One of the great mysteries of pitcher prognostication is the volume of innings pitched. Pop quiz hotshot: who had the second-best fastball in MLB last year? Answer: Ranger Suarez. How many runs better was his fastball in 2021 than 2020? An astounding 27 runs. How cool is that? OK, how many innings did he pitch in 2021? 106. That’s…a few. How about 2020? Oh, 4 innings pitched. I see the conundrum. Imagine you reach into your swear jar and pick out a quarter and start flipping it, and 8 times out of 10 it lands heads. Did you just find a weighted coin? IS IT COUNTERFEIT? Do you have magic hands? Or did you just need to flip the coin, say, 100 times for it to end up 53 heads and 47 tails? Even if it ended up heads 53% of the time, do you think you’ve discovered a magical coin that gives you 3% advantage over the field (which pro gamblers would slit your throat for), or do you think that hot streak at the start weighted the final results? What if you flipped it, say, 200 times? Do you want to take that bet that your swear jar coin is going to have a 53% heads rate after another 100 flips? Suddenly this pop quiz is more quiz and less pop…
The above scenario is the flipside of people who hunt pitchers purely for innings pitched in fantasy baseball: yes, we are more certain of the projections for pitchers who have a lot of innings, and thus more likely to land a “hit” on players who have a ton of innings to their name, like Max Scherzer. But, even the most accurate projections can lead to some pretty yawnstipating outcomes. That Sandy Alcantara guy that everybody is fawning over because of his projected workload? Alcantara was 4th in IP last year and finished as SP24. Low K, blah Win total, total blerg. Guess what? The projection systems that we all know and love and rosterbate over predict that Alcantara will actually have a worse year in 2022 than 2021. Yet, Alcantara is zooming up the draft boards and sits at the coveted position of SP13 on NFBC right now across 200 drafts of different formats. OK, maybe Alcantara is an outlier? Let’s check in more on some IP super-stars from 2021. How about Kyle Gibson, the second half darling of so many teams that ran out of pitchers last year? Gibson finished 13th overall in IP and was SP48 in 2021. Or, in other words…Streamer! Kyle Hendricks? 16th overall in IP and SP79, which means he wouldn’t have been useful in any league shallower than 16 teams. Jordan Lyles was 20th in IP and finished as SP132, which is your fifth starter in your 24-team league. Yeesh.
This is to say: just because a pitcher is projected for big innings doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be fantasy relevant. Especially for higher stakes leagues, I’d rather take a risk on pitchers who are better on a per inning basis that have a fair chance to exceed their IP projections and thus provide exceptional value, rather than taking a blah pitcher who has IP volume and not a ton of other value. Of course, points leagues that value IP something fierce are an exception, but if you’ve got your proverbial Jordan Lyles out there walking a batter every other inning while allowing 2 dongs per game, then you’re simply out of luck.
Let’s take a closer look at some value pitchers who could have intangible luck in exceeding their IP projections and provide good value for your team.
Clayton Kershaw (NFBC ADP: 185, Rudy Rank: SP43): “Forearm discomfort.” Drummers get it. 13-year-old boys get it. Kershaw…might have it? The Dodgers turned down a one-year qualifying offer to Kershaw and allowed him to become a free agent after he had forearm discomfort that limited his action in 2021. Kershaw did finish out the year with 4 starts that lasted a meager total of 15 innings, where he managed nearly 10 K/9 while walking 2 batters total. His 2.61 xFIP and 3.01 FIP show a much better performance than does his 4.70 ERA over the same time period. Kershaw will be 34 by the start of the season, which makes him younger than Lance Lynn, Max Scherzer, and Yu Darvish. Now, what if Kershaw blows past the 142 IP that Rudy has projected for the curveball master? What if…what if Kershaw ends up healthy on a new team? What if Kershaw reaches the 160-170IP threshold with a 10 K/9 and a sub-3.00 ERA like he did from 2017-2019? At the draft cost of round 15ish — very likely your 4th or 5th pitcher in a 12-team league — you could find far worse pitchers to round out your team. I think there’s plenty to read into Kershaw’s injury risk, but the Dodgers also have ridiculously high salary baggage and enough SP to fill most team rosters. After the Marcell Ozuna debacle, it looks more and more likely that everybody’s favorite real-life Patrick Bateman clone, Trevor Bauer, will step back into the league. With Dustin May slated to return for the playoff run and various minor leaguers filling in the gaps — and we all know the Dodgers love a good mid-season trade — there’s really not a reason for the front office to bring back Kershaw. Especially in waiver wire leagues where you can drop him if his arm falls off in April, there’s enough positives to take a chance on Kershaw to think his intangibles could lead to an inning boost.
Carlos Rodon (NFBC ADP: 130, Rudy Rank: SP47): I mean, the guy was coming off of Tommy John surgery and hadn’t really pitched at the professional level in 2 years — he was bound to get tired. Rodon finished up as SP10 in 2021 despite a meager 132 IP (less than Kershaw is projected for, bee-tee-dubya) and now the White Sox are setting him free. Rodon managed 23 IP over his final 6 starts with great results but a worrying 4.36xFIP, meaning that he got a bit lucky in restraining the long ball. Rodon is only 28 years old with a bright future ahead of him. Now, imagine the intangible situation where Rodon has managed some rest and is 2 years recovered from Tommy John and his fastball velocity remains stable…and suddenly you’ve got a potential ace for your fantasy staff.
Alex Wood (NFBC ADP: 223, Rudy Rank: SP56): OK, maybe you’ve figured out by now this article is the “injury what-if” article. I’m not saying that we need to over-draft injured players, but we do need to consider their utility. Kershaw and Rodon were each putting in innings in September of 2021, and Wood similarly snuck in 3 starts for 13 innings. Thing is, he struck out 17 while walking none over those 13 frames, allowing only 2 runs and no homers. I think that will play. Wood signed with the Giants on a 2-year deal before the lockout started, which will help the 31-year old stabilize his career for a potential further contract at age 33. Wood was not good over his short 2019-2020 seasons, so a rebirth narrative in San Francisco could be attractive to fantasy managers. Wood has reached the 160+ IP multiple times in his career, and the Steamer projections envision that threshold as moderately likely. With such a low draft cost, Wood has plenty of upside if he surpasses his innings projection.
Who are the players that you’re targeting on a per inning basis? Or, are there some IP monsters that you just know are going to return positive value? Let me know down in the comments!