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Snake Draft Strategy: The Cheapest Pitching Staff Possible

I have always been tempted to draft as cheap a pitching staff as possible, though I have never used this strategy before in a mock draft or a real one. In an auction, this strategy is simply called the $9 pitching staff. In a snake draft, you would draft all your hitters in rounds 1-14 and then fill out your pitching staff over the remaining 9 rounds. Unfortunately, the $9 pitching staff auction strategy will put you at a severe disadvantage versus your competitors who are all likely spending at least $55 more than you on pitching. However, a straight draft puts teams on a much more even playing field, so although your rotation would likely be worse than the rest of your leaguemates’, the difference would not be as large as it would be in an auction league. So let us use actual average draft position data from CBS Sports leagues to construct a cheap pitching staff.

We will assume a 12-team mixed league that requires 9 pitchers and weekly transactions with no innings cap. I can only select a pitcher with an ADP in that round or a later round, so if I am in round 17, I cannot draft a pitcher with an ADP of round 15. I have decided to just draft starting pitchers for this exercise as it would be more informative to ignore relievers. I will begin by looking at pitchers with an ADP starting from 169.

Round 15 Pick – Ricky Nolasco (ADP: 181, Rd 16)

Nolasco is the anti-Matt Cain, continuing to boggle the minds of sabermetricians everywhere by annually underperforming his skills. Returning from knee surgery that ended his 2010 season prematurely and getting a late start in spring training due to a thumb injury, he is not without risk. But pitchers who regularly post a K/BB ratio of 4.3 and strikeout rate of around 8.0 or higher have no business putting up an ERA of 4.50+. Nolasco may very well prove in time that he is one of the exceptions and his ERA will never meet his xFIP, but since we simply do not know, I will continue to bet on the underlying skills winning out.

Round 16 Pick – Hiroki Kuroda (193, Rd 17)

I fail to understand why this man gets no respect. In his three seasons with the Dodgers, he has never posted an ERA above 3.76 or a WHIP above 1.22. His FIP and xFIP are both pretty close to his actual ERA and his skills are very solid. His strikeout rate has even climbed each year, which pairs quite well with his 50% ground ball rate. He is even working on improving his curve ball, a pitch he threw a miniscule 0.2% of the time last season. The potential for a fourth strong pitch in his arsenal only adds to his positive outlook.

Round 17 Pick – Ian Kennedy (194, Round 17)

Kennedy was a bit lucky last year with a .256 BABIP, but a bullpen that has to be better than last year should result in more than the 9 wins he racked up in 2010. Fly balls will probably always be an issue, and he does not pitch in a forgiving home ball park, but he does have good control and above average strikeout ability.

Round 18 Pick – Edwin Jackson (211, Round 18)

Chris Cwik brought Jackson’s second half to your attention yesterday. Aside from the fantastic strikeout and walk numbers Jackson posted with the White Sox, he also increased his velocity on all of his pitches. His fastball jumped from 94.0 MPH to 95.3 MPH. Now whether it was a calibration/stadium issue or just another result of Don Cooper‘s teachings, we cannot be sure. But he is certainly going late enough in drafts to take the risk to find out. Either way, the skills point to a completely changed pitcher and one who may finally enjoy that true breakout season fully supported by his peripherals (as compared to his luck-fueled “breakout” of 2009).

Round 19 Pick – Jordan Zimmermann (229, Round 20)

Zimmermann came back from Tommy John Surgery last season and threw a total of 70.2 innings, 31 of which were with the Nationals. Though the ERA did not show it, his return was a success. Looking back at his rookie season in 2009, Zimmermann posted an impressive 3.39 xFIP, driven by about a strikeout per inning and excellent control. Last year he did lose about a mile per hour off his fastball, so it will be worth monitoring to see if he regains that missing velocity after an off-season of rest. Though I expect strong results when he is on the mound, he has not pitched more than 100 innings in a season since 2008, and even then he only threw 134. It might be wise to expect no more than 150 from him this year, so plan for his spot to get skipped every so often.

Round 20 Pick – Jorge de la Rosa (232, Round 20)

It is never easy to recommend a Colorado pitcher, especially when his name is not Ubaldo. De la Rosa is another starter in the mold of Ricky Nolasco who continues to confound stat geeks and underperform his skills. At the very least, he should keep piling up the strikeouts as his SwStr% has been at least 10.4% in each of the last three seasons. The increased ground ball rate last year is an exciting sign, because if it is sustained, his skills would look eerily similar to none other than that rotation-mate whose name actually is Ubaldo.

Round 21 Pick – Scott Baker (257, Round 22)

It was quite the surprise when suddenly Baker was battling Kevin Slowey for the Twins final rotation spot. Given his solid spring, it is likely that Baker has won this strange competition. If nothing else, it made him undervalued in drafts this year. As an extreme fly ball pitcher, home runs will always be a problem. However, pinpoint control and an above average strikeout rate should ensure that at the very least he posts a good WHIP, assuming the BABIP monster does not bite him again.

Round 22 Pick – Mike Minor (255, Round 22)

I first discussed Minor as a $1 option a week ago, and it would be a surprise if he did not open the season as the Braves fifth starter. And to prove that I practice what I preach, I happily landed him in the reserve round of my local auction league draft yesterday.

Round 23 Pick – Homer Bailey (285, Round 24)

Is this finally the year? It could very well be. Last season over 109 innings, Bailey posted the highest strikeout rate of his short career and improved his control to acceptable territory. He even managed to post both a FIP and xFIP below 4.00 for the first time. He looks even more intriguing if we throw out his April and May performance before he was demoted to the minors. After he returned, he posted a 3.55 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9.

Is this a risky staff? You bet! But it is also one with a ton of upside. And remember, given that you drafted all your hitting first, you should have the top offense in your league going into the season. Since it is much easier to find pitching on free agency during the year, this is a strategy worth investigating.