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Pitcher Statcast: Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball

Statcast metrics such as Barrels and Brls/BBE are great ways to evaluate a batter's performance, so it is only natural to assume that the metrics would be predictive for pitchers as well. As much as batters want to hit a Barrel every time, pitchers want to avoid them at all costs. Yet there is evidence that pitchers do not have the same influence over Barrels as a batter does.

Shohei Ohtani finished with a league-leading 78 Barrels hit in 2021. Tarik Skubal and J.A. Happ tied for the league lead among pitchers by allowing 58, a significantly lower number than Ohtani's total. Neither performance was an outlier, so it seems to take fewer Barrels to lead pitchers in Barrels given up than it does to lead hitters in Barrels hit. This fits well with DIPS theory, which states that batters can do more to influence batted balls than pitchers can.

It's also not fantasy-relevant, as neither Skubal nor Happ is that appealing a fantasy option for 2022. The next four names on the leaderboard consist of names that have reputations as contact managers: Jordan Lyles (51) and a three-way tie between Dallas Keuchel, Patrick Corbin, and Kyle Hendricks (50). Are these numbers indicative of anything?

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How to Interpret Statcast Contact Quality Allowed

Using the Brls/BBE leaderboard might seem like a better bet than raw Barrel totals, but that list looks like a random assortment of arms who shouldn't really be classified together: Skubal (13.9%), Happ (11.6%), Marco Gonzales (11.4%), Yusei Kikuchi (11%), and Blake Snell (also 11%). Some of these guys have sleeper appeal, but none of them are sure things and Gonzales is particularly odd considering he's supposed to specialize in contact management.

None of the names above really warrant a deep dive for fantasy purposes, so let's look at a guy who had a reputation for being hit hard before winning the AL Cy Young award last season: Robbie Ray. Ray's Statcast contact quality metrics weren't good by any means, as his raw total of 46 Barrels allowed tied for 10th-highest among qualified pitchers while his 9.8% rate of Brls/BBE ranked 15th last year. They also didn't seem to matter if his 2.84 ERA is any indication.

Lest you dismiss Ray's 2021 season as "lucky," it's worth pointing out that his reputation for allowing hard contact isn't reflected in his career Statcast numbers. The following chart lists Ray's Brls/BBE and ERA in each year of the Statcast Era, exempting 2020 for sample size purposes:

Year          Brls/BBE          ERA

2015          5.1%                   3.52

2016          6.9%                  4.90

2017          5.1%                   2.89

2018         8.7%                   3.93

2019         10.6%                 4.34

2021         9.8%                   2.84

Ray's Barrels allowed fluctuate wildly, with his best ERA corresponding to his second-worst Brls/BBE mark. If there is anything predictive here, this author fails to see it.

Maybe we need to simplify this and just use average airborne exit velocity? The top-five in FB/LD EV allowed were Shane McClanahan (95.8 mph), Garrett Richards (95.5), Kikuchi (95.4), Framber Valdez (95.4), and a three-way tie at 95 mph between Zach Plesac, Brad Keller, and Jorge Lopez. This might seem troubling, but the top-five in past seasons have included names such as Trevor Bauer and Luis Castillo who went on to front fantasy rotations. There is also zero carry-over on this list from one season to the next, suggesting that it isn't a sticky trait.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, Statcast metrics such as Barrels and average airborne exit velocity should probably just be ignored for pitcher analysis. These metrics are great for evaluating batters, but this author can't get anything out of them for pitchers even with the benefit of hindsight.

That conclusion may make this seem like a worthless article, but it isn't. Seemingly every fantasy analyst uses contact quality to credit pitchers, either through the Statcast numbers above or an approximation such as the Hard% posted on FanGraphs. This type of analysis may explain a pitcher's performance after the fact, but it seems to have zero predictive value. Therefore, there may be a competitive advantage to be gained by ignoring this type of analysis completely. Stay tuned to learn more about predictive metrics that could give you an edge all fantasy season.



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