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Where Do Elite Starters Come From?

Among expert drafts, starting pitchers are coming off the board earlier and more rapidly than in previous years. For instance, the LABR mixed league saw nine starters drafted in the first two rounds in comparison to just six in 2018 and five in 2017.

Pitcher selection in expert drafts has been somewhat more aggressive than general fantasy draft trends, and it is clearly more aggressive than industry-wide rankings. We seem to be shifting away from avoiding pitchers in the opening rounds. There’s a definite division between owners looking to acquire a top-tier starter in the first three rounds and owners continuing to eschew pitchers in favor of hitters. When I finished Part 1 in this series, it appeared that elite pitchers were becoming increasingly valuable because they are less subject to the trend of curtailing pitcher usage.

The problem, of course, is that trying to draft an elite starter and getting one are entirely different things. Additionally, that prompted the question, what even constitutes an elite starting pitcher and how can we identify pitchers likely to generate elite seasons?

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Trying to Define an Elite Starter: Methodology

As part of my research for the previous article, I set out to chart the auction value of each starter for both from the last six seasons. If you’re not interested in an account of how I came up with my dollar values, skip down to the next section.

For this article, I’ve combined quality starts and wins by weighting them at 50% each. Other than that, I’ve used the same approach as my previous article: 12-team setup with 5x5 scoring, standard positions with a corner infield spot, middle infield spot, and a utility spot, five starters, three relievers, and a 70/30 offense/pitching split for a $260 league.

After looking at the data for six seasons, I defined an elite starter as a pitcher whose value is two standard deviations higher than the average fantasy starter. The average fantasy relevant pitcher averages around eight dollars in value. Depending on settings, league size, and year, there are usually 60 to 80 starting pitchers with neutral or positive value. Those starters were the population used to calculate the average and standard deviation. That approach gave me a definition of elite starters as pitchers who generated $26.88 or more in a single season. The average elite pitcher was worth $35.80, meaning that elite starting pitchers were worth about four times as much as the average starting pitcher in a 12-team league.


What Is an Elite Starter?

Based on my approach, there have been 22 elite pitching seasons since 2013. Twelve of those seasons have come from three pitchers: Clayton Kershaw (5), Max Scherzer (5), and Chris Sale (2). Some of the numbers below are traditional fantasy categories. Some of them are more advanced numbers generally used to gauge if a player’s performance is legitimate.

Year Value Name IP W QS ERA FIP WHIP K K%
2015 $45.30 Jake Arrieta 229 22 29 1.77 2.35 0.84 236 27.1%
2015 $41.90 Zack Greinke 222.2 19 30 1.66 2.76 0.84 200 33.8%
2015 $41.80 Clayton Kershaw 232.2 16 27 2.13 1.99 0.88 301 23.7%
2014 $41.40 Clayton Kershaw 198.1 21 24 1.77 1.81 0.86 239 31.9%
2017 $41.20 Corey Kluber 203.2 18 22 2.25 2.50 0.87 265 34.1%
2018 $40.70 Jacob deGrom 217 10 28 1.7 1.99 0.91 269 32.2%
2013 $39.10 Clayton Kershaw 236 16 27 1.83 2.39 0.92 232 25.6%
2017 $36.00 Max Scherzer 200.2 16 22 2.51 2.90 0.9 268 34.4%
2018 $35.90 Max Scherzer 220.2 18 28 2.53 2.65 0.91 300 34.6%
2018 $35.20 Justin Verlander 214 16 26 2.52 2.78 1.05 246 34.8%
2017 $34.90 Chris Sale 214.1 17 23 2.90 2.45 0.97 308 36.2%
2014 $34.50 Johnny Cueto 243.2 20 29 2.25 3.30 0.96 242 25.2%
2016 $34.30 Clayton Kershaw 149 12 17 1.69 1.80 0.72 172 31.6%
2014 $34.30 Felix Hernandez 236 15 27 2.14 2.56 0.92 248 27.2%
2018 $33.50 Blake Snell 180.2 21 19 1.89 2.95 0.97 221 31.6%
2016 $33.20 Max Scherzer 228.1 20 26 2.96 3.24 0.97 284 31.5%
2015 $31.70 Max Scherzer 228.2 14 23 2.79 2.77 0.92 276 30.7%
2017 $31.60 Clayton Kershaw 175 18 20 2.31 3.07 0.95 202 29.8%
2018 $31.10 Aaron Nola 212 17 25 2.37 3.01 0.97 224 27.0%
2018 $31.00 Chris Sale 158 12 17 2.11 1.98 0.86 237 38.4%
2013 $29.52 Max Scherzer 214.1 21 25 2.90 2.74 0.97 240 28.7%
2015 $28.90 Dallas Keuchel 232 20 27 2.48 2.91 1.02 216 23.7%


Sticking with the advanced stats, here’s how the average 2013-2018 elite starter stacked up against the average fantasy starter from 2018:

Elite Starters 2.56 2.80 30.6 6.15 211 6.2
2018 Avg. Starter 3.63 3.74 24.2 3.66 164.1 5.2

Aside from improved performance, there were a few notable differences between fantasy relevant pitchers AND elite pitching seasons. Most elite pitchers generated additional value in the same way as elite leadoff or two-spot hitters: through high-quality volume. They tend to throw more innings in total, average more innings per start, and have a dramatically higher quality-start rate at 78.5% which helps lead to higher win totals. The exceptions were seasons like Chris Sale in 2018 or Clayton Kershaw in 2016 and 2017: seasons when the player generated outlier ratio stats that overcame the reduced number of innings.

In 2018, six starters fit that definition of an elite pitcher: Jacob deGrom ($40.70), Max Scherzer ($35.90), Justin Verlander ($35.20), Blake Snell ($33.50), Aaron Nola ($31.10), and Chris Sale ($31.00). Those are uninflated values based on a player’s Z-score. Sale’s value in this sequence is depressed by his lower number of innings and lower IPS. In my simulated league, deGrom’s calculated value would have ranked fourth overall. Sale would have been 15th.

Perhaps, it’s obvious, but 2018 was the only year to have six elite pitchers. Maybe fantasy baseball pitchers are becoming more stratified across the spectrum, but I haven’t done the research for that. For reference, 2015 had five elite-level pitchers plus another one who just barely missed the cutoff. For 2019, Steamer projects Sale, Scherzer, deGrom, and Verlander as the pitchers likely to have an elite season.


Where Do Elite Pitchers Come From?

The four pitchers above are familiar faces. For all of the discussion about pitchers being more volatile than hitters, the best indicator that a pitcher would have an elite season was if he was coming off an elite season the year before. At the very least, he needed to have already been quite good. In the numbers I examined, pitching an elite season before had the highest correlation to whether a pitcher would have an elite season the next year. While that’s not revolutionary information, it should reassure fantasy managers who have been taught that starter values are erratic. Pitchers may be more erratic than hitters, but elite starters tend to produce very good results as a floor. I’ll follow up on this in the final section.

Of the 22 elite seasons, only three pitchers had finished outside the top-100 in the previous season. Max Scherzer was ranked 126 in 2012 while suffering from bad luck on balls in play and managing only 5.2 innings per start. Johnny Cueto finished at 110 in 2013 after missing most of the season with a lat injury. Cueto had already provided two near-elite seasons in 2011 and 2012 before his injury. Blake Snell is the only true anomaly on the list: after finishing outside the top 300 in 2017, he threw 180 IP with a 2.95 FIP last season.

To some extent, the consistency made looking for markers for pre-elite pitchers easier. The patterns are what we might expect from a top-end starter: high strikeouts, weak contact, high-pitch count success, and consistent effectiveness on the third time through the batting order. There are outliers like Dallas Keuchel, but when pitchers strayed too far from the formula, their success was less sustainable. The combination has tended to allow pitchers to produce excellent to elite results.

To better identify where elite pitchers came from, I pulled discrete, focused statistics which were both descriptive (e.g., wOBA) and reliable (e.g., contact rate). I assembled bases and standard deviations from both the 22 elite pitching performances AND the seasons that preceded them. Then I summed the z-scores of those categories to see how last year’s pitchers compared. Here are the base results for the top five pitchers in baseball, plus a pair of pitchers for context.

ADP Elite Z-Score
Jacob deGrom 11 20.7
Chris Sale 15 15.6
Max Scherzer 4 15.3
Justin Verlander 22 9.4
Corey Kluber 24 9.1
Luis Severino 34 -1.0
Jameson Taillon 56 -1.9

I chose Taillon and Severino for comparison because I wanted a pitcher currently being drafted in the third round and one being drafted in the fifth round. They aren’t necessarily bad options for owners hunting for an ace, but they illustrate the difference between the peripherals of those five players at the top and strong candidates available a round or two later. On some level, all these players are pitchers primed to have an elite season in 2019. The primary difference between Jacob deGrom and Jameson Taillon is that Taillon’s 2018 statistics are closer to the pre-elite levels rather than deGrom who was legitimately elite in 2018. I’ll cover those pitchers available after Kluber in the final article for this series. For now, let’s look at the top five arms.

Jacob deGrom has every mark of a pitcher who will generate another elite performance in 2019. He forces batters to swing and miss, keeps the ball on the ground when hitters do make contact, limits hitters to weak contact, and provided enough volume to maximize on those abilities. By my account, Jacob deGrom is a no doubt top-five pick. I’ll be taking him at number three in a standard 5x5. Before I started my research, I’d had Max Scherzer and Chris Sale as my top two pitchers. Disclaimer: This writer currently owns no stock in Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, or Chris Sale. However, he is hoping to buy quite a bit by the end of draft season.

Chris Sale’s big drawback is the number of innings he is expected to throw. However, his 15.6 score would match deGrom in terms of overall dominance except that he lacks the volume and the ability to go deep into ball games. Sale’s fastball-slider combination is one of the most potent in all of baseball, and it generates swinging strikes, bad contact, and ground balls.

The formula’s major issue with Scherzer was based on balls in play. Scherzer’s tendency to give up fly balls (47.6%) and his modest ground ball rate (34.3%) positions him outside the norm for elite starters. Those factors don’t make Scherzer less likely to repeat as an elite starter, but tendencies like that eat into the margin of error. If a few more of those outfield flies carry another 15 feet, Scherzer’s ERA could slip along with his win total and innings. Based on his ability to get swings and misses last year (16.2%), that doesn’t seem likely to happen, but it is a factor to consider.

Verlander has the same basic pattern as Scherzer but with slightly more pronounced numbers. The Astros ace owned a 51.4% fly-ball rate and a mere 29.1% ground-ball rate. Those numbers have become more exaggerated in recent years, but Verlander’s .236 xwOBA and 14.6% infield-flyball rate should reassure owners. One point of concern is that consistency in the two prior years was a significant indicator for elite seasons, so Verlander’s rocky 2017 season suggests that he is more susceptible to falling outside the top-fifty player than the other names on this list. He’s also 36 years old, and there are signs of struggling to pitch later into games. Since 2013, there have been only ten pitchers to throw more than 200 innings after they turned 36 years old. None of them generated an elite season.

Kluber’s score is still excellent, but he gave up a little too much hard contact in 2018, and his pitches seemed to be less effective at inducing swinging strikes and poor contact. However, those concerns did not make it difficult for him to get deep into games. Furthermore, Kluber had the best wOBA of any starter on the third time through the batting order, and his ability to get hitters to swing at bad pitches should provide him a high floor.


What You Get For Your Money: The Season After an Elite Performance

The two major arguments against increasing the target values or draft slots for deGrom, Sale, and Scherzer is pitcher volatility and the ability to find value among pitchers later in the draft. To some extent, I dealt with the difference between getting mid-round profit in the last article and with the issue that elite seasons are likely to come from pitchers who have had an elite season previously. The idea here isn’t about pitcher versus pitcher value. It’s about where the elite pitchers belong on the draft board.

Pitcher volatility is its own concern. No manager wants to draft a pitcher in the first or second round and have him peter out into mediocrity, so I went and pulled the data for what happened after a pitcher delivered an elite season. I used the standard scoring data instead of more advanced metrics because at this point we don’t care about predictive measures. Predictive numbers might be more accurate for future performance, but what matters is what actually happened.

Average Post-Elite Season 15.5 21 2.86 1.00 220 $28.2
20th Percentile Post-Elite 12 17 3.44 1.13 176  $12.3
2018 Average Pitcher 12.4 17.1 3.68 1.19 181  $8.1

There are three samples above: the average post-elite season, which is itself another elite season, the 20th percentile outcome, which means that 80% of elite pitchers performed better than the season after their elite performance, and the 2018 Average Pitcher, which was the average performance of positive or neutral-value starters last season.

Fantasy owners are obviously trying to draft the average post-elite season, or better. If owners select Jacob deGrom with the sixth pick in the draft, and he produces that line, they’ve gotten their value out of that pick. As for the 20th percentile performance, that value is a comfortably top-100 player. We would all be disappointed in the performance, but it would not be a total loss that sinks a fantasy season.



Each league is different, and it’s important to account for not just league settings but also the habit and strategies of your league members. However, fantasy owners should feel more comfortable than ever drafting elite starters with the same aggressiveness as those fantasy experts who are snagging pitchers earlier and earlier this season.

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