Today I continue my series comparing my Pod Projections with Steamer to uncover guys with categorical upside and downside. Previously, I was focused on hitters. I now turn my attention to starting pitchers and ERA.
I’ll only include pitchers who I am projecting for an ERA of 4.00 or less.
I’d like to begin with a quick refresher on how Pod projects pitchers versus Steamer. The latter system heavily regresses the luck metrics (BABIP, HR/9, which is driven by HR/FB, but that’s not projected by Steamer, or at least not displayed, and LOB%) toward the league average. That doesn’t mean Steamer believes these metrics are 100% luck, but it takes an enormous number of innings for a pitcher’s true skill to reveal itself. Since pitchers are changing all the time, we can’t wait a thousand innings to find out whether a pitcher has BABIP-suppressing skills. The vast majority of the time, Steamer will have been correct to perform that heavy regression. But it has difficulties with the guys who consistently post luck metric marks on either extreme. As a result, it would always get the Matt Cains and Chris Youngs of the world wrong, forecasting a significantly higher ERA than they would end up posting.
The Pod Projections, on the other hand, treat every pitcher individually and are now using a calculated Statcast xBABIP to help guide BABIP forecasts, for example. These take defense completely out of the equation and can confirm whether based on the type of contact allowed, a low or high BABIP was deserved. It doesn’t mean it will happen again the following year, but at least we could agree it was skill and not luck. So the regression applied might not be as heavy as Steamer, especially if the pitcher in question is consistently posting low xBABIP marks supporting the low actual BABIP marks.
With the explanation out of the way, let’s get to the names.
With Kenta Maeda moving to the American League, a jump in ERA is an easy call by any projection system. Well, except mine, which would represent the second lowest of his career. Here’s your first low BABIP guy, who has posted an average of a .281 xBABIP in the last three seasons. I’m playing it safe forecasting a .285 mark, but Steamer is higher at .292. Amazingly, every other system is over .300. I’m also projecting a better strikeout rate, but my projection would still be a career low thanks to the move to the AL and the likelihood he’ll pitch fewer relief innings. If Maeda is going for a price assuming a 4.64 ERA, I’m buying all the shares.
Sean Manaea missed the majority of the 2019 season recovering from shoulder surgery, but that clearly didn’t affect his results, as he posted a microscopic 1.21 ERA and 27.5% strikeout rate over five starts upon his return. Manaea has been on my strikeout rate surgers list in the past for underperforming his xK%, so my K% projection is well ahead of Steamer. One reason Steamer is low on the strikeout rate is likely due to the decline in fastball velocity. That’s fair, but we’ll see if a full off-season of rest after the surgery will help get his velocity back up. Also note the huge jump in HR/9 Steamer is projecting — a 1.44 mark versus a 1.13 career average. That’ll spike a pitcher’s ERA!
Masahiro Tanaka completely lost his splitter last year. The SwStk% on the pitch for his career stands at a robust 19.6%, yet it generated just an 11% mark in 2019, by far the lowest of his career. That’s really all it comes down to. I’m betting on somewhat of a rebound since it’s probably just a mechanical thing. Either the splitter returns and I look good, or it doesn’t, and I look silly. It’s as simple as that.
So all of a sudden one season Noah Syndergaard’s ERA is above 4.00 and everyone is trying to explain why it’s justified. It’s not like he has consistently underperformed his underlying skills — his career ERA is actually just below his SIERA, 3.31 to 3.37. I see more of a bounceback in his strikeout rate as his velocity is as strong as always.
It’s become pretty trendy to call Madison Bumgarner a bust now that he’s out of that pitcher’s paradise known as Oracle Park. And indeed, he owned a career 2.72 ERA at home versus a 3.53 mark in away parks. But of course, the average pitcher does post a better home ERA than away mark. More importantly are two luck metrics Bumgarner has consistently posted better than averaged marks in — BABIP and HR/FB. His xBABIP in the last three seasons has not validated his suppression skills, so you wonder how much the Giants defense played a role. But remember, his career BABIP is just .284, which spans over 1,800 innings. He hasn’t posted a BABIP over .296 since 2011! That said, Steamer and I are pretty close on the BABIP front.
One of the big differences is in homers. Surely, moving to a more neutral home run park can’t be a good thing. I agree. But he has still managed to post better than league average HR/FB rates even in away parks over the last couple of years. This, along with a number of other small disagreements, leads to a reasonable disparity in ERA projection.
Welcome back Kyle Hendricks! Though I don’t have historical Steamer projections on me, I’m guessing they have missed big every single season. Hendricks breaks all the rules and makes it tough for computer projection systems that heavily regress, like Steamer. I’m actually projecting the second highest BABIP of his career, but Steamer is up above the league average and a couple ticks worse than his current career high. Once again, the other difference is homers. My forecast would represent a career worst HR/9, with only his second mark above 1.00, but Steamer’s projection represents a career high by a much more significant margin. Will Hendricks’ magic continue or is this the year it wears off and Steamer is finally vindicated?
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.