How many times during a fantasy baseball draft, real or mock, have you heard the phrase, “I wouldn’t normally take a starting pitcher this early, but I just couldn’t pass up the value here”? Too many? I’m sure. It’s about as cliché as a player telling the media that he’s in the best shape of his life on the first day of spring training. The only difference is, the guy who just drafted Clayton Kershaw in the third round was, sort of, telling the truth.
Go ahead and ask the advice of any fantasy pundit and they’ll tell you the same thing. Starting pitching is so incredibly deep, especially in leagues of 12 teams or fewer, that there’s just no reason to rush and draft a starter within your first few rounds when there are so many potent bats you should be grabbing to build up your offense. In fact, I have always been a firm believer in holding off on drafting a starting pitcher until at least the sixth round. By then, no more than the top 10 starters have come off the board and, believe me; you can still build a high-quality, competitive pitching staff from that point on. Meanwhile, your offensive core looks stacked and you’ve got the foundation of a winning franchise.
But how do you tell someone that waiting on starting pitching is the key to a successful draft, if you haven’t tried going the other way? In order to be proven right, you need to show that the other way is undoubtedly wrong. So with that, when I was invited to participate in TheFantasyBums.com Mock Draft, I decided to go completely against the grain of my normal draft strategy and see how things would turn out if pitching was first and foremost on my mind.
Now while I took this to a bit of an extreme, I had to make sure that I was still sensible and did not make stupid, unrealistic picks to start. I had the fifth pick in the draft and while I was eyeballing my starting pitcher rankings, I still needed to take the best player on the board, which happened to be Matt Kemp. When it came back around to me in the second round, every starter was still on the board, so I opted to stick with offense yet go against the grain of another rule of thumb to which I adhere – that catchers pose too much of an injury risk to be drafted in the second round, nor do they really put up stats worthy of such a high pick; even the best of them. So welcome to the experiment, Buster Posey.
But now it was time to stick to my plan and test the theory that a pitching-heavy strategy just isn’t the smart play. With my next five picks, I looked nowhere but starting pitching. It didn’t matter if there was any sort of a positional run, I was only drafting arms. And here’s how it all turned out for me as well as a link to the entire draft:
Right off the bat, that’s some pitching staff, huh? My first five starters alone should have me number one in strikeouts with upper echelon ratios and wins totals. The only unproven starter of the group is Chapman but, let’s face it, there’s a pretty strong chance that he leads the majors in strikeouts this season. I used the middle rounds to snag a pair of closers who both have strong strikeout rates and should keep me flush with saves all year and then with a couple of late round picks, I went with high-upside starters. McCarthy is fully recovered from his heady injury and makes the move to the NL where he should see a boost in strikeouts (hopefully he increases his ground ball rate a bit too) and Bauer remains a highly touted youngster with tremendous promise and now pitches for what should be a very competitive Cleveland team. All in all, it’s a pitching staff that should send tingles to the southern region of any fantasy owner.
Obviously though, your pitching should be unstoppable when you use five of your first seven picks on starters. But the success or failure of this strategy is found in what your offense looks like after making such a bold and unconventional move. And while I can look at my offense and find some promise in a variety of places, all in all, this hitting needs help.
One of the things I noticed heading into the eighth round was that with so many other teams waiting on pitching, every position thinned out fairly quickly. I felt that, in order to make this successful, I had to take “best available” guys rather than worry about things like position scarcity. I also felt like I had to concede batting average if I had to because I wasn’t going to find big power with a high average anymore and speed needed to be found wherever I could grab it.
With a fear that many were going to start trying to fill their corner infield slot, I thought Rizzo made the most sense for me with his 30-home run potential. He’s also probably capable of posting an average north of .275, so locking him down was a good move for the power need. Third base was looking pretty thin so when the guy I really wanted, Martin Prado, had been taken in the previous round, I opted to not take a chance and went with Seager and his uber-delicious line drive rate and the hope that the fences moving in at Safeco will help improve those devastating home splits.
Despite his age, I thought Rollins in the 10th round was a strong value, and after him, I grabbed “The Hammer’ who, to me, is one of the most underrated hitters in the fantasy game. With the need for five outfielders and maybe some speed, I thought Pagan was a safe and sensible choice and with an obvious need for power, gimme the 40 bombs of the Big Donkey, batting average be damned. I had to mix in my closers here as there was a big run in the 12th round but then addressed that gaping hole at second base with a hopefully still-promising Ackley. Again, fingers crossed that Safeco plays better to the long ball this year.
I needed to start filling out my outfield, so I went with Maybin and Cain, both of whom can chip in with some power and a fair amount of speed, and after that I went with the hope of a comeback for Morneau and the stolen base potential of Segura to cover my utility and middle infield. I was still sifting through players when I realized I was not just on the clock again, but running very short on time so rather than get auto-picked, I rushed into a back-up middle infielder in Johnson. Not great, but certainly not the worst name out there for a potential plug-and-play, injury fill-in type guy.
Berkman, as my back-up corner infielder, seemed like a decent option this late as he could post some solid numbers as the DH in Texas before he hits the DL. Then it was time to round out the pitching staff and grab a back-up catcher. If the Mets actually start d’Arnaud from the beginning, then I’ve got a back-up with tremendous potential. If they don’t, I’ll go fishing off the waiver wire.
So like I said before, there’s definite promise to be had with this offense, but, in my opinion, not enough to finish where I need to finish in the hitting categories if I want to win. If you went by the Bill James projections, which are usually pretty optimistic for hitters, my entire offense, sans bench, should finish with a .272 average, 1,037 runs scored, 259 home runs, 1,001 RBI and 202 stolen bases. Comparing those numbers to the results from a variety of leagues from last season, this team would finish no better than the middle of the pack in each hitting category except for stolen bases which looks to be in the upper-middle half. And again, that’s looking at these numbers on the optimistic side. Combine those with expected pitching totals and it looks like I’ve got a team that could finish in, if I’m being generous, fourth or fifth place in a 12-team league. Of course, I have the ability to make trades and maybe deal some of that starting pitching for some offense, but you don’t really want to go into a draft with the notion that trading will be mandatory.
The bottom line here, for me, is that it’s offense that wins fantasy championships. Without a strong, sturdy core group of hitters, you’re going to struggle. If you’re playing in a competitive league with knowledgeable owners, then your fellow GMs are going to know how to build themselves a quality rotation without sacrificing a bit of offense in those first five rounds. Taking a couple of starters there is just going to put you behind them. Maybe not to the degree of this experiment, as again, I took it to a bit of an extreme, but while you’re grabbing a pair of arms, they’re bulking up with bats and getting a head start on you in half the categories. Meanwhile the edge you may think you have with a pair of high-end arms, really doesn’t amount to as much as you think in the grand scheme of things, especially when some of their third and fourth-tier pitchers could be producing similar totals as your first and second. Do yourself a favor and stick to the bats early. You’ll be glad you did.
Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over a decade on a variety of web sites. For questions, thoughts or comments you can find him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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