Regression is a scary beast for Fantasy owners. These pitchers might be in line for it in 2018
The 2018 MLB season is edging ever closer and that means it’s draft preparation time for fantasy baseball pundits. Valuing pitchers of course remains a dangerous exercise, so to help out our fantasy baseball fans, we take a look at 10 pitchers who might be due for a step backward in 2018. On the back of the 10 Pitching Breakout Candidates earlier in the week and with our 2018 Starting Pitching Rankings to come later in the off-season, fantasy owners should be starting to feel pretty confident as they approach their drafts and keeper deadlines in the coming weeks.
Note: The methodology has been improved since the last post. The formula now correctly weights the strike out and walk components and first pitch strikes have been added to improve the accuracy of the walk component.
When evaluating a player and by extension, their chances of improvement in a given year, it is important to try to focus on the statistics that best indicate a players raw skills. These are the things that players have the most control over and are therefore most predictive of their future performance. When it comes to pitching, the most predictive component is K-BB% (r=.586). Pitchers who excel at striking hitters out and limiting free passes tend to excel at preventing runs. It’s not perfect and that’s what makes the game so interesting but it’s pretty good. As we said though, we want to get as close as we can to raw skills and while K-BB% is better than something like ERA, we can get deeper. While there are a number of components we could use to look beneath K-BB% (velocity, o-swing% etc), today we’re are going to focus on just a few: Swinging Strike Rate (SwStr%), Zone Percentage (Zone%) and First Pitch Strike Rate (FP-K%).
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These are quite transparently base components of K-BB% and consequently run prevention (ERA). Therefore, we can consider SwStr%, Zone% and FP-K% to be leading indicators of future performance. From, this I constructed a simple metric – creatively named Pitcher Breakout Scores or pBrkOut for short – that looks like this.
PBRKOUT = a*(SWSTR%-K%) + b*(AVG FP-K%, ZONE% – BB%)
Where all components are converted into a Z-Score and scaled so the minimum = 0
What we are essentially measuring here is the degree to which a particular pitcher over or under performed their strike out and walk rates. If a pitcher posts a high SwStr% than we should expect that this pitcher would also post high K rates – any deviation from this is likely the result of poor sequencing or bad luck. Similarly, if a pitcher posts strong FP-K% and Zone% than there is good reason to believe he should also post strong BB rates. Of course the inverse of these statements should hold true as well.
The Interesting Part
So with the boring stuff out of the way, let me present the 10 pitchers on the wrong end of this metric:
As in the last post, I manually removed some names that probably didn’t belong in the list. This metric punishes pitchers with exemplary command who can pitch around the zone rather than in it so I excused pitchers such as Kyle Hendricks and Zack Greinke as well as anyone who won’t be pitching in the US this season. The resulting list shows an interesting mix of pitchers with varying talent levels. As with out breakout pitchers, let’s quickly break down each one of these cases.
Chris Sale. I’m going to start here because I know it’s the first question I’m going to get asked. Yes, this metric expects some K-BB% regression in 2017 but you should always bet on a pitcher who has a historically good season to regress some. I still expect Sale to be a top 5 starter in 2018, though this metric suggests that he might have had a little help last season. If you still don’t like this pick, Jesse Chavez was next on this list.
Trevor Bauer. With that out of the way let’s do this chronologically. Bauer is one of the most frustrating and polarizing pitchers in fantasy baseball. Many owners (including this author) have bought shares in Bauer in what appeared to be a breakout for the talented right-hander only for him to crash back to Earth a few starts later. Bauer has a loud and ever changing arsenal, the latter making him one of the more difficult pitchers in baseball to evaluate. Our breakout scores really dislike what he did on the strikeout side in 2017, posting well above average K rates despite only average whiff rates. This to me feels like a sequencing problem with the strong whiff rates on his curveball and slider being diluted by his overuse of a below average fastball, sinker and changeup. Bauer has been an erratic performer throughout his career and I expect him to remain so.
Alex Cobb. Cobb was once a changeup specialist, with the pitch rating among the best in the game. Injuries sucked away its effectiveness however, and Cobb was forced to rely on an average fastball and curveball. If he can rediscover his changeup then I might find myself buying, otherwise I’m probably out on Cobb as an impact fantasy asset.
Jose Quintana. In nearly every tool I come up with for evaluating pitchers, Quintana rates as an average or below starter relative to his peers. This metric really doesn’t buy Quintana’s strike out rate in 2017 thanks to a below average 8.5% whiff rate despite striking out over a quarter of the batters he faced. Quintana’s strike out rate jumped 5 points higher than any other point in his career and our breakout scores don’t see that happening again. Nonetheless, Quintana is a young starter who doesn’t walk many hitters and keeps the ball on the ground. He’ll pitch for a Cubs team that should score plenty of runs behind him so Quintana should still bet a solid fantasy asset as long as you don’t need the strikeouts.
Ubaldo Jimenez. You probably weren’t going to draft him but if you were – don’t.
Jon Gray. Gray is one of the more talented young starters in baseball and the right-hander enjoyed something of a mini-breakout in 2017. The breakout scores aren’t a fan of his strikeouts after posting just 8.8% whiffs in 2017, though given that’s a 4% drop from his 2016 mark and Gray battled injury for much of the season I’m willing to bet on the whiffs rebounding over the strikeouts falling. Despite what this metric says, I’m still buying.
Jeff Samardzija. The reverse case of Jose Quintana, Samrdzija’s BB% improved by 3% in 2017. The Shark has been an above average strike thrower for years now but our breakout scores don’t see him repeating the 3.8% BB rate he posted last year – and reasonably so. On the other side of the spectrum, the Shark probably won’t have the same poor luck with runners on base (67.5 LOB%) or on deep fly-balls (13.8 HR/FB%) so I expect him to remain a solid SP3 option in most leagues.
Kendall Graveman. Graveman doesn’t strike anyone out but it’s his 7.2% walk rate that the breakout scores aren’t buying. As a renowned sinkerballer, Graveman probably gets a pass here for pitching below the zone. The lack of strikeouts and pitching for a mediocre Oakland squad really limits Graveman’s fantasy impact however.
Gio Gonzalez. Gio has always been something of a high variance pitcher thanks to a generally elevated walk rate. The breakout scores aren’t a fan of Gonzalez on either side of the equation as the left-hander posted below average marks in all of our leading indicators. He’s still a solid option as an SP3/4 but at 32 isn’t the fantasy contributor he was a few seasons ago.
Jake Arrieta. Arrieta’s decline from Cy Young winner to mid-rotation innings eater has been both sharp and well documented. Arrieta’s command has all but disappeared on him over the last two seasons. While the breakout scores believe in Arrieta’s walk improvements in 2017, they aren’t buying a 23.1 K% with just 8.7 whiff rate. Arrieta is still a playable fantasy asset though you definitely want to be paying SP3 prices rather than the left over ace premium from his 2015 campaign.
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