Should You Sit Your Starting Pitchers in Week 1?
By Eriq Gardner
A reader wrote in to ask whether or not the numbers support sitting a starter in the first week of the season.
I understand the reasoning behind the strategy: In the first week of the season, starters might be dangerous, as they haven’t built up the stamina to go long into games, may not have fully gotten control of their arsenal of pitches, and might be expected to be less likely to put up wins and more likely to damage a fantasy teams pitching ratios.
But let’s look at the numbers.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any “first week” splits anywhere, but we were able to gather together data for pitchers who made starts between April 5 and April 12 going back five years. We can call this set of data, “Starters in Early April,” which may be better anyway since what we’re talking about is a pitcher’s seasonal maturity at this early part of the year. We compared these data to how starters performed overall in the past five years.
The results of the study were somewhat surprising.
Let’s start with endurance and the potential for wins. We’re shocked to learn there’s hardly any difference at all. Starters in early April average 5.8 innings per game started. Starters average the same 5.8 innings per game started throughout the season. In early April, starters win the games they start 34% of the time. Throughout the season, that only ticks up to 35%. In early April, starters are a little less likely to be on the hook for a loss and a little more likely to be given a no-decision, but unless your league counts those stats, that’s not very important.
Let’s go to ERA and WHIP.
Here we find big differences, but in the complete opposite direction we expected. Starters in early April average a 3.92 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP. Over a full season, starters average a much worse 4.50 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. Is it because teams mostly have their best starters healthy at the onset of the season? Perhaps that’s one factor, but I think we can explain the difference better by jumping into the peripheral numbers.
First, we find no command issues. Both time frames yield an average of 3.1 walks per 9 IP.
Interestingly, despite the better surface ratios, pitchers at the beginning of the season strike out fewer batters. In early April, pitchers strike out 5.5 batters per 9 IP. Throughout the season, the number jumps to 6.3. If starters are whiffing fewer batters in early April, how are they managing to gain a better ERA?
We can put the mystery to bed by taking a look at the HR numbers. In early April, the HR/9 rate of a starter is only 0.94. Throughout the season, it’s 1.1. Clearly, the biggest advantage that a starter has at the start of the season is the colder weather. If you’ve ever swung a bat in frigid temperatures, you know it stings upon contact. Moreover, because warm air is less dense than cool air — ask your local meteorologist — balls travel further in those warm summer months.
So while it might seem a good idea to bench your starters early in the season, the numbers say you should do no such thing.
For more on starting pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits