2021 Pod vs Steamer — ERA Upside

This week, I finish up the Pod vs Steamer series that pits my Pod Projections against the Steamer projections. Today, we move on to pitchers, where I’ll compare the ERA forecasts from each of the systems and identify those pitchers I am projecting for significantly better ERA marks. Though Steamer is the best pitching projection system out there, it struggles on pitchers that have shown consistent BABIP and HR/FB rate suppression skills and deficiencies, as what usually works for the majority of pitchers — projecting a heavy dose of regression to the MLB mean — means it misses on those uncommon exceptions. I use Statcast’s xBABIP now for my projections, so I’m not afraid to forecast a mark that strays from the league average. However, I certainly still include some regression as we don’t always have enough batted balls in a pitcher’s history for that mark to stabilize.

Steamer’s ERA projections are always far higher than mine on the aggregate, so the upsiders will see guys with a much bigger ERA projection gap than the downside list. For this upside list, I’ll limit it to those pitchers I’m projecting for a sub-4.00 ERA.

ERA Upside
Player Pod ERA Steamer ERA
Kenta Maeda 3.45 4.27
Zach Plesac 3.91 4.73
Shohei Ohtani 3.82 4.62
Ryan Yarbrough 3.83 4.56
Jameson Taillon 3.98 4.64
Stephen Strasburg 3.44 4.05
Kyle Hendricks 3.58 4.17
Mike Minor 3.98 4.55

For at least the second season in a row, Steamer is not a fan of Kenta Maeda. I specifically remember this being the case in 2020, because when I saw how much higher I valued Maeda than his projection implied, I wondered what I was doing wrong. The bizarre thing is that not only is Steamer not buying his strikeout rate surge from last year, which is totally understandable given his age, but the system is projecting a career low strikeout rate. His velocity has remained stable and he transformed last year into a splider/splitter guy, reducing the usage of his four-seamer. Of course, Steamer doesn’t know this, so it’s heavily factoring in age-related decline. Interestingly, my ERA forecast is far better than all the systems! I’m not sure what the inputs of THE BAT are, but I know the others don’t account for pitch mix changes, which is generally only something that a manual system like mine could consider.

I find it crazy that even with a seemingly pessimistic ERA projection, I’m still well below Steamer’s for Zach Plesac. And while Steamer’s ERA projection is the highest of all the systems, the others are all above 4.00 too! What happened in 2020 that made Plesac an eight start breakout guy? That’s right, another pitch mix change! He upped the usage of his slider and changeup, and both pitches gained massive effectiveness. I’m not betting on that effectiveness sticking, but clearly more secondary stuff, especially when it’s pretty good, and less fastball that isn’t so good, usually works wonders for strikeouts.

Okay, so let’s give the projection systems a break. It’s hard enough dealing with your run of the mill pitch mix or velocity change, but what happens when you missed an entire year, then returned to only throw 1.2 innings and was atrocious in those innings? The projection systems have no clue, especially when this pitcher has only recorded 51.2 innings before that. Of course, I’m talking about Shohei Ohtani. No one really knows what we’re going to get from him on the mound this season, but he’s been throwing in the mid-to-high 90s and supposedly hitting 100, so he would seem to be pretty healthy. And a healthy Ohtani was supposed to be a really good pitcher, and he actually was during his 2018 debut. I don’t know how many innings he’ll go, but when he pitches, I think he’ll be good.

Did you know that Ryan Yarbrough has some secret strikeout rate upside? For some baffling reason, Steamer is projecting a career low mark. Perhaps it’s because it’s projecting a full season of starts, with no relief appearances to boost that rate up. But Yarbrough posted 23.1% xK%, which is a massive jump from his 18.8% actual mark. You see that 13.3% SwStk%? Yeah, he pumped up the swings and misses, which is fantastic, but somehow his strikeout rate actually dropped. I’m not even projecting anywhere close to that strikeout rate though, as mine is actually just below his current career average. But that higher strikeout rate projection, along with a lower HR/9 than Steamer, is driving the projection gap.

Returning from TJ surgery and moving from one of the friendliest home parks to one of the toughest, Jameson Taillon is quite the crapshoot this season. Steamer and I really aren’t that far apart, except on his HR/9 rate, which is made worse by Steamer’s FB% projection that would easily be the highest of Taillon’s career. I have no idea why the system is projecting such a change in his batted ball profile, but more flies equals more homers, assuming a stable HR/FB rate. The thing with him is that his strikeout rate never matched his stuff, as he featured a mid-90s fastball, but his pitches just didn’t generate a lot of whiffs. Perhaps the Yankees could work their magic and get more strikeouts out of that repertoire, which is another reason why he’s a complete question mark. I could really see anything from him this year.

Well this is shocking. An ERA over 4.00 for Stephen Strasburg for the first time in his career?! Check out that massive decline in projected strikeout rate too! It does make a bit of sense, as Steamer is looking at Strasburg’s huge drop in fastball velocity last year and expecting doom. The system doesn’t know that he was only able to make two starts due to carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand, which I would imagine was affecting his velocity. Of course, now the question is whether his velocity bounces back. If it doesn’t, perhaps Steamer wins this battle. If it does, I think I’ll take the cake.

There’s good old Kyle Hendricks! Steamer is wrong about him every. single. year. While he still has beaten his Statcast xBABIP most seasons, it has generally shown that he does own BABIP suppression skills, though definitely not to the degree his low BABIP would suggest. He has undoubtedly gotten some help from the strong Cubs defense over the years though. Isn’t it funny that all the projection systems are forecasting his worst ERA since 2015? Actually, I am too! But I’m still the most bullish of the group.

Finally, we end with Mike Minor, who might be part of this year’s “increased Spring velocity means he’ll beat all the projections” group. Last year, his velocity dropped a mile and a half, maxing out at 94.1 MPH. So far, the word during Spring Training is that he has been consistently throwing 94 MPH, which matches his maximum from all of last season! We don’t know enough yet to know whether we might expect an average fastball velocity in that realm, or merely a rebound to previous seasons before last year’s decline. However, he still managed his second highest strikeout rate with that down velocity, so a rebound could only help. Furthermore, he returns to the pitcher haven in Kansas City with another strong defense behind him. I think he’s an easy projection beater.

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.

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1 year ago

Spring Training SSS and all that, but Maeda is absolutely eating up hitters right now. It could be he has optimized his pitch ratios and reaching a higher peak than you might otherwise imagine an aging pitcher being able to attain.

1 year ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Aging? He is not real old and his arm does not have a ton of MLB miles