What Justin Verlander Can Teach Us

Justin Verlander had himself a fine season, you may have heard. The first pitcher to win both the MVP and the Cy in about a quarter-century, he combined superlative peripherals with just a little bit of luck and the backing of a strong team to produce a season for the ages. He probably won his owners many a fantasy league. From personal experience, each team of mine that featured the Tigers’ ace won its’ league this year.

That’s all fine and good, but you shouldn’t draft Verlander next year. Focus instead on finding the next Verlander.

First, one of the reasons that Verlander won leagues was that he wasn’t valued as an ace going into the season. I bought him for $24 in a competitive 12-team league, which was on par with Josh Johnson ($23), Ubaldo Jimenez ($22), and Tommy Hanson ($22). It was also a far cry from Roy Halladay ($52), Cliff Lee ($34) and Felix Hernandez ($38).

In another league (14 team H2H), I picked Verlander with the ninth pick of the fourth round — after Halladay, Hernandez, Johnson, Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, Jimenez, and Lee in that order. I was the eighth team to pick a starter, but by the time I picked my starter, I had locked up my first baseman (Joey Votto), second baseman (Dustin Pedroia), and first outfielder (Shin-Soo Choo). That last name shows you just how powerful picking a late fantasy ace can be.

There are a few reasons to wait to pick your ace. One is the well-established fact that starting pitchers get injured more often and stay hurt longer than position players. The average starting pitcher is 39% likely to hit the DL in any given year (Jeff Zimmerman has helped refine that prediction here). That sort of risk makes it worth waiting on pitchers alone.

But there is also a lot of year-to-year upheaval at the top of the starter ranks, even if their secondary stats stay as steady as the peripheral stats of any group of players. Let’s look at the last four Cy Young winners in each league, with their ERA in the winning year, next to their FIP in that year, and their career FIP.

Justin Verlander, 2.40 2011 ERA, 2.99 2011 FIP, 3.49 career FIP
Clayton Kershaw, 2.28 ERA, 2.47 2011 FIP, 3.04 career FIP

Felix Hernandez, 2.27 2010 ERA, 3.04 2010 FIP, 3.38 career FIP
Roy Halladay, 2.44 2010 ERA, 3.01 2010 FIP, 3.31 career FIP

Zack Greinke, 2.16 2009 ERA, 2.33 2009 FIP, 3.51 career FIP
Tim Lincecum, 2.48 2009 ERA, 2.34 2009 FIP, 2.93 career FIP

Cliff Lee, 2.54 2008 ERA, 2.83 2008 FIP, 3.60 career FIP
Tim Lincecum, 2.62 2008 ERA, 2.62 2008 FIP, 2.93 career FIP

Any one of these guys could win the Cy Young next year. All they need is a little batted-ball luck, added to a healthy year, with some good offense behind them mixed in. You might also notice that in each of these years, at least one of the two Cy Young winners was drafted well below the first group of pitchers that year.

There’s one last way to say this. Last year, 23 starters managed 170 innings with an FIP under 3.30. Even if you want to open that out to the last four years, 20 starters have managed at least 600 innings with an FIP better than Lee’s career 3.60 FIP. By definition, any one of these pitchers would look just fine if you etched them into the 2012 Cy Young slot in the list above.

There might be one best pitcher in baseball when it comes to a year-in and year-out analysis. But there’s also a top tier, of 20 or so starters, that could be your fantasy ace next year. Are there 20 shortstops that could be your starter next year? 20 third basemen? Not likely.

Picking Justin Verlander won me some leagues and I’ll be forever grateful. I also probably won’t draft him in 2012. As with Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 and Adam Wainwright in 2009, my teams will thank him for his production and go searching for the next version.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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What you meant to say was that BBWA members still lack respect for Roy Halladay, right?
My one argument with this article, is that there ARE pitchers who are consistently good (hence Halladay earning the high 52$ price tag), but this article ignores that “But there is also a lot of year-to-year upheaval at the top of the starter ranks.” All of those pitchers have had pretty decent seasons the last 4 years.
Greinke’s been the weakest over the 4 season span, but even he hasn’t been deadly to a fantasy team. Hernandez’s 2008 is his worst year, and he’s only really down in wins. Lee has been pretty good all of those seasons, and Halladay better. Kershaw hasn’t been around long enough, really – his 3 seasons other than his first have been great. Verlander has had the worst season out of all of these pitchers, but if you averaged out his 2011 and his 2008 seasons he’d be right around his career averages.
There may be upheaval in who the #1 pitcher is each year – that’d be hard to argue against, but that’s different than what was said.