PSA: Throw on “If it Ain’t About The Money” as we’ll get into some pricing and I’m playing Young Thug to Mike Gianella’s T.I.

Fantasy baseball is one of my favorite things in the world, but one thing I truly hate about it is anytime I overpay for a pitcher. Generally, my strategy entering an auction is to spend much more on hitting than pitching. Sometimes this strategy yields a bargain-basement staff and bloated offense, but I’d honestly rather waste the money on my offense than not even try to build a winner throwing it away on arms.

Last spring, the fantasy baseball community saw a rise in the cost of pitching, specifically in “-only” leagues. Baseball Prospectus’ own Mike Gianella covered it in great detail back in February. Looking at the CBS AL-Only auction from Mike’s piece, you might pause, as there were six position players purchased for more than Yu Darvish, the top pitcher who went for $32. Well, the middle tier just about exploded, and I noticed the same thing happening in some of the auctions in which I participated.

In the CBS league, it was pitchers like Danny Salazar ($18), A.J. Griffin ($15), and Taijuan Walker ($15) who sank teams, while in home leagues it was buys like Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz. This trend couldn’t have worked out better for a player planning to avoid spending on pitchers anyway.

In Mike’s piece, he ponders if the 2013 campaigns of youngsters Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey had an impact on the CBS experts’ strategy. If that truly was the case, then they completely missed the mark. What Fernandez and Harvey did was show that you can win the lottery and have an ace almost without paying for anything. That doesn’t make the next crop of young pitchers any more likely to put up a top-of-the-fantasy-rotation season, and throwing money into the middle pitching tier as a reaction seems misguided at best. In Tout Wars mixed 2013, only one pitcher was purchased for at least $15 and returned a profit greater than $2 (Max Scherzer) while 10 were double-digit losers. The upside is there if you happen to strike gold or lightning, but in an “-only” league, there obviously aren’t as many proven starters to choose from, and in 2014, the only big middle-tier profit returns came from Corey Kluber and Jon Lester.

It’s important to note a key difference in strategy in a mixed league versus an “-only” league. In an “-only” league, one dominant starting pitcher is enough to build a team around, whereas in a mixed format, it’s best to have at least two studs at the top of the rotation. This makes it even easier to fade pitching in “-only” leagues, because right off the bat, not every team will end up with a fantasy ace, and in a mixed league it’s likely most of the teams will have at least one. In AL-only this year, the preseason “aces” were actually pretty reliable, as Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, David Price, and Scherzer all finished in the top six earners for pitchers. Go big or go home.

This isn’t to say that young or unproven pitchers shouldn’t be targeted at all; as the summer went on we saw what guys like Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman have to offer. It’s just a better draft day play to take a flier on Danny Duffy (oh no, Bruce Chen’s in the rotation) than pay for a guy like Salazar when you could be using that money on a reliable position player. (I’m not sure if I’ll ever fully understand the Salazar hype train, but even I ended up over-drafting him somewhere. Hey, let’s do it all over again next spring with Carlos Carrasco!)

A similar approach can be applied to relievers because of their volatile nature. In the CBS auction, 11 closers went for at least $16 and two more went for $14. Of those 13 closers, only Greg Holland and Dave Robertson returned a profit greater than $1. The following relievers all earned at least $15: Zach Britton, Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, Joe Smith, Jake McGee, Cody Allen, Sean Doolittle, Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day, and Brad Boxberger. There wasn’t much competition for these guys on draft day, save for Allen, O’Day, and Doolittle, because they hadn’t been anointed Kyra Sedgewick the closer yet. In some cases, like Betances and Davis (and to a lesser extent Miller, O’Day, and Boxberger), they didn’t even need the closer role to excel. We’re living in a golden age for one-inning relievers, and the non-closers tend to be sitting there at the end of auctions.

The tricky part will be forecasting how the market reacts to so many out-of-nowhere reliever seasons next year. We’re a long way away from next season, but a guy like Smith doesn’t figure to go for much on draft day with Huston Street coming back as the closer in Los Angeles. However, assuming Betances and Davis don’t get a closer job between now and draft day, it’ll be very interesting to see how much the market is willing to bet on a repeat from the setup men as each earned at least $20 in AL-only. Cody Allen, who was the obvious candidate to take over as closer for John Axford in Cleveland, went for $5 in CBS. Could we see multiple setup men in the double digits in 2015? It’s a possibility, but the real value next year will once again come from the under the radar relievers.

Last spring, I wrote a column for Rotowire explaining that it was unwise to spend $100 on pitching in “only” leagues. It’s just too much risk to take on while the rest of the league has a head start on your offense, and in the last year, I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me. There are just so many different avenues to finding value on the pitching side that it makes the most sense to avoid the risk in the middle if possible.

Thank you for reading

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