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Ah, starting pitching. Poker players have their bad beat stories, fantasy baseball players have their stories about the aces they bought who failed spectacularly. Roto players who go cheap on pitching habitually are usually fighting the previous war, trying to avoid buying a big-ticket starter because they bought one at some point in the past, only to see that purchase sink their season.

The thing is, over the last couple of seasons and especially last year, it looks like you probably won’t win your league without a top-tier starting pitcher. My colleagues Mike Gianella and George Bissell have written about this strategy here and here, respectively. But how did that work in NL-only leagues last year?

Let’s take a look at the fifteen most expensive starting pitchers at auction in 2016 in NL-Only leagues:

Table 1: 10 Most Expensive* NL Starting Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Clayton Kershaw

$35

$40

-5

2

Max Scherzer

$40

$32

7

3

Madison Bumgarner

$35

$29

5

4

Jake Arrieta

$28

$29

-1

5

Stephen Strasburg

$22

$27

-5

6

Matt Harvey

$1

$26

-25

7

Zack Greinke

$12

$26

-14

8

Jacob deGrom

$16

$25

-10

9

Gerrit Cole

$6

$25

-19

10

Jose Fernandez

$30

$24

6

11

Noah Syndergaard

$28

$24

4

12

Jon Lester

$34

$21

13

13

Johnny Cueto

$31

$19

12

14

Adam Wainwright

$8

$19

-10

15

Tyson Ross

-$1

18

-19

Average

$22

$26

-4

*Position eligibility in Table 1 is determined based on preseason eligibility. In addition, the figures in Table 1 are rounded to the nearest whole number. Please don’t comment on anything you think is an arithmetical error unless you take that into account.

The three most expensive starters in NL-only leagues last year each returned $35 or more in value. Clayton Kershaw managed to turn that trick in only 149 innings across 21 starts, which is either incredibly impressive or wildly disappointing, depending on whether you spent $40+ on him or not last year. His 1.69 ERA and 0.72 WHIP were extraordinary, but 172 strikeouts and 12 wins are just okay, depressed by the 11-14 starts he missed due to a back injury. Those otherworldly rate stats would have made a much bigger impact on roto owners’ bottom lines if those rate stats spanned 210 innings rather than 149, too. His ceiling makes him the most valuable starting pitcher in NL-only leagues headed into this season.

The top earner in NL-only leagues last season was Max Scherzer. His 2.96 ERA and 0.97 WHIP aren’t as remarkable as Kershaw’s, but the 228 1/3 innings he threw allowed him to rack up 20 wins and 284 strikeouts, more than making up his rate stat deficit to the Dodgers’ ace. The 32-year-old has been the best combination of elite rate stats and 200+ inning consistency in baseball over the last four years, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be the same in 2017.

Rounding out the top three is Madison Bumgarner, who has thrown more than 200 innings in each of the last six seasons with ERAs in the narrow band between 2.74 and 2.98 in each of the last four seasons. He’s basically a left-handed metronome.

The two players who sunk their owners’ chances most on this list were Matt Harvey, Gerrit Cole, and Tyson Ross, checking in with $25, $19, and $19 in losses respectively. Harvey’s season ended after only 92.7 innings in which he posted subpar rate stats. Recovering from surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome, the big Met carries a lengthy injury history into 2017, keeping expectations and bid limits fairly low this spring.

Gerrit Cole’s losses were injury-related, as well. He threw only 116 innings and wasn’t very good when he did pitch, failing to post the type of rate stats that merit a spot in the list of most expensive starting pitchers. There is no reason to suspect that Cole will still be on the mend on Opening Day, but his repeated trips to the DL last season are a legitimate cause of concern. Tyson Ross’ only appearance of the 2016 season was on Opening Day for the Padres, when he got touched for seven runs over 5.3 innings. He spent the rest of the season on the shelf, with his shoulder inflammation diagnosis eventually transforming into a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome. In October, Ross had the same surgery Matt Harvey had a few months earlier. In January, the 29-year-old signed a one-year deal with the Rangers, taking him out of the player pool in NL-only leagues.

Now let’s take a look at the list of NL starting pitchers ranked by 2016 earnings:

Table 2: Top 10 NL Starting Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Price

+/-

1

Max Scherzer

$40

$32

7

2

Clayton Kershaw

$35

$40

-5

3

Madison Bumgarner

$35

$29

5

4

Jon Lester

$34

$21

13

5

Kyle Hendricks

$33

$11

22

6

Johnny Cueto

$31

$19

12

7

Jose Fernandez

$30

$24

6

8

Jake Arrieta

$28

$29

-1

9

Noah Syndergaard

$28

$24

4

10

Tanner Roark

$26

$2

24

11

John Lackey

$23

$12

12

12

Carlos Martinez

$23

$15

8

13

Kenta Maeda

$23

$12

11

14

Stephen Strasburg

$22

$27

-5

15

Julio Teheran

$21

$13

8

Average

$29

$21

8

*The figures in Table 2 are rounded to the nearest whole number. Please don’t comment on anything you think is an arithmetical error unless you take that into account.

The two standouts on this list are Tanner Roark and Kyle Hendricks. Roark wasn’t a lock to stay in the Nationals’ rotation all season, but Dusty Baker wasn’t about to send him to the bullpen while he was on his way to a 2.83 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 210 innings spanning 33 starts with 172 strikeouts and 16 wins. While that performance might seem like it came out of nowhere, it didn’t: Roark posted a virtually identical 2.85 ERA and a lower 1.09 WHIP in 198 2/3 innings over 31 starts in Washington in 2014. He doesn’t have strikeout-per-inning stuff, but he should be solid.

Everybody loves Kyle Hendricks. He doesn’t throw very hard, but he was a huge profit center in roto last year, outperforming all expectations and leading the NL in ERA with a 2.13 mark while posting a WHIP of 0.98, striking out 170 and winning 16 games over 190 innings. He was also the breakout star of the outstanding pitch tunnel research published here at Baseball Prospectus in January. Like Roark, he won’t strike out a batter per inning, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be a very good option in NL-only leagues.

Here are a few lower tier starting pitcher options in NL-only leagues that are worth investigating as long as they stay inexpensive.

Mike Foltynewicz – Braves (2016 NL-only earnings: $9)

The hard-throwing righty’s stat line didn’t look quite as good as his 96+ MPH four-seamer and his sinker that comes in at the same speed. His 4.31 ERA and 1.30 WHIP from 2016 are nothing special, but with his high-end velocity, his deep repertoire and little competition in the Braves’ rotation, he’s a decent bet to build on his 2016 performance.

Archie Bradley – Diamondbacks ($2)
Archie Bradley is the archetypal (Archie-typal?) post-hype sleeper. Since being the top pitching prospect in baseball a few years ago, the burly Oklahoman has struggled with both health and performance. His 2016 season was a mixed bag. He struck out more than a batter per inning, although just barely. He also got knocked around and walked entirely too many batters on his way to a 5.02 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. He isn’t guaranteed to start the year in the Diamondbacks rotation, but he’ll probably end up there at some point this season. He might run into the same troubles he did last year, but he won’t cost much, so it’ll be easy to jettison him if his rate stats start dragging your team down. And on the positive side, he brings a better upside proposition to the table than most NL-only starters you’ll find in the bargain bin, even if a true breakout is highly unlikely.

Brandon McCarthy – Dodgers ($2)
After missing the majority of the 2015 season due to Tommy John surgery, Brandon McCarthy returned to the Dodgers’ rotation for ten games. He posted a 4.95 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP that acquired their bloat primarily due to an ugly 5.9 BB/9 rate. We’ve all heard that command and control are the last things to come back after Tommy John surgery, but that’s ridiculous, especially for a pitcher whose success throughout his career has been attributable to his command and control. The lanky 33-year-old is about as big an injury risk as there is among starting pitchers, but if he can somehow throw 140+ innings this year, he could be a decent source of value towards the end of an auction.

Wei-Yin Chen – Marlins ($4)
I like the value proposition on Wei-Yin Chen this year. He was limited to 123.3 innings last year due to injury, depressing his counting stats. On the rate stat side, his unappetizing 4.96 ERA should keep his price tag low on auction day despite the fact that his track record and his peripheral stats suggest that it will probably come in somewhere significantly south of that mark in 2017.

Ivan Nova – Pirates ($8)
He put up a 4.90 ERA in 15 starts with the Yankees before being traded to the Pirates, where he put up a 3.06 ERA in 11 starts, another successful reclamation project for Pittsburgh and pitching coach Ray Searage. Unlike most of their other success stories, the Pirates didn’t trade away their newly improved asset or let him walk in free agency. Instead, they spent $26 million on a three-year deal for the 30-year-old on the open market. If he ends up performing the way he did after the trade last year over the life of the contract, he could end up being a bargain for Pittsburgh and for his roto owners.

Brett Anderson – Cubs (-$4)
That’s right, I’m looking seriously at a starter with negative earnings last year. Brett Anderson is notoriously fragile, throwing 50 innings only once over the last five seasons. He also performed poorly last year when he played, although you shouldn’t draw any conclusions from the 11.3 innings he threw in 2016 beyond “guess he spent most of the year on the DL again.” Now a Cub, the 29-year-old appears to be in a Spring Training battle with fellow lefty Mike Montgomery for the fifth starter spot in the rotation for the reigning World Series champs. The one thing that he might have going for him is that it seemed like the North Siders liked having Montgomery as an option out of their bullpen throughout their historic playoff run. If that preference carries into this season, it could help Anderson lock down a rotation spot.