Pitching by the Numbers: Forward thinking

Michael Salfino

We’re heading into June, which means we have more than enough innings to bet on our key stat, (strikeouts minus walks) divided by innings pitched.

A couple of key points first. We’re using this stat because it predicts future ERA better than ERA. It’s also a good shorthand for WHIP and when it is not, it’s because of really bad luck on balls in play. So it covers our two ratio categories, for projection purposes, very nicely. And, of course, strikeouts are at the heart of this stat and we count them, too.

You’re going to see a lot of guys I advocated in the preseason because of this stat now charting low  That’s baseball, folks. Predicting is hard, especially the future (to paraphrase Yogi Berra). In the preseason, we’re betting that pitchers will continue to perform well in the category when they have just come off of a season of doing just that. But there are a lot of things we can’t know in the preseason that have a dramatic impact on performance in this stat (which is really a set of stats). For example, a guy like A.J. Burnett can get hurt. Justin Masterson can inexplicably lose three miles per hour on his fastball. Now, as always, when the facts change, so do my projections. Models are not stubborn fools. That’s their beauty.

We’re well past the point with starters where strikeout rates are stable and getting close to the point where walk rates are the same. Of course, many things can go wrong physically with any of these pitchers at any time. But barring injury/dramatic velocity declines, these pitchers are bettable – not bankable, nobody is bankable – when it comes to continuing their (K-BB)/IP rates. And ERA and WHIP performance should closely track it going forward, as it does with most pitchers here.

Fangraphs has started using this stat. I always recommend them. However, they use percentages and not my raw category numbers. Just to be clear (and be warned this is a little wonky), I don’t like using percentages because they are less relatable to even many ardent fans (quick, tell me what a 18 percent K rate means in strikeouts for a 200-inning pitcher). And what does subtracting the percentages get you? That product of subtracting two percentages means what? My way ,while slightly less (and I mean almost imperceptibly less) predictive than the percentages, has the advantage of giving fans a number they can understand easily – Pitcher X strikes out one batter more per inning than he walks (for example). You can run with that. Plus, you can do these calculations by quickly looking at a box score to get a sense for the foundational performance of a pitcher in a given start. We don’t get the percentages in the box score. So please, don’t admonish me for not using percentages in the comments like you’ve thought of something I haven’t or like it’s some oversight on my part. But feel free to disagree with my journalistic judgment in this matter.

So here is where every pitcher who qualifies for the ERA title stands through Monday.

Let’s work our way from the bottom up. Forget Justin Verlander; he’s not likely to bounce back. He’s actually quite lucky to have an ERA so low. Maybe he starts striking out guys and starts limiting walks to regain his elite standing. But remember, he wasn’t great at this last year. I had him ranked low second-tier in this category in the preseason, which means everyone in the world would have drafted Verlander before me. That’s a win for the stat. But even it could not foresee this total collapse, which may be injury based or perhaps is just the beginning of the end of his career (he is 31).

I don’t need to belabor the point by now, I hope, that you want to fade the low ERA guys at the bottom of this list. You can’t trade them. But they’re not even worth rostering. Verlander, of course, you can trade. Do so immediately.

Think of it this way: you want top 50 starters in a mixed league. That gives you a good chance at winning a fair share of category points. So drawing a line at the 50th pitcher makes a lot of sense. Anyone who is above that line and who is available on waivers, say, due to a poor ERA/WHIP should be picked up. Just believe. It’s costing you so little.

I hate that Sonny Gray is so low. He was much higher last year. He’s still holding up with that A’s magic. I’d love to just tout my Gray preseason ranking, which was higher than almost anyone (everyone?), but he’s been lucky and should be traded – not because he’s worthless or worse than any pitcher above him here but simply because his ERA is likely to be much worse going forward than it has been to date (unless he changes his K/BB profile). You can probably trade Gray and a hitter for Homer Bailey and a much better hitter, for example. Substitute Julio Teheran for Gray, too.

But look at who is for real who many do not respect: Corey Kluber (talk about elite company), Ian Kennedy, Aaron Harang and Phil Hughes (can’t believe I’m writing this), Jesse Chavez, Dallas Keuchel. These guys are not sell highs. They should not be on short leashes. They are holds. I get that Chavez has no history of throwing a lot of innings; this is a big worry but not yet. Harang I have no explanation for but I accept that my explanations are not necessary for reality to exist. Kennedy and Hughes make sense. Keuchel was touted by smart guys like Eno Sarris at Fangraphs in the preseason for strides he made with specific pitches. Kudos to him. But this model captured that very quickly.