December 3, 2015
Retrospective Player Valuation
Mixed League Pitchers
Welcome to my third annual look at retrospective player valuation at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of articles examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2015. This is the fifth article in a series of six. The first four articles in the series focused on NL-only and AL-only leagues. The final two posts examine mixed leagues, with this article examining pitchers.
Before I dig in, here is a brief description of the charts below. (If you have been reading along for the entire series, note that there are some changes for the mixed league articles).
The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5x5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer). There are two important things to know about the values.
Actual Rank lists where players ranked overall based on my dollar valuations. Since the NFBC rankings do not differentiate between hitters and pitchers, this column does not do so either.
NFBC are the average draft position (ADP) as measured by the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts.
LABR, Tout Draft, and Tout Auction are the results from three of the most prominent fantasy expert leagues in the country. LABR and Tout Wars Draft use a draft format and provide rankings, while Tout Wars Auction lists the auction price (again out of a $3,900 budget).
MG is yours truly, your heroic pricer and proud prognosticator since 2013. Another good reason to look back is to see if the fantasy expert you are following is good at what he or she does. It is easy to make predictions in March and never revisit those predictions or (worse) cherry pick the ones you got right and take a hollow victory lap. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my fourth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2015. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.
For years, I have resisted the idea that the best pitchers in mixed leagues are as predictable or almost as predictable as the best hitters. It’s probably time (or past time) to admit that I was wrong and that pitchers are much more solid investments than conventional wisdom frequently indicates.
Table 1: 15 Highest Drafted NFBC Pitchers, 2015
This isn’t what is “supposed” to happen, at least not according to conventional wisdom. One or two of the pitchers we invest heavily in is expected to crash and burn, but this didn’t happen in 2015. In fact, six of the 15 pitchers in Table One turned a profit in the Tout Wars auction league, while another five pitchers lost five dollars or fewer. On the hitting side, only Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson turned a profit. Paul Goldschmidt lost $6; every other hitter lost $9 or more.
Drafts are different than auctions, but regardless of how you slice and dice the data the most expensive pitchers were nearly as good as the most expensive hitters at a lower cost or draft position.
A bust is a bust. You didn’t want Jordan Zimmermann on your team any more than you wanted Giancarlo Stanton. The difference is that the mistakes on the hitting side last year cost fantasy teams more than the mistakes on the pitching side.
Again, this isn’t what is supposed to happen. Someone at the top of the pitching food chain should crash and burn completely, existing as a cautionary tale as to why taking pitchers at the top is a terrible idea. But it wasn’t a terrible idea to take pitchers at the top last year, and maybe it won’t be such a bad idea going forward.
Another idea that pervades conventional wisdom is that there are several hidden gems at the middle or the bottom of the pile so you can and should wait to draft or buy pitching in a shallower league. But in 2015, this wasn’t the case.
Table 2: Top 15 Mixed League Pitchers, 2015
The idea that pitchers are less predictable than hitters isn’t completely untrue.
Table 3: Top 135 Mixed League Hitters and Top 135 Pitchers by NFBC Tier, 2015
The rationale for not spending on pitching typically is predicated on the free loot that is supposed to be available after the draft and in the free agent pool. The replacement talent is always there, but if you look closely at the pitchers who were undrafted after most drafts/auctions, it isn’t clear in deeper mixed leagues that going soft on pitching was a sound idea.
Table 4: Top 15 Mixed League Free Agent Pitchers, 2015
It is a different calculation in standard or shallow mixed formats, but even the best starting pitchers on this list weren’t the kind of arms who were in the rotation on Opening Day and persisted all season long. Only Haren made 30 or more starts. If you are a stickler, the case could be made that Young was as much of a reliever as he was a starter in terms of his value.
I’ve argued in the past that while middle relievers might theoretically be worth what my valuations say they are, you can’t carry a middle reliever on your roster all season long in a mixed format. Looking at Table 4, I am not so sure this is correct. The answer to this question depends on what your league’s rules are as far as free agent acquisition and reserve lists. In a league with unlimited waiver claims, deep reserve lists, and/or daily lineup moves, a reliever like Harris is nothing more than a hedge against seasonal start limits. However, in a league with limited reserves, no $0 FAAB bids, and weekly moves, relievers like O’Day, Harris, and Siegrist are extremely valuable, and more valuable than fantasy analysts give them credit for.
If middle relievers are more valuable than advertised in deeper mixed leagues, than it stands to reason that the pitchers who failed their fantasy managers were more damaging than we usually assume.
Table 5: Top 15 Pitcher Losses, Tout Wars Mixed Auction, 2015
But even in a 15-team mixed format, the pitchers drafted on the periphery don’t spend much time on a team’s active roster. The issue isn’t the damage these pitchers do to their fantasy teams’ rosters but rather the opportunity cost for not picking up a viable pitcher, either for use as an everyday option or at minimum as a streamer. Once again, this goes back to the point above regarding each league’s rules, but even in a 15-team format with liberal acquisition rules, the paucity of good starting pitchers in the free agent pool made grabbing a pitcher on Table 5 painful.
It also makes picking a pitcher on the next table essential in deeper mixed formats.
Table 6: Top 15 Pitcher Profits, Tout Wars Mixed Auction, 2015
The pitchers who don’t repeat from Table 2 are Davis, Miller, Salazar, Martinez, Lackey, Liriano, Hammel, Rondon, and Soria. Once again, relievers are a significant component of yet another valuation table. In this case, since the relievers were closers for all or part of the season they do play in any format. Even Davis, who didn’t close until late in the year, was a likely contributor in all but the shallowest of leagues.
The starting pitchers on the low end were three veterans and two younger pitchers. Lackey, Liriano, and Hammel aren’t the types of arms we target when looking for back end options to fill out our fantasy rotations, but then that’s why they are bargains. Veteran pitchers are typically undervalued, and all three of these pitchers fit the profile of hurlers who have succeeded in the past yet don’t get paid because fantasy managers are looking for the next big thing.
The sweet spot comes with the pitchers who offer the greatest overall return and are also bargains. This is the reason why some recommend against drafting Kershaw in the top five, or possibly higher. I have advised against aggressively drafting Kershaw in the past, but going forward I’m not so sure that this is the best advice.
Saying no to Kershaw because Jake Arrieta or Zack Greinke will be available later and will be bargains sounds wonderful in theory but simply doesn’t hold up in practice. We don’t know who the 2016 versions of Arrieta or Greinke will be, and dinging Kershaw because we might find a bargain later in the draft is illogical. If you believe in this rationale, then you’d also ding Mike Trout next year because you might find a better bargain than Trout in next year’s draft.
The improved pitching climate over the last few years has led to a more stable and predictable crop of pitchers across the board. Downgrading Kershaw or any other pitchers because of the unpredictability of pitchers a few years ago in a different league-wide context doesn’t make sense. It is likely that the market continues to reward the best pitchers and maybe even pushes them a few slots higher in drafts, but given the rate of return over the last couple of seasons, there is nothing wrong with paying the asking price, and in fact you should make sure that you pay it.
The complete list of Mike’s valuations can be found here