Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Should you invest in starting pitching early? A look at last year’s results

Want more sleepers for your Fantasy draft? Head to SportsLine.com and check out the all-new ACES metric to find overlooked starting pitchers. You’ll find some names from this list ranked surprisingly high.

Should you invest in starting pitching early? It’s a question Fantasy players have asked for a long time.

If you listen to the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, you’ve probably heard me go on long rants — and maybe get into arguments with Scott White — about the value of investing early in starting pitchers. My position is, to put it simply: You shouldn’t do it.

Actually, the very tippy toppest starters are generally able to bring a combination of reliability and production, and at this position that’s incredibly valuable. You may not get an ace from your first pitcher taken, but you’re almost certainly going to get a reliable starter. As CBS Fantasy and SportsLine.com contributor Ariel Cohen showed recently in his work on FanGraphs.com, the top four pitchers in average auction price in NFBC auctions last season returned 67 percent of their cost to your team; the next eight returned 54 percent of their cost.

That may not sound like a great return on investment, but … just read on. It also matches up with my own research, showing that the top-12 starters in ADP last season had a median rank of 10.5 at the end of the season, and eight of 12 were top-15 pitchers. You won’t get a much better success rate than that. Not at this position.

Outside of the top 12 (or so) starters picked in any given year, it gets ugly quick. Cohen’s research shows the bust rate on starting pitchers drafted between 13th and 57th last season was 70 percent. SEVENTY. Seven. Zero.

Further, when looking at ADP data from last season and comparing it to 2018 final results, you can see there’s very little correlation between where a pitcher was drafted and where he finished among his peers:

That’s an R-Squared of 0.1833 (zero would be no correlation, one would be a perfect relationship). Outside of the first 12 off the board, there just wasn’t much relationship between ADP and rank:

To color in the lines a bit, here’s the percentage of top-60 finishers (basically, starters you could feel pretty good about, or good pitchers who missed some time) among each group:

  • SP1-12: 91.7
  • SP13-24: 58.3
  • SP25-36: 66.7
  • SP37-48: 25.0
  • SP49-60: 33.3

Obviously, this doesn’t suggest there’s no relationship between draft position and final finish. For one thing, it’s just one season; a few players having outlier seasons could skew the data enough to change the apparent validity of the results. For another, you can clearly see you’re more likely to get a useful pitcher in the 13-24 range than 49-60. That shouldn’t be in dispute.

However, the tier of starting pitchers beyond the ace level seems like one you should probably try to avoid. You should value aces highly, and this year, I’d say that number ends right at 13 with Carlos Carrasco in the early fourth round.

After Carrasco, you’ve got Walker Buehler, Patrick Corbin, James Paxton, and Stephen Strasburg in succession. Those are all good pitchers; they are all pitchers I like, to a certain extent. They’ve all also got big risk factors. Buehler is coming off a huge innings jump and only has one partial season of success in MLB; Corbin is coming off a career outlier season; Paxton has just never been able to stay healthy, and moved from a great pitcher’s park to a bad one; and Stephen Strasburg is coming off a down year of his own in addition to his well documented injury woes.

You can talk yourself into any of those pitchers, of course. I’ve done it several times this draft season with Strasburg in particular, who I think might be undervalued at this point. But, if last year’s results are any indication, reaching for someone in this range just doesn’t have much upside; you’ve got a similar chance of getting a good pitcher from players taken up to 80 picks later.

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