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Go Bold or Go Home: Stephen Strasburg is the New Pedro Martinez

Stephen Strasburg is the new Pedro? What do I mean by that? Simply this: back in the day, Pedro was worth a first round pick, sometimes the first pick, and no other pitcher was all that close. I'm talking about Pedro before he threw Don Zimmer to the ground by the head, before he headhunted unsuspecting Devil Rays. I'm talking 1999-2001 Pedro, that's who Strasburg can be. Don't let him slip through your fingers in the first round, and whatever you do, don't waste a pick on some other pitcher instead.

As far as I can guess, there are three possible responses to this idea, and I'll deal with each one in turn.

1. Duh.
Fair enough, you're already on the Strasburg bandwagon. Go win your league. Better yet, finish reading this article just to be more sure.

2. But pitchers NEVER belong in the first round!
Never is such a scary word to throw around, but usually I agree with this idea. Whenever someone in my league nabs a starter in the first round, I always get excited, thinking they've wasted their pick. There are a couple reasons for this to usually be true, but they don't hold water this year.

The biggest reason is that pitchers are risky, moreso than position players and thus should not be given a first round pick. The problem with that this year is that there are an unusually rare amount of risky players on the first-rounder suspect list. Players like Matt Kemp (ADP 4.43) and Joey Votto (8.60) who missed significant portions of last season are there, not to mention garden variety injury risks like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75). On top of that, players like Justin Upton (15.07) and Adrian Gonzalez (32.16) who we counted on last year to provide big impacts failed to do so. Other first rounders that we've grown accustomed to seeing have dropped out of the top slots after injury marred (or ruined) seasons include Jose Bautista (14.11) , Troy Tulowitzki (16.15), and Evan Longoria (32.59). Someone has to take those spots over, but there's a lot more risk in the first round than there is in most years. So maybe taking a pitcher isn't so bad.

Along with the higher risk of some of the best potential first rounders this year, I think it's fair to say that, outside of the top four or five, the actual quality of this year's potential first rounders is lower than usual. A lot of those first round picks are providing the same (or nearly the same) value as players that can be found in the second round. Like Albert Pujols (7.18)? Try Prince Fielder (14.48). Like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75)? Try Adam Jones (25.41). Let's face it--a lot of first round picks are looking a lot like second round picks this year.

 The rule against taking a starter in the first round is a good one. This year just happens to be a great year to break it.

3. Strasburg isn't even the best pitcher in baseball, let alone as much better as Pedro Martinez was ten years ago! Give me Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander instead.

In all fairness, yes Strasburg is, for all it matters for your fantasy draft. In all but one respect, Strasburg is significantly better than Kershaw or Verlander than they are better than the others. That is to say, Kershaw and Verlander are great, but not very much greater than these pitchers: Cliff Lee, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Jared Weaver, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and others, in no particular order.

For the time being, I'm prepared to ignore any argument made that Kershaw will win more games in the shiny new Dodgers, or that Verlander will on the Tigers. Washington is a good team, and their offense will be good enough to keep Strasburg in plenty of games. With normal luck, he should be among the league's leaders in wins. Too bad you never know when someone will get normal luck with wins and when he won't. So call that one even, or insufficiently predictable.

The difference is in the strikeouts. Those of you who followed me in last year's Silver League Updates, will know that I love my strikeouts. So I'm admitting that bias. But they're a category, and they're decent at giving us information about two more categories (ERA and WHIP, obviously). We can learn even more when we add walks to the equation. Let's see how Strasburg (ADP 23.77) stacks up with the three pitchers being drafted before him: Kershaw (12.64), Verlander (15.56), and Price (23.59). Just for fun, let's check out the next three pitchers after him too: Lee (30.67), Hernandez (35.10), and Yu Darvish (36.95).

Here they are in K/9:

Strasburg    11.13
Darvish        10.40
Kershaw       9.05
Verlander    9.03
Lee                 8.83
Price              8.74
Hernandez  8.65

 All seven put up great numbers, but only Darvish came within two strikeouts per nine innings of Strasburg's total. And Darvish put up an ugly 4.19 BB/9 rate that didn't exactly help his ERA or WHIP.

Maybe you prefer K%, fair enough. How about this list:

Strasburg       30.2%
Darvish           27.1%
Kershaw         25.4%
Verlander      25.0%
Price                24.5%
Lee                   24.4%
Hernandez    23.8%

If anything, Strasburg looks even better here, blasting the competition out of the water. (In all fairness, Max Scherzer looks pretty good here too, at 29.4%.)

What about K/BB, then? That's the one that gives a really good indication of next year's ERA and (especially) WHIP. (Spoiler alert: Cliff Lee reigns supreme.)

Lee                   7.39
Strasburg      4.10
Verlander     3.98
Hernandez    3.98
Kershaw        3.63
Price               3.47
Darvish          2.48

Two names stand out here as outliers. In fact, Lee's rate is more than 2.5 BB/9 better than the second best pitcher by this measure, none other than Joe Blanton. Yeah, him. (Sleeper? Maybe...) The other outlier, of course, is Darvish. So here's more confirmation not to take him over Strasburg, or anywhere near the other six pitchers on this list, if you were thinking about it. 

That leaves us with five names, and, once again, Strasburg is on top. But maybe he's striking out so many batters that he can walk a few too many and still look good. Maybe a lousy walk rate could take his ERA and WHIP down like Darvish's did.

Or maybe not: his walk rate sat at 2.71 last year. Five of the other six pitchers we compared him too had better rates, but not by a huge amount. Discounting Lee's ridiculous number (1.10!), King Felix was the best, with a 2.17 BB/9 rate. Price, Verlander, and Kershaw all fell in between.

This has been a lot of stats, but it boils down to a pretty simple point: Strasburg's strikeouts are significantly better than his competition for the top pitcher in (fantasy) baseball. It isn't even close. His walk numbers are similar to the competition, and not different enough to give them significant value over him. Other factors, like his team, just aren't as big of a deal.

The only reason I can see to take Verlander or Kershaw or anyone else over Strasburg is their experience, which is really just cover for the fact that we're comfortable taking those guys off the board first. I don't think you'll find very many people willing to say inexperience is going to cause Stephen Strasburg any trouble in the near future. As a rookie, Strasburg wasn't a normal phenom. As fantasy's best pitcher, he isn't any more normal. The difference between him and the next best pitchers is noticeably bigger than the difference between them and all the other ace pitchers.

By the way, looking at last year's data is kind of like assuming that Strasburg has peaked in his age-24 season, and that he doesn't have room to improve for next year. How often do great 24-year-olds not become better 25-year-olds?

Between the higher risk and lower quality in this year's top position players and Strasburg's own dominance over his competition there is a lot of reason to reach for him. Like Pedro Martinez before him, Strasburg is worth a pick in the middle of the first round in a way that no pitcher has been in a long time. Next year, this idea won't make it into an article like Go Bold or Go Home because everyone will agree. Get ahead of the game.



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