StrategyMay 26, 2011

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Here’s the Pitch – Trading Starters - 5 comments

By Drew Szczerba

Now in its 14th season, the Fantasy Veterans of Long Island is my longest running fantasy baseball league. Every year, we have a live auction at the same bar located roughly 10 miles outside of New York City (three hours by car). It’s a standard scoring 11-team mixed league as it has been since its inaugural season. However, this year something is different. This year trading is down. Way down. At first, I thought it was merely a coincidence that a league accustomed to a relatively high number of trades was having trouble getting deals done. I had figured things would normalize over the course of the season. Then something happened. I had figured wrong.

A rival team in need of hitting put all of his pitchers, with the exception of Felix Hernandez, on the block. Even without King Felix, the list of names was intriguing. James Shields, Jordan Zimmerman, Jeremy Hellickson, Gio Gonzalez, and Michael Pineda were available to anyone who could provide “a good bat.” Looking at the group, four of the five are young pitchers who a living up to the hype. The remaining pitcher, Shields, is pitching well and it wasn’t totally unexpected. In 2010, he had a 14 percent home run-per-fly ball rate and a .341 batting average on balls in play. In 2011, his bad luck appears to have run out. Put it all together and it there’s no denying this team likely has one of the best rotations in the league.

In fact, if you research any one of the starters listed you’ll find no shortage of positivity attached to their names. Hellickson has “electric stuff.” The “sky is the limit” for Pineda. Gonzalez has “tremendous upside.” Zimmerman “makes Tommy John surgery fun again.” To be fair, one of those was clearly made up. No one uses the phrase “tremendous upside” anymore. Still, with so much pitching talent available, I began asking myself one question.

Why can’t I make an offer?

The answer is in the question. I can’t make an offer because there’s so much pitching talent available. ESPN recently came out with its mid-May rankings, which ranks players from now until the end of the season. Of the pitchers listed, Shields was the only one considered a top 35 starter for the remainder of 2011. As good as the other pitchers might be none of them were considered among the 35 best at their position. Whether you agree with ESPN’s rankings or not, there’s no arguing the fact that pitching is deep this year. Very deep.

How deep is very deep? The last three pitchers picked up in the Fantasy Veterans of Long Island league were Derek Lowe, Jake Arrieta and Anibal Sanchez. The best three pitchers still available are Brian Matusz, Bud Norris and Erik Bedard. That tells me all I need to know. I love Jordan Zimmerman, but does he really have more upside than Brian Matusz? Perhaps, but certainly not to the point where I’d give up something of value for one when the other is essentially free. Michael Pineda is a future ace, but will he really give me better numbers than Anibal Sanchez? Not when Sanchez flirts with no hitters like Steven Tyler flirts with Idol contestants.

In most 10- or 12-team standard leagues, there will be around 60 starting pitchers active (in starting lineups) on a combined basis. In 2011, more than any other year I can remember, pitcher number 61 is a quality pitcher. It used to be that, even in standard mixed leagues, replacement-level pitchers were uninspiring to say the least. Unless you’re in a deep league or a single league format, 2011 is different. Today, it’s possible for a pitcher to be both good and worthless at the same time. Why? Because there are more good pitchers than need to be rostered in shallow mixed leagues.

So what’s an owner to do? Well, if you’re going to trade for pitching, make sure you trade for difference makers. Top-15 starters only. Replacement-level pitchers are too good to make a deal for even the 20th best pitcher worthwhile. But he’s top-20? Doesn’t matter. If you made a list of the top 50 pitchers in order, I bet the difference between number 20 and number 50 isn’t nearly much as the ranks would suggest. Who might be the 20th best pitcher from now until the end of the season? Roy Oswalt? Tim Hudson? I don’t know either, but whoever it is he’s not a significant upgrade from some of the names mentioned earlier. Listed below are the 15 pitchers I would trade for:

Roy Halladay
Felix Hernandez
Tim Lincecum
Cliff Lee
Jon Lester
Dan Haren
Justin Verlander
Tommy Hanson
Clayton Kershaw
Jered Weaver
Cole Hamels
David Price
Josh Johnson (pending injury status)
CC Sabathia
Matt Cain

Again, we’re talking about a mixed league of 12 teams or less. In such a league, those are the names. That’s all. After Cain, I’m no longer willing to weaken my hitting for what is likely to be a marginal pitching upgrade. I am, however, willing to trade a “good” pitcher for some offensive help. In fact, I’m eager to do it.

For example, I think this is the year for Jhoulys Chacin. I liked him throughout spring training and he hasn’t done anything to disappoint so far. Seven quality starts in nine tries and an ERA under three. Moreover, he’s averaging 7.8 whiffs per nine innings with a swinging strike percentage (SwStk%) near 10 suggesting more strikeouts could be on the way. So why am I looking to trade him? Chacin is a very good pitcher, but his value-above-replacement isn’t as high as his skills or performance would indicate. It’s not his fault. In an 11-team mixed league, the best pitcher on the waiver wire has serious game – think low-to-mid-90s fastball, plus curve, decent control. He’s not as good as Chacin, but the difference between the two is likely to be overestimated by your league-mates. If so, be sure to take advantage.

One way to do this is to reevaluate the meaning of “good” and “bad.” Jhoulys Chacin is good, but the quality of replacement-level pitchers means he’s not that good. On the other hand, the reverse is true for many hitters. You’d be hard pressed to find any glowing reports about Dan Uggla and his .190 batting average, but how many other second basemen would you rather have from this point forward? Maybe five or six? Despite his early struggles, Uggla is still likely to outperform a replacement level second baseman by a wide margin over the balance of the season. Even a modest improvement would put him well ahead of the Danny Espinosas of the world.

With so many hitters struggling these days, some of them are sure to be big names that are likely to rebound. Some owners have patience, but every league has a few owners that don’t. Now is the time to see if you can land a quality bat by offering a good starter. Hopefully, you’ll be able to trade a good pitcher knowing full well that the word “good” is all relative.

<i>Drew is a born Yankees fan who, not surprisingly, doesn’t particularly care for the Red Sox or Mets. He does, however, have a soft spot in his heart for most small market franchises. He gets an uneasy feeling every time the Yankees overpay for latest big name, and fears they may someday begin to acquire whole teams. Drew has been playing both fantasy baseball and football for 10 years. You can catch up with Drew in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name Case Ace.</i>
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5 Responses to “Here’s the Pitch – Trading Starters”

  1. User avatar rjforlife says:

    This is a fantastic article. Very insightful and I am going to put it to good use. Best article of the year so far on FBC. Well done.

  2. User avatar Case Ace says:

    rjforlife, thanks for the comment.

  3. brandoman says:

    This article is very accurate. I was able to trade away several pitchers for hitters because of what is on the WW. I’ve picked up Jurrjens, Vogelsong, Lohse…and by doing that I was able to trade Lincecum for A-Gon. Looking at the waivers now there are still several quality guys I could pick up, Collmenter, Harrison, Westbrook. All decent options. Trading is down in our league too. No one wants to give up their bats!

  4. V says:

    I agreed to trade J.Upton, a closer, and a sell-high waiver wire pitcher for Hamels+Price today. Weeee. Now I have 4 of the 15 on the above list and am targeting a few more ;-)

  5. User avatar kab21 says:

    My league is lazy. I’ve put Lester, Hamels, Price, Beckett, Romero and Garza up on the block and I’ve received no offers. But the innings limits and number of starting hitters create a hitter scarcity.


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