Last week, I went through and ranked the standard hitting statistics (runs, home runs, RBI, steals, batting average) and their general value. Of course, different rules apply when you have specific holes, but that’s a general guide to what standard stats to look at when starting from scratch, making a trade, or trying to rejuvenate a fledgling team. This week, we’re taking a look at the pitchers.
Now, you should know that this list was a little tougher to come up with. With hitting, dominance in one stat can lead to at least direct competence in others, if not mastery of them, with the sole exception of stolen bases. With pitching, we effectively have five categories that are on par with steals. It is not impossible for a pitcher to thrive in one area while being incompetent in others, especially over a short amount of time (a relevant distinction for pitchers).
In addition to the fact that pitchers don’t play every day, that is another reason why every writer on this site (and any fantasy player worth anything) values hitters over pitchers.
Still, pitching stats make up as many categories as hitting ones do, so we can’t neglect them. Before we get on, this is a reminder that the standard pitching stats are wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA, and WHIP. No more wasting time; let’s do this.
Most Valuable: WHIP
Do you want to keep your ERA down? Don’t allow base runners. Let me show you Curt Schilling‘s 2001 season to best exhibit this point.
Homers allowed is not a standard pitching stat, but it was included for a reason. Schilling allowed more homers than any pitcher in the league, but still led the league in innings pitched, struck out more than 10 hitters per nine innings, won more than 20 games, and had a sub 3.00 ERA. In all, it’s hard to ask for anything more than that from a pitcher, fantasy or otherwise.
The reason his numbers were so solid despite a high HR allowed total is that he wasn’t walking anyone. If you keep men off base, you can get away with other things and still have a stellar season. If you put men on base, your outings are going to be short, you won’t be around in late innings to pick up wins, and a small innings total will lead to a rough ERA, as every run that does cross the plate will ding it a lot more.
Even if you consider Schilling a freak pitcher (which he was), here’s another advantage to these guys. It is true that guys like Schilling are rare. People who don’t allow many baserunners also don’t strike out many guys. But if you’re concentrating on WHIP, you can basically stream at will, as you don’t need to worry about bad outings anywhere near as much.
So, when Jonathan Sanchez has his patented five inning, 10 strikeout, 4 walk, 4 hit, 3 earned run performance, you’re only getting strikeouts, maybe a win if his team is on that day. But if you’re looking at a guy who walks 1-2 hitters a game, he’s going into the seventh inning quite often. Now, he won’t strike out as many as someone like Sanchez, but you can bring in another guy to pick up that slack. You can have two low walk, low strikeout guys going in one day. If you have two Sanchez’s going in one day, you will be 65 percent balder the following morning.
Translation: Low whip translates to quantity and quality. Start there and build.
Second Most Valuable: ERA
This was quite the contest between ERA and wins, but ERA gets the nod for one reason, although it may not be true for a lot longer.
It is easier to find big winners than low ERA guys. So, ERA is at more of a premium and more valuable. If all that you’re looking for is wins, you can stream all year, but that’s a much bigger gamble with ERA. Because it’s harder to find, the category has more value.
Now, in 2012, we’ve already had two perfect games and five no-hitters, and the season’s not even half over. Two years ago, we saw two perfect games, and that doesn’t even count Armando Galaragga’s outing. The year before that, Mark Buehrle threw a perfect game. I am choosing to view this as more of a statistical anomaly than anything else. It’s easy to say that PED’s being taken out of the game has helped pitching, but they haven’t been a part of baseball forever. These kind of things weren’t the norm in the 70′s and before.
If it doesn’t show to be an anomaly, then ERA and wins will be flipped in a few years. But for now, pitchers with good ERA’s are the ones to look for.
I want to show you two seasons from 2010 to best demonstrate this point. Just so you know, both of these pitchers were on playoff teams from 2010.
Pitcher A: Jonathan Sanchez
Pitcher B: Phil Hughes
Neither are exactly top flight pitchers, but Sanchez had a lot more value. In more innings, his ERA was a full point below Hughes. If Team A had Sanchez and Team B had Hughes, it would be much easier for Team A to make up the five wins than for Team B to make up the 1.12 ERA points. That doesn’t even focus on the extra K’s, or slightly better WHIP.
Again, ERA is more of a premium. So, pitchers who excel in that need to be viewed as better.
Third Most Valuable: Wins
Wins or strikeouts? It’s a tough call. But again, you have to go after which stat is going to be harder to fill. If you’re looking to stream (which you need to do to some degree to compete in fantasy baseball), chances are pretty good that a guy you bring in will strike a few hitters out. This is true whether he wins, loses, or takes a no decision.
More strikeouts happen than wins. It’s really simple math there. Just like it’s easier to make up five wins with a lower ERA than vice versa, it’s easier to make up strikeouts. So, all things being equal, if you’re stuck between a low win, high strikeout guy and a high win, low strikeout guy, go with the latter.
Fourth Most Valuable: Strikeouts
The value of a high strikeout guy: They have dominant potential. I remember in 2009 when Sanchez threw a no-hitter (should have been a perfect game if not for an error in the eighth inning). This was not a great season for him, but on that start, he was flawless.
The problems with a high strikeout guy: We’ll stick with the same example of Sanchez. I can’t tell you how many games I watched him in San Francisco where he struck out an obscene amount of batters, but struggled to get through five innings because of walks.
The fact is that if you stream well and build a deep rotation based off of this list, you’ll have plenty of low ERA and WHIP guys. They may not strike out many hitters on their own, but collectively they will make up for that gap.
When it comes to starting pitchers, you have two counted stats and two that are averages. If you develop a staff with guys who are reliably low in the WHIP and ERA department (think National League, pitcher’s parks), you can build a deeper staff, throw more innings, more starts, and make up the difference in the counted stats.
Least Valuable: Saves
Similar to steals, this category kind of stands out. Sure, there are great closers out there, but it’s a position with a lot of fluctuation, both in the offseason and during the season. Because they don’t throw a lot of innings, they don’t strike out a lot of total hitters (even if their K/9 ratios are incredible), and their WHIP’s and ERA’s can be moved a lot with one bad outing.
There’s really not a lot more that can be said here.
Unlike hitting, pitching categories all stand out independently from the others. You can be incompetent in four, but exceptional in one. That doesn’t stand out anywhere else than with the closers. Even if their WHIP and ERA are great, the lack of innings they throw really minimize their value to the team.
Saves are least valuable because the people who get them make the least overall impact on the team.