The fantasy baseball community had no idea what was in store for the 2016 season. Truth be told, we never really know how a season will go, but nothing could’ve prepared us for the incoming carnage that would yield an Ace Armageddon reminiscent of the punishing run scoring environment commonly referred to as “The Steroid Era.” Worse yet is that we came in totally blind. Not only were we painfully unsuspecting of the impending ERA evisceration for a large swath of pitchers, we expected the complete opposite to happen.
The 2016 season was billed as the “Year of the Ace” before the first pitch was ever thrown. A colossal shift in attention made starting pitchers the chic investment community-wide. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that shift was that it came a year late. The 2014 season saw a major spike in starting pitchers with a 3.00 ERA or better in at least 100 innings; 31 pitchers accomplished the feat, the highest mark since 1992 (34) and only the second time in the 2000s where at least 20 pitchers did it. However, the count dipped back down to 13 in 2015 and yet we still saw the surge in early round starters during the 2016 draft season.
The average draft data from the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) that I have saved shows that in 2014, just eight starters were regularly drafted in the first three rounds. The third round is a bit of an arbitrary cutoff, but that is generally accepted as an “early” pitcher. In the heart of the Steroid Era, many fantasy managers wouldn’t even consider a starter until the seventh-eighth round area. It slowly started inching up and eventually, most teams had at least one pitcher by the fourth-fifth round area, thus the first three rounds were seen as being early on pitching.
Even after the huge spike in sub-3.00 ERA seasons posted in 2014, we still saw just nine pitchers taken in the first three rounds of NFBC drafts in 2015. Despite the sharp dip in sub-3.00 ERA seasons in 2015, the 2016 draft season saw the massive spike in early starting pitchers, with 17 going in those first three rounds. Maybe it was the seemingly trustworthy skills of the 2015 class over the 2014 one that sold the fantasy community on buying starters. It was a markedly smaller class (31 to 13) so the burden was lower on the 2015 group, but they easily outperformed their 2014 counterparts in key indicators:
Nearly half (six of 13) of the pitchers who achieved that ERA threshold in 2014 were able to repeat the feat in 2015. All six were among the 17 starters taken in the first three rounds of 2016 drafts: Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom and Dallas Keuchel. Of the other 11 in that group, six had a composite ERA under 3.00 for 2014-15, but either didn’t have enough innings because of injury in one of the seasons (Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey) or were north of 3.00 in one of the two seasons (Chris Sale, David Price, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer).
All six had elite skills and pedigree supporting their numbers, thus the confidence from the market followed. The other five certainly had the skills and pedigree of an ace, yet despite the absence of track record and/or health, the market still viewed them as aces: Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco and Chris Archer. Unfortunately, that group saw a sharp falloff in performance from 2014-15 to 2016 while averaging nearly 20 fewer innings:
There were minimal differences — LOB% (+1%) and BABIP (+.006) — that certainly don’t explain the 0.62 ERA and 0.10 WHIP jumps, so what happened? Given that it’s virtually all we talked about throughout 2016, you’ve guessed by now that it was home runs. It wasn’t just the group of 17 “aces” either, though their 0.21 homers-per-nine surge is instructive. The 2014 rate of 0.91 HR/9 was abnormally low for the home run-rich era that started in the mid-’90s.
In fact, that 2014 mark was the lowest since 1992 (0.92) and the only time under 0.98 since 1993. It regressed back to 1.06 in 2015, but it wasn’t really out of line from the 0.98-1.10 range seen in 2009-2013, thus it was difficult to interpret it as a harbinger of the 1.24 home run monsoon of 2016. A whopping 63 pitchers had a 1.20 HR/9 or worse in 2016 (minimum 100 innings), more than 2014-15 combined (57) and the second-most ever behind the 68 of 2000.
That brings us to now, the 2017 draft season, where perhaps we are left with more questions than answers, key among them focused on the home runs and the elite pitching tier. How sticky are the home runs from 2016? Is Kershaw going to stay healthy or will last year’s back woes affect him? And the question we are going to zero in on here: Are the non-Kershaw starters worth the early investment?
Spoiler alert: no, I don’t think so, but I’m going to highlight alternatives who have a chance at emulating the studs at a much lower cost. First, let’s talk about why Kershaw is still worth his price tag.
The back injury that limited him to just 149 innings does add a tinge of risk, but he has been operating at such a surplus of stability the last six seasons that it barely moves the needle on his draft stock. He is still a lockdown first-rounder and the only truly viable option to take ahead of Mike Trout with the top pick. He is so exemplary and far ahead of the class that his merits deserved to be look at in historical context as opposed to a present-day look versus his peers.
Since that first Cy Young award in 2011, he has led baseball in ERA four different times and likely would’ve nabbed a fifth last year had he not fallen 13 innings shy of the 162 minimum need to qualify. With his 1.69 mark, he could’ve allowed 10 earned runs in those innings (6.92) and still beaten Kyle Hendricks for the ERA title (2.13). Expanding out further, since 1947 we see that his six seasons (using a 149-inning minimum in all of these historical comparisons to capture his 2016) of 2.60 or better ERA is tied for second-best behind Tom Seaver’s eight with Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Jim Palmer and Juan Marichal.
Accounting for era via ERA+, his six seasons of a 150 ERA+ or better sits tied with Pedro Martinez for fourth-most behind Maddux, Roger Clemens and Johnson, all of whom had nine such seasons. He is tied with Martinez and Maddux for the most seasons with a 1.02 WHIP or better with five. He trails Maddux (eight), Johnson (seven), and Curt Schilling (seven) with five seasons of 4.5 K:BB or better. He is also third behind Nolan Ryan (17) and Johnson (10) with eight seasons of a 7.0 H/9 or lower, with Kershaw’s all coming in a row since 2009. Ryan had a stretch of eight from 1972-79. Johnson’s best streak was seven in a row from 1991-97.
When you can make historical comparisons like this, it becomes fairly obvious where Kershaw stands. Health aside, don’t question his status at the top of any draft class.
Scherzer and Bumgarner
Kershaw is averaging out at pick 4.8 in the NFBC through March 1, never going later than 10th. The next tier is just two deep with Scherzer (pick 11.4) and Bumgarner (15.4). Scherzer, the reigning National League and two-time Cy Young Award winner, has evolved into a 220 IP/season superstar with brilliant ratios and tons of strikeouts. He isn’t without flaws, though, and the return of an early career home run issue is foreboding, especially if 2016’s outburst doesn’t fully reverse course in 2017. A stress fracture in his right ring finger knuckle has cost him the chance to pitch in the World Baseball Classic and caused him to alter the grip on his fastball while also delaying the start of his spring training outings.
He showed frontline potential throughout his first four years as a starter in Arizona and Detroit, but a 1.1 HR/9 was a consistent hurdle to a full breakout. When he dropped to a career-best 0.76 in 2013, he won his first Cy Young. In fairness, the 6.4 H/9 was almost certainly more instrumental in his rise to ace-dom. While it regressed instantly back to 8.0 in 2014, it has since settled at 6.7 as a National. He has carried a sub-.270 BABIP three of the last four seasons, all three of which yielded the sub-7.0 hit rates.
There have been only seven seasons of 7.0 hits per nine innings or better by pitchers 32 or older since 2005. Only three those came from guys with at least a 1.0 HR/9, and they were all last year: Justin Verlander, John Lackey and Marco Estrada. The home run rate the last two years for Scherzer was giving me pause before the knuckle injury, but now it’s sealed that I won’t wind up with him at this cost. He is elite, but he’s not as low-risk as you might think judging by the fantasy output since 2013.
Even dropping around 10 picks would be enough to get him back into consideration, but there needs to be a wider split between Kershaw and the second pitcher. It’s not like you can find Scherzer replacements many rounds later, but the difference in value between picks in the earlier rounds is sharper than later. Waiting until the pick 24 area for Corey Kluber or around pick 53.8 for Chris Archer seems wiser if you are dead-set on an upper tier pitcher within the first three to four rounds. That can yield big returns given the upgrade in batters.
In order to take Scherzer so early, you’re likely passing on hitters like Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and Trea Turner, given Scherzer’s (and their) ADP. In at least one case, someone passed over even better stud bats than that by taking Scherzer third overall. Hitters with second-round ADPs like Joey Votto, Starling Marte, Edwin Encarnacion and Freddie Freeman all have their merits, but I comfortably prefer the first round of hitters over all of them. The calculus is a little different with Archer because he is usually going in the fourth round the two picks in between determine a lot about how you’ll attack that round.
However, the point isn’t to debate the value of these pairings, but rather assess how Kluber and Archer can deliver a reasonable facsimile of Scherzer at much lower cost.
If Scherzer is the Target – yes, Target is the high end for me (I know!) – then Kluber is the Walmart and Archer is the Kmart. Okay, maybe that doesn’t track, but surely the general point comes through. The difference between Scherzer and Kluber is minimal despite nearly a full round of savings with Kluber. Meanwhile, Archer could be rounding into the next Scherzer.
His strikeout and swinging strike rates jumped sharply in 2015 after showing potential for two-plus seasons, similar to Scherzer’s jump in 2012 to a major league best 29 percent strikeout rate. Focusing on the last two seasons is even more favorable for Archer, despite last year’s 4.04 ERA. His ERA gets a little worse at 3.61, but his WHIP (1.19) and K% (28%) both look better and the FIP gap shrinks as both guys come back to him.
They have their own risk factors, but those are baked into their lower cost. Kluber has consistently overcome a bad fastball as his path to success and the margin will shrink as he gets older, but there is no reason to believe a sharp drop-off is coming this year. Archer had a home run issue of his own last year (1.34 HR/9, 16 percent HR/FB), but it looks like a clear outlier against 0.78 HR/9 and 10 percent HR/FB career marks prior to 2016. It’s a bet on growth from Archer to emulate Scherzer, obviously, but that’s where the nearly three rounds of savings come in.
The case for not drafting Bumgarner and finding his production nearly replicated elsewhere was delivered a substantial blow when Price was scratched with elbow pain that yielded a visit to Dr. James Andrews. The latest news is that he won’t need surgery, but it’s hard not to have some trepidation. Keep him in mind if there is a corresponding drop in ADP, as he does still make for an intriguing Bumgarner alternative, but I have other starters to focus on in lieu of Price’s barking elbow.
Jon Lester is essentially an older version of Bumgarner at this point, so I’m not sure a round or so difference is enough savings to take the guy who is six years older. I still included him because I wanted to show how close they are, but the drop in offense from guys like Miguel Cabrera, Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Correa to Robinson Cano, Trevor Story, and George Springer just isn’t at a level where I’d forgo Bumgarner.
Jacob deGrom lost essentially the final month of his 2016 season to tendinitis in his right rotator cuff, which resulted in ulnar nerve surgery and casts a bit of a shadow over his 2017 outlook. The market has responded with nearly a three-round drop in ADP, though it’s worth noting that RotoGraphs’ BJ Maack suggested the clean-up of deGrom’s ulnar nerve would allow for a “situation-normal” season in 2017. If the risk factor on deGrom isn’t as severe as the general market believes, he becomes an appealing target for those hoping to secure three or four hitters before getting their first pitcher.
While his skills and results are very Bumgarnerian, he does lack even one 200-plus inning season, while Bumgarner is going for his seventh straight in 2017. That’s not a terrible tradeoff for over 50 picks in draft slotting, though. He did lose a tick off his fastball (93.4 mph, though he popped 97 mph in his spring debut) and had his worst season statistically (3.04 ERA, 1.20 WHIP). But he had a 2.30 ERA and 1.05 WHIP through 133.1 innings before allowing 16 earned runs in his final three starts before the ulnar nerve shut him down. Again, the case isn’t that these alternatives are equal to their counterparts, but rather adequate alternatives at much better prices.
Receny bias makes Zack Greinke a difficult case, but the fact that his numbers are so close to Bumgarner’s even with last year’s 4.37 ERA/1.27 WHIP combo speak to his greatness in the other two seasons. The question is whether you think his move to Arizona is the beginning of the end or if the debut was an injury-riddled (oblique, shoulder) blip on the radar. It was his first time hitting the disabled list since 2013 when Carlos Quentin bull-charged him like a clown. A 1.30 HR/9 rate was the biggest issue for Greinke last year and while some of that can be pinned on his new home ballpark, he had a 1.46 mark on the road.
His former teammates inflicted quite a bit of the damage (9.57 HR/9 at Dodger Stadium, five homers in 4.2 IP). He wasn’t treated too well in his first start since 2010 at Fenway Park, either: The Red Sox ripped him for three in just an inning and two-thirds. He did lose a half mile per hour on the fastball, but velocity has never driven his success. His raw stuff was still strong with swinging strike (10.4 percent) and first-pitch strike (67.8 percent) rates that remained well above major league averages (9.5 percent and 60.7 percent, respectively). Shaving his 14 percent HR/FB rate back down toward his 9.5 percent career average will be instrumental in his return to the (fantasy) ace realm.
The quality of Scherzer and Bumgarner is obvious, but unlike Kershaw, they don’t soar so far above their peers that they merit a late-first, early-second round pick. The rise in home runs, even if there is some regression, adds a measure of volatility back to pitchers that we haven’t seen since the late ’00s. Plus, it’s not just a one-year blip; this started in the second half of 2015 when starter HR/9 went from 0.96 to 1.09, and then up to 1.16 throughout all of 2016.
Since we want to be thorough, let’s look at five other pitchers going between picks 20 and 35 this spring whose skill sets can be approximated much later with similarly excellent upside. These five also carry their own risk factors you may want to avoid at their top-flight cost, instead opting for similar or a bit more risk at a much lower cost.
Noah Syndergaard | Risk Factor(s): elbow bone spur, track record
I understand how easy it is to be enamored of Thor. He has a nearly immaculate 333.2 innings powered by an obscenely good four-pitch arsenal. He strikes everyone out and walks hardly anyone. It’s hard to see how it could go wrong, but pitchers break. That is, like, their favorite thing to do.
His best comp through these first two seasons is Mark Prior, just sayin’. I won’t begrudge anyone who pays the toll for Syndergaard, but those who are especially risk-averse might not be ready to pay an early-second and sometimes late-first round pick for someone without a 200-inning season under his belt.
Carlos Carrasco broke out in 2014 after figuring things out in the bullpen, and while he still hasn’t been able to make it through a full season unscathed, the upside remains tremendous if he can reach that 200-inning threshold.
Lance McCullers has a lot of work to do to reach the heights of Thor, but the talent is evident. His 13 percent swinging strike rate was seventh-best among starters with at least 80 innings last year. Shoulder and elbow injuries limited him to just 81 innings last year and his 13 percent walk rate was hideous, but that’s why he’s available in the 12th round on average.
Garrett Richards had an elite season in 2014, though it was cut short by a freak knee injury covering first (maybe pitchers should stop covering first … that’s what the first baseman is for, right?!) and then we saw him reach 200 innings the following season. He eschewed Tommy John surgery for rehab last year, which is obviously reflected in his dirt-cheap price.
Chris Sale | Risk Factor(s): new team, tougher park/division
Admittedly, his risk factor isn’t too concrete, but moving to Fenway is an unknown (see also: Price, David). He also dropped about 2.5 strikeouts off his rate last year, which certainly has some worried. There are also those who are eternally worried that Sale will break down, though with an average of 203 innings per season over the last five years, I don’t see him carrying any more risk than other pitchers.
Handedness matches aren’t a must in these comparisons as we saw in the Bumgarner section, but I chose three interesting lefties to compare with Sale. They don’t look like great strikeout comps in the three-year look, but Danny Duffy and James Paxton took huge steps last year and Steven Matz showed extended flashes of the ability, though a few low strikeout games kept him below the strikeout-per-inning threshold.
Duffy had a Carrasco-esque epiphany in the bullpen last year and brought the improvements to the rotation with 26 strong starts. The game-changer was a revamped change-up that allowed the ninth-lowest OPS (.513) among 68 starters who threw at least 150 innings, along with the eighth-best strikeout (30 percent) and 17th-best walk rate (three percent).
Matz is a bet on the come with just 168 major league innings, but premium velo from the left side (93.6 mph) and three other speed bands with his secondary pitches have helped him keep both righties and lefties off balance while posting a tremendous 18 percent K-BB rate (league average is 12 percent since ’15).
Paxton will populate most sleeper lists, which means he probably won’t be much of a bargain by the time we reach the peak of draft season, but that won’t stop me from investing. Like Matz, track record is an issue as last year’s 121 innings were a career-high for Paxton, but a mechanical change yielded both velocity and control gains that netted big returns, including a 3.19 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in his final 11 starts.
Corey Kluber | Risk Factor(s): bad fastball, homers down the stretch (1.26 HR/9 in final 13 starts)
Yes, I did advocate Kluber as a Scherzer alternative earlier and now I’m offering up alternatives for him. It’s all about preference. Some fantasy managers want an early starter, but prefer waiting to the second or third round over using their first pick pick. Others are dead set on trying to find the next Klubers and Scherzers of the world.
Gerrit Cole has done it. We saw how great he can be back in 2015 when he posted a 2.60 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 208 innings, but a big drop-off in an injury-riddled 2016 has tanked his cost. The former No. 1 overall pick has all the tools, but is the elbow good to go? We can’t know for sure, but he’s worth the gamble.
Michael Fulmer’s Rookie of the Year campaign appears to be just the beginning for the big righty. Premium velocity and a strikeout slider were the known commodities in his arsenal, but his change-up took a massive jump in-season last year and carried him to his award-winning season. The change clicked in his fifth start and after a 6.52 ERA through four starts, he reeled off a 2.58 ERA in his final 22. There is a lot of strikeout potential here even if the ERA regresses from last year’s mark.
It’s do-or-die for Kevin Gausman if he’s going to be stud many have projected him to be the last few years. The key is keeping the ball in the park (1.19 career HR/9), as everything else is in place. He had his first 30-start season last year and now it’s time for a 200-inning breakout.
Jake Arrieta | Risk Factor(s): health, nearly double walk percentage
Arrieta is relatively new to the ace ranks, but he was a late bloomer so he’s hardly a young buck. He’s headed into his age-31 season and part of what held him back was an inability to stay on the field. Even that first breakout in 2014 was only 156.2 innings and he’s had both elbow and shoulder issues during his career. Few guys can jump from 5.5 percent walk rate to 9.6 percent and still post a 3.10 ERA/1.08 WHIP, but that speaks to his excellence, so my concern with him is purely health-related.
You’re not exactly going risk-averse with these alternatives, but each is over 100 picks cheaper. If you don’t want to go quite this cheap, deGrom is also a good fit as an Arrieta alternative, going more than two rounds later on average. These other three all have pedigrees; two are vets who have proven it and the other is a young pitcher who looked brilliant before an elbow injury trashed his numbers and shortened his season.
The market is terrified of Felix Hernandez, primarily because his velocity continues to plummet. While that can’t be ignored, neither can his premium secondary stuff, especially the change-up. His .498 OPS with it was seventh-best from that same 68 pitcher pool discussed with Duffy and his 688 thrown were eighth-most, which makes his results even more impressive. I can’t quit King Felix, not yet.
I rarely put a ton of weight into spring training, but Matt Harvey’s spring will be instrumental in my willingness to invest. Coming off thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, Harvey has to show his stuff is there before I’ll jump back on the bandwagon — a bandwagon I was driving last year. Thoracic outlet is still relatively new with uninspiring results, but we haven’t seen many pitchers his age and talent level go through it yet. Stay tuned.
Through 12 starts, Aaron Nola was having a brilliant season: 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 22 percent K-BB rate in 78 innings, but then the wheels came off. He had a 13.50 ERA in his next five starts before the Phillies shut him down for an extended All-Star break. He returned with six shutout innings, but the success was short-lived as he was blasted in two more starts, which ended up being his last of the season. It’s hard not to think the elbow was bothering him throughout that meltdown so this is a bet on health. He is said to be 100 percent without restrictions and the risk is very much built into the cost.
Yu Darvish | Risk Factor(s): health
You would’ve never known that Darvish was returning from Tommy John surgery last year if you saw only his skills, but as is often the case, he needed a disabled list stint, as some shoulder trouble cropped up amid his 100.1-inning return. As elite as the skills have been throughout, he does have five DL visits, a completely missed season, and just one 200-inning campaign.
Hmm… elite skills, a pile of DL stints, and just one 200-inning season, was that about Darvish or Stephen Strasburg? It happens to fit both and thus if I’m looking for that super-elite potential from someone who has already done it, I’m passing Darvish and just waiting for Strasburg.
However, if I’m going bargain hunting for that kind of upside then I’ll look where few others will think to look: Coors Field. Jon Gray showed sharp skills that look fit to succeed in the hitter’s haven. In fact, it was his road work (4.91 ERA) that elevated his ERA, but the FIP is over a run lower and points to what he can do if he gets everything going the right way. Curbing the implosion starts — home and away — will be key to delivering on the upside his skills portend. He’s also the only later round (pick 150 and beyond) recommendation throughout this piece without a health concern.
Vince Velasquez did finish his season on Sept. 3, but it was a planned shutdown as opposed to injury. That said, he did have a bicep injury that cost him a couple weeks in June. The hard-throwing righty also eclipsed 100 innings just once in the minors, so there is workload concern, but the skills are there. In fact, even the 4.12 ERA from 2016 is somewhat misleading. Outside of a hideous three-start stretch in August (10.47 ERA in 16.1 innings, eight of his 21 homers), he had a 3.21 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 114.2 innings. It may not all come at once, but ceiling is sky-high and he’s priced to buy.
We don’t entirely know what spurred the home run craze of 2016 so it’s hard to know if it will stick. It was likely a combination of the factors most commonly cited: players changing their launch angles, the ball, and the countrywide warm weather. It may regress some, but don’t forget that it’s not just a 2016 thing. It started in the second half of 2015. At this point, the 0.91 HR/9 for starters in 2014 stands out as the clear outlier over the last 10 seasons. Home runs are the quickest way to ruin an ERA and add volatility to an already fickle field.
Pitchers aren’t always afforded the smooth decline we typically see among hitters, which is part of why the fantasy community was so averse to investing in them early for so long. The abundance of young, emerging pitchers adds to the uneasiness of spending top resources on pitching outside of Kershaw, though back injuries are the devil and so even he carries real risk. I’ve outlined a path to finding the next great studs who are comparable to the more established ones we have today at better prices, whether you want to get a couple of hitters rostered before a starter arm or build a foundation of several hitters prior to tackling your staff.