# Predicting pitchers’ strikeouts using xK%

Expected strikeout rate, or what I will henceforth refer to as “xK%,” is exactly what it sounds like. I want to see if a pitcher’s strikeout rate actually reflects how he has pitched in terms of how often he’s in the zone, how often he causes batters to swing and miss, and so on. Ideally, it will help explain random fluctuations in a pitcher’s strikeout rate, because even strikeouts have some luck built into them, too.

An xK% metric is not a revolutionary idea. Mike Podhorzer over at FanGraphs created one last year, but he catered it to hitters. Still, it’s nothing too wild and crazy like WAR or SIERA or any other wacky acronym. (A wackronym, if you will.)

Courtesy of Baseball Reference, I constructed a set of pitching data spanning 2010 through 2014. I focused primarily on what I thought would correlate highly with strikeout rates: looking strikes, swinging strikes and foul-ball strikes, all as a percentage of total strikes thrown. I didn’t want the model specification to be too close to a definition, so it’s beneficial that these rates are on a per-strike, rather than per-pitch, basis.

The graph plots actual strikeout rates versus expected strikeout rates with the line of best fit running through it. I ran my regression using the specification above and produced the following equation:

xK% = -.6284293 + 1.195018*lookstr + 1.517088*swingstr + .9505775*foulstr
R-squared = .9026

The R-squared term can, for easy of understanding, be interpreted as how well the model fits the data, from 0 to 1. An R-squared, then, of .9026 represents approximately a 90-percent fit. In other words, these three variables are able to explain 90 percent of a strikeout rate. (The remaining 10 percent is, for now, a mystery!)

In order for the reader to use this equation to his or her own benefit, one would insert a pitcher’s looking strike, swinging strike and foul-ball strike percentages into the appropriate variables. Fortunately, I already took the initiative. I applied the results to the same data I used: all individual qualified seasons by starting pitchers from 2010 through 2014.

The results have interesting implications. Firstly, one can see how lucky or unlucky a pitcher was in a particular season. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, one can easily identify which pitchers habitually over- and under-perform relative to their xK%. Lastly, you can see how each pitcher is trending over time. Every pitcher is different; although the formula will fit most ordinary pitchers, it goes without saying that the aces of your fantasy squad are far from ordinary, and they should be treated on an individual basis.

(Keep in mind that a lot of these players only have one or two years’ worth of data (as indicated by “# Years”), so the average difference between their xK% and K% as a representation of a pitcher’s true skill will be largely unreliable.)

It is immediately evident: the game’s best pitchers outperform their xK% by the largest margins. Cliff Lee, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright are all top-10 (or at least top-15) fantasy starters. But let’s look at their numbers over the years, along with a few others at the top of the list.

Kershaw and King Felix have not only been consistent but also look like like they’re getting better with age. Wainwright’s difference between 2013 and 2014 is a bit of a concern; he’s getting older, and this could be a concrete indicator that perhaps the decline has officially begun. Darvish’s line is interesting, too: you may or may not remember that he had a massive spike in strikeouts in 2013 compared to his already-elite strikeout rate the prior year. As you can see, it was totally legit, at least according to xK%. But for some reason, even xK% can fluctuate wildly from year to year. I see it in the data, anecdotally: Anibal Sanchez‘s huge 6.7-percent spike in xK% from 2012 to 2013 was followed by a 5.5-percent drop from 2013 to 2014. Conversely, David Price‘s 5-percent decrease in xK% from 2012 to 2013 was followed by an almost perfectly-equal 5-percent increase from 2013 to 2014. So the phenomenon seems to work both ways. Thus, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when Darvish couldn’t repeat his 2013 success. To the baseball world’s collective dismay, we simply didn’t have enough data yet to determine which Yu was the true Yu. I plan to do some research to see how often these severe spikes in xK% are mere aberrations versus how often they are sustained over time, indicating a legitimate skills improvement.

I have also done my best to compile a list of players with only one or two years’ worth of data who saw sizable spikes and drops in their K% minus xK% (“diff%”). The idea is to find players for whom we can’t really tell how much better (or worse) their actual K% is compared to their xK% because of conflicting data points. For example, will Corey Kluber be a guy who massively outperforms his xK% as he did in 2014, or does he only slightly outperform as he did in 2013? I present the list not to provide an answer but to posit: Which version of each of these players is more truthful? I guess we will know sometime in October.

Name: [2013 diff%, 2014 diff%]

And here some fantasy-relevant guys with only data from 2014:

# Pitchers to sell high, buy low or cut bait

All right. It’s April. It’s horrifying, unless you’re doing well, and then it’s not. But, full disclosure, I’m not. Chicago White Sox staff ace Chris Sale just hit the 15-day disabled list yesterday, joining the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cole Hamels, Seattle Mariners’ James Paxton, Tampa Bay Rays’ Alex Cobb, Cincinnati Reds’ Mat Latos, New York Yankees’ David Robertson and the Detroit Tigers’ Doug Fister on my teams’ DLs. It’s killing me, really. It’s incredibly painful.

What I’m saying is I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit frolicking in free agency, trying to figure out which early-season studs are legit or not. I’ve been pondering various buy-low situations as well. So I jumped into a pool of peripherals and PITCHf/x data to look for answers.

The list below is not remotely exhaustive. It’s mostly players I am watching or already using as replacements for my teams. Here they are, in no particular order.

Jake Peavy, BOS | 0-0, 3.33 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 9.25 K/9
Peavy’s prime came and went about five years ago, so, full disclosure, I don’t know as much about him off the top of my head as I should. But I do know one thing: he doesn’t strike out a batter per inning anymore. In his defense, batters’ contact rate against him is the best it has been since 2009, his last truly good year. So maybe he will strike out a few more batters than last year, but I think it’ll be closer to 2012’s 7.97 K/9, not 2009’s 9.74 K/9. The WHIP is atrocious;  the walk rate is through the roof. If there’s a guy in your league who will pay for what will end up being the illusion of ERA and strikeouts, by all means, trade him. He’s owned in 100 percent of leagues but doesn’t deserve to be.
Verdict: Sell high

John Lackey, BOS | 2-2, 5.25 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 8.63 K/9
Another Boston pitcher, another bad start to the season. I like Lackey a lot more, though, for a variety of reasons. One, last year’s renaissance was legitimate. Two, he’s not walking many batters right now, so his unspectacular ratios are more a result of an unlucky batting average on balls in play (.333 BABIP) than incompetence. Three, his swinging strike and contact rates are currently career bests. Again, we’re working with small sample sizes here, and this could easily regress. But considering his velocity is also at a career high, I don’t find it improbable that Lackey actually does better than he did last season. If an owner in your league has already dropped him, put in your waiver claim now.

Jesse Chavez, OAK | 1-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.69 K/9
Talk about unexpected. Chavez, who has been relevant about zero times, is making for an intriguing play in all leagues. It’s a given he will regress, especially considering the .242 BABIP, but his improved walk rate could be here to stay, as he is pounding the zone more than he ever has in his career. The strikeouts are somewhat of a mirage, but it looks like he can be a low-WHIP, moderate-strikeout guy, and that’s still valuable.
Verdict: Sell really high, or just ride the hot hand

Nathan Eovaldi, MIA | 1-1, 3.55 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.17 K/9
I wouldn’t call Eovaldi a trendy sleeper, but he certainly was a sleeper coming into 2014. It was all about whether he could command his pitchers better — and, like magic, it appears he has, walking only 1.07 batters per nine innings as opposed to 3.39-per-nine last year. The swinging strike and contact rates are concerning, as they are the lowest of his career, so it’s hard to see his strikeout rate going anywhere but down. However, he’s throwing 65 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, highest of all qualified pitchers. So there are two ways to look at this. His control has probably legitimate improved. Unfortunately, even the masterful Cliff Lee only threw 53.3 percent of pitches in the zone last year, and I am hesitant to claim Eovaldi has better control than Lee. This could be a “breakout” year of sorts for Eovaldi, but I’m using that term liberally here. He’s only owned in 20.5 percent of leagues, so this makes him more of a ride-the-hot-hand type, like Mr. Chavez above.
Verdict: Eventually drop, ideally before he does damage to your team

Mark Buehrle, TOR | 4-0, 0.64 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 6.11 K/9
Look, I have had a long-standing man crush on Buehrle, but this is ridiculous. You know better than I that these happy dreams will soon become nightmares, not because Buehrle is awful or anything, but because regression rears its head in occasionally very brutal ways.
Verdict: Sell high

Alfredo Simon, CIN | 0.86 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 5.57 K/9
Something isn’t right here. A 0.81 WHIP and… fewer than six strikeouts per nine innings? As you become more familiar with sabermetrics, you quickly realize certain things don’t mesh. A low WHIP combined with the low strikeout rate is one of those things. I can tell you without looking that his BABIP is impossibly low — and, now looking, I see I’m right: it’s .197. Tristan H. Cockcroft of ESPN is all about Simon, and in his defense, Simon’s PITCHf/x data foreshadows some positive regression coming his way in the strikeout department. But it can only get worse from here for Simon. However, I think he has a bit of a Dan Straily look to him, and that’s certainly serviceable.
Verdict: Sell high, or just ride the hot hand

Yovani Gallardo, MIL | 1.46 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 6.93 K/9
This is a disaster waiting to happen. Like Simon, his strikeout rate is low, but for Gallardo, it is deservedly so: his swinging strike and contact rates are, by far, career worsts. Meanwhile, his ratios are buoyed by a .264 BABIP and 89.8% LOB% (left-on-base percentage), despite his 74.7% career LOB%. The Brewers will fall with him. Sell high, and sell fast.
Verdict: Sell high

Shelby Miller, STL | 3.57 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 8.34 K/9
Miller is the first pitcher on this list in whom owners actually invested a lot. Be patient. The 98.3-percent of owners who didn’t cut bait before his last start were surely rewarded. I imagine he’s leaving his pitches up in the zone, given his increased percentage of pitches thrown in the zone coupled with his home run rate. Speaking of which, he shouldn’t be walking five batters per nine innings when he’s throwing more than 50 percent of his pitches in the zone. He’ll be fine.

Homer Bailey, CIN | 5.75 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 11.07 K/9
Two words: .421 BABIP. Yowza. Again, owners invested way too much in this guy. Perfect buy-low opportunity here if you know your fellow owner is impatient.

Drew Hutchison, TOR | 3.60 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 10.80 K/9
I’ll be honest, I was surprised to see Hutchison’s xFIP stand at 3.43. It seems like he has been much worse — but has he really? The walks are problematic but not unmanageable (see: Matt Moore), and they’ve actually shored up a bit in his last couple of starts. Moreover, he is still striking out batters at an elite rate, and the PITCHf/x data supports his success, albeit probably not with quite as much success as he’s having now. As for the WHIP? A .365 BABIP sure doesn’t help. Hutchison was once a highly-touted prospect. Your window of opportunity to gamble on this live arm may be closing if he can keep his ERA down.
Verdict: Add via free agency, sooner rather than later

# Time to panic? Pitcher edition, week 1

Should I panic? How can I even tackle this question right now? The breadth of pitchers who performed poorly so far is astonishing, so it’s understandable why you might want to not start the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cliff Lee in his next start or cut ties with Chicago White Sox closer Nate Jones all together. There are times you should panic, and there are times you should remain calm. I’m here to help you tell the difference.

Disclaimer: I get kind of annoyed when analysts waffle with guys, like, “well, I know he’s going to fall apart, but I’ll give him one more chance”. NO! You know he’s going to fall apart, but you’re giving yourself an out! I’m drawing a line in the sand, across this line YOU DO NOT — also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. … Wait, where was I? Anyway, I’m not letting myself off the hook. I am here to make the impulse decisions with (and maybe for) you, because sometimes, these impulse decisions make or break a season. Unfortunately, making them really early in the season is an absolutely horrifying experience.

Alex Cobb, SP (TB)
Dilemma: He was less than sharp, and although he gave up only five hits in five innings, he managed to walk more batters than he struck out (four to three). This is highly unlike Cobb, and that’s why I’m more inclined to think it was a case of first-start jitters rather than the beginning of a depressing trend.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Homer Bailey, SP (CIN)
Dilemma: Lots of hits with as many walks as strikeouts. It was ugly, but he did face the Cardinals, which is no easy task. It’s hard to cut Bailey loose with how much you invested in him on draft day (outside of keeper leagues), but his breakout last year didn’t come out of nowhere, to which his second-half-of-2012 owners can attest. Unfortunately, he faces the Cardinals again in his next start. I’m not one to sit a guy early in the season, and I think it’s Bailey who will make adjustments the second time around, not the Cardinals.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Stephen Strasburg, SP (WAS)
Dilemma: A 6.00 ERA?! Yeah, but 10 strikeouts in six innings and only a 1.167 WHIP. He got pretty unlucky, and that will happen from time to time. I would be more amped about the other batters he humiliated.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

CC Sabathia, SP (NYY)
Dilemma: Well, uh, he looked horrible. Against the Astros. It’s fine and dandy that he struck out a batter per innings and only walked one, but his fastball has become too hittable with that diminished velocity. I expect the trend to continue, and I think the solid strikeout total is the result of a free-swinging, hapless Astros offense. Remember, I said these are impulse decisions I’m making here. With a bevy of young pitching talent on waivers, I say…
Verdict: Panic.

C.J. Wilson, SP (LAA)
Dilemma: Kind of the same as Strasburg’s. High strikeouts and lots of hits sounds like an old wives’ tale about bad luck on balls in play that I’ve heard many a time. Wilson is not a second-tier starter anymore like he used to be, but he’s solid, and there’s no reason to fret.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

R.A. Dickey, SP (TOR)
Dilemma: Wow… Wow. Six walks. That hurts. I don’t know the first thing about throwing a knuckleball, and I’m sure if you have a bad day, it can be really be bad. But six walks? At least the strikeouts are there, but if your league is anything like any of mine, you probably got Dickey on the cheap. If I saw enticing performances by Seattle’s James Paxton or Toronto’s Drew Hutchison, I may cut ties, too. Surely no one else will touch him with a 10-foot pole until after his next start.
Verdict: Panic.

Corey Kluber, SP (CLE)
Dilemma: If you follow this website, you know how much I love Kluber, and how I preemptively purchased a five-year membership to the Society. Everything about the start is concerning, but I’m too proud to cut him loose. If you got him cheap, you can let him go and try your luck later. And I truly think he will break out; his peripherals were simply too good last year, and I don’t think you can fluke your way into talent like that. But perhaps I’m wrong…
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Cliff Lee, SP (PHI)
Dilemma: Wait, is this a serious question? Look, I know that sucked, but he’s freakin’ Cliff Lee. Calm down.
Verdict: Don’t panic.

Jonathan Papelbon, RP (PHI)
Dilemma: Dude, if you wanted to know what the end of the world would look like, this is it. Except in the form of a metaphor called Jonathan Papelbon.
Verdict: Panic.

Jim Johnson, RP (OAK)
Dilemma: I’ve expressed my distaste for Johnson before. He’s simply not good, and fantasy owners are blinded by two straight seasons of 50-plus saves. He would be lucky to save 35 this year without trouble; it looks like he may not get he chance to save 20 by the end of the week.
Verdict: Panic.

Nate Jones, RP (CHW)
Dilemma: The closer role was never a lock for him to keep. It looks like he agrees. Two hits, three walks and four earned runs without recording an out. Making Casper Wells look like a Cy Young candidate.
Verdict: Panic.

# Six pitchers I’m not targeting in drafts

As much as it feels good to correctly bet on a bounceback, it sucks harder to be the guy who loses the coin flip. I looked at my 2012 standard 5×5 rotisserie auction draft and the list is, frankly, hilarious. The top 10 pitchers were:

1. Clayton Kershaw (\$32)
3. Justin Verlander (\$26)
4. Felix Hernandez (\$26)
5. Tim Lincecum (\$24)
6. Jered Weaver (\$24)
7. Cliff Lee (\$23)
8. Dan Haren (\$21)
9. Cole Hamels (\$19)
10. CC Sabathia (\$19)

Wow. That was only two years ago. Half those names have fallen from grace — more than half if you’re in the camp that think last year was not an anomaly for Verlander and that we’ve reached the beginning of the end with him. It’s truly hard to believe that anyone thought Halladay would be the second-best pitcher in the MLB in 2012 after the numbers he put up, but it just goes to show how suddenly a pitcher’s decline can sneak up on everyone.

Humorously enough, three of the pitchers in that top 10 make my forthcoming list of pitchers who I will not be targeting in drafts. This can also be viewed as a list of the largest differences between ESPN’s and my rankings.

Justin VerlanderESPN rank: 14, My rank: 25
I have more faith in his strikeout rate, but ESPN has more faith in his overall effectiveness. Truth is, he didn’t suffer an abnormally high BAbip or anything like that. He was simply more hittable and, honestly, ESPN’s projection doesn’t make a lot of sense when you consider that fewer strikeouts should lead to a higher probability he will give up a hit. Regardless of how you feel about him, it’s the offseason surgery that freaks me out. Does that not freak YOU out? It came out of nowhere, and there are rumors he may not even be ready for Opening Day. Toss in the fact that he has a pretty rigorous offseason routine that, for the first time, he won’t be able to stick to, and you have a guy that may not only start the season but also be out of shape, relative to his standards. Unless I get him as low as 30th, he’s not worth the risk.

Shelby Miller | ESPN rank: 26, My rank: 48
This is not a testament to Miller’s abilities — he’s a very good pitcher. This time, ESPN believes more in the strikeout rate; my research leads me to bet against it, although I’m sure he has the capability to improve. The most important aspect of his game this year will be how deeply he pitches into games. I’m not banking on 200 innings, let’s put it that way. I simply believe he will be overvalued on draft day, especially if ESPN thinks he will be better than Gerrit Cole or Alex Cobb. Even if Cole doesn’t ramp up the strikeouts, I still can’t get behind them on this one (Cole struck out 10 batters per nine innings over his handful of starts and was an absolute beast. He gasses 100 mph). Miller is o-ver-ra-ted. Case closed.

Hyun-jin Ryu | ESPN rank: 31, My rank: 50
I actually think he will perform better than ESPN thinks. I also think ESPN simply underrates a lot of players. They have an audience to please, and I think intuition prevails sometimes, even if it’s wrong. Ryu is good but not elite; he pitches more to contact but keeps the ball on the ground. With that said, the strikeout rate suffers, so he’s not really a guy I want on my team. However, he’ll get wins, and that’s great. But we all knows wins are unpredictable. Ask 2012 Cliff Lee and 2013 Cole Hamels. (Or maybe just don’t pitch for the Phillies next time.) Anyway, again, another case of overrating in my opinion.

Jon Lester | ESPN rank: 37, My rank: 56
With so much pitching depth, there’s no reason to tolerate a career 1.30 WHIP and a pedestrian K/9 rate since 2012 just to bank on wins. It only takes one bad year.

CC Sabathia | ESPN rank: 39, My rank: 41
At least ESPN and I are on the same page on this one. Still, what if it gets worse? I think 41st is a neutral projection, and with Hiroki Kuroda and Tony Cingrani following right behind, there are clearly other worthy commodities for which you can pass up Sabathia. Also, don’t forget that these rankings don’t tell you exactly how closely players are ranked together. Players within five slots or so of one another are practically interchangeable.

Dan Haren | ESPN rank: 44, My rank: 73
Let me make my official declaration: Dan Haren’s strikeout rate is NOT back — I repeat, NOT back! ESPN only sees a slight regression, but I dug deeper into PITCHf/x data and basically revealed Haren’s strikeout rate in 2013 was anomalous. I truly think he is more likely to record fewer than seven strikeouts per nine (aka 6.9 K/9) than 7.7 K/9 as expected by ESPN. Be warned, friends. The Dodgers will make his win column tolerable, but only if he pitches somewhat respectably — and I don’t know if he’s capable of doing that. As I’ve said a hundred times already, there’s simply too much volatility here.

Honorable Mentions:
Julio Teheran – He’s good, but I’d rather another owner jump the gun on him (which I can almost guarantee will happen) and pass up on better talent for him.
Jeff Samardzija – Serious question: has he ever won more than nine games? (Also, not coincidentally, a rhetorical question.)
Zack Wheeler – ESPN is really bullish on him. Maybe I’ll be the guy who misses the breakout year, but he finished 2013 with a 4.1 BB/9. He walked 5+ guys in four starts, and failed to strike out more batters than he walked in five. That’s simply unacceptable, and command does not shore up overnight.

# Pitchers due for strikeout regression using PITCHf/x data

If FanGraphs were a home, or a hotel, or even a tent, I’d live there. I would swim in its oceans of data, lounge in its pools of metrics.

It houses a slew of PITCHf/x data — the numbers collected by the systems installed in all MLB ballparks that measure the frequency, velocity and movement of every pitch by every pitcher. It’s pretty astounding, but it’s also difficult for the untrainted eye to make something of the numbers aside from tracking the declining velocities of CC Sabathia‘s and Yovani Gallardo‘s fastballs.

I used linear regression to see how a pitcher’s contact, swinging strike and other measurable rates affect his strikeout percentage, and how that translates to strikeouts per inning (K/9). Ultimately, the model spits out a formula to generate an expected K/9 for a pitcher. I pulled data from FanGraphs comprised of all qualified pitchers from the last four years (2010 through 2013).

The idea is this: A pitcher who can miss more bats will strike out more batters. FanGraphs’ “Contact %” statistic illustrates this, where a lower contact rate is better. Similarly, a pitcher who can generate more swinging strikes (“SwStr %”) is more likely to strike out batters.

Using this theory coupled with the aforementioned data, I “corrected” the K/9 rates of all 2013 pitchers who notched at least 100 innings. Instead of detailing the full results, here are the largest differentials between expected and actual K/9 rates. (I will list only pitchers I deem fantasy relevant.)

Largest positive differential: Name — expected K/9 – actual K/9) = +/- change

1. Martin Perez — 7.77 – 6.08 = +1.69
2. Jarrod Parker — 7.74 – 6.12) = +1.62
3. Dan Straily — 8.63 – 7.33 = +1.30
4. Jered Weaver — 8.09 – 6.82 = +1.27
5. Hiroki Kuroda — 7.93 – 6.71 = +1.22
6. Kris Medlen — 8.38 –  7.17 = +1.21
7. Francisco Liriano — 10.31 – 9.11 = +1.20
8. Ervin Santana — 8.06 – 6.87 = +1.19
9. Ricky Nolasco — 8.47 – 7.45 = +1.02
10. Tim Hudson — 7.42 (6.51) | +0.91

Largest negative differential:

1. Tony Cingrani — 8.15 – 10.32 = -2.17
2. Ubaldo Jimenez — 7.68 – 9.56 = -1.88
3. Cliff Lee — 7.11 – 8.97 = -1.86
4. Jose Fernandez — 8.15 – 9.75 = -1.60
5. Shelby Miller — 7.20 – 8.78 = -1.58
6. Scott Kazmir — 7.71 – 9.23 = -1.52
7. Yu Darvish — 10.41 – 11.89 = -1.48
8. Lance Lynn — 7.58 – 8.84 = -1.26
9. Justin Masterson — 7.84 (9.09) | -1.25
10. Chris Tillman — 6.60 (7.81) | -1.21

There’s a lot to digest here, so I’ll break it down. It appears Perez was the unluckiest pitcher last year, of the ones who qualified for the study, notching almost 1.7 fewer strikeouts per nine innings than he would be expected to, given the rate of whiffs he induced. Conversely, rookie sensation Cingrani notched almost 2.2 more strikeouts per nine innings than expected.

There is a caveat. I was not able to account for facets of pitching such as a pitcher’s ability to hide the ball well, or his tendency to draw strikes-looking. With that said, a majority of the so-called lucky ones are pitchers who, in 2013, experienced a breakout (Cingrani, Fernandez, Miller, Darvish, Masterson, Tillman) or a renaissance (Jimenez, Kazmir, Masterson — woah, all Cleveland pitchers). Is it possible these pitchers can all repeat their performances — especially the ones who have disappointed us for years? Perhaps not.

(Update, Jan. 24: Cliff Lee’s mark of -1.86 is, amazingly, not unusual for him. Over the last four years, the average difference between his expected and actual K/9 rates is … drum roll … -1.88. Insane!)

Darvish and Liriano were in a league of their own in terms of inducing swings and misses, notching almost 30 percent each. (Anibal Sanchez was third-best with 27 percent. The average is about 21 percent.) However, Darvish recorded 2.78 more K/9 than Liriano. Is there any rhyme or reason to that? Darvish is, without much argument, the better pitcher — but is he that much better? I don’t think so. Darvish was expected to notch 10.41 K/9 given his contact rate. Any idea what his 2012 K/9 rate was? Incredibly: 10.40 K/9.

More big names produced equally interesting results. King Felix Hernandez recorded a career-best 9.51 K/9, but he was expected to produce something closer to 8.57 K/9. His rate the previous three years? 8.52 K/9.

Dan Haren didn’t produce much in the way of ERA in 2013, but he did see a much-needed spike in his strikeout rate, jumping above 8 K/9 for the first time since 2010. His expected 7.07 K/9 says otherwise, though, and it fits perfectly with how his K/9 rate was trending: 7.25 K/9 in 2011, 7.23 K/9 in 2012.

I think my models tend to exaggerate the more extreme results (most of which are noted in the lists above) because they could not account for intangibles in a player’s natural talent. However, they could prove to be excellent indicators of who’s due for regression.

Only time will tell. Maybe Jose Fernandez isn’t the elite pitcher we already think he is — not yet, at least.

————

Notes: The data almost replicates a normal distribution, with 98 of the 145 observations (67.6 percent) falling within one standard deviation (1.09 K/9) of the mean value (7.19 K/9), and 140 of 145 (96.6 percent) falling within two standard deviations. The median value is 7.27 K/9, indicating the distribution is very slightly skewed left.

# The role of luck in fantasy baseball

I apologize for being that guy that ruins that ooey gooey feeling you get when think about the fantasy league you won last year. As much as you want to think you are a fantasy master — perhaps even a fantasy god — you should acknowledge that you probably benefited from a good deal of luck. Sure, for your sake, I will admit you made a great pick with Max Scherzer in the fifth round. But did you, in all your mastery, predict he would win 21 games?

Don’t say yes. You didn’t. And frankly, you would be crazy to say he’ll do it again.

I focus primarily on pitching in this blog, and let it be known that pitchers are not exempt from luck in the realm of fantasy baseball. If you’re playing in a standard rotisserie league, you probably have a wins category. In a points league, you likely award points for wins.

Wins. Arguably the most arbitrary statistic in baseball. Let’s not have that discussion, though, and instead simply accept the win as it is. The win has the most drastic uncontrollable effect on a fantasy pitcher’s value. (ERA and WHIP experiences similar statistical fluctuations, but at least they aren’t arbitrary.)

I had an idea, but before I proceed, let me interject: if you’re drafting for wins, you’re doing it wrong. But, as I said, you can’t ignore wins.

But let’s say you did, and drafted strictly on talent, or “stuff” (which, here, factors in a pitcher’s durability). How would the top 30 pitchers change? Here’s my “stuff” list, which you can compare with the base projections:

Here are the five players with the biggest positive change and a breakdown of each:

1. Brandon Beachy, up 23 spots
His injury history has weakened his wins column projection. Consequently, the number of innings Beachy is expected to throw is significantly less than a full season. But if he managed to stay healthy for the full year (say, 200 innings)? He’s a top-1o pick based on pure stuff. If you draft with the philosophy that you can always find a viable replacement on waivers, Beachy could be your big sleeper.
2. Marco Estrada, up 22 spots
Estrada’s diminished expected wins is more a function of his terrible team than ability. Estrada has underperformed the past two years, Ricky Nolasco style, but if he can pull it together, he’s a top-30 pitcher based on “stuff.” And hey, maybe he can luck into some extra wins. However, if he can’t pull it together — Ricky Nolasco style — he’ll be relegated to fringe starter.
3. Danny Salazar, up 9 spots
Salazar has immense potential. His injury history led the Indians to cap his per-game pitch count last year, and that has been factored into his projection. But if he’s a full-time, 200-inning starter? He’s a top-25 starter with top-15 upside. Again, this is in terms of “stuff”. But is Ivan Nova better than Felix Hernandez because he can magically win more games? Of course not. Among a slew of young studs, including Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha and so on, Salazar is a diamond in the rough.
4. A.J. Burnett, up 8 spots
His projection is already plenty good. But you saw how many games he won in 2013. Anything can happen.
5. Corey Kluber, up 8 spots
Most people were probably scratching their heads when they saw Kluber’s name listed above. Frankly, I’m in love with him, and it’s because he’s a stud with a great K/BB ratio. I understand why someone may be inclined to dismiss it as an aberration, but his swinging strike and contact rates are truly excellent. Even if they regress, he should be a draft-day target.

Here are the three starting pitchers with the biggest negative change.

1. Anibal Sanchez, down 10 spots
He’s great, but he also plays for a great team. Call it Max Scherzer syndrome. He carries as big a risk as any other player to pitch great but only win five or six games, as do the next two players.
2. Hisashi Iwakuma, down 6 spots
3. Zack Greinke, down 4 spots

Let me be clear that although I created a hypothetical scenario where wins didn’t exist, I don’t advocate for blindly drafting based on “stuff.” It’s important to acknowledge that certain players have a much better chance to win than others. Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox could win 17 games just as easily as he could win seven. It’s about playing the odds — and unless a pitcher truly pitches terribly, don’t blame the so-called experts for your bad luck. He probably put his money where his mouth is, too, and is suffering along with you.

Here is a more comprehensive list of pitchers ranked by “stuff,” if that’s the way you sculpt your strategy:

1. Clayton Kershaw
3. Felix Hernandez
4. Max Scherzer
5. Cliff Lee
6. Yu Darvish
7. Chris Sale
8. Cole Hamels
9. Jose Fernandez
11. Stephen Strasburg
12. David Price
13. Justin Verlander
14. Alex Cobb
15. Homer Bailey
16. Mat Latos
17. Gerrit Cole
18. Michael Wacha
19. Anibal Sanchez
20. James Shields
21. Danny Salazar
23. A.J. Burnett
24. Corey Kluber
25. Brandon Beachy
26. Zack Greinke
27. Matt Cain
28. Sonny Gray
29. Hisashi Iwakuma
30. Gio Gonzalez
31. Doug Fister
32. Jordan Zimmermann
33. Alex Wood
34. Kris Medlen
35. Jeff Samardzija
36. Mike Minor
37. Jake Peavy
38. Kevin Gausman
39. Tyson Ross
40. Patrick Corbin
41. Lance Lynn
42. Francisco Liriano
43. Andrew Cashner
44. Ricky Nolasco
45. CC Sabathia
46. Hiroki Kuroda
47. Tim Lincecum
48. Tim Hudson
49. Jered Weaver
50. Shelby Miller
51. Clay Buchholz
52. Tony Cingrani
53. Matt Garza
54. John Lackey
55. Ubaldo Jimenez
56. Justin Masterson
57. Julio Teheran
58. R.A. Dickey
59. A.J. Griffin
60. Hyun-Jin Ryu
61. Dan Haren
62. Johnny Cueto
63. C.J. Wilson
64. Ian Kennedy
65. Chris Archer
66. Kyle Lohse
67. Scott Kazmir
68. Carlos Martinez
69. Jon Lester
70. Ervin Santana
71. Jose Quintana
72. Derek Holland
73. Garrett Richards
74. Dan Straily
75. Tyler Skaggs

# Early SP rankings for 2014

I wouldn’t say pitching is deep, but I’m surprised by the pitchers who didn’t make my top 60.

Note: I have deemed players highlighted in pink undervalued and worthy of re-rank. Do not be alarmed just yet by what you may perceive to be a low ranking.