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Pitching by the Numbers: The little things

The difference between a pitcher’s actual ERA and his expected ERA is often cited as the reason why we should seek or avoid him in the coming season.

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Matt Harrison is a little things All-Star (Getty)

This is usually sound advice. But some pitchers hurt and help themselves in ways that expected ERA does not capture, but actual ERA surely does. These are the small things hidden in pitching performance and mostly ignored. But at the extreme ends of the spectrum, stolen bases against, wild pitches, balks and hit batters result in extra bases or baserunners, or both.

Before we get into our lists of the pitchers who make the biggest deals out of the little things, I invite you all to contact me on Twitter @michaelsalfino with any pitching questions relating to your upcoming drafts. I respond generally pretty quickly, unless you ask me when I’m bowling. It’s a league game, Smokey. Also, we’ve been through my sleepers and busts so far in the 2013 debut of Pitching by the Numbers, parts one and two. But some things have already changed. Most notably, my favorite 2013 mixed league deep sleeper, Erasmo Ramirez of the Mariners, suffered some dead-arm troubles and will have to attend to them in the minors. But the great thing about pitching is that there is always another sleeper right behind him to take his place in the draft queue.

This is among the 88 pitchers last year who qualified for an ERA title. The average, by the way, is 24.6, adding all of those numbers up (stolen base percentage allowed is here only for context).

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If we sort the same group by the difference between their actual ERA and their expected ERA, in the order of greatest positive difference (meaning actual ERA was better than expected), Harrison (4), Lohse (5), Detwiler (6), Buehrle (16), Hughes (28) and Alvarez (29) make that leader board, too. So I think it’s quite reasonable to assume that the performance of these pitchers in these mostly ignored categories is a factor in that seemingly unexpected success. That makes continued success in defying expected ERA more likely, assuming that pitchers have control over these statistics (which I clearly believe they do).

Mysteriously, however, Jackson and Miley both make the list of having the greatest NEGATIVE differential between their actual and expected ERA, at 23 and 24, respectively. We can see this as evidence that the connection between performance in these stats and ERA is overstated. But, instead, my recommendation is to more firmly believe that Jackson and Miley’s actual ERAs will improve in 2013.

Here is the pitchers who die the death of a thousand paper cuts (or maybe just 57 or so):

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Hochevar (1), Lincecum (2), Masterson (5), Darvish (9), Johnson (15), Jimenez (18) and Sanchez (19) are all among the leaders in greatest negative difference between their actual ERA and their estimated ERA, meaning actual was significantly higher than their stats we count say it should be. Again, I do not think this is a coincidence. But I must note that Kuroda somehow had the inverse effect – 10th biggest positive difference in actual minus estimated ERA. Cain, too, was eighth best. That’s really defying gravity. But Cain continuously overachieves here and as we noted in this space last year, some pitchers are so good with infield pop ups and fly balls in general, that they can consistently defy the batting average on balls in play component to expected ERA.

BOTTOM LINE: At the margins, this is a huge factor. Look at the swing, for example, between Harrison and Burnett. Who would you bet on in 2013 knowing that? And, remember, Burnett is the poster boy for failure in these small things. Harrison, Lohse and Detwiler are not fairly listed as lucky pitchers, at least to the degree they are, because a large part of their ability to outperform expected ERA is skill based.

Conversely, the expected ERA gains for Darvish were clearly not due so much to bad fortune as to inattentiveness to the finer points of pitching. Maybe that will improve dramatically this year. But I doubt it. I do wish I had splits for these stats though. Why anyone would want anything to do with A.J. Burnett is a mystery to me. But you are doubly warned now. Those intrigued by Masterson and Jimenez for any reason should be chastened, too.
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