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If you missed Wilson Karaman’s introductory piece to our series on earned run average, be sure to give it a read here. The primary takeaways of the piece are as follows: (1) as offense has increased across the league, it makes sense that the league’s ERA has correspondingly jumped; and (2) the category has become more top-heavy with only nine qualified starters posting an ERA below 2.50. Of course, that doesn’t excuse you for not clicking on the aforementioned link and actually digesting the article in its entirety.

In this piece, as with the other ones that have focused on over- and underachievers in the context of fantasy, I will only touch on starters who have thrown over 130 innings. I also tried to shy away from rookies, such as Noah Syndergaard, as it’s unclear whether he really overachieved—it wholly depends on one’s expectations for him coming into the 2015 season, which surely varied widely. Each player capsule will offer some thoughts on that pitcher’s projected performance in 2016.

Overachievers

John Lackey, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

2014 Season: 3.82 ERA (81st)

2015 Season: 2.77 ERA (10th)

At the core, nothing really changed. The right-hander posted a 19.7 percent strikeout rate in 2014 and a 19.5 percent strikeout rate in 2015. Respectively, he compiled a 5.6 percent walk rate compared to a 5.9 percent walk rate. The groundball percentage hovered around 45 percent in both seasons, too. What accounted for the tremendous improvement? The massive jump in strand rate, which leapt from 72.6 percent (roughly his career average) to 82.6 percent this past season. The latter ranked second in Major League Baseball. I’m not convinced that Lackey will see his preseason fantasy ranking skyrocket this winter; however, it should be noted that he’s a great candidate to regress to his career norms—which, to be fair, would remain quite useful.

Shelby Miller, SP, Atlanta Braves

2014 Season: 3.74 ERA (78th)

2015 Season: 3.02 ERA (14th)

The Braves acquired Miller in a trade that sent Jason Heyward to St. Louis, a trade that banked on the 25-year-old returning to his 2013 form rather than sustaining his disappointing 2014 campaign. Atlanta hit the jackpot. Miller’s strikeout rate jumped over three percent, stemming from an uptick in velocity and a heavier reliance on his cut-fastball. This is further reflected in his 9.2 percent swinging-strike rate, which was over two percent higher than what it was in 2014. A word of caution, though. The right-hander posted a 3.83 ERA in the second half and saw his command waver. One wonders if the Braves’ terrible season and his unfortunate run support compiled to frustrate the young hurler—which would only be natural—but he’s one of the hottest names on the trade market this winter. A new home would do his fantasy stock wonders.

Marco Estrada, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

2014 Season: 4.36 ERA (98th)

2015 Season: 3.13 ERA (17th)

Estrada quietly put together one of the most unheralded quality seasons in Major League Baseball; however, his brilliant postseason shone a spotlight on him and helped him earn a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays. The most common criticism of the former Brewers pitcher has been that his .216 BABIP is utterly unsustainable. In October, I wrote about why that’s far too simplistic and why it undersells his skill set. His 3.40 DRA illustrates how good he actually was in 2015. Of course, his 105 cFIP projects him to be worse than average going forward, and it’s not difficult to sympathize with that notion. He’s a 32-year-old soft-tosser who saw his strikeout rate drop and only found sustainable success when he cut his walk rate to 7.2 percent in the second half. In general, it’s not smart to bet on future dominance from a guy who made his living on weak contact, rather than swings-and-misses, but as I mentioned in the article above, he displayed a skill set in 2015 that tends to vastly outperform FIP.

Wei-Yin Chen, SP, Baltimore Orioles

2014 Season: 3.54 ERA (56th)

2015 Season: 3.34 ERA (24th)

An underrated pitcher, Chen took another step forward in 2015, dropping his ERA for the second-consecutive season. He’s kind of known as a smoke-and-mirrors pitcher, a guy who gets by with guile and command, as opposed to raw stuff. That seems misleading. His fastball won’t light up radar guns, but his four-seamer gave hitters fits this past season.

Description: Chen_WhiffRates.png

His whiff rate on his fastball jumped from 7.58 percent to a whopping 10.73 percent. In addition, opposing hitters only hit .244 against his four-seamer in 2015. Chen is a free agent this winter and compiled a 3.14 ERA outside the hitter-friendly confines of Camden Yards, so it’s conceivable that his fantasy performance will tick upward a bit more in a favorable ballpark.

Jake Arrieta, SP, Chicago Cubs

2014 Season: 2.53 ERA (10th)

2015 Season: 1.77 ERA (2nd)

Throughout this series, we’ve been talking about the improved offensive production across the league. One of the pitchers to take a massive step forward to #elite status, however, was Chicago’s Jake Arrieta. He continued to miss bats and limit his free passes, but the ground-ball rate checked in at 56.2 percent—almost nine percentage points above his career average. Only four pitchers had a better groundball rate in 2015. The right-hander was the perfect Holy Trinity pitcher, a guy who was better than average in strikeouts, walks, and ground balls. Oh, and his 0.75 ERA in the second half was nothing short of otherworldly. He’ll rightfully be one of the top-five hurlers drafted this spring, whereas he was the 24th starter drafted prior to the 2015 season.

Underachievers

Jeff Samardzija, SP, Chicago White Sox

2014 Season: 2.99 ERA (28th)

2015 Season: 4.96 ERA (96th)

Samardzija’s proverbial faceplant isn’t news at this point. His mysterious downfall has been dissected ad nauseum because all the traditional markers of decline remained absent. He only just turned 30 years old. His velocity remained solid. His walk rate didn’t spike. The “injury” scapegoat doesn’t appear to apply. However, it’s pretty clear where his struggles originated. His command within the zone stunk. He left too many pitches up in the zone, which is reflected in his 39.0 percent ground-ball rate, which resulted in several things: (1) a higher home-run rate; (2) a paltry 17.9 percent strikeout rate; and (3) a 1.3 percent dip in his swinging-strike rate. This is par for the course with Samardzija, though. His low walk rate hides the fact that his command within the zone is poor. It’s one of the main reasons why his year-to-year performance is so volatile. He’s a nice bounce-back candidate, I suppose, but one that’s based mostly on a single year’s performance.

Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals

2014 Season: 3.20 ERA (35th)

2015 Season: 4.08 ERA (64th)

Although Ventura disappointed fantasy owners this past season, it does appear the right-hander recovered late in the year. He owned a 3.56 ERA in the second half and saw his strikeout rate surge to 22.0 percent after the All-Star break—largely thanks to a marked uptick in his curveball usage. His fastball was bashed throughout the year. Opposing teams hit .318 with a .214 ISO against his four-seamer. They only hit .168 with an .066 ISO against his wicked curveball. So once Ventura began leaning on the hook over 20 percent of the time in the second half, his overall run prevention improved. Young players need to adjust when the league adjusts to them. It seems Ventura realized that he needed to lean on his best pitch more often. If he does so again in 2016—and throws it for strikes often enough to keep hitters honest—he’ll be a much better fantasy pitcher than he was this past year.

Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves

2014 Season: 2.89 ERA (25th)

2015 Season: 4.04 ERA (62th)

We often talk about platoon splits with hitters, but they’re also extremely important when discussing the fantasy value of pitchers. Teheran has a brilliant fastball-slider combination that handcuffs righties. He turned to his sinker and changeup against lefties, and he was abused.

K%

BB%

K/BB

OPS

vs. RHH

25.4%

6.2%

4.12

.583

vs. LHH

15.2%

11.1%

1.36

.894

His repertoire against lefties was particularly ineffective. The command was awful, and opponents teed off on both his sinker and changeup; they hit above .300 against both pitches. This is obviously concerning for fantasy owners. If Teheran falls in fantasy drafts, though, he’s someone who can be deployed in deeper leagues with effective frugality. Play him against righty-dominant lineups, while sitting him against lefty-laden ones. Of course, if he improves his performance against lefties in 2016, he’ll once again be dominant. I’m just not banking on it.

Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners

2014 Season: 2.14 ERA (2nd)

2015 Season: 3.53 ERA (36th)

King Felix went from deity to merely mortal in 2015. It’s difficult to write too many words critical of a 29-year-old who has a career 3.11 ERA with five of his previous seven seasons being better than that. However, one can’t help but wonder what 2,262.1 innings over 11 seasons has done to his arm. His velocity dipped a bit, and his command wandered at times. While he was still better than average, the sheer workload without any time off due to injury is reminiscent of CC Sabathia in recent years. I’m still on the Felix bandwagon, as he has a great body with unbelievable stuff, but I’m not going to lie and suggest that I’m not worried. The human body isn’t designed to pitch this many innings on an annual basis. Maybe he’s the ultimate anomaly. But that doesn’t seem likely.

Jordan Zimmermann, SP, Washington Nationals

2014 Season: 2.66 ERA (15th)

2015 Season: 3.66 ERA (44th)

A regression always seemed likely. His performance in 2014 was brilliant, but it didn’t really fit with his career norms nor did it fit his repertoire. Zimmermann built a banner campaign in 2014 with an increased strikeout rate and a swinging-strike rate that topped 10 percent for the first time in his career—all of this without much change in his arsenal, aside from using his fastball a bit more often. In 2015, his strikeout and whiff rates declined to their career norms and a slight uptick in home-run rate and BABIP resulted in his highest ERA since 2010. His peripheral numbers should return to their career norms and make him the type of pitcher he was from 2011 to 2013—very good, but not elite. Fantasy owners got a bit overzealous when they drafted him as the 12th-overall starter a year ago. The savvy owner, though, can probably benefit from him being overlooked this spring.