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Fantasy Baseball 2014: Surveying the Starting Pitcher Position

If you are playing in a league with us and you haven’t begun your fantasy baseball research for 2014, you have fallen behind. Soon fantasy baseball writers will release their ranking lists [How to Choose a Ranking List] for each position, going anywhere from 10 to 25 deep. But before we get to rankings, we need to study the positions as a whole, looking for trends or changes, or anything else really that will help us prepare for the upcoming season.

So in the next few weeks we will be surveying each position, pulling back and taking a bird’s eye view of each place on the diamond. Today we start with the catcher position.

History of the Starting Pitcher Position

There is so much to say about the history of starting pitching in the major leagues, that is too big to dive into and do it any type of justice at all. So I’ll only share this simple chart and we’ll use that as a jumping off point to discuss modern trends, which is where we’ll gain our fantasy baseball insights.

Greg Maddux1995292091.630.8118119
Roger Clemens1997342642.051.0329221
Pedro Martinez1999272132.070.9231323
Randy Johnson2001372492.491.0137221
Johan Santana2004252282.610.9226520
Jake Peavy2007262232.541.0624019
Felix Hernandez 2010242492.271.0623213
Clayton Kershaw2013252361.830.9223216

Man, I miss those guys…

Modern Trends in the Starting Pitcher Position

It’s true that they don’t make pitchers like they used to.  This isn’t a knock on Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Cliff Lee or any other of the best of today’s game, it simply a matter of different usage in today’s game. One example is that the average length of a start in today’s game is creeping ever so shorter.

Not only are starters not going deep into games, but the average length of a start is hovering just barely over 6 innings, the cutoff to measure a quality start. Fantasy leagues that use quality starts as a category need to sweat because this is trending even lower, meaning that in just a few short years it wouldn’t be surprising to see starters get yanked intentionally after 5 innings in order to get to the relief specialists.

Stephen Strasburg is an excellent example of the modern starter usage. There are strict innings counts and even stricter pitch counts. But don’t bemoan the fact that you can’t draft a 250 inning workhorse for your fantasy team anymore, because this as led to another interesting trend in modern pitching usage.

One theory is that without the pressure to pitch deep into the late innings, pitchers are holding less back for later innings. Indeed, average pitcher velocity is going up up up. Whether it’s lower pitch counts, more modern training methods, or simply some sweet ju ju juice, we’re seeing more starts clock in 2-3 mph faster than just 10-15 years ago. 95 mph is the new 90 mph.

I mentioned training methods and we shouldn’t go any further without talking about modern surgical methods as well. Am i the only one who thinks pitchers just get their Tommy John surgery scheduled at age 22 just to get it out of the way. Indeed, a surgery that just 15 years ago was considered risky and experimental is now seeing a recovery rate well over 80%, often with the pitcher seeing an extra tick or two added to his fastball.

Let’s establish a ballpark baseline so you’ll have a better idea of the bare minimum you should expect out of a starting pitcher for fantasy purposes. Assuming a 12-team league with 5 starting pitchers per team means that right around pitcher number 60 we are getting to fantasy replacement. So a rosterable starting pitcher should be at or better than this stat line:

Replacement Level103.601.23145

Even 5 years ago you may have been able to get by with a starter with an ERA over 4 or a WHIP around 1.3, but no longer. Still, you should be able to snatch the equivalent of the above ‘Replacement Pitcher’ off the waiver wire.  Here’s the thing with a fantasy baseball pitching staff. There is often very little you can do to upgrade your #1 or #2 starter. Types like Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Cliff Lee fly off the draft board early and get locked into rosters. You won’t improve your fantasy team by trying to upgrade there, but you sure as heck can improve  your #4 or #5 starter.

Treat the guys around replacement level as fungible assets. Don’t be afraid to take risks there and stay on top of the waiver wire for these types of guys. Catching one of these guys in a career year or during a breakout season can provide a solid uptick to your fantasy roto numbers. There is even the rare chance you can catch lightning in a bottle like with players such as Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez (we profile him here).

In short, grab a couple pitchers that you feel you can rely on, then shoot for upside.

The Future of the Starter Position

There are so many great young arms that I can’t do them justice in this post. Just know that Taijuan Walker, Archie Bradley, Gerrit Cole, and others are names to watch. And don’t worry, we’ll be posting a metric ton of sleeper, prospect, and stream lists in the coming weeks and months ahead.

I’ve long thought that fantasy baseball is one half math, another half attention to detail and dedication, and another half the art of roster construction. That’s three halves, a seemingly impossible number! But it illustrates why the fantasy players who finish atop the leaderboard every season are so impressive. Building a pitching staff is harder than many people give it credit for.

Starting pitching is the area of your fantasy roster where you can gain a boost by experimenting with roster construction. Here are some experiments for you to try if you are interested in thinking a little differently: The Fantasy 4 Man, Streaming Cheat Sheet, and the $3 Kershaw.  

Tags: Clayton Kershaw Starting Pitching

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