About this time a year ago -- or maybe a little before -- I had an epiphany that challenged the way I had always approached Fantasy Baseball. To put it the most hyperbolic way possible, I decided that starting pitchers were all that mattered anymore.
Now, the caveats: It's not exclusively so in 5x5 or traditional Rotisserie leagues, where base-stealers are in even shorter supply, and it's of course not true in the most literal sense anyway. You need good everything to win in Fantasy Baseball. It takes all kinds, good hitting and pitching both. It's just that between the two, good pitching has become much, much, much, much, much harder to come by.
There are a few reasons for this, all coming in rapid succession and all pointing the same direction, but underlying it all is the pursuit of efficiency. What's the most valuable thing a hitter can do? Put the ball over the fence. What's the most valuable thing a pitcher can do? Avoid contact altogether. And so changes have been made on each side to get more of that most valuable thing.
There was the fly-ball revolution and the juiced ball for hitters. There was increased specialization that allowed for shorter, higher-effort stints for pitchers. The end result was a sort of evening out of power among hitters, making for less differentiation between them, and a proliferation of pitchers who could provide either length or impact, but not both. The few who could offer both were basically just the aces, who by nature were in short supply.
So while the gap between hitters shrank, the gap between pitchers grew, to the point there's almost no middle class anymore. To put it another way, you can find a useful hitter at all stages of the draft, but if you don't make a concerted effort to load up on pitchers early, you're liable to be left high and dry, with virtually no hope of contending.
It takes all kinds, remember, and for the pitching kind, you have to act fast.
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By the looks of the early ADP on a site like FantasyPros, it seems Fantasy Baseballers are catching on. Even in Rotisserie leagues, which aren't as geared for pitching as Head-to-Head points leagues are, pitchers are flying off the board like no one has ever seen. On average, nine of the top 25 and, 23 of the top 75 picks are pitchers.
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I should point out that pitching costs have trended upward for the past several years, but few took it to the extreme I did last year, typically investing four of my first seven picks in pitchers. I should also point out that it worked. I placed first, second or third in eight of my 10 re-draft leagues, which included winning Tout Wars for the first time.
So was I just a year ahead on this one? I don't know, really. As much as I'd like to think of myself as a trend-setter, my inbox hasn't been flooded with testimonials or felicitations. And frankly, no one pays as much attention to what I say or do as I do, so I'm certain it's not about me. But something has compelled all of the Fantasy Baseball world to punch the gas like I did on what had been a slowly developing trend.
You know how last season was only 60 games instead of the usual 162? That was weird, right? You remember how the stat lines were all messed up, with outlier performances on both ends of the spectrum? Yeah, it'll be fun looking back on these players' careers years from now and thinking, "Hmm, I wonder why so-and-so missed so much time that one year. Oh, that's right. They all did."
And that's all it'll be for hitters: an historical oddity, a blip. For pitchers? Well, what normally happens when a pitcher misses a significant portion of a season, whether because of injury or something else, like a global pandemic? That's right: He feels it the next year, too.
I don't mean literally feels it, as in ouchie, that hurts. I mean that the lost season typically begins a multi-year buildup back to a typical workload. Yes, another reason for the widening gap at starting pitcher is the strict management of innings as a way to reduce injury. Organizations generally don't like to increase a pitcher's workload by more than 30-40 innings from one year to the next. Of course, it happens from time to time, but it raises red flags and is generally frowned upon.
So what happens after a year in which the league leaders got only 80 innings or so? What happens when most every pitcher is looking at an increase in excess of 100 innings? Suffice it to say it won't happen for some of them.
I'll go as far as to say most of them. One of the big reasons that drafting a pitcher early was long considered verboten in Fantasy is because the inherent risks at the position make for a high turnover rate. Thus, the bulk of the pitching crop isn't so well established. Many of the most interesting targets beyond the elite would have been subject to an innings limit anyway, so after the season that was, I can't predict to what lengths some organizations will go to protect their long-term assets. There won't be some clear-cut policy that's applied evenly from organization to organization, but they're all sure to respond in some way to this unique challenge. Some of the most likely tactics include early hooks, early shutdowns, skipped starts, phantom IL stints and strategic demotions. Perhaps all of the above.
The Dodgers have been running that playbook for years. Consider how careful they've been with Walker Buehler the past two seasons, having him more or less skip spring training and instead build up in-season. You think they're turning him loose for 180 innings after seeing him throw about 60, regular and postseason combined? And he's fairly established compared to much of what's out there.
Here's a look at some of the pitchers who could suffer some of the most extreme innings limitations:
|Rank by ADP||2020 innings||High (since 2018)||Best case?|
Blake Snell SD SP
Tyler Glasnow TB SP
Dinelson Lamet SD SP
Max Fried ATL SP
Corbin Burnes MIL SP
Zach Plesac CLE SP
Framber Valdez HOU SP
Ian Anderson ATL SP
Jesus Luzardo OAK SP
Chris Paddack SD SP
Sixto Sanchez MIA SP
Julio Urias LAD SP
*includes postseason stats
^includes minor-league stats
What if the Brewers aren't contending? What are the chances Corbin Burnes throws even 100 innings, much less the 160 he'd probably need to justify his ADP? And I'm not even arguing he should go lower. Again, there are only so many starting pitchers capable of making an actual difference, and he's among them. But how long before he goes from solving a problem to presenting a new one?
That's what makes the pitching situation so dire in 2021. One of the largest disparities that already existed, workload, is even larger now. The ones most likely to overcome it are the ones who've proven they can handle it time and time again. I'm talking about guys like Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Yu Darvish. Lance Lynn. Zack Greinke. That's not an all-inclusive list, but you get the idea. Their durability has earned them the right not to be handled with kid gloves. Typically they're older, too, so there isn't as much to save them for.
Of course, they're also the pitchers stationed at the top of the rankings already -- the few capable of providing both length and impact, remember? It's why so many Fantasy Baseballers are going hard after pitching early and why I think they're right to do so. It's also why I'm doubling down on my goal to out draft everyone else at the position. Instead of four of my top 35 starting pitchers, give me six. Equip me with alternatives for those times when one of my less established hurlers gets shut down for a week or two, because it's going to happen, and possibly more often than I think.
I can make up for whatever hitter needs emerge by playing the waiver wire or trading for someone else's excess, but the draft is the only reliable place to address the pitching need that will only worsen as the attrition kicks in.