Starting pitching in fantasy baseball

I’m an avid fantasy sports enthusiast; I’ve been playing fantasy football for almost a decade and fantasy baseball for about three years now.  I go overboard on fantasy football; since it requires once-a-week upkeep and the draft is highly relevant with fewer free agent options as the season rolls along, I usually carry 3-5 teams per year.  I often end up with mixed success, usually with all of my teams making the playoffs and usually losing at various steps; I probably average a championship every other year.  Fantasy baseball is a different beast; over three years, I’ve managed three teams.  I managed a single team in a 9-man roto league in 2010, skipped 2011, then ran two teams in 2012, one in a 12-man league (scoring HR, SB, BB, TB, AVG / QS, K, ERA, BB/9, SV) and one in a 12-man keeper league (scoring HR, R, RBI, SB, AVG / QS, ERA, WHIP, K/9, HD, SV).  In the 9-man league in 2010, I squeaked into the playoffs and lost in the championship round.  In 2012, I lost in the championship of the 12-man non-keeper league (in a tightly contested week that ran all the way to the final day) and I won the 12-man keeper league.

I don’t say that to toot my horn, just to establish some credentials here.  In the 12-man keeper league, I inherited an awful team (21-27 after 4 weeks when I took over) from an absent manager and ultimately won because of an ambitious trade, a trade which taught me an important lesson in fantasy baseball.  The team I inherited was relatively well-off in pitching and relatively screwed at hitting.  I worked the wire for awhile to fill holes, but the biggest problem I had was that Dustin Ackley was my 2B and there simply wasn’t another option out there.  I had to make a move.  I surveyed the landscape and found someone with a bit of an excess at middle infield and dangled my best trade chip – Clayton Kershaw.  Nothing against Kershaw, but I already had David Price, Zack Greinke, and Max Scherzer.  So a trade was made, the meat of which was Kershaw for Aaron Hill (there was some garbage exchanged, as well which we both ended up dropping).  This happened about this time a year ago.  Without that trade, I likely would not have won the league, as Hill provided instant production at a position where I had none prior.  Kershaw for Hill!  On paper, immediately, that seems like a huge win for the guy who got Kershaw, but I ended up winning the league.

The lesson here is that starting pitching is extremely over-valued in fantasy baseball compared to a bat that can produce.  My motto is that you can always find quality starts on the waiver wire; you can’t always find a guy who hits .280 and can offer speed or power.  Ask yourself, in the first round, would you rather have Kershaw or Verlander or someone like Fielder or Cano?  Baseball’s a fun fantasy sport because there’re usually quality call-ups every year throughout the season, but it’s safer to gamble on pitchers than hitters.  Using the ADP (average draft position) from ESPN’s fantasy baseball, here’s a list of six pitchers that were either free agents or available in the last couple rounds of the draft:

  • Justin Masterson (8 QS. 3.07 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 83 K)
  • Patrick Corbin (10 QS, 1.71 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 56 K)
  • Travis Wood (10 QS, 2.75 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 50 K)
  • Jeff Locke (6 QS, 2.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 42 K)
  • Ervin Santana (6 QS, 3.33 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 57 K)
  • Jose Fernandez (4 QS, 3.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 52 K)

Now, this isn’t a perfect fantasy rotation, but let’s compare to the six pitchers with the highest ADP:

  • Justin Verlander (7 QS, 3.68 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 82 K)
  • Clayton Kershaw (9 QS, 1.85 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 82 K)
  • Stephen Strasburg (8 QS, 2.54 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 73 K)
  • Felix Hernandez (9 QS, 2.38 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 87 K)
  • David Price (5 QS, 5.24 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 49 K) – currently injured
  • Matt Cain (6 QS, 5.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 62 K)

If you had to pick one of these two rotations, which would you pick?  What becomes immediately obvious is that when you draft a pitcher high, you’re drafting strikeouts.  But if you consider punting the entire category and focusing on the other stats, guys like Wood or Locke can carry a team to relevance, even if it’s just as a streaming option.  And streaming, really, is the key – if your league doesn’t have a cap on weekly transactions, there’s a lot to like about streaming reliable pitchers with favorable matchups.  If you draft a guy in the first few rounds, he’s your guy no matter what.  To be fair, a guy like Patrick Corbin or Jose Fernandez are rookies who come out of nowhere and are liabilities for quality starts due to managers trying to keep them from tiring as they get used to the heavier major league workload, but nonetheless – from a purely fantasy perspective, keeper league or not, would you rather be handcuffed to Justin Verlander’s first-round 3.68 ERA, or have the flexibility to drop a free agent pickup with a 3.68 ERA for a guy like Travis Wood or Kyle Kendrick for a week?  You can stream quality starts, but you can’t stream home runs.  That list above, also, doesn’t even consider recent call-ups like Michael Wacha or a guy like Tony Cingrani who may be in and out of the Reds’ rotation all season as they deal with injuries, and it doesn’t consider guys with an ADP above 200 but below 260; so Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, A.J. Burnett, Clay Buchholz, and Hisashi Iwakuma could fit into a nice list of their own in that range.

If you’re in a keeper league and you want to find bargain pitching with keeper value, that’s where keeping an eye on call-ups comes in – guys like Shelby Miller or Michael Wacha are perfect examples.  Both have high upsides in that if they were drafted, they were drafted very low, and their minor league track record demonstrates that they’re strike-out pitchers.  Beyond that, Miller and Wacha play for St. Louis; if I’m going to bank on a rookie pitcher, let it be one with a competent defense behind him and a team with recent success.  In my keeper league, I made the mistake of keeping David Price for two years (this year and next) at the cost of my 4th-round pick.  But, I also kept Max Scherzer, who I picked up as a free agent last year, at the cost of my 25th pick.  This year, I targeted young players with high upsides, since I do like to keep a couple pitchers per year (I’ll get into the custom style of that keeper league in a future post); Ian Kennedy was my first pitcher drafted, in the 8th round, followed by Matt Harvey in the 11th.  With Scherzer and Price already keepers, I drafted Shelby Miller in the 22nd round, Felix Doubront in the 23rd, and Andrew Cashner in the 24th.  I banked on all three winning starting gigs out of spring camps and they showed high upsides with good strike-out numbers; Miller has panned out, and Cashner didn’t win a starting gig, and Doubront didn’t really return to 2012 form, but there’s no real sense of loss when you drop your 23rd and 24th picks for quality free agents later.  My plan all along was to hope that Harvey and Miller would turn out to be keepers; I figured if Kennedy bounced back into 2011 form, that’d be great, but he hasn’t so again, oh well.  But honestly, I reached for Kennedy – it’s fair to really consider not touching a pitcher until the 10th round or later, unless there’s a guy you really have your eye on in the 8th-10th range.  But if you’re going to draft high, get those strike-out guys, because whoever is treading the wire in the summer and fall might get you QS, might help your ratios, but probably isn’t generating elite Ks.  Otherwise, the best value in pitching is going to be found later, and those high draft picks are better spent on the hitters you can’t find later.

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