The 2014 xK% Overachievers, AKA: The Downsiders

Yesterday, I shared with you the names of a group of starting pitchers whose xK% was much higher than his actual K%. So today I’m going to check in on the opposite end of the spectrum, those starters whose xK% was well below their actual K% marks. You might call this group your bust candidates. Well, that is if people are paying for a repeat of their 2014 strikeout rates of course.

Before going further, I want to point out that a lot of the names on the overperformance list are the league leaders in strikeout rate. Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish appear first and second. I’m not going to include them. This shouldn’t surprise anyone or make you question the equation for two reasons. First, these guys have posted the highest strikeout rates in the business, making it a little less likely that such high strikeout rates are their actual true skill level.

Second, regression equations by nature have a difficult time with the extremes. Actual marks tend to have a larger range of outcomes than formulas project. All you need to do is look at the Steamer ERA projections to see this in action. Last year among qualified starters, the lowest ERA posted was 1.77, while the highest was 5.34. That’s a range of 3.57 runs. Yet the 2015 ERA projections for those projected for at least 160 innings fit within a much tighter range between 2.45 and 5.04, or 2.59 runs, nearly a full run less of a difference. With that said, let’s get to the names.

Jake Arrieta — 24.5 xK%, 27.2% K%

After years of disappointing performance, Arrieta broke out in a big way with the Cubs on the heels of a significantly stronger reliance on his slider. And his swinging strike rate did indeed soar. But xK% suggests he wasn’t quite that elite, just very good. His overall skills are almost surely going to regress a bit, but a career high grounder rate and overall strike percentage validate that this is a new pitcher. Many will be nervous about buying shares after his first good year, but I think he’ll be excellent again, just not sub-3.00 ERA excellent.

Mike Fiers — 25.2 xK%, 27.7% K%

Fiers has become quite the trendy sleeper over the last couple of months. And I’m fairly certain that in the recent FanGraphs mock draft, everyone rushed to their keyboard to complement Fiers’ new owner on what a fantastic pick he was. One could look at his xK% in two ways. The optimist notes that a 25%+ K% is still fantastic. It would have ranked him 11th highest among qualified starters in baseball last year.

The pessimist digs deeper. With a fastball that fails to average even 90 mph and about a league average SwStk%, where are all these strikeouts coming from, he wonders. The answer lies in his looking strike rate, which has sat between 30% and 31% during all four of his Major League stints, which is well above the league average. He could also thank a foul strike rate that sits marginally above the league average. So his less exciting strike types are offsetting his mediocre swinging strike rate. It’s not the profile that warms my heart. And he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher in a home park that inflates home runs.

But wait! I actually do kinda like him. At least my Pod Projected ERA suggests such a case, as I’m forecasting a 3.40 mark, better than both Steamer and the Fans. But he still worries me a bit, even though he may very well deliver a tidy profit if he could be had relatively cheaply in a 12-team mixed league.

Johnny Cueto — 22.7 xK%, 25.2% K%

And finally, perhaps your first true bust candidate. As usual, not a bust in the sense of him performing poorly, but simply not returning owners the value that they paid for him. Cueto’s xK% jumped just 1% above his 2013 mark, yet his K% surged by 4.1%. His career high xK% came via a career best foul strike rate, a called strike rate right at his career average, and a drop in swinging strike rate from 2013. It’s not what you expect from someone who just posted the highest strikeout rate of his life, by far. He’s thrown more than 200 innings just twice in his career. He is being drafted in NFBC leagues as the 9th starter off the board and 42nd overall player. That’s just absurd.

He owns a very good, but not elite skill set, and relies on his defense and stranding runners to maintain a sub-3.00 ERA. Would you rather bet on supreme skills or sustaining a low BABIP and high LOB%? Sign me up for the former.

Corey Kluber — 26.0 xK%, 28.3% K%

Oops. I might get fired for saying anything negative about Kluber. So I won’t. I’m really just grasping for straws here because there’s really not a whole lot of overperformers to discuss. Even Kluber’s xK% is excellent. It ranked as the eighth highest in baseball.

Okay, so let’s dissect, shall we? He threw 235.2 innings last year! That was about 75 more innings than he threw in 2013. Okay, I’m done. But as much of a fan and believer of his as I am, it’s still difficult to think he’s a good pick going 32nd overall in NFBC drafts. He’s done this once, though SIERA suggests more like twice, and now he’s the seventh best fantasy starter in baseball? I’m probably projecting the same or better, but I simply cannot take a pitcher that early without an established track record. I’d much rather wait until the 10th round and later to grab a slew of undervalued hurlers.

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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how i feel about pitching this year-
“I’d much rather wait until the 10th round and later to grab a slew of undervalued hurlers.”