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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 fourth post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series looked at AL-only leagues, the next two shifted 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 Jonathan Villar can cost $40, earn $32, and “only” turn a seven-dollar profit.

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.

In the American League, you can survive without a top-flight pitcher. In the National League, you had better have at least one of these guys.

Table 1: Top 10 NL Pitchers 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Max Scherzer

$40

32

7

32

33

32

30

35

$34

2

Clayton Kershaw

$35

40

-5

41

38

41

40

42

$42

3

Madison Bumgarner

$35

29

5

31

29

28

26

30

$30

4

Jon Lester

$34

21

13

24

18

22

19

19

$20

5

Kyle Hendricks

$33

11

22

11

10

12

12

12

$12

6

Johnny Cueto

$31

19

12

19

19

20

17

19

$18

7

Jose Fernandez

$30

24

6

26

25

22

22

25

$9

8

Kenley Jansen

$30

20

10

22

20

19

22

20

$20

9

Jake Arrieta

$28

29

-1

30

29

28

29

29

$44

10

Noah Syndergaard

$28

24

4

23

24

24

23

25

$18

Average

$32

25

7

26

25

25

24

26

$25

Scherzer was the only $40 earner in NL-only in 2016, but despite this the 10 best NL pitchers earned as much as 2015’s 10 best. Eight pitchers earned at least $30, compared to only five in 2015. Twelve pitchers in the NL earned $25 or more, compared to nine in 2015. It would be easy to gush and glow over 2016’s best, but the reality is that the average arm in the NL was worse in 2016 than in 2015, which had a significant impact on pitcher earnings.

Max Scherzer’s 2016: 228 1/3 IP, 2.96 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 20 wins, 284 strikeouts.
In 2016 context: $39.81
In 2015 context: $36.21

Put another way, Jake Arrieta’s 2015 line ($44) would have been worth $48 in 2016. The lack of quality pitching in the middle of the pack in 2016 added a significant amount of value to the pitchers at the top. But all that matters to us is what the pitchers earn at the top, regardless of how they get there.

Table 2: 10 Best National League Pitchers: 2012-2016

Year

$

Sal

+/-

Prior Year

10 Best Prior Year

10th Best Pitcher

2016

$32

25

7

$25

$32

$28

2015

$32

21

11

$20

$28

$23

2014

$28

21

7

$23

$29

$23

2013

$29

21

8

$19

$28

$23

2012

$28

14

14

$19

$28

$24

The expert market looked at what happened in 2015, saw the trend line and took the plunge. They didn’t hit the bullseye on all their targets (more on this below) but they didn’t have to do so. The NL pitching pool rewarded them with another excellent performance at the top anyway. A corollary between salary and earnings tends to suggest predictability, which makes this one of the most predictable groups of pitchers there has ever been. Hendricks was the only significant surprise; every other pitcher in the Top 10 cost at least $19 on average.

The final column in the chart shows how vital it was to have at least one of these pitchers. Twenty-eight dollars in earnings for the 10th best pitcher is significant, particularly since the spread between the second-best pitcher (Kershaw) and the 10th best (Syndergaard) was so narrow.

As great as I was at identifying the trend line with the best hitters, here I missed the boat completely. Yes, I tied the market on Hendricks and Jansen but my $24 average bid on this group of 10 comes across as soft. CBS and Kreutzer led the pack on the pitching side. Kreutzer was especially aggressive, and should be commended for his stance. While he wouldn’t have purchased every one of these pitchers in an individual auction, as a pricer he could “purchase” every one of these arms, assuming his bids overall added up to $3,120.

A $25 average salary among the 10 best pitchers in the NL suggests that there is a lot of overlap between Table One and the next table.

Table 3: 10 Most Expensive NL Pitchers 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Clayton Kershaw

$35

40

-5

41

38

41

40

42

$42

2

Max Scherzer

$40

32

7

32

33

32

30

35

$34

3

Madison Bumgarner

$35

29

5

31

29

28

26

30

$30

4

Jake Arrieta

$28

29

-1

30

29

28

29

29

$44

5

Stephen Strasburg

$22

27

-5

25

27

29

24

28

$16

6

Matt Harvey

$1

26

-25

28

25

26

23

28

$25

7

Zack Greinke

$12

26

-14

27

25

26

23

26

$41

8

Jacob deGrom

$16

25

-10

26

25

25

24

25

$28

9

Gerrit Cole

$6

25

-19

25

25

24

25

23

$28

10

Jose Fernandez

$30

24

6

26

25

22

22

25

$9

Average

$23

28

-6

29

28

28

27

28

$30

There is, but not nearly as much as I would have expected. Five of the best pitchers were also among the most expensive. Unlike in 2015, the reward did not completely outweigh the risk.

Table 4: 10 Most Expensive Pitchers: 2012-2016

Year

$

Sal

+/-

Prior Year

10 Most Expensive Prior Year $

10th Most Expensive

2016

$23

28

-6

$30

$26

24

2015

$26

26

1

$25

$21

21

2014

$21

25

-4

$27

$25

19

2013

$25

25

0

$24

$20

20

2012

$20

25

-5

$25

$23

22

The experts decided to go all out last year, spending $28 per pitcher on the most expensive hurlers. Fantasy experts are much better at reacting to the past than anticipating the future, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that they pushed so hard on the top pitchers.

In last year’s NL pitcher recap I (jokingly) called the experts “wimps” when it came to spending for pitching. In 2016, I was the wimp. Me! Twenty-seven dollars per pitcher is aggressive, but it left me behind Kreutzer and the expert leagues, on average. In a hypothetical auction in a make-believe, five-way pricing battle with the market (this sentence morphs into all kinds of sad as it goes along), I only get a share of Cole. CBS and Kreutzer are once again the most aggressive, although some of this for CBS is based on how much of their total budget they spent on pitching compared to the other expert leagues.

The mixed bag in Table 3 suggests that spending big on a top arm was a make-or-break strategy. To take this a step further, only three of the 10 most expensive pitchers turned a profit. Kershaw’s season went a long way toward helping his fantasy teams, but with a $40 price tag he still registered a slight loss. The anchors in 2016 weren’t as sturdy as we would have hoped.

2015 didn’t have its own version of Harvey, who returned almost nothing on an investment that was 10 percent of a fantasy budget. The return of pitchers like Cole and Harvey is a reminder that while the best pitchers are a solid investment overall, when they fail they hit our fantasy teams hard. The difference between Harvey and Kyle Schwarber is that Schwarber’s $25 average salary accounted for 14 percent of a typical NL-only team’s offensive budget. Harvey’s $26 average salary accounted for 32.5 percent of a typical pitching budget.

Because the best pitchers didn’t earn quite as much as they did in 2015 and because the most expensive ones had a few land mines the bargains felt more important. Welcome to a Very Special Episode of Best Pitcher Bargains: NL Edition.

Table 5: Top 10 NL Pitcher Bargains, 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Tanner Roark

$26

2

24

1

2

3

3

6

$2

2

Kyle Hendricks

$33

11

22

11

10

12

12

12

$12

3

Seung Hwan Oh

$22

1

21

2

1

1

1

4

Jeremy Hellickson

$18

1

17

1

1

1

2

2

$4

5

Bartolo Colon

$18

1

17

1

2

1

2

1

$11

6

Addison Reed

$15

1

14

2

1

$4

7

Drew Pomeranz

$17

3

14

2

2

5

2

2

$8

8

Jerad Eickhoff

$19

5

14

5

5

5

7

5

$7

9

Jon Lester

$34

21

13

24

18

22

19

19

$20

10

Shawn Kelley

$13

1

12

2

1

1

1

$7

Average

$22

5

17

5

4

5

5

5

$8

Except for Hendricks and Lester, these pitchers are even more surprising than usual. Eickhoff was the only arm besides Hendricks and Lester that cost more than three dollars. These pitchers are mostly castoffs in every sense of the word: targets that the experts did not want to hit. Even Kreutzer and I don’t find any of these dudes particularly appealing, apart from Peter’s excellent call on Roark. While two-dollar recommendations on Colon and Hellickson sound downright spunky compared to CBS and Tout’s one-dollar winning bids, they’re not. A two-dollar bid limit on a pitcher is more of a pecking order than a hot tip in late March.

Of the pitchers who cost three dollars or fewer, four were starting pitchers and three were relievers. More notably, there isn’t a rookie to be seen on this list with the exception of Oh, as Eickhoff narrowly missed the innings cutoff in 2015. In the past there has been a pattern of bargain pitchers costing much less than they did the year before, but this didn’t hold in 2016. Only Kelley and Colon were deep bargains in this context. I suggested in both my AL pitcher article last week and my NL Tout Wars recap last month that pushing harder for relief pitchers at auction is a worthy endeavor, but Table 5 suggests that there is still a good deal of guesswork. I do stand by my modest suggestion that the drop in 200+ inning pitchers adds value to middle relievers. It also boosted arms like Colon and Hellickson. Neither one offered a strong ERA and WHIP but they did provide good numbers in these categories with plenty of volume.

The biggest NL-only pitcher busts were more expensive than they were in 2015 by a four-dollar margin.

Table 6: Top 10 NL Pitcher Losses 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Matt Harvey

$1

26

-25

28

25

26

23

28

$25

2

Tyson Ross

-$1

18

-19

16

18

19

16

17

$15

3

Gerrit Cole

$6

25

-19

25

25

24

25

23

$28

4

Shelby Miller

-$7

11

-17

12

9

11

13

12

$13

5

Francisco Liriano

-$1

15

-16

15

15

15

15

14

$18

6

Trevor Rosenthal

$3

18

-15

19

18

17

18

17

$20

7

Patrick Corbin

-$1

14

-14

14

14

11

12

12

$6

8

Michael Wacha

$1

16

-14

20

14

13

15

14

$17

9

Zack Greinke

$12

26

-14

27

25

26

23

26

$41

10

J.J. Hoover

-$6

6

-12

10

2

7

7

12

$9

Average

$1

17

-17

19

17

17

17

18

$19

For the second year in a row, this table is dominated by starting pitchers. Only Rosenthal and Hoover make the cut. If you expand Table 6 to 20 pitchers, Jonathan Papelbon, Jake McGee, and Jason Grilli would also make the cut. It is notable that Rosenthal and Papelbon were the only high priced relief arms to lose double-digits for their fantasy managers. NL expert leagues saw a significant overcorrection in reliever prices and went too far in slashing prices. Relievers bring value in three categories and thanks to the drop in starting pitcher innings they are beginning to bring value in four.

The trend of reduced starting pitcher innings impacted in the NL just like it did in the AL. In 2011, 20 NL pitchers cleared 200 innings. In 2016, that number was only six. The shift in pitcher usage is having an impact on our fantasy teams. There is an even greater cost to spending $11-18 on a pitcher like Ross, Miller, or Liriano when so many potential starting pitcher replacements won’t pitch enough innings to make up for the deficit.

In one sense, the losses these pitchers produce isn’t real. Even in NL-only, Miller and Corbin were gone from their fantasy teams long before they did any significant damage. However, it isn’t the terrible stats from these pitchers that hurt so much as it is the gap they create on your fantasy team. Grabbing at least one of the arms from the table below was vital.

Table 7: Top 10 NL Free Agents 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Tyler Thornburg

$19

$1

2

Dan Straily

$19

-$1

3

David Phelps

$16

$1

4

Junior Guerra

$16

-$1

5

Joe Blanton

$14

$11

6

Zach Davies

$13

$3

7

Hector Neris

$13

$3

8

Brad Hand

$13

-$3

9

Jim Johnson

$12

$2

10

Kyle Barraclough

$12

$3

Average

$15

$2

Table 7 isn’t the bottom of the barrel; it is the pitchers who can’t even find their way into the barrel. No one in CBS, LABR, or Tout could find his or her way to even say “one dollar” for any of these 10 pitchers. All of them eventually found their way to an NL-only roster at some point during the regular season. Thornburg was rostered in several mixed leagues while he was closing. Everyone else was NL-only material all the way.

As was the case in 2015, Table 7 is dominated by relief pitchers. Straily, Guerra, and Davies were the only pitchers who were in a rotation all season long. Phelps picked up a few starts, but was more of a reliever. The bigger takeaway from Table 7 isn’t so much the quantity of relievers but rather the return these relievers delivered for their fantasy managers.

In 2015, only six free agents earned $10 or more. In 2016, this skyrocketed to 18. Of those 18 free agents, 13 were relief pitchers. Trying to figure out which relief pitcher is going to finish with $10 or more in earnings is a tricky endeavor, but when so many relievers finish above $10 in earnings, speculating can still be rewarding.

The evolution in pitcher usage is going to have as much of an impact on fantasy as it will in reality. Chasing third starters into the $10-15 range when so many relievers earn the same amount – or close to the same amount – is a mistake even some experts will make in 2017. In mono formats, it is best to add one ace, a couple of low end starting pitchers, and then hope for the best with 5-6 relief pitchers. The strategy isn’t foolproof, but neither is spending in the teens on the 2017 versions of Shelby Miller or Francisco Liriano.

You can find all of Mike’s AL and NL-only valuations here.