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June 30, 2010

Fantasy Beat

SIERA Darlings

by Marc Normandin

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With July approaching and nearly three months of innings behind us, now is a good time to take a look and see who is pitching better than their ERA. We're far enough into the season that owners are likely to be discouraged by a poor first half, and will hope to sell in order to salvage something—basically, the optimism that existed earlier in the season may have faltered for many an owner, and you should take advantage of it. Here are some key names to keep in mind—this list includes the 10 pitchers with the largest disconnect between their ERA and their SIERA, meaning many of them may be in line for a rebound. Now, just because there is a disconnect doesn't mean they will rebound, as some pitchers give us reason to believe that things will not change for the better, as you will see.

Name ERA SIERA Dif.
Justin Masterson 5.21 3.55 1.66
Max Scherzer 5.26 3.81 1.45
Scott Baker 4.97 3.55 1.42
Dan Haren 4.56 3.14 1.42
James Shields 4.76 3.41 1.35
Kevin Millwood 5.22 4.10 1.12
Ricky Nolasco 4.84 3.72 1.12
Wandy Rodriguez 5.64 4.55 1.09
Zach Duke 5.49 4.44 1.05
Kevin Correia 5.49 4.47 1.02

Justin Masterson has been a great big tease to fantasy owners this season. He's done his best against lineups littered with right-handers, thanks to a .250/.333/.317 line allowed against them, but southpaws have continued to be a problem for him--heading into 2010 lefties have hit .291/.386/.452 against the Cleveland right-hander, and that trend has continued this year (.320/.404/.433). Thanks to this—he's now faced more left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, as opposing managers are well aware of this split—Masterson may not have a great shot of closing the gap between his actual ERA and his SIERA.

While Masterson's strikeout rates are a tempting treat for those who are considering sticking with him, realize that his walks are his undoing. He's handed out free passes to 4.4 hitters per nine innings pitched, the fifth-highest rate among the 115 pitchers who have logged 75 innings this year. His K/BB is just 1.7, and in leagues that use WHIP are you really that psyched about using a pitcher who has allowed a .371 on-base percentage to his opponents?

Another problem is that Masterson is an extreme ground ball pitcher--he has a 3.5 G/F ratio and 66 percent of his balls in play have been grounders this year. That would be excellent, especially when combined with his above-average punch out rate, if he were not playing in front of the worst defense in the American League that ranks 26 of 30 overall in Defensive Efficiency. For his efforts, Masterson has earned a .349 BABIP, which is about the last thing a pitcher who walks more than the league average needs.

Masterson has the ability to be an above-average starter, even with his severe splits against left-handers. The current problem is that he will never be that way consistently while pitching for a team with a terrible defense—while SIERA may be right to a degree about where his ERA should be, we will continue to see this disconnect unless the Indians trade for the Red Sox infield anytime soon.

Since being recalled from Triple-A, a sojourn taken for the sole purpose of fixing his mechanics, Max Scherzer has been the dominant force we expected him to be when we ranked him among some of the game's best pitchers heading into 2010. In the six starts since he has returned to the majors, Scherzer has an ERA of 2.95, is whiffing 12.2 hitters per nine and has given up just 0.7 homers per nine, this after a two month stretch that saw him post an ERA of 7.29, a homer rate of 1.9 and an average fastball velocity well below where he's sat as of late. Anyone who has stuck with him this long is probably going to hold on to him, but given it's just six starts and his ERA still looks iffy, you may be able to swing a deal for him where you at least get the better end of things, as long as you do it before his ERA approaches his SIERA any further.

James Shields' main problem may be that he pitches in the American League East, and therefore has to face Boston, New York and the Blue Jays with some regularity. This is borne out in his quality of opponent OPS, where he ranks #21 out of the 115 pitchers with 75 innings pitched minimum. Shields also has a BABIP out of whack with expectations given his batted ball distribution as well as the quality of the Rays defense—Tampa Bay ranks #4 in the majors in Defensive Efficiency thanks to converting nearly 71 percent of balls in play into outs—yet Shields has a BABIP of .343. We wouldn't notice his 1.4 HR/9 as much as we do in terms of his ERA if the Rays were converting balls in play into outs at the same rate for Shields that they do for their other pitchers. This is most likely a blip, and as we see the home run rate drop (Shields does give up the long ball often, but his career rate is 1.2, so we may see a dip as the year goes on) and the Rays defense do what it is capable of, his ERA will lower and move closer to his adjusted SIERA. Don't sell low on him, as there is no reason to worry about Shields, one of the better pitchers in the game who resides in an unfortunate division.

Kevin Correia has not pitched very well lately, but he's still the victim of some poor luck as you can see by the nearly one run difference between his ERA and SIERA. When you consider that Petco is involved, he should be on the inverse of this list, with the pitchers who have a better ERA than SIERA, but that's not the case. Unlike Masterson or Shields, Correia has faced relatively softer competition—he ranks #97 in quality of opponent OPS, allowing a line of .272/.355/.440 to hitters who have collectively hit .246/.320/.387. Oddly, his BABIP is not that high above the average at .306 (though that is further above what we may expect from a Padre pitcher). A combination of extra walks and extra homers have been the main problem, two things San Diego's excellent defense can do little about. While the league average strand rate for baserunners is 71.7 percent, Correia has stranded just 68.7 percent--when you see his 1.52 WHIP is also above the average (1.37), you can understand why his ERA is where it is.

The reason he is being brought up here is because the Padres have been in the market for adding pitching help before the trade deadline, and Tim Stauffer, recovering from an appendectomy, has been stretched out as a starter rather than a reliever during his rehab assignment in the minors. Given Wade LeBlanc, who has been filling in for Chris Young this year, has an ERA of 3.25 (and a SIERA of 4.57) has pitched well in his 14 starts, the Padres may be loathe to remove him, and Correia is the only real weak link in the rotation given his struggles. He will most likely be kept in the mix to help shorten the workload of the Pads younger starters, but he may not pitch every fifth day anymore—combine that with his struggles, which have come against weaker competition than most starting pitchers, and you can see why he may have very little value left in 2010.

Eric Seidman recently wrote about Ricky Nolasco once again underperforming his SIERA, so I won't get into detail here—you can check out that article. I also recently covered Dan Haren's struggles, and why I'm not 100 percent sure he's going to close the gap between his ERA and his SIERA this season (barring a trade to a team that can field and out of a park that seeks to injure his reputation).

Other notables: Randy Wells (3.94 SIERA; 1.02 Dif.), Kyle Davies (5.08 SIERA; 0.98 Dif.), Tommy Hanson (3.54 SIERA; 0.96 Dif.), Brandon Morrow (3.55 SIERA; 0.95 Dif.), Gavin Floyd (3.73 SIERA; 0.93 Dif.)

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