I have always been vehemently against taking starting pitchers in the first round of a fantasy draft. The injury risk associated with pitchers is part of it, but honestly it has always been more because I trust myself to find better pitching later—so in a sense, arrogance. It’s just easier to pluck capable arms later than it is to find the out-of-nowhere bats like Josh Donaldson or Jean Segura. As we creep through the dead of winter and start to trickle into mock draft season, I’m warming to the idea of a first-round starting pitcher, or, more specifically, Clayton Kershaw. There are a handful of quality fantasy aces out there, but Kershaw is clearly a cut above the rest.
The top of the draft is relatively well established. Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are the unquestioned top pair at this point, with a split camp on which of the two should go first. You can’t really go wrong with either, so having a top-two pick is a prime position this year. The next pair seems to be taking a foothold on the three and four spots in either order, too. Paul Goldschmidt is the easy three for me, but there is a real debate between him and Andrew McCutchen that I would at least listen to before selecting Goldy. Others may have it reversed, but I haven’t been in a mock draft this offseason that didn’t see these four go at the top of the draft.
It starts to come unglued a bit in the no. 5 hole. Robinson Cano definitely has the majority pull there, but it’s not overwhelming like the top four guys in their spots, especially after the move to Seattle, which has some panicking (irrationally, I might add, but we’ll save that for another time). Let’s go ahead and give Cano the five spot. There has been enough consistency there, and he just went fifth in an industry mock that started on Monday.
The six spot is where the free-for-all begins. In fact, you see if you clicked the link that Jason Collette actually used the spot to take Kershaw. There are a host names popping up at this point including Carlos Gonzalez, Chris Davis, Hanley Ramirez, and even Bryce Harper. The primary case for hitter over pitcher is stability and lowered risk. In general I agree, but as with everything there are exceptions and it is impossible not to see Kershaw as one. Looking at Kershaw’s company for the six to nine range of the first round uncovers quite a bit of uncertainty and certainly more than Kershaw.
Why: Four straight 20-20 seasons, dipping below .300 just once (.295 in 2011); strong R/RBI contributions relative to time played.
Why not: The 28-year old has exactly one 600-plus PA season and he’s topped 500 AB just once in the last three years; his R/RBI totals have dwindled yearly since 2010 highs of 111/117 including a 72/70 effort last year; his missed time comes in non-DL (only 2 DL stints) chunks, which makes it tougher and riskier to replace him in the lineup; his next 150-game season will be his first
The certainties with Gonzalez seem to be that he will miss time and rake at home. Without a career year on the road last year (.332 AVG, 987 OPS, 14 HR, 28 RBI, and 32 R), he would’ve been a disaster. If he had put up his average road performance last year his bottom line numbers would’ve dropped to .266, 66 runs, 19 home runs, and 67 RBI. I didn’t adjust the stolen bases one way or the other because I’m not sure the home/road environment really impacts that category. I like Gonzalez just fine and I can definitely advocate him as a first rounder, but sixth? Over Kershaw? No thanks.
Why: He led baseball with 53 HRs in 2013; he’s second to only Miguel Cabrera (88) with 86 HRs since 2012; the power has never been in doubt evidenced by his .196 ISO prior to his two big seasons.
Why not: He has just one first-round worthy season (2013); prior to 2013 he couldn’t get on an MLB field regularly averaging just 72 games per season from 2009-2011 with an 80 OPS+; he still fanned 30 percent of the time; his 10.7 percent walk rate was his first full season over seven percent (had an 11 percent rate in 136 PA back in 2010)
He simply doesn’t have the track record to unquestionably merit an early first-round pick. It wouldn’t really baffle anyone if he became sort of a Jose Bautista who rises from the scrap heap into bona fide fantasy stardom, but we need another season before making him a single-digit first-rounder over baseball’s ERA leader for the last three years.
Why: He went 20/10 last year… in 86 games; vintage Hanley was on hand, as he also hit .345; he has a track record of success so buying into 2013 and extrapolating isn’t hard; his only true down season was an injury-addled 92-gamer in 2011; shortstop is the worst fantasy position on the diamond again.
Why not: It’s great that he put up a season’s worth of HR/SB in 86 games, but it was still just half a season; he hit the DL twice last year; four times in the last three years; we’ve seen his batting average evaporate into a ground-ball-fest of despair before.
The 30-year old shortstop has the strongest case of our bunch, but his two worst (2011-2012) and two most injured seasons (2011, 2013) have come in the last three so we are well removed from the strength of his track record (2006-2010) when he averaged .313-112-25-78-39 in 674 PA per season. If we are looking for stability in the first round, Ramirez isn’t exactly the posterboy.
Why: He has a pair of the best age-19 and age-20 seasons in history with 20 HRs in each despite just 139 and 118 games, respectively; potential for superstardom—his 162 game average is .272-107-27-74-19; power is the meal ticket to fantasy success, and he has delivered a .209 ISO at an insanely young age.
Why not: HE HASN’T PLAYED A FULL SEASON YET!
Despite that particularly damning case against him, I think I would still slot him ahead of at least Davis within this group of hitters battling for the six spot.
Why: Led baseball the last three years in ERA; had ERAs of 2.79 and 2.91 in 2009-2010 when he wasn’t winning an ERA crown; led the NL WHIP the last three years and MLB in 2013 with a 0.92 mark; has 212 or more strikeout each of the last four years including NL-leading totals of 248 and 232 in 2011 and 2013, respectively; has 31 starts each of the last five years including 33 in each of the last three.
Why not: Shockingly low wins average of 14 with a wide range of eight on the low end (2009) and 21 at his peak (2011); because pitchers get hurt?
That seems to be the bulk of the case against him, right? The fragility of other pitchers. Listen, I’m not here to suggest that he can’t snap his arm on a random pitch in July, but why do we assume there is so much more risk with a pitcher than a hitter when we’re looking at a 12- or 15-player subset known as the first round? We’re dealing with the best of the best anyway so the arms with a checkered injury history aren’t even in this particular discussion, yet we let plenty of hitters with multiple DL stints into the party.
Just look at last year. How’d it work out for those who took Gonzalez, Bautista, Matt Kemp, Albert Pujols, or Giancarlo Stanton? Justin Verlander got a lot of first round buzz last year – deservedly so – and didn’t exactly pan out as the otherworldly arm he had been in 2011-2012, but he still threw 218 1/3 pretty strong innings and certainly helped his fantasy teams more than the five busts on the hitting side.
The Baseball HQ.com Forecaster does a great job of detailing the first round fail rate against ADP year to year and over the last decade drafters have a 36 percent success rate of getting a top-15 return on their first round pick with no more than seven coming through in a given season and as few as four panning out twice in the last 10 seasons. Last year had five: Cabrera, Trout, McCutchen, Cano, and Kershaw.
If you are like me and love value shopping on pitching in the mid and late rounds, you might still be averse to taking Kershaw with that no. 6-9 pick in the first round, but don’t dismiss it out of hand. Don’t assume your first round hitter is automatically safer simply by virtue of the fact that he is a hitter. And really take a look at Kershaw’s performance. I think he might actually be somewhat underrated at this point given what he is doing. Everyone understand that he is excellent, but do we all comprehend just how excellent?
I’ll leave you with a look at the nine points lost from Kershaw to Jose Fernandez for this random Kershaw-owning team in one of my 15-team mixed leagues from last year:
Obviously results will vary based a league’s standings, but a season like Fernandez’s is absolutely the upper end of what you can expect from your random mid-to-late round sleeper and even he falls well short of Kershaw. Some of that nine-point loss would likely offset by a comparison of your first round hitter against some sleeper bat you targeted later in the draft, too, but I think the example is still instructive.
Once you get past the first five picks this season, don’t be afraid to do something daring… like taking the most consistent pitcher in the game.