The fantasy leagues I play in are overwhelmingly of the mixed-league variety, so it’s relatively infrequent that I write specifically with an AL- or NL-only perspective in mind, but Cliff Lee’s surprise departure from the American League led to such a musing. I can’t remember when there was as stark an imbalance of elite starting pitching between the leagues. This dynamic has significant fantasy implications for non-mixed leagues.
In the National League, it seems elite starting pitching options abound. From Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright, and Tim Lincecum to near top-tier options like Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Carpenter, Yovani Gallardo, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw, and (when healthy) Johan Santana, starting pitching studs are seemingly a dime a dozen. We haven’t even touched on guys who are just missing one element or are a bit too green to anoint as fantasy gold, like Mat Latos, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Sanchez, or Wandy Rodriguez. Heck, even Ted Lilly might warrant a mention here.
On the other hand, the AL is nearly bereft of elite talent. The way I see it, there are three clear studs that seem rock solid top-tier options – Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester and C.C. Sabathia. Beyond that, David Price, Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, and Jeff Weaver have the potential to join that group; some might include Zack Greinke and Francisco Liriano here as well. Venturing outside top 10 territory, we’re left to concede honors to pitchers like John Danks, Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Colby Lewis and Ricky Romero (and Matt Garza if the off chance he doesn’t move the the National League as well). To be sure, the players I just named are quite fine pitchers and I’d be happy to roster them, but by comparison this is Nat’s Peach Pit misfits in the face of the sleek Beverly Hills Little League All Stars. (Geez, you leave Bill Simmons in your house to go on one beer run and when you come back there are 90210 references in your column…)
A pitcher like Lilly might not be in some people’s NL top 20, but would have a legit argument for the AL’s top 12. That’s a pretty stark imbalance. So, what would I do about it?
Normally, I’m a strong proponent not spending on the tip top arms. I like to try to nab the last remaining pitcher with top-tier potential (Hamels was my target last year), and generally not be too picky about who that guy is. I try to land one top 12 pitcher, then go on a run and clean up on a series of undervalued pitchers in the 120 – 180 pre-rank range (it seems there is always tons of value here, especially because the less savvy start to make poor decisions regarding pitching in this range, often because they start chasing wins). Then, I finish up by taking a few late-round fliers on high ceiling guys coming off of injury or fireballing first or second year players. This is how I would continue to play things if I were in an NL-only 2011 league, as well as how I plan to approach my mixed leagues again.
However, I think a strategic departure would be in order in an AL league. This year, in an AL-only league I’d give very strong consideration to paying the price for Sabathia, King Felix, or Lester; they really seem like the only sure things. (In AL- or NL-only leagues it’s also important to eat innings – you really want your best rate stat players to have the most weight to those rates.) Then, I think I’d deploy a strategy similar to my general strategy and try to nab the cheapest possible reliable, borderline top 20 option without much regard to which one it turns out to be. Then I’d move on to guys who “don’t really hurt you” and high upside gambles. I’d also look to bolster my Ks and rates by going after some elite middle relievers, as well as stay away from bottom of the barrel closers.
It’s almost a certainty that Verlander, Haren, Liriano or somebody from that group will provide similar numbers to the Big 3 and prove to be a better buy, but none of us know which one it will be. Further, my read is that the A- and especially the B+ options will be worse buys, as a group. In my experience, when operating within a fixed budget league system (draft leagues would fall into this dynamic as well) there’s something of a glass ceiling on the prices of the highest end options. The lack of star pitching depth will have greater inflationary influence on the price of the consolation prizes than the grand prizes.
I’d like to make three quick points about why I believe the above statement is true. First, there’s the panic factor. Owners often look at a draft or auction board, realize they don’t have an ace and that there are few elite options left and determine they have to reach to ensure they don’t go without. This will happen earlier this year than in year’s past.
The second and third phenomena go hand in hand. For starters, there is just greater disparity in the perceived value of players who aren’t absolutely premium goods. In this case, I think the top 3 is clear, but when it comes to, say, Verlander, some might think he’s just a shade behind that group while others may still be stained by the possibility of a repeat of 2008. All it takes is one owner to think an A- option is nearly equivalent to an A option to push the price. A corollary to that dynamic is the slippery slope factor. Lester, Sabathia and Felix fetch luxury goods prices because they are truly the best of the best. Then, the biggest fan of the next player in the consolation price group to go sets that player’s price, often a bit high. What happens next is that the first A- option’s price becomes the anchor for the price of the next player from that group. This is how “runs” start. Runs are the manifestation of the notion that X-1 is essentially the same thing as X and because somebody established the value of X it’s a good idea to pay a similar price for asset X-1 without really exploring the value of other assets classes. Meanwhile, owners have a collective discomfort about breaking certain price barriers for a single player, so the prices of the top options remain more stable.
Surely, the dynamics above exist in all NL-only or mixed leagues as well, but the luxury of depth is that many of these pricing skews correct themselves within a tier of players. This means that if you are patient and are willing to settle for one of a group of guys you target, you rarely have to overpay simply to acquire a representative of an asset class.
As a quick side note before signing off, this is one of the main reasons I’m not a proponent of going after an elite catcher in mixed leagues. There are few enough members of the asset class to make it likely that there will be enough owners to overvalue them, therefore leading to them getting gobbled up before the market corrects itself. If you set your sights instead simply on a productive catcher with a bit of upside who is unlikely to hurt you, you are almost guaranteed to be able to nab one of those players for below market price. In AL- or NL-only leagues, the dynamic surrounding the elite catchers can swing back though where the value above replacement is high enough to justify the truly exorbitant price a Joe Mauer type may provide.
One more quick note about “runs.” Runs often end either when all the players in a tier are consumed or when each team gets a player to fulfill the desired role. In AL starting pitcher example above, there may not be enough A and A- options to fill the role of “ace” on each team in the league. So, while the normal stopping point of a run of overdrafting or overpaying pitchers may be at the transition from the A- to B+ tier, the fact that the lines often blur and that some teams may not even have their ace may encourage these kinds of runs to continue longer than usual.