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By now, we all know what makes a starting pitcher good. He misses bats, he limits walks, he keeps the ball in the yard. All good.
But there was a time not too long ago -- recent enough that some of the pitchers in question still remain, in fact -- when not everyone was drafted according to the three legs of the FIP triangle. Wins and ERA are the most rewarding stats, after all, and so owners would draft pitchers for wins and ERA, hoping it would all play out similarly the following year.
Barbaric, right? What a relief not to be constrained by such ignorance, to have reason and intellect as tools at our disposal. Such is the conceit of the present: We're so much smarter and more enlightened than those neanderthals of 10 years ago.
But isn't that exactly what those neanderthals of 10 years ago were thinking?
That's the thing about knowledge -- and particularly communal knowledge. It's always building and expanding and evolving. And whether because of pride in what we think we know or the comfort that comes with familiarity, the Fantasy-playing world is sometimes slow to adapt. And that's when you can take advantage of a little something called market inefficiency.
I think we're there with innings.
Innings? Riiight. Because if there's one pitching stat I'd describe as "advanced," it's the one that's a pure measure of volume.
Go ahead and scoff. That's one way market inefficiencies develop. Volume hasn't been seen as a differentiator for starting pitchers -- it isn't one of the those three legs of the FIP triangle, after all -- and so people have come to take it for granted.
You may have as well. How often do you find yourself thinking, "Oh, well he threw 150 innings last year, so he should be good for 180 this year," or, "yeah, he got to 165, so I could see them stretching him to 200?" You assume that if a pitcher succeeds -- if he misses bats, limits walks and keeps the ball in the yard -- that he'll get to pitch more, that teams will want to squeeze as many innings as they can out of their most effective arms as long as the increase in innings isn't too much from one season to the next. But that's an outdated way of thinking.
How many pitchers actually threw 180 innings last year? You may be surprised to learn it was only 35, which may not be particularly revelatory on its own. But that's down from 46 in 2016, which itself was down from 56 in 2015, which itself was down from 66 in 2014. And that's just using the 180-inning threshold. Look at the decrease in 160-, 192- (32 starts of six innings each), 200- and 215-inning hurlers over the past four years:
Patterns don't get much clearer than that. The shift is pronounced, focused and contained within a short period of time. This isn't me hearkening back to the days of Steve Carlton and the 300-inning season. A paradigm shift has happened in the span of just five years.
You may not have noticed because you were distracted by the record number of home runs being hit, but pitcher usage is sort of the hot-button item around baseball these days. From the Dodgers exploiting the new 10-day DL to build in extra rest for their starters to the Astros acquiring Gerrit Cole despite their already enviable rotation depth to the Angels and Rangers toying with six-man rotations to the Rays adopting a four-man rotation with what sounds multi-inning piggyback relievers, teams are finding creative ways to limit some of their best pitchers' innings.
We've been asking how they'd respond to the Tommy John epidemic, and we may now have the answer. Or maybe it's more a matter of new data showing that certain pitchers are better off in shorter stints -- not to the point they need to be confined to the bullpen but rather carefully curtailed over the course of six months. It's why I'm not sure we can ever expect Lance McCullers to throw 180 innings in a season, which may explain why the Astros were fine bumping Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh to the bullpen for now. They'll need them later, presumably.
So who can we expect to throw 200 innings? Well, Luis Severino nearly reached that threshold for the first time last year, so I'm not sure the 200-inning pitcher will go completely extinct. But it's clearly a dying breed. Most of those still reaching the milestone were grandfathered in by the old way of thinking.
And they only get the chance now because they're good enough that they've earned it. I'm talking pitchers like Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, Chris Archer and Carlos Martinez -- all unquestioned aces in terms of ability. And we would expect Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner to join their ranks, health permitting.
So if the best pitchers are also the ones who work the most, just what kind of value do they possess?
That's what makes innings so important. Ratios are great for determining how effective a pitcher can be in Fantasy, but he needs volume to realize that potential. Yeah, maybe in theory James Paxton is a better strikeout pitcher than Marcus Stroman -- their K-per-nine rates aren't even close -- but guess who actually had more strikeouts last year? The one with more innings.
Innings have some of the greatest say in a pitcher's win total, which is still one of the most influential stats in Fantasy Baseball. The longer he stays in a game, the fewer chances he gives his bullpen to blow his lead and the more chances he gives his offsense to give him one in the first place. Sure, there's also a fair amount of luck involved, but if you wonder how Jordan Montgomery won only nine games in 29 starts with the Yankees offense backing him, averaging just 5 1/3 innings per start probably had a little something to do with it.
A good ERA, a good WHIP -- they count for more over more innings. Shoot, innings are worth three points apiece in our standard Head-to-Head scoring. You could argue that apart from strikeouts, walks and home runs, pitching deep into games is the most valuable thing a pitcher can do for himself, and yet we rarely talk about volume in those terms. Only good things can come from innings if good pitchers are throwing them, and generally speaking, only good pitchers are allowed to throw them.
So how should our approach to starting pitching change given the scarcity of innings? I have a few thoughts:
- Again, most of the pitchers still allowed to throw 200-plus innings are among the best in the game, which only widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots at the position. If you don't invest a couple early-round picks in pitching, you're locking yourself into a disadvantage at the position, because unlike just five years ago, you don't have much hope of some mid-rounder joining their ranks. Those high-volume pitchers are mostly grandfathered in.
- Don't go assuming a pitcher who hasn't reached the 180-inning threshold yet will continue to see his innings climb year over year. Not every team is asking every pitcher to throw 180 innings anymore, recognizing that not every pitcher is equipped to go a third time through the lineup or to put so much mileage on his arm. My general rule -- and of course there are exceptions -- is that I only trust a pitcher to throw as many innings as I've already seen him throw.
- More important even than total number of innings is how many innings a pitcher averages per start. When a pitcher goes on the DL, as Dallas Keuchel, Aaron Nola and Danny Duffy did for stretches last season, you're able to replace him with someone else, so it's not the same as a pitcher throwing a comparable number of innings without any sort of interruption. Most importantly for those three, their teams showed a willingness to use them in that workhorse role, so when they're healthy and at your disposal, you can trust they'll be maxing out their win and strikeout potential and not falling victim to an early hook.
- Again, just a few years ago, you could count on the most effective pitchers catching up to some of the boring workhorse types just because their teams would want them pitching more, but since we now know that pitching less is part of what makes some of them effective, we can assume that pitchers like Garrett Richards and Kenta Maeda probably won't have the impact of a Tanner Roark or Jeff Samardzija even if they're more effective inning for inning. That's especially true in points leagues, but even in categories leagues, their relatively scant inning totals will be less helpful for ratios than you think.
I'm not saying you should totally sell out for volume. I still prefer Paxton to Stroman, for instance, and I certainly value Richards as a sleeper. Good pitching is good pitching, after all. There just aren't as many avenues to great pitching as there used to be. I can't draft Paxton thinking he has top-five potential when I've never seen him throw even 140 innings in the majors before, and I can't trust Richards' overpowering stuff will make up for my lack of a true No. 3 starter.
The days of assuming more from a pitcher than he has actually delivered are over. You need to build in a safety net, and you need to do it at a point in the draft when some standouts still remain.
The good news is it's easy enough to do given the outdated assumptions so many have about the position and given that we're in an era when everybody who's anybody can hit 20-plus homers in a season. With so much interchangeability later in drafts, hitters shouldn't be as much of a priority beyond the first- or second-round types, so take advantage while you can. We may only be a couple years from seeing 20 starting pitchers go off the board in the first 36 picks and proven high-volume hurlers like Gio Gonzalez and Ervin Santana pushed into the top 100.