Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Starting Pitching Blues: Fantasy Strategy

Rany Jazayerli, one of the baseball minds over at Baseball Prospectus, said in 1998:

"The injury rate of pitchers, in particular young pitchers, is astonishing. Pitchers are several times more likely to get injured than hitters, and for every prospect that becomes a successful major league pitcher, a dozen more have their careers stalled or ended by injury. This is a reality of baseball that has persisted since the game was invented; the act of throwing a ball overhand is inherently unnatural, and the repetition of throwing, even with excellent mechanics, can lead to inflammation or injury to the muscles of the rotator cuff, or in the ligaments that hold the elbow in place."

Pitching in 2008

Spring training isn't even in full swing yet, and there are already injuries to report for the 2008 season. Not surprisingly, they are injuries to starting pitchers, the most important and concurrently brittle parts of baseball organizations today.

Kelvim Escobar and Curt Schilling, important arms from two of baseball's deepest, most talented rotations, are going to miss time in 2008 due to injury. There hasn't been a pitch thrown in the Cactus League or the Grapefruit League, and there's already talk about a DL stint for Escobar and a prolonged absence for Schilling, if he's not done for the season.

Fantasy owners need to be mindful of the inherent danger of drafting starting pitching, which is unlike any risk that drafting a position player presents. By the nature of what they do, pitchers are just never more than one pitch away from the operating table. Throwing a baseball is simply an unnatural motion, and it will lead to problems for almost all pitchers at some point.

In real baseball, teams need good starting pitching if they want to have any chance at postseason success. That bulldog ace can be the difference in losing a series in 6 games and winning it in 7. Those 14-15 innings over two starts can make a world of difference in baseball playoffs, but fantasy baseball just isn't set up like that.

In fantasy baseball, teams obviously need starting pitching, but owners do not need to invest early picks (or big dollars for auctions) in pitching to win fantasy leagues. An owner can succeed with a big bullpen and three decent arms anchoring the pitching staff.

The beauty of fantasy is that Yahoo or ESPN doesn't care where those 7 innings of 2-run ball came from. They can just as easily come from 3 middle relievers taken in the 15th round or later, or they can come from Jake Peavy. The Padres can't throw Heath Bell out there 162 times a year, but your fantasy rotation can be built of Heath Bell types that end up putting together solid ratios in 70 or so innings.

Those 70 innings each from a few relievers pile up, and one can put together spectacular ERA, WHIP, and saves totals, while still being competitive in strikeouts and wins. Most leagues have innings limits, so again, you can get those innings from whoever you'd like, and I'd prefer to get them mostly from relievers than big starting pitchers that can easily flame out. Some owners prefer 8 starters to lock up wins and strikeouts; I'd rather chase ERA, WHIP, and saves, three stats that are more predictable and cheaper to acquire.

The choice is yours, but I speak from experience when I say that my worst fantasy teams have been those built around starting pitching. I started playing fantasy baseball in 2003, and that season Randy Johnson was my first pick. He was going into 2003 with 6 straight healthy seasons under his belt, not throwing less than 213 in any of those seasons. He seemed like a good bet, and I pulled the trigger, leaving a bat like Manny Ramirez on the table for someone else to take.

That season, Randy Johnson won 6 games and put together an ERA of 4.26 in 114 painful innings. Last season, owners took Chris Carpenter in the second or third round of drafts, and got 6 innings out of him (not good innings either) before he was lost for the season. This year, it could be Jake Peavy, projected to go in the second round of most drafts. It could be Erik Bedard in the third round, or Josh Beckett in the fourth.

All those pitchers could of course turn in brilliant 34 start seasons, but I wouldn't bet on it. At least one of those pitchers will miss time this season, and it could be completely without warning and leave fantasy owners scrambling.

Some will say, well position players get hurt too, which is absolutely true. Carl Crawford could miss 80 games this season with a torn ACL, and owners could be out their second round pick. There's no question about that and I will not dispute that notion, but I can tell you that playing left field doesn't require Carl Crawford to repeat an unnatural motion over 100 times a night, 30+ times a year.

Starting pitchers just are not as likely to make it through a full season, and they also have another distinct disadvantage when compared to position players: they can only contribute in 4 categories. Johan Santana can have a season for the ages, pitching 235 innings of 2.25 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 250 K dominance. He will contribute 0 saves, and he could end up with only 13 wins, based on poor run support which he has no control over. If you don't think so, check out Roger Clemens' stats from the 2005 season.

I hope that by now the dangers of drafting starting pitching early are clear, so I'd like to present some alternatives for owners who agree with this line of thinking.

Alternative Draft Strategy

Picks 1-6 are spent on the best available hitting talent when your turn comes up, being mindful that the top speed/power combinations will be gone after these rounds. Be sure to address potentially problematic positions like catcher and shortstop here, as those positions really dry up after the top handful of options are gone.

Picks 7-10 can be where owners start to think pitching, and grab a closer (Wagner, Cordero, Valverde, and Jenks seem like reasonably gambles here), and a bargain ace around your 10th pick, if there are any left (John Smoltz, Aaron Harang, or Roy Oswalt).

Owners should do their best not to get wrapped up in different runs that start, like a run on closers where K-Rod, J.J. Putz, Joe Nathan, and Jonathan Papelbon all go in the same round. That run just means that you will get an opportunity to grab a bat later than you would normally. It just creates a value opportunity for owners who don't get caught up in runs.

From the 10th round on, you can start to look for opportunities to draft pitchers with upside that have been discounted for whatever reason. Arms like Ian Snell, James Shields, Rich Hill, Matt Cain, John Maine, Ted Lilly, Zack Greinke, etc., provide upside potential at a good price.

Look for pitching indicators like K/BB (strike zone dominance) and K/9 for good value opportunities. Also, look at fielding independant pitching statistics "FIP", which can reveal pitchers that were unlucky in 2007. ESPN has an excellent page with statistics that can help unlock undervalued pitchers.

This strategy can work, but you will have to do your homework, it's not for those who aren't willing to find the intrinsic value of pitchers.

The important thing to remember is the price you pay dictates your returns. If you spend a 5th round pick and get a 14-8, 3.90 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, with 160 Ks, that is not a great return on your investment. If you get that production from, say, Ian Snell in the 13th round, now you have value and return on your investment. All the bargain pitches listed above, and that is not an all encompassing list, have the talent to deliver nice seasons at a good price.

Three or four pitchers of that caliber, mixed with a strong bullpen, minimizes the pitching risk that could derail an owner's season.

The bullpen arms that I would look at include the aforementioned Heath Bell, Brad Lidge, Carlos Marmol, Rafael Betancourt, Jonathan Broxton, etc. Relievers that are second in line to a mediocre closer (for example Betancourt is second to Joe Borowski) are especially attractive, as they have a chance to contribute saves down the road.

This mix of bargain pitchers with upside and power bullpen arms allows fantasy owners to draft big bats and put out a balanced, scary lineup. If an owner decides to go pitcher heavy or take arms in the 1-7 rounds, be aware that there are statistics available to help see what pitchers were overexerted in 2007.

The brilliant minds at Baseball Prospectus keep a statistical called "PAP," or pitcher abuse points. This statistic encompasses the abuse pitchers have endured in a given season, based on a calculation derived from starts in which pitchers throw over 100 pitches. For a better explanation, go here.

It's interesting to note what pitchers endured the most abuse in 2007, as Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka tops the list. He had 9 starts of 101-109 pitches, 13 starts of 110-121 pitches, and 4 starts of 122-132 pitches in 2007. Just this week Matsuzaka admitted, "I think what happened last year was that the peak of my fatigue arrived at a time when I wasn't exactly expecting it to arrive, not at the time that it usually arrives and I think that was part of the difficulty last year."

He was overworked, and a prudent fantasy owner needs to note that and include it in Matsuzaka's valuation for 2008. I'm not saying don't draft Dice-K, I'm just saying be careful, he was the most overworked pitcher in baseball last season.

Other names that appear high on the list include Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett, and Roy Halladay. These pitchers, by my estimation, represent an extremely big gamble if taken high in the draft, and fantasy owners should probably avoid them unless they are available at a price that makes sense.

The moral of the story, do your homework with pitching for your draft. You can be competitive and win leagues without Jake Peavy, Johan Santana, Josh Beckett, C.C. Sabathia, and all the other arms that will go in the first 5 or 6 rounds. Focus on what you can reasonably predict health-wise, and take the bats early that should stay healthy over the course of a season.

No strategy is perfect, but I believe a value pitching focus puts fantasy owners in the best position to succeed in 2008. Here's to another epic season of baseball, good luck to all fantasy owners.