Who’s Been (Un)lucky–The Starting Pitchers

Time now for our annual spin through players whose luck in 2022 was worse (or better) than their fortune deserved. Our premise is that their bad (or good) fortune disguises the true valence of their performance, and that their luck, being luck, will regress to the mean, and their outcomes will regress along with the luck.

Our method is absurdly simple yet strangely effective. (Although, we hasten to note, not infallible. Last year we warned you away from Kevin Gausman.) To find unlucky pitchers, we look for guys who had high BABIPs and HR/FB% but low Hard-Hit percentages. To find lucky ones, we look for the the opposite. (For lucky/unlucky hitters, whom we’ll get around to in a week or two, we do the opposites of the opposites, if you see what we mean.) We assume our reasoning is self-evident. If not, ask about it in the Comments section below, and we’ll do our best to answer. Starting Pitchers this week, Relievers next:

Unlucky Starting Pitchers

Bailey Falter: To start with, a very interesting case. As you’d expect of someone who makes the “unlucky” list, he doesn’t get hit especially hard, but he gives up a lot of home runs, which isn’t a good thing when you pitch in Philadelphia. He was especially vulnerable to right-handed hitters at home. It appears as if what got him in trouble was his changeup, which came in like a batting practice pitch when it was too firm. On the other hand, he was quite effective during the last two months of the season, including Third Time Through The Order. Except for a horrendous outing against Atlanta, when he got left in the game too long, he posted a 1.14 WHIP, 3.36 ERA, and 7.62 K/9. Not, obviously, your or the Phillies’ ace, but not a bad guy to have around when he also figures to get some wins.

Lucas Giolito: We wish his stats betokened a good season and a likely comeback more clearly. There’s reason, aside from his overall unluckiness, to be encouraged. When Giolito is good, he gets ground  balls, and when he’s not, he doesn’t. His GB% was back up last year, though not quite to the level of his big seasons. On the other hand, his velocity was down, producing an uncomfortable amount of Zone Contact. When he’s good, he fools hitters a lot more than he did last year. He apparently worked on his delivery during the  off-season, so presumably we’ll find out during spring training how that affected his velocity.

Aaron Ashby: Ashby’s sidelined now with shoulder fatigue, and says he hopes to be back in May, which for all we know means May 2024. Should you be willing to excuse his problematic results as a starter because he was unlucky? Maybe not. He just has too much trouble second and third time through the order. If and when he’s healthy, he’ll make a fine setup guy for Devin Williams.

Kyle Gibson: Us Birchwood Brothers just can’t escape this guy. We’ve written about him in some context or other every year we’ve had this gig, and have drafted him most of those years, with results that can charitably be described as mixed. But we’ll probably get him again this year, because there’s reason for optimism. Until he collapsed in his last three starts, Gibson, considering that his weakness is home runs and he was pitching for Philadelphia, didn’t do too badly. In fact, he increased his pitch velocity last year, and had his lowest Hard-Hit Percentage since 2016. Now he’ll be pitching for Baltimore, and if Camden Yards plays the way it did last season, the home runs won’t be nearly as big a problem. He’ll also be pitching  in front of a much better defense than he had in Philadelphia. And the Orioles seem to know what they’re doing with pitchers, so perhaps they’ll do what they did last year with our surprise heartthrob Austin Voth and change his pitch mix a bit.

Tylor Megill: We had occasion to comment on Megill two weeks ago, and suggested that he looked more like a multi-inning reliever than a starter. His bad fortune last year doesn’t prompt us to change that opinion, but it does confirm for us that he’s likely to be a good multi-inning reliever. Not, perhaps, a guy you want in your Opening Day starting lineup, but not a bad guy to have in reserve, especially since he had enough good starts in 2021 to suggest that he might be an okay plug-in for both  the Mets and you.

Alex Wood: Acquire him at your peril, even if you think that by some miracle he can stay healthy. Unlucky or not, healthy or not, he’s just too erratic, and it’s no particular comfort to say that his five-plus ERA would, in a fairer world, have been about half a run lower.

Steven Matz: Guys like Matz are the reason we do this kind of thing. We were already targeting Matz, because we knew that underneath the extremely unprepossessing fantasy-relevant stats he compiled before he tore his MCL in July are some pretty strong granular stats: lots of strikeouts, few walks, not too much hard contact. And now we find that he was unlucky to boot? Worth getting at anything approaching the prevailing market rate of a dollar or two.

Lucky Starting Pitchers

Luis Castillo: We’re not sure what to do about this one. Castillo could afford to be a lot less lucky than he was  and still be worth getting, though not, we think, as early as the 4th round. The more you look at his good 2022, the more it looks like his not-so-good 2018, which is unsettling. On the other hand, he followed his not-so-good 2018 with a better 2019, so who knows what, if anything, last year’s luck betokens for this year?

James Kaprielian: This is Kaprielian’s second straight year on the Lucky list. In other words, it appears that he has been lucky for virtually his entire major league career. Do we believe that? Yes, we do. We just can’t find anything in his record to account for his (relative) success. And now his strikeout rate has dropped precipitously. True, he pitches in Oakland, where a pitcher can get away with a lot of mistakes. On the other hand, he also pitches for Oakland, which means that whatever his fortune, he’s not going to win a lot of games.

Tony Gonsolin: No question Gonsolin’s a good pitcher; he’s just not as good as his fantasy-relevant 2022 stats suggest, which his lucky/unlucky numbers indicate quite clearly. But of course, even the most benighted fantasy owner doesn’t imagine Gonsolin will go 16-1 with a 2.14 ERA again. So how will he do in 2023? Well, his luck, we read, was due in part not only to the excellent Dodger defense and the analytics of their positioning. Without the shift he might not be so lucky. We envision a season about like the one we expect from Brady Singer, also a good young pitcher, except Gonsolin comes with more injury risk and (if the injuries don’t get him) more wins. And since the two are going in about the same round in drafts, we aren’t telling the market anything it doesn’t already know.

Cole Irvin: But for his BABIP, which was significantly lower last year, Irvin’s 2021 and 2022 were virtually identical. So figure his ERA goes back above 4 and maybe he wins a game or two more, if the Orioles are now Officially A Good Team. Not a guy you especially want, but you could do worse in the 40th round and then stream him at home against left-handed-heavy lineups.

Matt Manning: The discovery that Manning was lucky steels us to resist the temptation to draft him in the reserve rounds. It would otherwise be possible to look at his apparent improvement from his 2021 rookie season, remember that he’s a former first-rounder and only 25, even though it feels like he’s been around forever, and think he’s ready for the next step in his development. But in fact Manning’s 2021 and 2022 are of a piece, and that piece isn’t good.

Triston McKenzie: We’re inclined to disregard this finding. That’s because it’s attributable to McKenzie’s up-and-down first half. We can find nothing bad to say about his second half, which demonstrated his frequently-questioned durability and in which he was one of the most effective pitchers in the AL.

Roansy Contreras: Here’s yet another tough call. Contreras is only 23, he entered last season as one of the top 10 pitching prospects in baseball, and he held his own in 18 starts with one of the worst teams in the majors. He had only two bad starts all season, and a superb four-start stretch late in the year against the Cardinals, Blue Jays, Phillies, and Braves. So probably nothing’s amiss. Yet it also doesn’t seem to us as if Contreras looks lucky because (like McKenzie) he took a while to get his bearings, or because, conversely, he wore down in the course of pitching more innings than he was accustomed to. Instead, it seems to us that Contreras looks lucky because he was lucky. But for purposes of projecting his 2023 stats, does it matter? We don’t know.

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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1 year ago

Good read, though not sure I’m sold on Castillo being that lucky. I understand how your process might paint him that way, but his 2.99 ERA wasn’t too far removed from his 3.23 xFIP (which neutralizes the HR/FB dip), 3.31 xERA (based largely on quality of contact against) and 3.35 SIERA. As for comparisons to 2018, his ERA estimators were in the high 3s/low 4s then, and the velo is up more than a full tick now. Plus he’ll finally be pitching in a favorable park all season, which can’t hurt.

1 year ago
Reply to  TheBabbo

You are so right, he is a different, more refined Sp now with a great third pitch. I think we are going to have 4-5 amazing seasons from Castillo with 1-2 seasons of near CY numbers