The old adage in fantasy baseball is to invest heavily on bats during the early stages of your draft. As Peter Waterman pointed out in his piece last week, hitters are easier to project and the talent pool for SPs is ridiculously deep. The combination of those two factors make it inadvisable to spend more than one or two early picks on pitchers.
This school of thought has been widely accepted by almost all experts in the fantasy baseball industry. In fact, in our recent mock draft, only five SPs were selected in the first four rounds. Just as many in our panel of experts chose to wait on starting pitching, you would be advised to do the same. In most scoring formats, that is.
There are a few formats that may be exceptions to the rule. This article will highlight one popular format that tends to inflate the value of starting pitchers. Most, if not all category leagues, tend to favor hitters. Points leagues can favor pitchers depending on the scoring system. There are three factors to consider when trying to determine if your points league falls into this category.
How does your league scoring work? Without getting too immersed in the details, you can look at a couple quick things. Look at the top five SP scorers from last year and compare their totals with the top five hitters. Just because the pitchers scored more does not mean that they are more valuable. You have to compare the high-end scorers against low-end starter options at each position and measure the difference. This will give you an estimate of just how valuable the top players are at each position.
How many hitters do you start vs. how many pitchers? We will get more detailed later, but if you start a relatively small number of hitters, then the hitting talent available on the free agent list is substantially better than it would be in many leagues. The high quality of replacement level bats makes it less necessary to fill out your hitting line-up before accumulating pitching talent.
Does your league set line-ups daily or weekly? This may seem a little counter intuitive, but if you play in a weekly league your bench spots should be dominated by pitchers. We will delve deeper in a minute as to why when we start to put these three variables together.
Case Study: CBS H2H Points with Default Settings
The head to head points leagues on cbssports.com use a format that is very popular and very different from the category based leagues that many of us know and love. The default settings for public leagues on CBS’s site are as follows:
Line-Up Deadline and League Size:
CBS default settings use weekly line-up changes and they have only ten teams per league. The small league size means that it will be relatively easy to find high level replacement options on the free agent list at any point in the season.
Weekly changes will affect many owners’ strategy as far as how they fill out their bench spots. In daily leagues, it is a good idea to have a couple hitters on the bench so that you can replace regulars who get days off and you can have a more full line-up on the light scheduling days (Mondays and Thursdays). In weekly leagues, it isn’t necessary to have any hitters on your bench. Since there is always talent on the free agent list, injured players can easily be replaced at any time.
Many savvy owners load up their bench spots with SPs so that they can take advantage of match-ups and two start weeks. Even near aces like Mike Minor probably deserve a seat on the bench when they have one start at a venue like Coors Field. Failure to use bench spots wisely can leave an owner with some really poor pitching match-ups.
It is important to note that each team only starts 9 hitters each week in this format. That means that in a 10 team league, there are only 90 hitters in starting line-ups league wide! That is crazy shallow! To put this in perspective, most of my leagues which I consider to be pretty standard have 12 teams and start a total of 12 hitters. That means that league wide, there will be a total of 144 starting hitters, or 60% more starting hitters than CBS leagues. That is a lot.
Players who are locked in as every week starters in standard leagues are doing the back-stroke in the FA pool here, maybe all season long. Injured studs who are destined to return, like Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes last season, often get dropped (rightly so) by owners seeking roster flexibility. There are always good options available on the free agent list, even at the relatively scarce positions. Here are a few hitters who were available in a competitive gold league upon season’s end last year:
Alejandro De Aza
and many, many more
None of these guys are world beaters, but they all produced starting-caliber numbers over the course of the season. What does it do for your league strategy when players like these are available for free? It tremendously reduces the need to stash hitters on your bench. There is no need for me to stash a back-up for injury prone Tulo when I can easily pick up a player like Ramirez or Dozier in the event of an injury. Similarly, it makes little sense benching your under-performing stud like Jason Heyward when you can simply go to the free agent list and drop him for a player like De Aza, Eric Young, or Starling Marte (who was available until early May in this particular league).
On the other side of this coin, owners use at least five SPs in their weekly line-ups. Many opt to fill their RP slots with RP eligible starters which only brings this number higher. Some owners will start seven SPs each week. When you factor in that bench spots are usually (should be) dominated by pitchers, the roster balance in this format gets skewed even more.
If the average owner has 4 bench pitchers and 1 bench hitter, they will have 10 hitters and 11 pitchers on their roster. Let’s compare these numbers to a league that has more standardized settings. In our October mock, owners rostered an average of 14.75 hitters against just 10.25 Ps. There were also about 10-15 more RPs taken in the standard league than there typically are in shallow points leagues where mediocre closers are hard to start. Fewer relievers owned in these points leagues only further waters down the quality of SPs on the free agent list. The different roster balance demonstrates why formats like this one tend to be skewed towards pitching.
To be fair, there are still some pretty decent pitcher streaming options that are available in these leagues too, but they can be pretty dicey at times and are not very attractive when compared to the best hitters available. The top SPs available in this particular league at season’s end were:
Scoring for Hitters:
- 1 point for each total base, i.e. 1 for singles, 2 for doubles, 4 for HR etc.
- 1 point for BB or HBP
- 1 point for runs or RBIs
- 2 points for SBs
- lose 1 point for CS and lose .5 for Ks
Scoring for Pitchers
- 1 point for every out recorded
- .5 for each K
- 3 points for QS
- 7 points each for wins and saves
- lose 5 points for a loss
- lose 1 point for hits allowed, BB issued, hit batsman and all earned runs
When considering this analysis, keep in mind that last season’s scoring is in no way indicative of future performance. These numbers are only being used to compare the values of elite players at each position relative to replacement level options, not to suggest that these players will repeat their 2013 performance. The names will surely change, but replacement level options will typically score at close to the same level from year to year.
The top 3 overall scorers in this format from last season were Kershaw, Scherzer and Wainwright. Cabrera and Trout were 4th and 5th. There were 5 pitchers who scored over 600 points compared to 4 hitters who eclipsed 600. Clayton Kershaw was the top overall scorer with 705 points.
It is nice to know that the top pitchers scored more than the top hitters, but this does not tell the entire story. We need to look at replacement level players at each position in order to determine how valuable elite starters actually were.
C- Santana scored 127 more points than 10th ranked Pierzinski
1B- Goldschmidt scored 176.5 more points than 10th ranked Trumbo
2B- Cano scored 113.5 more points than 10th ranked Phillips
SS- Andrus scored 82 more points than 10th ranked Rollins
3B- Cabrera scored 250 more points than 10th ranked Alvarez
OF- Trout scored 248.5 more than 30th ranked Desmond Jennings
SP- Kershaw scored 275 more points than 50th ranked Mike Leake
Keep in mind that these comparisons are looking at low-end starter numbers. The gap between these players and replacement level is a little wider. At almost all positions in this format (except catcher), it seems that the replacement level player hovers around 400 points.
If we dig a little deeper, it is easy to see that Cabrera and Trout are in their own stratospheres. At 3B, Cabrera scored 126 more points than Beltre. Trout scored 86.5 more than 2nd best OF McCutchen and 191.5 more than 13th ranked Crisp. Similarly, Kershaw posted 182.5 more than 10th ranked Mike Minor, although there were 2 other SPs who scored within 50 points of Kershaw.
Once you get past the top 12-15 pitchers, the awesome depth at the position starts to show through. There is not a huge difference between SP 15 and SP 50 (about 70 points) The thing is, however, the truly elite pitching options can give you every bit the advantage that Trout and Cabrera can and the second tier guys can give you more value than second tier hitters like Beltre.
Your league may be different, but I have found that in most of these CBS public leagues, pitchers fly off of draft boards far earlier than they would in most drafts. Let’s take a closer look at one such draft from last year that seems to be representative of what I have seen in CBS points leagues over the past few seasons. First, we will look at pitchers selected in the first four rounds, and then we will take a closer look at the roster from the league’s premier team, which happened to be managed by a friend of mine.
Justin Verlander- Pick 2
Clayton Kershaw- Pick 3
Felix Hernandez- Pick 6
David Price- Pick 10
Stephen Strasburg- Pick 11
Cole Hamels- Pick 15
C.C. Sabathia- Pick 17
Cliff Lee- Pick 18
Jered Weaver- Pick 19
R.A. Dickey- Pick 22
Matt Cain- Pick 23
Gio Gonzalez- Pick 26
Adam Wainwright- Pick 30
Roy Halladay- Pick 35
Zack Grienke- Pick 36
Yu Darvish- Pick 38
James Shields- Pick 40
To put things in perspective, these results show a whopping 17 of the first 40 picks were pitchers. Clearly, some of these picks were massive busts, but the point here is that you will likely have to spend a premium pick on a pitcher if you want to lock up an SP1.
While I would recommend a more balanced approach in the early rounds, my friend has experienced amazing success over the past 4 years with an extreme pitcher heavy focus on draft day. Over that span, he has 3 titles and a second place finish. Here were his draft results:
1. Clayton Kershaw- SP
2. Cliff Lee- SP
3. Matt Cain- SP
4. Yu Darvish- SP
5. Kris Medlen- RP/SP
6. Ian Desmond- SS
7. Jason Heyward- OF
8. Paul Goldschmidt- 1B
9. Melky Cabrera- OF
10. Shin-Soo Choo- OF
11. Chase Headley- 3B
12. Mike Minor- SP
13. Carlos Gomez- OF
14. Matt Carpenter- 2B
15. Aaron Hill- 2B
16. Marco Estrada- SP
17. Andrew Cashner- RP/SP
18. Alex Cobb- SP
19. Jonathan Lucroy- C
20. Shelby Miller- RP/SP
21. Julio Teheran- SP
Now, there were clearly a few picks that did not work out, but despite the fact that he waited until round 6 to take his first hitter, look how strong his offense ended up being. Once you factor in that he was able to replace Headley with Kyle Seager and Melky Cabrera with Marte, we are looking at an above average offense to compliment an absolutely dominant pitching staff. While you could still put together a pretty strong pitching staff by going heavy on hitters first, the value associated with grabbing pitchers like Cliff Lee in the second round could in fact end up being significantly greater than the value of selecting Dustin Pedroia, who was taken two picks later.
Pedroia’s 508 points were 80 more than low-end 2B starters and about 110 more than a replacement level player. While that certainly gives owners a solid weekly advantage, it pales in comparison to Lee who scored 180 points more than low-end SPs and 210 more than replacement level options.
Now, it is true that comparing SPs is not as black and white as merely looking at the final numbers. Playing two start guys and match-ups in weekly leagues is a great way to maximize the value of your low-end SP options and close that point gap substantially. If you rely entirely on lower end pitchers, however, your team’s week to week performance could fluctuate tremendously with some volatile pitching performances. I always like to anchor my staff in leagues like this one with a couple of every-week aces and then play match-ups from there. Since so many pitchers flew off the draft board in the first four rounds in this particular draft, you almost have to reach for an arm or two in the first four rounds to get that done if your league plays like this one.
I would not advise anyone to spend their first five picks on SPs like my friend did, as that can be too risky. One team drafting next to him chose Verlander, Sabathia and Dickey with their first three picks. Clearly, that team did not do very well. A good mix between valuable bats and elite arms is the way to go. Just remember that once the truly elite hitter options are off the board, you are likely to get more value from a top-notch SP than you will from a good, but not super-elite hitter. The gap between hitters typically drafted in the 15-25 range and the really good replacement level hitters just isn’t great enough for me to justify a pick in the top three rounds. The flip side of that assertion is that once you get past the top 15 SPs, the value tends to level off. Some of the best mid-round draft values in these formats are generally high upside hitters (like Goldschmidt in round 8 or Gomez in round 13).
There is actually a three-way debate for who the top pick should be in this particular league type. Cabrera, Trout and Kershaw all belong in the discussion and Wainwright is not very far off. One could make a strong case taking Goldschmidt or Cano ahead of Wainwright or Scherzer, but taking players like McCutchen before any of them could be a mistake.
One thing I would try to avoid is going too pitcher heavy like my friend did. If you have five every week aces, then you may not be able to take advantage of favorable two start weeks from your bench SPs without sitting one of your aces. If you find yourself in that position, then trading a high-profile arm for an elite bat would be a good idea. The team in this case study also picked up Jose Fernandez and traded for David Price and Stephen Strasburg while they were injured. He dealt Cain and a hitter for RP eligible Iwakuma which eased the SP crunch a little, but his SP decisions each week bordered on ridiculous. If you have too many aces, you are not maximizing the utility of your roster.
If you play in a shallow points league like this, don’t be afraid to ride those arms to a title. Contrary to popular opinion, there are some really useful bats to be had later on. Waiting too long on SPs could cause you to miss the boat entirely. If your format looks like this one, but the early phase of your draft is still dominated by hitters, then you can really make huge profits by dialing up some elite arms early on. Sometimes it is best to swim with the current, but don’t be afraid to zig while others are zagging.