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Welcome to my fourth annual look at retrospective player valuation at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of articles examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2016. This is the sixth article in a series of six. The first four articles in the series focused on NL-only and AL-only leagues. The final two posts examine mixed leagues, with this article examining pitchers.

Before I dig in, here is a brief description of the charts below. (If you have been reading along for the entire series, note that there are some changes for the mixed league articles).

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 210 best perceived hitters and the 135 best perceived pitchers (read most expensive or highest draft position) on Opening Day, not the best 210 hitters and 135 pitchers at the end of the season.

2) The values of the 345 most expensive players add up to $3,900. This is a fundamental difference from many pricing systems that use z-scores and assign the top 345 players an aggregate value of $3,900. While perhaps more accurate, dollar values derived from the best 345 players at the end of the season do not reflect how a fantasy team should behave in an auction environment or what these dollars truly represent.

Actual Rank lists where players ranked overall based on my dollar valuations. Since the NFBC rankings do not differentiate between hitters and pitchers, this column does not do so either.

The NFBC column lists the average draft position (ADP) as measured by the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts.

The LABR column lists the draft results of the LABR Mixed Auction, which gives us insight into what the fantasy “experts” were thinking back in February.

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 rankings below were published in March at Baseball Prospectus as part of our Top 300 Draft rankings. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

(This article contains valuations for select players. A complete valuation list can be found here.)

Over the last two or three years, the premise in mixed leagues has been that starting pitching is more predictable than we think and, in fact, is almost as predictable as hitting is. This concept took it on the chin somewhat in 2016.

Table 1: 15 Highest Drafted NFBC Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

MG Rank

1

Clayton Kershaw

$33

3

7

4

4

2

Max Scherzer

$37

15

4

16

14

3

Jake Arrieta

$26

20

31

24

20

4

Chris Sale

$29

24

20

30

26

5

Madison Bumgarner

$32

27

9

25

37

6

Matt Harvey

-$6

29

937

38

38

7

Jose Fernandez

$28

30

26

40

46

8

David Price

$20

32

75

33

31

9

Zack Greinke

$8

33

254

35

36

10

Jacob deGrom

$13

35

165

32

35

11

Gerrit Cole

$2

36

469

31

30

12

Corey Kluber

$29

39

19

42

48

13

Stephen Strasburg

$20

40

73

41

45

14

Noah Syndergaard

$26

43

36

48

51

15

Dallas Keuchel

$5

44

327

47

50

Average

$20

30

163

32

34

The 15 most highly regarded pitchers in 2016 NFBC drafts earned $20, on average. The 2015 edition of Table One earned $23 per pitcher. Twenty dollars per pitcher is very good, but doesn’t come close to the $25 that the hitters earned.

Part of this is Harvey; take out his negative six dollars and the group earns $22 on average. But this is the point. 2015’s worst pitcher in this group was Jordan Zimmermann. He earned $12. The 2016 versions of Cole, Greinke, Harvey, and Keuchel were far worse. Among the 15 most expensive NL hitters, only Giancarlo Stanton failed to reach double-digits (he earned seven dollars). When you draft a top pitcher early, the issue isn’t the ceiling. It is the floor.

The worst part about this is that instead of “thinking” independently, both LABR and my recommended draft position came far closer to NFBC than they had in the past. There were some little differences here and there, (for reasons that elude me at present, I didn’t like Bumgarner, Kluber, Fernandez all that much) but what stands out more are how damn similar the lists are. This was evident in the LABR Mixed Draft. Fantasy managers drafted pitchers because of slot, not because of value. The fear of missing out on one of the top pitchers was real. Expert consensus isn’t always bad, but it should derive from knowledge, not a lemming-like fear.

It wasn’t all bad. There was a great deal of overlap between the most expensive pitchers and the best ones.

Table 2: Top 15 Mixed League Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

MG Rank

1

Max Scherzer

$37

15

4

16

14

2

Clayton Kershaw

$33

3

7

4

4

3

Madison Bumgarner

$32

27

9

25

37

4

Jon Lester

$32

59

10

73

69

5

Justin Verlander

$32

128

11

161

129

6

Kyle Hendricks

$31

213

13

215

188

7

Rick Porcello

$31

338

14

347

346

8

Corey Kluber

$29

39

19

42

48

9

Chris Sale

$29

24

20

30

26

10

Johnny Cueto

$29

72

22

64

79

11

Jose Fernandez

$28

30

26

40

46

12

Kenley Jansen

$27

65

29

63

57

13

Jake Arrieta

$26

20

31

24

20

14

Noah Syndergaard

$26

43

36

48

51

15

Zach Britton

$25

89

42

99

94

Average

$30

78

20

83

80

More than half of 2016’s most sought out pitchers wound up being among the best. Kershaw was somewhat disappointing, but even so he was the second-best pitcher and the seventh best player in fantasy baseball. There were fewer surprises than there were in 2015, when Jeurys Familia came out of nowhere to finish 15th overall.

Some of this was a product of how good the best 15 pitchers were in 2016. The Top 15 pitchers in 2016 didn’t have a $40+ earner like Arrieta was in 2015, but they earned two dollars more per pitcher than their 2015 counterparts did. Britton earned five dollars more this year than Familia did in 2015.

But there was a more important factor.

Table 3: Top 135 Mixed League Hitters and Top 135 Pitchers by NFBC Tier, 2016

Tier

$

ADP Avg

2015 $

Tier

$

ADP Avg

2015 $

Hitter 1

$393

10

$365

Pitcher 1

$303

31

$343

Hitter 2

$256

31

$274

Pitcher 2

$196

69

$168

Hitter 3

$265

57

$279

Pitcher 3

$132

106

$194

Hitter 4

$253

84

$267

Pitcher 4

$70

146

$107

Hitter 5

$198

108

$149

Pitcher 5

$65

174

$59

Hitter 6

$138

142

$184

Pitcher 6

$125

214

$68

Hitter 7

$164

167

$181

Pitcher 7

$8

258

$37

Hitter 8

$147

185

$137

Pitcher 8

-$9

292

$69

Hitter 9

$148

211

$103

Pitcher 9

$73

320

$33

I ran this chart in last year’s article. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 earnings have been presented again. Even though the 2016 pitchers didn’t earn nearly as much, as a percentage they earned what their 2015 counterparts did. Additionally, hitters were more predictable across the earnings spectrum for the second consecutive season. There were some minor fluctuations from tier to tier but a clear hierarchy is evident. There is a drop from the top tier of hitters to Tiers 2-4 and then a drop to Tier 5 and another drop to Tiers 6-9. Within these tiers, there is a narrow range of outcomes. This isn’t the case for the pitchers. The pitchers in Tier 6 rally, the ones in tiers 7-8 drop off entirely, and the pitchers in Tier 9 earn more than the pitchers in Tier 4.

The case for the ace is highlighted most by Tier 1. Even with the presence of duds like Harvey, the most expensive arms are way ahead of the rest of the pack. Sitting back and trying to fill in your pitching staff after the first 50 picks is a losing game. You might have nabbed Hendricks if you were lucky. It is more likely that you would have landed Mike Fiers, Jaime Garcia, or Scott Kazmir. Yes, I know: you’re smart, and landing Hendricks was skill and not luck (you’re also ridiculously good looking).

If you’re wondering how the 30 pitchers in Tiers 7 and 8 can lose one dollar combined, it’s because the pitchers in the next table eventually found their way to our rosters.

Table 4: Top 15 Mixed League Free Agent Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

MG Rank

1

Tanner Roark

$23

402

47

395

2

Aaron Sanchez

$21

344

64

346

3

Seung Hwan Oh

$20

74

4

Danny Duffy

$18

477

85

361

5

Drew Pomeranz

$17

405

95

6

Michael Fulmer

$16

98

7

Alex Colome

$16

399

106

362

8

Tyler Thornburg

$16

107

9

Christopher Devenski

$16

110

10

Dan Straily

$15

117

11

Bartolo Colon

$15

484

133

404

12

Jeremy Hellickson

$15

492

134

13

Brad Brach

$14

143

14

Sam Dyson

$14

157

15

David Phelps

$13

162

Average

$17

109

In 2015, the best free agent pitchers were primarily relievers. In 2016, there was a nearly even split between starting pitchers and relievers. Five of the six best free agents were starting pitchers, which is a more typical expectation based on historical trends. Four of these relievers took over in the ninth at some point during the season, but Brach was a pure middle reliever, and Devenski and Phelps were old school swing men.

2016 also saw a few more starting pitchers who were there for the taking on Opening Day. In 2015, Haren was the only top free agent starter with 30 or more starts. In 2016, six free agents earned $15 or more and had 30 starts or more. This sounds excellent on paper, but looking at the list most of these starters aren’t impressive.

Theoretically, Bartolo Colon was a $15 earner…if you kept him on your active roster all season long. In practice, it is extremely unlikely that anyone did. At a minimum, Colon was benched for starts against tougher lineups, but it is more likely that Colon was cycled in and out of lineups throughout the season. In my hitter article, I advocated in favor of SGP valuation as a more valid measure of what players are worth at auction. I will not abandon this position for pitchers, but I concede that using an SGP pricing model for pitchers in mixed formats can be problematic. However, whether it truly is problematic is a theory that is rarely if ever put to the test. It is a truism that a plodder like Colon isn’t particularly useful in mixed leagues. Does this theory hold up?

Table 5: LABR Statistical Comparison

Player Pool

IP

H+BB

ER

W

SV

K

ERA

WHIP

$

LABR Auction

16,281

20,476

7,009

1,005

772

15,647

3.87

1.258

$1,256

LABR Final

20,288

25,876

8,902

1,256

1,031

19,040

3.95

1.275

$1,556

Total MLB

43,306

57,364

20,161

2,427

1,276

38,982

4.19

1.325

$2,950

Table 5 shows us what’s what with pitcher statistics in mixed leagues. Surprisingly, the free agent pitchers in 2016 didn’t help our ERA and WHIP in LABR. In fact, they were worse than the pitchers who were drafted. Where the $400 in gains and then some come are in wins, saves, and strikeouts. The conundrum in mixed leagues is simple to understand but difficult to reconcile: we are chasing wins, saves and strikeouts at the cost of ERA and WHIP. Fantasy baseball isn’t some horrible electronics commercial from the 1980s. We cannot save our customers money based on volume. There were over 23,000 strikeouts in the free agent pool in LABR but only a shade below 3,400 were used. Some of this is because fantasy managers are chasing saves in perpetuity, but most of it is because the number of pitchers we can carry on our rosters is finite.

Colon’s raw numbers – 15 wins, 3.43 ERA, 1.210 WHIP, 128 strikeouts, 191 2/3 innings – are uninspiring on the surface. The temptation is to believe that he is easy to abandon whenever we want to, that his replacement is out there waiting on the free agent pool at any given moment. The reality is that most of the free agent pitchers are bad. These are what Donald Rumsfeld called the unknown unknowns. We like to believe that our alternatives are good, but usually they are no better than the bird we have in the hand, and often are far worse. Like the prodigal son in the Bible or, if you prefer, the protagonist in the stock teen romantic comedy who cannot see that the girl he loves has been standing in front of him the whole damn time hidden behind a pair of ugly glasses, the pitcher on our roster is usually better than the alternatives we can acquire via free agency.

This mistake is common in romantic comedies, Biblical tales, and military adventures on foreign soil, but it is especially common in fantasy baseball. We are inclined to believe that free agents will save us from our bad decisions on Draft Day, that a hero will emerge and save our seasons. And, yes, it does happen sometimes. For the most part, the beds we make in March are the ones we must sleep in for the entire season.

Unless you’re in a 10-team mixer, valuation still matters. Your draft still matters. Pitching is unpredictable in the draft. This doesn’t mean that it is more predictable once the season starts. The failures at the draft are more spectacular than they are on the hitting side. But as it was for Linda Loman, attention must be paid. Your pitching staff cannot be permitted to fall into a grave like an old dog.