The myth of avoiding “pitcher risk”

I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from readers and read a few articles at other sites talking about how the current state of some elite starting pitchers goes to show why taking pitchers early is a bad choice. There are several flaws with this logic, though.

The comments from these sources have talked about the injury struggles of Erik Bedard, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Scott Kazmir, and Pedro Martinez; C.C. Sabathia‘s poor start and disconcerting control; and Rich Hill‘s waning job security, among other things. They then go on to say how this inherent risk with starting pitchers makes it a poor idea to take them early during a draft, how they are just too “risky.” If you own (or have ever owned) a pitcher like this, hopefully the following explanation will give you some peace of mind.

Vacuum

The first point I’d like to make is that often these comments are made whilst looking into a vacuum. You have to look at it in the context of the strategy each particular team is trying to employ. I understand that fantasy articles can’t possibly be geared towards every possible strategy every possible reader used, so looking at it in a vacuum is more acceptable in this case. But still, there are plenty of times when taking pitchers early is essential to the strategy used.

When projecting players before the season, there are several things that need to be taken into account. You have things like talent, regression, and age, but you also must account for an array of possible outcomes. I’ve talked about this before in an article entitled the “Probabilistic concept of value“.

Projections and risk

Think about PECOTA. PECOTA gives projections based on percentiles. A player’s 10th percentile projection is basically the worst you should expect the player to perform. The 90th percentile projection is the best you should expect. The 50th percentile projection is the average expected performance, which is used in the same way that standard projections given by other sites and services are.

While this is the average performance, it is certainly not the only possibility. When creating a projection, all possibilities must be accounted for. They are then compressed into a single line, sometimes a single number, that many owners use to make selections on draft day. During the course of making these projections for pitchers, one must consider the risk factor.

One must consider the risk of being injured, the risk of getting unlucky/lucky (which is higher for pitchers), and the risk of Lou Piniella—early favorite for the “Dumbest Personnel Decision Made by a Manager” (for those wondering, Charlie Manuel won last year for sending Brett Myers to the bullpen)—deciding that, despite the fact you’re the best pitcher on the team, he might replace you with Jon Lieber. Okay, maybe that last one isn’t as obvious to account for, but the point remains.

The high variability of pitcher performance is taken into account when making the original projection. Therefore, there is no need to make further deductions in value on draft day. If your draft board says that a pitcher is a fourth-round talent, don’t be afraid to choose him simply because he’s a pitcher (if it meshes with your strategy).

My draft day approach to elite pitching

Granted, I don’t take normally take pitchers for at least the first three rounds, but that’s not because certain pitchers aren’t worth it. Over the long-run, you will receive just as much production and value choosing a first-round pitcher than you would a first-round hitter, holding all else constant. My choice not to is related to the variability of pitcher projections, though.

I am willing to sacrifice just a little bit of value in the first few rounds in order to secure hitters who have solid skill sets, a clean bill of health, and are consistent, elite producers. I will do just a tiny bit worse over the long-term, but I will also be competitive far more often. If a first-round pitcher busts, it can be nearly impossible to make up that value in a very competitive league.

A fifth or sixth round pitcher, maybe a Sabathia or Beckett, I would have no problem taking. I already have the core of my team and here, if the value is good and it fits with what I’m trying to accomplish, taking a pitcher is a fine move. Even if they bust, the hole you’re put in isn’t insurmountable. The risk involved is irrelevant at this point, in my opinion. We’ve already taken it into consideration with the original projection, and a bust of a sixth-round pick is possible to replace. You’ll often find a handful of waiver wire pitchers each year (or ones taken from round 15 or so on) who could put up close to that production, maybe better.

This isn’t to say that we should be completely inflexible early, though. If Johan Santana is somehow still sitting there in the third round, I’m taking him. At this point, I think the value Santana presents outweighs the value and consistency I can get from a third-round caliber hitter. I’ll then use my fourth round pick on a reliable hitter.

When disaster strikes

If you are an Erik Bedard owner—who Chris Neault feels could be on the verge of a more serious injury than the Mariners are letting on—your decision to draft him wasn’t a bad one. I know you may feel bad now, having perhaps your third or fourth round pick injured like this, but it wasn’t a bad choice. Okay, maybe prospective Bedard owners could have watched some tape and picked up on what Chris talked about in his article, but we all don’t have the knowledge he does about such things.

With the information you had, if you saw Bedard as a legitimate third-round value, the choice to take him was not a bad one. It didn’t work out, but that’s just the way things go. Pitchers will get injured, but in the long-run, it will work out as it is supposed to. As long as you’re decision making process was logical, the results really don’t matter. Making the right decision is all you can do. If you start second-guessing yourself, you may make the wrong decisions in the future. When you make the wrong decision, guess what? You’re going to be wrong far more often than you would be if you made the right decision!

Concluding thoughts

Hopefully this is of some recourse to owners of guys like Bedard or Lackey and an enlightening perspective to those who don’t own such guys. If you have any questions or need anything clarified, please feel free to send me an e-mail.

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