2018 Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Can you have too much pitching?
The top starting pitchers stand out more than ever these days, but you could argue the top hitters do as well. Our Scott White offers another way to attack the hitter vs. pitcher conundrum.
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Hitting used to dominate pitching in the early rounds of Fantasy drafts. And the reasoning was airtight: more risk, more variability. Why gamble one of your top picks on a big-name hurler if you could expect several middle- and late-rounders to step forward with similar production?
But those are outdated sensibilities from a bygone era. It may not feel like it because the landscape changed so much in such a short period of time, but it's true. And it's not because pitchers are at less risk of injury. It's just that the risk is now worth it because the middle- to late-round variability is no longer in play.
Not like it used to be, anyway. Not in an era when teams aren't asking their starting pitchers to throw 180-plus innings anymore.
Because they aren't, you know. The conventions of the 25-man roster are having to change in response. Teams like the Dodgers have taken to using the DL as a way to build in extra rest for their starters. Teams like the Astros have taken to overloading their roster with exciting rotation options because they wouldn't want only five guys to shoulder the entire load. Sure, a pitcher will occasionally break through with a 180-to-200-inning season, as Luis Severino did last year, but it's no longer the expectation or even the goal for everyone with a rotation spot. You can see how the number of pitchers to meet certain innings thresholds has declined year over year:
But it is the expectation for the select few who also happen to be the best inning for inning. Those early-rounders are mostly grandfathered in to the old way of doing things, and in an increasingly three-true-outcomes game where the contact that's being made is resulting in more damage, preventing contact and omitting free passes is of the utmost importance.
So the early-rounders stand out more than ever in terms of both volume and effectiveness, creating an ever-widening, near-impossible-to-scale chasm between the haves and have-nots at the position. And that's the biggest difference between now and, say, five years ago.
There are a couple ways to combat it. One is to draft one of the four super aces – Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale – within the first 15 picks. But of course, only four owners can do that, and if you don't happen to pick in the right spot, it won't be you.
So should you double up if you have the opportunity? There's an argument to be made for it, seeing as those four represent arguably the biggest advantage you can get at any one position. But here's the problem: If you do it, you're forfeiting your only opportunity to grab one of just a couple dozen standout hitters.
Come again? Yes, the number of standout hitters is shrinking as well, but for completely opposite reasons. While changes in usage have given the middle-to-late-round pitchers virtually no hope of measuring up to the early-round pitchers, the spike in home runs around the league has made the middle class of hitters incomparably deep.
After all, home runs haven't increased in a way that impacts every level of hitter equally. It has mostly impacted the fringe power hitters, setting records for the number of players hitting 20-plus homers in a season, which makes for less differentiation within the hitter ranks.
I'll demonstrate using Fantasy points per game from standard CBS Head-to-Head leagues, which do a better job of representing the sum of a player's contributions within a single number.
Among hitters with at least 200 at-bats, here's the breakdown for 2017:
That's 129 hitters represented overall – or enough to accommodate 12 nine-man lineups (the Head-to-Head standard), plus a couple bench spots – and more than half of them were separated by less than 0.40 points per game. Shoot, 80 percent were separated by 0.79 points per game, which is a smaller range than separated the top 20 percent.
That's not to say the exact same players who fell within those ranges in 2017 will do so again in 2018, but I do think the ratio will be about the same. There comes a point where paying up for hitters just doesn't make sense.
Which is why I think there's a second way to combat the widening pitcher gap: quantity over quality.
Yes, ideally you'd get one of the four super aces, and failing that, ideally you'd grab a couple of the next 12 or 13 (Justin Verlander, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer, etc.), which is where I draw the line between those with a reasonable ace outcome and those without. But for every top-four pick you're devoting to a pitcher, you're also forfeiting big advantages – and maybe the only draftable advantages – at hitter.
Bottom line: In the middle stages of the draft, I think the tiers are more distinct at starting pitcher than at any hitter position. So while it's true only a select few will give you both the ratios and innings of an ace, there are some who will at least give you the ratios (James Paxton, Rich Hill) and others who will at least give you the innings (Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto). If you have enough that are halfway to ace status, maybe you'll unearth an ace or two. And even if you don't, you've given yourself a much deeper pool for playing matchups and maximizing two-start weeks, not to mention comparable fill-ins for those stretches when the Paxtons and Hills of the world go on the DL.
But it takes a commitment, a willingness to trust in last year's hitter breakdown to forego some of the hitters that are purportedly 8-10 rounds better but in reality may not be. Because truthfully, how much separates Robinson Cano (3.04 points per game) from Scooter Gennett (2.86) or Khris Davis (3.20) from Jay Bruce (3.12)?
Basically, you can still enjoy all the hitting benefits that the early rounds have to offer if you're willing to go crazy after starting pitchers for as long as the upside presents itself.
The most extreme version of this (and the shallower the format, the more extreme a strategy can be) came to fruition in our Noah Syndergaard, Yu Darvish, Dallas Keuchel, Zack Godley, Sonny Gray, Shohei Ohtani, Rich Hill, Danny Duffy and Chase Anderson. And yet I still cobbled together a lineup of Yadier Molina, Freddie Freeman, Scooter Gennett, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor, Christian Yelich, Chris Taylor, Ronald Acuna and Eric Hosmer at utility, with Nicholas Castellanos coming off the bench – all players who we considered must-starts for the majority of 2017, plus Acuna and his obvious upside., where I devoted nine of my first 13 picks to starting pitchers. The pitching staff consisted of
Now I'll admit the strategy is considerably harder to navigate in any categories-based format where you have to account for not just the entirety of a player's production but also statistical scarcity, targeting batting average, stolen base and home run help in the appropriate places. And then of course in the standard Rotisserie format, where each team's lineup contains 14 hitters rather than nine, the draft will extend deeper into the hitter pool, beyond the point of interchangeability.
So maybe you don't want to devote nine of your first 13 picks to pitching in those formats. But five or six of them? That seems like a sensible way to approach the hitter-vs.-pitcher conundrum given the expected range of outcomes for each.
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