When to Select Your Starting Pitchers

There appear to be two diametrically opposed views on drafting starting pitchers in fantasy baseball. One view holds that you should select at least one ace to anchor your staff. Based on ADP, this generally means taking an arm in the first 3 rounds of a typical 12-team draft. There is another view that maintains you are wise to select hitters for the first 5, 6, 7, 8 rounds before selecting a pitcher. These owners believe that there is depth in pitching and every year there are some big surprises, both aces that struggle and aces that emerge from nowhere. Which side of the debate you sit on is partially dictated by your league scoring settings and partially based on your own personal strategies.

Obviously the keeper aspect of your league is important. Year-to-year draft non-keeper leagues favor proven players over keeper or dynasty leagues. If you play in a keeper league, are there limits on how many years you can keep a player? I play in a rotisserie league that allows us to keep a player 3 times then they must be traded before the trade deadline or they go back into the draft pool. Scoring settings are important to consider. Is starting pitching over-valued or under-valued compared to hitting?

Once you have taken these things into consideration, should you consider grabbing a young arm a few rounds earlier than their ADP? Well, looking back over the past 4 seasons of ADP, it would seem that there are some good times to select a young arm and some good times to stick with the proven guys. I looked over the top 100 arms according to ADP and compared the pitchers ranking the following season as well as the end of year ranks (for 2012 and 2013). I broke down the ranks into Top 10 Arms, The Next 25, and The Wild Card Rounds.

Top 10 Arms
Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez have had an ADP in the top 7 of starting pitchers since 2010, the only 2 pitchers to accomplish ADP in the top 10 for 4 consecutive seasons. Generally, the top 10 pitchers go off the board in the first 4 rounds of a 12-team draft. The preseason top 10 is generally populated with proven arms, however, based on the fact that only 2 pitchers have been ranked in the top 10 for 4 consecutive seasons you can see there is a bit of volatility even with the supposed aces. Investing a pick in a top 10 arm can break your season if that ace does not perform. As an example, David Price had an ADP of 24.7 and was the 4th SP off the board in 2013. He ended the season as the 32nd rated pitcher, behind Chris Tillman and AJ Griffin, and just ahead of AJ Burnett and Ervin Santana (only AJ Burnett had an ADP in the top 200 of those 4 pitchers).

Preseason ADP 2012 2013
 1 Justin Verlander Justin Verlander
 2 Roy Halladay Clayton Kershaw
 3 Clayton Kershaw Stephen Strasburg
 4 Cliff Lee David Price
 5 Tim Lincecum Felix Hernandez
 6 Felix Hernandez Cole Hamels
 7 CC Sabathia Cliff Lee
 8 Cole Hamels Matt Cain
 9 Jared Weaver Jared Weaver
10 David Price Yu Darvish

In 2012, there was a 60% success rate of drafting a pitcher in the top 10 and having him deliver top 10 results. Justin Verlander (#2), Clayton Kershaw (#3), David Price (#4), Matt Cain (#5), Jered Weaver (#7) and Cole Hamels (#8). Felix Hernandez finished 2012 as the #11-rated starting pitcher.

Last season the ADP compared to End of Season Rank was a complete miss. Only 3 pitchers drafted in the top 10 returned top 10 production (Clayton Kershaw as the #1 overall starting pitcher, Cliff Lee, who ended up the #4-rated starting pitcher and Yu Darvish, #5). Once again, Felix Hernandez finished the season just outside the top 10, at #13.

End of Season Rank 2012 2013
 1 R.A. Dickey Clayton Kershaw
 2 Justin Verlander Max Scherzer
 3 Clayton Kershaw Adam Wainwright
 4 David Price Cliff Lee
 5 Matt Cain Yu Darvish
 6 Gio Gonzalez Hisashi Iwakuma
 7 Jered Weaver Jose Fernandez
 8 Cole Hamels Matt Harvey
 9 Kris Medlen Madison Bumgarner
 10 Johnny Cueto Jordan Zimmermann

For owners who do not want to invest one of their first 4 picks on a starting pitcher, there are plenty of arms to go around. Focusing on the next 8 rounds, you can select a pitcher in the top 35 who has a chance of delivering top 25 results.

The Next 25
Sometime between the 10th and 12th rounds, the next 25 starting pitchers will generally come off the board. By this time, most teams in the league will own 1 or 2 pitchers, with an occasional owner having a complete rotation of 4-5 starters already. This is the range where there are often some reaches for young arms. As with any young arms, there are some hits and some misses. If you already own 2 of the top 10-12 arms, then this may be a safe time to take a chance. If you don’t own any of the top arms, this is also a good time to roll the dice on a young arm or 2.

In 2013, pitchers selected in this range included Jordan Zimmermann, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke. Scherzer, Zimmermann and Bumgarner ended the season in the top 10, while Greinke was 14th overall and exceled down the stretch.
A similar trend was noted in 2012, with pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain, James Shields and Stephen Strasburg delivering top 20 performances.

The Wild Card Rounds
It has been mentioned before and will be mentioned again and again, these are the rounds where leagues are won. With this is mind, always be on the lookout for great bargain picks and be willing to take a chance or 2. These rounds are where the most unproven arms are drafted, but there are usually more than a fair share of veterans who can be had as well.  In 2012, RA Dickey ended up winning the NL Cy Young award and finishing the season as the #1-rated starting pitcher. He had an ADP of 228.7, good enough for a 19th round selection.

As mentioned above, 2013 saw 7 pitchers with ADP outside the top 10 finish inside the end of season top 10 for starting pitchers. So where did these surprise arms come from? Matt Harvey had an ADP of 165.5, meaning he was selected in the 13th round of most drafts. Hisashi Iwakuma had an ADP of 231.5, meaning he was selected in the 19th round. Jose Fernandez was a free agent in most leagues.

Let’s take a closer look at Matt Harvey. Harvey made his MLB debut in 2012, pitching 59.1 innings for the Mets. His 10.62 K/9 and 2.73 ERA over that span earned him a 2013 ADP of 165.5, the 42nd overall starting pitcher. Harvey falls into the Wild Card rounds, with an ADP near Anibal Sanchez (12th overall), Homer Bailey (21st overall) and Mike Minor (17th overall). A savvy owner would have been rewarded by selecting Harvey ahead of pitchers such as CJ Wilson, Huroki Kuroda, Doug Fister and Tim Lincecum, all of whom had ADPs 20-30 slots ahead of Harvey. Based simply on his potential strikeout numbers, Harvey would have been worth the risk.

Harvey was not the only arm in this range you could have landed. In your 2013 draft, you could have selected the following pitchers after round 15 (ADP greater than 180), and ended up with top-30 production: Julio Teheran, Clay Buchholz, Hisashi Iwakuma, Shelby Miller, Francisco Liriano. Patrick Corbin, Bartolo Colon and Jose Fernandez.
That is a pretty solid rotation and you could have stockpiled your offense and maybe even had a couple elite closers.

So, are there some arms to consider for 2014 based on what happened in 2013? Certainly. Here are some arms to consider with picks in the Wild Card rounds: Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Tony Cingrani, Sonny Gray, Taijuan Walker, Danny Salazar and Alex Wood. All of these pitchers made debuts in 2013 and showcased their potential. While they will most likely have some innings cap to deal with in 2014, they offer the upside, especially in strikeout potential, to make them worth a pick.