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Pitching by the Numbers: Closer look at luck

Michael Salfino
Yahoo Sports

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Stephen Strasburg should top the list of fantasy arms for '13. (AP)

It's fitting that as we prepare for the first Fantasy Football Scouting Notebook, that we call an audible on our last Pitching by the Numbers of the season.

This was going to be a viewer mail piece. But I've been answering questions on Twitter (@michaelsalfino) and will continue doing so. I want to drive home one more time that big breakthrough that I think we've had here this year, which is using isolated slugging allowed (slugging average minus batting average) as a projection tool.

I love the batting average on balls in play stats (BABIP). But I can't believe it took me this long to see how limited it was since it was based on the most overrated stat of all time – batting average. I think this cognitive dissonance was born out of how it dealt with pitching instead of hitting. So the fact that average was the predicate didn't seem so jarring – actually, not jarring at all. But for all its value, it misses on a lot of players. Every stat will, of course. But with BABIP we're sort of stuck with judging all hits as hits, period, because we're already subtracting homers (which are out of play).

We at least need to check BABIP against isolated slugging. My feeling now is that if a pitcher has a good ERA and a good BABIP allowed (which has been viewed as lucky by default) PLUS a good ISO allowed, then he's probably not lucky. At least, he's not nearly as lucky as we think. On the other hand, if a high ERA pitcher has a bad/high BABIP allowed but also a high ISO allowed (about .133 is the league average), then he's probably not unlucky – meaning we wouldn't expect the ERA to be significantly lower the next year.

Remember, ISO allowed seems to be pretty consistent year-to-year (of course, there are exceptions with every stat). It especially works for Johnny Cueto, who had a very good/low BABIP allowed in 2011 with a good ERA. But he's had a good ERA this year with a below average (i.e., high) BABIP allowed. The reason, I posit, is that his ISO allowed has been the best or near the best in the league both seasons.

Here are the guys with decent ERAs who had low BABIP allowed, with our verdict of whether this ERA is lucky or not (and to what degree) based strictly on ISO allowed. So we're saying that ISO trumps BABIP simply because the quality of the hit allowed trumps the quantity.

Player ERA ISO BABIP VERDICT
Jason Vargas 3.90 .178 .253 Very lucky
Clayton Richard 3.72 .160 .261 Very lucky
Jeremy Hellickson 3.42 .168 .262 Very lucky
Madison Bumgarner 2.93 .141 .264 Little lucky
James McDonald 3.57 .144 .264 Little lucky
Matt Cain 2.82 .148 .264 Little lucky
Ryan Dempster 2.99 .146 .266 Little lucky
Edwin Jackson 3.72 .179 .270 Very lucky
Hiroki Kuroda 2.98 .144 .271 Little lucky
Paul Maholm 3.44 .155 .276 Very lucky
Wei-Yin Chen 3.78 .168 .276 Very lucky
Mat Latos 3.79 .172 .276 Very lucky
Jered Weaver 2.85 .115 .239 Not lucky
Clayton Kershaw 2.84 .117 .265 Not lucky
Ross Detwiler 3.32 .118 .270 Not lucky
Ryan Vogelsong 2.9 .119 .270 Not lucky
Tim Hudson 3.57 .105 .271 Not lucky
Justin Verlander 2.80 .113 .271 Not lucky

The recommendation is to avoid the double lucky guys (low BABIP, high ISO) – Vargas, Richard, Hellickson, Jackson, Maholm, Chen and Latos.

Kuroda, McDonald, Cain and Dempster seem a little lucky with their ERAs. I'm inclined to give Cain a pass because he always overachieves based on peripherals. Cain, like Hellickson, is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. Perhaps that's the ISO exception. But remember that when these extreme fly ball guys have an off year, it's going to be really ugly. They have much lower floors.

Now let's look at the pitchers who have a high BABIP who some will reflexively say were unlucky and thus buys next year. But if they have high ISOs, their ERAs are not going to get much better even with a BABIP correction.

Player ERA ISO BABIP VERDICT
Homer Bailey 4.24 .172 .316 Not unlucky
Ian Kennedy 4.44 .204 .317 Not unlucky
Ricky Nolasco 4.78 .147 .318 Not unlucky
Cliff Lee 3.67 .168 .318 Not unlucky
Jon Lester 4.98 .176 .318 Not unlucky
Bud Norris 5.01 .177 .321 Not unlucky
Dan Haren 4.82 .193 .321 Not unlucky
Anibal Sanchez 4.24 .151 .322 Not unlucky
Tommy Hanson 4.45 .174 .323 Not unlucky
Tim Lincecum 5.30 .167 .330 Not unlucky
Ivan Nova 4.92 .219 .333 Not unlucky
Max Scherzer 4.13 .172 .352 Not unlucky
Justin Masterson 4.60 .113 .310 Unlucky
Adam Wainwright 3.63 .127 .314 Unlucky
Stephen Strasburg 3.05 .121 .319 Unlucky
Josh Johnson 4.00 .115 .326 Unlucky
Zack Greinke 3.87 .115 .328 Unlucky
Rick Porcello 4.60 .130 .349 Unlucky

So in 2013, do not buy Bailey, Kennedy, Nolasco, Lee, Lester, Norris, Haren, Sanchez, Hanson, Lincecum, Nova and most especially Scherzer no matter how many times you read about their BABIP allowed. BABIP for them is mostly noise. Their real problem is giving up too many rockets.

But go ahead and get Masterson, Wainwright, Johnson, Greinke and even Porcello (if you can stand the poor strikeouts and only in deep or AL-only leagues). And, yeah, I'm saying Strasburg was unlucky this year even though his ERA was 3.05. If his BABIP goes to .290 or so with that above-average ISO allowed, project his ERA next year to sink to 2.75, tops. As a result, he's my No. 1 pitcher going into 2013.
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