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Pitching by the Numbers: Looking for luck

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The time to trade Julio Teheran is right now. (USAT)

Let’s focus on the pitchers who have ERAs that are not supported by their strikeout and walk performance, meaning they are unfairly high or low.

The stat here is strikeouts minus walks divided by innings pitched. The league average on Monday among pitchers who qualify for the ERA title is 0.56. The league leader is Felix Hernandez at 1.27. Hey, he’s pretty good! In fact, his 1.91 ERA has actually been a little unlucky. The league trailer, and the only pitcher in negative territory in the stat is A.J. Burnett (minus-0.04). But Burnett has a 2.74 ERA that has not killed his owners. (In fairness, he’s also pitching with a hernia that’s been a problem all year and will require surgery.)

Burnett illustrates the problem with projections. Even if the stat is very solid, as I believe Ks minus BBs/IP is, we need past performance in the stat to approximate future performance. Some of the pitchers like Burnett that I touted this preseason because of excellence in the stat in 2013 have not replicated this performance in 2014. That’s despite the fact that K and BB rates are our most stable pitching statistics. Burnett is hurt. Others like Justin Masterson have seen velocity decline dramatically. Even in his seemingly solid recent outing (nine Ks, two walks), Masterson again was below 90 mph with his average fastball (91.6 last year).

Perhaps Masterson has a dead arm that will bounce back soon (he did have sub-90 mph velocity his first couple of starts last year).

Also, it’s still very early. While K rate is technically “stable” already, that doesn’t mean what we’d like it to mean. When a stat reaches stability, it means that 50 percent of what the player is doing can be used to project future performance and the rest is calculated at league average. So if a pitcher has a 12.0 K/9 now and league average is 6.0, then the projection would be 9.0 for the rest of the year (50 percent the pitcher’s performance plus 50 percent league average). The more season that goes by, the less league average we use. Walks take a little more than twice as long as Ks to stabilize, about half a year. Here’s a chart.

But we get too wrapped up in projections. The best way to use a stat like Ks minus BBs/IP right now is to identify the sell high and buy low guys.

For example, let’s look at these pitchers with harmful ERAs:

 

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Again, league average in K-BB/IP is 0.56. While I’d like to know the pitcher’s hit quality (ISO slugging allowed) and velocity (relative to his past velocity), I would be happy betting on pitchers based only on this stat. In other words, if you told me now that a pitcher is going to be 0.80 in K-BB/IP for the balance of the year, I’ll take him, happily, and take my chances.

The issue with most of these pitchers is homers. But homers allowed in April is essentially meaningless. Even a guy like Lincecum,who has been victimized by the long ball in recent years, is not going to maintain a rate anywhere near his current level. Ditto CC Sabathia.

I understand no one is going to sell you Strasburg low. But don’t be worried about him, Strasburg owners. There are only six guys over 1.00 in the stat now (Felix, Strasburg, Masahiro Tanaka, Jose Fernandez, Zack Greinke and Max Scherzer). The median ERA of the others is 2.33.

That next tier of pitchers, those with K-BB/IP of 0.75 to 0.99 is just 20 deep. It includes Yu Darvish, Ervin Santana, Jesse Chavez, Johnny Cueto, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jon Lester, Chris Sale – all guys with sparkling ERAs. The median ERA for them is 3.48. Lincecum is at the upper reaches here. I’m not saying his walk rate is going to stay this low. But I am saying with 100 percent certainty that Lincecum’s ERA now is crazy, fluky high. He’s available in many leagues. Sabathia is another pitcher who everyone is down on now for declining velocity but who still has a dominant profile. Even if Sabathia’s easier to square up, he’s not going to allow 70 homers this year. I’d bet a sub-4.00 ERA for both Lincecum and Sabathia, balance of the season (but I worry about Lincecum maintaining his low BB rate).

Just to be clear, definitely bet on Jesse Chavez until you see this K-BB spread decline.

Don’t worry about Bailey (his velocity is also still excellent). Morrow is owned in only 10 percent of Yahoo! leagues. The K-rate alone says he should be owned in most of them, even in the dicey AL East. His FIP ERA now, for what it’s worth (not a favorite stat of mine, to put it mildly), is 3.28. You can’t bet on Morrow long-term this season because of his health history but I would be on him for the foreseeable future – for as long as his Ks minus BBs stay healthy.

Here are the guys who K-BB/IP says are not earning their great ERAs:

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Verlander and Teheran are the big names. Here are Verlander’s rates since his epic 2011: 0.77, 0.75, 0.65 and now 0.39. Remember, pitchers do not get better as they pile up innings. They get worse. Verlander is not nearly as good as he was, stuff wise, three years ago. Some pitchers are able to compensate fully with better command or more refined secondary offerings. But many are not able to. This is the new Verlander just as it’s the new Sabathia and, by K-BB/IP, the new Sabathia is actually holding up better this year.

Teheran’s K rate is alarming. His velocity is down below average now at 90 mph. It was 91.5 last year. I would definitely sell Teheran right now especially since that ERA means you won’t even have to take a haircut on preseason price.

If you were wondering about picking up the other guys, here is your answer. Don’t do it.

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