The Case Against Clayton Kershaw in Round 1
Don't Take Clayton Kershaw in the First Round
Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. That’s a consensus wagon I can comfortably ride along with. I’ll take Max Scherzer’s phone call if he wants to have a fireside chat, but I don’t think he’ll get my vote this cycle on this issue. If you look at standard metrics like ERA and WHIP, Kershaw has consistently been the best over the last five to eight years. If you take it a step further, as advanced metrics like FIP, XFIP and ERA+ attempt to do, Kershaw separates himself even further.
Fantasy Baseball is a game of skill and in our favorite game; Clayton Kershaw should no longer be considered the consensus best Fantasy pitcher. At his current Average Draft Position (#6), he isn’t a good value. I have also heard “experts” boisterously express that if he falls to 10 or 12 he is a “no-brainer.” Another consensus opinion I don’t share. Chris Sale is currently being drafted #14 overall. If Kershaw fell to #14 overall, then he becomes a value, but still not a “no-brainer,” and there is zero chance of that happening while the entire Fantasy community still considers him the best pitcher in Fantasy.
Only a select few have been better than @ClaytonKersh22 in their 20’s.
Happy 30th to this 3-time Cy Young winner. pic.twitter.com/q0YlvoayMc
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) March 19, 2018
We are at a point in today’s media environment that the lines are being blurred; conventional baseball wisdom has infected Fantasy Baseball. The result is that Clayton Kershaw remains the consensus first pitcher drafted and a mid-first round selection. The media world is filled with hard-line contrarians and attention seekers who make outlandish and indefensible predictions known as “bold takes,” and yet, I don’t see it with Kershaw. Fantasy owners feel safe selecting Kershaw first because nobody is going to criticize them for drafting “Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball.”
When you combine the quality of the recent seasons and dominant strikeout totals from Max Scherzer, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber, along with Kershaw’s injury risk and elevated ADP, you should find that the value of selecting Kershaw with your first pick in the middle or late first round is not there.
The Current Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw led baseball in ERA for four consecutive seasons between 2011-2014. That’s how he branded himself as the best pitcher in both Major League and Fantasy Baseball. He hasn’t led the league in ERA since for three years in a row, even though he pitches in a great park against National League competition. Over the last three seasons Kershaw hasn’t averaged the most Fantasy points, the most quality starts (a statistic used in both points leagues and some category leagues) the most wins or the most strikeouts. Not only has he not averaged the most over the last three seasons, he has never led in any of those categories.
I researched on CBSSports.com all the way back to 2006 and found that Kershaw has never led Fantasy Baseball in total points. He was consistently one of the five best scorers more often than any other player and there wasn’t a single player that led the league in scoring more than once, but “the consensus best Fantasy pitcher” never led in points leagues. Never. A player doesn’t need to technically be the best pitcher in any given season to establish himself as the best over a period of time, but you would have thought he would have any way. At the very least, eventually, you’d think that that fact would create a debate over who should be the first pitcher drafted, ya know, since last year and the year before that and yada, yada, yada, Kershaw wasn’t. It hasn’t. Everyone just knows that Kershaw should be first off the board.
The Facts of The Kershaw Case
The best argument for drafting Kershaw is the confidence that he will be extremely good, which is true. But, he is rarely the best in any one category and he is falling further and further behind in strikeouts.
* He has only led the league in Strikeouts once, 2015 (301).
* He has only led the league in Wins once, 2014 (21).
* He tied, but never led, the league in Quality Starts and that was in 2013.
* The only year he led the league in Innings Pitched was his career year, 2015, and that was by two outs over Dallas Keuchel.
I am not arguing that Clayton Kershaw isn’t the best pitcher in baseball, though Scherzer has a case before the court. Over the last five years he has finished in the Top 5 in all of the relevant Fantasy categories more consistently than any other pitcher. However, that doesn’t mean he is the best Fantasy pitcher, that he will be the best in 2018 or that being the best pitcher means you are the best draft day value. It definitely means that he shouldn’t be the consensus first pitcher drafted. He was 16th in strikeouts in 2017. Chris Sale struck out 106 more batters, Scherzer 66 and Kluber 63 more than Kershaw. Scherzer and Kluber had better WHIPs and Kluber a better ERA. There is a debate to be had here when you consider all the relevant facts of the case.
My philosophy is that strikeouts and “draft day value” are more important when building a pitching rotation than ERA, WHIP or Wins. Based on these criteria, Kershaw not only isn’t the obvious choice, he isn’t the best one.
According to FantasyPros.com Kershaw’s Average Draft Position is sixth overall and of the major hosting sites, only CBS has him being drafted lower (10th). Max Scherzer’s ADP is #11, Corey Kluber #13, and Chris Sale #14. Over the last three seasons, Kershaw has averaged third in points leagues (703). Three points ahead of Corey Kluber, 38 fewer than Chris Sale and 92 less than Max Scherzer. In strikeouts, he has averaged 21 fewer than Kluber, 47 fewer than Sale and 51 fewer than Scherzer, while being drafted 5-8 picks higher in current 2018 drafts. And, he has missed starts due to injury in three of the last four seasons.
Kershaw is a legitimate injury risk and his ADP makes the other three starters a better value. If you are of the belief that you need to front your rotation with an ace and you are willing to use a top pick to do it, at least maximize value by skipping Clayton Kershaw in the middle of Round 1 instead of Scherzer, Sale on Kluber at the end or top of Round 2. If you are drafting at pick 6 to 8, go with Harper or Betts or take a chance on Scherzer if you absolutely must select an ace.
Alternatives to Drafting Top 25 Aces
I never select these pitchers or any starting pitcher that early in yearly league drafts, but if I agreed with the experts who believe that quality starting pitching is so thin that owners should make sure to draft one of the top tier starters, Kershaw still wouldn’t be my choice for two reasons.
- He isn’t the “clear and obvious” best starting pitcher in Fantasy baseball.
- He is currently being drafted before Bryce Harper (#7 ADP), Mookie Betts (#8 ADP) and Giancarlo Stanton (#10 ADP).
The changing opinions among experts regarding drafting starters early intrigues me. I agree that there is a lack of elite starting pitchers, but I normally draft offense with my first four or five picks and I haven’t change that strategy yet. The reason I don’t recommend owners use a Top 20 pick on pitching is because of my belief that strikeouts are more important than ERA and WHIP, and you don’t need to use a top pick to get them. ERA and WHIP, as well as Wins, are fungible. They’re more team reliant and can be affected by environment and matchups more than strikeouts. They can fluctuate unpredictably due to luck or flukes of happenstance regardless of actual performance.
I also disagree that owners need a Top 15 starter to front their Fantasy staff. I am a huge Carlos Carrasco (#33 ADP) believer, so I will draft him instead of batters like Jose Abreu or Corey Seager if those are my options. However, I am more than happy to wait for high-strikeout, risk/reward starters like Robbie Ray (#46 ADP) or Chris Archer (#55 ADP), and drafting pitcher/pitcher with back-to-back selections. I’d even consider filling my staff with three or four pitchers with picks between 40 and 80.
I believe you can fill the middle and back end of a winning overall Fantasy staff by targeting high-strikeout, risk/reward starters like the following rather than use Top 25 picks on aces.
Jeff Samardzija, SP San Francisco Giants
Samardzija has been a hyped pitcher who has disappointed owners because of overly inflated expectations, but the strikeouts have always been there.
He has pitched more than 200 innings every season since 2013 with over 200 strikeouts three times and never fewer than 163. His ADP is where it is because his ERA and WHIP have fluctuated from as low as 2.99 and 1.07 to as high as 4.96 and 1.35. In 2017, he finished with an ERA of 4.34 pitching in a great park against National League lineups. His 205 strikeouts in 207.2 innings pitched and 1.14 WHIP suggest to me that he had some bad luck in an otherwise good season.
200 strikeouts is a safe bet for a pitcher being drafted in the same range as a bad batting average first baseman like the Phillies Carlos Santana, a part-time catcher like Houston’s Evan Gattis, or disappointments like Pirates OF Gregory Polanco and the Rangers OF Nomar Mazara.
Rick Porcello, SP Boston Red Sox
Porcello had a cataclysmic regression in 2017 if you compare it to his 2016 Cy Young season. However, his 4.36 ERA and 1.40 WHIP weren’t much worse than his career norms, making the regression realistic. That’s why he has an ADP of #216.
What makes Porcello a late round value is that he has increased his strikeouts from a high of 142 with the Detroit Tigers in 2009 to 149 in his first season in Boston in 2015 and back-to-back seasons of 189 and 181 in 2016 and 2017. The days of being a 175-185 strikeout guy look real and while the ERA and WHIP aren’t pretty, that ADP and those strikeouts make him a value for the back of a Fantasy rotation.
Drew Pomeranz, SP Boston Red Sox
Pomeranz has lacked buzz and Fantasy owners don’t seem to trust that his performance is legitimate, but he has struck out 186 and 174 batters in 170.2 and 173.2 innings pitched in 2016 and 2017. He had an ERA of 3.32 in both seasons with WHIPs of 1.18 and 1.35.
Pomeranz is being drafted in the same area as first time closer Archie Bradley, middle reliever Andrew Miller and inconsistent young starters like Danny Salazar and Jameson Taillon (I am a big fan of Taillon) who have higher ceilings, but much riskier profiles. Batters like Evan Longoria and Josh Bell aren’t going to provide the kind of impact Pomeranz’s 170-plus strikeouts can and while his ADP (#179) isn’t a steal, it is a solid value.
His above-average contributions, as well as some of the other starters available at this stage in drafts, is why I am happy to draft offense early and often, settle for less-than-elite starters to front my rotation and then fill the back-end with this type of quality and upside.
Jon Gray, SP Colorado Rockies
Gray is more of a speculative selection based on his 200-strikeout potential and draft discounts that accompany Rockies pitchers. He has averaged better than a K per inning while struggling to contribute effectively in ratios. He’s also been unable to stay healthy.
Gray is a risk and his ADP is actually a little higher than it should be based on a career ERA of 4.42 and WHIP of 1.32. However, he has the “stuff” to front a Fantasy rotation if he can find a way to throw 185 or more innings in 2018.
I like Gray’s strikeout potential, but I love that he has pitched better at Coors Field than on the road in both 2016 and 2017. Look it up. It’s true. A pitcher that benefits from additional run support in Coors Field while performing better should contribute Wins in yearly leagues and be a strong contrarian value in Daily Fantasy as well.
Dinelson Lamet, SP San Diego Padres
Lamet wasn’t a highly profiled prospect and he snuck under the radar for most of 2017. I don’t love the walk rate, but 139 strikeouts in 114 innings pitched and his swing-and-miss stuff with an ADP of 220 makes him a steal. He benefits from pitching at Petco Park against National League lineups and with the humidor in Arizona, he catches a break there as well.
There are a lot really good values drafted around 220 and Lamet is another one of them. Jason Kipnis, Tim Anderson, Julio Teheran and Rick Porcello, as mentioned above, are all being drafted in the same range as Lamet. If you can find a way to draft two or three of these pitchers this late, then you have done a great job adding quality depth at a great value. Lamet could strike out 185-200 batters if the innings pitched are there. He is a draft day target for me.
Steven Matz, SP New York Mets
Matz is all projection and guesswork with an ADP of #378. He has never pitched well at the major league level or been able to stay healthy, but his ADP puts him in the “late-round flier region,” so he is as good a Hail Mary as anyone else. He is being drafted around the same as prospects who probably won’t contribute at all or won’t help until August or later, such as Brendan McKay, Hunter Greene, Juan Soto and Kyle Tucker.
Matz is worth drafting late in deeper leagues and if he doesn’t return value in April then cut him for the best of the waiver wire. The “stuff” is good enough to contribute at the back-end of a rotation as a matchup or double-start play.
Alex Reyes, RP/SP St. Louis Cardinals
Strikeouts: 75 as RP - 120 as SP
When drafting Reyes, you’re targeting potential quality rather than quantity. He won’t pitch earlier than mid-May and he might not pitch as a starter at all depending on how the Cardinals’ season unfolds. But, with an ADP of #263 there aren’t a lot of draft alternatives to convincingly argue against selecting Reyes there. The value isn’t great, but you’re investing with the hope that he can be an impact starter down the stretch and into the Fantasy playoffs.
Recent reports have suggested that Reyes could be ready to pitch in the Cardinals’ bullpen at some point in May, but I expect a call up in June as a reliever before a possible July/August transition to the rotation. The upside with Reyes is that if he does pitch in the rotation he will be an impact contributor in strikeouts, while the downside is that he is a risk to hurt your ERA, kill your WHIP and possibly remain a reliever all season.
I don’t recommend drafting and stashing Reyes unless you absolutely know that you can stash him on your disabled list or play in a league that uses holds. In those leagues, his current ADP is good value because of his floor as an impact reliever with a great K/9 and a high ceiling as an impact starter in the Fantasy playoffs.
Jimmy Nelson, SP Milwaukee Brewers
Strikeouts: 75-100 Strikeouts
Nelson made significant strides in every category, especially strikeouts, in 2017. When you combine an enormous breakout season and September shoulder surgery that could prevent him from pitching until late July or August, there are a lot of reasons to take a wait and see approach to Nelson. That being said, 199 strikeouts in 175.1 innings pitched with a current ADP of #323 is an extremely tempting late round flier.
If you have unlimited DL spots or a deep enough bench that you can stash him without harming your ability to field a strong roster then Nelson is a strong value as high as picks 225-250, and a no-brainer at his current ADP.
Clayton Kershaw Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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