What Stephen Strasburg Can Teach Fantasy Managers

by Eno Sarris //

The science surrounding young pitchers has never been set in stone. It’s come a long way since Rany Jazayerli first debuted Pitcher Abuse Points in 1998. The “discovery” that there was such a thing as too many pitches for a young pitcher then led to some new ways of thinking about young pitchers, pitch counts, and innings limits. Tom Verducci furthered the research with his own findings, called the Verducci Effect, that young starters that jumped more than 30 innings from year to year were more likely to end up injured.

Of course it’s not really that easy to just slap the 30-inning-increase limit on a young starter, especially when a team is in contention and under to pressure to win now. Plus, more rigorous research has not found such a hard cap to be completely useful for all pitchers. All innings are not created equal. More advanced studies look into pitches per inning and what types of pitches are more responsible for arm stress than others. The soft cap that many use in baseball is about 125% of the previous year’s innings total, but that number is more of a general benchmark than one that has the power of multiple research findings behind it.

The case of Stephen Strasburg offers a teaching moment. The upside of a pitcher like Strasburg made him a mid-round fantasy pick with the potential to return early-round value…provided he could put together enough major league innings. That was up for debate as his innings limits were reported to be around 140 to 150 IP – but no hard cap was reported in the media. Then this weekend, Strasburg grabbed his elbow and called the trainer to the mound, and his owners joined Nationals fans in a collective gasp.

StrasburgGrab.jpgWhat Strasburg teaches us is not necessarily that young pitchers are more likely to hit the disabled list with elbow injuries. Rather, it’s
that young pitchers are less likely to amass critical innings in the latter half of the season. Whether from a cap or from injury, they are just more likely to have their rotation spot skipped late in the year, or to be shut down completely.

Consider all the pitchers that have had the shutdown rumor associated into their name so far this year. Jaime Garcia, Mat Latos, Jonathon Niese, Mike Leake, Mike Minor and Strasburg himself have all been the object of innings-limits speculation from their front offices and the media alike. All of these men are good young pitchers that are vital to their fantasy teams. Jeremy Hellickson dominated in his first four big league starts. For his efforts, he got sent back to A-ball. The best-case scenario for fantasy owners the rest of this season is that he get recalled for a few September innings of middle relief.

Garcia has 141.1 innings already, and his career high came in A-ball with 155 innings. He might be good for another 25 innings by that measure, but it’s complicated by his Tommy John surgery last year, and subsequent 33.2 innings pitched. His manager specifically said that the team was not going to limit its excellent young starter, but he also used 175 innings in his statement. With the Cards in the race (52% chance of making the playoffs according to Baseball Prospectus and their playoff odds), they’ll probably push the limit with Garcia. 

Latos, on the other hand, is on a Padres team that is 95% likely to make the postseason, and they’ll need him in October. At 142.2 IP, he’s already well past last year’s 123 IP total and just a couple starts away from a soft cap situation. Since the Padres are far enough ahead, expect to see his starts skipped often down the stretch. Minor, on a Braves team with a 92% chance of making the playoffs, has already had his starts skipped. His 138.1 innings so far this year are well beyond the 110.2 innings he accumulated at Vanderbilt in 2009.  

Leake and Niese are more likely to be shut down. Leake racked up 161 IP between Arizona State and the Arizona Fall League last year, but with his recent struggles the team demoted him to the bullpen at 138 innings anyway. The Mets have already openly contemplated shutting him down. They also have a 0.5% chance of making the playoffs, meaning there’s no point risking it with their young right-hander. 

Innings caps are no reason to avoid young pitchers altogether, but they do represent another risk that isn’t inherent with veteran pitchers. Next year, when it comes time to decide between two pitchers of similar ilk, it’s worth giving the veteran a slight nudge forward if late-year innings will be crucial for your team. And if you reach the All-Star break with a hot hand like Strasburg or Leake in your fantasy rotation, start aggressively shopping him for a trade.

For more on Stephen Strasburg, Jaime Garcia, Mat Latos and other young pitchers, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.

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