Have we entered the Golden Age of pitching? Here are the facts. Clayton Kershaw recorded 301 strikeouts last season, the most of any pitcher since 2002. Zack Greinke posted a 1.66 ERA in 2015, the lowest we’ve seen since 1995 (1.63 for Greg Maddux). Meanwhile Max Scherzer threw two no-hitters in one season, becoming the first pitcher to accomplish that since Nolan Ryan in 1973.
What’s amazing is none of those players won the NL Cy Young. Scherzer didn’t even crack the top-four in voting. Not that long ago, you could win a Cy Young with a 3.51 ERA (Roger Clemens in 2001) or a middling 13-12 record (Felix Hernandez in 2010). With so many dominant starters in today’s game, the Cy Young bar has been set sky high. On that note, let’s jump into another round of Over/Under. Today, we tackle ERA.
Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
*Composite Projection: 2.83
The Cubs signed Jon Lester to be their ace last offseason. What they didn’t realize was they already had one in Arrieta. After being a back-of-the rotation-guy with Baltimore (and not a very good one), Arrieta has finally found his groove in the Windy City. Since joining the Cubs midway through 2013, Arrieta has posted a fabulous 2.26 ERA over 437 1/3 innings. Arrieta, who turns 30 on Sunday, abandoned the human race last year and became a robot. His 0.75 ERA in the second half was the lowest in baseball history. He accomplished this by throwing fewer fastballs (50.7 percent of his pitches, well below his career average of 55.9) but increasing his average velocity (94.6 mph). Arrieta also featured a cutter, a pitch he didn’t begin throwing until 2013, on a career-high 29.1 percent of his pitches.
It’s easy to be skeptical because of how poorly Arrieta pitched in Baltimore (5.46 ERA over three and a half seasons), but the truth is, 2015 was no fluke. Arrieta quietly registered one of the lowest ERAs in baseball during the 2014 season (2.53). We ignored it because the Cubs were a hot mess (73-89) but now that they’re World Series favorites, Arrieta is finally getting his due.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and lollipops for Arrieta. The 248 2/3 innings he logged between the playoffs and regular season last year were almost 100 more than his previous career high (156 2/3). The fatigue factor may have played a role in his slightly underwhelming postseason (3.66 ERA in three appearances). That would seem to make Arrieta a prime regression candidate.
Fortunately for Arrieta and his many fantasy owners, Joe Maddon is arguably the game’s best manager and has made a point to limit his workload during spring training. While I don’t expect Arrieta to match the insane heights he reached in 2015, I think he’ll beat this projection pretty easily. Prediction: Under
Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
DeGrom, a long-haired Taran Killam lookalike who didn’t reach the majors until a month before his 26th birthday, was the best pitcher on the best team in the National League last season. Imagine that. When glossing over his stats, the first thing that jumps out at you is deGrom’s incredible consistency. If you look at his month-by-month ERA, deGrom has only gone over four twice in his career (June 2014 and September 2015). The sample size obviously isn’t huge but when your highest ERA for a full season is 2.69, you must be doing something right. DeGrom’s success stems from one of the best heaters in baseball. His average fastball velocity last season (95.0 mph) was seventh-highest among big league starting pitchers.
DeGrom avoided the sophomore slump but a third-year slide could be in the works. His .271 BABIP was a little on the fortunate side (12th-lowest in MLB) and he’s coming off a big workload in 2015 (216 innings between the playoffs and regular season). It’s also a little distressing that his ERA went up a full run after the All-Star break (2.14 to 3.14). Those are definite red flags but until deGrom finishes a season with an ERA over three, something he’s yet to do in his major league career, I’m taking the under. Prediction: Under
Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics
He’s been at it in the big leagues since 2013 but Gray has yet to have a bad season. Gray’s 2.73 ERA last year actually wasn’t a career-high, which shows you we’re working with an immensely talented individual. Unfortunately Gray finished the year on a sour note with a 6.84 ERA over five September starts. Opponents hit .315 off Gray that month but it was the walks that really did him in. His K/BB fell to 1.46, well below his career average of 2.74. But let’s not downplay how good he was in the other five months. Even with his September meltdown, Gray still finished with the American League’s third-lowest ERA behind only David Price and Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
Gray has logged 427 innings over his last two seasons, which is probably too many for a guy who is built more like Dustin Pedroia than Madison Bumgarner. That might explain why his ERA ballooned to 3.74 in the second half after he led the AL with a 2.04 ERA before the All-Star break. Gray’s K/9 dropped to a career-low 7.51 last year while his groundball rate also took a dive (1.14 compared to 1.38 in 2014). Fantasy owners shouldn’t overreact to one bad month but I’m a little worried about wear and tear with Gray. It’s close, but I’m leaning toward the over. Prediction: Over
Zack Greinke, Arizona Diamondbacks
I think you could make the argument Greinke’s 2015 campaign was the best non-Cy-Young season in baseball history. I mean come on—a 1.66 ERA? This guy needs a challenge. And that’s exactly what he’ll get at hitter-friendly Chase Field. Greinke had it good at Chavez Ravine. Dodger Stadium ranked 23rd in park factor last year. Chase Field was eighth. Fortunately, Greinke spent the last three years playing against the Diamondbacks in the NL West, so he’s no stranger to Chase Field. And while Arizona isn’t the pitcher’s paradise he’s used to, Greinke has fared reasonably well there with six wins and a 3.34 ERA over 10 career starts.
Greinke’s counting stats were obviously impressive (19 wins, 200 strikeouts) but you have to dig deeper to really appreciate what he did last season. His strand rate was remarkable—86.5 percent of runners who reached base failed to score against him. His efficiency was also greatly improved. Greinke averaged a career-best 14.5 pitches per inning last year while his average of 3.84 pitches per plate appearance was his lowest since 2010. Not that it happened very often, but opponents hit just .105 against Greinke with two outs and runners in scoring position. Greinke isn’t blowing anyone away with his fastball (91.8 mph was his average velocity in 2015) but he’s using his changeup more than ever (20.9 percent of pitches last year) and the results speak for themselves. Greinke has finished with an ERA lower than three four times in his career including each of his last three seasons. I think you know where I’m going with this. Prediction: Under
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
Well, Keuchel certainly has the best beard of the five pitchers we’ve mentioned so far. He’s also the reigning AL Cy Young winner, which is kind of incredible when you consider last year was his first All-Star appearance. What makes Keuchel slightly unusual is that he isn’t a big strikeout pitcher. Sure he’s made strides in that area (he tied Carlos Carrasco for fifth in the AL with 216 Ks this past season) but Keuchel’s career 7.02 K/9 is lower than you’d expect from a Cy Young winner. So is his velocity—Keuchel’s average fastball clocked in the high 80s last season. But who needs speed when you have the best sinker in baseball? Only Brett Anderson (66.3 percent) produced a higher groundball rate than Keuchel (61.7) last year.
For Keuchel, the light bulb went on in 2014 when he garnered a 2.93 ERA over 200 innings. That was a monumental leap from the previous two years when he logged a disappointing 5.20 ERA across 47 outings. Keuchel’s worst month last year was, you guessed it, September. He went just 3-2 in the season’s last month with a 3.78 ERA. If that’s the worst-case scenario for Keuchel, fantasy owners shouldn’t have much to worry about.
Keuchel led the majors in pitches last year (3,492) and has now thrown 448 innings over his last two seasons. That’s pretty taxing but I don’t think it affects Keuchel as much because instead of relying on a plus fastball like other aces, he mostly pitches to contact. Fantasy owners can expect another sub-three ERA from Keuchel in 2016. Prediction: Under
*Compiled by FantasyPros