By the Numbers: The tide will turn for these starters
If we could write the history of the 2011 season after five-plus weeks, there would be several unexpected storylines, especially concerning pitchers. Josh Tomlin on a 20-win pace and leading the majors in WHIP ... Ted Lilly near the bottom of the WHIP rankings ... Alexi Ogando leading the way in the Rangers' rotation ... who saw any of this coming?
Every year, the pitching leaderboards have their share of wacky rankings early on, and this year is no exception. Still, some of the stats that look out of place now might seem perfectly normal come September. The question for Fantasy owners is: Which of the surprising early season stats can I trust?
One way to determine whether pitchers have trustworthy stats is to look at their BABIP rates. Any rate over .330 or under .250 should raise suspicion. However, a few of the pitchers with high BABIPs are truly busts, while some with tiny rates may be able to sustain their success. A method for seeing which of the extreme BABIPs might be sustainable is to look at a pitcher's line drive and popup rates. Since line drives become hits more than 70 percent of the time and popups are practically sure outs, these rates are good indicators of whether a pitcher's BABIP is due to change. For example, Travis Wood .381 BABIP makes it appear as if his high ERA and WHIP are flukes, but a 25 percent line drive rate tells us that there is a legitimate reason why he is giving up so many base hits on balls in play. Until he starts allowing fewer liners, we shouldn't look for Wood to improve.
Pitchers who appear in or near both of the "likely lucky" and "likely unlucky" boxes in the graph below are the most probable candidates to see their ERAs and WHIPs regress. For example, Josh Johnson relatively unfavorable line drive and popup rates place him in both "likely lucky" boxes. Of course, it's not particularly interesting or relevant to note that Johnson's ERA is likely to slide above 2.00, but most of the other pitchers included in these zones are probably due for a change that will have a real Fantasy impact.
We'll focus in on a few of the more notable good and bad luck cases below. In addition, we will shed some light on a few pitchers who look like flukes right now, but could actually continue on their current paths.
Stats are for all games played through Monday, May 9.
Who has probably been lucky?
James Shields , Tampa Bay: So far, Shields has avoided the long balls that ruined his 2010 season, but should he really be putting up Cy Young-worthy numbers? His very average line drive and popup rates don't bode well for him sustaining a BABIP much under .280, so his current rate of .239 shouldn't last for long. While this supercharged version of Shields is just a mirage, there's nothing wrong with the version owners had a few years back, and he can be that good again.
Jhoulys Chacin , Colorado: To look at Chacin's 2.68 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, it appears that the 23-year-old has progressed since his rookie season. He is striking out two fewer batters per nine innings, so that's not really the case. While a low BABIP has papered over his diminished K rate, Chacin may not be due for all that much of a correction. All four mainstays of the Rockies' rotation -- Chacin, Ubaldo Jimenez , Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel -- have held opposing batters to extremely low batting averages on ground balls. Troy Tulowitzki is a Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Award winner, and Jonathan Herrera is a pretty slick fielder as well. They may be giving Chacin enough of an assist that he can keep his ERA from soaring above the low-3.00s.
Kyle Lohse , St. Louis: Lohse has been an improved pitcher this season, but as he has allowed more contact over his last three starts, a low BABIP has prevented him from paying the cost. His worst start so far has been against the Marlins, but that's been the toughest lineup he has faced to date. Between the impending rise in opponents' batting average against him and a slate of tougher opponents ahead, Lohse's moment of being a Fantasy darling is likely to end soon.
Josh Tomlin , Cleveland: Tomlin is good enough that he should have been rostered in far more than three percent of our leagues to start the season. However, his popularity has since mushroomed to an 82 percent ownership rate. Much of his newfound respect and admiration stems from a .158 BABIP that is extremely low for any pitcher, and wholly undeserved for someone with subpar line drive and popup rates. Pretty soon, there is going to be a lot of unhappy Tomlin owners.
Who has probably been unlucky?
Ted Lilly , L.A. Dodgers: The lefty is doing his usual fine job of throwing strikes, popping batters up and limiting line drives, yet his WHIP is an unsightly 1.46. After allowing five runs in a pair of recent starts against the Cubs, it may be hard for owners to trust Lilly, but they can expect him to produce better results in his future starts.
Brandon McCarthy , Oakland: I wouldn't be surprised if a few readers do a double-take right now to make sure they are really in the "likely unlucky" section. We're not used to seeing McCarthy with a 3.26 ERA and 1.25 WHIP, so he must be lucky, right? (Actually, we're not used to seeing McCarthy off the DL for this long, but that's another story.) With the way he is commanding his two-seamer, curveball and new cutter, McCarthy isn't issuing many free passes, and he's not allowing much hard contact either. With a .338 BABIP that should only get lower, McCarthy is not a sell-high candidate. In fact, he's someone you might want to try to pick up in just about any format.
Chris Capuano , N.Y. Mets: In deeper leagues, there is a world of difference between a pitcher with an ERA approaching 5.00 as opposed to one closer to 4.00. xFIP estimates that Capuano's ERA should be exactly 4.00, yet it currently stands at 4.93. As a pitcher who consistently gets batters to pop up infield flies at an above-average rate, there is little reason to think that Capuano's BABIP, ERA and WHIP won't all tumble over his next several starts.
Jo-Jo Reyes , Toronto: Reyes belongs on the list of starting pitchers, along with Charlie Morton , Aaron Harang and Jason Marquis , who gave owners every reason to think they would be terrible and yet have been surprisingly effective. For a change, Reyes has not succumbed to wildness or gopheritis, but he is still saddled with a high ERA and WHIP. With his stats to date, he is barely useable in AL-only leagues, but owners in those formats should stick by him.
Who has been neither lucky nor unlucky (based on current batted ball rates)?
Alexi Ogando , Texas: In this week's Pitching Planner, I wrote that Ogando's sub-.200 BABIP was "not made to last," but at least so far, it does reflect his achievements on the mound. Ogando leads all major league starters, including pop-up artist Jered Weaver , in infield fly rate, and it's not a close contest. It is still questionable whether the converted reliever can continue to induce popups on more than one out of every five hit balls, but it's certainly a trend worth tracking.
Tom Gorzelanny , Washington: His strikeouts are down and his homers are up, yet Gorzelanny has managed to be one of this spring's unexpected producers. The Nats' fifth starter has an improved walk rate and an even more improved BABIP to thank. It's not clear for how long either trend will continue, but after his first six starts, Gorzelanny has the favorable line drive and popup rates to back up his .168 BABIP.
Edwin Jackson , Chicago White Sox: Among major league starters, only Javier Vazquez has a higher line drive rate than Jackson. Given how ineffective Vazquez has been, that's not exactly company Jackson is eager to keep. However, until he improves both his line drive and popup rates, the inconsistent hurler will be vulnerable to meltdowns like the ones he recently had against the Tigers and Yankees. Fortunately, Jackson's track record suggests that he should be able to reverse these trends.
Doug Fister , Seattle: The one area that Fantasy owners could have rightfully expected Fister to help was with WHIP, but with a 1.46 mark, he's been a disappointment. Fister is still stingy with walks, but he has been getting hit around on balls in play due in part to a low infield fly rate. The good news is that Fister is actually helping with ERA, and with a 13 percent ownership rate, he is still underappreciated. Still, until his WHIP shrinks, he won't have much to contribute for owners in most mixed leagues.
xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching.
It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were
based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts,
walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was
developed by Tom Tango.
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-fly out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
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