Pitching by the Numbers: An eye towards '13

Michael Salfino

We're almost ready to close up the baseball shop and open up football with the September debut of the Scouting Notebook. This week, we look at the two stats I value the most for projection purposes to predict players who either should improve in ERA next year or who should still stay elite because their stat foundation is so strong.

For next week, send me your pitching questions via Twitter (@michaelsalfino) and I will answer the best ones. We want to be looking ahead to 2013 though.
In last week's column, I think I stumbled upon an extremely useful stat that few if any people, to the best of my knowledge, have previously used for predictive purposes – isolated slugging allowed (slugging average minus batting average, where lowest is best). It works because there are few outliers and it's repeatable, at least in the context of pitching stats.
Previously, we looked at K/BB ratio – very simple, old school but extremely useful. But in retrospect that analysis should have been supplemented by the quality of the hits allowed, which is best measured by ISO.
So let's do now what we should have done then. We're looking at pitchers who qualify for the ERA title who have a K/BB ratio of better than 2/1 and an ISO allowed below 1.30 (about 1.33 is average). I figured those parameters would return at least 30 pitchers. But out of 99 qualifying starters, it returned only 19. So we already know we're being pretty selective here. Here's the list, sorted by highest ERA/most unlucky:

Kevin Millwood 4.29 2.06 .124 4 97 .731
Zack Greinke 4.01 3.66 .114 10 150 .693
Josh Johnson 3.73 2.77 .103 7 133 .678
Tim Hudson 3.69 2.10 .110 12 82 .659
Jake Westbrook 3.50 2.32 .105 12 95 .686
Jonathon Niese 3.49 3.39 .130 10 129 .656
Ross Detwiler 3.25 2.26 .119 7 79 .658
Gio Gonzalez 3.23 2.78 .098 16 161 .601
Clayton Kershaw 2.87 4.17 .115 11 175 .592
Ryan Vogelsong 2.85 2.29 .107 10 117 .646
Stephen Strasburg 2.85 4.26 .117 15 183 .625
Jered Weaver 2.74 3.42 .115 16 113 .579
Chris Sale 2.65 4.17 .127 15 150 .615
Kyle Lohse 2.61 3.25 .124 13 104 .636
Jordan Zimmermann 2.54 4.00 .123 9 116 .657
Felix Hernandez 2.54 3.98 .086 12 179 .585
Justin Verlander 2.53 4.00 .113 12 180 .582
Johnny Cueto 2.44 3.65 .093 16 135 .633
David Price 2.28 3.34 .093 16 167 .588
Average 3.02 3.27 .111 11.7 134 .636

Millwood we don't have to worry about. Plus, he barely makes the cut in K/BB. I've included the averages so you can better ascertain how the pitchers above should have performed. So if you beat the average K/BB in this elite group of 3.27 and average ISO allowed of .111 (or come pretty close to both), your expected ERA is 3.02. (I've included expected wins and strikeouts, too, just for fun.) So since Millwood fell so far below the group average K/BB and also was below the group average in ISO, his predicted ERA would have been closer to 4.00 than 3.0. And at that K rate, he wouldn't have been recommended in mixers anyway.
Greinke though beats K/BB and is right there in ISO. So he earned about a 3.00 ERA this year and that's how I would project him in 2013. That means I get him everywhere because I think the consensus view right now is that he's not a No. 1 fantasy starter. I believe he is.
Johnson I can see being discounted for injury issues but not for performance issues. In the NL, it's really hard to project him to have an ERA over 3.20 in that park. The question though is for how many innings. It's funny how performance was not the concern this year, injury was. But he failed at the former, not the latter.
Hudson and Westbrook do not have playable K-rates in leagues with innings caps approaching the Yahoo! Friends & Family League. But they are good pitchers who earn their solid averages and should be prized in other formats, especially AL- and NL-only leagues.
Niese is a guy I've long touted and he's disappointed in the second halves but show promise otherwise. This year, I figured that was due to a lack of physical maturity (he's now only 25). But if he faded again, I would have reconsidered. He has not, obviously. I do expect elite averages from him going forward in 2012 and 2013. He's a top 20 MLB starter in that park, easy. I know few, if any, share this view. But these starts don't lie.
While I held Niese in my 20-team expert dynasty league, I got rid of Detwiler last year when we dropped from 45 to 28. I regret that now. The K-rate doesn't play that well, but I think there's some upside there. This year, I said Niese was the poor man's Bumgarner and now I'm saying that Detwiler is the poor man's Niese.
Nothing needs to be said about Gonzalez and Kershaw. We all know those guys are good. And we were very high on Gonzalez here even before the season got going.
Even though this chart likes Vogelsong, you can see by looking at those averages that he's overachieved. But I bet you the sharps in your league overcorrect. So I can see myself owning Vogelsong when he drops too much. Poor man's Cueto?
I'm sick about what the Nationals are doing to Strasburg. We've been through that before here, too. But the lesson is you can't ever discount another man's stupidity. But, hey, Washington has so many baseball championship flags flying already that it's better to err on the side of baseless caution, right?
Weaver got really lucky this year. His ERA should be about 3.00 instead of 2.74.
Sale is so demolishing K/BB that he hasn't passed through his reasonable ERA floor. If I told you to draft him with confidence this year, what do you think I'm going to say now? I'm ready to draft him in the Friends and Family fantasy football league today. Best player available!
Lohse is going to be overcorrected next year when 95 percent of fantasy baseball touts put him on their "bust" lists. He will not be on mine, or yours now that you're reading this.
Zimmermann was a preseason tout, too. We had a good year. Let's hope regression to the mean won't be operative in this space in 2013. Hopefully, the models keep working. I mean, heck, they even worked with Luke Hochevar. But remember, when we're right, credit me. When we're wrong, blame the models.
We don't need to talk about the other studs except maybe Cueto, again. I think I've worn down the parts of the market that read or follow me. But one expert at a major site put Cueto 18th among starting pitchers and said he'd project an ERA of about 3.00 rest of season and in 2013. First of all, that's better than 18th, since ERA is the one category that can most quickly destroy your season. But you see that he beats both of these averages pretty easily and thus should beat 3.00, too, especially in the NL – as he did last year, too. Over the past two years, over 325.7 innings prior to Thursday's start, his ERA is 2.38 – the best in baseball.