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June 30, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Looking at Values, Part 2: Pitchers

by Mike Gianella

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This is Part II of my series examining midseason, Rotisserie-style valuation for AL- and NL-only league owners. Last week, I examined how the hitters were doing thus far. This week, I’ll take a look at the pitchers.

Entering the season, there was a significant amount of discussion surrounding the idea that pitchers were more valuable because pitching numbers across the board were improving. This perception led to higher ADP slotting for pitchers in NFBC draft leagues, but didn’t lead to any significant changes in auction leagues.

10 Most Expensive NL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Clayton Kershaw

$27

35

-8

37

35

34

$41

2

Adam Wainwright

$37

27

10

31

24

27

$31

3

Stephen Strasburg

$14

27

-13

29

27

26

$22

4

Cliff Lee

$17

26

-9

28

23

27

$30

5

Jose Fernandez

$9

26

-17

26

27

25

$29

6

Madison Bumgarner

$24

25

-1

26

23

25

$27

7

Craig Kimbrel

$21

24

-3

26

22

25

$29

8

Kenley Jansen

$16

22

-6

24

20

22

$23

9

Zack Greinke

$25

20

5

20

18

21

$23

10

Matt Cain

$2

19

-17

20

18

20

$13

Average

$19

25

-6

27

24

25

$27

The 10 most expensive pitchers in 2014 cost an average of $25 per pitcher. The 10 most expensive pitchers in 2013 cost an average of $25 per pitcher. Draft league players have the luxury of spending higher draft picks on pitching if they so choose. Auction league players have a set budget, and if they’re going to spend more money on the best pitchers, they have to take that money from somewhere else.

In 2014, the expert market (the CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars leagues, which comprise the average salary in the table above) did not believe that a change in resource allocation was warranted. So far, their decision seems justified. Fernandez isn’t going to throw another pitch in 2014 so his prorated year-to-date earnings will only drop. Lee will probably pitch again, but there are concerns that his injury could be more significant. Strasburg and Cain certainly could bounce back, but then again maybe they won’t.

Four out of 10 pitchers with $9 or more in losses is the easy explanation as to why fantasy owners don’t spend as much on pitching as they do on hitting. But that’s a lazy answer. So far this year, the ten most expensive pitchers in the NL are returning the same percentage on their investment (76 percent, or $19 on a $25 average salary) as the hitters are (76 percent/$25 out of $33). If dollar-for-dollar the best pitchers are as reliable as the best hitters, why don’t fantasy players spend at least a little more money on these guys?

Top 10 Bargains NL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Francisco Rodriguez

$29

1

28

1

1

$9

2

Johnny Cueto

$41

13

28

14

12

13

$8

3

Jason Hammel

$24

1

22

2

2

$1

4

Josh Beckett

$24

4

21

1

6

4

-$1

5

Kyle Lohse

$23

6

17

4

7

7

$16

6

Tanner Roark

$18

2

16

3

1

3

$12

7

Jonathan Broxton

$16

0

15

1

$2

8

Jake Arrieta

$16

0

15

1

$2

9

Julio Teheran

$31

16

15

17

15

16

$20

10

Mark Melancon

$18

4

14

5

4

4

$17

Average

$24

5

19

5

5

5

$9

Ah, that’s why. Half of the biggest pitching bargains cost $2 or less in the NL expert leagues, on average. Broxton and Arrieta were almost “free loot”; only one owner in Tout Wars thought either pitcher was worth a $1 bid. LABR passed on Hammel while Tout passed on K-Rod until the reserve round. The experts don’t know before the season starts whom the best bargains are going to be (otherwise they wouldn’t be such big bargains), but they do know there will be virtually free talent waiting for them at the end of the auction.

If you are a novice to fantasy valuation, you might ask why the NL bargain hitters—who cost $6 and were worth $24 on average—are “worse” than the bargain pitchers. The answer is that while a $24 hitter in NL-only this year is the equivalent of the 21st-best hitter, a $24 pitcher is the equivalent to the eighth best pitcher. You have a better chance of getting a pitcher who is not only a bargain but an elite pitcher than you do if obtaining a bargain hitter who is also an elite hitter.

There’s another, even more vital reason why pitching is always cheaper than hitting, and he sticks out on the next table like a redwood among weeds.

Top 10 NL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Johnny Cueto

$41

13

28

14

12

13

$8

2

Adam Wainwright

$37

27

10

31

24

27

$31

3

Julio Teheran

$31

16

15

17

15

16

$20

4

Francisco Rodriguez

$29

1

28

1

1

$9

5

Clayton Kershaw

$27

35

-8

37

35

34

$41

6

Zack Greinke

$25

20

5

20

18

21

$23

7

Josh Beckett

$24

4

21

1

6

4

-$1

8

Alfredo Simon

$24

$11

9

Jason Hammel

$24

1

22

2

2

$1

10

Madison Bumgarner

$24

25

-1

26

23

25

$27

Average

$29

16

13

17

15

16

$17

Simon stands in for all of the freebies: the guys who weren’t purchased but have made a significant impact in only leagues and even in some mixed formats. Simon doesn’t make an appearance on the bargain table because that table tracks the best bargains, and Simon doesn’t even have an average salary of zero (33 cents to be exact). You have to drop down all the way to the 44th hitter in NL-only—Josh Harrison—to find a hitter without a salary. The next hitter after Harrison is Justin Turner (81) followed by Lyle Overbay (117). There are 45 National League pitchers ranked 117 or higher who were not purchased in NL-only.

The amount of free agent pitchers who are useful this year is somewhat higher compared to previous seasons, but the fact remains that non-auctioned pitchers are far more likely to contribute. Thirty-five percent of the Top 108 NL-only pitchers were not purchased at auction this year while only 14 percent of the Top 168 NL-only hitters were not. If you are looking for the best reason why we don’t spend $130 on hitters and $130 on pitchers, or why we don’t spend too many early draft picks on pitchers, your answer lies here.

However, there is the usual dichotomy in this chart. Cueto and Teheran are exceptions to what is almost always the rule: the pitchers in the $10-19 range often don’t sit for this portrait. Bumgarner, Greinke, Kershaw, and Wainwright were expensive and have delivered. This is why the temptation to spend more on the best pitchers exists. On the one hand, there are several free agents who will not be purchased who will provide value for your team. On the other hand, there is a certain degree of reliability in the best arms. The risk is that four out of the eight most expensive starting pitchers appear on the Ten Best chart while three out of the eight appear on the next chart.

Top 10 Busts NL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Matt Cain

$2

19

-17

20

18

20

$13

2

Cliff Lee

$9

26

-17

28

23

27

$30

3

Tony Cingrani

-$2

15

-16

17

13

14

$14

4

Mike Minor

-$1

16

-16

17

17

13

$23

5

Francisco Liriano

-$1

13

-14

15

10

14

$20

6

Homer Bailey

$3

17

-14

17

16

17

$20

7

Stephen Strasburg

$14

27

-13

29

27

26

$22

8

Jose Veras

-$4

8

-13

10

7

8

$12

9

Mat Latos

$4

16

-12

15

16

17

$20

10

Bobby Parnell

-$1

11

-12

15

7

12

$15

Average

$2

17

-15

18

15

17

$19

If you purchased Strasburg, at least you have received something for your troubles. Lee has really hurt you while Cain has brought back almost nothing.

Paying money for the most expensive pitchers this year has been a losing proposition compared to 2013. In 2013, the 10 most expensive NL guys broke even, earning $25 per pitcher. This year, they’re on pace to earn $19. This inconsistency is fairly consistent. Sometimes you make a delicious meal out of the bear; sometimes the bear makes a delicious meal out of you. Looking for a trend in predictable starting pitching is a fool’s errand. Even when pitching improves across the board, this does not guarantee that the best pitchers are going to be more reliable.

That $10-19 range I warned about before remains a great place to get burned. The certainly/confidence many professed in Bailey and Cingrani prior to the start of the season has bit their owners in a big way. Chasing aces might be a foolish proposition, but chasing after the next tier is even worse. I’m not an advocate of either plan, but I would rather build a foundation around an ace and then fill out with cheap pitchers, instead of spreading the wealth among a few $15-17 arms. You might get Cueto, but chances are better that you are going to get a bust.

So far, the AL has played out quite differently.

10 Most Expensive AL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Yu Darvish

$30

30

0

32

28

31

$30

2

Max Scherzer

$24

28

-4

29

27

29

$35

3

Chris Sale

$30

27

3

27

25

29

$26

4

Justin Verlander

$3

26

-23

26

26

27

$17

5

Felix Hernandez

$41

26

15

26

27

25

$24

6

David Price

$27

24

3

23

23

26

$19

7

Greg Holland

$22

22

0

19

23

24

$27

8

James Shields

$17

21

-4

21

21

20

$20

9

Koji Uehara

$28

20

8

21

19

19

10

Masahiro Tanaka

$42

20

22

19

19

21

$26

Average

$26

24

2

24

24

25

$22

Here is the reliability some of the experts hoped for when it came to pitcher predictability. Only Verlander has tanked, while Hernandez and Tanaka have blown their preseason prices away. The result is a profit for the ten most expensive pitchers.

While this is not unheard of, it is also not the norm. The NL-only most expensive chart is a more typical result. Some of the reason for this shift is because of some fairly significant league differences thus far.

AL- vs. NL-Only Auction Populations YTD

Wins

Saves

ERA

WHIP

Strikeouts

NL Auction

372

284

3.51

1.227

5828

AL Auction

372

234

3.86

1.283

5419

NL Total

606

332

3.65

1.266

9579

AL Total

607

301

3.94

1.313

9198

The 0.35 ERA and 0.056 WHIP differences between the AL and NL don’t sound like much, but they do alter how the ceilings are measured in each league. In the National League, Tanaka’s numbers are worth “only” $38. The same principle applies in the other direction; Cueto’s season in the AL context would be worth a whopping $46.

This difference in the average pitcher makes the best pitchers in the AL stand out more. Seventeen NL pitchers are on pace to earn $20 or more in 2014, while 29 AL pitchers are on pace to do the same. This has an impact on how successful the top pitchers are as well.

Top 10 AL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Masahiro Tanaka

$42

20

22

21

19

19

2

Felix Hernandez

$41

26

15

26

27

25

$24

3

Scott Kazmir

$31

10

21

12

8

11

$11

4

Yu Darvish

$30

30

0

32

28

31

$30

5

Chris Sale

$30

27

3

27

25

29

$26

6

Jon Lester

$28

15

13

16

16

14

$16

7

Koji Uehara

$28

20

8

19

19

21

$26

8

Garrett Richards

$27

5

22

4

7

4

$6

9

David Price

$27

24

3

23

23

26

$19

10

Dallas Keuchel

$27

1

26

2

-$2

Average

$31

18

13

18

17

18

$16

It is a big drop from Felix to Kazmir, but the relative weakness of the average AL pitcher makes the best pitchers in the AL worth more, even though their numbers are not as strong as their NL counterparts are. While the best AL pitchers are earning more because of the different league contexts, the AL pitchers are a more reliable group in terms of average salary. Keuchel and Richards are the only pitchers who cost less than $10. Six of the 10 pitchers on this chart cost $20 or more and also appeared on the ten most expensive list. The poorer average pitcher in AL-only combined with the reliability of the most expensive pitchers makes it almost vital that you get one of the guys in the next chart.

Top 10 Bargains AL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Dallas Keuchel

$27

1

26

2

-$2

2

Sean Doolittle

$24

2

23

4

1

$10

3

Mark Buehrle

$25

3

23

5

2

1

$9

4

Garrett Richards

$27

5

22

4

7

4

$6

5

Masahiro Tanaka

$42

20

22

21

19

19

6

Jesse Chavez

$22

0

22

1

$4

7

Scott Kazmir

$31

10

21

12

8

11

$11

8

Jason Vargas

$20

2

18

2

3

1

$6

9

Danny Duffy

$17

0

17

1

$3

10

Phil Hughes

$23

6

17

6

7

4

-$1

Average

$26

5

21

5

5

4

$5

As was the case in the NL, half of the best bargains were also super cheap. Keuchel, Doolittle, Chavez, Vargas, and Duffy all cost $2 or less on average, while Buehrle barely missed with an average salary of $3. The separation between the average pitchers and the best pitchers leads to even greater variability in AL-only between average salaries and earnings. We don’t know who the bargains are going to be, but we know that pitchers like Chavez and Duffy with their $0 salaries are going to be waiting for us on reserve or for $1 in the endgame, even in AL-only.

Top 10 Busts AL Pitchers, YTD 2014

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Justin Verlander

$3

26

-23

26

26

27

$17

2

Clay Buchholz

-$11

10

-21

10

10

10

$20

3

Danny Salazar

-$2

18

-20

18

19

17

$6

4

Jim Johnson

-$2

16

-17

18

14

15

$19

5

Nate Jones

-$4

12

-16

14

9

14

$6

6

Matt Moore

$1

16

-15

17

15

16

$17

7

Ivan Nova

-$5

10

-15

11

11

8

$12

8

Felipe Paulino

-$14

1

-15

2

2

9

Justin Masterson

$0

13

-13

12

13

13

$20

10

CC Sabathia

$1

14

-13

14

15

13

$8

Average

-$3

14

-17

14

13

14

$22

If you’re still skeptical about my warnings about pitchers in the $10-19 range, this table is sobering. On one end, Verlander stands in for the studs that don’t work out while on the other end Paulino represents the pitchers in the cheap seats. But every other pitcher on this table falls into that miserable $10-19 range. This year, chasing Salazar and Moore was a recipe for disaster, but plenty of pitchers in the $10-14 range have also failed their owners so far.

This is one of the reasons the average pitcher in the AL is so much worse than in the NL. A significant number of unpredictable failures reside in this group, and the temptation to chase because “pitching is better” was hard to resist. But most of these pitchers would have been better off left alone. The appeal of the single digit pitcher in only formats cannot be ignored.

We still have another half season of baseball to be played. These charts will continue to evolve, and by the end of the year there will be some new names on this list. For now though, we can see where the trends are beginning to settle. The AL environment is providing a much more robust series of earnings on the top end because the average AL pitcher is weaker. This could change over the course of the season, but probably won’t, and it something to keep in mind for players in mono formats.

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

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Vet... (06/27)
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