Fantasy Baseball: All pitchers are terrible (including yours)
Cole Hamels is the latest big-name pitcher to suffer a significant injury, joining Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner. But as Scott White points out, that's not even the position's biggest problem.
I had my suspicions coming into the year.
In putting together my initial starting pitcher rankings, there were about 30 who I felt pretty confident were trustworthy and about 70 who could honestly go either way. Each of those 70 had some measure of promise, be it an exceptional strikeout rate, a top prospect pedigree or a lengthy track record or just above-average production -- like, for instance, John Lackey .
That's right: I had a hard time distinguishing between Lackey and Blake Snell , as incomparable as they may seem.
Why? Every one of those 70 also had a glaring, potentially catastrophic flaw. An inability to throw the ball straight. An inability to stay intact. A crippling workload restriction. An under-developed arsenal. A limited ceiling. A limitless floor. Age. Declining velocity. Questionable peripherals. BABIP concerns. Fly-ball concerns. Poor surroundings. Poor posture. You name it.
The pitching landscape has changed dramatically just in the last five years, and those changes are either directly and indirectly responsible for maybe half of the concerns I just listed. Quite simply, there are too many variables to bring a pitcher down these days.
And the margin for error has become even greater. More than at any other point in its history, baseball is a three-true-outcomes game, meaning most every plate appearance (if you'll excuse the exaggeration) ends in a home run, a walk or a strikeout. In that environment, the only sure way to sustained success is by missing bats, which puts an emphasis on velocity, which begets injuries, which begets early hooks and innings limits.
Those are the worst. They're what make it impossible for the most talented of that enormous middle tier to distinguish themselves. Truth is the only pitchers worth a darn in Fantasy are the ones who can consistently throw six innings, which is the minimum requirement for a quality start and might as well be for a win as well, given how much the bullpen is left to mop up otherwise. Like it or not, quality starts and wins (depending which your league uses) still have the greatest say in whether a start was a success or failure in Fantasy, and on top of it, the innings are valuable in and of themselves. In our standard Head-to-Head scoring, they're worth three points apiece.
A pitcher who averages six innings over 32 starts throws 192 innings for the season, so you can see how the trend depicted here is troubling:
|Pitchers to throw at least 192 innings|
Steady, steady, and then wham! A drastic two-part reduction in the number of pitchers meeting a basic minimum threshold. What will we be left with this year? A dozen?
Like I said, I had my suspicions. I had a feeling that the success rate on the 70 would be so low because of the forces holding back young pitchers these days that the 30, just by virtue of being grandfathered in, would be the only ones worth pursuing -- and well worth pursuing because the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider than ever.
That's what I believed, and that's how I approached the position on Draft Day. But I never imagined it playing out to this extreme.
Five weeks in, how many starting pitchers would you say have definitively broken out (if you'll indulge me on the idea that anything is definitive five weeks in)?
It's a subjective question, of course, and we may not even agree on what qualifies as "breaking out." But I think it's fair to say that hitters like Aaron Judge , Eric Thames , Miguel Sano and Michael Conforto have made believers out of us. Maybe even Ryan Zimmerman , Chris Owings and Mitch Haniger , to some degree.
Don't believe me? Try making an offer for one. Not a lot of owners looking to sell high there.
So which starting pitchers would you say are in that same boat, entering the year with a certain level of perceived value and so thoroughly and convincingly exceeding it that they ascend to another plane?
All right, let's say it unison: James Paxton . What a treasure that guy is. Now ... who else?
Maybe Luis Severino . Maybe. He has at least demonstrated the kind of strikeout (9.9 per nine innings) and walk (1.7 per nine) potential needed to ascend in this environment. But he basically has three good starts and two not so good ones. Given how low he was to start out, I'm not ready to break the bank for him.
Likewise, Robbie Ray and Michael Pineda haven't yet conceded to their shortcomings, but they have enough underlying concerns and historic precedent to keep me from buying in.
But that's it. That's everyone. Between Paxton and Severino, I'll call it 1 1/2, which isn't to say more couldn't emerge in time. But this is the second straight year I'm bemoaning the lack of quality waiver finds at starting pitcher, and the relative number of hitters who fit that description flies in the face conventional wisdom, which suggests that the talent turns over quicker at pitcher.
Pitchers still have the higher attrition rate, as any Madison Bumgarner , Noah Syndergaard or Cole Hamels owner will tell you, but what's waiting on the other side isn't what it used to be. It doesn't have the chance to be.
"Now, wait a minute," you might be thinking. "I know I've gotten quality production from some bottom-feeder I plucked off waivers."
You may have. Looking at the top 20 starting pitchers in Head-to-Head leagues, 10 of them kind of, sort of meet that description (at the very least, they weren't drafted as top-20 pitchers), which would seem to invalidate my claim. But five weeks isn't nearly enough time for a hot starter to regress to the mean, and unlike the more sustainable skills demonstrated by Paxton and Severino, you should be able to see right through these ...
Ervin Santana Minnesota SP
|Perennially underrated but never in the discussion for a Cy Young or even an All-Star nod, Santana has some steep regression coming, just like when he began 2014 with a 1.99 ERA in six starts only to finish with a 3.95 ERA.|
Dylan Bundy Baltimore SP
|He may have pedigree, giving a hint of legitimacy to this hot start, but with reduced velocity and 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings, what he doesn't have is a believable stat line.|
Gio Gonzalez Washington SP
|He just walked seven in his last start. He had a better strikeout rate each of the last two years, in which he had a combined 4.18 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. He's an old guy who struggles to go six.|
Ivan Nova Pittsburgh SP
|I'm keeping an open mind on this one since Nova's control is without comparison. He has more complete games (five) than walks (four) since teaming up with Ray Searage, and at a time when longevity is what starting pitchers are lacking, that's a big deal. But strikeouts still count for something in Fantasy, and he's averaging just 6.6 per nine innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates .|
Jason Vargas Kansas City SP
|He's a 34-year-old whose career-high strikeout rate is 6.5 per nine innings. The best you should hope for is a left-handed Bartolo Colon .|
Mike Leake St. Louis SP
|Kind of like Santana in that his hot start is making up for past oversights, but he doesn't miss enough bats to be more than a matchups type in the long run.|
Antonio Senzatela Colorado SP
|You really think his 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings will hold up at Coors Field? Bombs away!|
Andrew Triggs Oakland RP
|He may have allowed zero earned runs in four of his five starts, but only one -- a nine-strikeout effort at Houston last time out -- didn't feel like a deal with the devil. Seeing as he entered this year with seven starts in professional baseball, I'm taking the under on the long-time reliever.|
Hector Santiago Minnesota SP
|The only question is which leg of the FIP triangle gives out first, because he's bad at all three. He managed to fool us for half a season in 2015, even making the All-Star team, but then had a 5.47 ERA in the second half.|
Jeremy Hellickson Philadelphia SP
|His game-by-game strikeout totals are one, two, two, five, one and two. Brandon Finnegan has more strikeouts this season, and he hasn't pitched since April 15.|
If you owe your standing to any of these 10 pitchers -- or heaven forbid multiple -- you're in for a rude awakening. Heath Cummings, Chris Towers and I keep rest-of-season rankings, and apart from Bundy, who's of course a unique case, none of these pitchers is in any of our top 40.
It's one of the rare measures of consensus outside the top 30.
We're all pretty much on the same page with that top group still, but go beyond it and we're all over the map. We can't agree on what we want because, as was true five weeks ago, there's nothing to want. None of the pitchers within that range has signaled he's on the verge of becoming a legitimate Fantasy asset, and with the changes in pitcher usage the last couple years, I'm not confident one will. I'm certainly not ready to speculate which.
So what does it mean for you? Well, for starters, any time one of those bottom 70 (i.e., not the top 30) puts together a nice run -- one that's productive but clearly unsustainable -- it's your golden opportunity to sucker somebody into a deal. As desperate as everyone is for reliable starting pitchers, there will be no shortage of suckers when a starting pitcher feigns reliability. I'm not saying you should casually discard Santana, Bundy or Nova, who I'm fairly confident will remain useful, if fairly replaceable, but for any of the others, you'll take anything of value. You'll find other hot-hand plays on the waiver wire, and that's really all they are.
Furthermore, whenever you deal to maximize your return (and not to meet a need), your focus should be high-end starting pitching. It's the most valuable and irreplaceable commodity in this landscape. I'm not saying any one pitcher is more valuable than Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or any other hitter who you may have targeted in the first round -- you still want good hitting, after all -- but as a general rule, you can make up for a hitting shortage easier than you can a pitch shortage, as Judge and Conforto have already shown us.
And if you were the beneficiary of a Judge or Conforto (or Thames or Owings or whomever) and have some redundancies in your outfield as a result, the best way to distance yourself from your competition would be to use that excess to obtain a Jake Arrieta or Justin Verlander type and then be on the lookout for the next breakout hitter -- or at least one who will make one of your current hitters someone you can live without. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Don't let the injuries to Bumgarner, Syndergaard and Hamels dissuade you. If anything, it's a reminder you can never have too many reliable starting pitchers. They grow scarcer with every injury, and there is no substitute for them.
They've become to Fantasy Baseball sort of what running backs have become in Fantasy Football. The few standouts are a dying breed, finite in number and in higher demand than ever because of it. They break down all too often, but if you want to be one of the haves at a position, you have to overlook the attrition rate and pay the price.
Because chances are you're not striking gold on the waiver wire. Not with the way the game has evolved.
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