Forgive the Pitchers Who Wronged You

Masahiro Tanaka and Jeff Samardzija had perplexing, enigmatic, and ultimately bad seasons. Many attempts were made to ascribe reasons or causes for their struggles. I think both will bounce back for very simple reasons; accordingly, I think both will be undervalued in 2018 for equally simple reasons.

Masahiro Tanaka

Travis Sawchik and Eno Sarris discussed his various ailments, so to speak, long after I gave up trying to diagnose him. The heat maps are interesting, and the splits are interesting, albeit a bit of an archaism.

But when it comes down to it, Tanaka got unlucky. Sure, he slipped up a bit in terms of stranding runners — his strand rate (LOB%) clocked in 5 percentage points lower than what had been his career strand rate prior to 2017, but only 1 percentage point lower than the league average, so it’s hard to call this unlucky. And his .305 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), while 35 points higher than what had been his career BABIP, is basically right on par with league average. Again, hard to call it unlucky.

No, it’s the rate of home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) where he was truly, definitively unlucky. His 21.2% mark is the worst since 2002, the beginning of Baseball Info Solution’s batted ball data. The league-wide home run surge is well-established; with it, the proportionate HR/FB surge. Alas, Tanaka’s indexed HR/FB (i.e., relative to the league, like wRC+, etc.) may not be worst in history. Regardless, it’s downright foolish to expect it to happen again.

It goes beyond bad luck for me, too. Tanaka, King of the Chased Pitch, was filthier than ever in 2017, inducing the most swings on out-of-zone pitches in a season (since 2007, where Pitch Info data begins). It contributed to a career-best 15.1% whiff rate (SwStr%) and baseball’s 12th-best contact (Contact%) allowed in a season (again, since 2007). Alas, it’s hard for me to reconcile that a pitcher who allows such infrequent contact could allow such bad contact. His contact quality peripherals seem to support this assertion. In fact, he has been incredibly consistent in this regard throughout his stateside career.

Maybe the BABIP and LOB%, for whatever reason, don’t rebound. The HR/FB should, and while it’ll likely hover above the league average, it should still be good enough to achieve a mid-3.00s ERA; toss in his unusually good contact management, and the ERA could, perhaps should, drop further.

Jeff Samardzija

I wrote about the Shark in May, right around the time I was losing faith in Tanaka. Samardzija’s peripherals slipped quite a bit as the season progressed, from elite to merely pretty good. Regardless, the outcomes never caught up, and his 4.42 ERA, while not the worst of his career, was still pretty unpalatable. Wherever you drafted him, it probably didn’t hurt you much. But when someone strings together 100 strikeouts to four walks across 92.2 innings, it’s hard not to get your hopes up.

Eno talked to him about it. Tony Blengino lauded his “true” contact-adjusted ERA in July, but Baseball Prospectus’ end-of-year deserved run average (DRA) resoundingly disagrees. Alas, the “enigmatic” descriptor. (Edit, 3:03 pm EST: Turns out I was looking at 2015. Why on earth would a yearly leaderboard default to 2015? Good lord. He actually had a 3.63 DRA — almost perfectly in line with his FIPs.)

This is another one of those “regardless” things: regardless, he’ll bounce back. In the end, Samardzija had a solid season per his peripherals. It’s the strand rate, that singular issue, that tarnished everything. Samardzija is not, by any means, a master at stranding runners, but his 67.5% rate is abnormally low, even for him. Conveniently, he had very similar issues that resulted in a career-worst 4.96 ERA. It would have been easy to write him off, and many did. He bounced back to strand a normal amount of runners en route to a 3.81 ERA.

These things are not easy to predict. Moreover, if you think they’re inherently predictive, you are gravely misguided in your judgment.

Recent Precedents

Remember where Dallas Keuchel was drafted this year? After being drafted the 15th starting pitcher in 2016, an atrocious strand rate (and an unusually-high-for-him BABIP) undermined everything we thought we knew about his contact management skills. Turns out maybe we were right all along; he fell to 35th among starting pitchers (144th overall) and returned to his sub-3.00 ways, generating a positive return on investment in only 23 starts. Paul Sporer tabbed him his SP23, and too-early mock drafts have Keuchel going as a top-20 starter. Honestly, he might still be underrated.

Remember where Marcus Stroman was drafted this year? Ditto the issue with strand rate; despite surgery the previous year, he looked every bit himself minus this stat-line quirk. Going literally one pick before Keuchel — SP34, 143rd overall — his strand rate predictably bounced back (and then some), and he churned out a positive ROI as well. His situation is less extreme than Keuchel’s — Keuchel, being a pretty extreme guy himself, has a higher ceiling — but you catch my drift. Stroman is Sporer’s SP20 and the too-early mocks’ SP29.

Remember where Sonny Gray was drafted this year? Is this getting tiring for you? Everyone thought Gray was broken; I admit, something did appear to be off with him. Then again, Keuchel and Stroman seemed a bit off last year as well. Gray, like, Keuchel, had been a master of limiting contact and stranding baserunners. He returned to form and then some, exceeding his career whiff (prior to 2017) by almost 3 percentage points. After being drafted as a top-20 starter in 2015 and 2016, it’s clear that’s his upside — with the added whiffs and the fortune of good health, maybe even higher. Sporer’s SP27 and the too-earlies’ SP33 could be a bargain even as a mid-round standard starter.

The Point

I’m speaking anecdotally, but these players serve to prove trends — or, rather, lack of trends — that exist within certain metrics year over year. Strand rate, HR/FB, and even BABIP can be volatile between 200-inning seasons. They’re enough to disrupt our faith in stud players, perhaps irrationally so, and it’s easy to develop narratives that help describe what happened. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. If this isn’t your gut check, it’s mine.

Johnny Cueto was a disappointment whose poor performance manifested in a minor uptick in walks but otherwise resulted from inflated BABIP and HR/FB marks. John Lackey — not a remarkable pitcher by any means, but pretty much a top-100 overall player the previous two years — had his season decimated by an outlier HR/FB rate. Lackey is Sporer’s SP99, but honestly, even for a guy who will be entering his age-39 season, I see virtually no skills erosion here. Jose Quintana had a stinker despite way more strikeouts. Don’t make me explain his narrative to you becuase it’s like all the rest. (Cueto and Quintana are Sporer’s SP22 and SP24, by the way, so who knows what kind of discount you’ll get on them, if any).

So, that’s it. The vibe of this Robbie Ray post from January applies to all of this. It has taken me a couple of years to learn the hard way that some of the best bargains aren’t from lucking out on the year’s big breakout star. It’s from superseding your short-term memory and cognitive bias and re-trusting the guys who broke your heart. There is no love without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without love.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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5 years ago

Matt Harvey “so you’re saying there’s a chance?”

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

There is a chance. Much like TJ, Thoracic Outlet is major surgery. Quite frankly I was impressed that he gutted through those September outings. Given a full offseason of core workouts and a normal spring training and better defense? he could be a bounceback

5 years ago
Reply to  southie

Because he’s the starting pitcher you deserve, but not the starting pitcher you need next year.