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Starting Pitcher Depth: Should I Draft a Pitcher Early?

Clayton Kershaw by Keith Allison

Whenever I find it difficult to come up with an idea to write about, I listen to a podcast and hear a talking head scream out dogmatic overtones and pollute the airwaves. As it happens, the same reason that I don’t listen to as many podcasts as I used to happens to be the same reason I listen to podcasts for article ideas: bad information.

Mainstream media members convey specious statements that sound like they would have some validity, but rarely do. But these moments allow me to come in and provide the answer from an analytic perspective, so I can’t complain.

This particular analyst asserted that because starting pitching depth is better than ever this year, and that the offensive run environment has trended towards starting pitchers over several years, you have to draft pitchers early.

His counterpart argued in opposition and said that because starting pitching is so deep this year, you can wait longer than usual on pitching.

Who’s right?

Examining Starting Pitcher Depth

The truth of the matter is that they are both full of hot air and shouldn’t be allowed to fill the minds of people who have the best intentions. Their listeners want to learn as much as they can about Fantasy Baseball to win their league, and these guys spew out false information.

But hey, it’s not their fault. They’re paid to be entertainers, not thinkers. The problem occurs when entertainers start to think they’re intellectuals.

But to get back to the reality of the topic at hand — the environment that players inhabit does not matter because they all live within that environment.

What really matters is how good a player is relative to the distribution of the players in their environment.

Let’s take this example:

In a hypothetical world where we can pinpoint exactly how good a player is at baseball (i.e. their true talent level) on a scale of 0 to 6, Player 5 in the graph below is the best player in this environment/population (i.e. he has the highest true talent), but the distribution of talent in this population is focused around a narrow point (i.e. Player 5 is first, but not by much), and the average differential of the players is very low.

palyer1

This is the same reason why running backs are so valuable in Fantasy Football. Running backs, except for very few, don’t produce the most points overall, but compared to other positions, the distribution of running backs is relatively spread out (i.e. DeMarco Murray was the best running back this year, but still finished seventh in scoring behind six quarterbacks).

Even though he’s the highest rated kicker every year, this also why Stephen Gostkowski doesn’t go earlier than the second-to-last round, or shouldn’t at least. He’s the best kicker, but there’s relatively little difference — 29 points to be exact — between him and the 10th-best kicker.

A couple years ago, I wrote an article about position depth in Fantasy Football.  I took the top 15 quarterbacks, 30 running backs, 30 wide receivers, 15 tight ends, 15 D/STs, and 10 kickers from the 2013 NFL season and calculated the standard deviation for their position based on the 2013 season’s scoring — Fantasy points were determined by ESPN’s standard scoring for 2013.

Once I calculated the standard deviation, I plotted the standard deviations on a distribution curve so we could visually see how spread out some position’s talent was relative to other positions.

Here was the result (next to each position is the standard deviation for that group):

distcurve-1024x611

Back to baseball.

Now that we’ve established that starting pitcher depth, or any position for that matter, is based on the standard deviation of that position, lets look at the standard deviation of the pitching population over the last few years.

std of points sp

Since the SCFE’s original conversation centered around points leagues, these numbers were calculated from the top 108 pitchers — nine starting pitchers for each team in a 12-team league — for each season since 2014 for points leagues.

As you can see, the standard deviation for starting pitching has trended down, which means, as a generalization, it has become less necessary than ever to draft a starting pitcher.

Below are Steamer projections translated into Fantasy points for the top 108 players in 2015. All the way to the left you have Carlos Martinez, and to your deepest right you have Clayton Kershaw.

To figure out the true value of a starting pitcher, you have to figure out how much better or worse he/she is than league average, relative to the distribution of the other players in their league (i.e. 108 pitchers for 12-team leagues with nine starting pitchers on each roster). And you do that with zScores based off of the 2015 Steamer projections,, which I produced for you here:

PlayerPTSzSCR
Clayton Kershaw6283.511215724
Max Scherzer5822.747312956
Chris Sale5742.6144603
Madison Bumgarner5702.548033973
Yu Darvish5522.249115498
Felix Hernandez5502.215902334
Corey Kluber5281.850557532
Stephen Strasburg5271.83395095
Zack Greinke5221.75091804
David Price5141.618065385
Jon Lester5121.584852221
Masahiro Tanaka5011.40217982
Cole Hamels5001.385573238
James Shields4931.269327165
Johnny Cueto4831.103261345
Hisashi Iwakuma4720.920588944
Ian Kennedy4710.903982362
Hyun-Jin Ryu4700.88737578
Alex Cobb4690.870769198
Jordan Zimmermann4660.820949453
Jeff Samardzija4640.787736289
Lance Lynn4640.787736289
Marcus Stroman4620.754523125
Matt Harvey4610.737916543
Phil Hughes4530.605063888
Mike Fiers4470.505424396
John Lackey4430.438998068
Scott Kazmir4400.389178323
Francisco Liriano4360.322751995
Collin McHugh4350.306145413
Cliff Lee4340.289538831
Alex Wood4310.239719085
Sonny Gray4310.239719085
CC Sabathia4300.223112503
Julio Teheran4290.206505921
Adam Wainwright4270.173292758
Homer Bailey4260.156686176
Justin Verlander4210.073653266
Matt Shoemaker4200.057046684
Jose Quintana4190.040440102
Carlos Carrasco4170.007226938
Chris Archer416-0.009379643
Derek Holland415-0.025986225
Tony Cingrani414-0.042592807
Drew Hutchison413-0.059199389
Jered Weaver413-0.059199389
Jake Arrieta411-0.092412553
Jake Peavy411-0.092412553
Dallas Keuchel410-0.109019135
Michael Pineda408-0.142232299
Brandon McCarthy406-0.175445463
Gio Gonzalez405-0.192052045
Matt Cain405-0.192052045
C.J. Wilson405-0.192052045
Tyson Ross402-0.24187179
Doug Fister401-0.258478372
Rick Porcello401-0.258478372
R.A. Dickey400-0.275084954
Gerrit Cole399-0.291691536
Yordano Ventura397-0.3249047
Ervin Santana397-0.3249047
Jake Odorizzi397-0.3249047
Anibal Sanchez395-0.358117864
Danny Salazar394-0.374724446
Matt Garza392-0.40793761
Andrew Cashner391-0.424544192
Chris Tillman391-0.424544192
Jacob deGrom386-0.507577101
Mike Minor386-0.507577101
Shelby Miller386-0.507577101
Wei-Yin Chen384-0.540790265
Yovani Gallardo383-0.557396847
Mat Latos381-0.590610011
A.J. Burnett380-0.607216593
Tim Lincecum379-0.623823175
Jason Vargas378-0.640429757
Garrett Richards376-0.67364292
Josh Collmenter376-0.67364292
Tim Hudson375-0.690249502
Jorge de la Rosa374-0.706856084
Jose Fernandez372-0.740069248
Jeremy Hellickson372-0.740069248
Trevor Bauer372-0.740069248
Dan Haren370-0.773282412
Zack Wheeler368-0.806495576
Matt Moore368-0.806495576
James Paxton367-0.823102158
Bartolo Colon366-0.83970874
Wily Peralta365-0.856315322
J.A. Happ365-0.856315322
Jon Niese364-0.872921903
Jason Hammel363-0.889528485
Wade Miley362-0.906135067
Mike Leake358-0.972561395
Clay Buchholz358-0.972561395
Mark Buehrle357-0.989167977
Kevin Gausman356-1.005774559
Drew Pomeranz353-1.055594305
Michael Wacha352-1.072200887
Tanner Roark349-1.122020632
Jeremy Guthrie347-1.155233796
Nathan Eovaldi345-1.18844696
Vance Worley341-1.254873288
Justin Masterson341-1.254873288
Roenis Elias341-1.254873288
Ricky Nolasco339-1.288086452
Henderson Alvarez338-1.304693033
Carlos Martinez333-1.387725943

zscores

What we can see from these zScores, and the graph that corresponds to it, is that our population has a unique shape; the 54th-ranked pitcher — the median pitcher of the population (405 projected points) — is worse than league average (416 points).

Clayton Kershaw isn’t drafted as high as he is because he is the No. 1 pitcher; he’s taken in the first round because of how much better he is than everyone else.

In the end, if starting pitching depth continues on the trend it has been on over the last several years, you don’t need to draft starting pitching at a rate different than you have in recent seasons. Be happy that you know this, and hopefully the people in your league listen to the SCFE that started this conversation to begin with.

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