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Fantasy Baseball Strategy: Don’t Draft Pitchers Before Round 4


It’s early in your draft, just not quite early enough. It’s time for your first round draft pick and as luck would have it, you’re in the middle of the first round. Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are long gone. Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutchen went after them and now you’re sitting there unsure of what to do.

How is Robinson Cano going to do in Seattle? Is Ryan Braun going to be a star again after all that he went through? Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre look tempting, but they’d look a lot better if Prince was going to protect Beltre instead of the other way around. What if Chris Davis regresses? What would that do for his own value, or the value of teammate Adam Jones? Can we really trust someone like Hanley Ramirez to play a full year, and don’t we all have that concern times ten with Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki?

Then you notice Clayton Kershaw. Good luck finding someone who’ll really doubt his stock. He’s the best pitcher in the game, on a good team, in a good pitcher’s park, and only 26. It’s just too good to be true, so why can’t you pull the trigger on him?

It’s your common sense kicking in. It’s terrible fantasy baseball strategy to draft pitchers in Round 1, and really the same goes for 2-3, as well. Why? Plenty of reasons.

 

  • Unpredictability of wins

Like it or not, wins are still a category in the overwhelming majority of fantasy baseball leagues. I know all of the frustrations and criticisms about wins being used as a stat but the fact is, they’re still relevant in fantasy.

Pitching on one of the better teams in baseball, you wouldn’t think that this would be a huge concern for Clayton Kershaw, but his two Cy Young winning seasons show just how erratic this category can be. 

Clayton Kershaw: Cy Young Winning Seasons

Year
IP
K
ERA
WHIP
W-L
Team W-L
2011233.12482.280.97721-582-79
20132362321.830.91516-992-70

You’d think he would have won more games in the season where he personally had the better ERA and WHIP, and pitched on a more successful team.

Not quite buying it yet? Well, here’s Exhibit B: 

Tim Lincecum: Cy Young Winning Seasons

Year
IP
K
ERA
WHIP
W-L
Team W-L
20082272652.621.17218-572-90
2009225.12612.481.04715-788-74

We’ll deal with Tim Lincecum more in a little bit, but much like Clayton Kershaw, his two Cy Young awards came while pitching on two teams that had a pretty dramatic W-L difference. Much like Kershaw, his own personal W-L record was better in the team’s inferior season, despite having a better ERA and WHIP.

Kershaw can go out and win 20-25 games this year, but he can also be the best pitcher in the league on the best team and win 15 or fewer. There are only five stats that impact pitchers in fantasy leagues, and one of them doesn’t impact starters at all. So, when one of four stats is that unpredictable, wasting a top pick is not a great idea. But that’s not the only reason.

 

  • “It” Goes Away Fast With Pitchers

As a fan of the San Francisco Giants, I’d like to be able to argue that Tim Lincecum at his best was a better pitcher than Clayton Kershaw is now, but I really can’t do that. As good as Timmy was, Kershaw’s run over the last several years is really unparalleled in recent history.

Still, Timmy was pretty special from 2008-2011. 

Tim Lincecum: 2008-2011 Totals

IP
K
ERA
WHIP
W-L
881.29772.811.17362-36

Not so special over the last two years. 

Tim Lincecum: 2012-2013 Totals

IP
K
ERA
WHIP
W-L
383.23834.761.38920-29

After 2011, Lincecum looked like he might have been building a Hall of Fame resume. Now, he wont even be 30 until June and the Giants are just hoping he can be a decent 3-5 man in the rotation. Fantasy owners are hoping that he can rack up the K’s and just not kill them in ERA and WHIP.

Worst off, there was really no warning with Lincecum. Yes, his size and mechanics made fairly short-term success predictable, but nothing really happened between 2011 and 2012 that made such a drop likely; it just happened.

Now, Kershaw and Lincecum aren’t exact parallels. Kershaw is a bigger guy and has more sound mechanics geared to long-term success. But Justin Verlander had a down year in 2013 which really caught us all by surprise. It happens to pitchers. Sometimes it’s just a down year, other times it’s a sign of things to come.

 

  • Pitchers play once every five days

A pitcher doesn’t need to be as bad as Lincecum’s been over the last two years to be an awful pick in the first few rounds. Even in his prime, Lincecum wouldn’t have been a good pick before Round 4. To justify that kind of pick, a pitcher really has to be as good as Kershaw has been over the last three years. 

Clayton Kershaw: 2011-2013

Season
IP
K
ERA
WHIP
W-L
Average2322362.210.97117-8
2011233.12482.280.97721-5
2012227.22292.531.02314-9
20132362321.830.91516-9
Total6977092.210.97151-23

Kershaw is great and obviously capable of it, but that’s an awfully tall order for anyone.

As we went over above, starting pitchers contribute in four of five standard categories, while a good offensive player will potentially contribute in all five offensive stats, or at least dominate a few.

Now, to be fair, I haven’t heard anyone suggest that Kershaw should go in fantasy drafts ahead of Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen or Paul Goldschmidt. Trout, Cutch, and even Goldy will be very strong in five categories and while Miggy will be a drain in one, he’ll be dominant in the other four.

As for Kershaw, he’s ranked 10th in ESPN’s recently released rankings. Taking him fifth would be a reach, but so would 10th, or anything close.

Fantasy baseball success is all about value. How can you get the most bang for your buck or in the case of a snake draft, the most bang for your draft position. It’s incredibly hard for a guy who plays once every five days to have the same value as an everyday player. It’s why they don’t win MVP awards very often, and yet another reason that they shouldn’t be taken too early in your fantasy drafts.

 

  • Other Pitching Strategies do work

You’ll undeniably hear talk of the MRI strategy if you read this site enough. If you haven’t, you can read what Clave wrote on it last year. You may have to adjust some of the names to this year’s examples, but the idea is sound every year. Draft cheap, dominant middle relief pitchers, pair them together, and get what a great starter will bring.

You can also stream. It’s a risky strategy, but not impossible to master by any means. Have a few tier 2/3 starters in your rotation, and fill innings out in free agency. Wait a while until the season gets going and the good and bad teams (specifically offensive teams) start to identify themselves, go to the free agent pool and stream in hot pitchers facing bad offenses. There’s generally always a few to choose from. Sure, they can get lit up, but so can the best pitchers from time to time.

That strategy will not work with hitters. Hot hitters are rarely available in free agency and even when they are, you just can’t bank on a good game from a waiver wire hitter like you can with a pitcher. It’s why you need to use early picks on the bats, not the arms.

 

Tags: Clayton Kershaw