Discussion on the New Pitching Landscape
Last year was the year of the home run, causing ripples through the entire fantasy landscape. Unsurprisingly, this had quite the effect on pitchers, although it’s been less talked about than the hitter side of things. What should fantasy owners do, if anything, about this trend?
2017 had a dramatic decline in the number of innings thrown by starting pitchers. To qualify for the ERA title, a pitcher needs to throw 162 innings. In 2014, 88 pitchers qualified…then 78…then 74…and last year? Only 58 pitchers threw 162 innings. 2017 was the first year since 1961 (when MLB expanded) the number was that low. It has been trending down, but last year was a significant drop. Another interesting note is that 2017 had the highest number of pitchers to start at least one game in league history.
There were a few causes for this dip:
- The disabled list minimum changing from 15 days to 10 days predictably increased the number of players placed on the DL, and some teams (cough Dodgers cough) seemingly manipulated it intentionally. Last year there were 88 more disabled list stints than any other single season.
- The increased specialization of relievers had starters not pitching as deep into games. Last year 23% of all starts didn’t make it through 5 innings. The previous single season high was 20%…and that was 2016. Starters also threw 100 or more pitches in games at the lowest rate since pitch counts began being tracked in 1988, according to Baseball Reference. Teams are clearly relying on relievers a lot more.
Without rule changes, I don’t think the DL ‘problem’ will go away as it allows starters to only miss one start. I also don’t expect the reliance on relievers to change. They’ve just gotten so good, and it’s become so difficult to develop quality starters who you can rely on year after year to start 30 or more times and go deep into games. I expect this trend to continue and not revert back to ’14-’16 levels. So what should fantasy owners do about it? I think there are three potential options.
1. Change Nothing
Well, this is a league-wide trend, so if it’s affecting most pitchers it is affecting all fantasy owners equally… why change the way you value pitchers?
2. Bump Up Durable/Dependable Starters
With fewer starters getting to 160 or more innings, perhaps we should put greater emphasis on guys with a higher probability of getting to that threshold? If you target pitchers like Jose Quintana, Justin Verlander, Carlos Martinez, Rick Porcello, Chris Archer, Marcus Stroman, Gio Gonzalez, Julio Teheran, and (for deeper leagues) Mike Leake, you can give yourself a higher probability of leading your league in starts/innings. That can give you a leg up on the competition.
3. Bump Up Elite Starters with Injury Concerns
Since starters are throwing fewer innings, wouldn’t it be better to target guys who will get the most out of those limited innings? If you target pitchers like Noah Syndergaard, Carlos Carrasco, Shohei Ohtani, James Paxton, Lance McCullers Jr, David Price, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton, Garrett Richards, and Danny Salazar, you give yourself one of the highest upside rotations in strikeouts per inning and in ratios. That gives you a bump in quality over your other owners, and perhaps you have good fortune and get a bunch of them to clear 160 innings.
Which one do you think is best?
I think option 3 is best. One important factor to consider is replacement level in your league, how many disabled list spots there are, etc. But since teams are using more starters, that means there will be more options on your waiver wire. You’ll have more choices to choose from when Lance McCullers goes on the DL. I would argue that since the quantity of innings is going down, quality is more important than it ever has been. Shoot for upside, use the deeper player pool at the position to fill in when they go on the disabled list, and conquer your league.
As I’ve said in previous posts, James Paxton, Rich Hill, and Brad Peacock were all top-20 starters in fantasy last year. None of them even made it to 140 innings. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, and with league context, these type of pitchers are far more valuable than they’ve ever been.