If MLB is actually able to pull off an abbreviated 2020, I’ll have four or five drafts/auctions the week of July 23rd. Right now, even though I’m not planning on veering far from my normal draft plan, I do realize that some major adjustments in strategy may need to be made for what will certainly be a bizarre season, and I’m still pondering potential tweaks to my game plan in case I have any brainstorms about what might give me an edge in 2020. One thing I have decided to do is to pay a little less attention to ratios and more to counting stats this year, assuming they’ll be slightly more predictable with such a small sample size of a season.
Speaking of ratio stats that may be harder to control than ever this year, a while back I saw a suggestion somewhere on Fangraphs or a similar website mentioning the notion of punting ERA as a strategy for this season. There was no follow up in terms of how one might go about doing so, and it seemed like a crazy idea to me, since punting ERA without destroying WHIP seemed impossible even from an on-paper standpoint. But in an effort to at least consider out of the box ideas this year, I decided to follow up the thought by trying to put together a pitching staff that I felt had a solid chance to be relatively successful once I didn’t take ERA into account at all, largely using last year’s performance as a guide. Even though prior year’s performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of what will happen in the present even in normal times, looking at things through this lens has, if nothing else, revealed some numbers that surprised me a bit. The bottom line is, if I’ve decided that I’m not going to put as much stock as usual into ratio categories like ERA — and I think I have — then I may have discovered a few starting pitchers that I’ll be more interested in drafting for 2020 than I would have guessed.
In coming up with this list of pitchers, in addition to ignoring ERA, I basically considered all of them equally strong in wins since I find wins completely impossible to predict normally, and never more so than this year. All of the pitchers on this list had a decent-to-bad ERA last year, but a good-to-great WHIP. Each also had to have what I considered a K/9 that was solid, at least relative to his draft position. I looked closely at players who had ugly numbers when it comes to HR/9, but very attractive stats when looking at BB/9. Perhaps most importantly, I tried to make it realistic that even deep leaguers could theoretically draft all of these guys on one team without A) having to use a top pick on a starter (no one on this list is top 60 in overall NFBD ADP), or B) drafting more than one every few rounds, so that one could focus the bulk of the draft on stacking offense and grabbing a few choice relievers when the time felt right. Wrap that all together, and here’s what a staff of starters might look like for team “Punt ERA”:
Yu Darvish (ADP: 61). Darvish’s monster second half had me interested in him for 2020 anyway, and clearly I wasn’t alone as he was continually drafted higher than I expected during draft season 1.0. He becomes the anchor of this particular fake pitching staff by virtue of: (1) his sparkling WHIP last year (1.10), (2) the fact that he finished 2019 with a better K/9 than Jacob deGrom (Darvish’s was 11.5, which was 7th in MLB), but, (3) had an unpalatable ERA of about 4, and (4) was 4th overall (in a bad way) in baseball in homers allowed.
Madison Bumgarner (ADP: 125). If I’d drafted Darvish near his ADP, I’d have had many rounds to shore up an elite offense at this point, so it’s time for starter number two. It’s a guy I haven’t drafted in years (ever?) and had no intention of drafting this year, but whom I may be softening on a bit at this price. It’s hard to believe pitching in Arizona will be a cure for the spike his ERA took last year, but his WHIP is still excellent (1.13 last year, 1.15 over the last 3 years combined). Among other things, his K/9 remained solid (27th overall, at 8.8) if not spectacular in 2020. And if he’s healthy, one would assume he’s a guy who will want to be a horse this year and be on the mound as much as his team will let him.
Matthew Boyd (ADP: 162). By now I would have had time to grab a closer and a couple more bats before arriving here at my third starter. I’ve had Boyd in a keeper league for several years and have watched him pitch way too much to trust putting too much faith in him (and feel he’s seriously overpriced at his current ADP), but he is kind of the poster child for this particular exercise. He had a downright gross ERA last year (4.57) and gave up more home runs per inning than anyone in baseball, but managed to have a respectable (though still worst of anyone on this list) WHIP of 1.23, and finished an impressive 6th overall in K/9.
German Marquez (ADP: 182). Remember back when we thought we might have a season, but that it would be played in only those states that COVID was basically ignoring, Arizona and Florida? And then we all realized that if this plan came to fruition, we should consider grabbing a few shares of Marquez if he wasn’t going to set foot in Colorado this summer? Well, a few things have changed since then, but Marquez still easily makes this staff, given the absolutely huge discrepency between his 2019 WHIP (1.20) and ERA (4.76). His 9.1 K/9 ranked 24th overall last year, and his BB/9 alone has me remembering some of my past good times with him: it was 1.8, which was 9th overall, better than Cole, deGrom, Buehler, and Kershaw.
Joe Musgrove (ADP: 211). Musgrove’s ADP is a little higher than I realized, which is probably why he never fell to me after I targeted him as an end-of-draft lottery ticket this year. ERA last year: bad (4.44). WHIP: not so bad (1.22). BB/9: pretty darn good (2.1, good for 15th overall, where he was sandwiched ever so gently between Gerrit Cole and Clayton Kershaw. Side note: if the season gets canceled, remind me to come back to this blurb as a jumping off point for my replacement part-time job writing mildly homoerotic baseball fan fiction).
Anthony DeSclafani (ADP: 251). Disco is another pitcher who managed to keep his WHIP at a solid 1.2 last year, despite a 3.89 ERA and and unfortunate penchant for allowing homers (7th worst in baseball on that front). Reading that the Reds are talking about starting Trevor Bauer every 4th day this year reminded me of the rabbit hole one goes down when trying to predict wins (and anything) this year: will this really happen? Will DeSclafani get bumped to the bullpen in favor of Wade Miley? Will that kill any value he had? Will he get bumped to the pen, then have an increase in value by becoming a swing man, picking up vulture wins, and pitching more effectively overall because he is doing so in shorter bursts? Who knows, but writing this up did help me remember that DeSclafani had a nice, tidy 9.0 K/9 ratio last year, good for a top 25 finish in baseball for that category.
Miles Mikolas (ADP: 275). Mikolas squeaks into this group with a blah 7.0 K/9 being offset by a bargain basement price, after he was completely off the radar earlier this year (due to being sidelined with an always-worrisome flexor tendon strain). He’s supposedly back to full health, and I’ve always had a soft spot for guys who don’t walk other guys, which is part of what led me to put this group together in the first place. Mikolas’ insanely low walk rate — a mildly shocking 4th best in MLB last year — kept his WHIP to a fairly solid 1.22 last year despite a 4.16 ERA.