Who’s Been (Un)lucky–The Pitchers

We’ve got lots of guys to talk about, so let’s get right to it. Check out the start of last week’s article for an explanation of what we’re doing and how we do it. The pitchers are listed in descending order of likelihood that they’ll do what the stats we’re looking at suggest they’ll do. In other words, we list unlucky guys in ascending order of our pessimism about our optimism, and lucky guys in ascending order of our pessimism about our pessimism.

UNLUCKY STARTING PITCHERS

Kyle Freeland: Hesitant as we are to recommend, and for that matter to draft, Colorado pitchers, we are making an exception for Freeland, whose 2018 was unquestionably the best single season ever by a Rockies pitcher. The only thing that went wrong for him last year was that he was suddenly unable to get left-handed hitters out. Since he’s never had that problem before, we envision that he won’t have it again, at least not this season.

Luis Castillo: It’s fair to say that all the unlucky starters from here on induce in us considerable skepticism. With Castillo, it’s not just that he’s having shoulder problems now. It’s that he was suddenly unable last year to get hitters out with his fastball, which produced a lot more contact and a lot fewer swinging strikes.

Kyle Hendricks: One reason Hendricks has always been a good starting pitcher is that he’s about equally effective against left- and right-handed hitters, and at home and on the road. But it’s clear what happened to him last season: he couldn’t get left-handers out at Wrigley, and the problem got worse as the season went on. Maybe this is a blip—we hope so—but maybe it isn’t.

Chris Sale: This one just breaks our heart. Sale was probably the unluckiest starting pitcher of 2021, plus he’s the only unlucky starter who also qualifies as a Super High Five, plus this is his second year off TJ surgery. Only a mild disagreement in the Birchwood Brothers’ front office prevented us from drafting him, rather than Robbie Ray, in the third round (42nd overall pick) of The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, for which we thank the Providence that watches over all good men, because now he’s somehow gotten a stress fracture in his rib cage, will be shut down for who knows how long, and need who knows how much time to get all the way back once he starts down that road. (And that’s right, wise guy. Robbie Ray in the third round. He’s going to be just as good this year as he was last.)

Keegan Akin: It’s unearthing guys like Akin that’s our favorite part of Lucky/Unlucky. But now that he’s above ground, what do you do with him? Like Freeland, he’s a left-handed pitcher who did poorly against left-handed hitters, but unlike Freeland he’s never been especially adroit at handling lefties. Plus he’s got a strange combination of a low O-Swing Rate and a high O-Contact Rate—in other words, he’s not fooling anyone with his pitches out of the strike zone. And of course, he pitches for the worst team in baseball, unless Cincinnati has overtaken (undertaken?) the Orioles in the race for that distinction. Still, the stats say what they say, he’s a former second-round draft choice, and it’s possible that the hip problem that led to off-season surgery compromised his entire 2021 rather than just the very end of it.

Griffin Canning: The stats for his horrible 2021 look enough like the stats for his not-horrible 2020 to make us think that he really was unlucky last season. And unlike almost anyone else on the Angels’ staff, he’s capable of getting outs third time through the batting order. But his back problems haven’t gone away, and who knows if they will?

LUCKY STARTING PITCHERS

Kevin Gausman: If we had nothing better to do than write textbooks about lucky pitchers, Gausman would be a textbook example of a lucky pitcher. His granular stats—both the ones that got him on this list and the other ones—suggest that he’s pretty much the same pitcher he was back in Baltimore, plus he’s vulnerable to home runs and is moving from a ballpark that suppresses them to a park that produces them. As with any other player, there’s a point in the draft where Gausman would constitute good value, but it’s long after the fifth round, which on average is where he’s been going.

Drew Rasmussen: He got plugged into the Rays’ rotation in mid-August, and his string of 8 starts from then on was amazing: 1.46 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, opposing hitter slash line of .171/.207/.256. However: his BABIP during that time was .198, while his hard-hit percentage was 38.3. If he’d qualified for the ERA title with those stats, his BABIP would have been by far the lowest and his HH% the highest. And when he’s not getting results like the ones he got last year, he’s not going to get you wins, because the Rays know that he has big problems third time through the order and will yank him before he goes five innings.

Madison Bumgarner: His BABIP is always low and his HR/FB is always high. But the difference between his salad days and now seems to be that now his secondary pitches don’t work and get hit hard. He’s not fooling hitters, and he’s not fooling Fantasy Baseball owners, who aren’t taking him until the reserve rounds. But even then, he’s probably a wasted pick.

James Kaprielian: Let’s assume arguendo that he recovers from his injury and doesn’t get hurt again, and that the A’s manage to put a major league team on the field this season. Do you want him? True, he was way more effective as a starter, which is what he’ll be if he pitches this year. And you could argue that he just ran out of gas in the second half, when he wasn’t especially lucky (or unlucky). So maybe in the very late rounds of a deep draft.

Max Scherzer: Don’t get your knickers in a twist. We like and admire Scherzer, and will certainly be consulting him when it’s time to negotiate our next contract with Rotographs. He just barely qualifies as lucky, and he could stand to shed a little luck and still produce stats befitting a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer. No, what concerns us is his injury history. As Bill James’s subaltern Alex Vigderman notes in this year’s James Handbook, Scherzer’s been on the IL with back problems three times in the last three seasons. Vigderman rates him the third-highest injury risk among pitchers (after Jose Alvarado and Ryne Stanek). We wish Scherzer well, but we’re staying away, at least in the first two rounds.

Carlos Hernandez: A fastball/slider starting pitcher who throws more than 97 MPH but doesn’t get strikeouts and gets hit pretty hard could probably use another good pitch, which Hernandez hasn’t developed yet, though he’s trying. He’s terrible third time through the order, too. On the other hand, but for a nightmarish outing against Oakland, he was very effective the last two months of 2020, and his pretty good Statcast numbers make it look like he wasn’t especially lucky. And he’s been going late enough in drafts that he may be worth getting. He’s still on our list.

UNLUCKY RELIEF PITCHERS

Taylor Rogers: Genuine question: What is there about him that you don’t like? His ERA? But for a grand slam by Jake Rogers that didn’t even go over the fence—it bounced off the top—it would be 2.45. His vulnerability to a closer-in-waiting? The Twins’ closer-in-waiting is Tyler Duffey. And Rogers was unlucky. Yet at the moment he’s the thirteenth closer off the board, typically going in the twelfth round or so. We rate him about sixth or seventh, and would take him ahead of Jansen, Gallegos, Knebel, Melancon, Treinen, and possibly Romano.

Jeurys Familia: He wasn’t a reliable setup guy for the Mets last year. However: the reason things went wrong for him, when they did, was his susceptibility to home runs, and his HR/9 and HR/FB numbers are so unprecedentedly high that we figure they’ll move back towards where they’ve otherwise always been. Of course, now he’s in Philadelphia, where you don’t want a pitcher vulnerable to home runs to be, but he’s done okay in Citizens Park in limited opportunities. And he may be next in line for saves behind Corey Knebel, who, last time he was given the closer’s job, lost it by May.

Brooks Raley 레일리: Raley gets our attention as the only unlucky reliever who’s also a Super High Five. With Houston last year, he was great against left-handers but not so great against right-handers, mostly because they could hit home runs against him. Now he’s with Tampa Bay, where it’s a lot harder for right-handers to hit home runs. And the Rays don’t have anyone who’s a no-doubt closer, so Raley might even find himself in the mix for some saves.

Austin Voth: We don’t know how he got here; we just go where the numbers tell us to go. If we didn’t know he was unlucky and you asked us to rate the 400 or so relief pitchers who will break camp with a major league team, Voth would be about 500th. And though he’s on the Unlucky list partly because his hard-hit percentage is low, we note that, as Statcast sees it, his barrel percentage is kind of high.

LUCKY RELIEF PITCHERS

Ryne Stanek: High volume, high risk, low return. A season like last year’s, which admittedly was pretty good, looks like his absolute upside, and we don’t see him supplanting Ryan Pressly as closer. If something ill befalls Pressly, Stanek may get a shot, but we don’t think he’ll succeed.

Luis Garcia: This is the guy who was with the Cardinals last year and is now with the Padres, not the Houston guy. This Garcia’s 2021 holds up fairly well under close scrutiny, but he’s 35 and it was his first good season since 2017, so we aren’t expecting an encore.

Richard Rodriguez: We’ve never seen a pitcher’s strikeout rate decline by as much as Rodriguez’s did from 2020-2021. On the other hand, he’s always been able to couple good seasons with bad lucky/unlucky stats. Still, he was extremely lucky after being traded to the Braves from the Pirates, and we don’t just mean in going from the worst team in the NL to the World Series winner. He’s going very late in drafts, though, and may be worth getting on the off chance that one of the teams that doesn’t have a “proven closer” feels the need for one.

Josh Staumont: We looked really hard at him once we saw he’d been lucky, and just couldn’t find anything in his 2021 record that made him suspect other than the luckiness itself. Staumont’s BABIP of .236 has to give you pause, but his 2020 was a good season despite a high BABIP, so we’ll give him a pass.





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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Tynan Ramm-Granbergmember
5 months ago

What’s a “Super High Five”?