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The top starting pitchers last year separated themselves from the pack more than usual. Five different starters who qualified for the ERA title finished with a WHIP under 1.000, and the fewest innings pitched by any of those pitchers was 191. Three different pitchers earned more than $40 according to my colleague Mike Gianella’s valuations. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at what the auction markets thought prior to the start of last season. Note that the three numeric fields are defined as follows:

  • $ is the value earned by these players in NL-only leagues in 2015 using Mike Gianella’s valuations
  • AVG is the average salary paid in NL-only expert league auctions prior to the 2015 season (leagues include CBS, Tout Wars and LABR)
  • +/- is the difference between AVG and $ for each player (a negative number indicates a loss while positive numbers are profits)

Table 1: Top 15 NL Starting Pitchers by Avg. Salary (AVG), 2015

Name

$

AVG

+/-

Clayton Kershaw

$42

$40

$2

Max Scherzer

$34

$31

$4

Stephen Strasburg

$16

$27

-$12

Madison Bumgarner

$30

$25

$5

Zack Greinke

$41

$22

$19

Johnny Cueto

$18

$22

-$4

Jordan Zimmermann

$15

$22

-$7

Matt Harvey

$25

$21

$4

Jon Lester

$20

$20

$0

Cole Hamels

$10

$20

-$9

Gerrit Cole

$28

$19

$10

Adam Wainwright

$4

$19

-$15

Jake Arrieta

$44

$18

$25

James Shields

$12

$18

-$6

Julio Teheran

$9

$17

-$8

Kershaw was the most expensive starting pitcher by far, with a gap of $9 over the second most expensive starting pitcher. Despite that salary, he managed to turn a $2 profit for his owners. But you know that Clayton Kershaw is awesome, and this is an article for deep-league NL-only roto players, so I won’t dwell on that.

Max Scherzer and Madison Bumgarner both went for $25 or more and were worth the investment. They are similar players in that they combine high strikeout rates with low WHIPs and have been reliably healthy for the last several seasons.

Stephen Strasburg only threw 127 1/3 innings due to an oblique injury that limited his performance in the first half of the season and landed him on the DL in early July. He was his dominant self after returning from the DL and put up monstrous numbers for the rest of the season, although he did have some back issues after his return from the DL and had offseason surgery to remove a non-cancerous growth from his back that was presumably related to his in-season back problems. He’s always a bigger health risk than the average starting pitcher, having only thrown 200 innings once going into his final season before free agency. But the reward is potentially enormous, as Strasburg’s strikeout totals and rate stats have always been outstanding. And his fielding-independent rate stats were even better than his rotisserie stats last year, if you’re into gambling on regression to the mean with regard to batted-ball luck.

As experienced roto players know, pitchers come with much wider error bars than hitters. The bid limits in most standard roto leagues reflect this reality, with more dollars allocated to hitters than pitchers even after adjusting for the fact that standard rosters include 14 hitters and nine pitchers. With this roster construction, pitchers make up 39 percent of the lineup. However, in most leagues, pitchers account for somewhere between 28 percent and 32 percent of the $260 spent per team. The difference is due to the relative reliability of hitters’ performances. Given the relatively wide error bars that come with starting pitchers, owners should be more willing to pay for reliability at the top end of the market for pitchers than the top end of the market for hitters. Owners should be more willing to eschew profit and break even on auction day with regards to their bid limits with starting pitchers than at any other position.

With that said, who were the top earners among NL starting pitchers in 2015?

Table 2: Top 15 NL Starting Pitchers by Earnings ($), 2015

Name

$

AVG

+/-

Jake Arrieta

$44

$18

$25

Clayton Kershaw

$42

$40

$2

Zack Greinke

$41

$22

$19

Max Scherzer

$34

$31

$4

Madison Bumgarner

$30

$25

$5

Jacob deGrom

$28

$16

$13

Gerrit Cole

$28

$19

$10

Matt Harvey

$25

$21

$4

John Lackey

$20

$9

$11

Jon Lester

$20

$20

$0

Noah Syndergaard

$18

$2

$15

Francisco Liriano

$18

$12

$6

Johnny Cueto

$18

$22

-$4

Jaime Garcia

$17

$1

$15

Carlos Martinez

$17

$6

$11

Two things jumped out at me from this list. First, I was surprised to see Johnny Cueto make an appearance here despite the fact that he spent the last two months of the season in the American League. Even more surprisingly, due to his struggles after joining the world champion Royals (still sounds weird, doesn’t it?), he earned $0 in the AL in the two months he spent there according to Mike Gianella’s AL-only valuations.

Second, I didn’t expect to see Jaime Garcia on this list due to the fact that he’s Jaime Garcia. Last year, he threw 129.2 innings, his highest total since 2011 and his first time past 60 IP since 2012. In 2014, his WHIP was 1.05 after never posting a WHIP below 1.30 in his career. It was impossible to determine if that improvement in WHIP reflected a legitimate improvement or just a statistical blip, though, as he only threw 43.2 innings in 2014. His 2015 season was a strong argument that his improvements were real, as he reproduced his 2014 WHIP of 1.05 alongside a 2.43 ERA. 2015 was only the second time he produced an ERA below 3.50, the other being 2010 when his 2.70 ERA may have been a bit fluky considering his FIP that year was 3.44. It does look like Garcia might be a better pitcher now than he was earlier in his career overall, but for roto purposes, note that his K/9 in 2015 was his lowest this decade, so the improvement in ERA and WHIP might be accompanied by a lower punchout rate. Garcia isn’t a bad upside play here if your league downgrades him enough for his lengthy injury history, but don’t spend more on him than you’re willing to write off as early as week two if he ends up on the DL again.

It’s also worth noting that 20 percent of the pitchers in Table 2 are Mets, since BP Fantasy’s Mike Gianella and Bret Sayre are both Mets fans. Is it too early to ask if Rob Manfred should step in and break up the Mets before their emerging dominance makes a mockery of the idea of competitiveness in Major League Baseball? Only time will tell.

The variability of pitcher performance from year to year explains the difference in auction dollars allocated per hitter and auction dollars allocated per hitter. This variability also means that inexpensive players are more likely to show up on the list of top earning pitchers than the list top earning hitters due to the fact that more of the top earners on the pitching side were not expected to be top earners going into the season. So which NL pitchers generated the most profit for their owners last year?

Table 3: Top 15 NL Starting Pitchers by Profit (+/-), 2015

Name

$

AVG

+/-

Jake Arrieta

$44

$18

$25

Zack Greinke

$41

$22

$19

Noah Syndergaard

$18

$2

$15

Jaime Garcia

$17

$1

$15

Jacob deGrom

$28

$16

$13

Dan Haren

$14

$3

$12

John Lackey

$20

$9

$11

Carlos Martinez

$17

$6

$11

Gerrit Cole

$28

$19

$10

Jason Hammel

$14

$6

$9

Bartolo Colon

$11

$2

$9

Kyle Hendricks

$12

$5

$7

Mike Leake

$12

$5

$7

Francisco Liriano

$18

$12

$6

Patrick Corbin

$6

$1

$6

Ten of the 15 players on this list had an average salary in the single digits, and nine of those 10 had an average salary of $6 or less. Inexpensive pitchers are one of an owner’s biggest profit centers. However, they are also one of the biggest loss centers, so owners need to be decisive about jettisoning pitchers who are doing irreparable damage to their ERA and WHIP. Rate stats, unlike counting stats, are categories where poor performers can not only create losses in the profit/loss (+/-) column, but also in the earnings ($) column. On the hitting side, standard leagues have only one rate stat, batting average. On the pitching side, standard leagues have two rate stats, ERA and WHIP. This structural difference in roto makes negative earnings a much more common problem on the pitching side than the hitting side. Avoiding negative earnings with pitchers can be nearly as important as finding profits. Don’t be afraid to release pitchers who are destroying your rate stats and be aggressive about working the waiver wire. Just as surely as some pitchers will implode, some pitchers who went unpurchased on auction day will end up producing big profits for the first owner willing to spend a FAAB dollar or two on them.

Speaking of the waiver wire, depending on your league’s rules, minor leaguers might not be available for purchase on auction day. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on some minor league starting pitching prospects who appear in Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 Prospects list that could make an impact in roto in 2016.

Potential Midseason Callups
(overall rank on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospect List in parentheses)

Lucas Giolito, Nationals (3)
The Nationals have had some outstanding luck when it comes to first-round picks. I don’t mean that they’ve had a disproportionate amount of them pan out, although they have. And I’m not just thinking about how they had the good fortune of having the first overall pick in the draft in the two years out of the last decade (or beyond) where the top overall picks were blindingly obvious due to the stratospheric ceilings of the players involved (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg). I’m mostly thinking about the fact that after the Nationals drafted Harper and Strasburg, without the first overall pick, they were able to draft the players who had been the favorites to be selected with the first-overall pick prior to the college/prep seasons but slipped due to injury concerns. The first of these players, Anthony Rendon, was selected sixth overall and already has one 5.0-plus WARP season, worth $30-plus in NL-only roto, on his resume.

The second of these players is Lucas Giolito, the top pitching prospect in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’ prospect rankings. Before the start of that year’s prep season, Giolito was a good bet for the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, which would have made him the first right-handed high school pitcher to be selected first overall. However, a UCL sprain prior to the start of the prep season that year cost him the entire season. Concerns about the elbow let Giolito fall to the Nationals, who selected him with the sixteenth pick of the first round.

Those concerns were validated almost immediately, as Giolito had to leave his minor league debut with elbow soreness. He had Tommy John surgery roughly three months after he was drafted. He returned to the mound at the end of 2013 and has been dominant since, putting up tremendous numbers at every minor league stop while being identified as a future ace by most scouts, a label that most scouts are reluctant to put on any prospect. He’s big (6-foo-6, 250-plus pounds), throws hard, misses bats, throws strikes, has multiple secondary pitches, and by nearly all accounts has a good feel for the game.

He threw 117 innings in 2015 across both High-A and Double-A, allowing 113 hits while striking out 131 and walking 37. He is expected to start the 2016 season in Triple-A. If he dominates like that for the first month or two, Tanner Roark and Bronson Arroyo won’t be barriers to Giolito joining the Nationals ‘ rotation. When he arrives, expect an instant impact across the board: W, K, ERA, and WHIP. Giolito is the complete package from s skills perspective. However, since he turns 22 in July and has never thrown more than 117 innings as a professional, don’t expect more than 150 innings combined between Triple-A and the majors. If he stays healthy all year, the Nationals will either shut him down at some point in August or find a way to space out his innings in a way that allows him to pitch through the end of September.

Can you tell I like Giolito from the fact that I wrote way, way more words about him than I probably should have? I like Giolito.

Julio Urias, Dodgers (6)
Despite the fact that Julio Urias doesn’t turn 20 until August, he has already advanced to Triple-A. Ranked only behind Giolito on the BP Top 101 among pitchers, he features a mid-90s fastball along with multiple offspeed pitches and control beyond his years. As a young lefthander from Mexico in the Dodgers organization, comparisons to Fernando Valenzuela are inevitable. Like Valenzuela, he could make his Dodgers debut as a 19-year-old. Unlike Valenzuela, he won’t throw 190-plus innings for the Dodgers in his rookie season. In fact, Urias has yet to throw 90 innings in a season. Don’t expect him to make much of an impact for your roto team if he’s promoted because he likely won’t throw more than 130 innings combined between Triple-A and the majors in the best-case scenario.

Alex Reyes, Cardinals (10)
Before testing positive for a drug of abuse in November, Alex Reyes was likely to at least make his MLB debut in 2016. Now it’s unlikely he’ll reach St. Louis until 2017, so he’s probably not even worth a reserve pick in redraft leagues with deep benches.

Tyler Glasnow, Pirates (11)
Tyler Glasnow strikes batters out. At every stop in his minor league career, he’s posted a double-digit K/9 with the exception of a stop in Low-A in 2012 that consisted of one start and four innings. His control isn’t terrible, but he could walk enough guys to make him a slight WHIP risk. That said, Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong shouldn’t keep Glasnow in the minors if he’s performs as expected and stays healthy. He’ll be worth a strong FAAB bid once promoted, especially for owners who need Ks.

Jose De Leon, Dodgers (28)
From a roto perspective, Jose de Leon might be a more extreme version of Tyler Glasnow. De Leon hasn’t had a K/9 lower than 12.3 at any level since 2013, his draft year. The downside with de Leon is that his career high in innings pitched is 114.3, split between High-A and Double-A last year. That makes it likely he’ll be capped around 150 IP in 2016. If promoted, De Leon is likely to either be shut down before the end of the season or sent to the bullpen to limit his innings. Either way, he won’t bolster a roto rotation down the stretch through the end of September, so plan accordingly.