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March 1, 2016

The -Only League Landscape

American League Starting Pitchers

by Mike Gianella

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He wasn’t the best pitcher in the AL-only fantasy leagues in 2015, but Chris Sale is the primary AL starting pitcher target thus far in 2016. As the 26th-overall pick in NFBC drafts (as of Monday, February 29), Sale is nowhere near Clayton Kershaw (fourth overall), but will likely be the only pitcher in the AL who could cost $30 or more this year in mono formats with $260 budgets. Sale was one of only three AL-only pitchers to crack our five-star tier this year, while seven out of the 13 pitchers in the four-star tier came from the American League. Simply put, the AL doesn’t have the quantity of horses at the top of the heap that the NL does. After the top three pitchers, the drop off to the next tier is precipitous, particularly if you don’t believe that Dallas Keuchel’s 2015 is repeatable and that Felix Hernandez is going to bounce back and like The South shall rise again. Imports from the NL aren’t plentiful this year either. If there is going to be a thick top tier in AL-only, it will have to come from an emergent pitching class, led by young arms like Carlos Carrasco, Sonny Gray, and Chris Archer. While the recommended pitching budget in an only league typically comes in around $80 per team or so, AL-only players can be forgiven if they shift an additional dollar or two of their budgets toward hitting or relief pitchers. Given the lack of dominant arms, stretching your budget for starting pitching makes little sense.

Since 2012, no AL pitcher has earned $35 multiple times. Going backwards, the $35+ earners since 2015 have been Keuchel ($35 in 2015), Hernandez ($39, 2014), Corey Kluber ($35, 2014), Max Scherzer ($35, 2013), Justin Verlander ($39, 2012), and David Price ($36, 2012). Keuchel’s masterful season added a Cy Young Award to his trophy case, and with an average salary of $11 in expert leagues undoubtedly propelled many fantasy teams to a title. While Keuchel is a legitimate ace, it will be difficult for him to duplicate or surpass last year’s effort. Price was the last AL pitcher to crack $35 without striking out more than a batter an inning; a $25-30 season might be a more reasonable expectation for Keuchel. This isn’t a knock on Keuchel—an extremely talented pitcher—but rather an indication of how much strikeouts have an impact on the fantasy side.

One of the reasons AL pitchers didn’t earn as much as their NL counterparts in 2015 is that wins weren’t as plentiful in the AL for the top starters. Five of the 20 best AL starting pitchers in 2015 failed to win in double digits, while only four starters won 16 or more. Price was the only $30-plus earner in the AL last year besides Keuchel, in part thanks to his 18 wins. Price reaped the rewards of yet another great season when the Red Sox signed him to a seven-year, $217 million contract. The 30-year old southpaw has been money in the bank for his fantasy teams, earning $30 or more in three of the last four seasons. I prefer the upside of Kluber, but if you’re looking for a relatively safe anchor in a keeper league who won’t cost what Sale will, Price may be your man. He’s fine in any venue, and the floor is arguably higher than it is for any starting pitcher in the circuit.

While all of the price points mentioned above are intriguing to consider in a vacuum, it is always better to examine pricing in context of the league pool on the whole. Table 1 shows the top 20 most expensive starters in AL-only in 2015, in order to provide an idea of what the expert leagues spent last year and how this may impact your auctions in 2016. All dollar values provided in this article can be found here. The average salary is derived from last year’s CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars AL-only auctions.

Table 1: 20 Most Expensive Starting Pitchers, AL-Only, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

1

Felix Hernandez

$22

31

-10

2 (tie)

David Price

$32

28

4

Chris Sale

$26

28

-2

4

Corey Kluber

$24

25

-1

5 (tie)

Sonny Gray

$25

21

5

Jeff Samardzija

$6

21

-14

7

Hisashi Iwakuma

$14

19

-5

8

Carlos Carrasco

$23

18

5

9

Masahiro Tanaka

$20

16

3

10

Chris Archer

$24

16

8

11 (tie)

Garrett Richards

$17

15

2

Drew Smyly

$8

15

-7

13

Jose Quintana

$15

15

0

14

Phil Hughes

$7

15

-8

15

Yordano Ventura

$12

14

-2

16

Anibal Sanchez

$6

14

-8

17

Jered Weaver

$5

14

-9

18

Michael Pineda

$12

13

-1

19 (tie)

Collin McHugh

$17

13

4

Marcus Stroman

$6

13

-7

Average

$16

18

-2

The biggest disappointments on Table 1 were Samardzija, Hernandez, and Weaver, in that order. Samardzija was the biggest loser among AL-only pitchers in 2015, while Felix came in ninth on this ignominious list. The most expensive of anything is bound to be a failure-oriented group, and last year’s most expensive AL-only pitchers were no exception. While losing money on any pitcher isn’t a preferred outcome, the 12 pitchers who lost money “only” lost $6 per pitcher. Conventional wisdom instructs us that every pitching purchase is fraught with risk, yet of the 20 most expensive pitchers purchased in AL leagues last year, not a single one earned under five dollars. The 2015 Weaver outcome is far from desirable, but there is a significant difference between spending $14 on a pitcher and getting back five dollars of stats versus spending than same $14 and getting zilch. Given the relative inexperience of the pitchers on Table 1 (11 of the 20 pitchers listed entered 2015 with no more than three full seasons of major league experience), you would expect at least one complete flameout, but the opposite turned out to be true. Five of the seven profitable pitchers on Table 1 had four years or fewer of big league experience. Instead, it was the seasoned veterans who did most of the damage to our fantasy teams. Felix, Sanchez, and Weaver were the only pitchers on Table 1 with seven or more years in the major leagues. Combined, they lost their fantasy managers $27. I often recommend shying away from overpriced young arms; the data from 2015 suggest that this was poor advice.

Getting stats from the pitchers you invest on is important, but so is getting stats from some of the arms further down the food chain.

Table 2: Top 20 Starting Pitchers, AL-Only, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

1

Dallas Keuchel

$35

11

24

2

David Price

$32

28

4

3

Chris Sale

$26

28

-2

4

Sonny Gray

$25

21

5

5

Chris Archer

$24

16

8

6

Corey Kluber

$24

25

-1

7

Carlos Carrasco

$23

18

5

8

Felix Hernandez

$22

31

-10

9

Danny Salazar

$21

12

10

10

Marco Estrada

$21

1

20

11

Masahiro Tanaka

$20

16

3

12

Garrett Richards

$17

15

2

13

Collin McHugh

$17

13

4

14

Jake Odorizzi

$16

11

5

15

Wei-Yin Chen

$16

6

10

16

Scott Kazmir

$15

9

6

17

Chris Young

$15

18

Jose Quintana

$15

15

0

19

Erasmo Ramirez

$15

20

Hisashi Iwakuma

$14

19

-5

Average

$21

15*

4*

*Young and Ramirez are included in the average earnings total but not the average salary or profit/loss.

Add Keuchel, Salazar, and Estrada to the mix and the trend of the best pitchers without significant major league experience carries over to Table 2. Since 2012, Price, Sale, and Hernandez are the only current AL pitchers with two or more seasons with $25 or more in earnings (Scherzer did it as well). There is a paradox at work in the AL. You don’t want to pay player more than what he can possibly earn, but you do want to pay a little bit extra for the stability and reliability that Price, Sale, and Hernandez can offer. Jordan Zimmermann was arguably the best starting pitcher to switch leagues this offseason, but with Ian Kennedy and J.A. Happ as the second and third best imports to the AL, they won’t make up for the loss of Kazmir, Chen, and Samardzija to the NL. If you don’t have the stomach to go past $30 on either Sale or Price, you will have to consider pushing the envelope on pitchers like Archer, Carrasco, and Salazar if you believe in the idea of buying a staff ace. Unlike in the NL, the balanced approach isn’t as viable of a strategy given some of the options at the bottom of the heap.

If you’re looking for a 2016 bargain who earned last year, Estrada is your guy. He was almost an afterthought in expert leagues in 2015. CBS and LABR tossed a buck at him, while Tout Wars doubled that with a two dollar bid. Estrada’s fly ball tendencies and Rogers Centre seem like a terrible combination, but despite the reasonable expectation of some regression, Estrada should survive a season through the Blue Jays’ rotation, and won’t cost more than $4-6 in most AL-only leagues. On the other end of the spectrum, Salazar cracked $20 in earnings in his first full season but because of the pedigree won’t be cheap this year. Like the majority of the Cleveland rotation, Salazar’s value is hampered by his inability to keep the ball in the park, but the strikeouts play and he is just 26 years old. After a pair of solid seasons in 2013 ($14) and 2014 ($15), Archer broke out in 2015 with a $24 campaign. The slippage in his second half numbers is a bit of a concern, but even if you simply pay for Archer’s second half, a .232/.304/.353 slash line against still plays as a $20 pitcher. The spike in walks Post All-Star is the biggest concern, followed closely by Archer topping 200 innings for the first time in his career. It is possible that Archer takes a step backwards this year as he continues to build up stamina as an ace.

Something I like to do in deep leagues is focus on strikeout pitchers whose other numbers lagged the previous season. Kennedy and Lance McCullers both struck out over a batter an inning last year, while Mike Fiers, Carlos Rodon, and Michael Pineda came extremely close to doing the same. The challenge with many of these pitchers is trying to gauge future performance based on a limited track record. Another avenue fantasy owners looking for bargains typically pursue is nabbing pitchers coming back from injury. Stroman looked solid in four starts after returning from a knee injury (ligament damage), but the strikeouts were well below what he done previously in his professional career. Because of his age and a failed physical after he signed with the Dodgers, Iwakuma could offer fantasy managers an opportunity for a bargain. He earned $20 or more in 2013 and 2014, and even with 170 innings could return to that level in 2016. Yu Darvish is the other injured pitcher who will likely cost $10 or more in AL fantasy auctions. Darvish offers a high ceiling, but he won’t be ready on Opening Day. In redraft leagues, his price can’t go too far past $12 or so. Matt Moore is going to be the darling of more than a few experts, but given his control issues pre-Tommy John, don’t bid into double digits.

While DRA, cFIP, and all of the other alphabet soup metrics are useful in attempting to determine a pitcher’s baseline, I also like to look at a pitcher’s earnings breakdown in the traditional categories to see where his value derived. As mentioned above, pitchers who earned a significant chunk of fantasy coin in strikeouts last year are this year’s potential bargains. Sale earned $13 of his $26 in strikeouts last year; it’s easy to see why some fantasy managers are pushing his price into the $30s in the hopes that he has just a little more win karma than he did last year. On the other hand, Keuchel “only” earned $10 (out of $35) in strikeouts while Price earned $11 (out of $32) in the category. This certainly isn’t the only way you should analyze pitchers, but it is a reminder that even a moderate fluctuation in wins can alter a pitcher’s value significantly. Pitchers like Trevor Bauer, Ubaldo Jimenez, Hector Santiago, and Taijuan Walker are the types of arms I like to target at a moderate price in AL-only (although if the $20 price tag in CBS’s AL-only auction last week is any indication, Walker won’t go for a moderate price). Jimenez and Santiago in particular are true sleepers. Both are beyond the kind of hype that Bauer or Walker will get due to their youth, and because the strikeouts profile well the floor in fantasy is moderate, at worst. There aren’t too many pitchers on the other end of this spectrum, but if you are looking to build in a discount because of low strikeout totals, R.A. Dickey, Hughes, and NL-import Doug Fister are the kind of pitchers you should look to knock down a few bucks in AL-only.

Poor strikeout pitchers are where the AL and the NL differ significantly. In the NL, you can often get away with a low strikeout arm at the back end of your staff, in part because the NL pitcher gets to face his mound counterpart at least once a game and with the exception of interleague play in AL-parks has the advantage of seeing weaker lineups as a result. The AL pitcher doesn’t have the same good fortune, and seeing Kendrys Morales or David Ortiz three to four times a game isn’t going to help anyone’s ERA. Of the AL pitchers who struck out fewer than six batters per nine innings in 2015 (minimum 100 innings), Dickey was the most successful, earning $13. The now-retired Mark Buehrle and Yovani Gallardo were the only other AL pitchers to crack double-digits, earning $12 and $10, respectively. This sounds great, but the 11 pitchers who struck out under six per nine and tossed 100 or more innings cost a combined $48 and earned $53. So what’s wrong with that you, the hypothetical reader I have lovingly crafted in my head, ask? Nothing… if you don’t go overboard on any of these guys. A nominal bid in the endgame of three dollars or under is acceptable; anything beyond this and you’re going to be flying with Kenny Loggins in the Danger Zone (look it up on Wikipedia, Millennials). Spending $15 on Hughes or $14 on Weaver last season out of a typical pitching budget of $80 was opportunity wasted. The more important takeaway isn’t so much about the lack of earnings but about opportunity cost. Even for the success stories like Gallardo, I would prefer to spend five dollars on a promising young flier than on a low upside play with a $10-12 ceiling and a negative earnings floor.

Low strikeouts or not, if you want to win an AL-only league, you are going to have to plumb the depths for bargains. Below are a few pitchers who will mostly or entirely be purchased in AL-only leagues based on their current ADP.

Jesse Hahn – Athletics ($8)
Will Jesse Hahn stay healthy? Any conversation about his potential value hinges around the state of Hahn’s arm. After a promising half a season for the A’s, Hahn was shut down in early July, first due to elbow discomfort and later due to forearm inflammation. The silver lining is that an MRI found no structural damage and that he is on schedule to break camp with the team at the end of spring training. In an effort to stay healthy, Hahn is abandoning his slider and plans to rely more on his changeup. While this all sounds well and good, Hahn’s precipitous drop in strikeouts from 2014 to 2015 combined with his shift away from the slider makes him risky at any price past five dollars. Hahn’s excellent groundball rate will likely keep him from surrendering too many home runs, but Hahn does lose some of the home field advantage A’s pitchers get from that spacious foul ground at O.co, or whatever the heck they’re calling that park these days.

Phil Hughes, Twins ($7)
A year ago at this time, Hughes was coming off of what looked like a breakout season, a year that proved that—yes—even without a ton of strikeouts Phil Hughes could be a fantasy force. A year later, that belief looks like a far flung fantasy, the desire of far too many fantasy managers to believe what they wanted to believe. To be somewhat fair, it would have been impossible to predict that Hughes’ strikeout rate would plummet to below six per nine innings for the first time since 2011. However, the spike in his home run rate should have been at least somewhat predictable. In part, the culprit in 2015 was a dip in Hughes’ fastball velocity to the lowest rate of his major-league career. However, a 2.78 ERA on the road in 2014 should have provided some kind of sign that Hughes’ success wasn’t built to last. Hughes’ past success makes him worth a low end gamble on draft day, but it’s the kind of gamble I’d prefer in leagues where you can reserve and stream active major league pitchers.

James Paxton, Mariners ($2)
Like our aging but beloved television friend Fox Mulder on the X-Files reboot, I want to believe. I really do. And if you have ever watched James Paxton pitch, you can understand why. Tall lefty? Check. Good delivery? Check. Mid-90s fastball? Check. Plus curve? Check. Paxton has the raw stuff to be a $20-plus fantasy stud if he can ever put it all together for a full season. Unfortunately, that’s the rub. Paxton can’t stay healthy for any appreciable length of time, which means he is unable to put together consistent stretches of innings, which makes the overall package less impressive than you’d expect if you only watched an inning here or an inning there. He’s a fine low-level gamble, but I wouldn’t bet big on him this year. Paxton’s future may lie in the bullpen. He is already 27 years old.

Wade Miley, Mariners ($6)
Even in the deep terrain of AL-only formats, Miley is likely to be a sleeper in auctions this year because his overall numbers the last few years look incredibly pedestrian. Since Miley’s strong $19 campaign in 2012, he has earned $11, four dollars, and six dollars in only-formats the last three seasons. The good news for Miley buyers is that his peripherals have mostly stayed the same since 2013, with FIPs that have consistently sat between 3.8 and 4.0. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, that’s because it is, but in AL-only, a pitcher who can put up a 3.90 ERA and strikeout 140-150 batters is fine as a fourth or fifth starter in your fantasy rotation. The move to a pitchers’ park could suppress Miley’s ERA even more than that and make him a double digit earner once again. Having a decent infield defense behind him will help.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays ($13)
One of the biggest differences between mixed leagues and AL-only leagues is how we regard pitchers like Dickey. In a 12-team mixed league, carrying Dickey on your squad for an appreciable amount of time is tantamount to roster suicide. His 3.95 ERA since he was traded to the Blue Jays is as ordinary as you’re going to get in that format and the strikeout rate is fairly ordinary or even subpar. However, what Dickey is lacking in mixed formats he more than makes up for in AL-only with volume. Two hundred and ten innings or more of an ERA just south of four is an asset, particularly when most of the free agent options are just bad. Additionally, Dickey’s poor year in 2015 was the product of a horrible start to the season. From June 2nd until the end of the year, Dickey had a 3.11 ERA with a 669 OPS against. The lack of strikeouts could be a big problem, but Dickey has to be started in every AL-only league until he proves he can’t do it anymore.

Tyler Duffey, Twins ($6)
Duffey’s numbers last year look great, but he is a two-pitch pitcher who may have difficulty surviving as a starting pitcher—let alone repeating 2015—if he doesn’t add a third pitch to his repertoire. Duffey kept hitters off balance with a nasty curve that he changed speeds with quite successfully, but historically speaking it is difficult for a pitcher to maintain success with high curveball usage and little else in the arsenal. He should be drafted in AL-only leagues. You cannot extrapolate his 2015 numbers and assume a full season of the same in 2016.

Aaron Sanchez, Blue Jays ($8)
Is Sanchez a starter or reliever? Last year’s numbers say the latter, but given the ceiling that Sanchez has it feels like it would be a waste to give up on him as a starting pitcher at the tender age of 23. Sanchez was terrible as a starter last year. Don’t be fooled by the 3.55 ERA in the role; Sanchez’s 5.21 FIP as a starter was more indicative of his true performance level. At issue with Sanchez is whether or not he can be consistent enough two or three times through a major league lineup to last as a starter. Bad mechanics led to Sanchez to all but abandoning the curve, which is a shame because not only is it a thing of beauty but also was next-to-an-impossible pitch for opposing batters to square up against. Sanchez will be given another opportunity to crack the Blue Jays rotation, but given that the Blue Jays competitive window is in the here and now, Sanchez runs the risk of being demoted if he struggles again this year. He would be a formidable closer for Toronto, but it’s unlikely he’d take the role in 2016 even if the Jays did pull the plug completely on Sanchez the starting pitcher.

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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