Drafting Starting Pitching: Opportunity Cost

Drafting SP such that you aren't missing out on more valuable hitters.

Drafting is fun. Drafting is hard. Drafting can cause anxiety. Drafting can be exciting.

All of these things can be simultaneously true, and, in reality, are all probably somewhat responsible for our collective obsession with fantasy baseball. We all like to fancy ourselves better drafters than our league-mates, and there are certainly elements of skill to roster construction especially as it relates to your league’s format.

And there are, by a current estimate, 3.3 bazillion resources that you can use to try and research draft strategy—from ranking systems to dollar value calculators to mock drafts. There is nothing wrong with any of these tools.

And, in many cases, there is something wrong with every single one of them.

For example, ranks that are built for 10-team roto leagues are, by definition, not built for 15-team head-to-head categories leagues. Dollar values for leagues with batting average are not made to help you analyze your on-base percentage league. And so on and so forth.

This is likely not new information, but it does underscore the fact that most of the content out there – and there is a lot of really, really, great content out there – is actually NOT helpful for your particular league or settings. It is absolutely vital to understand your format so that you can take what is useful and not be tripped up by what is not.

Saying all of this before continuing with a piece on draft strategy may feel disingenuous, but there are three things that you can take away from this article that should be universal:

  1. The process can be adapted
  2. The concept holds true
  3. There is not actually a third thing

 

The Premise

 

There is something that is often talked about indirectly as analysts analyze but that is not always addressed directly. The point here is to name it and put it front and center so that you can consider it in your planning. That idea is opportunity cost.

Specifically, we will build this around starting pitching, but you could do this for any position throughout the draft.

Opportunity cost comes into play in two ways:

  1. When I draft player A, I have decided NOT to draft players X, Y, and Z who will definitely not be there when my turn comes back around and that has a direct impact on roster construction.
  2. With the next pick I take player B, and not D, E, or F; do I like the combination of A+B better than X+D, or Y+E… or any other combination thereof?

Scenario 2 is worth a deep look, but today the focus will be more on scenario 1, and more specifically at the offensive opportunity cost for taking a pitcher at different stages of the draft where pitchers are clumped together (at different tiers). We will definitely look at two-pick combinations, but the decision tree that happens across a draft is definitely something worth diving into. A final note: “my guys” and “your guys” might not be the “same guys” and that’s okay. I have listed all available starting pitchers and hitters within the ranges so you can take my advice or completely disregard it and still have a good process.

For transparency, the data being used here is NFBC, 12-team non-auction drafts from January 1, 2022 – February 7, 2022 (79 drafts). The specific spots may not apply to your league size, but the process most definitely is.

 

Top 12 Picks

 

There are three pitchers going in the top 12: Shohei Ohtani (7), Gerrit Cole (8), Corbin Burnes (11).

Getting a stud pitcher may not feel as important as last year, but it certainly helps to get yourself a workhorse. Ohtani was amazing last year but has been prone to injury in the past. Gerrit Cole is projected to throw around 195 innings. ATC has only five pitchers projected for 190+ innings in 2023. Corbin Burnes only threw 167 last year, but he won a Cy Young. None of these picks are dumb, despite what your friends or Twitter followers might say.

But all of that is in a vacuum and drafting does not take place in a vacuum.

If you take Ohtani at 7, you have chosen not to take: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (6) if he falls a single spot, Bryce Harper (9), Ronald Acuña Jr. (10), Kyle Tucker (12), Mike Trout (13), Mookie Betts (14), and Rafael Devers (15).

At pick 7, 10 more players come off the board before you pick again. At 8, 8 players come off the board. Picking closer to the ends does offer a bit of relief as the opportunity cost can be less impactful, but considering scenario 2 from above, which do you like better:

A: Corbin Burnes + Rafael Devers
B: Kyle Tucker + Walker Buehler
C: Kyle Tucker + Rafael Devers

If you prefer scenario A, then that’s wonderful, but this is something that is most definitely worth considering and thinking about when making your SP picks.

The pitcher to take: The pitcher pick here likely will not be up to you and will be determined more by your draft slot. Obviously, Ohtani’s dual eligibility also factors in here and your format matters a lot (weekly it matters less, daily more, and he has to be both players in one and not two different players at your host site). The pitcher to take here is Gerrit Cole because you can still pair him with top-level offensive talent with your second pick.

The verdict: I do not go pitcher with my first-round pick here with the elite talent that is still on the board. Yeah, it hurts to miss out on Cole or Burnes, but Kyle Tucker/Walker Buehler is a pretty enticing start. Or Acuña if you feel health will not be much of an issue (or an issue at all). Even skipping pitching altogether here is just fine. Are you upset with a Ronald Acuña Jr./Rafael Devers start?

If I am dead set on getting a pitcher in the first two rounds, the play is Tucker/Buehler.

 

Picks 13-30

 

The premise, concept, and process should all be clear at this point, so from here on out, let’s just talk about the picks and the offensive opportunities that are given up by choosing a Starting Pitcher in this tier.

Starting pitchers coming off the board: Walker Buehler (16), Max Scherzer (20), Brandon Woodruff (21), Jacob deGrom (23), Zack Wheeler (24), Shane Bieber (30)
Hitters available: Luis Robert (17), Freddie Freeman (18), Ozzie Albies (19), Manny Machado (22), Yordan Alvarez (25), Teoscar Hernández (26), Whit Merrifield (27), Starling Marte (28), Cedric Mullins (29)

This is where scenario 2 (not just the opportunity cost of a pick, but how it influences the next) really comes into play. If you took Cole at 8, you have your choice of the early offensive players in this list. If not, and you want a pitcher in your first two rounds, you’re taking your favorite from Scherzer, Woodruff, deGrom, Wheeler, and Bieber. Here are the best pairings to consider:

A: Cole + (Robert/Freeman/Alvarez)
B: (Acuña/Tucker) + Buehler
C: (Guerrero Jr./Harper) + (Scherzer/Woodruff/deGrom/Wheeler/Bieber)

The pitcher to take: The pitcher you want from this group in a vacuum is Buehler. If you had an earlier pick to start, and Buehler is gone, then it’s Wheeler who might give you the most IP in baseball in 2022.

The verdict: This is draft order dependent, so if you have pick 6 or 7, Vlad Jr. + Wheeler is the play. If you have a later pick, I’m sticking with the Tucker + Buehler combination from above.

 

Picks 31-61

 

It gets considerably harder to follow a decision tree from the first pick into the third and fourth picks and nearly impossible beyond that. You can still look at the previous round and the current round (or current round and next round) as a dyad, but for our purposes, I will now assume you have decided you want a starting pitcher and we shall see if that is wise and, if so, which pitcher it should be. It is important to note that relievers are going earlier than ever, much of it being driven by certain league formats that do not allow for FAAB acquisitions and/or trading in-season. We will be focusing only on starters, but for reference, Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader go in this range at 33 and 35, respectively.

Starting pitchers coming off the board: Julio Urías (37), Sandy Alcantara (40), Aaron Nola (41), Lucas Giolito (43), Robbie Ray (49), Freddy Peralta (53), Chris Sale (55)

Keep in mind that if you really want the pitchers at the front end of this group, you may need to plan to grab them in the third round instead of waiting until the fourth, but that has everything to do with your particular decision tree at this stage of the draft.

If you have waited on a pitcher and need your SP1, you can do okay with this group. Aaron Nola has some question marks but did seem to be incredibly unlucky last year. The two that really stand out to me are Sandy Alcantara, a workhorse who could throw nearly as many innings as Wheeler and more than most of the league, and Freddy Peralta whose stuff has emerged as some of the best in baseball.

Hitters available: Salvador Perez (31), Marcus Semien (32), Tim Anderson (34), Aaron Judge (36), Trevor Story (38), Matt Olson (39), Xander Bogaerts (42), Austin Riley (44), Paul Goldschmidt (45), Francisco Lindor (46), Tyler O’Neill (47), Pete Alonso (48), J.T. Realmuto (50), Wander Franco (51), George Springer (54), Eloy Jiménez (56), Randy Arozarena (57), Will Smith (catcher) (58), Nick Castellanos (59), Byron Buxton (60), Adalberto Mondesi (61)

Of course, doing okay by grabbing Alcantara or Peralta means missing out on a wide swatch of offensive talent here. In 12-teamers, pick 31 is pick 3.7, and 61 is 6.1 so, to be fair, we are talking about 2.5 rounds here. If you have a hitter-hitter start, you almost have to grab Alcantara or Peralta, but you can then maybe snag Wander Franco, Eloy Jiménez, Nick Castellanos, or, if you are not risk-averse, Byron Buxton. A start like that might look like Tucker, Devers, Peralta, Franco.

If you have gotten a pitcher in the first two, perhaps starting Tucker/Buehler, you could go Olson/Peralta and have two strong arms heading into the fifth, or Tucker, Buehler, Olson, Franco.

Maybe these guys aren’t “your guys” but you can see how things shape up.

The pitcher to take: The pitchers to take here, as you may imagine, are: Alcantara for volume, Peralta for stuff, and Ray if you’re the founder of an enormous baseball website named Nick.

The verdict: You probably want one pitcher and one hitter from this group, so based on that, you can look at the first two rounds and decide if you’d prefer hitter-hitter or hitter-pitcher (or pitcher-hitter although we’ve established that is not my preference).

Depending on your draft slot, go with Alcantara/Franco (Eloy if you’re Franco-averse) or Olson/Peralta.

 

Picks 62-100

 

We are now getting into the realm where it is not just about pitcher-hitter questions, but also positional availability, scarcity, and your existing roster construction. The opportunity cost, for example, of not having a third basement beyond this spot in the draft is quite high. If you’re not picking on the turn, you’re probably looking at DJ LeMahieu at 110 and then Ke’Bryan Hayes at 138. Does that mean you should reach for one earlier in the draft? That’s a question only you can answer for yourself, but do be aware of the domino effects that exist; the decision tree is important to chart out.

These picks represent 6.2 – 9.4 in 12-team leagues. That represents 3-4 players depending on your particular draft slot and there are a lot of arms in here of which to take notice. The bats are okay, but if you’ve focused on offense early, you may not need to grab Nolan Arenado and can instead take Logan Webb.

Starting pitchers coming off the board: Logan Webb (62), Lancy Lynn (65), Kevin Gausman (69), Max Fried (72), Jack Flaherty (73), José Berríos (76), Joe Musgrove (77), Dylan Cease (83), Luis Castillo (86), Frankie Montas (92), Alek Manoah (95), Trevor Rogers (96), Charlie Morton (100)

Hitters available: Javier Báez (63), Nolan Arenado (66), Jose Altuve (68), José Abreu (70), Corey Seager (74), Brandon Lowe (75), Jorge Polanco (78), Ketel Marte (79), Jazz Chisholm Jr. (80), Alex Bregman (81), Tommy Edman (82), J.D. Martinez (85), Bryan Reynolds (87), Kris Bryant (88), Bobby Witt Jr. (89), Giancarlo Stanton (90), Jonathan India (91), Daulton Varsho (93), Yasmani Grandal (94), Cody Bellinger (97), Carlos Correa (98), Christian Yelich (99)

The pitchers to take: Since there are multiple picks being made per team, let’s focus on three pitchers to target; one each from the beginning, middle, and end of this grouping. Also, as you will see in the next grouping, Yu Darvish’s ADP is 102, so if you like him better than Morton, you could swap them.

The first pitcher to take is Logan Webb (backup: Max Fried). From the middle of the pack, José Berríos is in a new spot and could be set to win a lot of games with the Blue Jays. He’s got hype too, so maybe a draft and trade is possible. His teammate, Alek Manoah, is definitely worth an investment at pick 95 as well.

The verdict: This is a range where the arms are far more enticing to me than the bats. This is great news! It means you might be able to start the first five rounds with only one pitcher and snag two or three more here. Then you have a top-heavy offense without too much sacrifice. For example, picking from the 12-spot: Kyle Tucker, Walker Buehler, Matt Olson, Xander Bogaerts, Logan Webb, Max Fried, Bryan Reynolds, Jonathan India is not too shabby, format dependent. You can likely swap out Bobby Witt Jr. for India if you are a true believer.

Or swap out Buehler for Betts or Devers and then India for Manoah. Either way, this is a good part of the ADP to invest in pitching.

 

Picks 101-150

 

There are still plenty of good arms to be found in these rounds. These would be picks 9.5 – 13.6 and these might be the places where opportunity cost matters most. You don’t want to have to pick a giant question mark like Anthony Rendon because you’re desperate at third base (yes, picking on third base continues to be perfectly fine) and miss out on Shane McClanahan, but you might also want to make sure you don’t HAVE to pick Shane and miss out on Jesse Winker.

We also are getting to the part of the draft where “dealer’s choice” really comes into play. There are a number of pitchers who feel like a lot of the same guy. Some will break out or take the next step, others will not. Also, good luck “knowing” which is which at this point.

Starting pitchers coming off the board: Yu Darvish (102), Justin Verlander (109), Shane McClanahan (112), Blake Snell (114), Tyler Mahle (122), Carlos Rodón (124), Zac Gallen (129), Pablo López (133), Chris Bassitt (135), Nathan Eovaldi (140), Shane Baz (143), Framber Valdez (145), Ian Anderson (146), Sean Manaea (148), Luis Garcia (149)

Hitters available: Anthony Rendon (103), Mitch Haniger (104), Jesse Winker (106), Ryan Mountcastle (107), DJ LeMahieu (110), Willson Contreras (111), Jared Walsh (113), Jake Cronenworth (115), C.J. Cron (117), Franmil Reyes (118), Dansby Swanson (119), Kyle Schwarber (120), Josh Bell (121), Myles Straw (123), Willy Adames (125), Ty France (126), Tyler Stephenson (127), Austin Meadows (128), Chris Taylor (130), Trent Grisham (131), Rhys Hoskins (132), Jarred Kelenic (134), Max Muncy (136), Keibert Ruiz (137), Ke’Bryan Hayes (138), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (139), Joey Votto (141), Yoán Moncada (144), Gleyber Torres (147), Luis Urías (150)

The pitchers to take: Of this crew, I lean towards one of two things: done it before and I think he can do it again, and youth with high upside. Here are my favorites from this bunch: Shane McClanahan, Zac Gallen, Shane Baz, Framber Valdez, and Ian Anderson.

The verdict: The reality is that at this stage of the draft, I want to be loading up on offensive upside, but for you, it will depend nearly entirely on your decision tree to this point. If I can sneak one of the Shanes onto the roster, I’ll do that. I really like Ian Anderson at this price. But I like Winker, a LeMahieu bounceback, Walsh, Cron, Schwarber, Grisham, and Kelenic better than most of the rest. Of my four picks, I want to walk away with Jess Winker, Ian Anderson, and two more hitters; especially because I hopefully took advantage of the last grouping and Anderson is my SP4 (or even SP5 if I snag McClanahan or Gallen). Two pitchers and two hitters from this crew could work too: Winker, McClanahan, Grisham, Anderson would be just fine.

 

The Conclusion

 

I strongly urge you to check out the new player pages with the PL7 launch; you can really dig deep into players there as a one-stop-shop. You’ll be able to select “your guys” from these lists by doing so and customize my process to fit your needs. The concept here isn’t about any one player’s particular, individual performance, but rather about being aware of the ramifications of each pick and the path it puts you on for roster construction as well as overall talent levels.

In roto leagues or head-to-head categories leagues, the same is true of accumulating players who will get you the stats you need. If you’re on the clock at pick 55 and take Mondesit for steals, you are NOT getting Logan Webb or Eloy Jiménez. That may be the plan, but it is very important to be aware of it.

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Matt Goodwin

Husband. Dad. Teacher. Writer. Podcaster. Baseball Fan. Quippy. Makes up words. FSWA. IBWAA.

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