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Lessons learned from LABR fantasy baseball draft: The loneliness of the starting-pitcher run

Scott Pianowski
·10 min read
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When it comes to fantasy strategy, I’m all for divergence of opinion. And as we like to say, any strategy can work if you pick the right players. We try not to be dogmatic here.

But when it comes down to Fantasy Baseball 2021, you need a pitching strategy. And it needs to work.

The starting pitchers of fantasy baseball correlate nicely to the running backs of fantasy football. Both positions will be filled with maddening injuries and inevitable value loss, but if you nail this position — if you solve it better than your opponents — you receive a massive jump to your winning chances. If we could get Magic 8-Ball answers for just one position, you’d ask for the right pitchers.

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Running backs have dominated the early fantasy football rounds for years, and the starting pitcher wave isn’t far behind. When I first started playing this numbers racket, the simplest workable plan I found was, “Get hitting, figure out pitching.” But that’s not good enough anymore. The field is better at recognizing what makes a pitcher draftable or addable, and perhaps more importantly, the market has become far more aggressive adding free-agent pieces. Almost everyone seems to finally grasp that "Wait for Proof" is a dead strategy. You identify plausible upside, you act.

Enough preamble. We ran the 15-team LABR mixed draft Tuesday, and I probably screwed up my pitching. I still think I have a good team, but a mediocre staff will be difficult to fix in this format.

I landed the No. 2 pick in LABR snake draft, not my preferred slot. While the player I get at the deuce will be plenty talented, I don’t see anyone there as dramatically better than the talent the rest of the first round will allow. And I am generally uncomfortable having such a long wait between my odd and even-round picks, a 26-pick gap. Is it worse to start a run and get the worst of the value, or is it worse to finally step into a pick after watching a position get crushed and a tier fully emptied?

It's never too early to draft starting pitching in 2021

I wanted Fernando Tatis Jr. in the first round, and not even that went right; Alan Harrison grabbed Tatis first overall. Still, plenty of offensive talent fit my slot; Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Juan Soto, or Mike Trout would be fine there.

But what about Jacob deGrom or Gerrit Cole? If your big-ticket ace clicks, he generally offers more category impact than any offensive player will. I could have stepped into the Anchors Aweigh strategy (just as viable in football as baseball), where you go big once at the key position, then let the rest of it fall to you.

Anyway, I took Betts. I don’t have any grand reasoning — you know he’s good. Steps into an age-28 season, in a loaded lineup, durable, wants to be as great as he can be. Produces everywhere. I’ll enjoy him for six months. The other bats I mentioned would have been fine, too.

And then I sat back and watched the room destroy my pitching board.

I knew I’d never get deGrom or Cole, and they went in the middle of the first. Shane Bieber went 10th, Trevor Bauer 13th. I knew they all weren’t coming back.

Mookie Betts, de los Dodgers de Los Ángeles
Scott took Mookie Betts with his first pick, but it cost him a pitching advantage. (AP Foto/Eric Gay)

Many second rounds of drafts will turn into pitching runs

And then the second round hit with a yellow wave. Yu Darvish, Aaron Nola, Walker Buehler, Luis Castillo, and Lucas Giolito fell consecutively. And after a one-bat respite, Max Scherzer and Jack Flaherty (probably my most realistic target) went off the board.

So that’s 11 pitchers in the first 26 picks, and 8-of-9 in the second-half run. At this point, I’m killing myself for not grabbing deGrom.

When Pick 29 finally arrived, I had two players I fancied. Clayton Kershaw was the best of the remaining starters, a ratio dominator tied to a perfect setup. He’s not a big-innings bet at this stage of his career — and we know the Dodgers can navigate the regular season like they’re already in the playoffs — but he can be a soft ace for me, so long as I’m able to back him up with strong secondary pieces.

I also liked Bo Bichette in that spot, but I figured he’d make more sense at 3.02. I didn’t want Harrison to take Kershaw, who I viewed as a clear outlier on the remaining pitching board, and given that he had Tatis, I figured he wouldn’t be targeting another shortstop anyway.

So I took Kershaw. And of course, Harrison then took Bichette, surely part of his Total Shortstop Control strategy.

The Bichette miss might not matter; Xander Bogaerts was perfectly fine at 3.02. Boston’s got plenty of problems on the mound, but the Red Sox still have a good lineup in a friendly home park. I didn’t see another pitcher who fit the 3.02 slot, anyway, and most of the third round was offensive-focused.

But in the fourth round, it was more Yellow Brick Road. Starting with Brandon Woodruff at the end of the third, we saw five pitchers in 11 picks.

Get invested in as many plus offenses as possible

At that point I shrugged and said screw it, I’ll pretend Kershaw is an anchor and play Anchors Aweigh. Give me the best offense I can get, and hope I can find enough useful pitching to not get buried there.

A quick word on my pick couplets to follow:

Cavan Biggio and Luke Voit, 4.11 and 5.02 - Biggio’s plate discipline suggests someone with latent average upside, and he’s never been caught as a base stealer — there’s also a spike potential there. He grabs multiple positions, something I want to step into entering an uncertain 2021. (Biggio also has the Fred Zinkie seal of approval, always welcome.) Voit has been the slugger the Yankees thought they were getting with Giancarlo Stanton. Both Biggio and Voit will benefit from deep lineups around them. Buoyancy is a beautiful thing.

Yoan Moncada and Edwin Diaz, 6.11 and 7.02 - Moncada gets a pass for his messy 2020; he’s another guy in a loaded lineup, and the market attached him to a coupon. Diaz was my pivot after the starting pitcher market again left me wanting — I was surprised Kyle Hendricks didn’t last this long. Hendricks is not a big strikeout pitcher by the ratios, but his strike-throwing allows him to work deep into games, and he’ll be a sneaky strikeout source from his likely innings volume.

[Draft Rankings: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP]

Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien, 8.11 and 9.02 - Chapman’s a career .255 hitter, which is actually fine in today’s game. The power is a safe bet. Semien came at a mild discount after an off two months, but he was third in the MVP vote two years ago. He can be a four- or five-category contributor, and the draft price was right.

Jorge Soler and Kevin Gausman, 10.11 and 11.02 - Soler was a 48-homer god two years back, and he has a 121 OPS+ since joining the Royals. Even as a utility lock-up, he’s good value here. Gausman makes me want to throw up given he’s my SP2, but he wouldn’t be the first pitching prospect who thrived after leaving Baltimore. Mind you, he had bumpy stops in Atlanta and Cincinnati that partially block that theory.

Dinelson Lamet and Chris Bassitt, 12.11 and 13.02 - They work nearly as a pair, Lamet the high-upside, no-floor pitcher off physical problems, and Bassitt the boring, reliable pitcher in a big park and on a presumed contender. He’s the poor man’s Hendricks. Of course, I wanted the rich man’s Hendricks.

Mitch Garver and Jesse Winker, 14.11 and 15.02 - Garver is another "last year’s bum" who offers upside here, though the Twins could also view him as a time-share guy. This format asks for two catchers and I’d prefer not to punt. Winker is ready to hit 30-35 homers if only the Reds will leave him alone.

Austin Hays and Greg Holland, 16.11 and 17.02 - You never know if your saves will hold up, but for the moment I have two reliable closers. Hays gets a slight discount because the Orioles are bad and anonymous.

Joey Wendle and Drew Smyly, 18.11 and 19.02 - Wendle is another Lego, the position-grabber who can help me realize the aim of putting my best offense on the field and not sweating positional fits. Smyly has no floor, but I need to try to get lucky on the mound.

Speed Round for the rest of the picks, Rounds 20-29

Jorge Alfaro. Second catcher. Not assured to start, but I liked him a year ago and I can excuse almost anyone who stunk last year.

Robbie Grossman: Boring category-juice guy who likely leads off in Detroit. This won’t be the last time I draft him.

Tommy LaStella: Has some pop, and anyone with his dreamy K/BB ratio is a good hitter.

Zack Britton: Aroldis Chapman doesn’t pitch full seasons and Britton is the obvious No. 2.

Stefan Crichton: Not at the top of Arizona’s closing list, but Joakim Soria turns 37 in May.

Yimi Garcia: Closing candidate in Miami, though Anthony Bass could be the better gambit.

Cal Quantrill: Maybe a new organization can whisper the right things.

Jose Quintana: I look forward to cutting him in April.

Miguel Cabrera: He’s a guess-hitter now, but 20-85 is still within range.

Miguel Rojas: Another bat-control specialist, and there’s a little category juice as well. Not bad at pick 449.

LABR doesn’t feature a lot of trading, and the weekly bidding will be spirited and competitive. Unless I get miraculously lucky with my pitching, I’ll need help — and it’s a difficult setup to fix something like this. Someone ran independent standing projections (I was unaware of them until the end), and I settled into fourth (of 15). That’s mildly comforting. But I think my pitching year will need to be very fortunate for this team to find its way to a podium finish at year’s end.

Too Long, Didn’t Read: It’s perfectly fine to grab one pitcher to headline your staff and then steer into hitting, but that strategy works a lot better with deGrom or Cole than it does with Clayton Kershaw. Prioritize the ace, that's the point, and then shift elsewhere. The Round 5-10 pocket is often a poor time to dip into starting pitching, but that doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the position. Shortstop and outfield hold their depth nicely throughout a mixed-league draft, even in 15-teamers. Your early offensive picks will commonly be on great teams, but know the weaker clubs, too — unsexy markets present everyday values.

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