Is Clayton Kershaw still a first-round pick in fantasy baseball?
Ron Shandler
ESPN INSIDER

The talent curve at the beginning of a draft is very steep. In Rotisserie dollars, the variance between the No. 1 pick (Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, whoever) and the pick at the end of round two could be as much as $20. Value flattens considerably the deeper you go. By the seventh round, the difference between the first and last pick is only $1.

This is why it is so important to get those early-round picks correct. We say that you can't win a league in the first round, but you can lose it, and that is generally true. You don't have to look beyond those owners who built their 2017 teams around players like Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera and Jonathan Villar in the first two rounds.

As such, the early rounds of a draft are when you need to build the statistical foundation of your team, and with the least amount of risk. Since the talent curve is so steep at the beginning, you need to accumulate as many counting stats as you can so you don't fall behind. The ratio categories -- batting average, ERA and WHIP -- can be built out over the course of the entire draft and managed during the season. But counting stats have to be accumulated early.

So I am not the type of drafter who typically takes a pitcher in the first round, or pays $30 at auction. When it comes to counting stats, starting pitchers only contribute to wins and strikeouts (while batters contribute to home runs, RBIs, runs and stolen bases), and only strikeouts are really skills-based and projectable.

However, the number of 200-inning pitchers -- and the masses of strikeouts that ride along -- has been in decline. There were 45 of them in 2010, down to 28 in 2015 and only 15 in each of the past two seasons. That scarcity has been pushing the most elite starters to the top of the food chain.

This year, there are four starters ranked among the top 15 players, according to the average draft position (ADP) listing of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). That represents the most first-round pitchers in preseason rankings since the competition began in 2004. The marketplace has historically shied away from drafting pitchers early. However, four pitchers have actually earned first-round value in each of the past three years.

Since we want to accumulate counting stats, one would expect that those four first-round pitchers are all 200-inning studs. Well, three of them are.

Draft Max Scherzer, Chris Sale or Corey Kluber and you will pretty much be guaranteed somewhere in the vicinity of 17 wins and 260-280 strikeouts, with an ERA of 3.00 and WHIP of 1.00. This trio is currently ranked 11th, 12th and 13th, respectively. But ranked several spots earlier, at No. 6, is Clayton Kershaw. Again.

There is no questioning that Kershaw has probably already earned his Hall of Fame blazer. But it's been three years since he's been on the mound for a 200th inning and he's actually fallen short in three of the past four years. Industry projections currently posit around 180 innings, or more, which would be a three-year high. That would come along with about 16 wins and 210-220 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a WHIP around 0.90.

Those ratios are certainly nice but I can build a roster with some bullpen arms that might do just as well (albeit sacrificing elsewhere, admittedly). Those strikeouts, however, are at least 50 behind the three arms later in that round.

Thankfully, we don't actually acquire players in our drafts -- we acquire roster spots. We get the stats of each player we draft plus the stats of any player who occupies that spot when the incumbent is on the disabled list or unavailable for whatever reason. So, while we may draft Kershaw, we are also drafting whoever will replace him in the event he spends time on the DL again.

Needless to say, this can be a double-edged sword. Kershaw's replacement will undoubtedly help close his shortfall in strikeouts. But that replacement will also dilute the impact that Kershaw's 2.50 ERA and 0.90 WHIP will have.

The question is, does that impact net out a roster spot that is still deserving of a first-round pick? We can use some math to find the answer.

Let's start with Kershaw's baseline: 180 innings, 215 strikeouts and let's say a 2.25 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. To that, we'll add 50 innings of replacement level stats.

Our replacement pitcher will depend upon the type of league we are in. The shallower the league, the better the replacement. Let's look at a few options.

In a 10-team mixed league with seven-man pitching staffs, a replacement level pitcher would be someone like Dinelson Lamet. Fifty innings of a 4.32 ERA and 1.30 WHIP would raise the roster spot's overall levels to 2.70 and 0.99. He would also add 54 strikeouts, which would make up Kershaw's deficit. In this league, Kershaw is still a clear first-rounder.

In a 15-team, NFBC-style mixed league, your replacement pitcher would look like Jason Hammel. If we add his 4.68 ERA and 1.30 WHIP to Kershaw, he still nets out with an acceptable 2.78 ERA and 0.99 WHIP. Hammel's 42 strikeouts almost closes that deficit. Still a first-rounder.

In a 12-team National League-only league, the replacement pitcher might be an Adam Conley-type arm. Add in a 5.00 ERA and 1.50 WHIP... and Kershaw still nets out with a solid 2.86 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. But Conley's 37 strikeouts are short and Kershaw's ADP should probably be a few slots later in the round.

Keep in mind, too, that our replacement does not necessarily have to be a starting pitcher. In this NL-only scenario, we could backfill some of Kershaw's innings with a replacement level reliever. Given that bullpen arms that don't contribute to saves fall down the rankings, Kershaw's owner could have access to someone like Brian Duensing. His contribution during Kershaw's absence would probably only be about 15 innings, but his 3.60 ERA and 1.47 WHIP would push Kershaw's line to only 2.35 and 0.94. Preservation of those ratios would come at the cost of strikeouts as Duensing would only contribute 13.

But no matter how we twist it, it's tough to nudge Kershaw out of the first round.