# Predicting pitchers’ walks using xBB%

The other day, I discussed predicting pitchers’ strikeout rates using xK%. I will conduct the same exercise today in regard to predicting walks. Using my best intuition, I want to see how well a pitcher’s walk rate (BB%) actually correlates with what his walk rate should be (expected BB%, henceforth “xBB%”). Similarly to xK%, I used my intuition to best identify reliable indicators of a pitcher’s true walk rate using readily available data.

An xBB% metric, like xK%, would not only if a pitcher perennially over-performs (or under-performs) his walk rate but also if he happened to do so on a given year. This article will conclude by looking at how the difference in actual and expected walk rates (BB – xBB%) varied between 2014 and career numbers, lending some insight into the (un)luckiness of each pitcher.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, I constructed another set of pitching data spanning 2010 through 2014. This time, I focused primarily on what I thought would correlate with walk rate: inability to pitch in the zone and inability to incur swings on pitches out of the zone. I also throw in first-pitch strike rate: I predict that counts that start with a ball are more likely to end in a walk than those that start with a strike. Because FanGraphs’ data measures ability rather than inability — “Zone%” measures how often a pitcher hits the zone; “O-Swing%” measures how often batters swing at pitches out of the zone; “F-Strike%” measures the rate of first-pitch strikes — each variable should have a negative coefficient attached to it.

I specify a handful of variations before deciding on a final version. Instead of using split-season data (that is, each pitcher’s individual seasons from 2010 to 2014) for qualified pitchers, I use aggregated statistics because the results better fit the data by a sizable margin. This surprised me because there were about half as many observations, but it’s also not surprising because each observation is, itself, a larger sample size than before.

At one point, I tried creating my own variable: looks (non-swings) at pitches out of the zone. I created a variable by finding the percentage of pitches out of the zone (1 – Zone%) and multiplied it by how often a batter refused to swing at them (1 – O-Swing%). This version of the model predicted a nice fit, but it was slightly worse than leaving the variables separated. Also, I ran separate-but-equal regressions for PITCHf/x data and FanGraphs’ own data. The PITCHf/x data appeared to be slightly more accurate, so I proceeded using them.

The graph plots actual walk rates versus expected walk rates. The regression yielded the following equation:

xBB% = .3766176 – .2103522*O-Swing%(pfx) – .1105723*Zone%(pfx) – .3062822*F-Strike%
R-squared = .6433

Again, R-squared indicates how well the model fits the data. An R-squared of .64 is not as exciting as the R-squared I got for xK%; it means the model predicts about 64 percent of the fit, and 36 percent is explained by things I haven’t included in the model. Certainly, more variables could help explain xBB%. I am already considering combining FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x data with some of Baseball Reference‘s data, which does a great job of keeping track of the number of 3-0 counts, four-pitch walks and so on.

And again, for the reader to use the equation above to his or her benefit, one would plug in the appropriate values for a player in a given season or time frame and determine his xBB%. Then one could compare the xBB% to single-season or career BB% to derive some kind of meaningful results. And (one more) again, I have already taken the liberty of doing this for you.

Instead of including every pitcher from the sample, I narrowed it down to only pitchers with at least three years’ worth of data in order to yield some kind of statistically significant results. (Note: a three-year sample is a small sample, but three individual samples of 160+ innings is large enough to produce some arguably robust results.) “Avg BB% – xBB%” (or “diff%”) takes the average of a pitcher’s difference between actual and expected walk rates from 2010 to 2014. It indicates how well (or poorly) he performs compared to his xBB%: the lower a number, the better. This time, I included “t-score”, which measures how reliable diff% is. The key value here is 1.96; anything greater than that means his diff% is reliable. (1.00 to 1.96 is somewhat reliable; anything less than 1.00 is very unreliable.) Again, this is slightly problematic because there are five observations (years) at most, but it’s the best and simplest usable indicator of simplicity.

Thus, Mark Buehrle, Mike Leake, Hiroki Kuroda, Doug Fister, Tim Hudson, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Bartolo Colon can all reasonably be expected to consistently out-perform their xBB% in any given year. Likewise, Aaron Harang, Colby Lewis, Ervin Santana and Mat Latos can all reasonably be expected to under-perform their xBB%. For everyone else, their diff% values don’t mean a whole lot. For example, R.A. Dickey‘s diff% of +0.03% doesn’t mean he’s more likely than someone else to pitch exactly as good as his xBB% predicts him to; in fact, his standard deviation (StdDev) of 0.93% indicates he’s less likely than just about anyone to do so. (What it really means is there is only a two-thirds chance his diff% will be between -0.90% and +0.96%.)

As with xK%, I compiled a list of fantasy-relevant starters with only two years’ worth of data that see sizable fluctuations between 2013 and 2014. Their data, at this point, is impossible (nay, ill-advised) to interpret now, but it is worth monitoring.

Name: [2013 diff%, 2014 diff%]

Miller is an interesting case: he was atrociously bad about gifting free passes in 2014, but his diff% was only marginally worse than it was in 2013. It’s possible that he was a smart buy-low for the braves — but it’s also possible that Miller not only perennially under-performs his xBB% but is also trending in the wrong direction.

Here are fantasy-relevant players with a) only 2014 data, and b) outlier diff% values:

I’m not gonna lie, I have no idea why Cobb, Corey Kluber and others show up as only having one year of data when they have two in the xK% dataset. This is something I noticed now. Their exclusion doesn’t fundamentally change the model’s fit whatsoever because it did not rely on split-season data; I’m just curious why it didn’t show up in FanGraphs’ leaderboards. Oh well.

Implications: Richards and Roark perhaps over-performed. Meanwhile, it’s possible that Odorizzi, Ross  and Ventura will improve (or regress) compared to last year. I’m excited about all of that. Richards will probably be pretty over-valued on draft day.

Another month without any published material has come and gone. Meanwhile, Matt Shoemaker earned himself American League Pitcher of the Month and Rookie of the Month honors for August. Good thing I wrote my glowing endorsement for him on July 25. It will be interest to see how he’s ranked next year. Julio TeheranMichael Wacha, Sonny Gray and Tony Cingrani were touted prospects and drafted Nos. 29, 32, 41 and 44 on average in ESPN live drafts this year after pretty amazing 2013s. So, what now for Shoemaker? He was never a touted prospect; most fans still probably don’t know who he is, similar to how I anticipate Corey Kluber will get robbed of Cy Young votes this year simply because he isn’t a name-brand ace.

Alas, there will be doubts about Shoemaker’s ability to repeat his performance — his swinging strike and contact rates have tailed off a bit since I wrote about him a month ago, and he doesn’t occupy the strike zone enough for me to think the walk rate is sustainable — which could make him a 2015 draft day bargain. Starting pitching is deeper than ever, so it would not surprise me whatsoever to see Shoemaker make a variety of “just missed” lists, right outside the Top 60 pitchers or so, with an average draft positions of maybe 45th for starting pitchers.

If I had to run a quick-‘n’-dirty projection for next year right now, it would look something like:

Bearish: 180 IP, 11 W, 3.15 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 160 K
Bullish: 200 IP, 13 W, 2.94 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 189 K

FYI, those are both pretty darn good projections, good for what will probably be Top-30 in my 2015 rankings.

Anyway. ANYWAY.

Let’s get to what I really wanted to discuss: 2015 fantasy prospect sleepers. Many notable prospect lists are published prior to the start of each season, and a handful are updated as the season unfolds. Case in point, ESPN’s Keith Law published his updated Top 50 list about a month ago. Obviously, the list accounts for the triumphs — and tribulations — of current and now-former top prospects in whichever league(s) the player performed this season as of July 17.

Today’s scouting report has two faces: the qualitative, through which we award players a grade of 20 through 80 for their five tools; and the quantitative, through which we assess the progress of a player based on what he has actually accomplished.

It’s all good and well that prospect lists exist — especially updated ones. But, frankly, there isn’t room on the list for everyone, and the lists often span more than just players who are Major League-ready.

Thus, I occasionally look at Minor League leaderboards and try to find less-trendy fantasy prospects to scoop in the late rounds of a draft or spend a dollar on in the twilight of an auction. I create a list and periodically update it, tracking the player’s progress or lack thereof.

In alphabetical order, here are some players who, given playing time, could be impact players in 2015:

Steven Moya, DET OF | 40 Hit, 60 Power, 50 Run (MLB.com)
It wouldn’t surprise me if 99 percent of baseball fans outside of Michigan knew Moya was called up when the Tigers’ roster expanded. Absent from all major prospect lists, Moya belted 35 home run, swiped 16 bases and batted .276 in 133 games at Double-A Erie. Those are numbers that could get anyone all hot and bothered. It’s not a huge surprise to me why he wasn’t so highly touted: he combined for only 42 home runs and 16 stolen bases combined in his first four years in the minors. What’s overlooked, though, is he debuted when he was 17, and he has obviously made great strides as he fills out at the ripe age of 22. All that glimmers is not gold, however; Moya struck out in almost 30 percent of plate appearances while walking only 4 percent of the time. There’s a lot of potential for bust simply because he may never catch up to Major League pitching.

Looking forward: Moya is currently buried on the depth chart, as he was called up more for depth and reps than impact contributions. Still, right fielder Torii Hunter‘s contract expires this year, leaving Moya to compete with Rajai Davis, J.D. Martinez and Ezequiel Carrera (whom I actually like as a speedy, Leonys Martin-type of outfielder). Davis is underrated and Martinez has reestablished himself as a credible starter, although it remains to be seen if he sustains it, but I would not be the least bit surprised to see Moya win a starting role over Carrera — or all of them, really. His plate discipline is problematic, though; even notorious free-swinger Pedro Alvarez had better discipline before his call-up. Still, not all prospects with poor hit tools are doomed to bust, but given his relatively unknown prospect status — he’s buried at No. 7 in the Tigers’ organizational depth, according to MLB.com — he could be a low-risk, high-reward (and also high-volatility) player in 2015.

Steven Souza, WAS OF | 40 Hit, 50 Power, 50 Run (MLB.com)
Souza is perhaps the most talented and enigmatic of the three players listed here, based strictly on 2014 performance and MLB.com’s scouting grades. Like Moya, Souza didn’t make any preseason or midseason top-prospect lists, despite hitting 18 home runs, stealing 26 bases and batting a whopping .350 across 407 Triple-A plate appearances. (In there defense, Souza was really, really bad prior to 2012, and was busted for PEDs in 2010.)

Again, if you live outside of New England and knew Souza was recently called up when rosters expanded: congratulations! All of Souza’s numbers — his speed, his power and especially his hit tool — correlate very poorly with how MLB.com evaluated him above. Even if the power and speed do somehow project to be average, his plate discipline is very evidently better than below-average: he struck out in 18.4 percent of plate appearances and walked in 12.8 percent of them. And he achieved this in Triple-A, not Double-A, where Moya flailed away. Future Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor allegedly has a 70-hit tool, yet posted strikeout and walk rates of 19.5 and 5.2 percent — not at all elite. Trust the statistics.

Looking forward: The only things standing between Souza and a starting role in 2015 is Denard Span‘s 2015 team option (who has performed well enough to earn it and then some) and the next guy on this list. Thus, Souza may be doomed to a fourth-outfielder role next year until Bryce Harper inevitably injures himself, so Souza’s heyday may not truly come until 2016. If he somehow assumes the first baseman role, it would be hard to rely on a guy who hits 15 home runs, steals 10 bases, bats .275. But if he eventually moves to the outfield where he belongs, or gets traded, his potential /.280/.340/.380 would be serviceable in fantasy leagues.

Michael Taylor, WAS OF | 40 Hit, 50 Power, 60 Run (MLB.com)
Shoot. I kind of forgot that Taylor and Souza are on the same Triple-A team battling for the same potential center-field opening that will, realistically speaking, not be vacated by Span next year. Taylor got a brief look earlier in the year and promptly hit a home run — but also struck out eight times in 22 trips to the plate. It’s difficult to ignore his 22 home runs, 34 stolen bases and .313 average at Double-A Harrisburg, and the 51 steals at Single-A Potomac last year add a nice touch. Like Moya, the hit tool as graded by MLB.com is probably accurate: Taylor struck out 130 times in 441 plate appearances (25 percent), but at least he walked more than the league average.

Looking forward: Taylor and Souza are theoretically competing with each other, which could make either of them offseason trade bait. Taylor, however, spent the majority of this year in Double-A, only recently getting promoted, so he may have a year of development ahead of him, despite being ahead of Souza on MLB.com’s organizational depth for the Nationals (Nos. 5 and 7). It’s also worth noting  that Souza is listed as third on the depth chart at first base, and Adam LaRoche is in the final year of his contract, so it’s possible that Taylor earns the fourth-outfielder role and Souza earns first base outright (or becomes the backup to Kevin Frandsen… yuck). Ultimately, it’s hard to ignore any potential 20/20 players, and he looks like another guy who could get there, albeit with a low batting average.

If I had to guess which of these three players will make the biggest impact in 2015, I would say Moya, who I think has the highest bust potential but also the highest ceiling. Souza is the safest and will make for an adequate, and perhaps enticing, replacement given the event of an injury in the Nationals’ outfield. Taylor has the same kind of boom-or-bust potential as Moya, albeit with a little less power and a little more speed.

# Need some streamers? T. Ross, Hutchison, Colon, Wood

I’ve been slacking on my streamer picks, so let’s cut straight to the chase.

Today, 5/15:
Tyson Ross, SD @ CIN
Mr. Ross is the real deal, my friends. He’s 10th of all pitchers in batters’ contact on pitches in the zone, sandwiched between the unfamiliar names of Jose Fernandez and Zack Greinke (and the players who precede him include Michael Wacha, Yordano Ventura, Julio Teheran and Max Scherzer). He doesn’t make batters chase pitches at an overwhelming rate, but they make contact on such pitches only half the time, which ranks Ross fourth only to Ervin Santana, Garrett Richards and Masahiro Tanaka. At 7.99 K/9, his K-rate should actually improve. You can really only bash him for his walk rate, but it’s no worse than Gio Gonzalez or Justin Verlander. I don’t care if it’s a road game; Ross should be owned in all leagues at this point.

Friday, 5/16:
Drew Hutchison, TOR @ TEX
I’ll be honest with you: I’m not totally sold on this matchup. Hutchison hasn’t been very impressive, but there are simply not many matchups worth exploiting on Friday. I like Hutchison for his strikeouts, and before his last start (during which he walked four), he had only walked five guys across 32-1/3 innings. His control escaped him, but if it comes back, he should be able to control a miserable Texas offense that ranks 26th of 30 teams in extra-base hits.

Saturday, 5/17:
Bartolo Colon, NYM @ WAS
Again, not crazy about this one, either. But Colon has been incredibly unlucky. The dude is walking fewer than a batter per nine innings (0.9 BB/9), so all the baserunners (and, consequently, earned runs) he has allowed are a largely a function of an elevated batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It’s hard to trust a guy who’s mired in a slump, but the luck should eventually turn in his favor. Who’s to say it won’t be this weekend? I’d take a chance. The Nationals don’t score a ton of runs, either. It’s not the best play, but it’s safer than most.

Sunday, 5/18:
Travis Wood, CHC vs. MIL
After a hot start, albeit a brief one, Wood has since collapsed in spectacular fashion, sporting a 4.91 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. So why would I ever vouch for this guy? Check out his home-road splits:

Home 2 1 .667 2.39 4 26.1 22 7 2 4 32 0.987 10.9 8.00
Away 1 3 .250 8.02 4 21.1 31 19 2 11 12 1.969 5.1 1.09
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2014.

The splits are ridiculous. They speak for themselves, although I’ll highlight the ones that are most impressive. With that said, he’s starting at home. Enough said.

Good luck and happy streaming!

# Panning for gold using spring stats, hitter edition

You’ve probably heard a hundred times this month alone: spring training statistics don’t mean anything. Too many times a player has had a monster spring only to completely flop during the season (do Aaron Hicks or Jackie Bradley circa 2013 ring a bell?). Still, in disbelief we all watched Julio Teheran‘s monster spring last year, and he humiliated batters and baserunners throughout his rookie campaign.

Ultimately, spring stats do tell a story, albeit a short or biased one. But if you know where to look — that is, if you know the stats on which to focus your attention — you can maybe decipher which spring performances are legit and which are not.

Important stats: 12 for 42 (.286 BA), 9 SB, 8 K
Why they’re important: Well, holy smokes. Look at those steals. We’ve always known he’s fast, but wow. Also, he has struck out in only 19 percent of at-bats, which certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world. What I’m looking for here is if he can hold his own at the plate, even if it’s just for a month or two, and right now he’s hitting .286 — nothing spectacular, but not miserable, either. Oh, and did I mention he has four triples already?  Gordon isn’t a top-10 second baseman, but handcuff him to Alexander Guerrero (or simply jump ship when Guerrero finally gets the call) and this could be a great draft strategy.

Billy Hamilton, CIN CF
Important stats: 10 for 33 (.303 BA), 9 SB, 4 K, 6 BB
Why they’re important: Not only is Hamilton stealing bases at an unfathomable rate, he is also barely striking out (only 12 percent of at-bats have ended in a K) and has actually walked more times than he has struck out. Everyone and their mothers were worried Hamilton would be overpowered at the plate. Don’t get caught in the hype, I hear them saying. Yet I can’t help myself. If he keeps putting the bat on the ball the way he’s doing, he will get on base, he will steal, and he will score runs.

Billy Burns, OAK LF
Important stats: 8 SB, 13 K in 52 AB
Why they’re important: OK, maybe I was little too obvious when I sorted MLB.com’s spring training stats by stolen bases. Burns is getting way more hype than anyone in spring training right now, or at least it seems that way. He’s effectively blocked in the A’s outfield, but his speed, plate discipline and glove-work will fast-track him to the majors. Unfortunately, 25 percent of at-bats are ending in strikeouts, so he may be overmatched. No skin off our backs, though, especially if he doesn’t start this year in the majors.

Other stolen base leaders who are legitimate fantasy options: Jarrod Dyson (6 SB) and Rajai Davis (5 SB). I’ve raved about Davis’ fantasy value before.

Mike Moustakas, KC 3B
Important stats: 17 for 35 (.486 BA), 4 HR, 4 K, 6 BB
Why they’re important: Moustakas has been mostly a letdown during his major league career. He’s crushing home runs right now and has walked more than he’s struck out, and people are starting to be optimistic about the guy. I’m hesitant, and I would still leave him undrafted in standard mixed leagues, but he could be worth an extra couple of dollars in AL-only leagues. I’ll watch his name as the season progresses, though. He’s worth following if you’re picking a risky or injury-prone third base asset such as Ryan Zimmerman or Aramis Ramirez.

Important stats: 14 for 34 (.412 BA), 2 3B, 4 HR, 1 SB
Why they’re important: Guys… are you serious. I cannot love this guy any more. And he’s still hitting triples!!! It’s not a fluke, people. I think Miller is the second coming of Ian Desmond.

Jason Heyward, ATL RF
Important stats: 14 for 40 (.350 BA), 3 HR, 1 SB
Why they’re important: …Jason Heyward? Is that really you?

Javier Baez, CHC SS
Important stats: .297/.297/.703, 4 HR, 1 SB, 11 K, 0 BB
Why they’re important: Is Baez even a real person? The split between his slugging and on-base percentages is impossibly large. Meanwhile, zero walks and 11 K’s in 37 at-bats. This kid is going to be amazing, if not occasionally frustrating at first.

Other business-as-usual home run hitters: Russell Martin (kind of — he had a huge spring last year, too, if I remember correctly), Hunter Pence (4 HR), Giancarlo Stanton (4 HR), Jose Bautista (3 HR), Miguel Cabrera (3 HR), Chris Davis (3 HR), Andrew McCutchen (3 HR).

Nick Castellanos, DET 3B (formerly LF)
Important stats: 18 for 45 (.400 BA), 7 2B, 2 HR, 2 SB, 16 RBI
Why they’re important: Castellanos is a highly touted prospect with very little major-league exposure with which we can form solid opinions about him. But nine multi-base hits in 45 at-bats, plus a pair of bombs and swipes, makes it look like this kid is the real deal, regardless of his sort of lackluster minor-league stats. Don’t get too enamored with the RBI total, but clearly he’s not afraid of so-called clutch situations, either.

Dustin Ackley, SEA LF (formerly 2B)
Important stats: .432/.462/.703, 1 HR, 6 K in 37 AB
Why they’re important: Maybe the former No. 2 pick can recoup some of his losses. He had a somewhat strong showing in the latter half of 2013. It will be interesting to see if it carries over. As the Magic 8-Ball might say, “All signs point to yes.” Or something like that.

As for players who scare me right now, Corey Hart is batting .129/.250/.161 with 16 strikeouts in 31 at-bats; B.J. Upton is batting .297/.366/.351 but with 14 strikeouts in 37 at-bats, an unsustainable rate for that batting average; and Domonic Brown is batting a miserable .171/.326/.229 with 12 strikeouts in 35 at-bats, albeit with eight walks.

Do your own research, form your own opinions. This is just a sampling of the many names that are shining bright or falling flat. And, of course, it’s simply too risky to make a decision on such a small sample size. But it never hurts to remember a name or two.

# Bold prediction #3: Corey Kluber is this year’s Hisashi Iwakuma

Bold Prediction #2: Brad Miller will be a top-5 shortstop
Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter (until he reaches his innings cap)

The Corey Kluber Society, fronted by Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs, is, frankly, hilarious. The format of the post is great, and if you haven’t read it before, you should here.

But there’s a more important reason to read about (and “join”) the Society. Kluber is not only a legitimate fantasy starting pitcher but also a very good one. His breakout last year was muted by a couple of bad starts, but he is a perfect comp to a 2012 Hisashi Iwakuma on the verge.

I will list a variety of statistics in which Kluber excelled. Then I will let you know whom he outperformed in each category for all pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched (1o7 total).

K/9: 8.31 (26th overall)
Better than: Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, Adam Wainwright, Mat Latos, Mike Minor

K/BB: 4.12 (11th overall)
Better than: Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann, Teheran, Anibal Sanchez, Homer Bailey

BAbip: .329 (6th worst)

Swinging strike rate: 10.4% (22nd overall)
Better than: Zack Greinke, Latos, Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Jose Fernandez

Contact rate: 76.8% (16th overall)
Better than: Kris Medlen, Jeff Samardzija, Bailey, Greinke, Fernandez

xFIP-: 78 (11th overall)
Better than: Max Scherzer, Fernandez, David Price, Iwakuma, Stephen Strasburg

Yowza. Those are some seriously stellar numbers. What’s the deal? Unfortunately for Kluber, he suffered a brutal outing or two, causing his WHIP and ERA to be inflated for most of the year and allowing him to fly under the radar. Chalk it up to bad luck, considering Kluber’s 6th-worst BAbip, better than only Joe Saunders, Dallas Keuchel and other names one wishes not to be associated with.

This sounds vaguely familiar. A high-control guy with a solid strikeout rate out of the bullpen? Does the name Hisashi Iwakuma ring a bell? It should, because he has already been mentioned several times in the last 300 words. Anyway, I rode the Iwakuma (and Bailey) wave through the end of 2012. Instead of going with my gut and drafting Iwakuma in the last round of my shallow draft in 2013, I opted for Marco Estrada — not a terrible pick, but clearly not the right gamble to take. It’s actually the moment upon which I reflected and realized that I should really just take my own advice. Because given Dan Haren‘s peripherals, why would anyone have trusted him over Bailey last year? Ridiculous. (FYI, I will rip on Haren in a forthcoming bold prediction, just to be clear that I’m not ripping on him because he gave up a million home runs last year.)

But I digress. Iwakuma was good in 2012, but his 7.25 K/9, 2.35 K/BB and 1.28 WHIP were all rather pedestrian. But sometimes you need to rely on your eyes more than the numbers, and anyone who watched Iwakuma saw flashes of brilliance. 2013 may have been more than we anticipated, which brings me to my point:

Kluber already has the makings of a great pitcher, and his peripherals indicate that none of it was a fluke. My official prediction: Corey Kluber will be a top-40 starting pitcher.

# 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.

# 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