The LIMA Plan in 5x5 leagues

By Frank Noto

Veteran fantasy leaguers know that a key secret to success in standard Rotisserie is to avoid paying too much for starting pitching. A corollary to this theorem is that 4x4 Roto leagues can be won with just three starters. In fact, drafting just three SPs (two for really daring GMs) has distinct advantages, because it permits Roto-heads to:

  • Pay less for pitching
  • Pay more for hitting
  • Improve ERA and WHIP through the acquisition of good relievers at cheap prices
  • Accumulate fewer IP (thus making mid-season adjustments easier)

The LIMA Plan (Low Investment Mound Aces) is the perfect tactical mechanism for implementing this strategy. In a nutshell, the LIMA plan requires budgeting no more than $60 for pitching, including up to $30 for acquiring saves. This is accomplished by acquiring high-skills pitchers without clearly defined roles, at low prices.

While the LIMA Plan can force an owner to punts wins, it allows fantasy leaguers to ace the batting categories and achieve upper-division finishes in ERA, WHIP and saves. This is frequently enough to earn a trophy in standard Roto.

But strict adherence to this tactic seldom leads to a 5x5 championship, because a three-starter staff is also doomed to the cellar in strikeouts. Punting two categories makes it difficult to achieve victory, though it is still possible to finish in the money.

In 5x5 fantasy leagues with the standard 12 teams, at least five decent starters (on a nine-man staff) are typically required to be competitive in Ks. But even that is no sure thing (BHQ 2013 stat projections, 2012 dollar earnings):

Pitcher     $    K
=======    ==   ===
Fister     12   139
Vargas     14   126
Hellickson 12   129
Kuroda     21   156
Buehrle    13    96
J. Johnson 28    36
Peralta     6    62
S. Burnett  4    50
L. Ayala    4    37

Despite $114 worth of pitching, this staff projects to only 831 strikeouts – definitely a lower division finish, perhaps in the bottom quartile in this category. And most of these 2012 salaries are not far from realistic for 2013 Roto bids, particularly in keeper leagues.

That's why most 5x5 teams will draft six, seven, even eight SPs in an attempt to maximize strikeouts (and wins). But to save money on those pitchers, they often shoot themselves in the foot by picking #4 and #5 starters that drag down their stats with crappy averages. What happens if they try for quality instead, adding another top-tier pitcher to our staff as a sixth SP in place of a RP (Ayala)? Let's swap Ayala with Justin Verlander ($35, 231 K).

While the resultant 1,025 Ks should vault this team into the upper division in strikeouts, upwards of $145 (more than 50% of the budget) is now spent on pitching. And there's still no guarantee if even one punch-out artist in the rotation misses substantial time with injuries.

Of course, instead of going for a sixth SP, the team could go for more strikeouts for less money, by simply swapping Vargas and Hellickson for high-Ks starters:

Pitcher     $     Ks
=======    ==    ===
U. Jimenez  1    168
B. Norris   2    196

This team now has 939 Ks, somewhere around 5th-8th in the category, at a cost of $91 (35%). But it is likely to lose far more standings gain points in projected ERA (Norris 4.08, Jimenez 4.57) and WHIP (Norris 1.39, Jimenez 1.42).

So what's to be done? A variant on the LIMA Plan that we'll call "LIMA-5" seems to work, based on these five keys to 5x5 success:

1. Do draft LIMA Plan starters when possible. If you can pick up high-skills pitchers at bargain basement prices, your team should do as well in Ks as in the pitching ratio categories. However, there are likely to be fewer LIMA SPs available in 5x5 – in part because nearly all starters will be scooped up on draft day, except in smaller leagues.

2. Don't be afraid to draft an upper-tier pitcher at a reasonable price. The LIMA Plan requires you to pass on Justin Verlander (RHP, DET) even if the bidding stops at $30. In 5x5, you'd be foolish to waste that opportunity. Even in an off year, Verlander could still be worth a bundle because of his strikeouts (assuming relatively little DL time).

3. Do select LIMA Plan relievers – just don't pick as many. Where possible, choose RPs with high strikeout ratios.

4. Do pick pitchers with higher strikeout ratios generally. More innings do not necessarily correlate to more Ks. A hard-throwing RP such as Craig Kimbrel (RP, ATL) will rack up more strikeouts than starter Mark Buehrle (LHP, TOR) despite the fact that Buehrle throws more than twice as many innings. Using LIMA-5, it's especially important to go for the strikeout artists among SPs, because they will earn the bulk of the numbers in this category.

5. Do draft at least five starters and be prepared to pay more than $60 for pitching. With the LIMA-5 strategy, a more realistic goal is to keep your pitching budget between $80 and $100 – or under $70 if you punt saves.

So let's look at the LIMA-5 Plan in action:

Pitcher      $    K
=======     ==   ===
Darvish     13   226
Scherzer    15   226
Moore        7   187
Dempster    15   162
Morrow      14   175
G. Holland  11    77
Robertson    5    79
Doolittle    3    72 
Delabar      4    69

This is clearly a more affordable staff, and it generates a projected 1,273 strikeouts, enough to win many leagues. Though the numbers add up to just $85 for pitching (33%), expect to spend a bit more in your league, since several of the starters and Holland (RP, KC) could easily be bid higher than their 2012 earnings. Remember, there are not enough good LIMA Plan pitchers to go around, so some will be overpriced, forcing you to shop elsewhere.

Relievers are correspondingly easier to pick up in 5x5 leagues since demand is lessened. With the possible exception of closer, you should be able to fill all your RP slots with LIMA Plan hurlers that can boast of K/9 rates of 7.0 or better.

Each type of fantasy baseball demands its own strategy. In national challenge contests, teams need to own 10-12 starters to win, while just three works fine in standard Roto. The 5x5 game also has its own ethos, with teams requiring at least five to six SPs to pull off a championship.