Every year as part of my draft prep I like to take a look at starting pitchers and determine those that may have benefit from good luck. The idea is to bring to your attention to pitchers going early in drafts and warning you to pump the brakes and proceed with caution – they may be overvalued. To do this I utilize the following metrics:
ERA-xFIP (Earned Run Average minus Expected Fielding Independent Pitching)
Although not perfect, I use xFIP as the pitcher’s “true” ERA, or his ERA based on the things he can control (strikeouts and walks) and removes the things he has little to no control over (defense and BABIP). Subtracting xFIP from the pitcher’s ERA gives me an idea of whether he is lucky or unlucky. If the pitcher’s ERA is lower than his xFIP it tells me that the pitcher may be lucky and actually pitched worse than his ERA indicates.
BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play)
BABIP measures how many balls in play against a pitcher go for hits, excluding home runs. A pitcher with a low BABIP is seeing less balls fall for hits thus lowering his ERA and WHIP. Research has shown that a pitcher’s BABIP is more likely to perform close to league-average (around .300 typically). So, my thought is that, when a pitcher has a BABIP a good bit lower than league average I’m chalking it up to luck and expecting his BABIP to return to “normal” this upcoming season. Therefore, I am expecting more hits which leads to his ERA and WHIP rising.
LOB% (Left On Base Percentage)
A LOB% higher than the league average (72.8% in 2018) indicates that he is allowing less runners to score thus decreasing his ERA. Like BABIP, my thinking is that this should even out in the upcoming season. More base runners scoring leads to an increase in ERA.
GB% (Ground Ball Percentage)
Ground balls are a pitcher’s best friend. That is because, although statistically they tend to go for hits more often than fly balls, they don’t result in extra base hits as often. In addition, the higher a pitcher’s ground ball rate, the easier it is for their defense to turn those ground balls into outs. I like to compare the pitcher’s GB% rate to the league average and his career average to get an idea if luck played a role.
HR/FB (Home Run to Fly Ball Rate)
Pitchers generally do not have control over their HR/FB from year to year (but their home ballpark can have an effect). A low HR/FB indicates that the pitcher is serving up less homeruns than normal and thus their ERA is probably low. Like BABIP and LOB%, my thinking is that a pitcher’s HR/FB rate should be closer to league average and therefore they could be serving up more homeruns. Which we all know is not good.
Here are the MLB totals for these metrics over the last five season. These results are from starting pitchers only (no relievers).
Here are a few things that pique my interest from this data:
- Total innings pitched by starters is going down each season. The golden age of relievers is upon us.
- LOB% and GB% are pretty consistent from year to year. We could have said the same about BABIP until last year.
- HR/FB has been slightly higher in the past three years than 2014 and 2015. You conspiracy theorists should enjoy that.
- ERA is always slightly higher than xFIP. In a perfect world they would be the same, I think. But, our world is far from perfect.
If you are still with me, for this exercise I went to FanGraphs and exported 2018 stats for starting pitchers with more than 100 IP. This returned data for 128 pitchers.
Then I tabulated if each pitcher was lucky for each metric. To determine what lucky looks like, I came up with these guidelines based on a weighted average over the last 5 years:
- ERA-xFIP lower than -0.5
- BABIP lower than 0.285
- LOB% higher than 73.4%
- GB% higher than 44.8%
- HR/FB lower than 12.1%
This analysis resulted in the following potentially overvalued starting pitchers for the 2019 fantasy baseball season, given their high luck score and high ADP. Stats are from FanGraphs. ADP info is from FantasyPros as of February 13, 2019.
Jacob deGrom ADP SP #2 · Overall #14
DeGrom had the 4th lowest HR/FB rate, 9th highest LOB% and the 15th lowest ERA-xFIP of the 128 starters analyzed. In fact, he ended up being the 4th luckiest pitcher in my analysis. That is a big red flag for someone being drafted at the end of Round 1 or early Round 2.
If I’m drafting a starting pitcher that high I want to be confident that he’s going to put up an ERA below 3 and I’m just not sure that’s going to happen with deGrom. It is because of those reasons that, like Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank… I’m out. Let someone else pay the high price for deGrom.
Aaron Nola ADP SP #6 · Overall #25
When doing this exercise, Nola came out as the 2nd “luckiest” starting pitcher last season (1st was Walker Buehler, more on him later). The Philly hurler registered the 7th highest LOB%, 9th lowest BABIP and 10th highest GB% of the 128 pitchers in the analysis.
Looking above at his past few seasons and the writing is on the wall that he will more than likely revert back to his pre-2018 self. Don’t get me wrong, if he does in 2019 what he did in 2017 I’ll take it. I just don’t want to use a late 2nd/early 3rd round pick on him.
Blake Snell ADP SP #5 · Overall #24
Last year’s AL Cy Young winner is currently being drafted right around the same time as Nola in drafts. Don’t do it. While Nola was the 2nd luckiest pitcher, Snell ended up being the 3rd luckiest right behind him. Snell had the highest LOB% and the 4th lowest BABIP of all 128 pitchers. He also had the 6th lowest ERA-xFIP*.
This is a perfect example of paying for last year’s stats. You’re not going to get them. Chances are you will get stats closer to 2017 than 2018. Again, let someone else pay the high price.
Need more convincing? Let’s also take a moment to talk about the past 10 AL Cy Young award winners and how they performed the following season. On the average each winner declined the following season to the tune of 6.2 less wins, 26.0 less strikeouts, a 1.04 increase in ERA and 0.15 increase in WHIP.
* The other five are, in order of lowest ERA-xFIP, Dereck Rodriguez, Jaime Barria, Trevor Williams, Kyle Freeland and Reynaldo Lopez. I selected Snell because he has the highest ADP of the six. Safe to say you should avoid these other five just the same.
Walker Buehler ADP SP #12 · Overall #38
Note: 2017 stats are as a reliever and 2018 stats are those where he started the game.
Walker “Ferris” Buehler ended up #1 in my analysis and that isn’t a good thing. He ranked in the Top 26 luckiest in all five metrics (including Top 12 in BABIP, LOB% and GB%)! Faster than you can say, “small sample size,” he’s suddenly going somewhere around the late 3rd or early 4th round in most drafts and there is a solid chance that teams are drafting him as their first starting pitcher.
Really, that’s what we’re doing now? Handing over the keys to your Ace slot to someone with less than 150 major league innings. I don’t care how much of a righteous dude, Buehler is. I don’t want to pay that price for an unproven commodity.
Listen, Buehler very well may be a 1961 Ferrari 250GT. I don’t want to pay that price for an unproven commodity. Remember what happens to the 1961 Ferrari 250GT at the end of the movie? That could be your fantasy team.
Bount bount… chickachicka… chickachicka…