Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The title here sounds a bit like one of those commandment-type things Moses brought down from the mountain. Fact of the matter is, it is a true statement. Drafting pitching early is a high-risk proposition. For every Felix Hernandez, there is an Erik Bedard. With every success of Roy Halladay, there is an injury to a Johan Santana. The physics of the position just make it a way of life.
Fantasy owners need to heed these words. Leagues are not necessarily won in the first five rounds, but they certainly can be lost. Taking a pitcher with those early picks, even an ace, can come back and hurt a team far more than they can help them. Last year, this space covered the exact phenomenon that will be reviewed today. Allow me to quote myself:
Let's examine ESPN's final player rater for 2008. In the top-30 pitchers ranked, 11 were drafted in the 12th round or later (using a standard ten-team league). More than that, only 22 of the 30 are starters, meaning half of the starters on this list were not taken in the first half of most drafts!
As examples, on average, Jon Lester was a 22nd round pick while Ricky Nolasco went undrafted. Edinson Volquez never found his way to a draft board, and Ryan Dempster barely squeaked in during round 24. James Shields has a decent reputation, and that netted him a spot in round 12.
Those words are just as true this year as they were last year. Refining the list to starting pitching will allow us to get a little deeper as well. In even 10-team leagues, owners are likely drafting nine pitchers. If they are assigned, a typical breakout will require five starters, two relievers, and three that can be either. At a minimum, these teams are drafting a total of 50 starters. That gives us a base.
While not the best of measures, the ESPN player rater is a simple metric that everyone has access too, since it's free. In that sense, it allows all readers to get a decent idea, based on a defined formula, as to how a player performs against players of their position. Is it mathematical? Certainly. Is it the best measure? At best, this is debatable. It is a decent measure in terms of what we will use it for here. Mainly, it is consistent.
From the final player rater of 2008 to the last one in 2009, it suffices to say names changed. In fact, 27 players that were in the final list of the top 50 in 2008 were not on the list in 2009. Last year we used the top-30. By that same metric, 17 of the top 30 starters were different from one year to the next. Some of this is injury related, some of this is performance. Whatever the reason, having that type of turnover underscores the fluctuations we see on the mound.
Using ESPN ADP's from 2009, half of the top ten were selected in the first five rounds of a 14-team draft. The remaining were selected far after. Those include Chris Carpenter (ADP of 159), Javier Vazquez (148), and Justin Verlander (166). Verlander's case rested on a poor 2008, and Carpenter had been injury prone.
This is what happens when it comes to pitchers. Five pitchers in the top 30 had ADP's over 200, and four (Randy Wolf, Joel Pineiro, Edwin Jackson, Andrew Bailey) went undrafted entirely.
Let us look at the top 10:
If you had drafted the likes of Halladay, Haren, Lincecum, or Sabathia, you probably felt pretty good. Your choice is further vindicated here. Still, look at the ADP of some of those that finished in this spot as well. Vazquez has historically been a good strikeout pitcher, someone you likely would have targeted late in a draft anyway. The value proposition makes greater sense here.
Noticeably absent from this list are several pitchers who went very high in drafts. Injuries sidelined Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb almost before their seasons started. Johan Santana did still manage to finish 25th among starters, but he averaged out to be a top-ten pick in ESPN drafts. Not great return on the investment.
Where does some value exist? One pitcher that is continuing to get the shaft even in early 2010 mock drafts is Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez can certainly strike people out and pitches very well at home. In fact, in 26 of his 33 starts last season, Rodriguez allowed three or fewer earned runs. When he got hit, he got hit hard, but many pitchers can make that claim.
The Houston starter finished 16th in the 2009 player rater and is still being drafted around pick 150 according to MockDraftCentral.com. While he was only 14-12 last year, he produces in enough other categories to make his addition to your staff very valuable.
There are certainly plenty of pleasant surprises for owners willing to be patient in their drafts. Matt Cain finished 13th, with an ADP of 143. Cain was overshadowed by the performances of Lincecum, but he is a perfect complement to him. He pitches well at home and was dominant for stretches of 2009.
Chad Billingsley fell victim to injury and inconsistency last season, failing to live up to his ADP of 80. After being the best pitcher on the Dodgers much of 2008 and a round 16 selection, the hype built him up and cost owners in some manner.
Bronson Arroyo, the 30th ranked pitcher on this list had an ADP of 214. Cliff Lee fell to rounds six or eight, while Josh Johnson could have been had in round nine.
By no means should you avoid drafting a number-one pitcher. The point being made here is that building rotation depth can come in all parts of the draft. The 2009 top-50 here had an average ADP of round 13.5 for 12-team leagues with a median number of 13.8. The examples of Lee and Johnson show that grabbing one pitcher between rounds five and 10 makes sense. After that, build through the draft to finish your rotation.
The variability in the list from year to year makes pitching inherently hard to draft. With a change of over 50 percent from 2008 to 2009, and a similar turnover from 2007 to 2008, it is not unreasonable to expect the emergence of new names or re-emergence of familiar ones. A position that has 14 of the top 50 going undrafted should make owners think hard before pulling the trigger on bigger names early.
Owners that can take advantage of daily transactions or unlimited add/drops should do so when it comes to their pitching staff. Draft well, but cut the cord when it looks like a star is emerging. Keep these numbers in mind as your drafts begin to approach.