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Welcome to my third annual look at retrospective player valuation here at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2015. This is the first post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series will focus on NL-only leagues, the next two will shift their focus to AL-only, and the final two posts examine the more difficult terrain (from a valuation perspective) of mixed leagues.

Before I dig in, here is a brief description of the charts below.

The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5×5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer). There are two important things to know about the values:

1) They are derived using the 168 best perceived hitters and the 108 best perceived pitchers (read most expensive or highest draft position) on Opening Day 2015, not the best 168 hitters and 108 pitchers at the end of the season.

2) The values of the 276 most expensive players add up to $3,120. This is important, and comes into play in the next two columns.

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 have three complete NL and 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 is useless for the purposes of this exercise thanks to auction inflation.

The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether he gained or lost his fantasy owners play money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Max Scherzer can earn $34, get paid an average salary of $31 and gain $4.

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 or (worse) cherry pick the ones you got right and take a hollow victory lap. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my fifth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2015. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

PK are Peter Kreutzer’s bids for AL and NL-only leagues, published at Patton and Company’s web site. It is useful to look back and see how you did, but even more useful to compare your predictions to someone else’s.

2014 shows what the player earned in 2014.

This is supposed to be an article about how National League pitchers performed in fantasy baseball. But for the second year in a row, it is impossible not to gush and gape at the majesty that is Clayton Kershaw.

Table 1: Top 10 NL Pitchers 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Jake Arrieta

$44

18

25

20

16

19

19

18

$23

2

Clayton Kershaw

$42

40

2

43

40

37

42

39

$41

3

Zack Greinke

$41

22

19

21

21

25

21

23

$25

4

Max Scherzer

$34

31

4

30

32

30

29

30

$27

5

Madison Bumgarner

$30

25

5

27

24

25

23

26

$27

6

Jacob deGrom

$28

16

13

18

12

17

15

17

$16

7

Gerrit Cole

$28

19

10

18

18

20

18

18

$12

8

Matt Harvey

$25

21

4

21

24

19

21

19

9

Mark Melancon

$25

18

7

18

18

18

18

17

$21

10

Jeurys Familia

$23

1

22

1

3

2

$9

Average

$32

21

11

22

21

21

21

21

$20

In fantasy terms, we just witnessed the best season of Clayton Kershaw’s career, which given what he has already done over the course of said career is pretty damn amazing. Yet not only did Kershaw not top the National League for the fourth time in the last five years, but he finished second by two whole dollars to Jake Arrieta.

2015 marks the first time since I started tracking these numbers for 5×5 leagues back in 2009 that someone besides Kershaw cracked the $40 barrier in the National League. As a result, for the first time since 2009 the average earnings for the Top 10 pitchers were higher than they have ever been.

Table 2: 10 Best National League Pitchers: 2011-2015

Year

$

Sal

+/-

Prior Year

10 Best Prior Year

10th Best Pitcher

2015

$32

21

11

$20

$28

$23

2014

$28

21

7

$23

$29

$23

2013

$29

21

8

$19

$28

$23

2012

$28

14

14

$19

$28

$24

2011

$28

20

8

$20

$28

$22

Pitchers as individuals are random in terms of their earnings, in large part due to the fact that even slight batted ball fluctuations can have a significant impact on ERA and WHIP. But in terms of how they do on a macro level, Table 2 shows just how predictable pitchers are. 2012 is the only year on Table 2 where the 10 best pitchers weren’t paid between $20-21, and regardless of who those 10 pitchers were, they all earned between $19-23 the previous season. The market pays about $20-21 for pitchers who earned $19-23 the year before and those pitchers earn $28-29 on average.

2015 was the exception. For the first time since 2009, the 10 best National League pitchers earned at least $30 per player. Not only that, the three best pitchers earned 12.5 percent of what all of the auctioned pitchers earned in 2015.

Let this sink in for a moment. Arrieta, Kershaw, and Greinke earned one-eighth of what the top 108 pitchers purchased in NL-only auctions earned. Some of this can be explained away by negative earnings (with two qualitative categories in play for pitchers as opposed to one for hitters, pitchers are more likely to earn negative dollars) but when it comes to negative earnings, the difference between 2015 and prior seasons is negligible. Negative earnings for auctioned NL pitchers were $39 in 2015; in 2014 they were $36.

If the top pitchers earned four dollars more per pitcher in 2015 than they did in 2014 and the worst pitchers weren’t the culprit, then where was the change reflected?

Table 3: NL Pitchers by Earnings Bracket, 2013-2015

Tier

2015

2014

2013

1-10

$320

$282

$280

11-20

$196

$206

$203

21-30

$162

$154

$174

31-40

$132

$129

$145

41-50

$97

$113

$108

51-60

$68

$92

$76

61-70

$42

$53

$51

71-80

$25

$24

$26

81-90

$14

$1

$8

91-100

-$7

-$5

-$6

101-108

-$32

-$32

-$35

Totals

$1,016

$1,017

$1,030

Right away, I’m annoyed that 2013 shows $1,030 of stats for the top 108 auctioned pitchers. That number should be $1,020, or at least be closer to $1,020 like 2014 and 2015 are. A $10 difference across 108 pitchers means next to nothing in terms of seasonal valuation but it does dilute the ability to compare pitchers from season to season. Theoretically, I should level off the earnings from 2013-2015 so that the “total” result is $1,020 for all three seasons.

But I digress. The bigger picture is more important than quibbling over $10-15, and what we see is that the money in 2013-2014 isn’t necessarily distributed into any one earnings bracket. In 2014, there is an odd sweet spot between the 41st and 60th best pitchers, and they earn $40 more than their 2015 counterparts. In 2013, there is a more even distribution of dollars across the board after the Top 10, and the 2015 pitchers don’t catch up until you get to the 71st best pitcher.

Should you spend more next year on the top pitchers? The answer to this depends on how your league behaves relative to the expert leagues.

Table 4: 10 Most Expensive NL Pitchers 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Clayton Kershaw

$42

40

2

43

40

37

42

39

$41

2

Max Scherzer

$34

31

4

30

32

30

29

30

$27

3

Stephen Strasburg

$16

27

-12

28

27

27

25

27

$24

4

Madison Bumgarner

$30

25

5

27

24

25

23

26

$27

5

Aroldis Chapman

$21

23

-2

24

21

25

23

24

$21

6

Zack Greinke

$41

22

19

21

21

25

21

23

$25

7

Johnny Cueto

$18

22

-4

25

20

21

21

22

$38

8

Craig Kimbrel

$20

22

-2

25

20

21

22

22

$24

9

Jordan Zimmermann

$15

22

-7

22

23

21

21

23

$25

10

Matt Harvey

$25

21

4

21

24

19

21

19

Average

$26

26

1

27

25

25

25

26

$25

If your market (league) is spending more liberally than the expert leagues do, then you should plan for your own auction accordingly. But if your league behaves like LABR and Tout do, then you should scale back as well.

This is a genteel way of saying that the experts are wimps when it comes to paying the best pitchers. I include myself in this category, as I am perhaps the biggest wimp of them all. In a five-way pricing battle with the expert leagues and Kreutzer, I don’t have the highest bid on any of these pitchers. CBS dominates the field here, getting Kershaw, Strasburg, Bumgarner, Cueto, and Kimbrel. LABR is ahead on Scherzer and Harvey and ties Kreutzer on Zimmermann. The Tout Warriors get Chapman and Greinke.

The most expensive pitchers don’t always break even or earn $26 per pitcher, but there is so little fluctuation from season to season that it is amazing that the expert market doesn’t try to take advantage of this. Since 2010, the 10 most expensive pitchers have cost $25 and earned $23 per player on average. The 10 most expensive hitters have cost $36 and earned $26 over this same time frame.

We are all scared of the best pitchers in baseball for nothing. For years, I have defended the idea that maybe it is OK not to spend on the best pitching because of the risky guys at the bottom of the food chain, but six years of data shows that pitching is far more reliable on the whole than hitting is. It is far more likely that you can sink your season with one bad pitching choice, but this didn’t even hold last year; Jordan Zimmermann did far less damage to his fantasy teams than Carlos Gomez, Yasiel Puig, and Anthony Rendon did.

One of the excuses for avoiding the most expensive pitchers is because the bargains will more than make up for not spending over $20 on a top arm.

Table 5: Top 10 NL Pitcher Bargains, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Jake Arrieta

$44

18

25

20

16

19

19

18

$23

2

Jeurys Familia

$23

1

22

1

3

2

$9

3

Zack Greinke

$41

22

19

21

21

25

21

23

$25

4

Jaime Garcia

$17

1

15

4

3

1

$4

5

Noah Syndergaard

$18

2

15

2

3

2

7

6

Brad Ziegler

$16

1

15

2

1

1

$5

7

Jacob deGrom

$28

16

13

18

12

17

15

17

$16

8

Francisco Rodriguez

$19

7

12

4

8

9

11

10

$22

9

Dan Haren

$14

3

12

2

2

4

5

3

$13

10

Carlos Martinez

$17

6

11

4

6

8

7

7

$2

Average

$24

8

16

7

7

9

9

8

$12

It isn’t the best news for bargain hunters when three of the top 10 bargains are also among the Top 10 pitchers overall. This doesn’t mean that the bargains aren’t there (half of the pitchers on Table 5 cost $3 or less) but rather that teams spending money are also maximizing their investments. You can make the argument that you can simply push and push and push on the bargains and build a quality pitching staff. However, the goal isn’t merely to get bargains but also to buy enough stats to win your league. I repeat this mantra in this space year in and year out and by now must sound like a broken record (a what, old man?) but it’s true. Unless you are going to spend $30 or less on your pitching staff, ultimately you are going to have to drop some coin on at least a few arms.

I’m always less interested in what the most profitable pitchers cost and more interested in what kind of pitchers are generating said profits. In 2015, there wasn’t a dominant type of pitcher populating the list. Three relievers resided here, but only K-Rod was a closer to start the season. Syndergaard was the only prospect on this list, Garcia was the only injury flier, and Haren was the only cagey veteran. The closest thing to a pattern came in the form of pitchers who had earned the year before and were a slight bargain, even based on their 2014 earnings. If there is an inefficiency, it is that the experts ignore 2014 too much. This is especially true in Haren’s case, but on the whole the market significantly downgraded these players in 2015.

The pattern on the other side of the earnings spectrum is much clearer.

Table 6: Top 10 NL Pitcher Losses 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Adam Wainwright

$4

19

-15

20

19

18

20

19

$31

2

Steve Cishek

$2

16

-14

18

14

16

16

16

$18

3

Matt Garza

-$7

7

-14

8

6

6

7

5

$11

4

Hyun-Jin Ryu

13

-13

15

14

11

10

10

$16

5

Doug Fister

$2

14

-12

14

14

13

15

14

$21

6

Homer Bailey

-$1

10

-12

8

11

12

9

11

$10

7

Stephen Strasburg

$16

27

-12

28

27

27

25

27

$24

8

Mat Latos

1

13

-11

14

9

15

14

13

$8

9

Kyle Lohse

-$6

6

-11

4

6

7

5

8

$16

10

Matt Cain

-$3

8

-11

9

7

8

10

7

$3

Average

$1

13

-12

14

13

13

13

13

$16

Nine out of 10 pitchers on the biggest losses list were starting pitchers. This flies against the conventional wisdom that closers are significant risks and most likely to bust your team. While not every closer turned a profit, as a group there wasn’t much failure to be seen. Besides Cishek, Jenrry Mejia, and Bobby Parnell were the only NL closers to lose their fantasy owners four dollars or more in 2015. For all of the fear associated with spending on relief pitching, 2015 was a terrible year to avoid the category in NL-only leagues.

Table 6 is additional illumination of the problem teams had in 2015 if they avoided spending on starting pitching, and in particular if they avoided spending on an ace. Wainwright is the only starting pitcher who comes close to the $20 ace stratosphere; the other starting pitchers who had the unfortunate distinction of appearing on this table cost between $6-14. In the past, the $15-19 range has been the danger zone for pitching investments, but in 2015 this was not the case at all.

“This is all well and good, but no one kept pitchers like Cain, Garza, and Lohse all year long on their active rosters, not even in an NL-only,” I can hear some of you saying in the dulcet tones in which I read your comments in my head. This argument presupposes that even in the deepest leagues, there are pitchers who will come to your rescue and save your bacon.

Table 7: Top 10 NL Free Agents 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

A.J. Ramos

$19

1

$10

2

Kevin Siegrist

$13

1

-$2

3

J.A. Happ

$12

$9

4

Jason Grilli

$11

0

11

1

1

10

$5

5

Will Smith

$10

1

$3

6

George Kontos

$10

1

$5

7

Chris Heston

$9

$0

8

J.J. Hoover

$9

1

$0

9

Travis Wood

$8

0

8

1

3

-$2

10

Hunter Strickland

$8

$2

Average

$11

0

11

0

0

0

1

1

$3

These are the 10 best pitchers in the National League who fell outside of the Top 108 in terms of average expert league salary. Grilli was purchased in LABR and Wood in Tout, but since I use average salary, they are both considered free agents for the purpose of this exercise. Chances are good that all 10 of these guys were available as free agents in your league if you auctioned before Opening Day (Grilli’s $10 throw from Kreutzer indicates that his price was set after the Kimbrel trade).

It is evident that we don’t want to have any of these pitchers on our teams (except for my excitement about the possibility of telling people “I’ve got Wood” because I am 12), but the more significant takeaway is that the only starting pitchers on this list are Happ and Heston. Wood began the year as a starting pitcher, but he earned his money in fantasy out of the pen.

So here is yet one more reason why you will have to spend money on starting pitching in 2016. There was likely a time when you could count on the free agent pool delivering decent starting pitching to bail you out if you had a terrible auction, but it seems that those days are gone. Happ was a great import from the AL at the deadline while Heston provided a good chunk of value early. But most of these pitchers were relievers, and while it is possible that someone somewhere had these guys on their roster all season long, it is more likely that most of these pitchers spent weeks on the free agent pool putting up good stats for no one.

With hitting no longer in vogue the way it was during the steroid era, the paradigm has changed in fantasy baseball. The best pitchers are as stable as they have been in quite some time and the pitchers at the bottom are good enough that an influx of free agent talent is cycling through the waiver wire. While spending on pitching may always seem odious, the landscape at the moment makes doing so far less precarious than it has been in years past.