August 13, 2008
The trade deadline has passed in all but the most lenient of fantasy leagues, meaning it's time to focus on the margins using free agency and waivers in order to bolster your roster during the remaining month and a half of the regular season. Those in head-to-head leagues have even less time to improve, with their league playoffs just a few weeks in the future, so with that in mind we'll take a look at pitchers (the most coveted commodity) using QuikERA, a favorite statistic of mine that you should familiarize yourself with. Using QERA should tell you which pitchers you can expect to see regression from, and which ones are safer bets to continue their success (or failures) going forward.
Scott Olsen began the year on fire, and his line on the season still looks solid enough because of it; over his first 10 starts he posted a 3.38 ERA, and now has a 4.04 ERA over a total 147 innings pitched. Given his peripherals at the time, it's a wonder that his ERA managed to stay as low as it did then. Olsen had an equal number of walks and strikeouts during that early run (29 of each in 64 innings) and gave up 1.1 home runs per nine, a rate of 24.4 every 200 innings pitched. Thanks to that early stretch, his current numbers look solid, though they go against his season's QERA of 5.47. In fact, the 1.43 difference between his actual ERA and his QERA is the sixth-largest spread for any starter with at least 50 innings pitched. He can thank his BABIP of .259 for that, as it's 65 points below his expected figure given his 20.4 percent liner rate.
His punch-out rate is one reason we can't expect his current actual ERA to last. Though he's striking out more batters since his first 10 starts, he's still at a below-average 4.9 K/9 for the season. Throw in that he induces grounders just 36 percent of the time, and it's easy to see why Olsen is not a favorite when it comes to this statistic (since ground-ball tendencies are another component of QERA). He's regressed closer to his QERA figure over his last 10 starts, with a 5.19 ERA over 59 innings pitched, even though he's put some space between his strikeouts (4.9) and walks (2.7) per nine, in part because he's started to give up far more home runs, with a 1.5 HR/9, or 34 per 200 innings, a significant increase. Opponents have knocked Olsen around for an ugly .286/.336/.524 clip, and it's tough to survive a ballgame when you're turning all of the opposition into this year's Vladimir Guerrero. Though Florida's defense is solid, with a .705 Defensive Efficiency that ranks sixth in the National League, they aren't so good that you can expect his low BABIP to last. If you have other options, skipping out on Olsen's starts or dropping him is a solid plan, and make sure not to overdraft him next year based on his final seasonal line, either.
Olsen isn't the only Sunshine State hurler who is pitching above expectations, as Tampa Bay's Edwin Jackson has also put together a season that, on the surface, appears to be more than solid. He has a 4.07 ERA over 137 innings, but has just 5.1 K/9 and nearly four walks per nine, as well as being on pace for 25 homers allowed over 200 innings. His 5.60 QERA is 1.53 runs higher than his actual ERA, putting him a spot ahead of Olsen in terms of the largest discrepancies between ERA and QERA. His actual BABIP is 21 points below his expected rate (.278), helped by his lower-than-average 17.9 percent liner rate, but the overall BABIP is also a product of his pitching in front of the second-best defense in the American League.
Thanks to his defense, Jackson can survive with his low K rates as long as he doesn't let the walks or homers get out of control. While the walks have not been as much of an issue as in the past, he's struggled with the long ball over his last 10 starts. Though he has a 4.10 ERA (and 4.25 RA) over the 59
Javier Vazquez's recent struggles have been surprising, given his strong start and his history as a quality pitcher. Lately though, he's pitched poorly: in 66 innings over his last 10 starts he's got a 5.32 ERA thanks to 1.5 HR/9, and that's in spite of a solid 8.3 K/9 against just 3.1 BB/9. If not for the homers, Vazquez would have come out ahead during this stretch, as he gave up a .262/.324/.461 line that was really only marred by the 11 homers that he gave up. Vazquez has had some poor luck, as the White Sox are in the middle of the AL in Defensive Efficiency, converting 70 percent of balls in play into out, but he hasn't received that kind of defensive support, as reflected by his .331 BABIP allowed on the season. Granted, his 20.2 percent liner rate means we should expect his BABIP to be .322, an insignificant difference, but with the defense playing as well as it has, you'd think he would have reaped some benefit.
Regardless, the defense can't catch the balls that Vazquez lets hitters put into orbit, and there has been far too much of that lately. QERA does not account for home runs, which makes sense when you see that it expects Vazquez to have a sub-four ERA, about a run better than his current numbers. Vazquez's career HR/9 rate is 1.2, and he's matching that this year despite his recent bad patch, but that career rate is somewhat misleading thanks to awful campaigns with the Diamondbacks and Yankees. During his better years, he's usually around the 1.0 mark, right where he was after his first 14 starts of this season. Even with the homers and ERA, Vazquez does plenty of good thanks to the low walk rates and multiple punchouts; if he manages to rein in his homer rate before year's end, it's all to the good for your club.
Carlos Silva hasn't been as bad as advertised this year, as his 5.93 ERA is almost a full run above his QERA of 4.92. The problem with that is that a 4.92 isn't any great shakes either, and when you combine his pitching style with Seattle's awful defensive play, it's no surprise that he's struggled the way he has. He's still one of those guys who usually floats to the top of free-agent leaderboards simply by virtue of throwing a lot of innings, and at this time of year, he's the kind of player who someone may be desperate enough to pick up. It's for that reason that I mention him, just to tell you that you are not desperate enough to acquire him for your stretch run, no matter how dire your need for pitching is.
Silva is striking out fewer than four per nine, continuing a streak that he's kept going since 2004, his first year with Minnesota. Luckily, walks are rare, as he's giving out just 1.7 BB/9 on the year, right around his career rate; the problem has been his BABIP of .331. With Seattle ranking second-to-last in the AL in Defensive Efficiency and converting a paltry 68.8 percent of balls in play into outs, it's no wonder Silva has been unable to pitch to his normal standards. When nearly 86 percent of your opponents end up putting the ball in play, you would like to have a defensive unit behind you that can catch a few of those. The right side of the infield hasn't had too much trouble with his grounders, as the opposition is hitting just .250 there on 25 percent of balls in play, but the left side is allowing a .301 average on 20.1 percent of balls in play, which is far too high for ground balls. The outfield isn't doing him any favors either, with .431, .500, and .531 averages from left to right. The lesson you should glean from these numbers is that Silva isn't the answer for you, no matter how hard up for pitching you may be, not unless Seattle's defense all of a sudden learns how to field. Given how unlikely that is, you'll want to avoid him.