Every fantasy sport is a combination of analyzing historical trends and anticipating what this tells us should happen in the future. This is what’s been happening to offense in Major League Baseball over the better part of a decade (these are per team, per game averages for all MLB teams):
Thanks to Baseball-Reference for the information contained in this piece.
What this tells us is that since 2006, home runs are down 13.5 percent and RBIs are down 14.5 percent. This has led to runs per team per game going down 14.2 percent since 2006. In 2006, there were 23,599 runs scored in the MLB. In 2013, that fell to 20,255 runs scored, the lowest total in baseball since 1995 when there were 19,554 runs scored.
Also in 2006, MLB reached the highest average OPS per team since 2000 at .768. That .768 mark also represented the third-highest mark since World War 2. Since 2006, the average OPS per team has dropped from .768 to .714, a relative drop of 7 percent. On-base percentage reached its lowest mark since 1988 (.318) and slugging-percentage reached its lowest mark since 1992 with a .396 mark. These are a whole bunch of numbers to tell you that offense has been trending down for the better part of a decade and there’s no reason to think it will go up any time soon.
Someone is still driving runs and someone is still scoring runs, there just aren’t as many of them. This has led to a preseason discussion in the fantasy industry about what to do about pitchers.
In fantasy baseball, the standard wisdom for years now (or at least since I started playing fake baseball) has been get your hitters early, worry about pitchers later. There’s more than one way to win a fantasy league, but solidifying your lineup was typically granted importance over your pitching staff.
With the trend of runs going down for so long now, there has been some thought as to drafting pitchers early. The thought process is that fewer runs means more good pitchers but more importantly that pitcher seasons are a bit easier to predict than that of hitters, assuming health of course. Naturally, any pitcher can blow up a bit in a given season – Justin Verlander and Matt Cain in 2013 – but if you draft Cliff Lee, you know you’ll probably get 200 strikeouts, an ERA around 3.00 and a WHIP under 1.1. If you draft Yu Darvish, you know he can be a bit volatile but has a shot at 300 strikeouts. If you draft Felix Hernandez, you’ll get 210 strikeouts and a 3.10 ERA. These are things you can reasonably bank on.
Besides that, what this means is that there’s a lot more pitching in later rounds. Using Yahoo! standard 5×5 rankings, there were eight pitchers ranked outside the top 100 players that finished as top 25 starters in 2013 and nine such players in 2012. That number of players grows by quite a bit when you talk about pitchers 26-50 that were ranked outside the top 180. This says that in a 16-team league, there were a lot of fantasy teams whose number-3 starter came after the 11th round. It seems likely at this point, through mocks that I’ve done, that most teams will have more than three pitchers by pick 176, which is the 15th round of a 12-team draft. Judging by the trends in baseball for the better part of a decade and the availability of pitching late in drafts, this is a strategy that is built to lose value.
This is Economics 101. When the supply of a given object goes up (serviceable starting pitching), the price should go down. The price of paying for pitching, or when you should be taking pitchers in drafts, should be less and not more. Proof that there is more serviceable pitching now than there has been for a long time? From 2006-2013, these are the number of pitchers, by season, that have managed to equal or better the following pitching line:
150 IP, 140 K, 3.70 ERA, 1.30 WHIP
Number of Pitchers
For years, it was “wait on pitching.” The ability to predict pitching hasn’t changed yet the volume of good pitchers has. There should be a rush for predictable hitters given the availability of pitchers, so I’m not sure why there would be an emphasis on drafting pitchers early.
One counter-argument that I see to this is that there is more elite pitching now and it’s necessary to lock up those guys to dominate your pitching statistics. Again, this is true to an extent. Here are the number of pitchers from 2006-2013 to manage a pitching line of this or better:
180 IP, 180 K, 3.40 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Number of Pitchers
It seems like the number of elite pitchers per season has settled at around 12 and has for a few years now. So the number of elite seasons hasn’t gone up of late, it’s in fact stagnated. In essence, while runs per game keep dropping, it’s probably due to bullpens and the floor of lesser pitchers rising, not improvement at the top. Yes, Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish are exceptions (there are exceptions to every rule). But I don’t know about, say, passing on Jason Kipnis to draft Felix Hernandez when Chris Sale could be had at least a round later in most snake drafts.
That is that last economics lesson. When the market is flooded with cheap imitations – two out of the last three seasons and four of the last eight, there have been at least twice as many “good pitchers” as “elite pitchers” – the price of the original goes down. With more good pitchers anticipated and a relatively known quantity of elite pitchers, the price and demand should go down. Instead, there are advocates that both should go up. If anything, this is when the focus on elite bats in drafts should be magnified – zig when others are zagging.