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December 5, 2013

Fantasy Bargains and Busts

National League Pitchers

by Mike Gianella

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This is a continuation of my series on Rotisserie-style valuations from last year, with a look back at what happened, as well as my take on how this information may or may not impact what happens in 2014.

Before I get started, here is a brief explanation of the data you will see in the charts below.

The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5x5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer when it is up and running). The most important thing to know about the values is that for the 168 best perceived American League hitters and the 108 best perceived American pitchers on Opening Day 2013 the values add up to $3,120. This is important, as this is where the next two columns come into play.

Sal is the average salary of the players. This column is derived from the prices in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars, the three expert leagues that convene before the regular season starts and (thank goodness for the purposes of my analysis) have three complete AL-only auctions with no frozen players from which to derive data. While I would love to use more leagues to derive each player’s average salary, most Rotisserie-style leagues are keeper oriented and average salary data isn’t useful for this exercise thanks to inflation.

The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether or not he gained or lost his fantasy owners money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Robinson Cano can earn $31, get paid an average salary of $35 and lose five dollars.

MG is yours truly, your heroic pricer and proud prognosticator since 2013. Another good reason to look back is to see if the fantasy expert you are following is good at what he or she does. It is easy to make predictions in March and never revisit those predictions. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my sixth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2013. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

2012 shows what the player earned in 2012. If you don’t like looking back, you might think that looking back an additional year is worthless, but as you’ll see an additional season’s worth of fantasy earnings data is sometimes very instructive.

In Rotisserie-style leagues, owners might pay a little more or a little less for the top pitchers but generally speaking pay the same amount for the Top 10 arms year in and year out. 2013 proved to be no exception.

Table 1: Top 10 Salaries, NL Pitchers 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Clayton Kershaw

$41

32

9

31

32

32

31

$31

2

Stephen Strasburg

$22

30

-8

30

31

29

29

$21

3t

Cole Hamels

$17

26

-9

26

26

27

25

$26

3t

Cliff Lee

$30

26

4

26

27

26

26

$20

5

Matt Cain

$13

25

-12

27

23

25

24

$28

6

Craig Kimbrel

$29

24

5

25

23

23

24

$29

7

Adam Wainwright

$31

22

9

20

21

24

22

$15

8

Madison Bumgarner

$27

21

6

22

20

22

21

$23

9

Zack Greinke

$23

21

2

24

20

19

18

$23

10

Gio Gonzalez

$17

20

-4

20

19

22

21

$28

Average

$25

25

0

25

24

25

24

$24

I have been tracking player earnings and expert spending in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars since 2008. While pitcher earnings tend to fluctuate from season to season, pitcher spending has barely moved from season to season. For the third year in a row, the average salary on the top 10 NL pitchers was $25.

The stability extends across the board not only to the expert league prices, but also to what I predicted what these pitchers would do, what they did in 2012 but—most importantly—what they actually earned in 2013. There is some fluctuation when you break down earnings by pitcher, but that is to be expected. Where this chart turns conventional wisdom on its head is that the best pitchers are worth every penny that the market spent. Kershaw’s $41 season has a bit of an impact on this, but the reality is that every pitcher here brought back at least double digits in earnings and only Cain earned less than $17. Another way of looking at this is that if you bought one of these pitchers, you had a nine in 10 chance of grabbing a $30 pitcher.

The stability among these pitchers shows up in the complete lack of variance in the expert market as well. There are some slight differences, but only Greinke, Cain, and Wainwright show more than a four-dollar gap from one expert league (or my prediction) and another. When I put my bid prices together for Baseball Prospectus in February, it’s likely that the stability in this group will be rewarded, not only because of the data above in Table 1 but also the data in the next table.

Table 2: Top 10 Earners, NL Pitchers 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Clayton Kershaw

$41

32

9

31

32

32

31

$31

2

Adam Wainwright

$31

22

9

20

21

24

22

$15

3

Cliff Lee

$30

26

4

26

27

26

26

$20

4

Craig Kimbrel

$29

24

5

25

23

23

24

$29

5

Jose Fernandez

$29

6

Matt Harvey

$28

14

15

15

14

12

13

$7

7

Madison Bumgarner

$27

21

6

22

20

22

21

$23

8

Jordan Zimmermann

$25

19

6

20

19

18

18

$19

9

Kenley Jansen

$23

10

14

8

10

11

12

$20

10

Zack Greinke

$23

21

2

24

20

19

18

$23

Average

$29

21

8

21

21

21

21

$19

Six out of the 10 pitchers repeat in both the top salaries and top earnings charts. Zimmerman was the 12th-most expensive pitcher in the National League and almost makes it seven. Fernandez is the only surprise, and he was such a surprise that no one even took him in the reserve portion of the CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars auctions.

This stability isn’t uncommon. One way to look at how predictable these pitchers are is to examine the earnings versus the salary. The closer the salary of the top earners, the more predictable these pitchers are. 2012’s 10 best list featured four pitchers—R.A. Dickey, Aroldis Chapman, Kris Melden, and Kyle Lohse—who cost $5 or less, resulting in a relatively low average salary ($14). This turned out not to be a trend but an anomaly. 2013’s average salary of $21 is far more common, and closer to the $19-20 average salary results from 2009-2011.

Stability is terrific, but you can’t spend $120-140 on your pitching staff if you have any interest in building an offense. You need some bargains in order to make your team work.

Table 3: Top 10 Profits, NL Pitchers 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Patrick Corbin

$20

2

18

2

2

1

3

$4

2

Travis Wood

$17

1

17

1

1

2

$8

3

Francisco Liriano

$20

3

16

4

6

3

$5

4

Julio Teheran

$20

4

16

3

2

8

6

$0

5

Mark Melancon

$17

1

16

1

1

2

2

$0

6

Ricky Nolasco

$16

1

15

1

1

2

1

$6

7

Matt Harvey

$28

14

15

15

14

12

13

$7

8

Mike Leake

$15

0

14

1

1

$3

9

Kenley Jansen

$23

10

14

8

10

11

12

$20

10

Hyun-Jin Ryu

$19

6

14

6

5

6

7

Average

$20

4

16

4

3

5

5

$5

A weird offshoot of predictability at the top is that it makes most of the bargains on this list dollar derby guys and not pitchers like Harvey, who returned profit but was by no means cheap.

On average, 22 pitchers returned $10 or more in profit back to their fantasy owners. Of those 22 pitchers, 14 of them cost three dollars or less at auction.

These 14 pitchers are the success stories, though: the ones that worked out. On the whole, how did the cheap pitchers fare?

Table 4: Success of Failure? Pitchers Who Cost $3 or Less

Profit/Loss

#

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

+10 or more

14

$212

19

193

23

12

22

+5-9

12

$95

10

85

9

14

7

0-4

13

$30

18

12

20

17

17

-1-4

12

-$5

20

-24

18

27

14

-6-9

4

-$24

7

-31

4

6

12

Totals

55

$308

74

235

74

76

72

At a glance, it looks like there is a lot of profit to be had here. In reality, take out the double-digit profit pitchers and 41 of 55 pitchers are paid $55 and earn $96. That’s good, but while paying one dollar to get back two dollars isn’t a losing strategy it certainly isn’t a winning one either.

You can always see a great deal of variability in these pitchers from expert league to expert league. CBS and Tout Wars were most aggressive on the 14 big time profit makers here, while LABR lagged. LABR did a little better in the next group but, alas, also was more aggressive among the one to four dollar losers. Where the Top 10 Salary and Top 10 Earner Charts saw uniformity in the expert leagues bids, here is where some differences of opinion begin to get expressed.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main reason is that the back end is where opinions on pitchers differ. CBS and LABR barely gave the time of day to Teheran but he went for $8 in Tout Wars. LABR couldn’t even find a way to bid one dollar on Liriano; Tout Wars pushed him all the way to $6. Some of the variance in these prices has to do with the timing of the expert auctions, but the variability on pitchers will come at the bottom, not the middle or the top.

And one thing that usually happens is that the pitchers in the middle are the ones who lose out.

Table 5: Top 10 Losses, NL Pitchers 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Roy Halladay

-$3

18

-21

19

20

15

13

$10

2

Jason Motte

$0

17

-17

18

20

12

10

$23

3

Ryan Vogelsong

-$5

9

-14

6

10

10

11

$17

4

John Axford

$4

16

-12

18

15

15

13

$13

5

Josh Beckett

-$1

11

-12

8

10

14

12

$7

6

Matt Cain

$13

25

-12

27

23

25

24

$28

7

Ian Kennedy

$3

14

-12

15

14

14

15

$14

8

Jonathan Broxton

$2

12

-10

14

16

5

2

$5

9

Johnny Cueto

$8

18

-10

19

18

17

19

$25

10

Barry Zito

-$9

1

-9

1

1

2

$8

Average

$1

14

-13

15

15

13

12

$15

Zito is a cautionary tale that reminds us that even a $1 pitcher can stink royally and Cain is a cautionary tale that reminds us that even a top tier pitcher can burn you, but nearly every one of these pitchers fall into the $10-19 danger zone. Year in and year out, the second tier (the non-elite $20 pitchers) is where fantasy owners get burned.

My bids on these pitchers reflect my reluctance to bid on these arms (although some of this is that I have the advantage on March 26 of knowing that Motte is risky and Broxton isn’t going to close. Still, in a four-way battle with me and all of the expert leagues, I only “get” Vogelsong and Zito, with ties on Kennedy and Cueto. CBS and LABR are out in front on these guys, with bids on Axford and Cain that are particularly aggressive.

The data leads me to the same conclusion I made in the American League on the pitching side. Buying an ace is the way to go and if you are comfortable enough buying two then all the better. The pitchers the next level down are often disappointments, and there is enough variability at the bottom of the heap that even if you don’t get Travis Wood, you can simply keep churning until you find a reasonable facsimile.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Jose Fernandez,  Clayton Kershaw,  Fantasy

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