keyboard_arrow_uptop
Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.

There are league differences between the NL and the AL at every position, but there is arguably no greater paradigm shift than there is among starting pitchers. Where the NL has had four $40+ earners since 2015, in the AL no starting pitcher earned more than $35 for the second season in a row. Some of this is due to a lack of dominance in the qualitative categories. Only four AL starters earned four dollars or more in each ERA and WHIP in 2016: Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, Corey Kluber, and Masahiro Tanaka. Thus, elite performance is difficult to come by, and only six pitchers cracked the modest $25 threshold in AL-only. Not only is it difficult to find value, it is hard to predict who is going to maintain value from season to season.

Table 1: Fifteen Most Expensive AL Starting Pitchers, 2016

ADVERTISING

Rank

Player

$

AVG

+/-

1

Chris Sale

$31

33

-2

2

David Price

$22

29

-8

3

Corey Kluber

$31

28

2

4

Chris Archer

$16

26

-10

Carlos Carrasco

$18

26

-8

Dallas Keuchel

$8

26

-17

7

Felix Hernandez

$11

25

-14

8

Sonny Gray

-$2

23

-25

9

Danny Salazar

$12

22

-10

10

Cole Hamels

$20

21

-1

11

Garrett Richards

$3

21

-17

12

Marcus Stroman

$10

17

-7

13

Masahiro Tanaka

$25

16

9

14

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

Taijuan Walker

$10

16

-6

Average

$17

23

-6

Sale replaced Hernandez as the most expensive pitcher in the AL, with a four-dollar gap over teammate-to-be Price. Sale illustrates how difficult it is to spend over $30 on a starter and turn a profit. Despite earning $31, and finishing fourth overall among AL pitchers, he lost a little coin for his fantasy managers.

Price and Kluber were the next most expensive arms, though the expert market couldn’t quite bring itself to go over $30 on average for either hurler. Kluber returned to his Cy Young form, while Price was one of the better hurlers in the AL despite failing to earn $30 or more for the first time since 2013.

Carlos Carrasco missed five weeks in late April and May with a left hamstring strain and then missed the last two weeks of the season with a broken hand. When Carrasco was on the field, he dominated, putting up a 2.69 DRA. Carrasco posted a 2.69 DRA or lower for the third consecutive season. The only qualifiers to put up a sub-2.69 DRA in every season since 2014 are Sale and Clayton Kershaw. Concerns about durability are the only thing keeping Carrasco from being worth a hefty, $25+ bid on auction day. Carrasco has never pitched more than 183 2/3 innings in a major league season. Many of his injuries have not been arm-related, but when you spend top money on a starting pitcher, it is reasonable to hope that health is part of the package. Carrasco is one of those odd pitchers who may have more value in mixed formats, as the replacement level talent in a mixed league free agent pool is far more likely to provide 40-80 innings of decent value than in an AL-only.

Pitchers are more reliable than the fantasy community gives them credit for, but the fact remains: one awful pitcher can torpedo your entire team far more easily than one awful hitter can. Gray lost only a little more money than Prince Fielder did (average salary of $24, earned three dollars), but because Gray was one of nine pitchers in conventional Rotisserie formats, he had a much more deleterious impact on his teams than Fielder did. This is why the expert market only spent 32 percent of its budget on pitchers in 2016, compared to 68 percent on hitters. As part of this spending distribution, the experts allocate a disproportionate amount of auction money to the top of the food chain, particularly for starting pitchers. The top 15 starters cost $251, or about 25 percent of the pitching pie in AL-only. As I have noted many times, we look for profit at the bottom of the pool, we look for stats at the top of it.

Where was the sweet spot of earnings and profit in AL-only?

Table 2: Top 15 AL Starting Pitchers, 2016

Rank

Player

$

AVG

+/-

1

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

2

Rick Porcello

$33

6

27

3

Corey Kluber

$31

28

2

4

Chris Sale

$31

33

-2

5

Masahiro Tanaka

$25

16

9

6

J.A. Happ

$25

4

21

7

Aaron Sanchez

$23

2

21

8

Jose Quintana

$22

13

9

9

David Price

$22

29

-8

10

Danny Duffy

$21

1

20

11

Cole Hamels

$20

21

-1

12

Michael Fulmer

$19

0

19

13

Marco Estrada

$19

7

12

14

Carlos Carrasco

$18

26

-8

15

Ian Kennedy

$17

8

9

Average

$24

14

10

The biggest surprise on Table 2 was the AL Cy Young Award winner. With an average salary of six dollars, Porcello cost the same amount as Jose Berrios, Andrew Heaney, Erasmo Rodriguez, and Nathan Eovaldi. It is easy to forget that Porcello wasn’t stellar out of the gate. With a 3.78 ERA and a 3.96 FIP through June, Porcello looked more like his usual reliable but unspectacular self, and had only earned $12 of his $34 seasonal earnings.

There are three other pitchers on Table 2 who turned a profit of $20 or more, but even though Porcello, Happ, and Sanchez turned a larger profit, Duffy feels like the biggest surprise. With 179 2/3 innings, Duffy exceed his major league high for innings by 30. After a couple of seasons where he tantalized us with his potential, Duffy brought the performance, striking out over a batter an inning and exceeding his career high by 2.5 whiffs per nine. Duffy added a two-seamer to his repertoire, giving him the additional pitch he had previously been lacking as a starter and solidifying himself in that role. Duffy’s DRA dropped to 3.46, which was the first time since his rookie season that he posted a DRA below five. Duffy might not be an ace but the big step forward he took last year indicates that he can be trusted as a Top 15 pitcher again in AL-only. Duffy won’t be cheap in 2017, but a subpar September pushed his ERA and his HR/9 up and should keep his price out of the stratosphere in AL-only auctions.

Entering 2016, if you had been asked to guess which AL team would have the most pitchers in the Top 15, you almost definitely would not have guessed the Blue Jays. Happ, Sanchez, and Estrada cost their fantasy owners a grand total of $13 on average and earned $67. Sanchez will cost more this year than he did in 2016, but if early ADP is any indication Happ and Estrada will be cheap once again.

Pitchers like Duffy, Happ, and Sanchez show up almost every year, which is one of the many reasons that fantasy managers don’t spend half their money on pitching. You are almost always going to see a few pitchers who cost three dollars or fewer on every season’s version of Table 2. It’s far more common to see pitchers in the bargain bin appearing in the Top 15, whereas on the hitting side this rarely happens.

Table 3: Top 15 Profits, AL Starting Pitchers 2016

Rank

Player

$

AVG

+/-

1

Rick Porcello

$33

6

27

2

Aaron Sanchez

$23

2

21

3

J.A. Happ

$25

4

21

4

Danny Duffy

$21

1

20

5

Michael Fulmer

$19

0

19

6

Justin Verlander

$34

16

18

7

Chris Tillman

$16

4

12

8

Matt Shoemaker

$13

1

12

9

Marco Estrada

$19

7

12

10

Josh Tomlin

$13

2

11

11

CC Sabathia

$11

1

11

12

Ervin Santana

$15

5

10

13

Jose Quintana

$22

13

9

14

Colby Lewis

$10

1

9

15

Ian Kennedy

$17

8

9

Average

$19

5

15

Quintana and Verlander were the only pitchers on Table 3 who cost $10 or more, while 11 of the 15 pitchers on Table 3 cost six dollars or fewer. Cheap starting pitchers are a boon for fantasy owners, and this is particularly true in the AL, where it is more difficult to dip into the free agent pool and grab a reliable starter than it is in mixed. Most of the earnings for the pitchers on Table 3 comes in the form of strikeouts ($102) and wins ($99), but the key for these pitchers and what differentiates them from the pack are their positive WHIP ($48) and ERA ($41) contributions. Sabathia (WHIP) and Tomlin (ERA) were the only negative contributors in a qualitative category to also appear on Table 3. Wins and strikeouts are where you build up your baseline, but this game is won and lost with ERA and WHIP. Finding pitchers like this in your auction is vital in mono leagues. In 2016, only three AL free agent starting pitchers earned $10 or more. Because nearly every pitcher with a working arm is purchased at auction, the bargain bin is more vital in AL-only than it has ever been.

Below is a look at starting pitchers who will be owned either entirely or primarily in AL-only leagues. Not all these pitchers will necessarily be worth adding to your roster, but these are the kind of realistic targets you should have in mind to fill out the back end of your staff.

Jose De Leon, Rays ($0)
The biggest challenge for De Leon in 2016 was finding a spot in a crowded Dodgers’ rotation. This obstacle disappeared this winter when the Dodgers traded De Leon to the Rays for Logan Forsythe. De Leon only started four games and pitched 17 innings for Los Angeles, all in September. It isn’t clear if De Leon will be in the Rays’ Opening Day rotation but whether he starts the year in Triple-A or the majors, he should log a fair number of innings for Tampa. For a pitcher with such dominant minor league numbers, De Leon isn’t regarded very highly by some scouting/prospect types. The ceiling is often presented as a low-end #3 or realistic #4 starter, with the implication the De Leon’s raw stuff can play in the majors but isn’t anything special. While this may be true, all that is missing from his repertoire is a third pitch that will work in the majors. De Leon throws strikes and his fastball and change are both difficult to hit. Maybe the scouts are right, but there is a higher ceiling with De Leon than with most pitchers who fit this profile.

Lucas Giolito, White Sox (-$3)
Giolito entered 2016 ranked third on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 list, and it seemed like only a matter of time before the young stud was up in Washington carving through major league lineups. A year later, Giolito was shipped off to the Chicago White Sox as the main part of a package for Nationals’ new center fielder Adam Eaton. The struggles with command that have plagued Giolito on and off throughout his professional career were on full display in 2016. Giolito walked more batters than he struck out, and his whiff rates in Washington weren’t even close to what they were in the minors. Giolito’s near triple-digit speed dropped all the way down to 93 miles-per-hour at times, and while that certainly can play in the majors, when you’re used to throwing in the mid-90s with ease, adjusting to diminished velocity can be difficult. It is way too soon to give up on Giolito, and in AL-only keeper leagues he is going to be either a top farm pick or a $10-12 play on auction day, but in redraft formats there is considerable risk, particularly given the move to the AL and The Cell.

Matt Strahm, Royals ($5)
After only 22 innings in the Royals bullpen, there is oodles of excitement about Strahm, who went from an organizational reliever to a candidate for the Royals’ rotation. The signs were there for Strahm in 2015, but a 23-year-old posting high strikeout rates in A-ball doesn’t raise eyebrows. But Strahm continued to succeed at Double-A last year and the Royals happily promoted him to help in the bullpen in the second half. Strahm threw in the mid-90s as a reliever, but it’s more likely that he’ll sit around 92-93 as a starter, although with late movement the heater remains a strong pitch. The curve has an excellent spin rate, as the kids like to say these days. The biggest concerns with Strahm are going to be durability and repeatability, but he’s a candidate to earn $10-15 even if he only gets to 140-150 innings.

Tyson Ross, Rangers (-$1)
After two years of the worrywarts warning us that Ross’ arm was going to fall off because of his high slider usage, it finally happened in 2016, with Ross making one start, hitting the DL with shoulder inflammation, and never returning again. Just like Matt Harvey, Ross had Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, which caused both pitchers to miss most of the season. Ross had surgery to remove a rib and alleviate the symptoms. What Ross does in 2017 is a great unknown. The upside remains, but the track record of pitchers who receive surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is all over the place. Proponents like to point out the quantity of pitchers who returned while neglecting to point out that their effectiveness typically isn’t quite the same. I like Ross as a low-end AL-only flier but who knows what the hell you’re going to get from him?

Jose Berrios, Twins (-$8)
If you are looking for pitching bargains, Berrios’ poor major league performance last year is a blessing in disguise. As was the case with Giolito, there is no getting past the fact that Berrios’ 2016 was a complete mess. Berrios was the third worst pitcher in AL-only in 2016; only James Shields (-$9) and Tim Lincecum (-$9) fared worse. Berrios’ peripheral numbers weren’t any better. His 7.55 DRA was the fifth worst in major league baseball (minimum 50 innings). If Berrios is available in your league, he is a low-end gamble on a four-pitch arsenal and a ceiling that is still quite high. The success at Triple-A is good news. Berrios isn’t a mechanical mess or a lost cause, but rather a pitcher who needs a few tweaks to make the final transition to successful major league starter.

Luis Severino, Yankees (-$1)
Severino was terrible as a starter, and electric as a reliever, but given that the Yankees are in a rebuilding state, it’s likely that Severino will get another opportunity to start. He’s only 22 years old, and the stuff is still amazing enough that it is worth it for New York to if they can turn Severino into a reliable rotation member. His 4.49 DRA doesn’t paint a picture that is that much brighter or sunnier than Severino’s 5.83 ERA, and if you take out those relief appearances Severino was far worse. Severino blames a large part of his woes on lousy mechanics, primarily release points that were too wide on the fastball, too low on the changeup and too inconsistent on the slider. Severino worked with Pedro Martinez this winter to correct these flaws and get him back to where he was as a prospect. The Yankees have the luxury of letting Severino work through his struggles in the majors, which isn’t necessarily the best thing for your fantasy team. In keeper leagues, Severino could be a future bullpen asset, but the signing of Aroldis Chapman to a long-term deal closes the door on nabbing Sevy as a future closer.

Josh Tomlin, Cleveland ($13)
In mixed leagues, pitchers like Tomlin sit on the periphery. Even as streamers, we are reluctant to use guys like this because of their low strikeout rates and volatility. Tomlin’s $4.55 earnings (PFM, 15-team) sound OK, but you’re better off streaming pitchers or using relievers in his slot whenever possible. The WHIP does help in nearly any format, but even in AL-only Tomlin’s ERA returned negative value. Tomlin was the 46th best pitcher in the circuit. The drawback to Tomlin is that you must hang on regardless of what he does. A 11.46 ERA in August with a HR/9 rate well north of three highlights the problem. The darkest days can destroy your fantasy team, and while the overall earnings are worth it, it is difficult to get the stomach to stop churning when your team ERA is being destroyed over the course of one outing. I had Tomlin in my home league last year as a two-dollar flier, and that’s the kind of bid I’d make on him again this year.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe