Baseball, by nature, is a sport of luck. In any game, you can see a fielder simply be just out of position on a double play ball, a pitcher can throw a curveball out of the zone that gets hit into the gap, hard hit balls will still find gloves anywhere on the field. Of course, if you’ve read any of my articles, you know I love digging into luck and how to find guys who are regressing or ready for a burst of success, and in this article we will deal with the latter portion.
Pitching is a tricky subject, as ERA is essential in almost every fantasy league, yet is generally a terrible predictor of future performance. Take the subjects here, Marco Estrada and Trevor Bauer, and how they both are sporting an ERA north of 5.00.
- For Estrada, a borderline journeyman who just turned 34 in July, his 4.02 career ERA would suggest this season is simply part of him beginning to wind down.
- As for Bauer, the third overall pick in the 2011 draft, he has been a pitcher high on tools but short on craftsmanship, never posting a season’s ERA below 4.00.
Yet when we look into these guys, they have been pitching at a higher level than the surface stats indicate, and appear ready for a late season surge.
Estrada has always been an average to a little better than average strikeout thrower, and his 23.9% rate this season is his best full season rate yet. While his walk rate has climbed to 9.6%, seemingly in an effort to get more hitters chasing, the whiff increase is well worth it. And the Ks aren’t inflated by sample; his swinging strike rate is also a career high at 11.7%. He is getting the strikeouts and his FIP is 4.38, a much better number than his ERA. FIP is much more predictive of future performance, as it focuses more on what a pitcher can control (namely strikeouts and walks). But where FIP fails is showing that Estrada’s defense and sampling has just let him down.
To look into this, Left on Base percentage (or LOB%), paints a better picture. Essentially, a pitcher has some control over this rate, but it’s a heavy regressive stat. Guys will tend towards the league average of 72.5% (this season’s average), and right now Estrada is low at 71.0%. Of his 564 base-runners, only 400 have been stranded. If we extrapolate to league average, it’s 409. His ERA would then go down to 4.52. If we use his career rate of 73.2%, which shows his true talent, his ERA would drop farther to 4.23, which is much more respectable.
Estrada is also in one of his worst lucky years on batted balls – a BABIP of .313 when for his career he averages just .263, meaning beyond his control there are a lot more runners reaching base. If we take this into account his ERA drops into the mid 3.00s. And this is all just normalizing his numbers, not even taking into account that it’s possible he gets lucky and could turn around even more, even borderline elite. He has just been extremely unlucky with how balls have been put into play, and expected regression turns him back into a very good pitcher with a very good strikeout rate.
Estrada is a buy-low guy, with huge upside. He may even be available on waivers as he is only owned in 53% of Yahoo leagues.
Trevor Bauer is a little different. As someone with huge talent he just can’t quite put it together for long enough stretches. This year he is showing signs, however, with a strikeout rate of 25.3% (a career best) and the 18th best mark in the majors (which is even better considering he is in the American League and doesn’t get to face weak hitting pitchers every ninth appearance).
Bauer’s FIP is 3.91, but his xFIP is even better at 3.72. This suggests his home runs have been out of whack, and the numbers back it up. His HR/FB rate, something that regresses pretty much always to 10.0%, is at 15.2%. While some guys will have higher numbers, whether it’s because of environment or style, his career rate is 11.5%, and Cleveland is a home run neutral ballpark. Simply, he has allowed way more homers than we should expect, and that number is going to come down.
Bauer has had the tools his entire career. Granted this explains his high draft choice and prospect pedigree, and the crafty righty is unorthodox enough to scare some people away. But we don’t have to rely on crazy regression or improvements for him to be valuable. He has shown this season he is a darn good pitcher who just hasn’t gotten many bounces (quite literally).
Whether it be waiver wire or through trade, Bauer and Estrada have shown the ability to pitch well this year and have primed themselves for breakouts heading forward. Their high ERA might scare some and seem risky, but we shouldn’t be afraid to pick them up, even as a wait and see option. They have talent and are showing it, so take the initiative and grab them now for cheap while they are still available.
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