Fantasy Baseball 2012 Draft: 10 Keys to Selecting the Perfect Pitching Staff

Tim Karan@timkaranContributor IIMarch 12, 2012

Fantasy Baseball 2012 Draft: 10 Keys to Selecting the Perfect Pitching Staff

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    Pitchers are people too.

    When prepping for your fantasy baseball draft, it can be easy to focus on filling each hitting position with a player who provides a specific stat of need. You want corner infielders with power, middle infielders with speed, outfielders who blend the best of both and a catcher who won't render everyone else useless.

    As for pitchers, their roles are a little less clearly defined.

    Obviously, starters get you wins and K's, and closers get you saves, but assembling nine guys to keep you competitive on the mound is an art form in and of itself.

    If you're resigned to just taking the next available hurler on your cheat sheet, you could be sabotaging your season before it even starts.

    So, what do you need to do to turn your pitching staff into a rotation as formidable as the Phillies'—aside from just drafting all the Phillies? 

Pre-Draft: Hit the Rule Books

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    Nobody likes fine print.

    Scott Boras does maybe.

    But boning up on your league's pre-draft settings can and probably should alter your strategy, especially when it comes to pitchers.

    In a rotisserie league (where each team is ranked in each stat category), you need well-rounded players to keep you competitive across the board. If you're first in wins but last in saves, you're actually in the middle.

    If you're in a head-to-head leagues (where, sort of like fantasy football, you only need to beat one other team in the majority of categories during one week), you can probably put less importance on closers. A starter can potentially help you out in wins, strikeouts and possibly ERA and WHIP. But you can only really depend on closers for saves.

    On top of all this, limits on transactions, innings pitched and even how often you can set your lineup can all change your approach.

    After all, this is a numbers game. Didn't you see Moneyball?

Round 1: Hurry Up and Wait

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    Unless you already have Tim Lincecum's name scribbled on all your notebooks and can't imagine a make-believe baseball team without him on it, your first-round draft pick should be a hitter.

    Although this doesn't sound all that conducive to building a perfect pitching staff, there's logic to it: A perfect staff is useless on a team in eighth place.

    Yes, you could argue that anyone who took Clayton Kershaw over Hanley Ramirez last year probably did just fine. But the first round is all about minimizing risk. A pitcher who could admittedly be amazing, but only plays six or seven innings every five days is largely not as valuable as a slugger who can put up consistent stats on a daily basis.

    It's a lot like how you used to need to draft a running back as your No. 1 fantasy football pick (before committees became the norm). A running back gets about 20 chances to score you points while a lucky receiver gets around six.

    Sure, there's something to be said for being a leader instead of a follower, but the pitching pool is pretty deep this year (as it sort of always is), and it's likely that nobody will draft a starter until at least the middle of the second round.

    And if you're thinking of making your top pick a closer, you should skip forward three slides. 

Rounds 2 and 3: Get Your Ace in Gear

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    If you're anything like me, you like to keep math as far from your fantasy sports life as possible.

    But it doesn't take Stephen Hawking to work this one out.

    There are about a dozen starting pitchers who you can count on for at least 13 wins, 200-plus strikeouts and an ERA under 3.0. If you don't get one of those guys, you're just not going to get those numbers from one player. If everyone else drafts at least one ace (and they will) and you hold out for steady but unsexy starters like Mark Buehrle or Wandy Rodriguez, you're using at least two roster spots on stats you could have gotten from one.

    You need at least one of the big six on your team: Clayton KershawJustin VerlanderRoy HalladayTim LincecumFelix Hernandez, Cliff Lee.

    If that doesn't work out, drop everything and draft one of these: C.C. SabathiaDan HarenCole HamelsDavid PriceJered Weaver.

Rounds 4 and 5: Forget W's, Find K's

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    Unless you've got a DeLorean and a sports almanac from the future, you can't predict wins.

    Yes, you can probably estimate a general range, but you should never let projected wins cause you to choose one starter over another.

    Although they're the ones who get the "W" next to their name in the box score, pitchers have a finite amount of influence on which team wins on any given day. He can give up one hit over eight innings and still lose if nobody on his team can cross home plate.

    After all, Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young in 2010 even though Seattle had a winning percentage of .377.

    Want a relatively elegant way to find the pitchers you want? Look at strikeouts.

    Not only is it the only stat that starters have absolute control over, it's also a pretty good indicator of where his other numbers will be.

    Remember all those aces on the last slide? All of them had at least 190 K's in 2011. That's no coincidence.


Rounds 6 and 7: Closing Time

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    It's fantasy gospel that you shouldn't use a high draft pick on a closer. But is that actually true?

    The basic school of thought behind that approach comes down to two factors: Closers can only truly be counted on to contribute in the saves column (although the great ones can give you K's and lower your ERA and WHIP), and the turnover rate of closers on most MLB teams seems to be right up there with that of cashiers at your nearest Wendy's.

    More than any other position, things never quite turn out for closers quite the way you expect.

    For fun, let's look at the closers who were ranked highest by most fantasy experts going into 2011 and how they fared:

    1. Heath Bell (SD): Finished sixth in saves (43), but that's just as many as the Nationals' Drew Storen (who was ranked around No. 20).

    2. Mariano Rivera (NYY): Brilliant as always (44 saves and crazy peripherals). He's Mariano freaking Rivera.

    3. Brian Wilson (SF): Tied for 11th in saves (36) with the Marlins' Juan Oviedo (who was only drafted by his mom and psychic John Edward).

    4. Joakim Soria (KC): Finished outside the top 20 in saves (fewer than at least four guys you didn't know existed until midseason).

    5. Jonathan Papelbon (BOS): Ended up with 31 saves (right behind the Angels' Jordan Walden, who you might not have known existed until right now).

    The point of this exercise? You never know where saves can come from.

    However, owning one or two reliable closers who aren't at risk of losing their job is a lot less heartburn than needing to constantly keep up with the closer carousel. 

Rounds 8 and 9: Drive Fast, Take Chances

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    So you've got your ace starter, two or three guys you're pretty sure you can count on and a closer or two.

    It's time to look for the mythical trait of "upside." In other words, you should look for up-and-comers who have room to improve or veterans who can take a new role (possibly with a new team) and run with it. 

    Get to know guys like Daniel Bard, Michael Pineda and Matt Moore.

    Bard and his filthiness appeared next in line for Boston's closer gig before Jonathan Papelbon moved to Philly. But the Red Sox brought in Andrew Bailey and are hoping Bard's overpowering stuff translates into the starting rotation.

    Pineda managed nine wins during his rookie season with the Mariners (mostly before the All-Star break), but an offseason trade has him in Yankee pinstripes.

    And Moore was a revelation for the Rays after his September call-up—but many managers might not know that.

    Look for guys like these who are likely to be ranked far higher in 2013 mock drafts than this year's, and you have nowhere to go but up. 

Rounds 10 Through 13: Meet New Faces in New Places

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    A lot can happen in five months—just ask Archie Manning's kid.

    Yeah, you know Mat Latos performed well for you in the past, and Jonathan Papelbon is a steady source of saves and Roy Oswalt is declining in the strikeout department.  

    But if you've been suffering from temporary Linsanity for the past month and haven't done pre-draft due diligence, you might not realize that Latos is going from cavernous PETCO Park to Cincinnati's Great American launching pad, or that Papelbon will be facing NL batters in Philly instead of AL batters in Boston or that Roy Oswalt probably won't even have a uniform until around the All-Star break.

    Think a change of address doesn't affect a pitcher's underlying abilities? Tell it to the 2010 version of Cliff Lee. He gave up 27 earned runs in 13 starts for Seattle before allowing 48 in 15 starts for Texas.

    Speaking of the Rangers, Yu Darvish heads up a class of Japanese imports you need to familiarize yourself with immediately. (See also: Tsuyoshi Wada and Wei Yin Chen of the Orioles and Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners.)

    And important changes aren't all geographic.

    Remember the apparently human-after-all Stephen Strasburg? He's back. How about Texas closer Neftali Feliz? He's a starter now.

    These are things you really oughta know before calling (or not calling) any of their names on draft day.

Rounds 14 Through 18: Stop Living in the Past

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    It was either Aristotle or one of the guys in Swingers who said, "Everything that is past is prologue to this."

    There comes a point in every draft when the top 50 pitchers are gone and you're left staring at a list of names you have only faint familiarity with. But wedged between Mike Minor and Jeff Niemann, you see a familiar name:

    Johan Santana

    Or A.J. Burnett, Carlos Zambrano or Jake Peavy.

    Just because you rode one of them all the way to a championship six years ago, it doesn't mean they should be on your squad now.

    Granted, all of those guys—and many like them—can provide value in certain situations, and you shouldn't outright ignore them. But you shouldn't take them earlier than around where they're valued (experts aren't always right, but they're typically in the ballpark), and you definitely shouldn't put them in your queue with the strategy of passing on starters until Round 16.

    Santana was the most dominant pitcher in baseball for a few years, but he's 32, coming off major shoulder surgery and saw his K/9 drop to 6.5 in 2010. Burnett just bunted a ball off his eye (and plays for the Pirates now), Zambrano nearly retired last season and Peavy hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2007.

    Of course, these are just a few examples. But it was either Friedrich Nietzsche or Garth Algar who said, "Live in the now."


Round 19 and After: Don't Eliminate the Middle Man

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    What do Ryan Madson, Jordan Walden, Jason Motte, Rafael Betancourt and Javy Guerra all have in common?

    They were middle relievers or setup men who went on to become relatively successful closers last year. 

    As you know by now, it's increasingly rare for a team to finish the season with the same guy who pitched in the ninth on Opening Day. Once all of the projected closers are off the board, or even before you get to the sketchy ones, it's time to consider middle men.

    There are those pitching in front of iffy or injured closers (like Vinnie Pestano of the Indians) and those who could be closers on another team (like Sergio Romo of the Giants).

    If and when a closer gets hurt or becomes ineffective, somebody is gonna move up and take those precious saves. And since setup men can boast outrageous ERA and WHIP numbers thanks to only an inning or two of work every couple days, the best can offset the day your starter gave up six runs in the first.


The Whole Time: Don't Overthink It

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    Think your brain can't get in the way? Google "Brad Lidge meltdown." 

    After all the analysis, equations and prognostication, it's a distinct possibility that you can over-prepare for your draft.

    When it comes down to choosing between two pitchers, sometimes you just need to trust your gut. The last thing you want is to look back on your lineup with regret. If you're sure Stephen Strasburg can strike out 400, take him. If you live in Milwaukee and want a guy you can watch in person, use a flier on Randy Wolf.

    You've got a lot of pitcher spots. Fill them with the guys you want to root for.

    After all, what fun is fantasy baseball if it's just as stressful as your job? Then you'd need a fantasy fantasy baseball team.


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