The role of luck in fantasy baseball

I apologize for being that guy that ruins that ooey gooey feeling you get when think about the fantasy league you won last year. As much as you want to think you are a fantasy master — perhaps even a fantasy god — you should acknowledge that you probably benefited from a good deal of luck. Sure, for your sake, I will admit you made a great pick with Max Scherzer in the fifth round. But did you, in all your mastery, predict he would win 21 games?

Don’t say yes. You didn’t. And frankly, you would be crazy to say he’ll do it again.

I focus primarily on pitching in this blog, and let it be known that pitchers are not exempt from luck in the realm of fantasy baseball. If you’re playing in a standard rotisserie league, you probably have a wins category. In a points league, you likely award points for wins.

Wins. Arguably the most arbitrary statistic in baseball. Let’s not have that discussion, though, and instead simply accept the win as it is. The win has the most drastic uncontrollable effect on a fantasy pitcher’s value. (ERA and WHIP experiences similar statistical fluctuations, but at least they aren’t arbitrary.)

I had an idea, but before I proceed, let me interject: if you’re drafting for wins, you’re doing it wrong. But, as I said, you can’t ignore wins.

But let’s say you did, and drafted strictly on talent, or “stuff” (which, here, factors in a pitcher’s durability). How would the top 30 pitchers change? Here’s my “stuff” list, which you can compare with the base projections:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez

Here are the five players with the biggest positive change and a breakdown of each:

  1. Brandon Beachy, up 23 spots
    His injury history has weakened his wins column projection. Consequently, the number of innings Beachy is expected to throw is significantly less than a full season. But if he managed to stay healthy for the full year (say, 200 innings)? He’s a top-1o pick based on pure stuff. If you draft with the philosophy that you can always find a viable replacement on waivers, Beachy could be your big sleeper.
  2. Marco Estrada, up 22 spots
    Estrada’s diminished expected wins is more a function of his terrible team than ability. Estrada has underperformed the past two years, Ricky Nolasco style, but if he can pull it together, he’s a top-30 pitcher based on “stuff.” And hey, maybe he can luck into some extra wins. However, if he can’t pull it together — Ricky Nolasco style — he’ll be relegated to fringe starter.
  3. Danny Salazar, up 9 spots
    Salazar has immense potential. His injury history led the Indians to cap his per-game pitch count last year, and that has been factored into his projection. But if he’s a full-time, 200-inning starter? He’s a top-25 starter with top-15 upside. Again, this is in terms of “stuff”. But is Ivan Nova better than Felix Hernandez because he can magically win more games? Of course not. Among a slew of young studs, including Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and so on, Salazar is a diamond in the rough.
  4. A.J. Burnett, up 8 spots
    His projection is already plenty good. But you saw how many games he won in 2013. Anything can happen.
  5. Corey Kluber, up 8 spots
    Most people were probably scratching their heads when they saw Kluber’s name listed above. Frankly, I’m in love with him, and it’s because he’s a stud with a great K/BB ratio. I understand why someone may be inclined to dismiss it as an aberration, but his swinging strike and contact rates are truly excellent. Even if they regress, he should be a draft-day target.

Here are the three starting pitchers with the biggest negative change.

  1. Anibal Sanchez, down 10 spots
    He’s great, but he also plays for a great team. Call it Max Scherzer syndrome. He carries as big a risk as any other player to pitch great but only win five or six games, as do the next two players.
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma, down 6 spots
  3. Zack Greinke, down 4 spots

Let me be clear that although I created a hypothetical scenario where wins didn’t exist, I don’t advocate for blindly drafting based on “stuff.” It’s important to acknowledge that certain players have a much better chance to win than others. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox could win 17 games just as easily as he could win seven. It’s about playing the odds — and unless a pitcher truly pitches terribly, don’t blame the so-called experts for your bad luck. He probably put his money where his mouth is, too, and is suffering along with you.

Here is a more comprehensive list of pitchers ranked by “stuff,” if that’s the way you sculpt your strategy:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Adam Wainwright
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Cliff Lee
  6. Yu Darvish
  7. Chris Sale
  8. Cole Hamels
  9. Jose Fernandez
  10. Madison Bumgarner
  11. Stephen Strasburg
  12. David Price
  13. Justin Verlander
  14. Alex Cobb
  15. Homer Bailey
  16. Mat Latos
  17. Gerrit Cole
  18. Michael Wacha
  19. Anibal Sanchez
  20. James Shields
  21. Danny Salazar
  22. Marco Estrada
  23. A.J. Burnett
  24. Corey Kluber
  25. Brandon Beachy
  26. Zack Greinke
  27. Matt Cain
  28. Sonny Gray
  29. Hisashi Iwakuma
  30. Gio Gonzalez
  31. Doug Fister
  32. Jordan Zimmermann
  33. Alex Wood
  34. Kris Medlen
  35. Jeff Samardzija
  36. Mike Minor
  37. Jake Peavy
  38. Kevin Gausman
  39. Tyson Ross
  40. Patrick Corbin
  41. Lance Lynn
  42. Francisco Liriano
  43. Andrew Cashner
  44. Ricky Nolasco
  45. CC Sabathia
  46. Hiroki Kuroda
  47. Tim Lincecum
  48. Tim Hudson
  49. Jered Weaver
  50. Shelby Miller
  51. Clay Buchholz
  52. Tony Cingrani
  53. Matt Garza
  54. John Lackey
  55. Ubaldo Jimenez
  56. Justin Masterson
  57. Julio Teheran
  58. R.A. Dickey
  59. A.J. Griffin
  60. Hyun-Jin Ryu
  61. Dan Haren
  62. Johnny Cueto
  63. C.J. Wilson
  64. Ian Kennedy
  65. Chris Archer
  66. Kyle Lohse
  67. Scott Kazmir
  68. Carlos Martinez
  69. Jon Lester
  70. Ervin Santana
  71. Jose Quintana
  72. Derek Holland
  73. Garrett Richards
  74. Dan Straily
  75. Tyler Skaggs
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