewer than 10 qualified players with an average over .300, which is down from the previous year. During 2024 drafts, there will still need to be a focus on securing a couple players with .300 potential.