I’ve decided to update my 2018 pERA rankings since I’ve been diving for some starter sleepers. Usually, this procedure helps to find underperformers with inflated ERAs. This time, it was mainly under the radar pitchers.
If anyone is unfamiliar with pERA, it combines the swinging strike rate and batted ball data from each pitch along with the walk rate into an overall ERA estimator (full explanation). Besides the few pitchers listed below, here is a link to the full 2018 values.
The top starters are as expected:
Rank. Name: pERA
1. Max Scherzer: 2.34
2. Chris Sale: 2.44
3. Jacob deGrom: 2.52
4. Noah Syndergaard: 2.57
5. Ross Stripling (w/ RP stats): 2.65
6. Trevor Bauer: 2.75
7. Gerrit Cole: 2.83
8. Justin Verlander: 2.88
9. Patrick Corbin: 2.91
10. Dereck Rodriguez: 2.92
If anyone has followed me over the past couple weeks, they know I’ve completely fallen for Dereck Rodriguez. With the skills he’s shown, he needs to be owned in all leagues. He may not keep it up but from what I’ve seen, there is nothing but upside.
Felix Pena: 2.97 pERA (3.62 ERA)
The 28-year-old righty wasn’t even on my radar until I saw him on this list. He’s been productive with 10.9 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and a 3.63 ERA. His ERA estimators are about a half run lower just over 3.00. Additionally, he’s keeping the ball on the ground with a 51% GB%.
Digging into his pitch transformation, he’s made several changes which seem to be working out.
1. He’s developed an above average sinker with a 60% groundball rate. He’s never featured this pitch before 2018.
2. He’s pitching backward by throwing his devastating slider (28% SwStr%, 55% GB%) more than his fastball.
3. The improvement hasn’t come with added fastball velocity which has hovered around 93 mph.
4. The Angels have limited his workload by not letting him reach the 6th inning or throw over 85 pitches. With basically just two good pitches, they are limiting his exposure to the lineup a third time.
In all Pena is probably not a 3.00 ERA pitcher but the Angels are trying to hide his weaknesses and use his strengths.
Jeremy Hellickson: 3.11 pERA (3.81 ERA)
What is Hellickson doing now to finally not suck? It probably involves a dead chicken and some candles.
First, he’s barely walking anyone with a 1.6 BB/9. He’s never walked batters so this isn’t the change.
Also, he’s pitching backward by throwing his change and curve more than fastballs this season.
Both non-fastballs create an above average number of groundball and swinging strikes. He’s making a last grab at relevancy by minimizing his sub-90 mph fastball. It’s working for now. It’d be nice if his fastball did something besides getting clobbered. Beggars can’t choosers at this point with him.
Nathan Eovaldi: 3.13 pERA (3.35 ERA)
Jose Urena: 3.70 pERA (4.13 ERA)
There isn’t too much to get excited about a possible 3.70 ERA but it would rank 35th among qualified starters. He’s making himself relevant.
Urena came into the season as a streaming option but then he did this:
Career highs in strikeout and ground ball rates and a career-low walk rate. To make these improvements, I have him …. just producing more groundballs.
His overall swinging strike rate has gone from 8.0% to 8.6% to 8.2% to 8.6% over the past four seasons. His fastball velocity is barely up (0.2 mph). One item I’ve noticed from past seasons is that his pitches are each getting an extra 1.2 inches of sink. This explains the more groundballs but has nothing to do with the lower walk rate and more strikeouts.
While on the surface, Urena seems to have improved his game, some of the underlying numbers suggest otherwise. Right now, I see him as a bench streaming option as his true talent level becomes more apparent.
Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.