When to Target Pitchers (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
It’s no secret that you can find valuable pitchers at all stages of a fantasy baseball draft. However, the deeper into a draft you get, the harder it becomes to find value and production out of hurlers. You want to emerge from a draft with at least one top arm, a few solid ones, and a few risky, high-upside pitchers. Therefore, the question then becomes when to target pitchers if you prioritize hitters early on (a strategy I have already highly recommended here on Fantasy Pros).
Let’s take a look at the top 12 pitchers from 2019. Rather than use fantasy metrics, since league scoring settings can vary, let’s instead use something simple like WAR to get a limited snapshot of who had the best years:
It should be noted that Patrick Corbin also posted a 4.8 WAR, tied with Ryu for a top 12 mark. For the most part, that list probably looks pretty similar to the top 12 pitchers in most fantasy leagues last year by the end of the season. In terms of innings pitched, with the exception of Scherzer (172), Buehler (182), Giolito (176), and Ryu (182), all the other arms on that list exceeded 190 innings. They were studs in virtually every format, but where were they drafted?
Here is a consensus list of the top 15 pitchers taken in most 2019 drafts, according to Fantasy Pros 2019 ADP data:
|Starting Pitcher||2019 Avg ADP||Round (12 Team)|
It could be argued that only Scherzer, deGrom, Verlander, Cole, Buehler, and Corbin returned something close to draft day value. That means less than half of the top 15 starters taken on average in 12 team leagues could be considered busts based on where they were drafted. Now, in fairness, many of the arms on this list who failed to deliver in 2019 dealt with injuries, and in Carrasco’s case, even worse. Each arm above has a case for why he should be viewed as a rebound candidate in 2020. Conversely, each may not.
Taking the place of those half dozen or so arms that “busted,” we saw pitchers with far lower ADPs rise up to dominate. Shane Bieber had an ADP of 149.2 in 2019 (roughly Round 12). Ryu’s average ADP was 178.0 (Round 14); Lance Lynn (ADP of 397.5) and Lucas Giolito, who largely went undrafted, might have been the biggest pitching returns on investment in all of fantasy baseball last year.
If you invested high picks on pitching trying to come away with two or three of those top ADP starters, you would have been swimming in mud unless you took one of the six that didn’t fail to deliver.
None of this means that most of the top ADP starters are going to bust every year. It just means that it’s better to target hitters first since you can still find ace-level talent later in most drafts if you know what to look for, while you build your hitting base with elite bats.
The Five Points Pitcher
Determining what to look for in a starter after the top arms taken in the first two rounds can be challenging. There are five underlying skills you want to consider when compiling your list of targets. I call these five skills “The Five Points.”
First, let’s define what comprises those five points. To be initiated into this little gang and earn the right to be a Five Point Pitcher, a starter must check as many of the following boxes as possible:
- High K/9 Rates (strikeouts per nine innings, preferably supported by whiff rates)
- Above Average Ground Ball% (lots of bouncers, dribblers, choppers, and worm killers)
- Low Hard-Hit% (weak contact by opposing batters)
- High O-Swing (how often hitters swing at pitches outside the zone)
- Low Walk Rate (poor control leads to high BB/9)
These Five Points, which I previously coined the “five elements,” are generally the skills that make a great pitcher. If you keep the ball in the yard by not getting hit hard, strike hitters out with “swing and miss” stuff, and don’t give free passes, you’re probably going to have good numbers and ratios by the end of the year, barring terrible luck on balls in play.
Some would argue that fly balls lead to more outs than ground balls do, and ground balls tend to lead to a high BABIP for pitchers. However, in an era with more power than ever before, the time-honored fact remains that fly ball pitchers allow more home runs and damage per batted ball than ground ball pitchers.
It should also be noted that not all great pitchers check all these boxes. Verlander, Cole, and Scherzer, for example, don’t induce many ground balls; however, Scherzer struck out 300 batters last year in 2018, Cole whiffed 326 by throwing more breaking balls in Houston, and Verlander joined Cole and Scherzer in setting a record for K/9 over 12.00 in 2019. You don’t care much about ground balls when nobody can touch you. All this proves is that fly ball pitchers like this must be able to generate significantly more strikeouts than most ground ball pitchers to mitigate the damage done through the air.
For the rest of the mere mortals out there, they’ll take outs any way they can get them, and there will always be less damage inflicted on balls that are hit on the ground because you can’t hit a chopper over the fence (unless you’re on the cover of a Marvel comic book). The league average for ground ball rate hovers around 44%. We need to take a closer look at the top 30 pitchers in terms of ground ball rate last year, but let’s only focus on the ones that also have notable K/9 rates (anything above 8.90, which is close to a strikeout per inning).
Let’s see which pitchers will have enough Five Points ice in their glare on the mound to join this gang.
That’s an intriguing list of arms, many of whom were on sleeper and breakout lists last season. If we expanded the list to include starters with 8.90 or greater K/9 upside and a GB% closer to league average (42% or greater), our list would include the likes of Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, Jose Berrios, and Anthony DeSclafani.
The lesson here is that if a pitcher doesn’t induce worm killers, he better be adept at inducing whiffs. It’s still safe to stray from the Five Points if a pitcher is exceptionally skilled at getting swings and misses and keeping the ball in the park. However, since HR/FB can be fluky, it’s better to use one of the elements (low hard-hit rate) to verify that an arm you draft with a low HR/FB rate isn’t due for some ulcer-inducing regression.
If we apply the next filter, BB/9, to weed out pitchers prone to wildness, we see Luis Castillo (3.73 BB/9), Aaron Nola and Cole Hamels (both 3.56 BB/9), Jon Gray (3.36), Sonny Gray (3.49 B/9), and Eduardo Rodriguez (3.32 BB/9) all take a hit as they rank in the top 30 in highest walk rate. Patrick Corbin and Kyle Gibson slot inside the top 40. The K/9 rate still makes some of these arms attractive targets – far more so than K/9 darlings with terrible ground-ball rates like Trevor Bauer and Robby Ray – but their propensity to issue free passes make them riskier than others on the list.
However, Brandon Woodruff (2.22 BB/9), Shane Bieber (1.68 BB/9), and Walker Buehler (1.83 BB/9) see their value increase. Others with a BB/9 better or closer to league average like Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Tyler Mahle, Jose Berrios, Zack Wheeler, Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and to a lesser extent, Anthony DeSclafani, Yu Darvish, and Adrian Houser become even more attractive. We can only dream German Marquez (1.81 BB/9) will get traded out of Colorado one day.
The fourth filter is Hard Hit%, and it pushes Clayton Kershaw (42% Hard hit%), Shane Bieber (42.6%), Aaron Nola (41.9%), Walker Buehler (41.8%), Anthony DeSclafani (40.6%), and Jon Gray (39.8%) down, as each ranks in the top half of Hard Hit% allowed. In contrast, Syndergaard (28.9%), Darvish (31.3%), Strasburg (30.5%), Wheeler (31.45)%), Morton (33.9%), Mahle (36.2%), and Houser (36.3%) are much harder to square up. Max Fried and Jose Berrios‘ Hard-Hit% are about league average.
The fifth, and final filter, O-Swing%, places Strasburg (37.2 O-Swing%), Berrios (36.4%), and Wheeler (34.1%) among the elite as all rank within the top 30, while Syndergaard, Darvish, Morton, and Max Fried come in at or above league average.
Let’s just use all Five Points for one pitcher to illustrate some results.
So, drafting a Stephen Strasburg as your ace could provide greater dividends than using a first-round pick on Jacob deGrom if you land a few elite bats to boot. You could wait even longer and make Charlie Morton your ace, then draft a breakout candidate like Max Fried to pair with a reliable arm in Jose Berrios and prime bounce-back pitchers such as Yu Darvish and Zack Wheeler. Add in someone like Adrian Houser or Anthony DeSclafani to round out the back of your rotation, and you have something cooking.
Not all breakout pitchers fit the Five Points mold. If you want to go on a scavenger hunt for pitchers who overhaul their entire arsenal and pitch mix to speculate on the next Lucas Giolito or Lance Lynn, feel free. There are rewards to be reaped with such an approach, but that route is arguably more hazardous and hypothetical, as well.
Using the Five Points approach serves as a grounded guide that allows for a potentially dominant rotation with tremendous upside, one you didn’t have to sell your soul for “pocket aces” in Rounds 1 and 2 to get. If you prefer more flexibility, you can always make exceptions for pitchers you love, even if they only qualify in three or four of the Five Points. All the names mentioned have proven to be productive in fantasy. The more marks they hit, the better, obviously.
If nothing else, hopefully, you see that you can use the Five Points to build a nasty “gang” of hurlers at a fraction of the cost – a staff that could easily compete with fantasy owners who invested early in pitching, allowing you to stock your cupboards with elite hitters who will be bat flipping on your opponents all season long.
If there’s a value pitcher you’re curious about not mentioned in this article, hit me up on Twitter by clicking my handle below, and I’ll let you know how he fares on the Five Points Pitcher scale.
Note: the principles behind the “Five Points Pitcher” are derived from a similar but less comprehensive formula developed by the Birchwood brothers over at FanGraphs to find value, who in turn expanded on Bret Sayre’s work over at Baseball Prospectus, prioritizing pitching skills that minimize downside risk.
One key difference is that this “Five Points” approach places a premium on pitchers who can get hitters to chase rather than relying on called strikes; thus, it’s less reliant on catcher framing. A similar statistic, swinging-strike rate (SwStr%), can also be used. If you want to place more emphasis on called strikes, then a metric like CSW (developed by Alex Fast and Nick Pollack at PitcherList.com) can be substituted for O-swing or SwStr%.