We all know the deal. The smart thing to do in a draft is to wait on pitching, right? Well, maybe not. Granted, the following must be considered in context to your league, but the smartest person in the room may no longer be the one waiting on pitching. Again, if you play in a 10-team mixed league, this column may not be for you, but once you get to 12 and definitely 14 and 15 team mixed leagues, you should give this serious thought when planning your draft strategy.
Something to keep in mind is the whole premise is not so much that you can win with inferior pitching as much as it is you can build a quality staff with less of an investment if you know where to look. Another concept to remember is the most successful strategy is one in which those deploying it are in the minority. This can be thought of in terms of Economics 101: supply and demand. The cost of a commodity is most reasonable when the supply is high and the demand is low, and vice versa. Instead of explaining why it is best to not wait, let us dissect the advice most often cited for holding off on pitching.
Perhaps the best reason for waiting on pitching is the assumption that you can find quality pitching in the later rounds. And, for a long time, this was quite true. But as is the case with all successful strategies, eventually the mainstream catches up and the effectiveness is diminished. Thanks to the advances in pitching analysis, pioneered by Ron Shandler, publisher of Baseball HQ and taken to the next level with the advent of such metrics as FIP, xFIP and tERA, most of us now know to focus on the underlying skills of a pitcher and not the surface stats such as ERA and WHIP. Then factor in the vast improvement in data collection so we can really study things like BABIP and HR/FB by looking at line drive, groundball and fly ball distribution, and our ability to fine tune pitching performance is further enhanced. The result of this level of analysis is there are fewer hidden gems in the lower tiers of pitching. Those of us that produce projections now know to use peripherals and not ERA to rank pitching. This pushes pitchers from the lower tiers into the middle tiers. The smartest man in the room is no longer able to focus on strikeout, walk and home run rates to obtain a quality pitcher at a low cost. This is because there are now multiple smartest men in the room, which folds back into the supply and demand concept. A few years back, there were a select few targeting a fairly rich group of undervalued pitchers. Now, the demand is higher as more know to do this while the supply is low as pitchers formally ranked lower are properly gauged. This is not a smart way to draft as too many people are chasing a scarce commodity. The supply of quality pitching has shifted to earlier rounds. If your fellow drafters are slow to recognize this and still prefer to wait, this makes the demand low. High supply plus low demand equals buying opportunity.
Another reason suggested for waiting on pitching that has recently come into vogue is the quality of pitching overall has improved, so you can wait and still pick up quality pitching. That sounds smart, but is actually incorrect when you think of it in fantasy baseball terms: value is relative. While the raw stats of the 40th best starting pitcher today may be better than those of the 40th best a few years ago, their fantasy value is pretty much the same. You cannot compare the two pitchers to each other, but rather how they lie within their respective player pools. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing I am hearing and reading so far with respect to 2011 draft preparation. Too many people are championing the principle that you can wait on pitching because the overall quality of pitching is better than in previous seasons.
A mantra that I actually coined is “bully hitting and manage pitching”. And while I still believe this to be true, the manner to bully hitting has changed recently, and thus your draft strategy must change with it. A few years back, bullying hitting went hand in hand with waiting on pitching, as the means to bully hitting was to expend your early draft choices on sticks. And again, this is still largely the case, but there are a couple of points to consider. The composition of the player pool has changed. There used to be a far greater delineation for the upper tier. But now, the statistical distribution is less stratisfied. This makes sense as it is a repercussion of better pitching. But the point is, you gain less of an advantage focusing all your early picks on hitters since the difference between hitters taken in the first few rounds with respect to later rounds is nowhere near as significant now as it was a few years back. Then factor in that on average, 33% of your batters will miss time due to injury, and bullying hitting is more a matter of luck than it is identifying good hitters. Or is it? While this will be a story for another day, it feeds right into this theme. Which is a better choice: a hitter projected to swat 30 homers, but is an injury risk or someone projected to hit 25, but is a better bet to stay healthy? I am not so sure that the better ploy to bully up stats is to focus more on health and consistency than it is to draft the better projection. And to be fair, this is a concept that the aforementioned Ron Shandler is researching via his Mayberry Method ranking of reliability. Though, I am not positive if Ron has made the connection yet that focusing on reliability may open the door for taking a pitcher earlier than usual if there are no reliable players of interest at that pick.
Some people like to wait on pitching because they are confident in their ability to troll the waiver wire and fortify their pitching staffs in that manner. Admittedly, this used to be a great idea. But this is another instance of the shifting supply and demand dynamic. More people are also fishing in the free agent pool for in-season help, increasing demand, but more importantly, the supply has dwindled. There are two reasons for this lessening supply. The first is much of the in-season value came from closers emanating from the free agent pool. In leagues with reserves, you will now find sage owners really cherry pick the speculative closers, meaning fewer saves are available, as they reside on a competitor’s reserve list. And similarly to how middle round pitchers are now properly ranked a few rounds higher, the same holds true here. Pitchers that were previously not drafted are now the end gamers, while the guy who was somewhat lucky last season is expected to regress and no one wants to touch him.
While I know we sometimes get a bit too NFBCentric around here and focus on no-trading strategies, the majority of us play in leagues that permit trading and have won titles by dealing our excess offense for pitching help, since we did not invest highly in pitching during the draft. The issue here is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make value for value trades, as that usually involves one team dealing from excess to improve deficiency and as discussed earlier, between injury and the bunching of the player pool, it is very hard to build up a sufficient cushion to feel safe dealing some of it away. If you cannot trade for the pitching you need, you have to acquire it on your own, meaning drafting better pitching than before.
The bottom line is the quality of your pitching necessary to win has not changed. It still takes a certain level of stats to compete. What has changed is the manner you need to go about accruing that degree of pitching. You can no longer put together a staff expected to attain certain goals by waiting too long to draft arms and it is harder to make up for any deficiency via waivers, free agents or trades. But this does not mean you have to be the one to take the first pitcher off the board. You just don’t want to be the one anchoring your staff with the 30th best either. Next week, I am going to introduce a means to “score” your pitching that will help put together a championship winning pitching staff. To be honest, I am a little excited about this new concept and am looking forward to sharing it with you.