Conventional wisdom says you should load up on hitting early in your fantasy draft, especially in head-to-head leagues. There are three main reasons for this: hitters play every day of the week; have more stable, predictable stats; and pile up counting stats, which are king.
However, a progressively intensifying shift has taken place over the last 13 seasons. In 2000, there were 5.14 runs and 9.31 hits per game; last season, the average game saw 4.32 runs and 8.65 hits. If you chart those two stats for every season between 2000 and last year, it looks a bit like an EKG, but the line will trend downward. That meant 2012 had the second fewest runs in a season (with only 2011 experiencing less scoring) and the fewest hits since 1989. The league as a whole hit .270/.345/.437 in 2000, while in 2006, the league-wide slash line was .269/.337/.432. Comparatively, last year's slash line was .255/.319/.405, and the year before, it was .255/.321/.399.
As you might expect after looking at those stats, hitters are not the safe fantasy investment they once were. Last season Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Upton, Evan Longoria and Hanley Ramirez were all considered safe top-20 picks; however, not one of them ended the season in the top 20.
Meanwhile, the only high-profile pitchers -- guys typically selected within the first 50 picks of drafts in 2012 -- who really fell short of expectations were Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. All the rest, from Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw at the top to CC Sabathia and Matt Cain at the bottom, met or exceeded their preseason projection.
Make no mistake, the league belongs to pitchers, and that means they deserve a whole lot more of your attention early and often on draft day. In fact, I'd argue that now more than ever, you can build a championship fantasy team by investing heavily in your starting rotation. Below I present to you my road map to picking a championship fantasy team.
After the first round, it doesn't really matter where you're picking if you want to carry out this strategy. If you pick early in the first round, you should still go after someone like Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout before focusing on pitching. Picking toward the end of the round is ideal. That way, you can always plan your picks in tandem, making sure you have at least one starter in your first three pairs of picks. You, too, should take a hitter with your first pick, because the differentiation between the pitchers in the top tier -- Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander -- isn't all that great. If I'm picking in this spot, I'm targeting Joey Votto and Strasburg. I'm going to go ahead and pencil them in, and I'm off to a great start.
Our pick in the third round is coming up, which means about 30 or 31 players are off the board. At this point, there will likely be a group of guys on the board that includes David Price, Cliff Lee, Hanley Ramirez, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler, Starlin Castro, Ryan Zimmerman and Cole Hamels. There's a drop off after Price and Lee, which means I'll be aggressively targeting one of them. Let's say I get lucky and nab Price in the third, and Castro is still available when my fourth round pick comes around -- I'll go ahead and add him to the roster.
So far, I've got the two-headed monster of Strasburg and Price in the rotation, and two All-Stars in Votto and Castro in the lineup. But I'm not quite done yet with pitching.
As the next two picks come around, there will be around 60 players drafted at this point -- Jered Weaver, Ben Zobrist, Jason Kipnis, Aramis Ramirez, Madison Bumgarner, Adam Wainwright, Alex Gordon and Gio Gonzalez are all on our radar. For me, none of these pitchers move the needle more significantly than the others, so I'm going offense with the pick here. Given that I'm going to be behind most of the rest of the league on hitters, I need to prioritize roster flexibility, so the Zorilla -- who's eligible at second base, shortstop and outfield -- is the man to target.
By the time my next pick comes around, Bumgarner is still available. That's about as good a No. 3 starter as you can get, given that he could be a legitimate fantasy ace.
Now the draft is six rounds old, and I easily have the best rotation in the league. In Strasburg, Price and Bumgarner, I have three guys who figure to get 90 starts and 650 strikeouts. All three play on very good teams, so they should all win at least 15 games. I also know that I will get a great ERA and WHIP across 600 combined innings. Simply put, I'll be a favorite in four of the five pitching categories every single week by virtue of having these three. The best news is, the offense won't even suffer that much.
The next two picks occur approximately 85 players in, when players such as Brett Lawrie, Austin Jackson, Alex Rios, Paul Konerko and Pablo Sandoval figure to have their names called. When picking in rounds nine and 10, I'll likely consider players such as Mark Trumbo, Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham and Nelson Cruz. I'll probably leave rounds 11 and 12 with two of Salvador Perez, Pedro Alvarez, Cameron Maybin, Jonathan Lucroy, Victor Martinez and Danny Espinosa. If properly prepared for this stage of the draft, I can easily make it work.
For these six picks as I target only offense, I come away with Lawrie, Rios, Trumbo, Cruz, Lucroy and Espinosa. That means my roster looks like this:
Are there any holes on this team? I suppose it might be a bit light in power, but I can rectify that as I continue through the draft targeting players like Mike Morse and Adam Dunn. With Votto, Castro, Zobrist, Lucroy and Rios, I will hit for average. Castro, Rios and Zobrist give me a trio of base stealers. And no matter what anyone else has done since I started focusing on hitting, I have the best rotation in the league. Given the way pitching has dominated in the majors the last few seasons, that's exactly what I want.
This, of course, is a sanitized version of what might actually happen if you employ this strategy. Depending on what others in your league do, you may not be able to land a starting lineup as strong as the one above. But the point remains that it is possible to build a solid, five-category offense alongside a dominant starting rotation. That's a great, untapped formula for fantasy success in today's MLB.
I know it can be intimidating to try something new and focus on pitching early in a draft. However, quite often in sports, the team that wins the championship is the one that can do what it does best better and more consistently than what any other team does best. In 2013, MLB belongs to pitchers. If you can amass a triumvirate of starters such as the one in this column, your best will be better than any of your fellow owners, and your league will belong to you.