Are All Innings Valuable? (Fantasy Baseball)
Baseball continues to evolve, and as fantasy owners, we must evolve, too. It wasn’t that long ago where a strikeout rate of 25 percent would crush a hitter’s fantasy outlook, but now it’s fine as long as they contribute elsewhere. For pitchers, 150 innings used to be fringe No. 4 material, but now you can get a good, solid No. 2 season out of it.
The days of pitchers going deep into games and throwing 200-plus innings are becoming rarer.
In fact, let’s take a look at the year-by-year decrease of pitchers throwing 200 innings over the past decade:
*Note: 200 is a round, arbitrary number, but we have to pick an endpoint. Two hundred innings is the often-referenced benchmark, so we will go with that.
Going back to 2011, we can see that pitches per game have also seen a dramatic decrease each year. We will break it down into the total number of pitchers who averaged more than 100 pitches per game, with the highest average per game in parenthesis.
2011: 43 (Jered Weaver, 113.5)
2012: 29 (Justin Verlander, 114.6)
2013: 33 (C.J. Wilson, 110.6)
2014: 29 (Max Scherzer, 109.9)
2015: 22 (Chris Sale, 107.2)
2016: 17 (Verlander, 107.9)
2017: 8 (Sale, 106)
2018: 6 (Scherzer, 105.8)
Teams have been more careful with their pitchers, limiting the workload year over year and throughout the season. It makes sense to protect your investments and prolong their careers at a position where someone is one play away from never playing again. For fantasy owners, it forces us to change the way we evaluate and pursue pitching.
There are a few trains of thought with pitchers. With so few going deep into games or seasons, it makes the elite guys even more valuable. For years, top-tier aces like Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke, and Chris Sale have been coveted early-round assets because of the relative safety they provide to anchor your staff. Of course, injury concerns exist, just as they do with any pitcher, but you know you’re going to get a heavy workload if they stay healthy.
Heading into 2019, after six pitchers averaged more than 100 pitches per game and just 13 eclipsed 200 innings, there’s a case to be made that top pitchers are more valuable this year than ever before. You’re getting the innings, the counting stats, and the ratios.
But what if you choose to wait on pitching? What if you decide that you want to go hitting heavy–regardless of format—and fill your rotation later? There have to be guys that provide innings later on, right?
Well, yes. But that gets to an interesting question: Are innings, in and of themselves, valuable?
I was having this exact discussion with Nick Pollack of Pitcher List on a Skype call recently. While yes, fewer and fewer pitchers are giving the ideal innings that you want, it isn’t a wise fantasy decision to invest in durable pitchers just for the sake of innings.
In 2018, James Shields was an example of a below-average pitcher who eclipsed the 200-inning plateau. In 2017, we saw Ervin Santana and Jeff Samardzija finish No. 2 and No. 3 in innings thrown, respectively. Each year, you can find someone who provides innings. It may not be 200, but in the changing landscape, you can formulate an argument that Mike Leake, Adam Wainwright, or Ian Kennedy are worthy fantasy options because they consistently eat innings.
If you’re talking about real-life baseball, OK, I can see it. If you want to argue that they are valuable in a points league that offers points for each inning thrown or out recorded, sure. But in any kind of league that is category-based, the argument holds no weight.
The aforementioned pitchers are not good. They may have an outlier season here or there, but all things considered, they are average or below-average pitchers who will hurt more than help. By throwing innings, they give you strikeouts. That’s it. They aren’t helping your counting stats. In fact, it’s likely they hurt your ERA and WHIP.
If Billy Hamilton were a pitcher, he’d be Leake. He helps you in his one category but hurts in the rest.
The era of inning-eating pitchers may be coming to a close, but don’t sacrifice your ratios just to grab one of the few remaining. Focus instead on grabbing one of the truly elite options who will provide valuable innings, contributing across the board. Seek a valuable 150 innings instead of an average or below-average 175.