No time for wasted words as we collectively crawl out of our Thanksgiving stupor. George Bissell wrote about the ERA landscape, Wilson Karaman wrote about some over- and under-achievers, and here’s the ERA deep dive:
The centerpiece of 2015’s Yoenis Cespedes trade won the Rookie of the Year award on the strength of his 3.06 ERA, third-best in the junior circuit among starters with 100 or more innings. The accomplishment is even more impressive when you consider Fulmer opened 2015 in the Florida State League and only pitched 15.1 innings above Double-A by the time he arrived in Motown. There are reasons to discount that shiny ERA for projection’s sake, like a deflated BABIP despite playing in front of one of the league’s worst defenses, or the inability to whiff his way out of trouble. Still, there are reasons to curb your regression expectations.
The 43-point difference between his 3.49 DRA and 3.06 is not nothing, but it’s no more severe than the splits registered by Masahiro Tanaka and Jacob deGrom, for example. Fulmer’s 90 DRA- suggests he was solidly better than a league-average pitcher with room to back up some and still return value. Led by one of the best changeups in the game (.167 TAv against), his repertoire is solid across the board. Don’t expect a repeat of his fantastic 2016, but don’t fade him too hard either. He’s a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter without the upside to reach the upper tiers or the downside to recede from standard depth relevance.
I owned Reed in a couple places for the whole of 2016 and, even so, didn’t quite realize what I had until I began researching this piece. Reed’s 1.97 ERA was not just an easy career-best, but also good for a top-10 mark among all relievers. Enhancing his value was the fact that his 77.2 innings were more than all but two of that top 10 (Chris Devenski and Seung Hwan Oh). On ERA alone, the Mets' eighth-inning man was more valuable than Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman. If you don’t want to take ERA’s word for it, you can put your faith in DRA, which had Reed as the eighth-best reliever in 2016.
And in case you’re skeptical about the value of non-closing relievers in our game, Mike Gianella retrospectively valued Reed at $15 in NL-only formats. Reed tallied just one save and four wins last season, so the vast majority of the value is coming from ratios. It would be understandable to look at Reed with some skepticism given that 2016 was a significant departure from his previous 250 major-league innings and the fact that pop-up relievers can go as fast as they came. That Reed got out ahead of batters at an elite rate in 2016 gives some hope that a new approach will lead to sustained results.
Sanchez won the AL's ERA crown, posting an even three-spot while falling eight frames short of the 200-inning mark. He pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for most of 2015, and when he won a starting job after a dominant spring many questioned his ability to last a full season in the rotation, including his club. The Blue Jays attempted to limit Sanchez down the stretch by spacing out the time between starts, and though his run prevention was ultimately no worse because of it, he struggled over the last month, perhaps some combination of an irregular schedule and fatigue.
For reasons I can’t fully explain, I’m high on Sanchez, whereas I’m hedging a little with Fulmer despite the fact that they exhibited similar red flags with regard to run prevention. Sanchez benefited from a favorable BABIP despite his relatively extreme ground-ball tendency, and his swinging-strike rate was one of the worst in the league. The latter is not as concerning as it sounds on its face, because Sanchez clearly invites contact by pounding the zone with heaters and he excels at generating weak contact. That’s not necessarily a positive for his cumulative fantasy value, but we’re here to talk about ERA and there’s safety in a combination of behaviors that requires an abnormal string of good sequencing to beat with any consistency.
To wit, 23 of Sanchez’s 30 starts were quality, and the resulting 77 percent rate was third-best in baseball. Despite a home park that makes run suppression difficult, it’s just tough to hang a crooked number on Sanchez. Like Fulmer, Sanchez has a four-pitch arsenal of above-average offerings. It all adds up to another solid mid-rotation option whose regression I’m not sweating as hard as I typically might given the gap between the surface stats and the advanced metrics.
The Interesting Cases
Anderson is one of the least-heralded success stories of 2016, in large part because he’s a Rockies pitcher, and who pays attention to Rockies pitchers? A 3.63 FIP substantiates Anderson’s 3.54 ERA, and DRA is willing to go a step further, suggesting that Anderson deserved better than his already-stellar mark. His 3.29 DRA and 90 cFIP are not materially different than what, say, Madison Bumgarner offered up in 2016. That context makes it awfully difficult to dismiss what Anderson achieved, especially considering that he didn’t pitch in 2015 and began the year in High-A.
If DRA thinks Anderson got shortchanged, it thinks Gray got utterly hosed, racking up a 4.61 ERA despite a 3.45 DRA. That 1.16 point spread was the 12th-highest among starters, slotting in behind Aaron Nola, Michael Pineda, and Robbie Ray in the high strikeout/poor run prevention segment of the DRA under-performers. Gray’s not likely to strand fewer than two thirds of his runners again, so there’s some of the expected regression there. As for the rest? As long as Anderson and Gray pitch in Coors, they’ll have a hard time making their ERA land where a skills-based metric implies it should.
Without doing an exhaustive search, I could only conjure up a handful of campaigns where a starter did so in the thin air: Ubaldo Jimenez’s third-place Cy Young finish in 2010, peak, pre-injury Jhoulys Chacin, and a stray Jorge De La Rosa season or two (strange but true, DRA fancies much of de La Rosa’s mid/late career). Because of his prospect pedigree and the quality of his stuff, Gray would probably have the better odds of joining that club if you could bet on such things. Give me Anderson assuming the price reflects those odds. He managed the rare reverse Coors split, pitching to a 3.00 ERA in 78 home innings while getting slapped around on the road to the tune of a 4.71 ERA.
Man alive these guys were terrible. Their 2016 ERAs sum to 28.80. There are only four of them! I could’ve easily included Archie Bradley and Braden Shipley, but their ERAs only pushed in to the low fives and their relative excellence would have distorted the numbers.
DRA suggests Blair (7.59 ERA, 6.73 DRA) and Berrios (8.02 ERA, 7.55 DRA) wholly earned their atrocious marks, pegging them as the ninth- and fifth-worst pitchers in the majors among those who reached 50 innings. It’s a little more lenient on Severino (5.83 ERA, 4.49 DRA), who was able to pad his stats with two excellent bullpen stretches that almost make you forget he had an 8.50 ERA in 11 starts. And it looks more favorably still on Reed (7.36 ERA, 3.93 DRA), who gave up a ridiculous 2.63 HR/9 and 34.4 percent HR/FB to right-handers.
I bring these guys up not necessarily to reflect on them as individuals but to remind myself, and you, that starting prospects without truly elite stuff are generally poor investments in standard depth re-draft leagues, even if the investment is minimal. Sure, the payoff on Fulmer was immense, but for every prospect whose best fantasy asset is the ability to prevent runs–think Fulmer or Jameson Taillon–there are 2-3 burning up roster spots while they wait to blow up your ERA. Don’t be the person who throws away a buck or two at auction or a chunk of FAAB just because you haven’t seen your target fail yet.