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Welcome to my third annual look at retrospective player valuation at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of articles examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2015. This is the fifth article in a series of six. The first four articles in the series focused on NL-only and AL-only leagues. The final two posts examine mixed leagues, with this article examining pitchers.

Before I dig in, here is a brief description of the charts below. (If you have been reading along for the entire series, note that there are some changes for the mixed league articles).

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 210 best perceived hitters and the 135 best perceived pitchers (read most expensive or highest draft position) on Opening Day 2015, not the best 210 hitters and 135 pitchers at the end of the season.

2) The values of the 345 most expensive players add up to $3,900. This is a fundamental difference from many pricing systems that use z-scores and assign the top 345 players an aggregate value of $3,900. While perhaps more “accurate”, dollar values derived from the best 345 players at the end of the season do not reflect how a fantasy team should behave in an auction environment or what these dollars actually represent.

Actual Rank lists where players ranked overall based on my dollar valuations. Since the NFBC rankings do not differentiate between hitters and pitchers, this column does not do so either.

NFBC are the average draft position (ADP) as measured by the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts.

LABR, Tout Draft, and Tout Auction are the results from three of the most prominent fantasy expert leagues in the country. LABR and Tout Wars Draft use a draft format and provide rankings, while Tout Wars Auction lists the auction price (again out of a $3,900 budget).

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.

For years, I have resisted the idea that the best pitchers in mixed leagues are as predictable or almost as predictable as the best hitters. It’s probably time (or past time) to admit that I was wrong and that pitchers are much more solid investments than conventional wisdom frequently indicates.

Table 1: 15 Highest Drafted NFBC Pitchers, 2015

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

Tout
Draft

Tout
Auction

MG

1

Clayton Kershaw

$39

3

4

3

5

$36

$41

2

Felix Hernandez

$18

11

78

29

17

$31

$27

3

Max Scherzer

$32

16

13

25

21

$29

$29

4

Stephen Strasburg

$13

24

148

32

24

$28

$25

5

Chris Sale

$23

27

44

30

55

$28

$23

6

David Price

$28

28

22

38

31

$26

$23

7

Madison Bumgarner

$28

31

23

35

40

$22

$24

8

Corey Kluber

$20

33

62

34

49

$24

$26

9

Johnny Cueto

$15

37

125

44

56

$22

$23

10

Aroldis Chapman

$19

39

72

51

67

$23

$22

11

Zack Greinke

$38

48

5

40

62

$21

$21

12

Craig Kimbrel

$18

50

87

57

69

$22

$21

13

Matt Harvey

$23

53

40

94

63

$19

$20

14

Jordan Zimmermann

$12

54

175

72

58

$23

$18

15

Jon Lester

$18

55

79

67

68

$20

$20

Average

$23

34

65

43

46

$25

$24

The 15 highest-drafted hitters were taken ninth overall on average in NFBC, and 10th in both the LABR and Tout Wars drafts. Yet the return for both hitters and pitchers was similar. The average ranking of 56th overall for the most commonly drafted hitters narrowly beat the 65th overall ranking for the most commonly drafted pitchers and the average value of $23 for these pitchers barely missed the average value of $24 for hitters.

This isn’t what is “supposed” to happen, at least not according to conventional wisdom. One or two of the pitchers we invest heavily in is expected to crash and burn, but this didn’t happen in 2015. In fact, six of the 15 pitchers in Table One turned a profit in the Tout Wars auction league, while another five pitchers lost five dollars or fewer. On the hitting side, only Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson turned a profit. Paul Goldschmidt lost $6; every other hitter lost $9 or more.

Drafts are different than auctions, but regardless of how you slice and dice the data the most expensive pitchers were nearly as good as the most expensive hitters at a lower cost or draft position.

A bust is a bust. You didn’t want Jordan Zimmermann on your team any more than you wanted Giancarlo Stanton. The difference is that the mistakes on the hitting side last year cost fantasy teams more than the mistakes on the pitching side.

Again, this isn’t what is supposed to happen. Someone at the top of the pitching food chain should crash and burn completely, existing as a cautionary tale as to why taking pitchers at the top is a terrible idea. But it wasn’t a terrible idea to take pitchers at the top last year, and maybe it won’t be such a bad idea going forward.

Another idea that pervades conventional wisdom is that there are several hidden gems at the middle or the bottom of the pile so you can and should wait to draft or buy pitching in a shallower league. But in 2015, this wasn’t the case.

Table 2: Top 15 Mixed League Pitchers, 2015

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

Tout
Draft

Tout
Auction

MG

1

Jake Arrieta

$41

97

1

106

97

$16

$18

2

Clayton Kershaw

$39

3

4

3

5

$36

$41

3

Zack Greinke

$38

48

5

40

62

$21

$21

4

Max Scherzer

$32

16

13

25

21

$29

$29

5

Dallas Keuchel

$31

229

15

249

271

$1

$5

6

David Price

$28

28

22

38

31

$26

$23

7

Madison Bumgarner

$28

31

23

35

40

$22

$24

8

Jacob deGrom

$26

109

26

135

112

$14

$14

9

Gerrit Cole

$26

77

28

105

87

$16

$17

10

Matt Harvey

$23

53

40

94

63

$19

$20

11

Chris Sale

$23

27

44

30

55

$28

$23

12

Sonny Gray

$22

83

49

78

100

$15

$13

13

Mark Melancon

$21

81

54

104

92

$18

$15

14

Chris Archer

$21

178

59

205

195

$10

$7

15

Jeurys Familia

$20

467

60

Average

$28

102

30

89

88

$18

$18

Familia completely came from out of left field, while Archer and Keuchel were taken relatively late. On the whole, however, these pitchers were extremely predictable. Seven of the 15 pitchers on Table 1 reappear on Table 2, and five pitchers (Kluber, Chapman, Kimbrel, Hernandez, and Lester) barely miss, finishing among the Top 30 pitchers and only two dollars or fewer from cracking Table 2.

The idea that pitchers are less predictable than hitters isn’t completely untrue.

Table 3: Top 135 Mixed League Hitters and Top 135 Pitchers by NFBC Tier, 2015

Tier

$

Cost

+/-

Tier

$

Cost

+/-

Hitter 1

$365

547

-$182

Pitcher 1

$343

374

-$31

Hitter 2

$274

410

-$136

Pitcher 2

$168

240

-$72

Hitter 3

$279

317

-$38

Pitcher 3

$194

211

-$17

Hitter 4

$267

295

-$28

Pitcher 4

$107

134

-$27

Hitter 5

$149

221

-$72

Pitcher 5

$59

134

-$75

Hitter 6

$184

194

-$10

Pitcher 6

$68

74

-$6

Hitter 7

$181

200

-$19

Pitcher 7

$37

41

-$4

Hitter 8

$137

147

-$10

Pitcher 8

$69

27

$42

Hitter 9

$103

86

$17

Pitcher 9

$33

13

$20

For the most expensive hitters, there was a nearly linear progression from top to the next tiers and then down to the hitters in the middle. The hitters in Tier 5 (76-90) were very disappointing, but otherwise the earnings curve was fairly linear. Meanwhile, the elite pitchers were significantly better than the pitchers from 16 (“Pitcher 2”) on down and the earnings for the non-elites were all over the place. You were better off with pitchers in the third tier than in the second tier while the pitchers in the eighth tier were better than in any other tier from the fifth tier down. Table 3 seems to indicate that the top pitchers should be drafted even a little higher while the rest of the pitchers should be pushed down further in favor of the hitters in the middle, who were more reliable and predictable across the board.

The rationale for not spending on pitching typically is predicated on the free loot that is supposed to be available after the draft and in the free agent pool. The replacement talent is always there, but if you look closely at the pitchers who were undrafted after most drafts/auctions, it isn’t clear in deeper mixed leagues that going soft on pitching was a sound idea.

Table 4: Top 15 Mixed League Free Agent Pitchers, 2015

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

Tout
Draft

Tout
Auction

MG

1

Jeurys Familia

$20

467

60

2

Marco Estrada

$18

507

82

3

A.J. Ramos

$15

547

118

4

Jaime Garcia

$15

497

130

5

Shawn Tolleson

$15

777

131

6

Darren O'Day

$13

484

152

377

7

Brad Ziegler

$12

545

160

8

Roberto Osuna

$12

664

178

9

Dan Haren

$12

385

180

362

381

$1

10

Chris Young

$10

594

197

11

Carson Smith

$10

803

201

12

Will Harris

$10

202

13

Kevin Siegrist

$10

771

205

14

Erasmo Ramirez

$10

644

206

15

Tony Watson

$9

422

230

415

Average

$13

579

162

Table 4 is dominated by relievers. Six of the 15 free agent bargains were closers, but another four pitchers were not full time closers (a “closer” here is defined as a pitcher who saved 10 games or more in 2015). The number of starting pitchers left in the free agent pool who returned value in fantasy were extremely limited. This flies in the face of the idea that you can make a mistake or multiple mistakes when constructing your fantasy roster and bounce back.

It is a different calculation in standard or shallow mixed formats, but even the best starting pitchers on this list weren’t the kind of arms who were in the rotation on Opening Day and persisted all season long. Only Haren made 30 or more starts. If you are a stickler, the case could be made that Young was as much of a reliever as he was a starter in terms of his value.

I’ve argued in the past that while middle relievers might theoretically be worth what my valuations say they are, you can’t carry a middle reliever on your roster all season long in a mixed format. Looking at Table 4, I am not so sure this is correct. The answer to this question depends on what your league’s rules are as far as free agent acquisition and reserve lists. In a league with unlimited waiver claims, deep reserve lists, and/or daily lineup moves, a reliever like Harris is nothing more than a hedge against seasonal start limits. However, in a league with limited reserves, no $0 FAAB bids, and weekly moves, relievers like O’Day, Harris, and Siegrist are extremely valuable, and more valuable than fantasy analysts give them credit for.

If middle relievers are more valuable than advertised in deeper mixed leagues, than it stands to reason that the pitchers who failed their fantasy managers were more damaging than we usually assume.

Table 5: Top 15 Pitcher Losses, Tout Wars Mixed Auction, 2015

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

Tout
Draft

Tout
Auction

MG

1

Neftali Feliz

-$11

175

1178

221

181

$13

$9

2

Shane Greene

-$20

334

1369

347

290

$2

$1

3

Bud Norris

-$20

366

1364

339

398

$2

$1

4

T.J. House

-$20

359

1354

379

274

$2

$1

5

Matt Garza

-$20

314

1370

338

316

$1

$2

6

Kyle Lohse

-$20

267

1361

331

296

$1

$1

7

Henderson Alvarez

-$17

286

1299

321

309

$4

$1

8

Matt Cain

-$18

243

1329

247

240

$2

$7

9

Wily Peralta

-$18

271

1328

283

251

$2

$1

10

Alex Cobb

-$7

111

994

93

86

$12

$12

11

Bobby Parnell

-$17

365

1309

307

297

$1

$5

12

Matt Moore

-$17

461

1304

399

383

$1

13

Justin Masterson

-$17

413

1300

357

432

$4

14

Drew Hutchison

-$13

226

1225

232

230

$1

$6

15

Adam Wainwright

$2

58

493

75

76

$19

$18

Average

-$16

283

1238

285

271

$4

$4

The pitchers on Table 5 were clearly is-a-hot-dog-a-sandwich-debates-on-Twitter awful, but whether or not they ever graced your roster depends a great deal upon your league’s format. In a 12-team format, the 108th pitcher drafted on average was Aaron Sanchez, who was the 272nd highest player drafted overall. Eight of the 15 pitchers on Table 5 were drafted after Sanchez, so were not drafted in a “typical” 12-team league. It is fairly likely that most of these arms spent little if any time on a roster in a shallower mixed league.

But even in a 15-team mixed format, the pitchers drafted on the periphery don’t spend much time on a team’s active roster. The issue isn’t the damage these pitchers do to their fantasy teams’ rosters but rather the opportunity cost for not picking up a viable pitcher, either for use as an everyday option or at minimum as a streamer. Once again, this goes back to the point above regarding each league’s rules, but even in a 15-team format with liberal acquisition rules, the paucity of good starting pitchers in the free agent pool made grabbing a pitcher on Table 5 painful.

It also makes picking a pitcher on the next table essential in deeper mixed formats.

Table 6: Top 15 Pitcher Profits, Tout Wars Mixed Auction, 2015

Rank

Player

$

NFBC

Actual
Rank

LABR

Tout
Draft

Tout
Auction

MG

1

Dallas Keuchel

$31

229

15

249

271

$1

$5

2

Jake Arrieta

$41

97

1

106

97

$16

$18

3

Wade Davis

$20

274

61

301

344

$2

$1

4

Andrew Miller

$20

238

63

306

281

$2

$3

5

Zack Greinke

$38

48

5

40

62

$21

$21

6

Danny Salazar

$18

256

83

214

144

$3

$2

7

Carlos Martinez

$14

281

134

277

264

$1

$2

8

John Lackey

$18

270

81

261

273

$5

$3

9

Jacob deGrom

$26

109

26

135

112

$14

$14

10

Chris Archer

$21

178

59

205

195

$10

$7

11

Gerrit Cole

$26

77

28

105

87

$16

$17

12

Francisco Liriano

$15

205

122

218

227

$5

$5

13

Jason Hammel

$12

289

179

272

252

$3

$2

14

Hector Rondon

$18

150

77

163

176

$10

$8

15

Joakim Soria

$10

276

198

337

293

$2

$2

Average

$22

198

75

213

205

$7

$7

With so much overlap between the best pitchers and the most profitable ones, even here there are not that many opportunities to pull in a significant profit at the back end of your auction or draft.

The pitchers who don’t repeat from Table 2 are Davis, Miller, Salazar, Martinez, Lackey, Liriano, Hammel, Rondon, and Soria. Once again, relievers are a significant component of yet another valuation table. In this case, since the relievers were closers for all or part of the season they do play in any format. Even Davis, who didn’t close until late in the year, was a likely contributor in all but the shallowest of leagues.

The starting pitchers on the low end were three veterans and two younger pitchers. Lackey, Liriano, and Hammel aren’t the types of arms we target when looking for back end options to fill out our fantasy rotations, but then that’s why they are bargains. Veteran pitchers are typically undervalued, and all three of these pitchers fit the profile of hurlers who have succeeded in the past yet don’t get paid because fantasy managers are looking for the next big thing.

The sweet spot comes with the pitchers who offer the greatest overall return and are also bargains. This is the reason why some recommend against drafting Kershaw in the top five, or possibly higher. I have advised against aggressively drafting Kershaw in the past, but going forward I’m not so sure that this is the best advice.

Saying no to Kershaw because Jake Arrieta or Zack Greinke will be available later and will be bargains sounds wonderful in theory but simply doesn’t hold up in practice. We don’t know who the 2016 versions of Arrieta or Greinke will be, and dinging Kershaw because we might find a bargain later in the draft is illogical. If you believe in this rationale, then you’d also ding Mike Trout next year because you might find a better bargain than Trout in next year’s draft.

The improved pitching climate over the last few years has led to a more stable and predictable crop of pitchers across the board. Downgrading Kershaw or any other pitchers because of the unpredictability of pitchers a few years ago in a different league-wide context doesn’t make sense. It is likely that the market continues to reward the best pitchers and maybe even pushes them a few slots higher in drafts, but given the rate of return over the last couple of seasons, there is nothing wrong with paying the asking price, and in fact you should make sure that you pay it.

The complete list of Mike’s valuations can be found here

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lowguppy
12/03
These are valuable articles, even if they don't generate a lot of discussion. This stuff is how you get an edge on owners who don't pay attention to anything but big FA signings in the off season.