The Reformed Trinity

The notion of a Holy Trinity, as it applies to theology, derives, depending on which language you’re looking at, from either Theophilus of Antioch or Tertullian of Carthage. The notion of a Holy Trinity, as it applies to starting pitchers, derives from Bret Sayre of Baseball Prospectus. He posited that “the three skills that are most important to the art of pitching [are] getting strikeouts, reducing walks, and keeping the ball on the ground,” and that pitchers who can do all three of those things, as betokened by their above-average stats in those categories, are or can be something special.

Our problem, as seekers after buried Fantasy treasure, is that the guys who qualify for the Trinity are usually special according to any metric you’d care to name. For example, members of the Trinity according to 2015 stats include Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Carlos Carrasco, and Dallas Keuchel. Sometimes, though, interesting names pop up. This year’s Trinity also includes Hisashi Iwakuma and Kyle Hendricks, about whom more in a moment.

Of course, “interesting” doesn’t necessarily mean “helpful.” Last season, we proposed a modification of the Holy Trinity, which we wittily dubbed the Holy Quaternity. The results were visionary, as long as your vision consisted of identifying pitchers who’d subsequently suffer season-destroying injuries: Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Gerrit Cole, but also Marcus Stroman, Zack Wheeler, and T.J. House.

Undaunted as ever, though, we have now modified our Quaternity somewhat and are here to tell you the results. One of the big Sabermetric developments in the last few years has been batted-ball stats—not just groundball/flyball stuff, but also how hard a batted ball was hit. We constructed a Quaternity on this scaffolding: pitchers who threw 100 innings or more last season and were (1) above average in their rate of strikeouts per total batters faced; (2) above average—that is, below average—in their rate of unintentional walks plus hit batters as a percentage of total batters faced; (3) above average in their rate of softly-hit balls as a percentage of balls in play; and (4) above average—again, below average—in their rate of hard-hit balls as a percentage of balls in play.

The results are, once again, interesting. There’s plenty of dog-bites-man material: Kershaw, Keuchel, Arrieta, Syndergaard, Sale, deGrom, Greinke, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Cueto, Strasburg. Then there is the aforementioned Hendricks (NFBC ADP 219). We flagged him and Iwakuma for you in our first blog of the year, as pitchers who figured to benefit from the trend towards bringing relievers into the game early, and we’re yet more convinced, now that we see how good their overall seasons were even without the timely assistance. Also in this elite group is Clay Buchholz, who’s a great pitcher if he’s healthy, but not so great if he isn’t, and whose precariousness seems to be reflected in his draft value (NFBC ADP 286).

That still leaves a bunch of Quaternitarians who are selling for cheap and who, we hazard, won’t disappoint you. They are: Justin Verlander (National Fantasy Baseball League Average Draft Position 145); Jake Odorizzi (NFBC ADP 155); Collin McHugh (NFBC ADP 179); Kevin Gausman (NFBC ADP 238); and Anibal Sanchez (NFBC ADP 295). These guys, in turn, divide into two groups. Group 1 is Detroit Pitchers with Injury Histories. We get why you’re wary of Verlander and Sanchez. Our advice is: don’t be. Verlander’s 2nd half in 2015 looks real, and Sanchez—well, however badly he seemed to be pitching last season, the numbers we’ve unearthed suggest that he wasn’t. If he’s still hurt this year, he’ll let us know in spring training, before he does much damage and (in all probability) before we draft him.

As for McHugh, Odorizzi, and Gausman: we don’t get it. Or rather, we do get it. The guys who don’t like them as much as we do are looking at something more elemental than we’re looking at. They’re looking at the pitches themselves that these pitchers make, and are finding that they come up short in velocity, repertoire, or something of the sort. We’re looking at the statistical results that their pitches achieve, velocity or repertoire notwithstanding, and we’re seeing what we say we’re seeing. Usually, we’d say that the further removed from reality you are, the less accurate you’re likely to be in predicting the reality to come. But given the complexity of the elemental pitch data, the diminished measurement error of our approach may offset its dicier ontological status. It will be fun to find out.

But wait, Birchwood Brothers (we hear you saying): where’s the hopeless obscurity in whose direction you usually point us? Here he is, children: Mike Foltynewicz, NFBC Average Draft Position 605. You probably know his story: Former first rounder, four pitches, four-seamer that tears a hole in the wind, horrifying record (5.64 ERA, 1.62 WHIP) in 105 major league innings so far, stuck inside Atlanta with the Houston blues again, offseason rib surgery, possible return in late April. And you know something else? If you change the eligibility requirements from 100+ IP to 80+IP (Folty pitched 86), and change two of his walks to strikeouts, he makes the Quaternity. He’s on our reserve round list.

There’s a variation on our approach that’s worth reporting on. In a situation strikingly reminiscent of the parallel work of Marconi and Braun, we and beloved Fangraphs editor Eno Sarris independently concluded over the winter that popups matter, because they are harmless automatic outs that correlate well for individual pitchers from season to season. Eno accordingly produced a chart identifying the leaders in Strikeout Rate plus Popup Rate minus Walk Rate. We instead used a formula that defined “Easy Outs” as Strikeouts plus Infield Flies plus .85 x (Softly Hit Balls minus Infield Flies), on the theory that some non-infield popups in fact go for hits, and thus can’t be called easy outs. The .85 reflects the fact that softly-hit balls produce a batting average of .150. We then constructed a Trinity of Easy Outs, Walk Rate, and Hard-Hit Rate. Cueto didn’t make this list. A lot of top-tier guys who aren’t in the Quaternity did, though: Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole, Jon Lester, David Price, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, and Matt Harvey. But so did Iwakuma, and so did Jaime Garcia (NFBC ADP 223).

We think you could assemble a really good 9-man pitching staff, comprised of 6 of the generally-unloved Trinitarians and Quaternitarians we’ve mentioned (Iwakuma/Hendricks/Verlander/Odorizzi/McHugh/Gausman/Sanchez/Buchholz/Garcia),plus two good closers and a closer-in-waiting, and still not draft a pitcher before the 9th round or (if it’s an auction) use as much as 30% of your budget for pitching. Give it a try and let us know how it turns out. Despite our past misadventures with cheap starting pitching, we may do it ourselves.

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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John Sharples
John Sharples

I have a vacancy if anyone is looking for a league.

This is a league I started with my friends last year. It’s competitive with a good mix of beginners and experienced players.

It’s Yahoo, roto, 12-team, mixed league.
Draft is Sunday, March 20, at 8pm.
Buy in is $30.


Please email me at if interested.