2015 Fantasy BaseballFantasy Baseball

2015 Fantasy Baseball: The Fickleness of Pitching

A wise man once said that those that do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it. Nowhere can this be seen more than in baseball free agency. The economics of baseball are way too complex to simplify the analysis of a contract to the dollar amount. The revenue of the sport dictates that a $20 million contract today might seem like a $15 or $10 million contract a few years from now. Sometimes we see big dollar amounts and they scare us. When you see overall contracts move into the nine digits it gets pretty scary.

If there is any law that governs baseball, it is that any contract to a pitcher that lasts more than four seasons is probably a sucker bet. We can probably count the number of five year plus contracts that have worked out for teams on one or two hands. Yet that hasn’t stopped teams from going out and doing it anyway.

Brian Sabean is ironically in the middle of this debate at both ends. Matt Cain signed an eight year contract in 2010 that will last through 2017 with an option for 2018. The Giants are arguably already beginning to regret that one. Madison Bumgarner signed a six year deal in 2012 that will also run through 2017. At this point, that deal looks like a good one, but there are still three seasons to make that determination. Of course, everyone remembers the fatal Barry Zito deal. That one was an albatross before the ink dried.

The flip side is “The Freak” Tim Lincecum. The Giants never went beyond a two year deal on him. Yes, it was more expensive on the front end, but consider what has become of Tim Lincecum. He is on the back half of a $35 million, two year contract. Those are pretty hefty dollars, but consider what would have happened if they had signed him long-term like the others. The Giants would have the highest paid rotation in baseball and probably very little to show for it. When you consider the shelf life of a starting pitcher, consider the following numbers of Lincecum.

2008 227.1 2.62 1.172 10.5 0.4 .310
2009 225.1 2.48 1.047 10.4 0.4 .288
2010 212.1 3.43 1.272 9.8 0.8 .315
2011 217.0 2.74 1.207 9.1 0.6 .288
2012 186.0 5.18 1.468 9.2 1.1 .316
2013 197.2 4.37 1.315 8.8 1.0 .306
2014 155.2 4.74 1.394 7.7 1.1 .301

When one looks at Lincecum’s numbers, they don’t see the normal calamities that befall pitchers with long-term contracts. He didn’t suffer any significant injuries. You are looking at a pitcher with more than 1400 regular season innings in seven seasons. Consider their three championship runs and we are looking at nearly 1500 innings. We aren’t leaking value on that level. If you look at the batting average on balls in play (BABIP), we don’t see any significant good or bad luck in the seven seasons. Most starting pitchers see larger ranges in a seven year period than between .288 and .316. What we see is Tim Lincecum getting worse, plain and simple.

The fantasy implications can’t be any more plain. Like teams, we can’t afford to fall in love with starting pitchers. Sure, Clayton Kershaw may look like the best pitcher since the dawn of time now, but pitchers can lose their edge and lose it fast. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t draft Kershaw in the first round. There are no signs of decay with him, but with others the signs are there. Yet, we find ourselves talking ourselves into taking one of those guys. Maybe it was Justin Verlander last year. Perhaps it was CC Sabathia for someone else. We talked ourselves into believing that their previous down season was just that. It wasn’t a predictor of things to come. It was just a blip on the radar.

The truth of the matter is the commissioner and others are flipping out over the “lack of offense.” They want to change the strike zone. They want to add a pitch clock. They don’t need to add or change or anything. Today’s dominant pitchers could be one inning or even one pitch away from decline. Sure, hitters decline, too, but their fall doesn’t happen nearly as quickly. You may sign them to a seven-year deal and get away with it.

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