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Draft Round Battles: Nationals' SP Battle Royale

It's hard to have a fantasy draft without at least one position run.  I've written about this before on Roto Authority, but about 13-14 years ago, I was in a fantasy draft that saw the run on catchers take place in the very first round, giving us the spectacle of Darrin Fletcher and Todd Hundley as first-round draft picks.  No, this wasn't in a league with members of the extended Fletcher or Hundley families, so I can't explain it either.

The point is, while position runs are a known variable to plan for, "teammate runs" are a lesser-known phenomenon that occur with some regularity, yet they aren't commented upon since they don't really have the impact on draft strategy of a position run.  A teammate run, as you might guess, is when you have multiple players from one team taken in quick succession.  It's as if after the first player goes, the rest of the league thinks, "oh yeah, Team X is supposed to be pretty good this year.  Hmm, well, their second baseman and the second baseman I had queued up next are pretty similar, I guess, so let's go with the guy on the good team instead." 

Note that this isn't a smart tactic or a reasonable one, as "playing for a good team" is only a limited factor in gauging fantasy value.  Maybe you can chalk it up to our brains' natural inclination towards order -- we still have a mild tendency to group similar objects like teammates together, even in the disordered world of a fantasy draft.

Teammate runs aren't usually a big factor in fantasy drafting since, unless you're a real superfan who was looking to take your favorites, it doesn't really matter if several players from one club are taken since, obviously, most of these players are at different positions.  The only positions* where it could present an issue would be outfield and starting pitcher, and for this week's Draft Round Battle, we'll focus on three options from the Nationals' rotation.  Stephen Strasburg will obviously be the first Washington hurler taken, but who would you rather take between Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister?

* = and, possibly, relief pitcher in cases where a team is using a closer committee.  If one manager drafts one part of the committee, expect another committee member to be taken soon after.  You can also see teammate runs take place in leagues that counts holds; those leagues might've seen another Nationals "teammate run" last season when Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard went off the board in quick succession.

First, let's take the obligatory moment to gawk at the Nationals' rotation since, wow, there aren't many teams who can roll out a top four like that.  Now, with a tip of the cap to Fangraphs, let's break down how Fister, Gonzalez and Zimmermann have each performed over the last three seasons via the four relevant 5x5 categories and a few extra statistics...

Fister: 35 wins, 3.30 ERA (3.21 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 3.54 SIERA), 1.19 WHIP, 6.78 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 586 2/3 IP

Gonzalez: 48 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.29 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 3.68 SIERA), 1.23 WHIP, 8.98 K/9, 2.45 K/BB, 597 IP

Zimmermann: 39 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.35 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, 3.74 SIERA), 1.13 WHIP, 6.91 K/9, 3.84 K/BB, 570 1/3 IP

The first thing you'll notice is that these guys are pretty similar pitchers.  Gonzalez and Zimmermann are outperforming their advanced metrics (particularly SIERA) more significantly than Fister is, and Fister and Zimmermann have better control than Gonzalez, but Gonzalez has a notable edge in strikeouts and wins.  Gonzalez also has the edge beyond the limits of my sample size -- I limited the sample to 2011-13 since Zimmermann has only been a full-time starter for three seasons.  Gonzalez, meanwhile, was impressive in 2010 (and Fister was pretty average).

All three men will have the same home ballpark advantage and the same solid lineup behind them, so predicting wins is a fool's errand even if that stat determined anything beyond a fantasy category.  ERA and WHIP are also essentially even, so that leaves strikeouts, making Gonzalez the clear favorite, right?

Well, over Zimmermann, yes.  Let me be clear, I fully expect Jordan Zimmermann to be a very good starter in 2014 and if he's the #2 starter in your rotation, you're in good shape.  My only beef is that he's evolving into more and more of a ground ball pitcher (his grounder rate has jumped by 4% in each of the last two seasons), which is making him a better pitcher overall in a real-world context but limits his fantasy value in terms of strikeouts.  Gonzalez has also improved his control since his wilder, younger days in Oakland but done so while still averaging just under a strikeout per inning over the last three seasons.

That's enough for me to give Gonzalez the slight nod to Zimmermann.  In terms of a pure "draft round battle," this is the decision that counts, as Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report shows the Z-Man (102.68 ADP) slightly ahead of the Gio Dome (108.3 ADP).  Whatever the order, both guys are rated on roughly the same level, so if you're looking to anticipate a "teammate run," don't be surprised to see either Gonzalez or Zimmermann quickly follow the other around the ninth round of your fantasy draft.

This all being said, Fister might end up being the best pitcher of the trio.  Fister is currently projected to go a couple of rounds lower (135.54 ADP) though I wonder if the sleeper buzz will cause him to rise up the rankings.  Fister did, after all, post a higher WAR than either Gonzalez or Zimmermann from 2011-13, which caught me off-guard.  While he and Zimmermann are essentially the same pitcher in terms of low-strikeout grounder specialists, Fister is a step beyond when it comes to keeping the ball in the infield --- Fister's 54.3% GBR was the fourth-best of any qualified starter in baseball last season.

If Fister is only a slightly better version of Zimmermann and still lags behind Gonzalez in strikeouts, however, why should Fister be rated so highly?  In a word, potential.  Fister will get a regular diet of NL lineups for the first time, and moving from the Tigers' hands-of-stone defensive corps to the Nationals' infield* is a big boost for any ground-ball specialist.  As well, while Gonzalez and Zimmermann have enjoyed good BABIP luck over the last three years, Fister posted his strong 2013 numbers despite a .332 BABIP.  With the highest strand rate and lowest BABIP of the three since 2011, Fister's WAR edge could easily have been even greater.

* =  Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon are tremendous up the middle, Adam LaRoche has traditionally had a good first base glove before falling to a -2 UZR/150 last season, and all you can say about Ryan Zimmerman's collapse as a defensive player is that at least Zimmerman's -14.9 UZR/150 was still better than Miguel Cabrera's -19.9 UZR/150 at the hot corner in 2013.

Gonzalez would still be my pick of the trio, yet the canny manager might use Fister's under-the-radar status to his advantage.  Picture a ninth round where Gonzalez goes first, Zimmermann goes right after since the next manager is like, "oh yeah, Nationals pitchers.  Yeah, look at Zimmermann, 19 wins last year!  Boom, taking him!"  Then you can sit back in the weeds and collect Fister a few picks later.  Some of your fellow managers will be chirping you for making a so-called stretch, others will chide you for going on a teammate run, and a few won't say anything since they had Fister queued up themselves. 

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