February 24, 2015
The -Only League Landscape
American League Starting Pitchers
While the American League housed more $20 starting pitchers compared to the National League last year (16-14), the offseason wasn’t very kind to AL-Only owners. Three of those starting pitchers—Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields—left for the National League with dollar signs in their eyes and have swung the balance of pitching power decidedly to the other league.
The NL’s superiority has actually become a growing theme in the AL-Only Landscape series, and if you’ll indulge me, the following anecdote illustrates just that. There’s an opening in one of my AL-Only home leagues, and in recruiting a friend to join the league I informed him that the auction should take about five hours to complete. His reply, “How does it take five hours to auction off all 12 of the good players in the AL this year?” Ouch.
Well, look, we’re not saving the manatees here, pal. We’re not doing this to make friends or be heroes, hopefully. We do this, or at least I do, because, as Doyle Brunson said about no limit Texas hold ‘em, this is the only pure game left. There are so many more avenues to value available in mixed leagues, especially when it comes to pitching. The key difference in strategy between the formats is that in mixed leagues the pertinent question becomes how good your second best starter is, as most of the teams will end up with at least one ace-level starter. In AL-Only leagues this year, there are six “ace” types if we’re counting Alex Cobb. Times are tough.
This situation favors owners with creativity and who can adapt to the market. If you’re uncomfortable with Phil Hughes and Collin McHugh as your two best pitchers, maybe AL-Only leagues aren’t for you as it’s certainly not for the weak-hearted this year.
Below are the 2014 values for the top 15 AL starting pitchers in salary in the expert leagues CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars (as prepared by Mike Gianella). “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4x4 and 5x5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th.
When compared to spending on the top outfielders in AL-Only last year, spending on the top pitchers wasn’t so bad. The top 15 outfielders by salary combined to earn -$100 and here the top 15 pitchers earned -$20, which is pretty good considering how easy it is for pitchers to get injured. Of the major busts, Yu Darvish and Matt Moore were shelved with injuries for most of the season, and the helium proved to be too strong on Justin Verlander and Danny Salazar, who were merely overhyped on draft day.
The Verlander hype machine has been out in full force once again so far in the early spring as reports have surfaced that he put on upwards of 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason and he claims his breaking pitches are better now than at any point last season. To cut this off at the pass, let’s not forget just how much he struggled last year with both fastball velocity and his secondary pitches. If Verlander is going to rebound, he needs to adjust his pitching plan to account for what is now just an average fastball. What I’m saying is JV needs to act his age and not his girls’ age.
Now let’s take a look at the top starting pitching earners from 2014.
The Cy Young Award winner, Kluber was the big earner of the pitchers who at least went for some money on draft day while Garrett Richards, Carlos Carrasco, Collin McHugh, and Matt Shoemaker came out of relative obscurity to provide serious value. While some might believe Kluber is proof that you should stay in the middle tier for value, that simply wasn’t the case last year, as Kluber and Jon Lester were the only real bargains in that tier.
Kluber is now in the top tier and along with Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, and David Price the top four starting pitchers are set. These guys are money in the bank and should be once again this year.
After Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb, it’s already time to pluck Hisashi Iwakuma, Jeff Samardjiza, and Sonny Gray. While Iwakuma’s ERA jumped to 3.52 last year, he seemed to hit the wall a bit in September, as he had a 2.90 ERA entering the last month of the regular season. He had walked 13 batters through August and walked eight in September alone, showing that something wasn’t quite right. There were three qualified American League starters with a strikeout rate of at least 21 percent and walk rate below 4 percent in 2014: David Price, Phil Hughes, and Iwakuma. Assuming he makes at least 33 starts in 2015, you’re looking at an innings workhorse and WHIP beast.
Pandemonium ensues at this point as the next best targets are Hughes and Carlos Carrasco, who I’ve seen go too early in mixed league drafts but still isn’t this year’s Danny Salazar by any means. Carrasco at least has some kind of track record and made an important adjustment with Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, scrapping his windup delivery to help with his release point. His slider also became a nasty weapon, but it’s difficult to trust a hot string of starts down the stretch, especially when some of them came against very poor offenses.
Drew Smyly and Marcus Stroman are two others who made adjustments down the stretch last year that could lead to breakouts this year. I’ve written plenty already about how Stroman incorporated his sinker more heavily in his repertoire over the last two months of last season and has become a ground ball machine that strikes out his share and doesn’t walk many, so I’ll spare you. Smyly made adjustments with Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey that resulted in his strikeout rate increasing to 25 percent and a 1.70 ERA in 44 2/3 innings with Tampa Bay. Smyly obviously won’t continue to have a sub-2.00 ERA, but the adjustments helped with his issues against right-handed hitters and an increase in strikeout rate is always welcome. I can’t wait to see what the new season brings these two, but I suspect it’ll be profits.
I’ll examine a few interesting AL-Only starting pitcher targets. “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4x4 and 5x5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th.
Chen isn’t a big strikeout pitcher as he recorded 136 punch-outs in 185 2/3 innings last year and that’s at least part of why this Oriole seems to constantly fly under the radar. He also gets hit hard by right-handed hitters as he allowed a .183 ISO to them compared to just a .102 ISO against lefties. Chen outpitched his 3.89 FIP last year (3.54 ERA) and has posted strand rates above 76 percent in each of the last two years, but he seems to save his best work for when there are runners in scoring position. He’s not a big upside play and a lot of the value from last year came from his 16 wins, but he’s still a solid play.
Generally, spending the majority of the season on the disabled list with a lat strain is no way to endear oneself to fantasy owners. It was Paxton’s performance, of course, in the 13 games he pitched that practically has owners drooling over what he could to in a full season. His control (9.1 percent walk rate in 98 career big-league innings) is an issue, but not a debilitating one because of his ability to get strikeouts (20 percent strikeout rate), induce ground balls (55.8 percent ground ball rate), and keep the ball in the park (0.46 HR/9). Paxton’s lack of control might make him even harder to hit; he allowed a .220 AVG, 3.04 ERA, and 1.20 WHIP in 74 innings in 2014. All of the caveats that come with young pitchers still apply here as Paxton didn’t come close to pitching a full season in the majors, but this is an up-and-coming starter worthy of the attention now.
Miguel Gonzalez – Baltimore Orioles
Gonzalez isn’t a big strikeout pitcher nor is he particularly stingy with free passes, but he’s been tough to hit as his career AVG against is .243. The splitter-slider hurler has depended on a .265 BABIP over his career and any regression there would hurt a lot, but it probably would’ve already happened by now as he’s been successful for parts of each of the last three seasons. Gonzalez, 30, isn’t going to improve his numbers from here on out but he should continue to outpitch his FIP in the immediate future.
Buehrle is like Chen if he had thrown 14 consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings. In the past six seasons, he’s won 13 games five times and 12 games once. Given that he works deep into games and the Blue Jays offense should be improved this year, there’s hope that he can get over the hump and win 15 games again. Keeping the ball in the ballpark with be crucial once again for Buehrle, as he allowed a career-low 15 home runs last year.
So much for that Doug Fister trade, you guys. After trading Robbie Ray in a three-team trade this offseason, the Tigers have nothing to show for their efforts from the original botched deal, but at least they salvaged something by acquiring Greene from the Yankees. Two of Greene’s best starts last year came against the Tigers as he allowed just two earned runs over 15 innings while striking out 13 and walking four over two starts. He has good stuff and his cutter-slider-changeup mix proved effective at times last summer, but he struggled with control as his walk rate was over eight percent and he was also too hittable at times. If he can continue to induce ground balls (50 percent GB rate), perhaps Jose Iglesias can provide the defensive support system that always seemed to elude Rick Porcello in Detroit.
The following players are still interesting deep targets, but injuries and inexperience leave them best suited for the end of the auction and reserve spots.
Matt Moore/Ivan Nova/A.J. Griffin – Team Zombie Ligaments
Carlos Rodon – Chicago White Sox
Daniel Norris – Toronto Blue Jays