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%)
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.