Staff Infection: The (Somewhat Successful) Cheap Pitching Project

Parsifal had his Holy Grail, Ahab had his Moby Dick, Sam the Sham had his Ring Dang Doo. What we’ve got is Cheap Starting Pitchers, for which we search obsessively, frustratedly, and often self-destructively. It appears, though, that a strategy for drafting cheap starting pitchers that we proposed back in the pre-season has some promise, and we’d like to report on it for you.

In early March, we wrote about the Holy Trinity and the Holy Quadrinity, which are two approaches to subatomic pitcher stats that are designed to identify pitchers whose performance in the previous season was better than their Fantasy-determinative numbers suggested. The Trinity, as we wrote, has a longish Fantasy pedigree. The Quadrinity is, we think, of our own devising. We consult strikeout, walk, and batted-ball stats, and produce a list of pitchers whose performance in the previous year was outstanding. Plenty of obvious guys made the 2015 list (Kershaw, Arrieta, Sale, etc.), but so did some not-so-obvious ones: Kyle Hendricks, Justin Verlander, Clay Buchholz, Jake Odorizzi, Collin McHugh, Kevin Gausman, and Anibal Sanchez. To this group we added Hisashi Iwakuma and Jaime Garcia, who qualified by virtue of a variation on the Quaternity approach. We ended by suggesting that you could draft a good pitching staff consisting of six of these nine starters “plus two good closers and a closer in waiting” without spending as much as 30% of your auction budget on pitchers.

So: could you have? Maybe. Let’s get the relief pitchers out of the way first. In early April, we brought the Trinity and Quadrinity to bear on relievers, and found eight guys whose 2015 stats qualified them for both. Two of those pitchers were on the DL and one was in the minors at the start of the 2016 season, so forget about them. Two of the other five were Will Harris and Luke Gregerson, whose rides on the Astros’ Closer-Go-Round would have brought you an atypical windfall in saves, so let’s eliminate them, too. That leaves Zach Britton, Hector Rondon, and Xavier Cedeno. Britton’s having a great season. Rondon’s having a good one, but has been supplanted as the Cubs’ closer by Aroldis Chapman. Cedeno’s having an indifferent year, and is certainly not among the top 100 MLB relievers this season. So let’s use Britton’s, Rondon’s, and Cedeno’s aggregate stats as roughly what you’d have wound up with by using this strategy with relievers. And those stats are: 124 1/3 IP, 7 Wins, 52 Saves, 79 Hits, 30 Walks, 28 Earned Runs, and 141 Strikeouts.

As for the starting pitchers: obviously, how well you did depends on which six of the nine you chose. If you wound up with both Buchholz and Sanchez, you had a problem. If you got both Verlander and Hendricks, you were ecstatic. So suppose you didn’t have Hendricks, but also were able to avoid the two busts (who would, by the way, have been the two cheapest purchases). You’d have wound up with the following stats from your starters: 809 IP, 49 Wins, 804 Hits, 221 Walks, 354 Earned Runs, and 749 Strikeouts. The rate stats that your starters and relievers combined would have produced are an ERA of 3.684 and a WHIP of 1.215.

After consulting such draft prices as we have access to, we think this group of pitchers would have cost no more than $78—in other words, no more than 30% of your budget– in a $260 mixed 5×5 league with 15 teams and standard 9-pitcher rosters. Some say that this 30% is the norm. That might conceivably be true in expert leagues that play for the glory But we doubt even that, because elite pitching has grown more reliable and hence more expensive since the 30% benchmark became current. It looks to us like the average expenditure on pitching in leagues where actual money is lost and won is roughly one-third of budget—let’s say $85.

And what would your $78-or-less bargains have gotten you? Somewhat better than average results. In the NFBC auction league in which we long ago tanked, it would be worth 43 points; average is 40. Taking all NFBC auction leagues together, the results are still slightly better than average.

On the whole, we’re moderately encouraged. Sure, if you plug Sanchez or Buchholz into the model, the results decline. But they improve if you put in Hendricks for, say, McHugh, or swap out Cedeno for Harris or Gregerson. Moreover, we’re assuming what wouldn’t be true—that the pitchers you draft are the ones you keep all season. Buchholz and Sanchez, and probably Cedeno, would have been off your roster (as they were off ours) by the end of May, probably sooner. So what we’ve got here is an approach that, without any exercise of discretion beyond the choice of categories to be used, comes up with a group of 14 pitchers, most plausible clusters of 9 of whom will produce better-than-average results for lower-than-average prices, even in a draft-and-forget league. We’d have done better this season if we’d used it.

We hoped you liked reading Staff Infection: The (Somewhat Successful) Cheap Pitching Project by The Birchwood Brothers!

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The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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