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Why You Should Target Injury-Prone Pitchers (Sometimes)


To some fantasy owners, there’s nothing more frustrating than the good but oft-injured starting pitcher. It makes owners just want to wash their hands entirely of pitchers like Rich Hill, James Paxton, and Stephen Strasburg in favor of sub-par innings-eaters and often pushes these fragile hurlers down draft boards.

However, in certain league formats, targeting these pitchers at their discounted prices can actually be a solid strategy in building an outstanding pitching staff on a budget. With a little hard work, we can maximize the value of these training table regulars.

In this piece, we will look at the scenarios in which this may be profitable while identifying potential targets to draft late or buy-low once the season begins.

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When to Pull the Trigger

First, and this goes without saying, is that we’re only looking to target the injury-prone pitchers that put up above average or better numbers when healthy. We’re not trying to maximize the innings of Jason Vargas here. We’re also not looking at pitchers like Michael Wacha or Anthony DeSclafani, both merely capable starting pitchers that have dealt with injury troubles throughout their career. For this strategy to work, owners need to target pitchers that are downright dominant when healthy.

Second, this strategy is quite dependent on league format and depth. In an AL or NL-only league targeting injury-prone pitchers is a bad idea, otherwise you’ll end up relying on the likes of the aforementioned Jason Vargas. The same is true in deeper leagues, and this writer wouldn’t consider this strategy in leagues with more than 12 teams. The number of injured list (IL) spots is important as well. If the league has just one or even none then it’s hard to build a pitching staff around oft-injured pitchers because it may reach a point where one can’t hold multiple injured guys.

And finally, while this is not a necessity, targeting injury-prone pitchers works best in weekly leagues. While this is certainly doable in daily leagues and season-long Roto, in weekly leagues we’re focusing on our team in smaller slices. We’re just trying to build the best team for one week, and it’s easiest to judge the streaming help we’ll need.

 

Pros and Cons

The main benefit in drafting pitchers like this is that they are awesome when healthy. Rich Hill has been one of the league’s best strikeout pitchers thanks to his signature curveball, James Paxton can look like a Cy Young candidate at times when healthy, and even lower-priced pitchers like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Skaggs have shown flashes of brilliance relative to the pitchers going around them on draft day.

The biggest drawback, of course, is that we aren’t getting the volume from these pitchers, and in order to compete for a fantasy title, volume from roster spots is almost as important as quality of play. It’s what makes pitchers like Rick Porcello and Jose Quintana appealing; their overall numbers will probably underwhelm, but they take the ball every fifth day and pitch deep into games. If Rich Hill only pitches around 130-140 innings, like he has the last two years, his fantasy owner needs to cobble together an extra 40-50 innings through streaming and waivers. The question then becomes, just how much do those innings hurt your bottom line?

In 2018, the average MLB starter posted a 4.19 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 8.25 K/9. Those numbers certainly aren’t winning anyone a championship; that’s why they’re average. But, to make up for the lost innings of our injured pitchers, we’ll have to dip into some league-average pitchers off waivers. To make a rough projection of where we’ll stand after adding these supplemental innings, I’ve calculated what adding X number of league average innings to a few pitchers' 2018 numbers would do to their overall line.

This is, of course, an imprecise measurement, but there are far too many variables to calculate exactly how streaming will work out in every circumstance. The purpose of this is to provide a rough guideline of what to expect, not to bank on these stats when projecting your team’s end of year numbers. I am going to start this exercise by supplementing Hyun-Jin Ryu’s stats, which were amazing when healthy last season, with the innings of a league-average starter.

 

Case Studies

Hyun-Jin Ryu was awesome last season when on the mound. He posted a 1.97 ERA, 5.93 K/BB ratio, and 11.6% SwStr rate, all career bests. The ERA will regress, but maintaining an ERA under 3.00 would be a reasonable expectation for Ryu. The only problem was that he logged just 82.1 innings last season. That means we need almost 100 innings of streaming to make up for lost time. If we add 100 league-average innings to Ryu’s stats we wind up with 182.1 innings, a 3.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 8.95 K/9. That season compares similarly to Zach Wheeler’s 2018, since Wheeler posted a 3.31 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 8.84 K/9. Wheeler is going at pick 87 while Ryu is going at pick 176 in NFBC leagues.

Another good example of how to use a pitcher of this ilk is Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs’ 2018 shows us how injury prone pitchers need to be managed individually throughout the season in order to obtain the best results. His overall numbers weren’t that impressive; Skaggs finished 2018 with a 4.02 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 3.23 K/BB ratio. His underlying stats paint a much prettier picture, but from a results perspective, Skaggs hardly seems like a candidate for the great-when-healthy-but-when-are-you-healthy strategy. However, sharper and more experienced owners would’ve avoided (most of) Skaggs’ bad outings and gotten the best value out of him.

Ultimately, a right adductor strain ruined Skaggs’ season, and in case you aren’t sure what the adductor muscle does, it’s apparently the muscle that helps one pitch well. Skaggs was a disaster on the mound after suffering this injury. In 33.1 innings following his adductor strain, he pitched to a 7.83 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. He also served up six home runs over that stretch after giving up just eight in the previous 92 innings. Those 33.1 innings were split between three separate trips to the injured list for the same injury. Technically, the Angels marked it as a right and left adductor strain, but this writer thinks he strained the left one after spinning around too fast to watch another home run fly over the fence.

Since Skaggs’ poor performances were separated by pre- and post-injury it would have been easy to avoid most of the bad he put out last season. The trouble began for Skaggs on July 31, when he served up 10 earned runs in 3.1 innings to the Rays in Tampa Bay. He hit the injured list immediately after that start and dealt with injuries and poor performance for the rest of the year. Experienced fantasy owners would not have eaten another bad start after the 10 earned run disaster against the Rays, because experienced fantasy owners know not to start sub-elite pitchers straight off the IL. This is why most people likely avoided his 3.1 inning, seven earned run nightmare against Oakland after a minimum stay on the injured list, and after missing another month owners would have cut bait on Skaggs before absorbing any more bad outings. So, even if we factor in the Tampa Bay start Skaggs gave us a 3.34 ERA, 1.25 ERA, and 9.4 K/9 in 113.1 innings. Those numbers aren’t nearly as bad, but he left us with about 70 innings to fill on waivers. If we add 70 innings of a league average starter the overall line ends up being a 3.66 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 8.96 K/9 over 183 innings. That isn’t too different from what J.A. Happ and Cole Hamels did in 2018, and both of those pitchers are going over 75 spots ahead of Skaggs on draft day.

Now, simply adding on league-average innings to a pitcher who lacks volume may seem like an overly simple way to project potential streaming results, and it is, but it’s also the most straightforward way to outline how the necessary supplemental innings affect that pitcher’s bottom line. There are too many variables on a week-to-week basis with a streaming-heavy approach like this to project with more precision.

There is one kicker with this strategy that may make it more enticing, and it’s that you, yes you, dear reader, are likely going to get better than league-average innings off waivers in 10- and 12-team mixed leagues.  This is for two reasons: First, is that if you’re sharp and well-informed (and since you’re reading RotoBaller, you are clearly both of those things) you’ll have a good idea of who is worth streaming off waivers and who should be ignored. Second, is that league-average numbers are dragged down by yucky, unusable pitchers like Matt Moore and Yovani Gallardo. Pitchers like that will never sniff your lineup, but their stats count towards league average. Of course, you’ll wind up absorbing bad starts here and there, it’s unavoidable, but personally, this writer expects to get better than league average results when streaming starting pitchers.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, I have two key tenants to keep in mind for those following the injury-prone pitcher strategy.

  • Be Diligent: For this to work, one needs to be on top of the waiver wire and managing their bench and IL spots. This doesn’t work for those who like to set-it and forget-it. You will be checking your lineup nearly every day and you will be planning out streaming targets a week in advance when necessary. You will need to be tight with the FAAB dollars in case of emergency. It’s work, but it’s fun work because it’s fantasy baseball.
  • Accept the Risk: If you fill your rotation with 3-5 of these injury prone pitchers, there may be a time in the year when three are already on the IL, one gets scratched from his start the day of, and one only makes it through an inning before a blister pops up. This is part of the strategy; it’s the downside. It’s unlikely that all of these pitchers would experience their injuries at the exact same moment, but possible.This strategy is for risk takers. It’s for the kind of people that cross the street, even when there’s no painted crosswalk. The kind of people that eat a yogurt two days after its expiration date. The kind of people that see a stoplight turn yellow and hit the gas on their certified pre-owned Hyundai Sonata, zooming through the light just before it hits red. If that’s too much for you then stay in your cocoon and fill your rotation with the Rick Porcellos of the world. Personally, this writer prefers to shoot for the moon in every league, consequences be damned. For those who like to go all-out in fantasy, targeting injury-prone pitchers may be the right path.

Some Possible Targets: James Paxton, Stephen Strasburg, Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Anyone on the Dodgers, Carlos Martinez, Yu Darvish, Matt Strahm, Michael Pineda, Jimmy Nelson.

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