keyboard_arrow_uptop

The fantasy playoffs have kicked off in most (if not all) head-to-head leagues and we are closing in on the home stretch in rotisserie formats. If you’re one of the select few competing for a championship in your league, good luck (especially if you have to face a team with the immortal Jackie Bradley Jr. on it).

If your team tanked and you’re on the outside looking in, trust me, I know the feeling. It’s the fantasy equivalent of a roommate eating your leftover pizza without telling you. You’re not happy about it, but what can you really do? The answer isn’t to shut it down completely or focus solely on fantasy football (Jordan Matthews is going to be insane this year, right?), as tempting as that may be. It’s time to look ahead to 2016. Before we can properly do that, let’s take a moment to reflect on which pitchers have experienced significant changes in statistically significant categories such as K/9, BB/9, ground-ball rate, and HR:FB ratio this season.

Despite not counting as independent statistics in traditional fantasy leagues, they do give us an idea of how a pitcher’s profile has changed and directly impact their surface statistics. At the heart of every fantasy format is ERA. It’s the most critical of the pitching rate statistics and it’s not going away anytime soon (unless you play in a format fit for TINO).

Attempts to gauge pitcher performance with greater accuracy have been going on for years, but as Dayn Perry pointed out in Baseball Between the Numbers, published back in 2006, there are so many diverse factors one must account for. It remains one of my all-time favorite quotes relating to statistical analysis and still resonates today:

To take an analogy from chemistry, runs are more like molecules than atoms. They’re compounds made up of singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, errors, stolen bases, baserunning, sacrifices, balks, hit batsmen, strikes, balls, fouls in the stands, and so on. To evaluate how a pitcher is doing his job, we need to focus on how well he masters the game at the atomic level.”

Earlier this season, thanks to the efforts of Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Turkenkopf (among others), Baseball Prospectus unveiled Deserved Run Average (DRA), a revolutionary metric that reflects our best estimate of the runs each pitcher "deserved" to allow in a given season. Simply put, fantasy owners now have a more accurate representation of how well (or poorly) a pitcher has actually performed than ever before.

According to Judge’s column earlier this week on the subject of Cy Young Award voting (which you should totally go check out), DRA “better estimates run expectancy than any other sabermetric statistic. Our testing indicates that DRA can explain about 70 percent of the runs pitchers allowed on their watch.”

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself immersed in Baseball Prospectus DRA leaderboards on more than one equation. Over the extended Labor Day weekend, I decided to embark on the challenge of determining which of the 122 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings this season possess the biggest divide between their ERA and their DRA from both a positive and negative standpoint.

It’s important to remember that statistics do not tell the entire story, especially with pitchers who have a limited sample size at the Major League level. Scouting is an equal (if not more important) element of baseball (and fantasy) analysis. However, for this exercise, we are looking almost exclusively at the numbers and what they can tell us about the 2015 campaign.

DRA vs. ERA: Overachievers


Pitcher

2015 ERA

2015 DRA

Differential

Lance Lynn

2.80

4.20

1.40

Carlos Martinez

3.04

4.43

1.39

A.J. Burnett

3.06

4.38

1.32

John Lackey

2.90

4.19

1.29

Nick Martinez

4.09

5.38

1.29

Jamie Garcia

1.89

3.08

1.19

Hector Santiago

3.24

4.36

1.12

Jon Niese

4.17

5.29

1.12

Wei-Yin Chen

3.36

4.46

1.10

Ryan Vogelsong

4.58

5.58

1.00

Exactly 10 pitchers have outperformed their Deserved Run Average (DRA) by a full run or more this season. It should come as no surprise that four of the top six pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. Last month, Grantland’s Ben Lindbergh wrote extensively about their unprecedented ability to strand base runners this season. Expecting some regression heading into 2016 from Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, John Lackey and Jaime Garcia doesn’t mean that I “don’t think they will be very good.” It simply means that I wouldn’t reasonably project them to post ERA’s around or below 3.00 next year again.

Let’s throw out Nick Martinez, Jon Niese, and Ryan Vogelsong. Every team (even the good ones) need fourth and fifth starter types to eat up innings. They matter. If you don’t believe me, Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie started Game 7 of the World Series last October. Out of 122 starting pitchers with 100 innings this season, they rank 116th and 121st, respectively, in DRA. However, from a fantasy standpoint, unless you’re in an insanely deep AL- or NL-only format, you’re not concerned about a starter whose DRA is north of five runs per nine innings.

The final name worth discussing is 30-year-old Wei-Yin Chen. He’s rocking a career-high 7.28 K/9 and a stellar 81.5% strand rate at the moment, both of which feel unsustainable in the long run. Don’t pay the full freight for a repeat performance next season.

DRA vs. ERA: Underachievers

Pitcher

2015 ERA

2015 DRA

Differential

Cole Hamels

3.70

2.83

-0.87

Jeff Samardzija

4.87

4.05

-0.82

Mat Latos

4.92

4.11

-0.81

Chris Tillman

5.15

4.41

-0.74

Kyle Kendrick

6.29

5.56

-0.73

Anibal Sanchez

4.99

4.28

-0.71

Eduardo Rodriguez

4.05

3.34

-0.71

Aaron Harang

4.89

4.21

-0.68

Wade Miley

4.43

3.75

-0.68

Joe Kelly

4.84

4.18

-0.66

The biggest names on this list with the most relevance for fantasy owners are Hamels and Samardzija. You could make a legitimate case that Hamels has pitched better this season than he has at any other point in his career. He’s posted his highest strikeout rate (9.19 K/9) since 2012, but has seen his strand rate fall to 74.2%. According to DRA, Hamels has been a bit unlucky in terms of the runs he’s allowed this year. The move to the hitters haven in Texas isn’t ideal, but some positive regression would push his ERA into elite territory next year.

Seriously, how is Kendrick not the biggest underachiever? Remember when he threw seven shutout innings with six strikeouts on Opening Day? That was fun. Thanks for the memories Kyle.

Finally, did you know Joe Kelly has great stuff? See, even DRA knows. Give me all of the Kelly shares next season.

K/9 – Risers

Pitcher

2014 K/9

2015 K/9

Differential

Chris Archer

8.00

10.95

2.95

Kyle Hendricks

5.27

7.8

2.53

James Shields

7.14

9.6

2.46

Robbie Ray

5.97

8.41

2.44

Michael Pineda

6.96

8.84

1.88

Rick Porcello

5.67

7.49

1.82

Dallas Keuchel

6.57

8.30

1.73

Clay Buchholz

6.97

8.50

1.53

Shelby Miller

6.25

7.71

1.46

Jorge De La Rosa

6.79

8.14

1.35

Not only has Tampa Bay’s electric right-hander Chris Archer substantially cut his walk rate (from 3.33 a year ago to 2.35 this season), but also his transformation into a bonafide fantasy ace has coincided with the largest strikeout surge of any starter in the game. He’s jacked up his strikeout rate by nearly three per nine and owns the third-best rate of any starter in baseball this year, trailing only dynamic southpaws Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw.

As if you needed another reason to love Dallas Keuchel. He’s been hotter than a Braxton Miller spin move this season. Through Labor Day, his 2.73 DRA ranked seventh out of 122 pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings this season. Only Kershaw has thrown more innings this year. He’s a flat out stud, who has been an absolute coup for keeper and dynasty league owners. I would be shocked if he isn’t one of the first 10 pitchers off the board in re-draft leagues next season.

I’ve actually written about Robbie Ray here at Baseball Prospectus earlier this season. He’s an interesting case because he’s made significant improvements this season. With improved command (3.36 BB/9) he could become one of the better left-handed fantasy starters in the game a year from now.

It’s surprising to see Kyle Hendricks on this list mainly because his stuff can be summarized as “fringy” in the nicest way possible. Through 27 starts, he’s posted a much higher strikeout rate than he did a season ago, but not that far away from the 8.50 K/9 mark he posted in 17 Triple-A starts a year ago. If you want to learn more about Hendricks, I will direct you to Rian Watt of BP Wrigleyville, who put together this excellent piece on him last month.

K/9 – Decliners

Pitcher

2014 K/9

2015 K/9

Differential

Phil Hughes

7.98

5.30

-2.68

Jered Weaver

7.13

4.78

-2.35

Chase Anderson

8.27

6.07

-2.20

Alex Wood

8.91

6.81

-2.10

CC Sabathia

9.39

7.35

-2.04

Collin McHugh

9.14

7.39

-1.75

Adam Warren

8.69

6.97

-1.72

R.A. Dickey

7.22

5.52

-1.70

Garrett Richards

8.75

7.06

-1.69

Jaime Garcia

8.04

6.57

-1.47

You shouldn’t be surprised to see Jered Weaver on this list. The one name that is actually pretty surprising is Garrett Richards. According to Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data, his average fastball velocity has dropped by a full mile per hour, down to 96 mph (still excellent, but down from 97 mph last year) and he’s gone away from his sinker this year. I’m not setting off any alarm bells just yet, but the decline in strikeouts keeps him from having the potential to join the truly elite fantasy aces going forward.

On the surface, it would appear as though Jaime Garcia has lost something in the strikeout department, but it’s important to keep in mind that he made just seven starts (43 innings) last season. I wouldn’t panic.

BB/9 – Decliners (Positive)

Pitcher

2014 BB/9

2015 BB/9

Differential

Mike Pelfrey

6.85

2.58

-4.27

Trevor May

4.34

2.03

-2.31

Ubaldo Jimenez

5.53

3.29

-2.24

Taijuan Walker

4.26

2.25

-2.01

A.J. Burnett

4.40

2.39

-1.65

Erasmo Ramirez

4.06

2.54

-1.52

Max Scherzer

2.57

1.23

-1.34

C.J. Wilson

4.35

3.14

-1.21

Jered Weaver

2.74

1.71

-1.03

Clay Buchholz

2.85

1.83

-1.02

The most significant name on this list is Taijuan Walker. At just 22 years old, he’s on the precipice of stardom based on the adjustments he’s made this season. Coming into the year, his control issues were at the epicenter of the problems he needed to address if he was going to become an ace. He’s done exactly that.

Things haven’t gone well for Max Scherzer since the All-Star break, but his control is bordering on Hughes territory. Among qualified starters, only Hughes himself and the eighth wonder of the world Bartolo Colon own lower walk rates this year.

You may have noticed that Clay Buchholz is showing up on a lot of these lists for positive improvement he made before going down for the year with a flexor strain on July 11. Looking ahead to next season, if he comes back healthy in spring training, he’s a prime bounce-back candidate to target. One of these years he’s going to stay healthy!

BB/9 – Risers (Negative)

Pitcher

2014 BB/9

2015 BB/9

Differential

James Shields

1.74

3.42

1.68

A. DeSclafani

1.36

2.87

1.51

Mike Fiers

2.13

3.43

1.30

Julio Teheran

2.08

3.27

1.19

Ryan Vogelsong

2.83

3.96

1.13

Nathan Eovaldi

1.94

2.86

0.92

Alfredo Simon

2.57

3.46

0.89

Jimmy Nelson

2.47

3.28

0.81

Yovani Gallardo

2.53

3.33

0.80

Jorge De La Rosa

3.27

4.04

0.77

The strikeouts may be up, but so are the walks and the home runs allowed for James Shields. He’s experienced a drastic decline in command and is well on his way to posting the highest walk rate of his entire career. To put it in perspective, he’s never posted a walk rate above 2.68 BB/9.

Anthony DeSclafani made just five starts (eight relief appearances as well) in Miami last season and has been a solid back-end of a fantasy rotation option this season through 27 starts in Cincinnati. It may appear as though his walk rate is up, but it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

It’s not the sole reason for his struggles, but it’s worth pointing out that Julio Teheran’s walk rate has ballooned more than almost any starter in baseball from a year ago. He’s still only 24 years old, but it’s worth monitoring his walk rate early next season, especially in re-draft formats, to see if he’s corrected those issues.

GB% – Risers

Pitcher

2014 GB%

2015 GB%

Differential

Michael Pineda

39.1

49.9

10.8

Danny Salazar

34.4

44.4

10.0

Erasmo Ramirez

37.7

47.3

9.6

Nick Martinez

32.9

42.1

9.2

Jake Odorizzi

29.9

39.0

9.1

Ground balls are significant for several reasons, most importantly because they don’t leave the yard. They generally tend to result in hits at a slightly higher rate than fly balls, but they are often far less catastrophic when they do. It’s a significant development for both Pineda and Salazar to go from primarily fly ball pitchers to hovering right around the league-average ground ball rate.

Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to “The Eraser.” The 25-year-old has transformed from Seattle washout into a viable fantasy option since arriving in Tampa Bay earlier this year. He’s dramatically improved his walk rate (cutting a 4.06 BB/9 rate a year ago to just 2.54 BB/9 this season) while generating more ground balls and serving up fewer home runs. The lack of an elite strikeout rate will keep him from getting much better, but there is a lot to like with Ramirez as a back end of a fantasy rotation option next season and beyond.

GB% – Decliners

Pitcher

2014 GB%

2015 GB%

Differential

Dan Haren

41.5

31.3

-10.2

Jeff Samardzija

50.2

40.3

-9.9

Jeremy Guthrie

43.6

33.9

-9.7

Taijuan Walker

46.6

38.3

-8.3

Joe Kelly

54.9

46.6

-8.3

In the interest of full disclosure, I nearly omitted Guthrie (-9.7%) from the top five because he’s not relevant fantasy-wise and I had to seriously consider dropping Dan Haren as well. He’s not a good fit in Wrigley Field and we really have no idea if he’s even going to pitch next season. The only significant name that stands out for fantasy owners is Samardzija. While his home run to fly ball rate has remained virtually unchanged from a year ago (10.7%), the huge uptick in fly balls has resulted in 24 home runs allowed already this season. Look, it’s Kelly again. Unreal.

HR:FB – Decliners (Positive)

Pitcher

2014 HR:FB

2015 HR:FB

Differential

Jamie Garcia

18.8

6.9

-11.9

Mike Pelfrey

15.2

7.1

-8.1

Tyson Ross

11.3

5.8

-5.5

CC Sabathia

23.3

18.1

-5.2

Marco Estrada

13.2

8.1

-5.1

Now this is a strange group. CC Sabathia has served up 26 taters this season, which for him represents positive regression. Tyson Ross is notable because he’s gone from a league-average HR:FB rate to an elite mark. It will be interesting to see if he regresses back to the mean next year or is able to sustain it. He’s alternated between the two it seems like consistently from year to year.

HR:FB – Risers (Negative)

Pitcher

2014 HR:FB

2015 HR:FB

Differential

Anibal Sanchez

3.1

16.0

12.9

Brett Anderson

3.3

16.0

12.7

Ian Kennedy

7.8

17.6

9.8

Jerome Williams

10.0

18.3

8.3

James Shields

9.7

17.7

8.0

It was fair to expect a little regression from both Sanchez and Anderson, who posted fantastic HR:FB ratios a year ago, but a jump to well above the league average, which was is typically around 10% every year, is dramatic. The same goes for Shields, who owns the highest rate of any starter in the game not named Sabathia. He’s given up 28 home runs, 15 of which have come at PETCO Park. If he can find a way to cure his severe case of the “gopher balls” the increase in strikeouts and the NL West setting makes him an attractive bounce-back candidate for 2016.