Buying Low Using LOB%: Buchholz, Carrasco and Strasburg

Strikeouts are highly desirable from starting pitchers — not exactly an Earth shattering revelation. Unfortunately, everyone wants them, meaning they aren’t often readily available on the waiver wire. With that in mind, I glanced over the leaderboard for strikeout rate among qualified hurlers searching for some potential buy-low candidates. A trio of pitchers stood out to me. Clay Buchholz, Carlos Carrasco and Stephen Strasburg are all posting significantly worse ERA marks than their ERA estimators suggest they should be. Each pitcher, somewhat predictably, has an elevated BABIP, but all three also rank in the bottom 10 among qualified starters in left on base percentage.

Buchholz has posted the ninth lowest LOB (64.0%) among qualified starters this year. His career mark is a 71.4% LOB but he’s sat under 70% over the last few season. Since 2012, Buchholz has tallied a 68.8% LOB. Perhaps his since 2012 rate is what we should expect him revert to, but ZiPS projects a rest of season (ROS) 70.6% LOB and Steamer checks in with a 70.7% LOB going forward this year.

Digging into his work with runners on this year provides me optimism he’ll right the ship and revert to an LOB rate near his career mark or those of the projection systems. With runners on, Buchholz has an impressive 18.0% K-BB. He’s not issuing free passes at a high rate, 6.4% BB, and he’s missing bats, 24.4% K. Furthermore, he’s doing a great job of keeping the ball on the ground with a 62.3% GB. The .471 BABIP allowed to batters while he has runners on base is unsustainable and sooner rather than later these batted balls are going to find gloves. When factoring in his draft day cost, Buchholz should be the most acquirable of the three starting pitchers I’m discussing.

Carrasco was pegged a fringe SP1 by yours truly in the spring, and I’m doubling down on that assessment. The seeds of an ace are all there, and following the theme of the article, he’s been undone by his inability to strand baserunners. Carrasco sports the 10th worst LOB (64.2%) this season. In 96 appearances (62 starts) in the majors, Carrasco has demonstrated some strand issues with a 69.8% LOB. A cursory glance at his minor league numbers reveals the same struggles in the minors back in 2009 as a member of the Phillies and Indians organizations. His last two years in Triple-A, 2010 and 2013, yielded more favorable results, 72.5% LOB and 70.9% LOB, respectively. Last year, he posted a solid 75.9% LOB (73.0% LOB was the league average in 2014). It’s a checkered track record, but he’s coming off of a strong season and the projection models anticipate on improvement the rest of the year (70.6% LOB from ZiPS and 71.7% from Steamer).

Like I did with Buchholz, I investigated what Carrasco’s numbers looked like with runners on. He doesn’t collapse like a cheap tent, so that’s good. He continues to tally tons of punch outs (23.1%) and limits walks (6.4% BB). Carrasco keeps the ball on the ground with a 48.1% GB, but he has ceded a 25.0% LD. His .396 BABIP allowed looks less flukey with such a gaudy line drive rate, but he exhibited no such batted ball issues last year allowing an 18.2% line drive rate with runners on. Carrasco was a more expensive draft day acquisition than Buchholz, and I’d expect trade demands from his owner to reflect that. If Carrasco can be acquired at the cost of a top-50 pitcher instead of a top-25 arm, that’s a deal worth making for pitching needy owners.

Strasburg is responsible for the second worst LOB (60.6%). He’s, however, been the best pitcher of the three at stranding runners in his career (73.0% LOB). His lowest LOB was posted in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, 2011, when he finished with a 70.6% LOB. Entering this year, there was little reason to think Strasburg would struggle with runners on, but a look under the hood reveals some alarming data.

Of the three pitchers, Strasburg is the one who I’m least inclined to trade for. No, that’s not because he’s likely to cost the most of the trio. Instead, it’s because there is some cause for concern within his numbers with runners on. Strasburg is doing poor job of avoiding contact. With runners on, he’s managed just a 12.1% K. Perhaps his pitching to contact could be forgiven if he was tallying a more favorable batted ball profile, but alas, that’s not the case. Batters are teeing off with a 30.2% LD against Strasburg with runners on, and they’re pounding the ball into the ground at a 44.4% clip. I’m not suggesting Strasburg is incapable of resolving whatever issues are hampering him with runners on, but he appears to be the furthest away from correcting his problems. I don’t believe we’ve seen Strasburg reach rock bottom acquisition cost just yet, so give him a little longer to struggle before kicking the tires on dealing for him.

You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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Mike W.
Mike W.

Where does Buchholz rank amongst guys like Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Phil Hughes? Trying to see what starter I might be able to dangle to grab him.