Last time out, I took a look at the right way to go about looking for value in fantasy baseball, focusing on hitters. Today, I'll take a look at pitchers.
My premise is that while the term "sleeper" is bandied about quite liberally, what we really should be looking for is value. While sleeper lists are interesting to read, once a player appears on a sleeper list, he's probably not a sleeper. We also all have the same information, so focusing on specific players who might or might not be sleepers is the wrong approach. Rather than focus on who the sleepers are, I'm more interested in looking at the value proposition and seeing what types of players are typically undervalued.
Cheaper Starters Are Generally The Best Chance You Have At a Bargain
This seems to fly in the face of conventional 5x5 wisdom, which argues that you should spread your risk across your staff. While I agree that this is a good idea in theory, in practice most of your pitching bargains will come from the pitchers purchased at or near the bottom of the pool. Of the 60 pitchers who were Top 10 bargains from 2009-2011 (Top 10 N.L. and A.L. lists), 25 (or 42% of the best bargains in the league) cost $5 or less.
You're going to have a hard time winning populating your entire staff with cheap bargains like this. But you should try to buy one or maybe two starting pitchers from the bargain bin. A $1-2 pitcher is far more likely to come out of nowhere and earn $10+ than his hitting counterpart is.
The Second Tier Danger Zone
There isn't a magic salary to avoid, but once you get past $12, pitchers in the teens are generally where there's more risk than reward. Of the 60 biggest busts from 2009-2011, 23 of these pitchers cost between $13-19, while only three (3) pitchers in this price range turned a profit. More research needs to be done to determine why this is the case, but often pitchers get pushed into this tier based on preference when - in reality - they're no better than their cheaper counterparts.
Aces Can (Sometimes) Be Value Propositions
Just like with the hitters, an ace starting pitcher in the low $20s can also turn into a huge profit maker, even in 5x5. Five (5) starting pitchers that cost $20 or more were Top 10 bargains, while 17 were busts. You have a better chance of winning big with an ace than you do with a pitcher in the second tier.
The Past Is Prologue
As I mentioned above, inevitably you probably aren't going to win solely by trolling the bargain bin. So if you are going to fill out a staff, which are the best pitchers to target?
Once you get past the $1-5 range, you're better off trying to get a pitcher who the market doesn't like. To put it in even simpler terms, when all else fails try buying a pitcher for less than what he earned last year. In 2011, C.J. Wilson, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and Ian Kennedy all cost less than what they earned the year before. Look for pitchers the market doesn't believe will do it again. Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but if they do do it again, you're more likely to profit.
Failing this, if you are going to push a pitcher past what he earned last year, at the very least make sure he's done it in the past. Tim Hudson in 2010 and James Shields in 2011 are examples of this principle. Pushing a starting pitcher past what he's ever earned in his career works out once in a while but usually not.
There isn't as much value to be had with cheap relievers as there is with cheap starters. Again, though, cheaper is better. Spending $3-5 for a closer-in-waiting is folly; recent history shows that your odds generally don't increase if you spend an extra $2-4 on a set-up. There are plenty of bargains to be had in the $1-2 range.
Second-tier closers generally don't work out as bargains either. In the past three years, only Neftali Feliz and Craig Kimbrel went between $9-11 and pitched like first-tier closers. You might break even or turn a slight profit on the bottom end closers, but you're unlikely to win big.