Pitching will dominate fantasy baseball again in 2012
By GREG AMBROSIUS
(AP) -- NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - Fantasy owners will be the first to tell you that 2011 was the Year of the Pitcher. Just when they became accustomed to the Steroid Era, fences being brought in and power-hitters coming off the board quickly in their respective drafts, along comes the Dead Ball Era.
Baseball is back to its roots, where good pitching beats good hitting. Now, fantasy owners have to adjust and alter their draft plans. An ace who can dominate four categories has to be looked at more closely. You can't just take hitters with your first eight picks and hope to find starting pitching value in the mid- to later rounds. That simply won't win titles anymore.
Look at these facts, according to STATS:
- MLB teams averaged 4.28 runs per game in 2011, the lowest since 1992's 4.12 and down from a Steroids Era peak of 5.14 in 2000.
- The home run average was down to 0.94 each team per game, also the lowest in 19 years and a sharp drop from 1.17 in 2000.
- The batting average of .255 was the lowest since 1989.
- The 3.94 ERA was a level last seen in 1992.
- Justin Verlander won the AL MVP award, the first pitcher to do that since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starting pitcher to do that in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986. Verlander won the AL's pitching Triple Crown, going 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts, the most wins in the league since Oakland's Bob Welch went 27-6 in 1990.
Many fantasy teams were led to titles by Verlander and NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, so you'd have to expect these aces to be picked earlier this year than last, right? Nope. Old habits are hard to break, and starting pitchers still won't go too high. Last year, eight starting pitchers went in the Top 45 picks in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) and right now seven are going. Let's look at the top starters and see what bargains might be found after them:
- First 2 Rounds: Last year, Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez were consensus picks in the Top 30 overall. This year, it's looking like Kershaw, Halladay, Verlander, Lincecum and Cliff Lee could all go. Here's where they're being drafted in early NFBC pay leagues: Kershaw (15-21), Halladay (17-21), Verlander (22-29), Lincecum (26-29) and Lee (28-32). While nothing is a given when it comes to starting pitchers, these five sure seem like solid fantasy aces.
Rounds 3-4: Last year, there were 13-14 starting pitchers going in the first four rounds and this year looks about the same within the Top 60 overall. In 2011, the third and fourth rounds produced duds like Josh Johnson and Ubaldo Jimenez, but they also produced studs like Verlander, Kershaw and Jared Weaver. This year, you can find the following aces here: CC Sabathia (34-42), Hernandez (39-43), Weaver (49-50), Dan Haren (50-56), David Price (45-51), Ian Kennedy (54-58), Cole Hamels (50-55) and Zach Greinke (54-59). These pitchers are slightly below the Top 5, but you can certainly build a solid staff around any of them.
If you're looking for bargains, players coming off injuries are ripe depending on when you're able to draft them. Stephen Strasburg is going around picks 60-64 after showing in five late season appearances that his arm looks good. In 24 innings, he struck out 24 and posted a 1.50 ERA and a 0.71 WHIP. As the 14th SP going off the board, he could still be a deal.
Adam Wainwright missed all of last season after undergoing elbow surgery, but should return healthy for spring training and is going between 85th and 90th overall, just outside the Top 20 among all SPs. Josh Johnson is also going around 100 after having an ADP of 59 last year. He should be fully recovered from abdominal and shoulder woes last year and appears to be on a much better team.
Expect a bounceback season from Jon Lester, whose ADP right now is around 65 after being at 37 in the NFBC last season. He should perform to expected levels this year.
Where are the sleepers? They're tougher to find these days, so let's look for values rather than sleepers. Depending upon the competition in your league, Tampa's Matt Moore could have value. The consensus Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011, Moore is going in the Top 110 in NFBC drafts after striking out 210 in 153 innings last year in the minors and excelling for the Rays in the playoffs.
Seattle's Michael Pineda may have faded down the stretch, but he has star ability. He should bounce back strongly and adds significant more value than where he's being drafted now (around 110-115). Going right around the same spot is Atlanta's Brandon Beachy, who struck out 169 batters in 141.2 IP, while holding hitters to a .236 average. This guy can be very good. Also take a chance on a return to form by Ubaldo Jimenez, who is still just 27 and a bargain where he's being drafted now (137-147).
Yu Darvish is going to be a hot commodity if he comes to the majors. He hasn't been posted by Nippon yet, but it's possible he could go for over $50 million when he does. Last year, he went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts, an average of 10 strikeouts per nine innings. He's 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and boasts a mid-90s fastball. Where he goes on draft day is still a mystery, but he could be a great fantasy find at the right spot.
The Year of the Pitcher II may very well be coming to a ballpark near you in 2012. Be prepared for it, but also don't overvalue them too much. At the end of the day, the aces still hold the same fantasy value as before in the eyes of fantasy owners. They're just doing their jobs with much better numbers.
Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association's Hall of Fame. For more information on the NFBC, contact him at email@example.com mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> or go to nfbc.stats.com.
Updated December 9, 2011