- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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If you left a 10-team mixed league fantasy baseball draft with a starting rotation of Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, Joe Saunders, Bronson Arroyo, Armando Galarraga and an ace you grabbed in the early rounds, it wouldn't be the best group of starting pitchers in the league, but it wouldn't be that bad, either. On top of your ace, you would have two pitchers who won 17 games in 2008, another who was in the top 30 in strikeouts, a rookie who made it onto the WHIP leaderboard and a 15-game winner who is one of the most durable pitchers in baseball this decade. Give this crew an ace like Tim Lincecum, and you could go places with this rotation.
Of course, you also could have waited until after our most recent mixed league mock draft to take all those starting pitchers, sans Lincecum, and ended up with the same group, all but one of whom had an ERA in the 3s (Arroyo) and all but one of whom delivered what I'd call a decent strikeout performance (Saunders). And all the while, you wouldn't have used any draft picks to get them.
This pretty much sums up why I'm taking my normal route of ignoring starting pitchers in drafts to an even higher level this season. In past seasons, I sensed there was enough starting pitching depth for me to take hitter after hitter and worry about the arms in the middle rounds. This season? I still have been doing this to a degree, because there's a limit on how many hitters a team can hold and at some point I have to click on middle-rounders like Aaron Harang, Chien-Ming Wang and Ted Lilly. I'm tempted to, in one of these drafts, get myself an anchor early and my closers where appropriate, and use my final five picks on Buehrle types to see what my staff looks like.
I know, I know, you think I've lost my mind, but in one recent draft, I took only two pitchers in the first 10 rounds, then later on felt guilty because there still were many pitchers on the board I wanted and I eventually ran out of room. Hiroki Kuroda was a last-round pick, and he's someone I like. When the draft ended, I found not only 17-game winner Saunders undrafted, but also 16-gamer Jamie Moyer, unheralded WHIP values Todd Wellemeyer and Andy Sonnanstine and capable strikeout hurlers Randy Wolf and Arroyo available. I found pitchers young and old, with and without strikeout potential, about 20 pitchers in all who would make the current Baltimore Orioles rotation, maybe more. I couldn't take them all, and quite a few of them would be on my sleeper lists. I'll use this strategy in deeper drafts as well, where it really works, and I even tried it in a recent NL-only mock draft. It worked just fine.
For years, maybe forever, I suppose, the theory went that the deepest positions in fantasy baseball were first base and outfield. If you didn't get someone hitting 20 home runs at first base, it probably was because you tried not to, and in the outfield, it wasn't difficult to find a base stealer or power helper. They were there. These days, however, I'm not so sure I want to wait so long to get my corner infielder or final few outfielders. I'm sure that these positions have been surpassed in level of depth.
As power continues to drop across the board in baseball, it should come as no surprise that starting pitching is flourishing, not so much in more aces, but in more players we'd call safe and useful. The middle class, if you will. Kuroda is the perfect example, although I could cite 20 others. Nothing against Jake Peavy, but there just isn't a chance I would spend a third-round pick on that guy, who could get hurt or traded, when the dropoff 10 rounds later doesn't seem that large to me. Offensively, there is a dropoff. I don't want Lyle Overbay to be my first baseman. His position remains deep, but if Kuroda is the pitching equivalent of Overbay, he's more valuable to me.
I'm a big believer that fantasy owners should load up on hitters early and often in pretty much any draft, no matter the scoring system. Hitters are more consistent and less affected, I think, by random injuries, poor play of teammates and opponents, weather, you name it. You draft a hitter, you have a pretty good idea what he will do. For pitchers, anything can happen, even with the big names. If Johan Santana wins "only" 14 games, he's not the top pitcher anymore, no matter how many leads he actually had when he left the game. But Ryan Braun's home run total can't get massacred by his bullpen.
That's only one example, but still, in most drafts, I'm very heavy on the bats. Some of this is because I often feel like I can steal pitchers I like late, when others have filled their staffs with upside-lacking veterans. I've been feeling confident in this strategy of late, so much so that I'm wondering whether some of the pitchers who aren't being taken are just as good as many who are. The answer is yes, in 10-team formats and other shallow leagues, a lot of these pitchers are the same. You probably are not going to get a 200-strikeout guy late, a 20-game winner or an ERA champ, but really, how do we know this? Cliff Lee isn't a great example, because he was just awful in 2007 and there was little reason to expect he'd win 22 games the rest of his career, let alone in one amazing season, but where do you think Ryan Dempster, John Danks and even Mike Mussina were being drafted in standard leagues? The answer is, they weren't. Moose won 20 games! Talk about a terrific free-agent pickup.
Fantasy owners get very caught up in the prior stats, so much so that they merely assume players will repeat performance. When it comes to hitting, that's a lot more likely. Hitters are more consistent. Raul Ibanez might do exactly the same thing year after year. He's always in the lineup, swatting line drives here and there, and his overall cumulative numbers will be affected mainly by luck, runners on base, hitters behind him, stuff like that. How many pitchers produce the same numbers year after year?
Arroyo isn't a stud pitcher by any means, but chop that forgettable June 24 outing in Toronto from the books, and his unsightly 4.77 season ERA drops all the way to 4.34. OK, so that's still not in Peavy's high-rent neighborhood, but Arroyo won five more games and delivered only three fewer strikeouts. I'm not comparing them; of course I would draft Peavy before Arroyo, we all would. But Arroyo is barely getting drafted at all.
I certainly don't recommend fantasy owners totally ignore pitching in the first 10 rounds. First of all, you might find yourself in a draft in which everyone is applying this strategy, in which case the advantage is gone. It's kind of like our mock drafts, in which nobody really wants to take a closer. Your league is likely to be different, and that's just fine. There are no hard and fast rules about the rounds pitchers need to be selected in. I just prefer to wait. But I also recommend you try to get a star pitcher you can rely on, someone who will deliver wins, strikeouts and a strong base in ERA and WHIP. Owning five Buehrles won't win you a league, but that doesn't mean you can't win a league with five Buehrles.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
57mEthan Sherwood Strauss