Last week, we took a look at a handful of starters who could see better results in 2015 due to abnormally bad luck in the season prior. This week, we’ll go to the other end of the spectrum and examine some starters who are likely to see poorer results in the coming season.
Pitchers have a lot of control over three main areas: strikeouts, walks and batted ball specialty (ground ball and fly ball rates). Due to this, we can make some strong claims about a pitcher’s skill by utilizing these stats. Nevertheless, a pitcher may put up great numbers despite lacking in those three areas, as a single season does not constitute a large sample size. By identifying the pitchers who had good results but lacked in performance, we can avoid overpaying and we may also completely avoid disaster.
o Chris Young, free agent
Young won American League Comeback Player of the Year honors after posting a 3.65 ERA over 29 starts and one relief appearance. It marked the first time he had made at least 25 starts in a season since 2007. Young showed great potential in his mid-20’s, but injuries derailed a promising career.
Despite the return to form, the results don’t speak to the 35-year-old’s talent level. Young struck out fewer than 16 percent of batters, below the league average of 19 percent for starting pitchers. He also walked 1.5 percent more batters than the AL SP average. Young, a fly ball pitcher, benefited from pitching in spacious Safeco Field as his home ERA was 2.40, a far cry from his road ERA of 5.03. He also benefited from a .240 BABIP, which led to a strand rate of over 80 percent, eight percent higher than the league average.
Young doesn’t have a home yet, but he likely will by the time spring training rolls around. Those in single league formats may be tempted to take a flier on the right-hander, but his 2014 stats don’t indicate a repeat performance is likely.
o Alfredo Simon, Detroit Tigers
After two solid years of relief pitching, the Reds moved Alfredo Simon into the starting rotation and enjoyed a ton of success. The 33-year-old was nominated to his first All-Star team, finishing with a 3.44 ERA in 196 1/3 innings. He was able to accomplish this despite a mediocre ability to induce swings and misses, as his 15.5 percent strikeout rate was about four percent below the AL average.
According to Baseball Reference, Simon finished with the ninth-lowest BABIP among qualified starters at .268. If he had typical batted ball fortune, his ERA would have been closer to, and may have even exceeded 4.00. Simon has a career average BABIP of .282, roughly 15 points below the league average. However, relievers are known to sustain lower BABIPs as compared to starters – due to playing match-ups, not having to conserve energy, etc. – so we shouldn’t read too much into that. Furthermore, the Tigers’ infield defense was widely considered the worst in baseball, both last season and in 2013. The return of Jose Iglesias should help push the needle back in the other direction, but not enough to make up for the rest of the infield. Simon is a pitcher fantasy players should feel comfortable looking past this coming season.
o Roberto Hernandez, free agent
Just as Hernandez was a solid bounce-back candidate going into the 2014 season, he’s a good bet to regress in 2015. The Phillies banked on better results for Hernandez based on an unsustainably high home run rate and an improved strikeout rate. While the right-hander’s home run rate did fall, he saw his K-rate drop by three percent and his walk rate ballooned from six to 10 percent.
Hernandez, a ground ball maven, benefited from a .271 BABIP. We should expect that to return closer to .295 or .300 not just because that’s historically been the trend for most pitchers, but because ground balls become hits nearly three times as often: over seven percent for fly balls and over 24 percent for ground balls. Close to half of Hernandez’s batted balls were of the ground ball variety last season.
Hernandez should find a home before or during spring training, but for fantasy players, su casa shouldn’t be Hernandez’s casa.
o Shelby Miller, Atlanta Braves
The ghost of Jason Heyward will live on in Atlanta in the form of Shelby Miller. Having the human vacuum cleaner known as Andrelton Simmons at shortstop should help, but hopes of 2013-esque results for Miller (3.06 ERA) may be too optimistic. From 2013 to ’14, Miller saw his K-rate drop by seven percent and his walk rate rise by nearly two percent.
Miller did make some adjustments during the season, relying more on his curve and less on his change-up and cut fastball as the season went on. His second-half peripherals are much better than his first-half peripherals, but still speak to a pitcher with a true talent level closer to a 4.00 ERA.
Miller had the third-lowest BABIP among qualified starters last season at .259. Given that he doesn’t have any particular batted ball skills (e.g. a Tyler Clippard-esque propensity for pop-ups), there’s no reason to expect it to be that low going forward. Miller’s profile staying steady plus a BABIP regression means he’ll lose some value from 2014 into ’15.
o Doug Fister, Washington Nationals
Including 2014, Fister has finished a season with a sub-2.85 ERA twice in his career, but fantasy owners shouldn’t expect a repeat performance in 2015. Fister is a ground ball maven who has swung from one extreme of the BABIP pendulum to the other. (Remember: ground balls become hits at about a 24 percent rate compared to seven percent for fly balls.) In 2013, his .332 was ostensibly due in part to the Tigers’ awful infield defense; last season, his .262 mark was due to the Nationals’ above-average infield defense. But that’s only one part of the equation: a study crafted by Tom Tango, Erik Allen, Arvin Hsu and others found in 2003 that team defense was responsible for determining only 17 percent of a pitcher’s BABIP, compared to 44 percent for luck and 28 percent for the pitcher himself.
Fister began the season on the disabled list due to a strained lat muscle and that could have had an effect on his diminished strikeout rate, which fell from 18 percent to below 15 percent. But even his 2013 rate was down a couple of points from 2012’s 20.5 percent. Fister, soon to be 31 years old, has lost at least one MPH on all of his pitches since then, including his fastball. While the Nats’ defense should be nearly as efficient in 2015, expect Fister’s ERA to regress close to 3.50.
As a general theme, the five pitchers included in this column have low strikeout rates. For reference:
o Chris Young: 15.5%
o Alfredo Simon: 15.5%
o Roberto Hernandez: 14.3%
o Shelby Miller: 16.7%
o Doug Fister: 14.8%
o MLB SP average: 19.4%
Most leagues use strikeouts as a category, so betting on the continued BABIP luck of pitchers of this ilk also comes with the risk of lagging behind in strikeouts. Thus, it is more strategically sound to bet on good BABIP luck for high strikeout pitchers like Johnny Cueto (25.2%, .238) as opposed to those with low strikeout rates. Furthermore, higher velocity is positively correlated with strikeouts, which is positively correlated with a lower BABIP. At least if you guess wrong, you aren’t also losing ground in another category as well.
Here are some pitchers you may want to prioritize in a BABIP gamble:
o Garrett Richards, Angels: 24.2%, .264
o Julio Teheran, Braves: 21.0%, .267
o Jason Hammel, Cubs: 21.8%, .269
o Bud Norris, Orioles: 20.2%, .279
o Alex Cobb: 21.9%, .282