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January 14, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Starting Pitcher Underachievers

by Jason Collette

My friends have called me “Moonlight J” since my days in college because I always had a night job. I was not exactly a model student in my prep days, so I had to pay my way through school because I resisted taking out loans as long as possible. Even after I began my teaching career, I would hold night jobs to help make ends meet, and one of those jobs was DJ’ing weddings. That made it only natural that I would take requests from my friends for my debut article for this site.

My long-time friend @jfranco77 initially wanted to rub salt in my wounds by having me analyze how moving to Boston will affect Carl Crawford’s fantasy value, but instead made what I believe was a unique request: why have Scott Baker, Ricky Nolasco, and James Shields consistently under-performed their FIP

Pitcher 08 ERA 08 FIP 09 ERA 09 FIP 10 ERA 10 FIP Car. ERA Car. FIP
Scott Baker    3.45    3.79    4.37   4.08     4.49   3.96     4.11    3.87
Ricky Nolasco    3.52    3.77    5.06   3.35    4.51   3.86     4.45    3.91
James Shields    3.56    3.82    4.14   4.02    5.18   4.24     4.25     4.03

Those three pitchers all share a common trait, which is an ability to pound the strike zone. Shields has thrown 65 percent of his career pitches for strikes, Nolasco 66 percent, and Baker 68 percent. Since 2006, the major league average for STR% (strike percentage) has been 63 percent. Is there such a thing as throwing too many strikes?

From 2000 to 2010, there were 953 instances of a starting pitcher qualifying for the ERA title (minimum 162 innings pitched.)  In comparing those pitchers’ STR% to their ERA+ ratings, I found a correlation coefficient of just 0.32, which shows a very weak correlation. Ironically, the correlation between strike percentage and strikeouts is even weaker at 0.27. However, if you look at the numbers in tiers, there is a positive trend to pay attention to you as you set up your 2011 draft prep.

The table below shows how the 953 instances broke down by STR%:

STR% ERA+ OPS+ Pitchers
56 133 83 1
57 93 112 5
58 92 105 9
59 105 99 31
60 104 100 57
61 105 97 106
62 106 98 142
63 108 97 157
64 114 91 156
65 118 90 109
66 121 87 79
67 117 88 37
68 136 78 32
69 130 82 19
70 125 83 7
71 129 80 6

There certainly is a nice trend within that table that shows strong success at the higher STR%, but within each tier, there are some wild variations. Both Nolasco and Baker threw 68 percent of their pitches for strikes in 2010, which puts them in the strongest performing tier on the table above. Yet, the difference between the lowest and highest ERA of the pitchers in that group is 2.86 runs , with Pedro Martinez killing the bell curve at 1.74 and Paul Byrd bringing up the rear at 4.60. Just seven of the 32 pitchers in the group had ERA higher than 4.0 in the season they threw 68 percent of their pitches for strikes and both Baker (4.49) and Nolasco (4.51) were in that group.  

Carrying out those results to look at all instances where the STR% was above the league average of 63 percent gets you 446 pitchers. 57 percent of those pitchers had an ERA under 4.00 for that season and 14 percent of them had an ERA of 3.00 or lower.  Conversely, there were 351 instances of pitchers whose STR% was below the league average. 67 percent of pitchers who failed to throw for at least the league average strike percentage put up ERA of at least 4.00 and just three percent were able to put up an ERA of 3.00 or lower.

Throwing a lot of strikes certainly can increase the odds of your starting pitcher investment having a strong ERA, but it does not guarantee you can avoid disaster with those pitchers either.  Baker, Nolasco, and Shields all had excellent 2008 seasons for fantasy owners and they continued to throw strikes in 2009 and 2010, but the results have only gotten worse. Where have things gone wrong?

The problem lies within FIP itself. Its formula is:

                ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP-IBB))-(2*K))/IP+constant

As our own Mike Fast puts it, “FIP gives equal credit/blame for all types of (non-HR) batted balls giving every pitcher a league average BABIP." The problem with all three of these pitchers is that their BABIP have been anything but league average over the past two seasons.

In 2008, all three pitchers had BABIP between .284 and .292. Since then, only Baker has had a season of BABIP below .310. Shields has seen his BABIP rise for three straight seasons despite having one of the best defenses in baseball behind him—the Rays finished third in Defensive Efficiency in 2010, eighth in 2009 and first in 2008—while Nolasco has had high BABIP two straight seasons with one of the poorer league defenses supporting him (the Fish ranked 24th and 23rd in Defensive Efficiency in 2010 and 2009.) Shields’ case is particularly frustrating because his BABIP was nearly 60 points higher than any other starting pitcher on the Tampa Bay staff.

All three pitchers also share a common problem of being too charitable with the long ball. Baker and Nolasco have historically been below league average in their home run rates; the large park in Miami has not aided Nolasco, and Baker’s home run rate held in his first year at the spacious Target Field. Shields saw his home run rate spike from 1.0 in 2008 to 1.5 last season, in a park that inhibits homers from his opposite-handed opponents.

Why should fantasy owners be interested in three pitchers with erratic BABIPs and struggling home run rates? All three pitchers have strong strikeout rates, and all three pitchers have produced strikeout to walk ratios of at least 3.2 each of the past three seasons. All three pitchers have what it takes to once again be valuable fantasy assets but are being held back by fluctuating metrics that could once again swing in their favor. Just last season, fantasy players who held their nose and drafted Carl Pavano coming off a season with a 5.10 ERA despite strong skills were rewarded with a 3.75 ERA and 17 wins. 

Baker, Nolasco, and Shields are in the exact same situation as we approach the 2011 drafts. If fortune swings back in their favor as their other skills continue to remain strong, all three pitchers could reward those willing to take the risks after being burned for two straight seasons, and once again out-perform their FIP rather than underachieve for a third straight season. At worst, you get what you pay for, but on the other hand, you might get a surprise ace.

Jason Collette is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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