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Later-Round Category Targets - ERA

sixto sanchez fantasy baseball rankings MLB prospects

Starting pitching is a finicky thing in the fantasy world. There is certain to be lots of impactful injuries, breakouts, and busts this year within the starting pitching position.

After the first handful of rounds of the draft, it gets pretty tough to find guys you can feel confident about helping your team in the ERA category. But if you can find a few guys late in the draft that post great ERA's this year, you're well on your way to success.

Here we will explore the ERA category a bit and then nominate a few pitchers that may prove to be great targets in the middle or later rounds to help your team in that category. You can also read other articles in this series for my breakdowns of other later-round category targets.

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Where Does ERA Come From?

I went through pitchers that have thrown 100+ innings pitched in a season from 2014-2019 and examined correlations with different statistical categories and ERA. The goal here is to find certain "skills" that most correlate to ERA, and then use that information to identify which later-round pitchers have these skills. There were really two categories that stuck out. Here they are.

 

K-BB%

Earned runs come from baserunners. Baserunners come from hits and walks. Hits come from putting the ball in play. Ipso facto, pitchers that avoid walking hitters and allowing balls to be put in play will post better ERAs. This is incredibly intuitive and probably doesn't even need proven, but here's a plot anyways.

What you see here is the relationship between K-BB% and ERA. You can see that as your K-BB% gets lower, your ERA gets higher.

K-BB% is just what it says, a pitcher's strikeout rate minus their walk rate. The gold standard is Gerrit Cole's 2019 season where he posted a 39.9% strikeout rate with a 5.9% walk rate. Doing the subtraction gives you a 34% K-BB%. He is represented by the highest dot on the plot above, and you can see that his ERA on the x-axis shows up at 2.50.

On the other side of things, the worst we have seen is actually Tyler Chatwood's 2019 season when he posted a 17.5% strikeout rate with a 19.5% walk rate, resulting in a negative K-BB% of -2.1%. I actually left that dot off the plot cause negative values on the y-axis make it look really dumb, but you can see how this works now.

When we look at the leaders in this category over the last two years, it's just a bunch of studs that you have to pay a high draft cost for. Here are the top ten using 2019 and 2020 data together.

Pitcher K% BB% K-BB%
Gerrit Cole 38% 6% 32%
Justin Verlander 35% 5% 30%
Chris Sale 36% 6% 30%
Max Scherzer 34% 6% 28%
Jacob deGrom 34% 6% 28%
Shane Bieber 33% 5% 28%
Dinelson Lamet 34% 9% 25%
Yu Darvish 31% 7% 24%
Lucas Giolito 33% 9% 24%
Mike Clevinger 32% 8% 24%

Not very helpful for our purposes.

Looking at pitchers that show up high on this leaderboard with more affordable ADP's, here are some names:

Pitcher ADP K-BB%
Stephen Strasburg 71 22.7%
Charlie Morton 119 22.4%
Carlos Carrasco 66 21.7%
Kevin Gausman 132 20.8%
Chris Paddack 109 20.7%
Andrew Heaney 203 20.2%
Zack Greinke 108 19.9%
Domingo German 301 19.9%
Jake Odorizzi 282 18.7%
Frankie Montas 151 18.5%
Michael Pineda 227 18.3%
Joe Musgrove 130 17.8%
Tyler Mahle 170 17.7%
Ryan Yarbrough 246 16.2%
Griffin Canning 289 15.9%
Mike Minor 288 15.8%

 

HR/9

Keeping the ball in the yard is also quite helpful to your ERA, which is again - very obvious. Here's the relationship

What's the best way to limit homers? Probably the best way is to limit contact, which we've already discussed. But there are several pitchers who do a great job preventing homers while not striking out a ton of guys. Those pitchers typically do it by getting a ton of ground-balls. I sorted my data by ground-ball rate, limiting the results to pitchers that are being drafted in the top 400. Here's what that looks like:

Pitcher ADP GB%
Framber Valdez 91 61%
Lance McCullers Jr. 117 60%
Sixto Sanchez 133 58%
Dallas Keuchel 195 58%
Luis Castillo 25 57%
Carlos Martinez 394 56%
Max Fried 64 54%
Ian Anderson 96 54%
Marcus Stroman 213 54%
Brady Singer 232 54%
Mike Soroka 171 54%
Hyun-Jin Ryu 74 52%
Sonny Gray 65 52%
Justus Sheffield 275 52%
Dustin May 168 51%
Stephen Strasburg 71 51%
Brad Keller 300 51%
Jameson Taillon 222 51%
Aaron Nola 22 51%
German Marquez 166 50%
Pablo Lopez 121 50%

These are some of the best ground-ball pitchers in the game, which does help their ERA projections. However, you still want some strikeouts to be present to feel good about getting a helpful ERA. In the cases of Keuchel, Stroman, Singer, Sheffield, May, and Keller - you are not going to get strikeouts. Those are strict pitch-to-contact guys who are susceptible to bloated ERA's influenced heavily by bad luck. Letting a ball be put in play opens you up to the hitter reaching base.

The names on this list that can achieve high strikeout rates: Valdez, McCullers, Sanchez, Castillo, Martinez, Anderson, Gray, Strasburg, Nola, Lopez. I think if those names can stay healthy, they have a really good shot at crushing their draft prices.

 

Weak Fly Balls

A weakly hit fly ball is even better than a ground-ball, as those batted ball types go for an out at a very high rate. Here's the slugging percentages hitters achieve on average at each exit velocity:

The goal, then, is to keep the fly-balls you do give up under 95 miles per hour, as that is really where the slugging percentage starts to bottom out.

We can then look into which pitchers have been able to limit the exit velocity on the fly balls they have given up, and this could potentially point out some pitchers that could exceed expectations in ERA. The problem with this is, it's not as predictive a stat as ground-ball rate is. Ground-ball rate is very steady year-to-year, while exit velocity measures have not proven to be.

Here's the average exit velocity on fly balls leaderboard from the last two seasons:

Pitcher ADP FB Velo
Spencer Howard 362 85.1
Lance McCullers Jr. 117 85.2
Sixto Sanchez 113 86.1
Kwang Hyun Kim 262 86.5
Michael Lorenzen 380 87.9
Aaron Civale 183 88.2
Mitch Keller 293 88.4
Hyun-Jin Ryu 74 88.6
Julio Urias 114 88.6
Ian Anderson 96 88.9
Deivi Garcia 306 88.9
Zack Wheeler 90 89.1
Charlie Morton 119 89.2
Ryan Yarbrough 246 89.3
Kyle Hendricks 85 89.5

 

Conclusion

So there are three categories to look for when you're trying to find a late-round pitcher to help you in ERA. To sum it all up and give you some actionable advice, here are my top 13 pitchers for ERA help in the middle or late in the draft this year.

Pitcher ADP
Stephen Strasburg 71
Julio Urias 114
Lance McCullers Jr. 117
Charlie Morton 119
Pablo Lopez 121
Sixto Sanchez 133
Aaron Civale 183
Dallas Keuchel 195
Andrew Heaney 203
Michael Pineda 227
Ryan Yarbrough 246
Mike Minor 288
Griffin Canning 289



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