Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Building Your Pitching Staff

By Howard Bender

From The Fantasy Baseball Buzz: Fantasy Baseball Advice, Insights, Player Rankings and Updates

Fantasy baseball drafts are here, people!  

While most people are now up to their eyeballs in NCAA Tournament brackets, the smart and savvy GMs are tirelessly working on adjusting their 2011 player rankings, setting up draft depth charts, working on a variety of fantasy baseball strategies, and studying every minute detail of Spring Training.  For me, it’s one of the most exciting times of the year.  Sure, I’ve got my brackets next to me (sadly with a number of cross outs already), but my mind is locked into baseball.  So for today, we’re going to talk stats and

pitching.  One of the key pieces of free fantasy baseball advice that I’ve offered, over the years, is how to build a pitching staff without needing to blow your budget on an ace.  In my article in The Fantasy Baseball Guide, I preached the use of closers to help complement your ratios.  Today, we’re going to look at some of the key stats you should be studying to help you decide which pitchers to target.  We’re not going to complicate things too much….just a small change to deviate from some of the more antiquated ways of scouting.

Back in the early days, when your fantasy baseball league’s stats were tallied by hand and there was no internet to make your lives easier, most people were merely looking at the basics - wins, ERA, strikeouts, saves, and WHIP (IPRAT as it was first known back then).  But as the game’s popularity grew, stat geeks came crawling out of the woodwork, and suddenly the basic stats weren’t enough.  There were too many flaws.  Forget about the fact that the 5 basic stats mentioned above are still the primary categories used in both rotisserie and head to head leagues everywhere, these number-crunchers needed a deeper, more analytical approach.

But for the vast majority of fantasy baseball players, the statistics can be a chore.  Reading through some of these articles talking about VORP and WAR and what coefficients were used to calculate a pitcher’s projected ground ball percentage can be a little intimidating to the casual player.  Sure, there’s definitely a forum for that, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people that join just for the fun of it; for the camaraderie and bragging rights amongst a group of friends or co-workers.  When I’ve spoken to people, one of the most common answers as to why people choose to play fantasy football but not fantasy baseball is because baseball is too complicated.  There are more players to study, more statistics to analyze, you have to pay attention to it every day.  That’s the primary reason that I started The Fantasy Baseball Buzz (well, RotoBuzz for those that have been following me for nearly a decade).  I love the game of baseball, both real and fantasy, and I don’t mind sifting through all of the cumbersome calculations if that’s what it takes to humiliate some of my nearest and dearest friends.  I do a ton of work behind the scenes and spin it on the site to make the game more appealing and the information more accessible for the everyman.

That being said, I’m going to discuss with you a few of the key stats I like to use when assembling a pitching staff for my fantasy baseball leagues.  The game, for the most part, is offensively driven, and your budget on draft day is split accordingly.  But if you’re looking at the right statistics and study some of the trends, you can find plenty of quality bargains out there and possibly spend a little less on your pitching while still maintaining a staff that remains competitive in your league.  Remember, in rotisserie, you don’t have to win every category; you just have to be somewhere in the top third.  Your team’s strengths will shine through in certain categories that you’ll end up winning, but so long as you’re not sucking bottom in the others, your team will be more than fine.  Works pretty much the same in head to head leagues, but can be easier if you know your opponent has a specific category weakness that you can just put in the minimum effort, i.e. he’s got no closers, so one for you would be sufficient to win the saves category.

But I digress.  Let’s get to some of the stats you should be looking at when doing your fantasy baseball draft prep…

Ballpark Factors

You fantasy heads out there reading may find it silly for me to mention, but some folks out there still seem oblivious to the notion of ballpark factors.  Consider it like the old adage that common sense is the least common thing in this world.  The more pitcher-friendly the home ballpark, the greater the chance for your pitcher to succeed.  There’s a reason that, for years, Rockies pitchers were avoided in fantasy drafts.  You get a bunch of fly ball pitchers who call a home run friendly park home, and you’re looking at some seriously inflated ratios.  Why would the Rangers take a chance on a recovering Brandon Webb?  Because if he can make it back to being the ground ball specialist he once was, then who cares how many fly balls find their way to the seats in Arlington?  When you’re making your decisions between drafting Pitcher A and Pitcher B and you find their statistics to be similar, ballpark factors make for a nice tiebreaker.  Here’s a link to ESPN’s composite ballpark statistics.  Use them wisely.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching)

I touched on this one last year and, based on the post’s popularity, it leads me to believe that more and more of the casual fantasy baseball players are starting to, not just get it, but use it.  Forget about the formula for calculating.  If you’re that curious, then check out the Sabermetric Library on FanGraphs.  They can give you the gory details.  But for the basics, all you need to know is that it’s a statistic that looks just like ERA, but focuses more on the pitcher himself.  It eliminates the fielding behind him, both good and bad.  If your pitcher has an amazing defense behind him, his ERA could make him look like a better pitcher than he actually is and if his defense sucks, his ERA could balloon to the point that you don’t recognize just how good he might be.  It focuses strictly on what the pitcher, himself, can control – K, BB, HBP and HR.

This stat becomes incredibly helpful in examining which pitchers may show improved growth while which ones will regress.  It’s not an exact science, but you can usually expect improvements in ERA if there’s a high differential between the two and the FIP is significantly lower.  Blame it bad luck, shoddy defense, whatever, but the indication is that the pitcher is pitching well and other factors are screwing with his ERA.  Again, the reverse may be true in that if his FIP is significantly higher than his ERA, he could just be getting lucky.  Since baseball is so in tune with the law of averages, a regression to the mean is usually expected.

So check out what your pitchers ERA and FIP looked like over the last couple of years and study their current or expected situations.  Did your pitcher change teams and is now playing in front of a group of slick fielders?  Did your pitcher’s team bring in a new, defensive minded third baseman?  Here’s a look at the top 5 differentials from last season, both good and bad.  Perhaps there are some names here that you might want to either add or subtract from your draft lists.  Again, it’s not something by which you live and die, but it could help provide a bit more guidance as to who could be a better sleeper candidate and who could turn into a huge bust.

ERA FIP Diff     ERA FIP Diff
Clay Buchholz 2.33 3.61 -1.28 Jason Hammel 4.81 3.70 1.11
Tim Hudson 2.83 4.09 -1.26 Francisco Liriano 3.62 2.66 0.96
Trevor Cahill 2.97 4.19 -1.21 James Shields 5.,18 4.24 0.94
Jon Garland 3.47 4.41 -0.95 Paul Maholm 5.10 4.18 0.92
Jonathan Sanchez 3.07 4.00 -0.93 Kyle Davies 5.34 4.46 0.88

Some Honorable Mentions on the potential improvement side that weren’t in the Top 5 but had a strong positive differential include Zack GreinkeYovani Gallardo,Chris Narveson and Justin Masterson.  Hmmm.  Three Brewers.  What might that mean for the team this season?

Dishonorable Mentions go to R.A. DickeyFelix HernandezBronson Arroyo, andWade Davis, although you obviously have to take King Felix’ mention here with a grain of salt.

BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) 

Simply put, BABIP measures how many balls in play against a pitcher fall for hits.  It’s definitely a better metric for hitters than it is for pitchers as batters have a little more control given the situation, but it like FIP, it’s a pretty good guideline to see which pitchers might regress and which ones will improve.  Treat BABIP just as you would BAA (Batting Average Against).  They are built to look the same.  The lower the BABIP, the more successful the pitcher usually is and vice versa.  But for BABIP, the Major League average is somewhere between .290 and .300, so you’re really just looking for strong deviations in either direction.  If the BABIP is .340, then you’re looking at some bad luck and the likelihood for the pitcher to improve is stronger and those are the guys you want to target in trades.  Their numbers probably look like crap and the price you’ll have to pay could be significantly less than what their worth.  If the BABIP is .240, then obviously the reverse is true and those become your sell high candidates.  It’s as simple as that.  Here’s a look at some guys you may want to target or avoid based on significant deviations in BABIP.

BABIP     BABIP
Trevor Cahill .236 James Shields .341
Bronson Arroyo .239 Francisco Liriano .331
Ted Lilly .247 Jason Hammel .328
Tim Hudson .249 Paul Maholm .327
Jonathan Sanchez .252 Gavin Floyd .325
Matt Cain .252 Justin Masterson .324
Roy Oswalt .253 Jonathan Niese .324

Some Honorable mentions for potential improvement go to Yovani GallardoScott BakerJoe Blanton, and John Lackey

Dishonorable mentions for Jeremy GuthrieIan KennedyClay Buchholz and Jeff Niemann

GB% LD% FB%

This is about as complicated as I’ll get here and I’ll try to keep it short and simple.  You’re looking at Ground Ball, Line Drive, and Fly Ball percentages.  For me, the most telling is the LD% as most line drives tend to fall in for hits.  The higher the LD% the worse your pitcher’s overall numbers will look.  The MLB average is 18%, so when scouting, you’re obviously looking for numbers smaller than that.  The next one I look at is GB% since the chances of a ground ball becoming an out is much greater than that of a fly ball, which can easily turn into a home run.  44% is the MLB average, so a GB% higher than that is the preferred way to go, especially if you know the pitcher has a kick ass defense behind him.  As for FB%, the league average is 38%.  If it’s higher than that, you better be checking out Ballpark factors and see if the park is hitter or pitcher friendly.

For example:  Matt Garza with a 44.7 FB% and 35.8 GB% moving from pitcher friendly Tropicana Field the hitter friendly Wrigley where the wind blows out often?  Yeesh!!  I’m much more inclined to go after Ricky Romero and his 26.5 FB% and 55.2 GB%.  Sure, the Rogers Centre plays like a hitter’s park too, but the likelihood of the long ball is significantly less.  Almost as proportionately less than the price you’d have to pay on draft day!

So that’s about it for the stats talk today.  It’s actually pretty simple when you think about it.  Instead of just looking at the basic ERA and WHIP totals, these stats give you a better sense of who not only performs at high levels, but who could see the most improvements or worst regressions.  It’s a great way to bargain shop for starters without paying some of the premium prices your competition is going to dole out for marquee names and will allow you to divert those savings towards better hitters.

Good luck and I’ll see you all in the money this year!

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BIO

My name is Howard Bender and I am addicted to fantasy baseball.  I first got bit by the fantasy bug back in the early 90′s and have been a rabid participant in multiple leagues every year since.  Mixed leagues, AL and NL only leagues, roto leagues, head to head, you name it!  I just can’t get enough each year. 

Back in 2003 I began writing a weekly fantasy advice column for Addict Fantasy Sports and also launched the first version of this site under the name RotoBuzz.  The name was changed to The Fantasy Baseball Buzz back in 2009 but is still loaded with the same quality content, rankings, and advice.

In addition to my work here, I have also worked for Fanball.com as a beat writer covering the Chicago White Sox and have appeared as a guest on several fantasy radio shows, including Fanball’s Fantasy Buffet (now Fantasy Drive) and ESPN radio.  At the end of January 2011, I will also be launching SFGiantsReport.com, a blog covering, that’s right, the San Francisco Giants.

So enjoy the site, enjoy the free advice, comment as often as you like, and here’s to years of fantasy success.

Good luck and I’ll see you all in the money each year!!!

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