October 2, 2014
Are Elite Pitchers Becoming More Numerous?
Early last week, I reintroduced the concept of the Holy Trinity and outlined the 19 starting pitchers who qualified for the elite status. Furthermore, I argued that Holy Trinity pitchers, on average, significantly outperform the league-average pitcher. While that’s not a groundbreaking discovery, the estimated margin of 1.00 ERA for any HT pitcher over the league-average starter is remarkable enough to perhaps persuade fantasy owners to specifically alter their draft board in order to target them.
However, the HT list from 2014 is merely a piece of the puzzle. It begs the question: Are HT pitchers increasing in frequency as pitching continues to dominate across Major League Baseball?
If HT pitchers are becoming more numerous, it would not only speak to the overall “Era of the Pitcher” narrative that has germinated over the past couple years, but it may also suggest that fantasy owners should avoid spending high draft picks on starting pitching. After all, the value gained of drafting an “ace” in the first couple rounds would be minimal if HT pitchers were multiplying and would be available in later rounds. Especially given the value disparity between early-round bats and mid-round bats.
Unfortunately, though, the numbers do not suggest the number of HT pitchers has increased in recent years.
I calculated the numbers for the past 10 seasons, but it bookended rather nicely with 19 pitchers in both 2014 and 2005. Overall, no discernable pattern exists. This may be due to the fact that league-average numbers are dynamic. As starting pitching improves throughout Major League Baseball, the averages climb; thus, the number of elite pitchers should not be expected to change. Rather, one would simply assume the composite numbers have shifted
Here are the league-average numbers that serve as the building blocks for the Holy Trinity distinction:
A marked increase in the league-average strikeout rate has occurred in the past decade. That should not shock anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention to baseball recently. Similarly, though the average walk rate has not declined steadily since 2005, a steady downward trend has appeared in the past five years. The ground-ball rate, however, seems to have no significant movement.
Thus, we can confidently assert that pitching across the league has improved over the past few years. That’s not only clear in the league-wide offensive numbers, as well as the strikeout-to-walk ratio that’s illustrated above, but also in the run prevention numbers. The average ERA for a major-league starter has plummeted from 4.69 in 2006 to just 3.82 this season. In fact, the 2014 season marks the first sub-4.00 league-average ERA for starting pitchers since 1992.
The historical HT trends do not suggest that fantasy owners should devalue starting pitching on draft day. While the benchmark for fantasy usefulness has clearly increased, the same percentage of starting pitchers are above average and/or elite. We simply must re-calibrate our expectations, much like Craig Goldstein has been helping us do on the offensive side of the fantasy roster.
Before ending the discussion on Holy Trinity pitchers, I wanted to touch on a few quick points:
The Holy Trinity isn’t a perfect predictor of success in future years, but it seems to do an adequate job ofdepicting current elite performance. It’s a profile that fantasy owners should covet. It’s certainly a fantasy pitcher profile that we’ll continue to cover on Baseball Prospectus, hopefully finding you an underappreciated diamond in the rough that will carry you to a pennant.