The All-Star Break presents fantasy owners with an opportunity to catch their breath after a crazy first few months of baseball; the truly savvy owners, on the other hand, will use the break as a chance to evaluate their lineups, assess areas where they can make up ground and identify potential pickups to prime their squads for dominance in the second half.
Today, we’ll take a look at some pitchers on either end of the predictive ERA (PE) spectrum-- guys who present buy-low or sell-high opportunities because of a variance between their actual results and the performance that we would typically expect from a pitcher with their peripheral stats. Using advanced sabermetrics, we're able to isolate those pitchers who are outperforming their fantasy results. For those not familiar with predictive ERA metrics,what you need to know is that a variety of formulas have been developed over the past decade to estimate what a pitcher’s ERA “should be” based on a variety of factors, including batted ball profile, strikeout rate, walk rate, etc. The idea is that by stripping out the influence of luck and minimizing the impact of variables beyond a pitcher's control, you get a better idea of just how well a pitcher is actually pitching. A pitcher with a 5.50 ERA might have identical peripheral statistics to one with a 3.50 ERA, and the predictive ERA metrics allow us to identify those guys and target them as potential additions to our squads.
Today's exercise is simple: average the PEs (FIP, xFIP and SIERA) and compare this amount to actual ERA values. Focus on the guys at the extremes of the spectrum and you've got a solid starting group. From there you can look examine each player specifically and look at velocity, plate discipline, command and other current- and prior-year peripherals to see if there are red flags. To give you some additional context, the average starting pitcher ERA from 2010-2012 was 4.02, while the average PE over that same time span was 3.98. Of the pitchers in our exercise, the average ERA was 3.88 with an average PE of 3.83. This agreement between the averages lends credence to the PE formulas, as it shows that in the aggregate they tightly correlate to observed results. At the individual pitcher level, then, our job is to assess who’s given up more than his fair share of runs, and why.
Now historically, we do find that an elite pitcher will consistently post an ERA better than his PE. Theories vary on why this should be the case-- some pitchers are just stronger out of the stretch or otherwise can dial it up a notch when they need to-- but it shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise that guys like Kershaw, Cain Verlander, Weaver, Zimmermann, Price, Cueto and Gio Gonzalez all sit in the top 25 since 2010 in the extent to which each has outperformed his PE. That said, it is the lesser-known pitchers that you unearth here that will represent the best buying opportunities, as they are either available for free on the waiver wire or underappreciated by their owners. That is where the true value lies.
First, let's take a look at the overperforming contingent:
|Jorge de la Rosa||3.21||3.93||(0.72)|
- Jeff Locke - The player with the largest +/- delta by a wide margin, there are red flags galore with this southpaw. First, he doesn't strike out a lot of guys, as evidenced by his fairly low 6.03 K/9 and 16.7 K%. Together with a 3.88 BB/9, that equates to a 1.57 K/BB which is almost 50% lower than the league average for starters. Throw in an unsustainably low 6.7% HR/FB and .228 BABIP, and a very high 83.3% strand rate, and Locke appears to be among the strongest sell-high candidates in the game. His Yahoo! ‘O-rank’ of 351 won’t make him any easier to move, but I would be citing his actual rank of 59 and 81% ownership to try to help legitimize what he’s done so far this season to your leaguemates. His ability to generate swings and misses (11.4% SwStrk) and get batters to chase 32.7% O-swing) indicate a slight uptick in strikeouts could be coming, too, but I would gladly trade him for many lesser-owned and lower-ranked pitchers like most of the guys in the chart below.
- Patrick Corbin – The next name on this list that pops out is Arizona’s Patrick Corbin, who has put together a very impressive 2013 campaign. Unlike Locke, Corbin has for the most part been just above league averages with his batted ball profile and strikeout numbers, which would seem to support his slightly-better-than-league-average PE. Similarly to Locke though, Corbin also appears to be the beneficiary of some good luck with fly balls leaving the park (7.8% HR/FB), stranding runners (81.9% LoB) and BABIP (.246). His 11 wins (and we all know you shouldn't chase wins) are helping buoy him to a Yahoo! season rank of 12, but with an ownership level of 92%, it looks like the general public is buying into heavily into Corbin. This confluence generates a great sell-high opportunity to package him in a two-for-one or two-for-two type of deal that would allow you to upgrade multiple pieces. It might seem suspicious to try to trade Corbin straight-up for another pitcher, and rarely do I like to be on the receiving end of the two players in a two-for-one trade, but Corbin represents a unique opportunity to cash out while landing a solid replacement pitcher plus another valuable piece. I would happily move him for similarly-owned starters including Lance Lynn, Anibal Sanchez or Jeff Samardzija.
- Jose Fernandez has been a pleasant surprise in Miami this year, but in all redraft leagues, I'm selling the young Marlin whereever I can. I won't argue that he hasn’t been fantastic and is above average in many of the metrics that I find normally contribute to a successful pitcher. That said, he doesn't have the track record to suggest he'll be able to continue outpitching his ERA, and more importantly, he will almost certainly face an innings limit soon with Miami having nothing to play for. Now might be the best time to try to mover Fernandez for something of value.
Now we'll examine the the underperformers, the guys our exercise suggests that we target:
Because this group contains plenty of guys who appear to be having awful seasons, many can be picked up as free agents or acquired for pennies on the dollar, but there are also some studs which appear to have room to improve. Looking at the stats, here are a couple of names that jump out.
- Corey Kluber – A pleasant surprise in Cleveland, Kluber has been valuable for fantasy owners this year, too, and he should continue to improve on his first-half numbers. We're always fans of pitchers who can generate groundballs and strikeouts; the elite targets there are >50% GB% and K/9 > 9.0. Kluber comes up a little short on both, and it wouldn't hurt him to generate a few more swings and misses (7.6% SwStrk), but any regression towards the mean on his .323 BABIP or 14.7% HR/FB rate should keep him very ownable over the second half. With a 19% ownership level, he's a great pickup and someone I would be comfortable owning or even as a replacement for one of the overperformers listed above.
- Homer Bailey – I was quite surprised to find Homer Bailey on this list and to see he's just the 174th ranked player on Yahoo! for the season. Like Kluber, he falls just short of the preferred GB% and K/9 rates, but everything else about him indicates what he's doing this year is not a fluke. What's most interesting is Kluber and Bailey's per IP statistics are nearly identical - the only main differences are Bailey has more IP (thus more Ks) while Kluber has more wins...oh and Bailey is 84% owned. Bailey is someone I'm all for buying high but would first check to see if Kluber is sitting on your waiver wire.
- Yovani Gallardo - When I addressed Gallardo earlier in the year, I was worried about his diminished velocity and other negatively-trending peripherals. And though he appears on the underperforming list, he's one I would continue to steer clear of.
- Tim Lincecum made waves entering the ASB with his 14 K no-hitter. He's actually been a lot better of late, and appears to be reinventing himself in response to the diminishing difference between the velocity on his fastball and that of his changeup. While that's promising, I'm worried about the 148 pitches it took him to complete the no-no. The ASB will be a nice chance to refresh, and there's no overwhelming empirical evidence to suggest an overly demanding outing truly impacts rest of season performance, but I'm leery and I wouldn't just assume he's a perfect buy-low guy.
- Cole Hamels - Run support plagued Cliff Lee in 2012, and it appears Hamels is suffering from a similar affliction in 2013, having just four wins on the season. Between that and some bad luck, his 307 Yahoo! Rank is quite deceptive. He's 94% owned, but it's worth kicking the tires on him to determine whether his owner is tired of the lack of wins and willing to move him for a discount. There's little doubt that you should buy if the opportunity presents itself.
- Dan Haren - 2013 has been a forgettable season for Haren. While he has the fourth "best" PE delta, there are too many red flags to get overly excited, particularly his 0.8 GB/FB ratio. He's still a speculative pickup for the second half, as not everything jumps off the page as necessarily bad, but I'm not putting him in my lineup until there is some demonstrable evidence of a turnaround. If anything, his 46% ownership level seems a little high for my taste.
- It seems incredible, but it's worth noting that though they're already dominating the AL Central, each of Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister actually has some room to improve in the second half, which could make the American League Cy Young voting very interesting, indeed.
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