Strategy: Deep League Pitcher Valuation

Strategy: Deep League Pitcher Valuation

           The following discusses player valuation in deep leagues, specifically the value of pitching.  Hopefully, it will explain a subtle difference between deep leagues and regular leagues.  Values are league dependent, and our site focuses on keeper leagues where teams can buy players at a specified price and hold them for several years.  We assume 24 teams that each own 23 players. 

           Valuation in keeper leagues is challenging because teams can renew undervalued players.   For example, if Team A renews Aubrey Huff at $8, what happens to the remaining $8-10 in value?  It follows keeper league owners often purchase players at a premium in their draft.  The premium depends on your league, but when you calculate the renewals, it generally averages about 15%.

         Yet if you look at our site’s preliminary hitter valuations, they are not 15% higher than most publications.  The reason is we place most of the premium on pitching.  Publication values geared toward regular leagues underestimate the value of “average pitching” in deep leagues.  Their values are not wrong.  But they are  different because they assume comparable pitchers will be available on the free agent list.  For example, if Nick Blackburn is a free agent in a regular league, why pay $10 for Kevin Slowey? 

         Explaining the “pitching premium” in deep leagues is difficult to explain and harder to quantify. Values supposedly customized to your league can often provide false comfort.  First, the values place no premium on average pitching, and even if they did, an identical premium cannot be placed on each pitcher.  The key is to remember two concepts: (1) valuation depends on scarcity, and (2) bad pitchers cause tremendous damage to your team.  Time permitting, I will find a way to quantify how the premium works.  But for now, the following is a basic chart using six “levels” of pitchers and providing an estimate of the premium.  

Level Book Value Deep League Value
Level One (Halladay) 33 35
Level Two (Hamels) 20 25
Level Three (John Danks) 12 19
Level Four (Derek Lowe) 5 15
Level Five (Barry Zito) 2 8
Level Six (worst starters) 0 Low and/or don’t buy

            As you can see, the difference in values is negligible among “level one” (i.e. elite) pitchers.  The reason is value depends on scarcity, meaning a pitcher with Halladay’s production is almost as valuable to a “regular league” owner as a “deep league” owner.  But the difference becomes progressively greater for less-valuable pitchers.  However, the valuations then revert back for the riskiest pitchers.  This is because of the damage bad pitching can cause a deep league team due to the lack of pitching on the free agent list.    

            To put the idea in context, here is what often happens to a person who relies on book valuations for pitching in a deep league.  The owner—who will not “overpay” for an average starter—will generally buy a “level one” starter at close to book value.   Knowing they need more starting pitching, but not wanting to overpay, they will often acquire several “level six” starters at $1-2.  They hope to compensate by acquiring superior hitting. 

            The strategy rarely works. The problem arises when two of the “level six” starters blow up and the free agent list contains equally bad options.  The owner can try to improve his pitching through a trade, but realistically, trading for equal value (especially early in the season) is nearly impossible.  So generally speaking, without extreme luck, the owner gets stuck with bad pitchers who derail any chance of winning. 

            The premium applies to relief pitchers but to a lesser degree.  Just like regular leagues, the inherent risk in all closers makes it hard to justify paying huge premiums for a certain reliever.  But at the same time, deep league owners should apply the “avoid closers” strategy knowing the strategy assumes “there will always be potential saves on the free agent list.”  This concept is less true in deep leagues where every pitcher with any theoretical chance of moving into the closer’s role will be acquired in the draft.  It’s always possible to find the next John Axford, but it’s difficult.  

            Needless to say, there is no such thing as a full-proof strategy.  All strategies can be taken too far, and valuations really depend upon the circumstances.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember the publication values for average starting pitching often differ in “regular leagues” and “deep leagues.”