Fantasy baseball season will soon be upon us, and it is incumbent for the prepared owner to begin the process of evaluating pitching talent to draft in March and early April. You need to determine which round is the appropriate time to add starting pitchers and relievers to your rosters, or for those of you participating in an auction format, how much of your budget you need to set aside to allow you to populate your starting rotation and bullpen. Part of the evaluation process with regard to pitching requires an understanding of which pitchers are likely to provide season-long goodness. That is, unless you enjoy scrambling throughout the course of the season, sifting through the options available on the waiver wire, or floating trades to your fellow owners that hopefully will not deplete your hitting ranks dramatically. Naturally, MLB teams will promote young starters and relievers throughout the season, bringing up arms from the minor leagues to replace injured pitchers in the rotation or the bullpen. Being able to snap up these rookies or pitchers with limited experience will task your skills, demanding that you peruse the daily transaction reports, as well as having the requisite waiver wire priority or maintaining a sufficient FAAB balance to enable you to strike before your opponents act.
Even assuming that you draft well, buy your pitchers for great values during the auction, or manage to add valuable pitching options during the season, you will still need to keep in mind a basic premise that MLB general managers and team managers rely upon when building their pitching staffs: Having a dependable, durable pitcher who will not spend the bulk of the time between April and October on the DL, or even worse, be lost for the remainder of the season following surgery engendered by a serious injury. It is difficult to think of a more disappointing experience for a fantasy owner than to see a news report that his top starting pitcher has been pulled from an appearance in the early innings of a game because of a twinge in his elbow, or an issue with his knee, shoulder, ankle, or some other body part necessary to effectively toe the rubber. Or for that matter, a similar situation with regard to his or her closer, set-up guy or middle reliever. Therefore, one axiom that fantasy owners should embrace is draft, buy or pick up pitchers that have not demonstrated a history of suffering injury over the course of their careers, including their time spent riding in buses between minor league parks. Naturally, any player can be hurt playing the game at any time, or for that matter, working out or warming up before or between games, but in this age of internet access, data about player injury history is available for those willing to spend the effort to dig in and do the research. Always keep your eye on the prize, however, and that prize is to make certain that you possess pitchers that are as close to guaranteed as possible to give you extended innings over the season, and that those innings are productive in terms of producing fantasy points.
There was a time when it was considered a positive thing that a pitcher had undergone Tommy John surgery. That line of thinking reasoned that since he had already suffered the ulnar collateral ligament tear, and had it repaired, his arm was if not exactly as good as new, at least it was unlikely that he would suffer through the same situation again. Then came a limited rash of players that had to undergo a second TJS procedure, among them such once promising young arms as the former Atlanta Braves starting pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen and journeyman starter Edinson Vólquez (who is currently signed with the Texas Rangers). The ability for pitchers to return to action as useful members of a major league pitching staff following a second UCL reconstruction is not particularly inspiring, and the best advice is to avoid those who are double TJS recipients when putting together your pitching staff in fantasy.
Even those pitchers who have a single TJS procedure frequently return to action at less than their prior level of proficiency, which is understandable as they have to relearn how to pitch with a tendon replacing their ligament in their throwing arm. Still, many pitchers have returned to action following TJS, and served as adequate middle of the rotation arms. The worry about another injury is always on the horizon, though, and again, these pitchers are not the arms to build around, nor should they be relied upon as workhorse starters, since their managers often limit their workloads to avoid overtaxing their arms. Plus, their diminished effectiveness on the mound results in them tossing shorter stints in their appearances, which naturally causes a decline in their fantasy stat lines.
It is a common complaint among fantasy baseball owners that starting pitchers are not pitching as deep into games, due to the conviction among baseball people that enforcement of pitch counts is beneficial to promoting longer careers for starting pitchers. To see a starting pitcher still on the mound in the seventh inning (let alone the eighth or ninth inning) is the exception in baseball these days. Many pitchers do not make it through the entire fifth inning in many games, whether because of pitch count limits or general ineptitude on the hill, effectively forestalling their ability to contribute a win for their owners. Thus, the fear of over-extending a pitcher’s stint on the mound past a set pitch count limit makes it difficult to rely on any but the top level of starting pitchers when assembling your fantasy rotation. Certainly, it is well nigh impossible to stack your pitching staff with starters that can be counted on to provide 180 or more innings in a season. The number of starters that offer 200 or more innings in a season has been declining over the past several seasons, with the number dropping from 33 in 2014, dropping to just 15 in both 2016 and 2017, and just 13 such MLB starting pitchers reaching those levels in 2018. Below is a chart containing those starting pitchers that threw over 150 innings in 2018, whose ERA was sub-4.00. The chart also shows the number of batters faced and total number of pitches thrown during the season.
The increasing reliance on middle relievers to take over for pitch count limited starters is another factor to acknowledge when dealing with the general decline in available starters contributing useful fantasy baseball pitching stats. While there are a finite number of middle relievers that are effective in a majority of their trips to hill, it has been an ongoing trend for major league managers increasingly turn to their bullpens to keep the game close when a starter falters and allows too much activity on the base paths. The strict enforcement of pitch counts as discussed above is a huge factor in the growing use of middle relievers on the major league scene. Having pitchers available that can be summoned from the bullpen to shut down a rally and/or keep the contest close has made it much more amenable for teams to pull a struggling starting pitcher, whether that be the team’s ace, or its fifth starter. Then there was the new approach of employing an “opener” in the first inning ala the Tampa Bay method embodied last season, relying on a reliever to pitch the first frame before turning things over to another pitcher beginning in the second inning. Below is a chart showing the relievers that pitched more than 50 innings in 2018 without notching one start. In compiling the chart, those relievers who are primarily used as closers have been eliminated, as well as those whose ERA resided at a level of 3.70 or higher. These 61 relievers also appeared in 50 or more games, demonstrating their usefulness during the course of the season, and indicating how dominant middle relievers can affect the use of starting pitchers in baseball these days.
Another current trend that is resulting in a limitation of inning usage among starting pitchers comes from the trend to employ six-man rotations by certain teams. Teams are not rushing out to add another arm to the rotation where the five-man rotation has dependable arms to roll out every fifth day, but as more starting pitchers fall into a back-of-the-rotation type of status, as opposed to being reliable SP3/4 grade pitchers, the trend is likely to grow. In the coming season you should keep an eye on younger pitchers being groomed to step into the starting rotation, such as Forrest Whitley with the Astros or Chris Paddack in San Diego.
The changes to the DL rules that took place in 2017 were also responsible for the decline in starting pitcher workloads, with the 10-day DL option making it much more palatable for teams to sideline their pitchers for a start or at worst, two starts. It was feared in fantasy circles that the shorter DL time limit would result in pitchers become unavailable on and off throughout the season, and these concerns certainly have come to fruition over the past couple of seasons. There were 340 incidents of pitcher placements on the DL in 2018, up from the 288 instances where pitchers headed to the DL in 2017. That amounted to a substantial increase in DL placements over the 240 DL trips that pitchers made in 2015. Teams are becoming more careful with the valuable assets that they employ to get batters out, and with that more cautious approach, pitcher workloads continue to diminish.
It is essential for fantasy owners to target healthy, dependable pitchers to populate their pitching rotations and relief corps. With the growing decline in 200+ inning starting pitchers, as well as the growing dependence on middle relief by managers at the first hint of trouble during a game, it is becoming much more difficult to find starters that can be considered workhorses, at least those who provide useful performance statistics for fantasy purposes. As demonstrated by the second chart above, however, there are plenty of middle relievers that can be used to provide both counting and ratio stats that will bolster your roto totals, and allow you to avoid simply rostering starters that drag down your team’s performance.
To wrap up, below are two more charts showing projected starting pitchers and middle relievers that mimic those pitchers populating the two charts inset above, to aid in your upcoming drafts. And if you have further questions, send your query to email@example.com