If you randomly placed a 4.00ish ERA starting pitching into the free agent pool back in 2007, that guy would go for a mint during FAAB with more than half of the league placing a bid. The final bid would likely be someone’s entire budget. Of course a 4.00ish ERA starter would never just sit out there when the league’s starters were pitching to a 4.64 ERA. The league followed up with a pair of 4.46 seasons before the first “Year of the Pitcher” in 2010 when average ERA for starters was 4.16, including a 4.07 in the National League.
Last year was the apex of this run with the league turning in a 4.08 mark and the NL actually going sub-4.00 at a seemingly insane 3.95 given what we became accustomed to in the late-90s and early-00s. In fact, this piece is about what we have become accustomed to and how that shades our view of this drastic change in run environment. Placing our 2007 example in this year’s free agent pool leaves him there for the foreseeable future with nary a bid as his 4.00ish ERA simply doesn’t make much of a dent in a mixed league except for maybe the worst team or two in the league.
In this heavy-pitching era we’re dealing with, you will often hear “there is plenty of pitching so…” followed by a strategy to eschew pitching in some form or fashion. But is there plenty of pitching? Is this new environment offering more individual chances to secure above average pitching or does the rising tide lift all boats and simply change the benchmarks? And since those benchmarks changed so drastically in short order, has the fantasy community at large simply not quite adjusted their eyesight in turn?
That doesn’t mean that every guy with a 4.00 or greater ERA should be cut instantly, but those carrying ERAs up in that range should be offering something else of note since that figure has gone from “all formats must-start option” in the late-90s to “solid mid-rotation option” in the mid-00s to “better have very positive indicators for the future, a gaudy strikeout rate or a good WHIP” today.
So let’s take a quick look at ERA specifically and see how it has evolved in the last six seasons including so far in 2012 and get a better feel for whether or not the changed run environment has indeed made pitching plentiful or simply altered the view of what good is for a pitcher.
First, a simple look at ERA by league and as a whole since 2007 for all starting pitchers:
This shows us how ERA standards have changed both by league and as a whole in the last six seasons. The sharp uptick in the AL this year is definitely interesting. Not entirely sure what to make of that increase.
Next, let’s look at how many pitchers there are who have an average or better ERA with a qualifying amount of innings (at least 162 IP). Obviously not all of these guys would be getting used in every fantasy league as formats vary greatly, but this gives an idea of how many generally acceptable options there are in the pool by year.
The first takeaway is the fact that the number of average or better SPs by ERA has been the exact same the last two years as it was in 2007 which lends credence to the notion that pitching isn’t exactly plentiful so much as our benchmarks are vastly different.
Since plenty of non-ERA qualified starters get used at any point during the year, I lowered the threshold to 120+ innings and again looked at those with average or better ERAs. This gets all of those fantasy all-stars who come out of nowhere in June and excel yet don’t register enough innings to become ERA qualified by season’s end.
We see here that not only are there not more above average ERA options in the pool, but that 2010 and so far this year deliver the two smallest outputs of the six seasons analyzed. In the first three years, there was an average of 78 pitchers with an average or better ERA and 120 or more innings of work. The last three years have an average of 74 propped up by last year’s 79. This year is obviously incomplete, but we would need to see 10 more pitchers meet the thresholds this year to get the average up to 78 over the last three years.
This study, while far from extensive, does seem to suggest that we aren’t in a pitching rich environment in terms of quantity. The quality may be higher especially with seemingly every other pitcher carry 95+ velocity, but the idea that you can wait deeper into your draft to start composing your staff appears to be misguided. If you waited until the 9th-10th round before getting your first starter back in 2007, you can still employ that strategy, but the improved league ERAs don’t make it easier to wait until the 12th-13th round for that first starter.