Who Got (Un)lucky, Starting Pitcher Edition

We’d hoped to discuss the first half of our NFBC slow draft this week, but it’s moving with the Thialfian swiftness of Bartolo Colon trying to leg out a triple. So instead we’re back with another installment in our lucky/unlucky series, wherein we attempt to disentangle bad fortune from disappointment and good fortune from success.

For newcomers to our world: our theory, which seems to be borne out in practice, is that pitchers who aren’t hit hard but give up a lot of hits and a lot of home runs are simply unlucky, and pitchers who are but don’t and don’t are merely lucky. We posit that the unlucky guys outperformed their numbers last year, and will accordingly be undervalued in this year’s drafts and auctions, while the lucky guys will be overpriced and should be avoided. And we deduce who these guys might be by looking at 2017’s Hard-Hit Percentage, Batting Average on Balls in Play, and Home Run to Fly Ball Ratio.

First, the lucky guys. Luckiest pitcher of the year, unquestionably: Dylan Bundy. This surprised and in a way saddened us, because we like the guy, and because a perfectly plausible counter-narrative can be constructed—indeed, was constructed last August, by Fangraphs’ own Jeff Zimmerman—that Bundy, a fourth-overall pick out of high school in 2011, finally harnessed his stuff in the second half of the season. The raw stats suggest as much.

Opposing hitters produced a slash line of .221/.277/.353 against him in the second half, which would have been Kershaw/Sale territory if Bundy had been able to do it for a full season. Zimmerman’s article is, as usual, detailed to a fault, and features show-and-tell that we couldn’t produce if our loved one’s lives depended on it. And even we have been able to figure out that, in the second half, Bundy increased his use of his four-seam and slider–the latter of which was devastatingly effective–at the expense of his curve and changeup, which were only so-so all year.

Nonetheless, we are exercising caution with Bundy. Both his full-season and his second-half numbers suggest a guy who got pretty lucky. Even his first half was tinged with good fortune, and his second half was extraordinary: of 104 pitchers who threw at least 60 innings as starters, Bundy had the 29th-lowest BABIP, the 20th-lowest HR/FB percentage, and the 7th highest hard-hit percentage. So maybe Zimmerman’s right—Bundy’s slider now reliably gets righties out, and his four-seamer baffles lefties. And Bundy’s average NFBC draft position of 179 in recent 15-team NFBC drafts isn’t unreasonable, even in light of the risks we’re delineating. But we’re letting someone else take those risks.

Passing lightly over the other pitcher whose stats most clearly betoken good fortune—that would be Robert Stephenson, another first-rounder who supposedly put it together in the second half last year—we mention a better-known guy who came very close to making the cut. That’s Madison Bumgarner. 2017 for Bumgarner was, as you know, largely a lost season—when his dirt bike went down in April, so did the Giants, and so did a whole bunch of blameless fantasy owners, us included, not that we’re bitter. Bumgarner reappeared in mid-July, and really wasn’t himself. He was inconsistent, and gave up a lot more home runs and got a lot fewer strikeouts than is his wont. If you think he’ll get his groove back, we won’t argue, but if you want him in the second round, as the market seems to, he’s yours.

As to who was unlucky, we must once again take issue with a Fangraphs demigod. That demigod is Alex Chamberlain, who has, barely a month into the year, twice expressed skepticism about Luke Weaver, in whom he sees a pitcher who perhaps scrapes the top 30 among starters but whose ceiling, says Alex, we are all overestimating. We suspect not.

To the naked eye, Weaver’s ten starts were good-not-great: lots of strikeouts, 4.25 ERA, 1.25 WHIP—enough, in light of his youth and promise, to make him the 26th starter off the board, with an ADP of 109. But we think he might be even better than that. The stats we’re looking at are pretty extreme: of the 207 starters who threw at least 60 innings last year, Weaver had the 4th lowest HH% but the 13th highest BABIP, and his HR/FB% was in the highest quartile as well. We’ll trade you Bumgarner for him straight up, Alex, and predict you’ll be sorry.

Weaver’s potential is, as indicated, no big secret, and we wouldn’t be the Birchwood Brothers if we didn’t conclude by recommending someone whose virtues are, for the moment, obscure, and whom you’ll be able to get pretty much for free. Hence we proffer Trevor Cahill, now languishing at ADP 592 in 15-team NFBC leagues. (Though, it must be added, eventually taken in nearly all those leagues.) We have a fraught history with Cahill, since he pitches badly when he’s on our teams and well when he’s not. And there’s a lot not to like about his 2017.

He was on the DL three times (shoulder problems twice, back problems once). In his seven second-half starts, he made it to the fifth inning only twice and to the sixth inning only once, and in those seven starts had an ERA of 7.29 and an opposing slash line of .336/.443/.645, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the career record of Ted Williams. Indeed, Cahill hasn’t been a consistently effective starter since 2012. And on top of that, he’s now a free agent, so for all we know he’s going to wind up in Coors or pitching in middle relief somewhere.

Nonetheless, the numbers say what they say. And what they say is that Cahill had a very low Hard-Hit Percentage as a starter—about the same as in his 2009-2012 salad days, and also about the same as Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco—plus a very high BABIP, and a very high HR/FB Percentage. As always, he induced ground balls in great profusion, and his strikeout percentage was in the top quartile of starters with at least 70 innings. We don’t know why it rained pigs on him last year, but we surmise that it won’t again, and will happily gamble a 35th-round pick on that possibility.

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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Mario Mendoza
Mario Mendoza

Good stuff. Hopefully Cahill signs soon so we can actually draft him.


You can draft free agents….actually better for you to draft while he is unsigned