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One of the biggest revelations in modern baseball analysis was that pitchers can’t control what happens once an opposing hitter puts the ball into play. Voros McCracken popularized DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Statistics) and explained that batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was highly volatile from year to year. In other words, it was largely random. Of course, the latter has been nuanced in recent years, as it’s become more commonplace to recognize that BABIP is not wholly random and that pitchers do have some part to play in the equation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter point and wondering how I can identify a type of pitching profile that stands outside the traditional BABIP thought processes. Which pitchers have a low BABIP, but arguably deserve to have that low BABIP, and will thus be undervalued by fantasy owners?

Fantasy writers have focused on pitchers with quality defenses behind them—or not-so-quality defenses in the case of early-2015 Cleveland—or those who simply have a track record of low BABIP numbers. Some have also suggested that extreme fly-ball pitchers could yield low BABIPs if that leads to a high frequency of infield fly balls.

Marco Estrada’s success in 2015 has been routinely tossed aside as a fluke. He owns a 3.13 ERA and has been one of the better starters for the Toronto Blue Jays; however, his .216 BABIP and his 4.41 FIP suggest that severe regression is looming just over the horizon. His strikeout rate dropped over two points to 18.1 percent, which is below the league’s average, and his swinging-strike rate fell to a career-low 9.7 percent. All of those peripheral statistics combine to paint a desolate picture—one of a soft-tossing righty on the brink of an implosion.

Then again, Estrada’s 3.42 DRA ranks 22nd among starters with at least 100 innings pitched in 2015, so perhaps we’re missing something important. I suspect that DRA looks at the hitter-friendly ballpark in Toronto and the strength of opponent to give Estrada more credit than FIP—and as we’ve seen illustrated at Baseball Prospectus, the DRA statistic is better than FIP, SIERA, or xFIP.

The most interesting thing about the 32-year-old’s performance, though, is that one should expect his ERA to be way below his FIP because of his contact rates. Estrada owns one of the lowest contact rates on pitches in the strike zone and actually induces a lot of contact on pitches outside the zone, compared to other qualified starters.

Conact%

MLB Rank

In Zone

82.8%

71 out of 78

Out of Zone

74.8%

7 out of 78

Thus, if we’re looking at Estrada’s minuscule BABIP and trying to determine how he would have generated such weak contact over the course of the season, this difference could be the ticket. Opposing hitters are having trouble connecting with pitches in the zone, while getting the bat on a very high rate of bad pitches—which one would assume leads to poor contact.

The interesting thing is that four pitchers have a similar profile to Estrada. Four other pitchers have low contact rates in the zone and high contact rates outside of it. And wouldn’t you know it: All four of them have low BABIPs—to differing degrees—and have vastly outperformed their FIPs.

Player

Z-Contact%

O-Contact%

BABIP

ERA-FIP

Michael Wacha

85.3%

72.5%

.272

-0.49

Hector Santiago

85.9%

70.0%

.252

-1.18

Mike Fiers

84.9%

68.2%

.283

-0.34

R.A. Dickey

83.9%

76.0%

.257

-0.57

The above four pitchers are the only four qualified pitchers, aside from Estrada, to have a contact rate over 68 percent on pitches out of the zone and under 86 percent on pitches in the zone. They also have BABIPs well below the league-average BABIP of .297 for starters and have outperformed their FIPs. These are perhaps not to the same extent as Estrada, which begs the question whether this is just evidence that Estrada’s downfall won’t be as steep as some expect, rather than evidence that he won’t regress at all.

In the end, I wonder how sustainable such a profile truly is. Estrada surely induces a myriad of swings outside the zone on his plus-changeup; however, he’s never had an O-Contact% anywhere near this mark in his career. In fact, it was over 10 percent lower a year ago. That doesn’t lead me to believe it’s projectable to next season. His 105 cFIP also suggests that he’ll be a below-average starter in future games.

What I do think his DRA and his contact rates tell us, however, is that Estrada has been roughly this good in 2015. Significant evidence shows us that he has largely deserved his 3.13 ERA and that it hasn’t been driven by blindingly good luck. It’s important to remember that pitchers sometimes create their own luck. Looking at the numbers, it appears Estrada has done just that.

BUYER’S GUIDE: HOLD

After spending the majority of the article trying to illustrate how Estrada has played a large part in his low BABIP and how he may deserve his impressive performance, savvy fantasy owners must recognize the limitations in the right-hander’s game. His margin for error on the mound is razor thin. He showed that in 2014 with the Milwaukee Brewers. The fact that his O-Contact% has no track record makes me believe it will regress back to career norms in 2016, which will once again place a lot of pressure on Estrada because he’s homer prone and hittable. That’s why I won’t be “buying” his stock over the winter and in the postseason. It’s not a “sell” designation, though, because I don’t believe he will fetch anything too valuable in the trade market. It’s best to hold.

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