Two Expert Drafts, Minimal Starting Pitching

Mike Podhorzer wrote about the $9 pitching staff yesterday, which was coincidental because I had just finished two expert drafts in which I punted starting pitching. The leagues in question are the FOX Sports Expert League and Blog Wars. The drafts and formats differ, so it’s a little surprising that my strategy barely changed. Both leagues do allow streaming, which makes it easier to under-draft starters.

I’ve used my drafts and mocks to offer lessons learned throughout the draft season. We’re at the point where it’s probably too late to do any major learning. In presenting these rosters and draft strategies, I’m only aiming to give you a look under the hood. I hope you find something actionable.

The FOX league includes writers like Howard Bender, a different Brad Johnson, and a handful of FOX personnel (among others). It is a 12-team, shallow roster, 5×5 OBP league with a snake draft. The pitching maximum is 1,500 innings. I have to thank Brett Talley (@TheRealTal) and for providing draft values – Eno asked me to do the draft with about 90 minutes of lead time. I do believe it’s publicly viewable.

I went into the draft focused on acquiring a 50 point lineup. Every time I’ve selected an elite starter this season, I’ve later regretted it, so I decided to push back any decisions about starters. An important part of that strategy is hiring a lot of elite relief, so I decided to target Jansen, Rosenthal, and Grilli. Here’s the roster I took home. 

Pos Name Pos Name
C John Jaso(Oak – C/ DH) SP Sonny Gray(Oak – SP)
1B Edwin Encarnacion(Tor – 1B/ DH) SP Francisco Liriano (Pit – SP)
2B Chase Utley(Phi – 2B) SP Alex Wood(Atl – SP/ RP)
3B Josh Donaldson (Oak – 3B) SP Archie Bradley (Ari – SP)
SS Ben Zobrist(TB – 2B/ SS/ RF) SP Kevin Gausman(Bal – SP/ RP)
OF Ryan Braun(Mil – RF/ LF) RP Greg Holland(KC – RP)
OF Shin-Soo Choo(Tex – CF) RP Trevor Rosenthal(StL – RP)
OF Matt Holliday(StL – LF) RP Glen Perkins(Min – RP)
U Brandon Moss(Oak – 1B/ RF) P Sergio Santos(Tor – RP)
BN Chase Headley(SD – 3B) P Mark Melancon(Pit – RP)
BN Justin Ruggiano(ChC – CF/ LF) BN Drew Hutchison (Tor – SP)
BN Kolten Wong(StL – 2B) BN Michael Pineda(NYY – SP)

As you can see, I didn’t completely punt on starters. I made an exception and took Gray with my 10th round selection. At the time, Headley, Utley, and Ruggiano were at the top of my draft board and I didn’t think I needed to select any of them (I was right). I also love Gray, as some of you noted earlier in the offseason. I got a couple other decent depth guys in Wood and Liriano before the end game. I’m sure at least one of Bradley, Gausman, Hutchison, and Pineda will prove useful, although I probably won’t have the patience to wait for the demoted players to be called upon.

I didn’t spike my reliever strategy, but I did well enough. One thing I don’t understand, only one owner has contested me on Santos all draft season (frequent reader/commenter Will). This is a guy who’s the most obvious pick to fill the Koji Uehara role this season.

I learned that even experts can struggle when category changes are present. I built a killer OBP lineup in part because about half the league appeared to be using batting average values. I snapped Shin-Soo Choo in the third round despite that he was the eighth player on my draft board. John Jaso was somehow present in the last round despite that he’s a .380 OBP catcher looking at regular designated hitter duty.

I’m currently projecting about 84 of 120 possible points due to poor totals in stolen bases and wins. I’ll take care of those along the way.

The Blog Wars draft was harder. The league includes representatives from 13 fantasy blogs. It’s a standard 5×5, deep roster, auction league with only three bench spots. The pitching maximum is only 1,400 innings, so I immediately knew my Plan A. Ultimately, I rostered five starting pitchers for $10, though I did pay $31 for six relievers. So I spent 16 percent of my budget on pitching. This one is also publicly viewable.

Eno, who represented RotoGraphs last season, warned me that everyone would come out firing, so I decided to grab a couple top tier guys and then take value mid and late. Sure enough, the bidding kicked off with a $61 Mike Trout. I made the $60 bid and bowed out. In retrospect, I wish I pushed to $62. A pick or two later I took Miguel Cabrera for $61 and leaned back.

Pos Batters Pos Pitchers
C Wilin Rosario Col – C SP R.A. Dickey Tor – SP
C Brian McCann NYY – C RP Trevor Rosenthal StL – RP
1B Adrián González LAD – 1B P Jason Grilli Pit – RP
2B Ian Kinsler Det – 2B P Mark Melancon Pit – RP
3B Miguel Cabrera Det – 3B P Joaquín Benoit SD – RP
SS Andrelton Simmons Atl – SS P Sergio Santos Tor – RP
CI Martín Prado Ari – 2B/3B/OF P Corey Kluber Cle – SP
MI Jed Lowrie Oak – 2B/SS P Iván Nova NYY – SP
OF José Bautista Tor – OF P Marco Estrada Mil – SP
OF Shin-Soo Choo Tex – OF BN Drew Hutchison Tor – SP
OF Jayson Werth Was – OF BN Will Smith Mil – RP
OF Oswaldo Arcia Min – OF
OF Will Venable SD – OF
Util Andre Ethier LAD – OF
BN Justin Ruggiano ChC – OF

The upside on of the position players is pretty intense, but there’s an obvious problem. Early in the draft it became apparent that I was winning too many old players. Injury risk and performance decline could really hurt my offense. I’ll just have to cross my fingers. I did score a small coup with Rosario and McCann going to me for a combined $24. Maybe my auction values were wrong, but I had the pair projected out at over $50 combined. My numbers could be two times too optimistic, and I’ll still make a profit.

The pitching side was fun. When I put together my values with a normal 70/30 split, I came up with prices like $27 for Clayton Kershaw and $19 for Justin Verlander. That happened because of the tiny 1,400 innings maximum combined with the deep roster offense. Usually, I take the pitcher values off my sheet and subtract about $5, so it was pretty obvious I wouldn’t win any well-regarded starting pitchers. Hutchison’s landed on all my teams as an end game pick. I may be streaming that spot in two weeks, which is fine by me. This league allows up to eight active relievers, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I spend a few days at that level. We’ll see if the other owners react to that strategy and force me to counter.

I haven’t evaluated the other rosters in this league. Compared to past numbers in similar 12 team leagues, I project about 90 of  130 points. Again, a good starting point if I can take care of shortcomings in stolen bases, batting average, and wins. And stay healthy, let’s not forget that.

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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.

17 Responses to “Two Expert Drafts, Minimal Starting Pitching”

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  1. Bil Bo Baggins says:

    dirty outfields!

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  2. michael furey says:

    Shouldn’t the innings cap put a premium on good pitching? It means that streaming is worse (bc you can’t get the advantage of huge amounts of innings) and overall just limits the amount of pitchers you can have, so now half of your categories are falling into the hands of a lesser # of players… therefore making those players more valuable.

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    • Josh says:

      I agree, especially Ks, since K/9 is what matters in a cap IP league. High K/9 SP are exceedingly difficult to find aside from the typical WHIP killers.

      I think the anti-pitching movement has gone overboard. It’s easier to find 3.50 ERA guys with 7 K/9, but a team ERA of 3.50 isn’t going to be in the tough half of a 12 team roto league and 200 innings of 7 K/9 is really harmful.

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      • Brad Johnson says:

        If 7 K/9 was all I was getting from the waiver wire, then I wouldn’t use that strategy. I generally get about 8-9 K/9 in a deep 12 team mixed league. It’s all about being picky.

        Here’s some numbers. Using my own past performance, if I use one roster spot on a pure stream with a new pitcher everyday, I should get something like:

        50 starts
        80 relief appearances

        Starts 300 IP, 15-30 wins, 240-280 K, 3.30-4.30 ERA, 1.15-1.40 WHIP
        Relievers 80 IP, 3-8 wins, 80-100 K, 2.00-3.00 ERA, 1.00-1.10 WHIP

        Together 380 IP, 18-38 wins, 320-380 K, 3.03-4.03 ERA, 1.12-1.34 WHIP

        And that’s if I need about 400 innings. I can drop to one stream start a week which pushes the RP innings to the 100-110 range AND improves the expected outcomes from my stream starts. Then I’m looking at a line closer to 260 IP, 12-25 wins, 250-320 K, 2.80-3.50 ERA, 1.05-1.10 WHIP. That looks a little too good on the ERA side so maybe I’m undercutting reliever ERA a little.

        In practice I also mix in position player games as needed, but I also usually have 1-3 stream spots running at a time. Sometimes those get plugged with gems, which is fine but other times I use them to bulk RP innings. I’ve had seasons where I got 600 reliever innings in a 1400 IP league.

        I think the moral of the story is that this approach takes very careful management and (maybe) way too much work. I do it anyway.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, pitchers are too difficult to predict. I could have taken Anibal Sanchez last year and massively outperformed Cole Hamels despite that Sanchez was the one who spent time on the DL. This happens on the hitter side too, but it’s a lot more predictable. The issue is that I can invest in the best pitchers and still get poor numbers even if they’re fully healthy and vice versa. At the league level that plays havoc with the numbers.

      The second issue is that I can use relievers to undo any bad starts. As long as I don’t accidentally catch the Alex Torres appearance when he gives up 4 runs over .1 IP, I can easily undo any number of clunker outings.

      It also makes it easier for me to capture and hold whoever comes out of the minors like Salazar or Gray. On a rate basis, those guys were comparable to Felix, Verlander, and Sale.

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      • FeslenR says:

        I went with the balanced approach in pitching: half starters (Some elite, some not) and some closers :). closers are always available throughout the year.

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  3. centerfield ballhawk says:

    I used a similar strategy and ended up with a few of the same names (Gray, Hutchinson, Santos, Liriano). I don’t see a reason to pay through the nose for starters when they are easier to find on waivers throughout the year.

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  4. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Normally I prefer more SP heavy strategies, but for the second league, the inning cap definitely makes it the right move to punt high end starters. I’m actually pretty fond of that team for the format, especially guys like Venable and the Rosario/McCann combo (I have them as 1/2 due to their high HR stats compared to other catchers going up there). Also like Adrian Gonzalez there!

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      I also had them as 1/2 because of the home runs, middle of the order counting stats, and tolerable average. They both should get some extra games at 1B/DH too, which certainly helps.

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  5. Urban Shocker says:

    Just a comment, but I’m not really a fan of streaming leagues for this very reason-they lessen the importance of a draft.

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    • Brad Johnson says:

      It’s definitely a preference thing. If you’re somebody who can’t compete with streaming due to a job or something, then it makes sense to join leagues where it’s disallowed.

      Streaming has a long list of cons. I dropped Carlos Gomez and Josh Donaldson last April in a shallow league to get a couple starts and relief appearances. Whoops! Non-streaming owners get to feed on that churn action. We also identify the best waiver players for you.

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  6. Fredward says:

    The punting of high end SP’s has become a better strategy as pitching has improved across the board. You can get guys like Masterson, and Burnett well into the teen rounds in Yahoo leagues. There is so much more depth across the board among pitchers, and that in turn means the bats are getting thinner, and more important. Pretty good choices in these two drafts chief. Even with streaming I would surmise you will do very well offensively in these leagues, but have put yourself in a bit of a precarious position with the pitching. Time will tell eh buck?

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  7. Chicken Wolf says:

    How would a rotation breakdown look with a minimum of 1000 innings. Looking to punt wins/k’s to win saves, era, whip. How many starters needed? Thx

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