Are Pitchers Riskier Than Hitters?

Popular fantasy baseball theory says that early-round picks should always be used on hitters instead of pitchers. Despite the fact that several hurlers annually rank among fantasy’s most valuable players, pitchers are considered prone to injury and more inconsistent. Many writers maintain that a deep group of elite hitters is necessary to win leagues, while pitching numbers can be found later in drafts. But does the raw data support this concept?

To test the theory, I used final 2011 statistics and compared them to my preseason predictions. My player predictions tend to be pretty standard – I don’t vary widely from the consensus on most players. To isolate 2011’s group of top players, I used the results from the Tout Wars Mixed League auction. I participate in this league and it contains a deep group of experienced fantasy baseball writers. For a player to fetch a high price, at least two writers must believe in him.

I collected data from all players who cost at least $15 in Tout Wars, a total of 101 players. That group would have covered the first 7-10 rounds of a mixed-league draft, depending on league size. They represent the core contributors of every fantasy team – the selections that cost the most and must provide a decent return on investment for a team to compete for a league championship.

After comparing the preseason predictions and final stats, I separated the players into four categories – Exceeded Expectations, Met Expectations, Disappointing and Very Disappointing. Let’s take a look at the raw data:

Position                                Hitters                 Starting Pitchers        Closers
Exceeded Expectations          18 (24%)               9 (41%)                              1 (14%)
Met Expectations                   15 (20%)               4 (18%)                              2 (28%)
Disappointing                        12 (16%)               3 (14%)                              2 (28%)
Very Disappointing                 29 (39%)              6 (27%)                              2 (28%)

Conclusions

Everyone was frustrated with Rios last season.

1. Starting pitchers are far less risky than most people think. Many starters fared significantly better than expected, which wasn’t surprising since offensive totals stayed down for the second consecutive season. But notice that only a few elite starters left fantasy owners high and dry. For every Brett Anderson or Josh Johnson, there were more players who produced like Clayton Kershaw or Jered Weaver.

2. Hitters are riskier than most people think. It’s almost as likely that an early-round hitter will be very disappointing in comparison to meeting or exceeding expectations. When compared to top hurlers, elite hitters actually proved to be more disappointing on the whole. There were far more hitters who hurt fantasy rosters and a lower percentage that provided a significant bonus over expectations.

3. The closer data is too small to be taken seriously. We’d need to collect figures over 5-10 years to draw a significant conclusion. Fantasy owners should at least be aware that even the highest rated closers can’t be considered a sure thing to hold their jobs and collect saves all season.

If I have to own a very disappointing player, I’d rather lose a starting pitcher to a significant injury in the middle of the season than watch a hitter perform below expectations for several months. If you were a Brett Anderson owner in 2011, at least you could release him and move on. Owners of Alex Rios, Colby Rasmus and Vladimir Guerrero never knew when to cut bait.

You could argue that the entire sample size for this data is too small to draw any strong conclusions. But, I did the exact same study after the 2009 season and the results were nearly identical. At that point, I shifted strategies and began trusting early-round pitchers to a greater degree — with excellent results.

Other fantasy owners have claimed that I won’t be able to compete without a large contingent of early-round bats. The findings of this study show that the other owners likely won’t end up with the numbers they expect from over half of those hitters, giving my mid-round bats a chance to make up the difference.

23 Comments

I may have the 1st overall pick , would u draft Doc or Verlander #1? Since ur saying pitching is a safer pick at the top.

I drafted Carl Crawford last year and he killed my team. I’m keeping Stanton#7 , Kimbrel#15 and Sandoval #19 last pick is between Wainwright #20 and beachy#27. Can only keep players 5 yrs and they move up 2 spots every yr.

I would keep Beachy. I think he’ll be as valuable as Wainwright this year (massive K-rate) and way better long term.

No I wouldn’t. Although pitchers like Doc and Verlander are rock-solid, the fact that you need 14 hitters and 9 hitters makes the elite hitters more valuable. My article points out that they are riskier than Doc but they are necessary risks. I like Kemp number one and I have no problems with Pujols in that spot either. I wouldn’t consider anyone else.

no mention of position scarcity? Because of the sheer volume of plug ‘em in and and forget ‘em SP’s, I never consider a Pitcher before round 4.

It depends on the size of your league. In 10-team mixed, there are a lot of good starters on waivers. But in deeper leagues the options aren’t good. If you start mixing and matching with weaker starters, you will get burned at some point. There are lots of starters on the waivers – none of them can come close to matching the numbers that the aces put up. I like to have a couple aces – their strong numbers help to survive the occasional lapse from other pitchers.

What do you think about Michael Cuddyer this year? I think he will have a career year playing in Coors Field. I am keeping 4 pitchers this year because those arms are Lincecum, Kennedy, Greinke, and Lester. My other 4 keepers are Adrian Gonzalez, Rollins, Beltre, and Cuddyer. I am trying to decide what I want to do with my 4th overall pick. Get the best hitter out there or cement my pitching staff? I know someone like Ricky Romero will be sitting there.

I like Cuddyer in Coors better than I did with the Twins for sure. I’d use the first pick on a hitter – your pitchers are so strong already.

I´ve been playing a league of 10 teams for long time with a very unusual system of points. We set a point framework where we can take in mind even these stats: (SH),(SF),(CS),(BB),(HBP),(K),(E) for hitters and (IP)(CG),(SHO),(H),(ER),(BB),(HBP) for pitchers. I´d been struggling until next year when we decide to do a live draft. I also gave priorities to the top 50 bats instead of pitchers, and apparently worked it out. I got the second place in a very dispute league. What do you recommend in my specific case this season?

That is a strange format! Remember, my article said that elite starters were safer – not more valuable. The hitters are the very top of the list, their top stats will outrank the pitchers because you need 14 hitters and 9 pitchers for your team.

12 team 5×5 roto we keep six. Right now my keepers are Bautista, Hanley Rameriz, Miquel Cabrera, Lawrie , Hosmer and Verlander. I have two picks in the first round and NO pick in the second round. I’m pretty sure I can get Pedrioa with my first pick. But Cliff Lee will be sitting there . Would you take Peddy and pass on Lee. Its possible he could still be there with my second first rd pick. If not Matt Cain could also be there . Or would would you somebody like David Wright with the second and go for a second tier starter in the third round?

In a bubble, I’d take Pedroia and then get a SP. But, your hitters are so good that I’d consider getting Lee instead. Having your keeper hitters and then two of the top five starters would give you a great chance to win your league.

What about a NL only 13 team roto league? (auction draft) This year seems to lack some MAJOR pop with Pujols and Fielder gone, Braun’s 50 day susp. and Howard’s injury. Wise to go for pitching or bid up on hitters?

I’d stay close to 70%-30% in favor of hitting but maybe swing a few percent towards pitching, like 66-34. You are right, the NL lost some star sluggers but I don’t think that means you should pay a huge premium for the remaining elite hitters. I’d look at the starters on the better teams in the NL Central and West (the East is much stronger). In deep leagues I like to look for non-big name hitters who hit in the middle of weaker lineups. Guys like Neil Walker, James Loney have been undervalued in recent years. Find out who is hitting in the 2-5 spots in CHI, PIT, SD, LAD, NM, HOU and take a second look at them. They will likely get more AB’s, runs and RBIs than people expect.

A very trendy article. There was some great pitching last year and I was one of those players that picked Verlander and Weaver in the earlier rounds. However, pitching has not always been so good as it was last year. Also, in most leagues pitchers dont score as many points as hitters, so this article is a bit of nonsense unless you get shut outs or other bonuses on the VERY few studs in the game. BALANCE is the key to winning, not going overboard on pitching as a favorable early round pick methodology.

I think you missed the overall intention of my article. If you read through some of my other comments, I still recommend hitters as the majority of early round picks. I actually wrote the article in favor of balance. It’s really rare for an owner to draft a ton of pitching in the early rounds. It’s much more common for owners to draft a ton of hitters. I know a lot of owners who won’t draft a pitcher in the first 5-7 rounds. The purpose of my article was to show that drafting 2-3 pitchers in the first 7 rounds of a draft isn’t going to lead to disaster. My goal is usually 3 pitchers in the first 7-8 rounds and four by the end of round 10. Your comment “pitching has not always been so good as it was last year” – that’s right, but it’s been this good for two years in a row, coinciding with the reduction of PED’s in baseball. Now that fewer hitters are using them now and it’s clearly swung the favor back towards the hurlers. It’s also made hitters more injury-prone (research shows that they are spending more time on the DL than 10 years ago) likely because they can’t use PED’s to recover faster. So, pitchers are no longer significantly greater injury risks.

I can keep 5 of the following 6. Starlin Castro, Nelson Cruz, Jon Lester, Mike Napoli, Mike Stanton, Mark Teixeira…who would you drop?

That’s a great list but it’s missing a 2012 first rounder. Your group is so deep that ideally you should try to trade a package like Cruz/Napoli and Teixeira for a top player like Ellsbury, CarGo etc. I wouldn’t trade Castro or Stanton. If you can’t make a trade, I guess drop Lester. But, a trade would make a lot of sense because you should keep a pitcher. Another trade option would be Cruz/Napoli and Lester for someone like Kershaw, Halladay, Verlander etc.

Data size is a little small, but I agree that hitters tend to have a wider range of production. It’s rare that a top tier pitcher will severely underperform (barring injury). But even top tier hitters are subject to drastic changes in production. Just look at last year: H. Ramirez, Longoria, Arod, Youkilis, Crawford, Zimmerman, Rios, and Dunn. Guarantee all those guys went in the top 60-70 in most drafts last year. Outside of Josh Johnson, how many top pitchers severely underperformed? Not many.

In a ten team head to head league i can keep three players. My options are, Carlos Gonzalez(19), Mike stanton(18), Stephen Strasburg(21), Brett Lawrie(21) or Matt moore (22). Obviously i would keep Gonzo but who should my other two be?

Great options! CarGo and Stanton for sure. I’ll take Lawrie narrowly over Moore for the third spot.

I’m in a 10 team 5×5 roto with 6 keepers… I’m thinking of keeping
Cliff Lee, Roy Haliday, Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia and Jose Reyes

My other options for my 6th spot are between Alex Gordon, Youklis, Ryan Zimmerman, Corey Hart, Utley. What do you think about trying to dominate pitching, and who should be my 6th pick?

I’d take Zimmerman as the sixth keeper. Taking those pitchers is a good idea – no sense in keeping a worse player just to hit a ratio of hitters to pitchers. But, you could consider offering a trade for a hitter. You could deal someone like Lincecum (who I’m not that high on for ’12) or a hitter and achieve more balance. With your other three starters, you would still be on your way to dominating pitching.

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