Kenny Rodgers, the Gambler, is a song that should easily resonate with fantasy players. In poker, when you get on a streak you ride it as long as it lasts. In fantasy, when you own a player that gets on a role you do the same thing. But as they always say, all good things must come to an end. That hot streak in poker will eventually go cold, and those hot players will eventually cool off. However, the smart player in both these games can identify the signs in advance and know when it’s time to walk away, and sometimes run.
When it comes to starting pitchers, one of the first indicators we look at to identify if a player has been lucky (or unlucky) is BABIP. It is not the end all, be all of stats, but it does act as an early warning indicator. If it is too high or low then regression (positive or negative) could soon follow. The following pitchers have had a nice ride so far, but in the spirit of Kenny Rodgers, the time is upon us to walk away.
Next week I’ll look at some pitchers with high BABIP numbers to pick up or target in trade.
Lance Lynn: Cardinals
3.90 ERA, .218 BABIP, 5.41 FIP, 4.55 xFIP
We’ve already seen signs of the wheels coming off, and your chance to sell-high is long gone. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. In addition to the BABIP, Lynn has the 10th best strand rate among qualifiers (80.8%). The walk rate (3.60%), fly ball rate (38.8%), hard hit rate (31.5%) and HR/FB ratio (20%) are all at career levels. Also, the line drive rate is three percentage points below his average. His fastball, which normally rated in the double-digits, has lost its effectiveness. The only positive I can find is his second lowest contact rate, thanks in part to a career low swing rate.
A best case scenario for Lynn is numbers in line with his 2012/2013 season. That is still serviceable, but that outcome is also based on everything breaking right. There are too many red flags to be optimistic. If you can’t sell him, start looking on waivers for a replacement.
Ervin Santana: Twins
3.07 ERA, .216 BABIP, 4.71 FIP, 4.86 xFIP
You know it’s been a strange year when you are happy about rostering Santana. He has had a few hiccups, but over he has been solid. However, just like Lynn and the following players, there are troubling signs. Santana has the fifth best strand rate among qualifiers, his highest fly ball rate since 2010 (41.8%) and the second lowest line drive rate (15.1%). His repertoire and pitch usage has not changed, the velocity has not changed, batters are not swinging less, and while the contact is at its highest point in the past four years, it is still average (80.9%).
What saves Santana some is a career high soft contact rate (21.1%) and career low hard contact (26.3%). Keep your eye on the hard and soft contact. Once these two things begin to move toward career levels we’ll see a rise in line drives, and that will cascade into his ERA. Some will point to 2011, 2013, and 2016 as signs he can keep this up. The underlying metrics were much better in these years so the odds of this continuing are slim. It is doubtful Santana will fetch you much in trade – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try – so sit back, enjoy the ride, and be prepared to bail at the first sign of trouble.
Gio Gonzalez: Nationals
2.71 ERA, .255 BABIP, 4.17 FIP, 4.30 xFIP
As a Gio owner it’s hard for me to admit one of the players that has carried my staff is doomed. Like the players above, Gio has a ridiculously high strand rate (85.4%), third best among qualifiers. The walk rate (3.94%) is something we have not seen since 2011 in Oakland. After several years of below average numbers the fly ball rate is back up (36.6%) as is the hard hit rate (33% – five percentage points higher than his career. Despite the extra fly balls and hard contact the HR/FB% is in line with last season. The fastball is still at the 90 MPH level from last year, yet the pitch is registering positive results.
The contact rate has remained unchanged overall. It has increased inside the zone and dropped outside the zone. The swing rate is down as well, specifically outside the zone, so batters are being a little more selective. This also helps explain the league worst F-Strike% and spike in walk rate. The only positive I can find is that the swinging strikeout and strikeout totals remain health. Gio did have a similar BABIP in 2012, but all the numbers mentioned above supported him that year. I don’t think the bottom will fall out, but I am confident that we’ve seen the best of Gonzalez and it’s time to trade him.
Ariel Miranda: Mariners
3.82 ERA, .218 BABIP, 5.13 FIP, 5.31 xFIP
Like Lynn, the ERA is already high which lowers his trade value. But the FIP and xFIP say things could be much worse in the future. Miranda is the fourth player here with a fortunate strand rate (81.3%) ranking two spots ahead of Lynn. The HR/FB (12.8%) seems a little low until you see the 49.3% fly ball rate. The line drive rate (15.7%) is third right behind Ervin Santana and due for a correction. He doesn’t throw hard. Finally there is the lack of strikeouts despite a top-12 ranking in F-Strike% and an above average SwStr%.
Reasons for optimism, or at least hope he can maintain what he is doing is a top-14 ranking in both hard and soft contact. The overall contact and walk rate are league average. Yea, not much to hold out hope for. The home BABIP (.195) and strand rate (85%) show where the majority of the regression will come. Miranda is already on shaky ground for road starts. Once you see him begin to falter at home, bail out. I might even bail out now and avoid the rush if there is someone decent on waivers.
Jason Vargas: Royals – 2.22 ERA, .273 BABIP, 3.47 FIP, 4.72 xFIP
If you are a Vargas owner, James Krueger did a good job breaking him down just a few days ago.
Robbie Ray: Diamondbacks – 3.06 ERA, .267 BABIP, 3.80 FIP, 3.82 xFIP
Ray does walk too many batters (4.32 BB/9), allows too many fly balls (42.1%), and his hard contact makes both those things very dangerous (42.3%). What keeps Ray out of trouble (most nights) is a league low contact rate only bested by Corey Kluber, and a top-5 strikeout percentage in the company of Sale, Scherzer, Kluber and ahead of Kershaw. Those strikeouts could allow you to sell high if you are worried, but as an owner I’m holding.
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