Fantasy Baseball: Evaluating Pitchers

Butch Dill/USA Today Sports

It is time for me to review my process for evaluating pitchers in fantasy baseball. I finally reached this point after starting the morning scraping the snow and ice off of my car. Man, winter is great! Keeping things positive it is time on the fantasy calendar to begin your process of preparing for the 2018 fantasy baseball season. I will be continuing my regular column on closers and relief pitching talent once the Major League Baseball season is upon us. This article is a bit longer than normal and provides background on the variables I like to focus on for fantasy baseball pitchers I am drafting or adding. It can be useful in deciding to who to keep in dynasty leagues as well.

Since it is my first baseball article of the season and my first article of any kind in awhile, pardon me as I introduce myself briefly. In my day job I am a Chemist for a small company in Pennsylvania, and I have been writing about fantasy sports for over a year now at www.fakepigskin.com. You can also find me on twitter most days. I have been playing fantasy baseball for about four years now and I really enjoy it.

Awhile back there was a post on www.fangraphs.com about the reasons people watch baseball. If I can ever find it, I will tweet out the link. That was an eye opener for me. It turns out that what I really enjoy most are unsurprisingly home runs and strikeouts. I would’ve guessed defense or “small-ball”. This has been mostly supported in my fantasy baseball performance including writing.  I was going to do a season wrap-up highlighting all the relief pitching recommendations from the 2017 season but I got lucky and had a lot of good picks in this space and I didn’t want to be THAT guy. Remember the entire 2018 baseball season will be played before the next Game of Thrones episode!

Turn the page to help you for fantasy baseball 2018, I must point out that your league size, type, settings, etc are critically important in assigning values to players. I generally target mixed leagues as the main focus with nods to deeper or NL/AL-only keeper leagues. For example, a seventh inning only pitcher will probably have no value in a mixed league but could be a good target for the deeper leagues. If you can keep players (dynasty) that obviously impacts their value. Which statistics count or if it is a points league or 5 x 5 rotisserie league, head to head or season long, roster size, DL spots, points  or holds leagues, league size – all of these things matter.

If you are of the belief that fantasy sports are for nerds, then fantasy baseball is probably the nerdiest. Analytics or advanced metrics have made a huge impact on real life baseball. A lot of this work was pioneered by fantasy enthusiasts, or at least that is my general impression from a distance and with no connections to anyone in the MLB. Yet, for me anyways, there is always the unquantifiable aspect of researching or judging a player. The classic phrase – Does he/she have it? This isn’t a segway into the quagmire of film versus numbers.  I do believe it helps *me* to watch some tape of players. I can’t speak for what helps you, but I would recommend looking up a player’s videos prior to adding them. The best example I have from my own fantasy baseball experience is Randal Grichuk. Per Rotoworld, he had 3 homeruns, 6 doubles in 110 AB in his debut partial 2014 season, and note an awful tendency to strikeout. Here is a link to video of his second home run in the majors from 2014 youtube . Even factoring in the pitcher and the pitch speed, I still saw something I liked in the swing.

I am going to list all the factors in play for me when I look at adding a pitcher for fantasy baseball purposes. Then I will touch on the more important ones with a few examples. Obviously there are few differences if we are looking a starting pitcher versus a relief pitcher.  I list these factors in loose order of importance to me, or the order at which I look them up for a player I may add. Keep in mind it is very rare to find someone who checks all of the boxes like the true aces. I just hope to find a pitcher who is strong in a few areas and then at least nothing negative in the other factors.

 

Harry How  - Getty Images

Harry How – Getty Images

Factors for Evaluating Fantasy Baseball Pitchers:

K:BB or K%

Traditional Statistics – ERA, WHIP, Wins – Losses, Saves

Draft Spot & speed through the minor levels

Health, Age, Innings Pitched history, physicals

Pitch Mix & Splits

Team project wins & complementary pitching staff

Park Factors

Velo / Spin / SwStr% / HR/9 and others

Blurbs -RW, FG, BA, BP

 

As mentioned earlier, I am probably too obsessed with strikeouts in fantasy baseball, but my first stop is always looking up a pitcher’s strikeout to walk ratio or strikeout percentage. The reason you need both sometimes is that a pitch to contact type may have a solid K:BB ratio but a low total number of strikeouts. The percentage can help you project the expected strikeouts per nine innings. For me this piece is critical in predicting success, with the other factors underpinning it. A lot of baseball enthusiasts will immediately protest that fastball velocity and pitch mix, and traditional statistics matter way more. It just happens to be my belief as an analyst that the K:BB or K% has those qualities baked into it. It is tough to find a pitcher with a high K% and both a low fastball velocity and only can throw two pitches. I do suggest the reader pays careful attention to home runs allowed if you follow this approach. That is something that can haunt you if you focus on strikeout pitchers. This method of analysis led me to Keone Kela of the Texas Rangers last year. Per www.mlb.com, he had a K:BB of 113:35 in his first two seasons in the bigs. Anything over 3:1 is quite promising for a reliever.

Fantasy baseball was traditionally in a 5 x 5 format. This meant that there were five hitting categories and five for pitching. The five for pitching are Wins, Strikeouts, Saves, Earned Run Average (ERA), and Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched (WHIP). Many leagues still use this format. Even if your leagues do not use ERA and WHIP, I would definitely looks at pitcher’s performance in those categories. This helps develop a more complete picture of the player’s profile. Clearly for closers and relievers the Saves category must be reviewed.

Next up for me is the pitcher’s draft spot combined with their speed through the minor league levels. There is a parallel in fantasy football where you want to draft players from the first few rounds of the NFL draft. The same is true here in fantasy baseball. Those players were assigned a high draft value by the actual MLB teams, who know a lot more about evaluating baseball talent than I do. I think this is especially true for pitchers in baseball. I imagine being a pitcher as one of the most daunting and lonely positions on the team. In my head, the higher draft picks have more confidence built up over years as being a top player. This can be a huge edge over a late round pick who may waiver in tough spots. All of this is the type of generalization I hate to make but I believe it matters.

I include speed through minor league levels because I look at late round pick that flew through single A thru triple A very similar to an early round pick. Mowing down the competition at each level has to be encouraging. An example of the late round pick that flew through for me last year was Ty Blach of the San Francisco Giants. Per Baseball Reference he was drafted in the 5th round of the 2012 draft. He spent one season at single A, one at double A, and pitched in triple A in 2015 and 2016. He played in four games at the MLB level in 2016. This is fast for a pitcher. He was in the running for the 5th starting pitcher spot in Spring Training and is exactly the type of pitcher I like to bet on. That being said he kind of collapsed in the second half. It is important to note that he had not pitched more than 166 innings in any season. We will come back to that later.

When it comes to pitching, predicting total innings pitched or even potential project innings pitched is important to fantasy baseball. This is where a player’s health comes into play. I am summing up a few things into this health label, they all relate to what the process needs. Is the pitcher getting older? Opinions vary greatly but optimally the pitcher is between 24 and 32 years old roughly. After 32, the arm can fall off and overall ability to stay healthy enough to compete against peak athletes can decline. Obviously some pitchers thrive in their 30’s, this is more the exception than the rule. I am by no means an ageist but if you are in a fantasy baseball auction you usually don’t want to get stuck with the oldest player in a given tier. I made this mistake last year. It isn’t just age, I also need to know a pitcher’s injury history with an obvious focus on arm or chronic injuries.

I also look at the previous three years of innings pitched when evaluating pitchers. It is difficult to assess sometimes unless the player was in the majors for those seasons. Minor league pitchers pitch fewer innings in a season as a default, so you can’t really expect a rookie to be coming off of a 200+ inning season. But you have to at least see the numbers. If a player maxed out under 150 innings, I would be wary of placing a large investment in him. An example for this season is starting pitcher prospect Michael Kopech of the Chicago White Sox. He definitely looks like the real deal but since he maxed out at 134 innings pitched last year, I probably won’t bid enough to get him. This was probably my biggest weakness in fantasy baseball pitcher analysis in my first year of playing. I mention spring training because people can really overvalue it. But I think pitchers’ health during spring training is definitely important to monitor especially with pitchers. How do they look? Is their fastball live? Do they keep having delays in a recovery from injury? Those kinds of things. I will touch on the remaining factors in a more limited fashion.

Al Bello - Getty Images

Al Bello – Getty Images

Pitching mix is something I cannot really speak to. I have not delved into this fully because of the stuff I said earlier. But basically most coaches and analysts want pitchers to have four different pitches they can throw effectively. A pitcher’s split history is definitely worth looking at, especially for starting pitchers. I mean performance against left handed batters split versus right handed batters. A pitcher who routinely gets raked by one type of batter is unlikely to last as a starter in the majors.

Projecting a team’s win total is relevant for both starting and relief pitchers in fantasy baseball. Projected wins are best acquired from a few sources including Las Vegas sportsbook odds and strictly baseball (not fantasy) publications and websites. This is a spot where reading of actual sports books and encyclopedias can help form an objective projection. For example I was wrong about the SF Giants. I thought they would contend and I probably overestimated their win total. This was another reason I liked Ty Blach. I prefer pitchers on good teams for obvious reasons, likelihood of getting wins and saves with further run support from better offenses. I also want my starters to have competent bullpen staffs so they don’t handover a sure win after the starter leaves the game. Conversely closers on teams with good starters are usually better bets for saves.

Park Factors can be critical, with the classic example of Coors Field home of the Colorado Rockies. You generally do not want to have pitchers in home stadiums that show above average scoring and / or home runs vs the MLB average. There are always exceptions to this, and my exception to this was adding starting pitcher Jon Gray when he got called up by the Rockies. This wasn’t some genius move on my part, he was widely regarded as a top prospect; I just got lucky on waivers. I do think a well rounded fantasy baseball team can have one or two of these types on their team and still be ok. You would prefer a neutral or pitcher friendly park such as PNC Park home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I have no comments fit for even the blogosphere about that team’s offseason.

I am lumping together a few statistics that some people will surely hate me for: fastball velocity, spin rate, and swinging strike percentage. The reader can find this on numerous websites some of which are listed at the end of this article. In my eye, these are tools to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness and also health in some cases. They have real value, I just don’t trust myself to assess that value based on the statistic alone. I trust my ability to evaluate factors I dove deep into much more and believe that these numbers are baked into those. It is very possible I am wrong and that the reader can gain more value from these numbers. I do always look at pitcher’s velocity, spin rate, and swinging strike rate but it usually doesn’t move the needle. Only in extreme cases or as a tiebreaker. If I make it all the way through my analysis and I can’t decide on a pitcher but than I see his fastball is 88 mph, well then I am going to pass. Or if I see a player has really high swinging strike rate, then I am more willing to give them a chance. There are a ton of other statistics out there. I advise you to research some of them and try find ones that match up with your view of pitching, like I have with K:BB ratios. The key part being trusting your own analysis of players.

Last stop for me is the blurbs from all of your favorite fantasy websites, with our www.fakepigskin.com, clearly being number one in your heart. As much as possible I prefer to do my own pitcher analysis prior to reading the blurbs but sometimes that is impossible. I am going to link my go to sites below. I want to note that the casual fan misuses these 3rd party websites, at least in my opinion. I have to suggestions for you, read them in the voice of your pal who you never agree on players with. And secondly always read back through the past season of articles / blurbs or least the top three. You can see opinion on players shifting over time. Time is a flat circle after all. Don’t forget a brief eye test if possible. Thank you for reading.

 

Fantasy Baseball Player information:

 

www.fakepigskin.com

 

www.fangraphs.com

 

www.rotoworld.com

 

www.baseball-reference.com

 

www.baseballamerica.com

 

www.baseballprospectus.com

 

 

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