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Too Good To Be True - Starting Pitchers Due for Regression

This article aims to highlight starting pitchers who, based off of advanced statistics and predictive analytics, are primed to regress from their early-season fantasy value.  These pitchers currently boast sparkling, yet misleading ERAs with a few of them being aided by distorted Win/Loss records as well.  Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, Junior Guerra, and Jhoulys Chacin all qualify as prime candidates to regress to less-than-serviceable fantasy options moving forward.

For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at some advanced statistics that aren’t the most commonly known in order to identify pitchers who have been playing above their skillset so far in 2018.  FIP, xFIP, and SIERA are predictive stats that aim to evaluate a pitcher by eliminating the external factors that he can’t control.  Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) focuses solely on the events a pitcher has the most control over – strikeouts, unintentional walks, hit-by-pitches, and home runs.  This stat entirely removes results of balls hit into the field of play. A pitcher with a high FIP but low ERA has most likely experienced a string of good luck on balls in play, and thus would qualify for this regression piece assuming he eventually gets league-average results on balls in play. Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) is closely related to FIP, but uses projected home run rate (based off season’s league-average HR/FB rate) instead of actual home runs allowed.  This stat is useful in the same way that FIP is useful for identifying pitchers who have misleading ERA’s.

Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA) also looks to quantify a pitcher’s performance by eliminating factors he can’t control himself, but unlike FIP and xFIP, SIERA considers balls in play and adjusts for the type of ball in play.  For example, if a pitcher has a high xFIP but also induces a high amount of grounders and pop-ups as opposed to line drives, his SIERA will be lower than his xFIP. All three advanced statistics are more useful at assessing a pitcher’s talent and predicting future success than the outdated ERA.

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SPs Ready to Decline

(all statistics valid as of 6/20/18)

Cole Hamels, Texas Rangers (79% owned)

Cole Hamels is a four-time MLB All-Star, being voted to the team as recently as 2016. However, though he went 11-6 in 2017, he struggled to a 4.20 ERA and 1.20 WHIP and the downward trend has continued into this year. The 34-year-old starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers is allowing an almost unbelievable 45.4% hard contact rate, which slots in as the 3rd highest among MLB starting pitchers. He is 4-6, but holds a functional 3.41 ERA and is still widely trusted among the fantasy community. This shouldn’t be the case. In addition to his preposterous hard contact rate, his atrocious 5.13 FIP, 4.20 xFIP, and 4.08 SIERA all unmistakably indicate that hard times are on the horizon for the grizzled veteran and that his ERA is bound to keep rising as he continues to make starts. He has also given up 19 homers, which averages out to a pitiful 1.9 HR/9.

While Hamels does possess a solid 8.96 K/9 rate, his 3.48 BB/9 offsets that strikeout upside, especially since he’s giving up as much hard contact as he has. In addition, his .255 BABIP suggests that he has been getting very lucky with the balls hit in play. Expect that number, along with his ERA, to increase with time. Projection sites have him tabbed for a .303 BABIP and 4.26 ERA rest-of-season. The strategy for viewing Cole Hamels' fantasy stock is pretty simple – you’re not dropping him, but you certainly shouldn’t feel confident in relying on his production for the rest of the year. Explore your trade options, and sell him on the strength of his strong (for now) ERA and former All-Star pedigree.

Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves (63% owned)

It seems that Atlanta Braves fans and fantasy owners alike have been waiting for starting pitcher Julio Teheran to become a top-tier guy for a long time now. He has now logged five full seasons in the majors, averaging a solid 31 starts per season. Now, to be fair, he’s had some very successful seasons. 2013 (14-8, 3.20 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), 2014 (14-13, 2.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP), and 2016 (7-10, 3.21 ERA, 1.05 WHIP) were all solid both in terms of fantasy baseball and real-life, as he has also maintained solid K/9 and BB/9 rates throughout his career. However, after a disappointing 2017 and a rough start to 2018, his outlook may be changing before our eyes. Teheran is 5-4 over 14 starts with a suitable 3.97 ERA, but to say that stat is misleading is just a bit of an understatement. His 5.28 FIP, 4.86 xFIP, and 4.70 SIERA are all somewhere between downright awful and shockingly dreadful. He is allowing very high 1.64 HR/9 and 4.21 BB/9 rates, both of which are career high’s since he became a full-time starter. While all of these stats show regression is coming for Teheran, the red flags don’t even stop there. Notably, his average fastball velocity for the 2018 season is the lowest of his entire career. It has dipped to just 89.5 MPH, whereas it has been in the 91-92 MPH range for much of his career. This is a problem, especially since he skews toward being a flyball pitcher (.99 GB/FB) and gives up a high number of hard contact (38.4%).

Teheran's BABIP is the 2nd lowest in the MLB among qualified starters at just .218, which signifies that he has been getting very lucky with balls being put into play as well. In his most recent start on June 17th against the Padres, Teheran was uncharacteristically dealing. He went six innings without allowing a hit and racked up 11 strikeouts. This was an anomaly, as he has only had three starts with seven or more strikeouts on the season. Keep an eye on Teheran’s next few starts. If he reverts to his to-date form and maintains a sub-90’s fastball, it’s a very good bet that his fantasy stock will plummet heavily. If he keeps making starts like Sunday’s, he’ll be a Cy Young candidate. If I were a betting man, and I am, I’d bet on the former.

Junior Guerra, Milwaukee Brewers (44% owned)

Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Junior Guerra has made 13 starts this season, holding a 3-5 record and a very alluring 2.89 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. However, his 3.89 FIP is a full run higher than his ERA, and that is alarming. He also holds a subpar 4.24 xFIP and 4.15 SIERA, so even his FIP may be a bit misleading. The higher xFIP and SIERA indicate that his expected future production is even worse than his FIP indicates because those stats weigh future projections heavier than past results. His .259 BABIP is on the low side, though he maintained an extremely low .236 BABIP through 70 1/3 innings in 2017. Looking back at last year’s totals do not inspire confidence in Guerra’s ability, to say the least. He made 14 starts in 2017, tallying a 1-4 record, 5.12 ERA, 6.58 FIP, 5.23 SIERA, 5.5 BB/9, and 2.3 HR/9. This year, he has curbed his walks and home runs allowed (3.27 BB/9 and 1.0 HR/9), but he is still getting rocked. He ranks 17th among qualified starting pitchers in hard contact allowed at 41.3%, which is by far the highest of his career. While he has always shown moderate strikeout upside (8.41 K/9 in 2018), the negatives for Guerra clearly outweigh the positives. Projection sites have him pegged for just three more wins on the year, accompanied by an ERA in the 4.60 range – clearly not good numbers for a fantasy league starter.

Jhoulys Chacin, Milwaukee Brewers (39% owned)

Jhoulys Chacin is another starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers who has been playing over his head to date. He has made 16 starts and holds a useable 6-2 record and 3.18 ERA. However, there is plenty of cause for concern moving forward after taking a look at the rest of his season statistics. First off, he lacks strikeout upside and walks too many batters. He has a 66/35 K/BB ratio in 87 2/3 innings, which averages out to a pitiful 6.78 K/9 and 3.59 BB/9. Those are terrible numbers any way you slice it, but especially so for fantasy purposes. Secondly, his 3.82 FIP, 4.71 xFIP, and 4.79 SIERA all indicate that Chacin’s 3.18 ERA is very misleading and should rise as he continues to make starts. His SIERA, in particular, ranks as the 18th highest among qualified starting pitchers. Lastly, he is allowing a 37.9% hard contact rate, which is just too high for a pitcher to remain fantasy relevant for very long – especially as his low .273 BABIP figures to normalize closer to the mean. Now in his 10th season in the MLB, Chacin has a respectable career 3.87 ERA. However, this year, fantasy projection sites have him pegged for a dreadful 4.60 ERA and just four more wins. Sell high if you can, or continue riding Chacin’s lucky streak if you like to play with fire.

If you have Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, Junior Guerra, or Jholuys Chacin, you’ve officially been warned. The stats are in front of you, and it’s now up to you to decide how you choose to view those pitchers moving forward. There are always going to be cases of players continuously outperforming their underlying metrics, some even do it for the full season, but it is unwise to rely on that occurring. Always look for ways to upgrade your team, and if flipping an over-performing starting pitcher for a position or category of need makes sense for you, then do it! Or don’t, and be the captain of a burning ship as it’s on its way down to a sad, watery grave. Your move, fantasy owners.


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