Randy Johnson was a lock.
A 4.26 ERA and a losing record later, I set a new rule in place for myself: never waste a top-five pick on a pitcher; volatility is too high.
Notice the use of the word, ‘waste.’ If Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen misses the season with an injury, we consider our first-round pick ‘wasted.’ Essentially, we paid a high price and walked away empty-handed. While it takes an actual injury to a position player to officially lose the pick, the potential for pitchers’ arm issues is so high that the gamble is already ‘money lost’ with the hopes that it can be regained.
Over the past few seasons, the rule I had followed appeared to have gained in popularity. Pitchers routinely slid down the draft board, their prices consistently lowering season-by-season aligned with the number of Tommy John surgeries increasing each year. The correlation was no accident. Fear drives the market lower.
That is, until the market catches on.
As recently as last year, pitchers were considered so unpredictable that most fantasy drafts and auctions included the same strategy of ‘take hitters early, stockpile mid-level pitchers late.’ The theory was sound – it’s hard to replace an ace pitcher, but harder to survive if you paid a premium upfront.
For the first time in his already illustrious career, Clayton Kershaw proved this point by failing to reach 30 starts due to an injury. The combination of impending doom for any pitcher and the realization that Kershaw would be shelved following his Opening Day start in Australia in 2014 helped late drafters scoop up the pitcher at a discounted price. The return on their investment? 20 wins, 232 strikeouts, a 1.78 ERA, and only one outing in which he surrendered more than three earned runs. If the Australia series was included in the scoring, the numbers improve to 21 wins, 239 strikeouts, and a ridiculous 1.77 ERA.
While the two statistics cannot be directly compared, Kershaw’s 0.857 WHIP – walks and hits per innings pitched – was lower than the OPS – the sum of on-base percentage and slugging percentage – of fifteen hitters. By contrast among pitchers, Felix Hernandez‘s 0.915 WHIP was second to Kershaw’s, nearly seven percent higher.
The numbers truly speak for themselves, and, quite frankly, if you need convincing that Kershaw is in his own class of pitchers, you likely won’t subscribe to this strategy, anyway. The man is a stud on the mound, and, in the prime of his career, is as close to a guarantee as you can get.
Therein lies the heart of the matter. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, and pitchers break. Kershaw’s delivery is, in one word, jerky The rate with which his arm completes its circle to delivery is dangerously quick. Despite his relative health, he is, of course, at risk.
He is also unequivocally better than the next best player at his position.
After Kershaw, generally speaking, Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer are the next pitchers taken off the board. Is it impossible to believe that they could surpass Kershaw in fantasy value this year? Not at all. But their basements are also much lower than Kershaw’s. Everyone’s is.
In comparison to his last four seasons – three of which have resulted in a Cy Young award – Kershaw’s 2010 campaign could be considered his ‘worst’ since his rookie year. With a 13-10 overall record and 2.91 ERA, Kershaw still performed as a top-20 pitcher. If he carried his 2010 numbers to 2014, Kershaw still would have remained a fringe top-20 pitcher.
Again, this is his basement.
This obvious counter to this argument is the potential for injury, already mentioned briefly. But the tradeoff for losing Kershaw for the season – assuming a catastrophic injury early in the year – and not having him at all remains the same. In both scenarios, you are not getting a consistent dominant performance on a week-to-week basis. Worse, if he is healthy, someone else in your league is reaping the benefits.
The risk involved in taking a pitcher so high with today’s ‘Tommy John for Everyone!’ campaign running rampant can still be offset elsewhere in the draft. Regardless of which pitcher you draft first, there will still be others you target late. If you ‘took the careful route,’ and ended up with Stephen Strasburg as your ace in the second or third round, is that any safer than grabbing Kershaw first? It’s a gamble regardless – especially with Strasburg, a former victim of Tommy John surgery as the end result.
If you pass on Kershaw, it’s likely to grab Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton, or Paul Goldschmidt. If you’re debating this with the first pick, Mike Trout is obviously in the mix. You’re next pick will likely land you in the range of Jacoby Ellsbury, Michael Brantley, Freddie Freeman, and the aforementioned Stephen Strasburg. Any pairing of these players is acceptable. But it’s the trio that makes the move special.
If the combinations were presented in the form of a trade, Kershaw and two of the following – Ellsbury, Freeman, Brantley, maybe Troy Tulowitzki, Buster Posey – is likely preferable to McCutchen, Strasburg, and one player from the group just mentioned. Because of the way the snake draft operates, the first or second overall pick will be able to secure the top-notch player of choice – here, Trout or Kershaw – then have two picks close together – or back-to-back – to use on a fantastic set of options.
Taking the draft deeper, as the options begin to filter out, inherent risk begins to rise. Here’s where the initial move will pay off. With the elite talent gone, speculation takes over, and a wider net is cast. Generally speaking, because of how people tend to draft with a ‘position scarcity mentality’ – whether or not it exists is irrelevant here – the most common positions available in the later rounds are pitchers and outfielders. Like running backs in a fantasy football draft, building a bench with these two components is usually advised.
Revisiting the example with the sample trade, the combination of Kershaw and two hitters can allow for far greater flexibility with late-round selections. Don’t like Jake Arrieta? Swing for the fences with Chris Carter. After all, you have the edge in pitching. If you still want to stack arms, you can take greater risks with someone like Masahiro Tanaka, knowing Kershaw will still perform if Tanaka’s elbow eventually gives way – and imagine if it doesn’t. Furthermore, most of the ‘sleepers’ to target will fill your outfield positions, so taking Kershaw early can allow for a rotation of boom-or-bust players on the back end.
If Andrew McCutchen and Stephen Strasburg are your best players, there is a legitimate possibility that they land somewhere in the upper echelon of fantasy players, but not at the top. Therefore, the later picks need to maintain a level of safety, in their own right. Strasburg under-performing and J.D. Martinez regressing would cripple a team. Kershaw posting a 2.50 ERA – high, by his standards – will help offset an underwhelming season by Doug Fister or Justin Verlander.
The entire fantasy draft is based off building talent at positions with the best players available. When the slate is clean and the team is being assembled on the fly, only you can determine the direction it takes. With a chance to own the clear-cut favorite to lead his class at a critical position, you will instantly have the one fantasy player in baseball against which no one can compete.
If Clayton Kershaw is on the board, take him.