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Welcome to my third annual look at retrospective player valuation here at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2015. This is the first post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series will focus on NL-only leagues, the next two will shift their focus to AL-only, and the final two posts examine the more difficult terrain (from a valuation perspective) of mixed leagues.

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 NL and 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 Felix Hernandez can earn $22, get paid an average salary of $31 and lose $10.

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 fourth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2015. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

PK are Peter Kreutzer’s bids for AL and NL-only leagues, published at Patton and Company’s web site. It is useful to look back and see how you did, but even more useful to compare your predictions to someone else’s.

2014 shows what the player earned in 2014.

In at least one way, 2015 was the worst year for American League pitchers since I started tracking these data.

Table 1: Top 10 Salaries, 2015 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Felix Hernandez

$22

31

-10

30

32

32

30

34

$39

2

David Price

$32

28

4

29

27

28

26

31

$30

Chris Sale

$26

28

-2

32

25

27

27

27

$30

4

Corey Kluber

$24

25

-1

27

25

24

28

27

$35

5

Greg Holland

$11

21

-10

21

21

22

23

21

$25

6

Alex Cobb

21

-21

25

23

14

15

16

$19

Sonny Gray

$25

21

5

24

19

19

19

20

$21

Jeff Samardzija

$6

21

-14

22

18

22

19

21

$23

9

Cody Allen

$17

20

-3

24

17

20

19

15

$19

Dellin Betances

$20

20

-0

23

19

19

18

14

$21

Average

$18

24

-5

26

23

23

22

23

$26

The 10 pitchers who the market expected to be the best pitchers in baseball earned less than they have since I started tracking this in 2009. Some of this can be attributed to Cobb, but given that Kreutzer’s pricing was published right around Opening Day the expectations for Cobb weren’t tempered by his injury in a way that allow me to give the market a complete pass for his price.

In addition to Cobb, the poor showings by Samardzija and Holland drag the big-ticket items down. $18 per pitcher is still very solid for what is supposed to be such a volatile investment, but the AL pitchers don’t come close to matching what their NL counterparts did last year.

We obsess incessantly over how volatile the perceived best pitchers are in baseball, but more often than not the best pitchers are pretty reliable.

10 Most Expensive AL Pitchers Earning $15 or less: 2010-2015
2015:
Alex Cobb ($0), Greg Holland ($11), Jeff Samardzija ($6)
2014: Justin Verlander ($8)
2013: CC Sabathia ($8)
2012: Dan Haren ($14), Jon Lester ($9), Mariano Rivera ($3)
2011: Joakim Soria ($13)
2010: Josh Beckett (-$2), Zack Greinke ($14), Javier Vazquez ($3)

Out of 60 pitchers dating back to 2010, only 12 manage to bring back $15 or under in earnings for their fantasy managers, or one in five. You’re not invincible if you invest heavily on a big time arm, but the odds aren’t nearly as bad as you might think.

While $15 may sound like a middling return on a top pitcher, only 31 American League pitchers earned $15 or more in 2015, and only 27 of those pitchers were purchased at auction. A $15 return isn’t what you’re shooting for when you spend big on a pitcher, but it isn’t a total wipeout either.

With the exception of CBS, all of the expert leagues were nearly in lockstep over these arms. As has been the case throughout most of this series, I had the most conservative set of bids, although I was the highest on Kluber and Holland. Kreutzer was in front on Felix and Price, while Tout tied CBS on Samardzija. CBS “got” everyone else, and LABR was shut out.

So good return or bad return? It depends on how you look at it. In hindsight, another reason to shy away from big-ticket arms in 2015 is because the earnings ceiling wasn’t particularly high.

Table 2: Top 10 Earnings, 2015 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Dallas Keuchel

$35

11

24

15

9

9

12

9

$19

2

David Price

$32

28

4

29

27

28

26

31

$30

3

Chris Sale

$26

28

-2

32

25

27

27

27

$30

4

Sonny Gray

$25

21

5

24

19

19

19

20

$21

5

Chris Archer

$24

16

8

16

15

17

14

13

$15

6

Corey Kluber

$24

25

-1

27

25

24

28

27

$35

7

Andrew Miller

$23

7

16

5

8

7

6

7

$15

8

Carlos Carrasco

$23

18

5

18

20

17

17

17

$20

9

Wade Davis

$22

5

17

3

7

6

4

5

$20

10

Felix Hernandez

$22

31

-10

30

32

32

30

34

$39

Average

$26

19

7

20

19

19

18

19

$24

A $35 season is great, but it doesn’t come close to matching the $40+ earnings that Arrieta, Kershaw, and Greinke put up over in the National League.

This more than the $18 earnings of the 10 pitchers in Table 1 is why the non-CBS experts are fairly conservative when it comes to spending on pitching. Everyone trusts Chris Sale, but the most of the experts think that $27 is a fair stopping point for Sale… and only CBS loses significant coin on him with a $32 bid price. Sonny Gray was solid, but a $4 raise for a pitcher with 283 major league innings under his belt didn’t seem worth the $3 raise CBS gave him.

While there typically is a bit of a pay cut for the best pitchers, 2015 was somewhat extreme.

Table 3: Top 10 AL Pitchers: 2011-2015

Year

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

Prior Year

2015

$26

19

7

20

19

19

$24

2014

$29

16

13

16

16

16

$16

2013

$27

15

12

15

15

15

$20

2012

$31

21

11

18

19

18

$23

2011

$31

17

13

18

17

17

$18

The anchors earned a little less for their owners than they have in the past, despite the fact that we underpaid them for the second time in three years. On average, the “prior year” earnings column typically has more impact on a player salary than nearly any other data point. You would expect any group of 10 pitchers to receive a significant discount, but this wasn’t the case in 2011, 2012, and 2014.

The “prior year” column is often a very good preview of what the elite bargains will look like at the end of the year. 2015 saw Wade Davis and Andrew Miller poke into the Top 10. 2013 had Bartolo Colon and Koji Uehara get a big discount on their prior year earnings and deliver in a big way. The confluence between the Top 10 and the biggest bargains is more common for pitchers than it is for hitters.

Table 4: Top 10 Profits, AL Pitchers, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Dallas Keuchel

$35

11

24

15

9

9

12

9

$19

2

Marco Estrada

$21

1

20

1

1

2

2

2

$7

3

Wade Davis

$22

5

17

3

7

6

4

5

$20

4

Andrew Miller

$23

7

16

5

8

7

6

7

$15

5

Darren O’Day

$16

1

14

1

2

1

2

1

$15

6

Hector Santiago

$13

0

13

1

1

$6

7

Edinson Volquez

$14

2

12

2

2

1

4

3

$16

8

Adam Warren

$12

0

12

1

1

4

$9

9

Colby Lewis

$12

0

11

1

1

1

-$1

10

Kevin Jepsen

$12

1

11

1

1

1

1

1

$8

Average

$18

3

15

3

3

3

3

3

$11

Three of the four biggest bargains on Table 4 were also among the Top 10 earners in 2015. It is unlikely it happened in too many leagues, but I’m fascinated by the idea of a staff with Davis and Miller at a combined $12. You could have swept the pitching categories with those two in your bullpen, or at least papered over a significant mistake or two.

Middle relievers play a fairly significant role on this chart. Besides Davis and Miller, O’Day and Jepsen also cracked the Top 10. Warren began the year as a starter, but returned a good deal of value for this teams out of the bullpen.

I have always speculated that relievers like Jepsen and O’Day don’t spend much time on a fantasy team’s active roster, but the numbers from last year show that the expert leagues relied heavily on these players.

Table 5: Innings Pitched for Expert Leagues, Top 10 AL Pitcher Bargains

Rank

Player

CBS

LABR

Tout

Actual

1

Dallas Keuchel

232

232

232

232

2

Marco Estrada

181

181

181

181

3

Wade Davis

67.3

67.3

67.3

67.3

4

Andrew Miller

26.3

58.7

60.7

61.7

5

Darren O’Day

65.3

65.3

64.3

65.3

6

Hector Santiago

180.7

94.3

180.7

180.7

7

Edinson Volquez

192.3

200.3

200.3

200.3

8

Adam Warren

131.3

128

94.3

131.3

9

Colby Lewis

204.7

131.3

186.7

204.7

10

Kevin Jepsen

69.7

47

39.7

69.7

Total

1350.7

1205.3

1307

1394

LABR was by far the most conservative of the three expert leagues in using these pitchers, but even they used 86.5 percent of their innings. Tout Wars was next at 93.8 percent and CBS led the pack at 96.9 percent. While the market may have done a poor job of recognizing who these pitchers were in March, they weren’t going give up on them once it was established that they would perform. Streaming pitchers in and out of your lineup may be a viable strategy in mixed leagues, but it is more difficult to do in deep formats.

On the other hand, the profits to be had from these pitchers were relatively small compared to the last few years. The 10th most profitable pitcher turned a $14 profit from 2010-2013, and that pitcher turned a $15 profit in 2014. While Lewis and Jepsen certainly were decent cogs for their fantasy owners, they didn’t quite have the oomph that pitchers in this bucket have had in prior seasons.

The pitchers who lost their owners the most money also didn’t quite take it on the chin the way they have in the past.

Table 6: Top 10 Losses, 2015 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Alex Cobb

21

-21

25

23

14

15

16

$19

2

Jeff Samardzija

$6

21

-14

22

18

22

19

21

$23

3

Bud Norris

-$6

7

-14

6

6

10

6

4

$16

4

Neftali Feliz

$1

13

-13

15

14

11

15

13

$8

5

Shane Greene

-$6

5

-11

4

7

5

6

5

$5

6

Fernando Rodney

$5

16

-11

15

16

16

16

17

$18

7

Drew Hutchison

$1

12

-10

14

9

12

12

9

$11

8

Greg Holland

$11

21

-10

21

21

22

23

21

$25

9

T.J. House

-$6

4

-10

2

5

6

6

5

$6

10

Felix Hernandez

$22

31

-10

30

32

32

30

34

$39

Average

$3

15

-12

15

15

15

15

15

$17

A $10 loss for the Felix is comparable to the losses that the tenth biggest losers Joe Blanton (-$10) took in 2013 and Kyle Drabek (-$10) took in 2011. But as a group, these pitchers didn’t come close to losing what their counterparts lost from 2010-2014. Beginning with 2014 and going backward, the worst 10 pitchers had lost $15, $15, $16, $14, and $15 per pitcher.

The flattening out of profits and losses made it even more imperative to seek out statistics in 2015 as opposed to profit. Getting a six dollar return on a $21 investment on Samardzija was certainly bad, but wasn’t anywhere close to putting $26 down on Justin Verlander in 2014 and only getting eight dollars’ worth of stats back.

The impact of losing big on an auction-day bust was also tempered by how good the free agent pool was this year.

Table 7, Top 10 Free Agents, AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Shawn Tolleson

$19

$8

2

Roberto Osuna

$15

3

Chris Young

$15

$12

4

Erasmo Ramirez

$15

1

1

-$3

5

Carson Smith

$14

$3

6

Will Harris

$14

$1

7

Hector Santiago

$13

0

13

1

1

$6

8

Lance McCullers

$12

9

Adam Warren

$12

0

12

1

1

4

$9

10

Josh Tomlin

$12

1

$4

Average

$14

0

14

0

0

0

$4

This is an entirely different story than in the National League, where nearly every free agent was a reliever. Here, six of the 10 pitchers were either starters all year long or at a minimum were starting pitchers at some point. Relievers still played a fairly significant impact, but you could make up for bad innings at the back end of your staff with more than a few of these guys.

The combination of a low earnings ceiling, a lack of significant bargains, and a plethora of decent free agent options made it sensible not to spend big in the AL in 2015. It is entirely possible that the trend will not continue in 2016 with someone like Chris Sale taking a big step forward, but it is more likely that the earnings stay relatively flat in the AL, and make it even less of an imperative to spend for an ace than it was in 2015.

The complete list of Mike’s valuations can be found here, and will be updated as this series continues.

Thank you for reading

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