Pitching by the Numbers: Taking the lead

Michael Salfino

Getting the leadoff hitter out every inning is the most important box on the pitching checklist. In innings when they do it, pitchers' ERA this year is 2.15. In innings when they fail, it's 7.75.
Put another way, when you let the leadoff hitter on, the opposing team is more than three times as likely to score.
But, of course, pitchers face far more hitters overall than they do to leadoff innings. When he's great at both, there's no action step for us fantasy owners. He's great, period. When he's bad at both, conversely, he should be swept from every roster.
But one very neat way I think to isolate pitchers who may be unlucky in ERA especially is to see where he's good overall but poor against leadoff hitters. There's a pretty good chance that's due to chance. I stipulate that it's possible that certain pitchers just lack the focus to deal with leadoff hitters, who are arguably more intent than usual to get on. But that's complicated and speculative. The simplest answer is that it's just a product of the smaller numbers.
So let's start with the pitchers who are among the leaders in limiting leadoff (LO) OBP and see if we can perhaps just isolate some bad luck. We're looking to sell only pitchers who are below average overall in OBP, making their extreme goodness against leadoff hitters seem fluky. And we may want to buy/believe in pitchers who I suspect the market is suspecting a correction on. In other words, that correction ain't coming. When there's nothing in the action column, there is no related explanation. All these are top 20 guys in leadoff OBP allowed:
OA-OBP stands for Overall OBP

Player Team LO-OBP OA-OBP Diff. Action
Jake Westbrook StL .232 .338 -.106 SELL
Randall Delgado Atl .242 .330 -.088 SELL
Derek Lowe Cle .257 .345 -.088 SELL
Homer Bailey Cin .235 .319 -.084
Tommy Hanson Atl .254 .337 -.083 SELL
Kevin Correia Pit .230 .304 -.074
Johnny Cueto Cin .247 .315 -.068
Roy Halladay Phi .233 .289 -.056
Jeremy Hellickson TB .247 .290 -.043
Carlos Zambrano Mia .253 .292 -.039
Matt Garza ChC .258 .296 -.038
Shaun Marcum Mil .261 .292 -.031
Johan Santana NYM .239 .262 -.023
Edwin Jackson Was .247 .266 -.019 BUY
Wade Miley Ari .261 .275 -.014
Clayton Kershaw LAD .253 .265 -.012
Brandon Beachy Atl .237 .247 -.010 BUY
Gio Gonzalez Was .254 .261 -.007 BUY
James McDonald Pit .260 .256 .004 BUY
Chris Sale CWS .261 .252 .009 BUY

Westbrook's numbers aren't even that good and he probably should be awful. Either way, he's not viable in most Yahoo! formats. So that's only for NL-only leaguers. Same goes for Delgado. Lowe is being faded by all the sharps, but we've finally hit on the precise reason why he's been so lucky. A big ERA correction also seems to be coming for Hanson, so if you've got him, trade him now.
What's most interesting about this list is how kind it is to a bunch of early surprises who the market thinks will regress or who (Jackson) they still do not believe in.
I heard an expert this week say to take Bud Norris over Jackson for the rest of the season. If Norris outperforms Jackson for the rest of this year irrespective of injury, I will (insert something embarrassing here). And James McDonald is for real, too, which I would not have bought before crunching this data.
Now the buy guys because they've been uncharacteristically horrid versus leadoff hitters and thus likely have ERAs that are badly over-inflated. (They are all bottom 25 in OBP allowed to leadoff hitters.)

Player Team LO-OBP OA-OBP Diff. Action
Hiroki Kuroda NYY .452 .327 .125
Dillon Gee NYM .438 .320 .118 BUY
Aaron Harang LAD .412 .326 .086
Ricky Romero Tor .398 .313 .085 BUY
Wei-Yin Chen Bal .386 .310 .076 BUY
Tommy Milone Oak .361 .292 .069 BUY
Jonathon Niese NYM .375 .310 .065 BUY
Wandy Rodriguez Hou .367 .302 .065
Gavin Floyd CWS .386 .330 .056
Yu Darvish Tex .394 .339 .055
Brian Matusz Bal .382 .331 .051
Felix Hernandez Sea .361 .321 .040
Ivan Nova NYY .392 .355 .037
Trevor Cahill Ari .365 .329 .036
Jaime Garcia StL .391 .356 .035
Bud Norris Hou .366 .331 .035
Tommy Hunter Bal .371 .345 .026
Mike Leake Cin .362 .339 .023
Randy Wolf Mil .381 .380 .001
Luke Hochevar KC .361 .371 -0.01

Clearly we're talking guys in deeper formats mostly. Gee is sort of on the bubble. You can skim him though for sure, especially if you don't buy the bad home splits (you shouldn't because it makes zero sense).
Probably the most disrespected guy here relative to how I view his potential is Niese. I know he has badly faded in the past. But we're talking a 25-year-old lefty who can dial it up to 93 with a bunch of good pitches and overall success in limiting OBP. One who also has an elite K/9. I told a waiter today to trade Lance Lynn for Matt Holliday (that was his trade) and just pick up Niese on waivers to replace Lynn. Good chance he loses little or nothing on the pitching side (wins, I know, but who knows).
Chen has been good and probably should be very good, but I steer clear of the AL East when possible. Ditto Milone, but his K/9 doesn't play for many.