If you listened to the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast in the preseason, surely you know there was a long-running difference in philosophy about how to approach drafting pitching. On the one side, you had Scott White, the advocate of drafting just about as much pitching as humanly possible in the early rounds; on the other, I was making the case that because we're historically not very good at drafting pitching, it was better to try to snag a few high-end guys and then wait for upside picks in the middle and later rounds to fill out your rotation.
As it turns out … maybe we were both right?
Pitching has absolutely dominated the 2021 season to date, due to a confluence of factors both long-running and newly introduced -- you can read all about the why in my "State of Fantasy Baseball" column from Monday. The run-scoring environment has changed so much that, based on last year's Roto scoring formula, 15 of the top 20 players so far are starting pitchers. Of the 96 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, 33 of them have a 3.00 ERA or lower.
And that includes plenty of those high-end pitchers Scott was looking to target, like Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Brandon Woodruff, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw … pretty much every early-round pitcher except Luis Castillo, really. The aces are, on the whole, dominating in the early going.
But the leaderboard is also littered with a ton of late-round pitchers, too. Here's a sampling based on where they rank in ERA:
Those pitchers all have an ERA below 2.27. Some of that is a fluke -- Ynoa is a sell-high candidate for me, and I don't think anyone is really buying into this new, strikeout-averse version of Boy. But there do appear to have been some real breakouts in the early going, and it's made ranking starting pitchers this season even more difficult than normal. Only this time, it's because we don't know how high to move everyone who is pitching well.
And it highlights how unsatisfactory ordinal rankings are for actually painting the picture of a period like this. I can put Trevor Rogers ahead of Lance McCullers and Kevin Gausman, or Joe Musgrove over Zack Wheeler and Sandy Alcantara, but what does doing that actually tell you? Obviously, it tells you I would rather have Rogers than McCullers and Musgrove than Wheeler for the rest of the season, but that doesn't quite paint the picture.
Because, while we'll slap a single number on our future expectations for a player, that's not actually how I view them. There might be ranges of the rankings where I have 12 players who I value very similarly, but someone has to go at the top and someone has to go at the bottom. What can differentiate players in those tiers are sort of foggier questions, like, how much upside I think they have or how safe they are in my eyes.
Some players have a wider range of potential outcomes than others because what they are doing this season in the early going is just so unprecedented for them. These are your Rogers and Musgrove types, where we just aren't quite sure how much of this is real.
Others have a wider range of potential outcomes because they've just struggled with consistency or injuries in the past. McCullers is actually a pretty good example of this, but also some higher-end guys like Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Corbin Burnes.
And, of course, some players have a pretty narrow range of potential outcomes. Outside of injury, there's really not very much that can go wrong guys like Cole and Bieber, and it's not just the super high-end pitchers, either. Lance Lynn, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Wheeler are all very good pitchers who also profile as very predictable at this point in their careers.
The point is, while we'll apply one ranking to a player that expresses preference, there are a lot of factors that go into it, and not just the most likely outcome. Finding a better way to present that seems like a worthwhile endeavor at this point, given how much the landscape has been altered in this first month. One way of visualizing this would be to plot every pitcher's chances of ending up in a specific spot in the rankings at the end of the season, like this:
I don't mean for this chart to be taken literally, it's just to show the way I actually see these players, more or less. You can see both Wheeler and Alcantara have a relatively high probability of finishing around 30th, illustrating their high floors and somewhat narrow range of outcomes. Musgrove and Morton, on the other hand, have a higher probability of finishing well below the must-start range, but also have a relatively higher chance of finishing in the 20-10 range.
Another way of putting it: That graph visualizes uncertainty. I won't make a chart like that for every player, but what you'll find below is something similar. I've got my top-50 starting pitchers for Roto leagues ranked for the rest of the season, and in the right column there's a rating, from 1 to 10, on how confident I feel in them finishing in that range. So, for instance, while I have Musgrove, Wheeler, Alcantara, and Morton ranked 23rd through 25th right now, I'm much more confident in Wheeler and Alcantara's chances to finish in that range than I am in Musgrove and Morton's. So, they'll have a higher rating.
Hopefully, this can help give you another way of understanding the rankings the way I see them in my head. Think of the confidence score as something like a tiebreaker -- I've got Brandon Woodruff ranked 12th, Jack Flaherty 13th, and Walker Buehler 14th, but I really don't think there's much of a difference between the three of them. However, I am more confident in Woodruff's chances of actually finishing in that range than I am either Flaherty or Buehler, both of whom might have slightly more high-end potential but also arguably more ways things can go wrong. Depending on what your team needs, you might actually prefer to target someone like Flaherty, who has shown the ability to go on a run Woodruff has never really come close to, but has struggled mightily with consistency.
A lot of this comes down to personal preference, and here's how I express mine: