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This is the fourth part of a six-part series looking back at valuation in 2014. Today, I look at what pitchers earned in the National League.

Before I dig in, here is a brief description of the charts below.

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 168 best perceived hitters and the 108 best perceived pitchers (read most expensive or highest draft position) on Opening Day 2014, not the best 168 hitters and 108 pitchers at the end of the season.
2) The values of the 276 most expensive players add up to $3,120. This is important, and comes into play in the next two columns.

Sal is the average salary of the players. This column is derived from the prices in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars, the three expert leagues that convene before the regular season starts and have three complete AL-only auctions with no frozen players from which to derive data. While I would love to use more leagues to derive each player’s average salary, most Rotisserie-style leagues are keeper oriented and average salary data is useless for the purposes of this exercise thanks to auction inflation.

The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether he gained or lost his fantasy owners play money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Adam Jones can earn $29, get paid an average salary of $32 and lose $4.

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 prices below are from my fifth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2014. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

PK is a new column for 2014. These are Peter Kreutzer’s bids for AL and NL-only leagues, published at pattonandco.com. It is useful to look back and see how you bid, but even more useful to compare your predictions to someone else’s.

2013 shows what the player earned in 2013.

Our conservatism with pitching prices is clashing with the presence of one of the most reliable pitching investments we have seen in fantasy baseball in at least a few years.

Table 1: 10 Most Expensive NL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Clayton Kershaw

$41

35

6

37

35

34

34

20

$41

2

Adam Wainwright

$31

27

4

31

24

27

25

29

$31

Stephen Strasburg

$24

27

-3

29

27

26

26

29

$22

4

Jose Fernandez

$9

26

-17

26

27

25

25

25

$29

Cliff Lee

$4

26

-22

28

23

27

23

26

$30

6

Madison Bumgarner

$27

25

2

26

23

25

23

27

$27

7

Craig Kimbrel

$24

24

-1

26

22

25

24

23

$29

8

Kenley Jansen

$20

22

-2

24

20

22

22

19

$23

9

Zack Greinke

$25

20

5

20

18

21

21

21

$23

10

Matt Cain

$3

19

-17

20

18

20

21

22

$13

Average

$21

25

-4

27

24

25

24

24

$27

With the exception of Kreutzer, all of these prices came before Clayton Kershaw’s injury. This makes these prices seem rather conservative. Yes, pitching is a difficult commodity to predict, but why would the market only pay $35 for a pitcher who had earned $41, $31, and $38 going back to 2011?

I would like to tell you the answer is that the experts are smart, know all about relative valuation, and are aware with the pitching context currently in place that there is a relative ceiling on Kershaw’s earnings. However, while I would like to tell you that, I know it is extremely unlikely that this is the case. The answer is 25.

Twenty-five, as in the average number in the “Sal” column. This is the average salary the 10 most expensive pitchers have received going all the way back to 2011. There might be some disagreement about how the money at the top of the food chain should be distributed, but we all agree that this is the proper amount of money to spend on the top pitchers.

There was once a time when Kreutzer and I disagreed (with the expert auctions, not with each other), and allocated a little more of our play money to the best arms. But we don’t do this anymore. We conform to the realities of the (expert) market. So Kreutzer might like Bumgarner and Cain better than everyone else but isn’t ahead of the expert leagues across the board. Everyone advocates spending about $25 per pitcher on the best pitchers. Kreutzer and I were actually slightly more conservative than the expert market.

So even when a pitcher like Kershaw shows up and has some staying power we have a hard time adjusting our prices upward. If Kershaw is a near lock for $40 worth of stats we should be paying him $40, at a minimum. Yes, there is a risk he gets hurt and completely torpedoes our season, but the reward is presumably higher with Kershaw than it is with other pitchers. And—contrary to much conventional wisdom on the subject—pitchers like Kershaw are fairly unique, particularly in mono leagues.

Table 2: Top 10 NL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Clayton Kershaw

$41

35

6

37

35

34

34

20

$41

2

Johnny Cueto

$38

13

25

14

12

13

14

14

$8

3

Adam Wainwright

$31

27

4

31

24

27

25

29

$31

4

Madison Bumgarner

$27

25

2

26

23

25

23

27

$27

5

Zack Greinke

$25

20

5

20

18

21

21

21

$23

6

Jordan Zimmermann

$25

18

7

18

17

18

18

23

$25

7

Stephen Strasburg

$24

27

-3

29

27

26

26

29

$22

8

Julio Teheran

$24

16

8

17

15

16

14

14

$20

9

Craig Kimbrel

$24

24

-1

26

22

25

24

23

$29

10

Jake Arrieta

$23

0

22

1

1

5

$2

Average

$28

21

7

22

19

21

20

21

$23

Most of the fantasy debate about Kershaw’s 2014 value revolved around where he should be drafted in mixed leagues, whether taking him at no. 6 overall was a good move or a bad move, and whether taking him no. 1 overall in 2015 will be a good move or not. I’ll tackle this topic in a future post.

In mono formats, what he has done over the last three years leaves the field coughing in Kershaw’s dust.

Table 3: NL Pitchers with $20-Plus Season(s) 2012-2014

Player

2014

2013

2012

Total

Clayton Kershaw

$41

$41

$31

$113

Madison Bumgarner

$27

$27

$23

$77

Adam Wainwright

$31

$31

$15

$77

Johnny Cueto

$38

$8

$25

$71

Zack Greinke

$25

$23

$23

$71

Jordan Zimmerman

$25

$25

$19

$69

Stephen Strasburg

$24

$22

$21

$67

Cole Hamels

$22

$17

$26

$65

R.A. Dickey

$17

$14

$33

$64

Gio Gonzalez

$14

$17

$28

$59

Kyle Lohse

$16

$16

$24

$56

Doug Fister

$21

$14

$19

$54

Lance Lynn

$20

$15

$16

$51

Matt Latos

$8

$20

$20

$48

Homer Bailey

$10

$20

$15

$45

Matt Cain

$3

$13

$28

$44

Julio Teheran

$24

$20

$0

$44

Jose Fernandez

$9

$29

$38

Francisco Liriano

$11

$20

$5

$36

Mike Minor

$0

$23

$13

$36

Matt Harvey

$28

$7

$35

Tanner Roark

$21

$12

$33

Shelby Miller

$9

$20

$3

$32

Jake Arrieta

$23

$3

$1

$27

Tyson Ross

$20

$11

-$6

$25

Patrick Corbin

$20

$4

$24

Table 3 lists the 26 pitchers who earned at least $20 in NL-only at least once over the last three seasons. Pitchers in bold earned $30 or more, while pitchers in italics spent all or part of a season in the American League.

I tend to drone on and on about how stable/reliable the top pitchers are in the National League. While this is true in some ways, it is striking how ephemeral fantasy success can be.

Pitchers in Table 3 with 2 or more $20-plus seasons: Kershaw, Bumgarner, Wainwright, Cueto, Greinke, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Hamels, Latos, Teheran.

Pitchers in Table 3 with 3 $20-plus seasons: Kershaw, Bumgarner, Greinke, Strasburg.

When we spend money on pitching, we obviously want stats. But we are well aware that some pitchers are going to disappoint. Even if they don’t get hurt, we mentally calculate a floor as much as we calculate a ceiling. Strasburg owners who spent $27 were hoping for a breakout season, but in part spent that much because they figured—correctly as it turned out—that his floor was around $20. Bumgarner owners probably made a similar assumption about Bumgarner’s floor.

It is unlikely that most fantasy owners expected much more than a $30 season from any of their non-Kershaw aces. Indeed, recent history has shown that it is next to impossible to get $30 back from one pitcher. The short list in the last three years includes Kershaw, Wainwright, Dickey, and Cueto. If you want to go back to 2010, add Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay to the list.

What makes Kershaw unique is that he seems like the only pitcher on this list whose floor is $30. An argument could be made for Wainwright, but it’s a short drop from $31 to $29. The floor isn’t what excites us about Kershaw, though. It is his ceiling.

Clayton Kershaw 2014, Prorated: 240 innings, 25 wins, 289 strikeouts, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, $49.

This line is Kershaw’s 2014 prorated to 240 innings. If he can keep up his 2014 level of performance in 2015, this is what he would be worth.

And this is why we’re going to have to open our wallets for him in 2015.

Table 5: Top 10 NL Pitcher Bargains, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Johnny Cueto

$38

13

25

14

12

13

14

14

$8

2

Jake Arrieta

$23

0

22

1

1

5

-$3

3

Francisco Rodriguez

$22

1

21

1

1

1

3

$9

4

Tanner Roark

$21

2

19

3

1

3

2

8

$12

5

Mark Melancon

$21

4

17

5

4

4

3

6

$17

6

Santiago Casilla

$15

0

15

1

1

1

$8

7

Josh Collmenter

$14

0

14

1

1

$9

8

Jason Hammel

$14

1

13

2

2

3

$1

9

Henderson Alvarez

$15

4

12

1

5

5

3

4

$7

10

Wily Peralta

$14

3

11

3

2

4

6

6

$5

Average

$20

3

17

3

3

3

4

5

$7

If you don’t buy Kershaw, you don’t want to see him sitting on this chart in 2015. But that is where he would have rested in 2014 had he not missed a month and if he had pitched at the same level all year, just behind Collmenter (the dollar values in these articles don’t show decimals but there are no ties).

There aren’t many stable investments that make this chart either. Cueto is the only pitcher with any significant cost who makes Table 5; everyone else costs $4 or less, and three of the pitchers have an average salary of $0.33. Arrieta and Collmenter were free agents in CBS and LABR while LABR and Tout passed on Casilla in their respective auctions.

Where it was difficult in the past to find a $10-plus pitcher who could also pull down a big profit, it was almost impossible in 2014. You have to go down to the 20th-biggest bargain—Tyson Ross—to find a pitcher who cost $10 or more besides Cueto. With the exception of Cueto, you got what you paid for in the mid-range last year and not much else.

Meanwhile, the potential in the endgame last year was tremendous. Besides the aforementioned Arrieta, Casilla, and Collmenter, you had $1 pitchers in K-Rod and Hammel, a $2 bargain in Roark, and a $3 bargain in Peralta. So the endgame was a big place to clean up, right?

Table 6: Success of Failure? Pitchers Who Cost $3 or Less

Profit/Loss

#

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

+10 or more

12

$182

17

166

10

19

15

$212/14

+5-9

6

$55

3

48

12

5

7

$95/12

0-4

12

$34

8

25

11

9

9

$30/13

-1-4

23

-$16

27

-47

31

34

31

-$5/12

-6-10

5

-$28

8

-38

7

16

10

-$24/4

Totals

58

$227

63

155

71

83

72

$308/55

While the bargains table is loaded with cheap success stories, it also has more than half of the big profit makers in 2014. Additionally, the next tier of decent, cheap options plummeted compared to 2013. Only six pitchers returned between $5-9 in value last year. Worst of all, while there was a pretty equal distribution of outcomes in 2013, the most likely outcome by far in 2014 was a $1-4 loss.

The endgame can be a decent place to get bargains, but everyone always focuses on the success stories. Take those pitchers away and the $1-3 bargain bin had 46 pitchers who earned $45. If you rolled the dice at the end, there was a nearly four-in-five chance that you broke even. You can break even on a $20 investment; you cannot do so when you spend a dollar.

One of the biggest differences between 2013 and 2014 is that the pitchers who cost over $20 all returned a minimum of $13 in 2013. This was not the case last year.

Table 7: Top 10 NL Pitcher Busts, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Cliff Lee

$4

26

-22

28

23

27

23

26

$30

2

Matt Cain

$3

19

-17

20

18

20

21

22

$13

3

Jose Fernandez

$9

26

-17

26

27

25

25

25

$29

4

Mike Minor

$0

16

-16

17

17

13

13

15

$23

5

Tony Cingrani

-$1

15

-15

17

13

14

12

14

$14

6

Jason Grilli

$2

14

-12

16

12

15

15

12

$16

7

Jim Henderson

$0

12

-12

15

10

11

13

8

$17

8

Bobby Parnell

$0

11

-12

15

7

12

13

5

$15

9

Rex Brothers

-$4

8

-11

11

6

6

8

7

$13

10

Edwin Jackson

-$9

1

-10

2

1

1

1

3

$0

Average

$0

15

-15

17

13

14

14

14

$17

Lee, Cain, and Fernandez all made the 10-most-expensive list and topped the list of the biggest NL pitcher busts in 2014, but the bigger news once again seems to be that the middle-of-the-road starters seemed to be pretty static last year. Four relievers crack this list and Jackson’s $1 salary leads to a $10 loss. That leaves Minor and Cingrani as the only mid-tier starting pitchers who lose big.

In my AL pitchers review, I examined the earnings breakdown across all pitcher “tiers”. With so few mid-tier starters in either the bargain or bust category, I decided to look at starters and relievers in separate groups to see where (if anywhere) the price points broke down.

Table 8: NL Starting Pitchers by Tier, 2014

Tier

$

CBS

LABR

Tout

Sal

+/-

1-10

$199

$253

$233

$238

$241

-$43

11-20

$119

$168

$154

$159

$160

-$41

21-30

$147

$119

$107

$126

$117

$30

31-40

$85

$94

$92

$68

$85

$0

41-50

$74

$45

$63

$49

$52

$22

51-60

$45

$19

$35

$38

$31

$14

61-70

$27

$16

$17

$16

$16

$10

71-82

$55

$6

$3

$11

$7

$48

Totals

$750

$720

$704

$705

$710

$40

I have been advocating reliability among the top starting pitchers throughout this entire article and for the past few years. But Table 8 makes it appear that the best NL starting pitchers are just as bad if not slightly worse than the next -0-most-expensive pitchers. Why do I keep advocating for spending money on the best pitchers.

There are two reasons.

First, I’m not specifically advocating purchasing all 10 of the pitchers in the first tier. Looking at overall rates of return works well on a league wide basis, but if you are specifically building a fantasy team, you can’t buy every one of the top-tier guys. You have to pick one; you might be able to buy two if you want to go super cheap on the bottom end.

More importantly, while the rate of return is certainly vital, you need to get stats from your players. I have cited this point again and again, and while it might seem tired by now, it is essential to remember. The most expensive starting pitchers cost $24 per player and return $20; the next 10 most expensive cost $16 and return $12. The third grouping—where the pitchers cost $12 and return $15—looks like a sweet spot, but you are more likely to buy your ace/anchor at the top of the food chain.

What about the relievers?

Table 9: NL Relievers by Tier, 2014

Tier

$

CBS

LABR

Tout

Sal

+/-

1-10

$163

$192

$153

$164

$170

-$7

11-20

$55

$91

$61

$69

$74

-$19

21-30

$56

$11

$19

$24

$18

$38

31-40

$24

$8

$7

$4

$6

$18

41-48

$46

$2

$3

$3

$3

$43

Totals

$343

$304

$243

$264

$270

$73

The first thing that leaps off of Table 9 is how well the best relievers perform in the first tier. The idea that relievers are bad investments is such a tired cliché that we don’t even look back at their actual performances to see if this is correct. The second tier relievers were the only ones who lost money, which lends credence to the idea that if you’re not going to spend money on at least a somewhat reliable bullpen commodity, you are better off throwing the category overboard than you are spending on a second-tier closer. Jason Grilli was the only bust in the top tier, while Bobby Parnell, Jim Henderson, and Rex Brothers all were in the second tier, with Jose Veras not too far behind.

The idea that middle relievers are worth it in fantasy is often discussed but usually not examined. Here in Table 9, we see that the bottom three tiers of relievers are worth about as much as the bottom three tiers of starting pitchers from Table 8 while costing somewhat less. A counterargument exists that the best free agents are relievers, which makes the relief arms at the bottom of the cost chain fungible. But this wasn’t true in 2014. Of the 16 pitchers who were not purchased in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars who earned $10 or more in 2014, nine were starting pitchers while only seven were relievers. Hector Rendon was the only free agent reliever to crack 10 saves in 2014; the next highest was Pat Neshek with six.

Every fantasy player wants a magic bullet that allows him or her to buy the best fantasy team out there, but any strategy can work well or crash and burn depending upon how well you execute your plan. Kershaw, however, seems like he might break the mold and be that rare pitcher who could influence how a league plays out depending on where the league’s price point sits. In conservative leagues that play out like the expert tilts, grabbing Kershaw for $40 or slightly less can provide an anchor for your staff. On the other hand, if a few people chase and he goes into the mid-$40s, walking away is probably a better plan. Either way, despite all of the other trends, there hasn’t been a pitcher with the ability to swing an auction – and a league—since Randy Johnson back when he was with the Diamondbacks. It might not matter to your league at all—or it could matter a great deal, depending on how it shakes out in your auction next March or April.