Who’s Been (Un)lucky: The Pitchers

Time now for our ever-popular annual effort to identify players—pitchers this week, hitters next—upon whom Fortune smiled or rained pigs last season. Our theory is that this season, as is her wont, Fortune will aim her slings and arrows at other players than last year’s star-crossed guys, whereas last year’s lucky guys will need industrial-strength umbrellas. We further theorize that the Fantasy Baseball draft market fails to accord luck the respect it demands in this, as in all other, human affairs, and undervalues the unfortunate and overestimates…you get the idea.

And how do we ascertain who was lucky and unlucky? Quite simply, in fact. For lucky pitchers, we try to find guys who had high BABIPs and high HR/FB Ratios but low Hard-Hit Percentages. Then we flip that over to find the unlucky guys. Uncomplicated as this approach is, it steers you in the right direction more often than you might expect. Thus, last year it steered you towards Stephen Strasburg (we know you already knew he was good, but we were suggesting he’d be even better, and he was) and away from Jose Alvarado (who quickly blew up as Tampa Bay’s closer).

Note that, conceptually, this is exactly what Statcast et al. do, albeit with infinitely more finesse and subtlety than what we’re doing, when they emphasize the spread between a player’s actual and expected numbers. Like us, they’re looking at stats more granular than the Fantasy-relevant ones and suggesting, explicitly or implicitly, that the gap will narrow. Trust them before you trust us, is our advice—although, as you might expect, there’s a fair amount of overlap. And as we say, our approach seems to work pretty well. Let’s see who it turns up this year. In ascending order of interest within each category:

Lucky Pitchers

Jordan Yamamoto. It’s not front-page news that the fifth starter for the Marlins is someone to eschew. We include Yamamoto partly because his good fortune was extreme—he counts as last year’s luckiest starter—but also because his expected job loss may open the door more quickly than expected for elite prospect Sixto Sanchez, who was among the top ten pitchers in the high minors in multiple important categories last year. Sanchez’s average draft position in NFBC leagues that use 50-man rosters is 425, and we’d be inclined to take him a few rounds earlier than that.

Griffin Canning. Canning seems to be getting a lot of play (ADP 235) for a guy who had a 4.58 ERA. There are presumably a lot of reasons for this: his relatively high strikeout percentage, his relatively low WHIP, his youth and status as former elite prospect. We’re not suggesting that you ignore these factors, or that Canning isn’t a good pitcher. But we are suggesting you curb your enthusiasm for him.

Madison Bumgarner. He made this list last year, and sure enough, he underperformed his projections. This year’s projectors expect a further slide, presumably attendant upon Bumgarner’s age (he’ll turn 31 this season) and his move from the Giants to the Diamondbacks. We think it could be even worse.

Walker Buehler. He just barely made the cutoff for this list, and we don’t want to make too much of the fact that he did. He’s plainly a great pitcher. Nonetheless, we wouldn’t take him in the first round (his ADP is 15), and we wouldn’t take him before Max Scherzer (whose ADP is very slightly higher) or Jack Flaherty (ADP 22). For additional reasons to be skeptical about Buehler, see Al Mechior’s article from last November.

Unlucky Pitchers

Chris Sale. Sale’s ADP is 34, and whether you take him that early is going to depend on a lot more than whether you think he was unlucky last year. If you’re not willing to write off Sale’s 2019 pretty much entirely, someone else in your league will be, and you won’t get him. But you might want to toss this nugget of information into the calculus when you decide how much you’re willing to overlook.

Kyle Gibson. Every goddamn season we wind up urging him upon you for one reason or another, and every goddamn season we’re disappointed. However: The obvious things to think about Gibson’s 2019 are that (1) he simply regressed to his 2017 performance; (2) the surge in strikeouts reflects only the MLB-wide surge; and (3) his apparently anomalous 2018 was due largely to a low BABIP. We note, however, that (1) he’s getting even more ground balls than ever, and (2) his HR/FB ratio is unprecedently high, even though his average fly ball distance declined by about 10 feet. His ADP is 338, and we’d be happy to take him earlier, even though he’s now in Texas and the new stadium there is a wild card.

Tyler Mahle. We kept hoping that Mahle would keep his spot at the back of the Cincinnati rotation, but he lost it when the Reds signed Wade Miley. We ourselves quite like Miley, and we wish the Reds’ entire rotation success and good health. Nonethless, stuff happens, and it’s possible to envision Mahle entering the rotation. Mahle’s young, and you don’t have to be a stat analyst of Talmudic subtlety to note that a number of his granular stats are trending in the right direction. No question he’s a bargain at his current ADP of 421.

Dinelson Lamet. Your response to this is likely “so what,” not because you hate Lamet but because you already love him. He gets an obscene number of strikeouts, and while his return from Tommy John surgery hit some bumps at the start, his August and September were excellent. His ADP of 115 has been declining as the start of the season approaches, and even with the obvious injury risk we’d be happy to get him in the fifth or sixth round.

Dylan Cease. Others—Paul Sporer, for example—have noted that Cease’s 2019 wasn’t so bad, despite the 3-12 won-lost record. As Paul points out, Cease “needs to avoid the meltdown starts.” To which we’d add that nothing conduces to meltdowns like home runs, and that Cease was near the top (or bottom, if you prefer) of the league in home runs per 9 and HR/FB ratio, even though both his average fly ball distance and average home run distance were on the short side. We expect the imbalance of the universe to correct itself in 2020 with respect to Cease, even if with respect to no one and nothing else.

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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2 years ago

In my opinion, Mahle is a few small adjustments from becoming a solid middle of the rotation starter. He is generally solid the first two times through the order (ERA around 3.60) but gets lit up (12.88 ERA last year) the third time through. Hopefully he figures it out.