Why the Middle Tier of Starting Pitchers Has Grown Entering 2022 Fantasy Baseball Drafts

Mar 16th 2022

Brendan Tuma

A lot has been written and said about juiced baseballs and foreign substances over the past several years. My most recent article focused on the baseball itself, with an eye on how to approach hitters in 2022 fantasy baseball drafts.

The balls remain a central theme when discussing the immediate future of pitchers, but "sticky stuff" now plays a major role as well.

By better understanding the recent past, baseball fans will be in a stronger position to succeed in fantasy leagues, profit from DFS, and win bets, in addition to becoming better critical thinkers to project the future.

Sticky Stuff: A Brief History

The first thing to understand when it comes to MLB's sticky stuff saga is that the rule banning foreign substances wasn't created in 2021. The art of doctoring baseballs with a has been around for quite some time despite it being against the rules. Remember this Michael Pineda incident from 2014? Doctoring the baseball has always been commonplace within baseball. You just couldn't be obvious about it.

What happened in 2021 is the league actually started enforcing the rule. Over the past five years pitchers haven't just been using pine tar or a sunscreen/rosin compound. They've been using Spider Tack, which for those unfamiliar, is a product that was designed for strongmen lifting Atlas Stones.

Things had gotten out of control for a few reasons. First, Spider Tack is incredibly effective and easy to hide. Additionally, we live in an era where the public has access to all kind of advanced stats, including spin rates. Most critically, the elite high-end pitchers were becoming overpowered.

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Fantasy baseball analysts have had dealt with an ever-changing landscape the past several seasons. Think about all the new developments since 2015, which featured both the debut of Statcast and the Juiced Ball Era. 2017 featured a spike in league-wide home run rate before falling and setting a new high in 2019.

We then dealt with a pandemic-shortened season, the loss of a minor league season, a deadened ball, and the removal of foreign substances for pitchers. The constant changes are why I feel the macro-level state of baseball is critical to explore entering 2022. On top of all of it, a lot of these developments have overlapped with one another.

I say all this because we're about to discuss 2019, which I recently wrote about being an outlier season for home runs within the Juiced Ball Era. The year also featured the relative height of sticky stuff usage. The more research that is done on '19, the more untamed of a fantasy campaign it feels like.

The Data

After the wild 2019 season there was a strong case to be made that high-end starting pitchers had become the most scarce commodity in fantasy baseball.

That year Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole finished as the top two players in traditional rotisserie scoring. Elite hurlers were providing an enormous edge.

They were so dominant relative to their peers that according to Razzball's Player Rater they combined for two of the top nine fantasy SP seasons since 2000.

To further illustrate the disparity between the top starting pitchers and the bottom end of the usable group of fantasy hurlers, I took the top the top 60 starters by xFIP (min. 120 IP) and calculated the standard deviation.

The higher the standard deviation, the bigger the gap between the haves and the have nots.

I omitted 2020 for obvious reasons and used the four most recent full seasons. What I find most interesting, aside from the huge gap between '19 and '21, is that the two years with the "juiciest" baseballs featured the two largest standard deviations.

This means that in these seasons, the high-end starters were more valuable and there were fewer low-end arms that provided value.

I also calculated the standard deviations for the top 30 starters for each season. We don't see much of a difference over the year in this grouping. Instead, the most eye-catching difference comes when looking at SPs 11-40.

Look at 2021!! What this tells me is that over the past four full seasons, the middle tier of starting pitchers (minimum 120 IP, sorted by xFIP) has never been more concentrated than it was in 2021.

Before jumping to conclusions, let's talk ponder the validity of this data.

Possible Errors

The above method of analyzing data is very general. The findings aren't meant to be foolproof.

For starters, one could quibble with my decision to choose xFIP as the stat to analyze. xFIP, of course, isn't a stat we use in fantasy baseball. It's one we use to help predict the future, though. Most analysts would agree that it's a strong indicator of performance based on what pitchers can actually control (strikeouts, walks, and homers).

It isn't perfect. For example, Aaron Nola had a 3.37 xFIP and a 4.63 ERA in 2021. Since we're specifically focusing on fantasy production, Nola is being rewarded by this metric despite letting down fantasy managers.

There isn't a great alternative, though. ERA is even noisier and WAR is a cumulative stat. I'm okay with some error such as the Nola example because we're thinking big picture here. By trying to get a sense of how pitchers performed in real life, we can tie that to what the expected fantasy results would be.

Secondly, we'll discuss the 120 innings threshold. This excludes starting pitchers who make a sizable fantasy impact in a shorter amount of time. We needed to cut the threshold somewhere, though. 120 innings was a bit of an arbitrary decision by me, but I wanted to capture SPs who were mostly available for the duration of a season.


Thinking this through, why did this happen? What was different about 2021 as opposed to the years prior?

De-juiced baseballs and the sticky stuff ban.

When the "rabbit balls" were in play, particularly in 2017 and 2019, it simply didn't take as hard of contact to get the ball over the fence. Earlier this offseason CBS Sports' Scott White showed the relationship between exit velocity and home run output. In 2021 exit velocity mattered more for hitters, which means it mattered more for pitchers as well.

Think of what the juiced ball did to "pitch to contact" types. It made their lives miserable. What was once a fly ball out in a different era could unexpectedly turn into a home run.

This shrunk the number of reliable pitchers in fantasy baseball. Those that could miss bats at exceptional rates - Cole, Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Shane Bieber, etc. - could find a way to make it work. Most everyone else was struggling.

The de-juiced baseball created a stronger middle class of starting pitchers. SPs 11-40 from 2021 were more similar to each other than SPs 11-40 from 2017-2019.

Furthermore, the banning of Spider Tack prevented the aces from continuing to post pseudo-legendary campaigns.

The middle tier of usable starters grew while the true aces were no longer providing as big of an edge.

Final Thoughts

The big question is whether or not what happened in 2021 can be used to predict league-wide performance in 2022?

We already know that things haven't been consistent throughout the Juiced Ball Era. We'll already have another new variable to deal with in 2022 thanks to the delayed start to the season.

Still, the only reason that the league has interfered with the balls and sticky stuff is to create a more neutral environment. There will be other factors at play as teams design new strategies, but it's a relatively safe assumption to expect de-juiced baseballs and the banning of Spider Tack to remain in place.

Under this assumption, fantasy managers might be able to carve out an edge in 2022. There's a possible future where the next few seasons feature a small standard deviation among the middle class of starting pitchers like we saw last summer. If that happens, it'll become the norm to load up on said middle tier.

In a future piece I'll go over some of my favorite mid-tier targets for the upcoming season.