Adventures In The Trade Trade: Who’s Been (Un)lucky So Far, Starting Pitcher Edition

Having morosely completed our efforts to determine the over-under on A.J. Pollock’s rest-of-season plate appearances—100, and we’ll take the under—we attempt to identify starting pitchers whose fantasy-relevant stats belie their actual performance so far this season. We think that pitchers who aren’t being hit hard, but have high BABIPs and home-run-to-fly-ball ratios, have been unlucky rather than bad, and that their luck will change. Those are the guys you might want to trade for. And we think that the guys who are getting hit hard but have low BABIPs and HR/FB% have been lucky. Those are the guys you might want to unload while the unloading is good.

We will try to avoid stating the obvious. It will not astonish you to learn that fortune has smiled upon Gerritt Cole this season. He’s a wonderful pitcher no matter what, and even with a change of luck will be among the top 10 to 20 starters for the rest of the season. And that’s probably the value he’d be assigned in a trade, not what he’d be worth if he actually has the extraordinary season he’s on pace to have. What we’re trying to do here is what we did last week with hitters: tell you about a few guys for whom a cogent narrative can be constructed to account for their performance, but who we think have been lucky or unlucky. For each of them, we’ll also try to identify another pitcher whose typical performance is roughly comparable to what we think the rest-of-season numbers will be for the guy in question.

First, the lucky pitchers:

Kyle Gibson. This comes kind of close to stating the obvious. Gibson’s been, hands down, the luckiest pitcher of the season so far. Things should balance out; the question is how far in the other direction they go. If he winds up with the stats envisioned by the preseason consensus, he will be toxic henceforth. But we come to praise Gibson, not to bury him. You can’t take five steps in any direction in Fangraphs without stumbling over an article about Gibson’s miraculous 2017 second half. That second half closely resembled Gibson’s 2015 performance, his best full season to date. As long-time Gibson promoters, and current Gibson owners, we’re believers rather than skeptics. So figure more of the 2015/2017 same from here on in, adjusted for the strikeout explosion—not as good as what’s happened so far, but still pretty good, and about what you thought you’d get, but emphatically have not gotten, from Sonny Gray. And in any event, we are rooting for Gibson, whose record in 9 starts is 1-1, to achieve immortality by breaking the record, whatever it may be, for fewest decisions by an ERA qualifier.

Alex Wood. The consensus on Wood is that he was immoderately lucky last season, when he went 16-3, and has been immoderately unlucky this season, when he’s pitched pretty well in 9 starts and has yet to win a game. We get it. It’s not Wood’s fault that the once-watertight Dodger bullpen now leaks like the Trump White House. Nor is it his fault that the spavined Dodger lineup hasn’t scored runs for him. (Even when they score runs in the games he pitches, they do it after he’s out of the game.) And it’s sure not his fault that the day he picked to pitch the greatest game he’ll ever pitch was the same day Johnny Cueto picked to pitch the greatest game he’ll ever pitch. (The March 30th double one-hitter, defaced by Kenley Jansen’s blown save, and surely the finest regular-season major league baseball game ever played in March.) Nonetheless, Wood’s been lucky. He’s getting hit harder and fooling fewer batters than he ever has. We fear a reversion to Wood’s disappointing 2015 season, and an approximation of what you thought you’d get from Aaron Sanchez and have gotten so far from Jhoulys Chacin.

Now, the unlucky ones:

J.A. Happ. It is quite possible that, as Fangraphs’ Nick Pollack and Travis Sawchik both suggest, Happ’s sudden ability, at 35, to elevate his four-seam fastball has produced his unprecedentedly high strikeout rate. That’s not the kind of analysis we’re competent to do or to critique, though we admire those who can. We can’t explain the strikeout rate, and will stipulate that it may betoken something strange, new, and wonderful in Happ’s approach. We can tell you, though, that on the whole, Happ’s numbers this season look a lot like his numbers over the past three years. The reason his results have been different seems simple: three or four extra home runs allowed. One thing we notice is that Happ is one of the leaders among starting pitchers in average home run distance as well as home runs per 9. So maybe whatever strange, new, and wonderful thing he’s been doing produces disaster when it’s anything less than wonderful. If that’s the case, then you’ll get more of the same, and let’s hope Happ stops doing it. If—as we’re timidly suggesting and fervently hoping, since he is our most-owned pitcher—it’s just a question of bad luck, then the rest of the season should be fun, on the order of James Paxton, if you think the strikeout rate is real.

Vince Velasquez. It looks like Velasquez is, at the very least, back where he was in 2016, before he started getting hurt and having what may or may not have been thoracic outlet surgery—Velazquez isn’t sure. If you think that the 2018 Velasquez is the 2016 Velasquez, and his luck henceforth evens out, then maybe he’s Drew Pomeranz with an extra strikeout per 9. But we wonder if there’s more. His hard-hit rate of 24.8% is elite and (for him) unprecedented. Since Velazquez is an extreme fly ball pitcher whose major vulnerability is the home run, that reduced hard-hit rate, if he sustains it, will eventually make a difference in his fantasy-relevant stats. He may be on the verge of achieving his upside, which won’t be that different from what Max Scherzer does in an off-year.

Brandon McCarthy. Pop quiz: Brandon McCarthy arrived in the major leagues on May 22, 2005. In the ensuing 14 years, which has been more common: a total eclipse of the sun, or a fully healthy Brandon McCarthy season? That’s right, and it’s not even close. So it’s probably meaningless to describe McCarthy as “unlucky” for present purposes. Even if we’re correct, will McCarthy be around long enough for the statistical cosmos to reattain its balance? Nonetheless, if you can get him cheaply, it may be worth your while. If things even out, McCarthy’s should give you roughly what he gave you in approximately half a season with the Dodgers last year, which is about what you’ll get from Zach Davies.

The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.

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4 years ago

Cole has benefited from a very easy schedule to date.