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Welcome to my 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 2016. This is the second post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series will focus on AL-only leagues, the next two will shift their focus to NL-only, and the final two posts will examine 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 2016, 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 salary from his earnings and shows whether he gained or lost his fantasy owners play money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Miguel Cabrera can cost $37, earn $30, and lose eight dollars.

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 2016. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s 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.

2015 shows what the player earned in 2015.

Complete AL-only data can be found here. Earlier this week, I wrote about AL Hitters, which can be found here.

“Pitchers are more unreliable than hitters” is one of the most basic precepts of fantasy baseball. As a result, auction leagues only use about 30 percent of their budgets for pitching. In the past, I’ve pointed out that the best pitchers are more reliable than conventional wisdom would suggest. In 2016, conventional wisdom won.

Table 1: Top 11 Salaries, 2016 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Chris Sale

$31

33

-2

34

33

32

31

31

$26

2

David Price

$22

29

-8

32

29

27

27

30

$32

3

Corey Kluber

$31

28

2

30

28

27

27

28

$24

4

Carlos Carrasco

$18

26

-8

28

24

26

23

26

$23

Chris Archer

$16

26

-10

27

24

27

21

25

$24

Dallas Keuchel

$9

26

-17

26

26

26

24

26

$35

7

Felix Hernandez

$11

25

-14

28

25

22

22

23

$22

8

Sonny Gray

-$2

23

-25

22

22

25

20

23

$25

9

Wade Davis

$14

23

-9

24

21

23

23

22

$22

10

Craig Kimbrel

$16

22

-7

24

21

22

21

22

$20

Danny Salazar

$12

22

-10

25

22

20

20

21

$21

Average

$16

26

-10

27

25

25

24

25

$25

For the second year in a raw, the 10 most expensive pitchers (11 last year, thanks to a tie in salary) earned the lowest amount on average since I began tracking 5×5 AL-only values in 2009. Despite taking it on the chin in 2015, the market spent even more on the best pitchers in 2016 than it has since 2009. The AL experts in CBS, LABR, and Tout have spent $24 on average on this comparable group of arms every year since 2011. Despite nothing in the trend lines indicating that the best pitchers weren’t doing demonstrably better than they had in years’ prior (see the “2015” column) the market ponied up for these guys.

To reiterate this point for new readers, while a $10 loss is bad, a $16 return can still provide a solid enough anchor for an AL-only fantasy team. Archer was the AL’s 28th best pitcher, while Kimbrel was 31st. Put more simply, a $9-16 return is something, even if it puts your fantasy team in a hole. As far as extreme disappointments go, 2016 wasn’t remarkable.

10 Most Expensive AL Pitchers Earning $10 or less: 2010-2016
2016:
Sonny Gray (-$2), Dallas Keuchel ($9)
2015: Alex Cobb ($0), Jeff Samardzija ($6)
2014: Justin Verlander ($8)
2013: CC Sabathia ($8)
2012: Jon Lester ($9), Mariano Rivera ($3)
2011: None.
2010: Josh Beckett (-$2), Javier Vazquez ($3)

Ten dollars is arbitrary, but since nearly these pitchers all lost $15 or more, it is safe to call them washouts. Gray is one of the biggest losers in years. Overall, however, the story is the market’s willingness to pay these pitchers even more.

As they did with the hitters, CBS was the most aggressive on spending, having the highest bid on every expensive pitcher except Gray. However, a two-dollar difference on average with LABR, Tout, and Kreutzer isn’t nearly the gap that CBS had in past years. The higher spending happened across the board and given the quality of the top arms in 2015 it is difficult to explain why this happened.

2016 wasn’t a strong year for the top arms either.

Table 2: Top 10 Earnings, 2016 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

18

15

14

15

14

$13

2

Rick Porcello

$33

6

27

7

6

5

6

4

$4

3

Corey Kluber

$31

28

2

30

28

27

27

28

$24

4

Chris Sale

$31

33

-2

34

33

32

31

31

$26

5

Zach Britton

$28

19

9

21

17

20

19

17

$22

6

Andrew Miller

$26

9

17

9

7

10

6

8

$23

7

Masahiro Tanaka

$25

16

9

16

15

17

14

17

$20

8

J.A. Happ

$25

4

21

7

2

4

5

2

$13

9

Aaron Sanchez

$23

2

21

3

1

1

2

8

$8

10

Jose Quintana

$22

13

9

12

14

13

12

13

$15

Average

$28

15

13

16

14

14

14

14

$17

This is a funny statement. The 10 best of anything are at the top of their class and earn more than any other group. However, from a comparative standpoint, the best AL pitchers don’t earn as much as they used to do.

Table 3: Top 10 AL Pitchers: 2011-2016

Year

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

Prior Year

2016

$28

15

13

16

14

14

$17

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

I ran this chart last year but it is worth looking at again. The best pitchers used to earn $31 on average. They haven’t cleared $30 since 2011. The elite pitchers are no longer distancing themselves from the pack the way that they used to do. In 2011, Justin Verlander earned $46. In 2012, he earned $39. Last year, Verlander unexpectedly returned to the top of the heap as a $34 pitcher.

Rather than offer theories as to why pitcher earnings have flattened it is better to look at the numbers.

Justin Verlander 2016: 16 wins, 227 2/3 innings, 3.04 ERA, 1.001 WHIP, 254 strikeouts.
Verlander 2016 earnings: Wins $8.41, ERA $5.55, WHIP $8.79, Strikeouts $10.88. Earnings: $33.63
Verlander 2016 in 2011 formula: Wins $8.41, ERA $4.82, WHIP $8.04, Strikeouts $12.97. Earnings: $34.61

Justin Verlander 2011: 24 wins, 251 innings, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 250 strikeouts.
Verlander 2011 earnings: Wins $12.62, ERA $8.95, WHIP $11.82, Strikeouts $12.78. Earnings: $46.17
Verlander 2011 in 2016 formula: Wins $12.62, ERA $9.75, WHIP $12.24, Strikeouts: $10.69. Earnings: $45.30

The expectation when values flatten at the top is that the average pitcher has improved. But this isn’t the case. In 2011, the ERA used for the AL valuation formula was 3.94 while the WHIP was 1.276. In 2016, these numbers were 4.08 and 1.288. The average (fantasy) pitcher in the AL is a little worse. The strikeout jump explains some of the valuation fall, but not very much of it. A two-dollar difference in each direction moves the needle very little.

The real culprit is innings pitched.

The 200-inning pitcher is becoming an endangered species. In 2011, there were 19 AL pitchers who posted 200 innings or more. In 2016, that number was nine. For the best pitchers, positive ERA and WHIP drive the earnings bus more than anything else.

Some of the drag on earnings is certainly tied to performance; there was no 2011 Verlander in 2016. But on a larger level, it is difficult for any pitcher to get to $40 or higher without a significant chunk of innings. Knock Verlander’s 2011 down to 228 innings, and he’s “only” a $42 pitcher.

The lack of innings quantity at the top of the heap also lends itself to a good deal of overlap on the next table.

Table 4: Top 10 Profits, AL Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Rick Porcello

$33

6

27

7

6

5

6

4

$4

2

Aaron Sanchez

$23

2

21

3

1

1

2

8

$8

3

J.A. Happ

$25

4

21

7

2

4

5

2

$13

4

Danny Duffy

$21

1

20

1

2

2

1

$5

5

Michael Fulmer

$19

0

19

1

1

$0

6

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

18

15

14

15

14

$13

7

Alex Colome

$20

2

17

1

6

7

9

$7

8

Andrew Miller

$26

9

17

9

7

10

6

8

$23

9

Sam Dyson

$18

1

17

2

2

2

3

$7

10

Roberto Osuna

$22

7

15

8

5

8

14

14

$15

Average

$24

5

19

5

4

5

6

6

$10

Five of the 10 pitchers on Table 2 also make an appearance on Table 4. This table is always chock full of happy surprises, but the experts paid a little bit more for this group than they did for the comparable 2015 list (average salary three dollars). A little bit of this is Verlander. But while seven of the 10 best bargains in 2015 cost three dollars or fewer, in 2016 only five pitchers were this cheap.

I’m fascinated by the prominent role of relievers for the second year in a row on Table 4. Their value gets swept under the rug because of the focus on standard mixed leagues, but in an AL-only, having at least one cheap reliever turn into a staff anchor is essential.

The innings paucity mentioned above isn’t merely having an impact on the earnings ceiling. It is making the best middle relievers more useful. Their earnings haven’t spiked, but their overall ranking is higher. The reason for this is simple. Seventy-five relief innings go farther when the average starter throws fewer innings. There still isn’t an imperative to spend heavily on these relievers. They fluctuate from season to season. However, there is more reliability in this pool than you might expect. Brad Brach was free loot; no one purchased him in CBS, LABR, or Tout. He earned $10 in 2015. Brach’s $17 season in 2016 was a surprise, but it was not a bolt from the blue. You don’t need to pay $10 for Brach. You should put two or three dollars aside for a pitcher or two like him next year.

Table 6: Top 10 Losses, 2016 AL Pitchers

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Sonny Gray

-$2

23

-25

22

22

25

20

23

$25

2

Garrett Richards

$3

21

-17

20

22

20

20

19

$17

3

Dallas Keuchel

$9

26

-17

26

26

26

24

26

$35

4

Felix Hernandez

$11

25

-14

28

25

22

22

23

$22

5

Jose Berrios

-$8

6

-14

6

7

5

6

6

Shawn Tolleson

-$1

13

-13

13

11

14

14

11

$19

7

Huston Street

$1

14

-13

16

14

15

15

16

$17

8

Luis Severino

-$1

12

-13

13

13

11

10

14

$7

9

Glen Perkins

-$1

12

-13

14

10

12

11

12

$14

10

Jordan Zimmermann

$4

15

-11

19

13

14

15

15

$15

Average

$2

17

-15

18

16

16

16

16

$17

Table 6 is a typical distribution for the worst pitchers. From 2010-2014, the worst pitchers on average lost anywhere between $14-16. 2015, with an average loss of $12 per pitcher appears to be a one-time anomaly.

There is clear hierarchy on Table 6. The four biggest losses were expensive pitchers who crashed and burned, likely taking their team’s hopes with them. Pitchers 6-10 were in the next tier. They cost between $12-15 and except for Zimmermann returned almost nothing or a little less than nothing. Then there is Berrios, who is on his own little island.

Where 2015 was a “safe” year for closers, 2016 saw three closers on Table 6. Tolleson, Street, and Perkins all brought their fantasy managers nothing in return. If you handcuffed Dyson good for you, but there wasn’t even a good handcuff to be had in Los Angeles or Minnesota.

There was once a reliability factor with aces, both in terms of overall earnings and safety. The top four pitchers on Table 6 should give AL-only fantasy managers pause. The disappointment of these starters isn’t the only reason to be cautious when it comes to spending big on starting pitching.

Table 7: Next 10 Most Expensive Starting Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Cole Hamels

$20

21

-1

23

22

18

18

19

$19

2

Garrett Richards

$3

21

-17

20

22

20

20

19

$17

3

Marcus Stroman

$10

17

-7

18

16

17

16

17

$6

4

Masahiro Tanaka

$25

16

9

16

15

17

14

17

$20

5

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

18

15

14

15

14

$13

6

Jordan Zimmermann

$4

15

-11

19

13

14

15

15

$15

7

Hisashi Iwakuma

$13

14

-1

15

12

15

14

14

$14

8

Collin McHugh

$10

14

-3

14

14

13

12

13

$17

9

Lance McCullers

$6

14

-7

16

17

8

10

9

$12

10

Yordano Ventura

$6

14

-7

15

14

12

12

12

$12

Average

$13

16

-3

17

16

15

15

15

$15

I have often characterized this group of starting pitchers as the danger zone in fantasy, particularly for those pitchers in the $13-17 range. There isn’t a negative earner on Table 7, yet this is not a pleasant picture. Verlander saves the group from being worse. He was going to do this in any group of 10 pitchers, but the more important takeaway is that nearly every pitcher on Table 7 breaks even or loses money.

In roto formats, innings are vital, even if they are not their own category. With so many pitchers failing to finish with more than 200, the value proposition has shifted. It is doubtful that 2016 was a fluke. If you are still spending $50-60 on your rotation, it is time to reconsider. You can get better qualitative numbers from relievers. The cheap pitchers have just as much of a chance at offering this kind of return than the pitchers on Table 7 do, whether they are middle relievers or starting pitchers.

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lowguppy
11/11
Love this retrospective process stuff.
kvamlnk
11/11
"The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary" Just picking nits, but it is clear from the numbers that you are subtracting the salary from the earnings. Thanks for a very useful column. The insight about the drop in innings is VERY helpful. That is not obvious from looking at the scoring values. It would be great to learn how you use innings to weight pitchers when assigning $ value to ERA and WHIP. I hope you could address that sometime.
MikeGianella
11/13
Fixing the error.
tbone90125
11/11
Mike, The link to the Complete AL-Only data only has hitter data - no pitchers.
MikeGianella
11/13
Adding it right now.
lloydecole
11/12
Insightful and on point, as always. Thanks.
seabass77
11/19
Would the best strategy now be to spend a lot on an ace, buy 4-5 relievers and then fill in the gaps with some middling starters who might have upside? I'm really considering shifting my pitching strategy based on the last two years-I think it's time to pay for relievers who can put up innings, right?