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The league-wide proliferation of home runs has fueled a rapid increase in run scoring over the past two seasons. After nearly a decade of offensive decline, major-league pitchers were the ones most adversely affected by the recent onslaught of round trippers. A confluence of factors like injuries, the aforementioned offensive uptick, and fewer starters eclipsing the 200-inning plateau have widened the gap between the upper echelon fantasy starters and the remainder of the talent pool. Before we take a deep dive into the fantasy ramifications of these latest developments, within the context of ERA, let’s survey the overall landscape.

League-average ERA and Runs Allowed per game (2002-2016)

Life comes at you fast. Just two years ago, during the 2014 campaign, major-league pitchers post the lowest single-season ERA (3.74) in nearly three decades. Back in days when Orel Hershiser, Bret Saberhagen and Greg Maddux helped lead the way to a league-wide 3.71 ERA in 1989. This past season, pitchers were tagged for more runs per game (4.48), and recorded their highest ERA (4.19), since 2009.

Further compounding the issue for fantasy owners, was a corresponding dip in starting pitcher workloads for the third consecutive year. Per Baseball-Reference data, league-average innings pitched per start had remained stable in recent years. That all changed when starters recorded the lowest single-season mark (5.6 IP/GS) in history last season.

League-average innings pitched per game started (2007-2016)

Year

IP/GS

2007

5.8

2008

5.8

2009

5.8

2010

6.0

2011

6.0

2012

5.9

2013

5.9

2014

6.0

2015

5.8

2016

5.6

Front offices (and managers) are making a conscious effort to monitor pitch counts and remain cognizant of how many times through the order their starter (especially the less talented members of their rotations) faces an opposing lineup. As a result, fewer are working deep enough into games to reach the innings thresholds fantasy owners have long been accustomed to. Simply put, 200-inning starters may be on the brink of extinction.

Major-league starters with 200-plus innings pitched (2002-2016)

Only 15 starters reached the lofty 200-inning threshold last season, down from 28 the previous year. That’s less than half as many (38) accomplished the feat a decade ago in 2007. Injuries are most likely to blame for the recent decline. Some notable examples from last year include Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Yu Darvish, Carlos Carrasco, Stephen Strasburg, and Danny Salazar. While they were stellar in terms of quality, each missed significant chunks of the season to injury, which tamped down their overall fantasy value. Here’s an in-depth look at the select few to eclipse the plateau in 2016.

Rank

Player

ERA

DRA

IP

Age

1

Jon Lester

2.44

3.10

202.2

32

2

Madison Bumgarner

2.74

3.25

226.2

26

3

Johnny Cueto

2.79

3.54

219.2

30

4

Tanner Roark

2.83

4.45

210.0

29

5

Max Scherzer

2.96

3.01

228.1

31

6

Justin Verlander

3.04

2.75

210.0

33

7

Corey Kluber

3.14

2.97

215.0

30

8

Rick Porcello

3.15

3.45

223.0

27

9

Jose Quintana

3.20

3.48

208.0

27

10

Cole Hamels

3.32

2.65

200.2

32

11

Chris Sale

3.34

2.69

226.2

27

12

Jeff Samardzija

3.81

4.37

203.1

31

13

David Price

3.99

2.90

230.0

30

14

Chris Archer

4.02

2.92

201.1

27

15

Marcus Stroman

4.37

3.43

204.0

25

The crop of pitchers outside the elite workhorses is becoming less appetizing to speculate on. With fewer starters providing high volume innings, and offense rebounding rapidly, constructing a staff without a true “fantasy ace” has become an even greater challenge.

Number of pitchers with ERA/DRA under 3.50 (100+ IP)

Years

ERA

DRA

2001-02

67

46

2003-04

48

40

2005-06

44

53

2007-08

50

55

2009-10

66

63

2011-12

86

72

2013-14

116

97

2015-16

80

72

As Baseball Prospectus in-house valuations guru and regular co-host on the Flags Fly Forever podcast, Mike Gianella, discussed in his recent NL-only retrospective player valuations recap:

“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.”

Pitchers are inherently risky fantasy propositions and that will never change. Just ask anyone that owned Matt Harvey or Sonny Gray last year. However, the data (and the variety of factors influencing it as outlined above) clearly shows that ERA’s are trending up, while innings totals are headed in the opposite direction. Despite the prevalence of defensive shifts and improved outfield alignments insulating some of the damage from the offensive renaissance, fantasy owners shouldn’t expect those two major trends to reverse in the near future. The lack of quality pitching towards the middle of the pack, especially among starters, has only added to the problem.

The rising ERA tide hasn’t lifted all boats. It’s primarily buoyed the value of elite starters instead and it’s time for fantasy owners to re-think their approach to constructing a pitching staff moving forward.

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kvamlnk
11/21
Justin Verlander age is 33 (or rounds up to 34).
GeorgeBissell
11/21
Fixed. I'm the worst when it comes to inputting player data. Pretty sure I listed Dee Gordon on Colorado one time and didn't notice. Thanks for the catch!
sam19041
11/21
George, can you share the trend in IP by SP for the last several years (i.e. IP count for each of the last several years for SP as a group)? Would be helpful to consider for those in leagues (especially mono leagues) with IP minimums. Perhaps those should be adjusted downward in light of these trends. Thanks!
GeorgeBissell
11/21
Hey Sharky, Thanks for reading and appreciate the comment. As I pointed out in the piece, starters are throwing fewer innings than ever before, but in my quick search, I can't find the exact league-summary number of innings and how they compare to years past on Baseball-Reference, just league-average IP/GS, which I referenced in the piece. This particular topic is definitely something to consider going forward. For me personally, fantasy leagues shouldn't adjust their weekly or season-long IP minimums yet, it hasn't gotten that extreme. Fantasy owners need to start adjusting along with the league to these trends in regards to where they get their innings from. Instead of relying on questionable starters off the waiver wire, it's time to start relying on middle relievers like Brad Hand, Brad Brach, Kyle Barraclough, Mychal Givens, etc to bridge the gap.
cmaczkow
11/23
Hi George. One article I'd love to see is how reliable middle relievers are from year to year. You've shown that it's not worth paying the expansive salaries of second-tier starters, but many leagues are already adopting and good middle RP's are going for more than just $1-3. I'm wondering if there is enough stability in year-to-year performance among these guys to justify paying a $5-8 salary. Anecdotal evidence can be found either way, so I'd love to see a breakdown of the middle reliever landscape given the increased importance they seem to be having.
GeorgeBissell
11/29
We've talked about this quite a bit on the Flags Fly Forever podcast this offseason. There's usually quite a bit of volatility and turnover from year-to-year among middle relievers, but it's something I'll definitely be writing about this offseason. To answer your question broadly, the major issue as it relates to paying for middle relievers on draft day isn't related to stability in year-to-year performance. It has more to do with the volume of quality middle relievers and the fact that they tend to emerge out of nowhere. You can find talent on the waiver wire in-season comparable to what you would pay for in a draft. A great example of this from last year would be someone like Edwin Diaz, who wasn't drafted fantasy leagues (of any size) last year.
schlicht
11/21
Second graph - "Major-league starters with 200-plus innings pitched (2002-2016)" is a copy of the first showing ERA trends
GeorgeBissell
11/21
Fixed! Thanks!
JohnnyFive
11/21
So are we saying that ace starters are now undervalued in the sense that people generally try to avoid paying for aces? I guess I'm looking to see how this effects deep mixed league starting pitcher values.
GeorgeBissell
11/21
That wasn't the case in "expert leagues" like Tout and LABR, especially in the mono-leagues, as Mike has pointed out in his series. Fantasy owners are starting to pay for elite pitching because those truly elite starters have generally returned that investment. Kershaw is a great example because even after missing time he still pretty much earned what he cost on draft day last year. This development hasn't gone completely unnoticed. Those aces become even more valuable in deeper mixed leagues where the replacement level arm, someone freely available off the waiver wire, is lower. In deeper mixed leagues and AL or NL-only formats, if you don't target a rotation anchor, it's becoming more difficult to construct a competitive staff because there is much more volatility among the arms in those lower tiers and the gap in performance is widening due to offense ticking back up.