A couple weeks ago, we talked about regression and how it is a misused word in today’s fantasy baseball vernacular. Most use regress as a synonym for “play worse” whereas it really is the act of approaching or reverting to a mean. Today we will briefly review three pitching metrics that are candidates for regression and then we’ll look some pitchers in line to regress.
A pitcher’s baseline performance is a function of both is skill and luck. Some metrics such as strikeout rate and walk rate are mostly skill, though early in the season they can be influenced by the quality of opponent. Others involve a combination happenstance and skill. If you recall, in general a hitter develops his own baseline as his skill is the driving force. Pitchers, however, cluster around a league mean when it comes to three baselines: BABIP, HR/FB and LOB%.
Batting average on balls in play, or BABIP is the batting average on all at bats that do not involve a strikeout or home run. As discussed a couple weeks ago, Voros McCracken made the revolutionary discovery that a pitcher’s BABIP hovers near .300 regardless of their skill level. Follow-up research has revealed a pitcher has some measure of control over his BABIP, but the randomness of a round bat striking a round ball usually masks this skill, especially in small samples. A fly ball pitcher will sport a lower BABIP than a groundball pitcher. Intuitively, those that induce weaker contact should carry a BABIP lower than the league average but that research is still a work in progress. If a hurler’s BABIP is significantly lower than the league mean (presently around .297) he’s been lucky and can be expected to allow more hits. Similarly, if his BABIP is above the league average he’s been unlucky and probability dictates he’ll surrender fewer hits going forward. In both instances, the pitcher’s BABIP will likely regress towards the league mean. Unless his luck reverses, it will not actually attain it, which is why the definition is approach or revert to the mean.
Home runs per fly ball or HR/FB is perhaps surprisingly another metric not under a pitcher’s control. Keep in mind he can influence the number of fly balls (as compared to grounders) so he can impact his HR/9, but there is a luck aspect involved with home run rate. The league average is about 11 percent. If a pitcher is sporting a HR/FB below league average, he’s been lucky and his home run rate should rise going forward. On the other hand, an unlucky hurler has a HR/FB above league average and can expect an improved HR/9 in the future.
The final luck-entailed metric is LOB% which is often referred to as strand rate. Strand rate is actually a proprietary term coined by my colleague Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ, but it’s citing has become commonplace so it is really no longer proprietary. However, it should be noted that Shandler’s computation of strand rate is different than LOB%, though they are quite similar and have identical analytical utility. LOB% is the percentage of allowed base runners that cross the plate. Please note this is independent of the number of base runners. A pitcher can have a low LOB%, meaning more of his allowed runners score, but if he does not allow many runners, his ERA could still be reasonable. The league mean is about 71% though the elite starters can carry a mark closer to 78%. Skills such as a high strikeout rate and a low home run rate can help maintain a high LOB%. A strong bullpen also helps and since starting pitchers usually have the better relievers pick them up, they allow fewer inherited runners to score which is reflected in the starter’s LOB%. By this point you know the drill – a high LOB% is lucky and the pitcher will probably allow more runs in the ensuing tilts while a low LOB% is unlucky which should result in fewer runners scoring as the season progresses.
When I talk about regression, I make it a point to avoid saying things like “his BABIP will regress” or “his HR/FB is going to rise”. We don’t know what will happen. We only know what probability dictates should happen. When you flip a coin and it’s heads, probability says there is a 50/50 chance the next flip is also heads. It’s gambler’s fallacy to say it will be tails so the total will be one head and one tail. Each flip is independent of the results of the previous flips. In the same vein, the fate of each batted ball is independent of the previous ones, the fate of a fly ball is independent of the earlier ones and whether a runner scores is independent of how many previous runners crossed the dish. Luck does not have to even out. Proper analysis assumes neutral luck going forward, hence I try my best to use phrases like “his ERA should drop” or “anticipate fewer homers”.
The final point is often it is more than luck that causes one of these metrics to be low or high, especially in a small sample. What is perceived to be bad luck can also have an element of bad pitching just as some good luck could also involve some good pitching, especially in small samples. This is why proper analysis does not focus on a single metric, but rather a combination.
OK, let’s take a look at some pitchers that are candidates for regression. I’ll point out what I glean as good or bad luck and analyze that in concert with the root skills of strikeout and walk rate.
Many had David Price as the first pitcher off the board after the big three of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg were drafted. Presently, Price’s ERA sits at an unsightly 6.25. But here’s the thing. Both his strikeout and walk rates are within range of his career averages. In terms of skills, Price is the same guy as last season. A .351 BABIP and 21 percent HR/FB are just croaking him. As implied, this can’t all be bad luck, there is likely some bad pitching as well, but these metrics are so far out of whack that some serious regression to their respective means is likely. Historically, Price’s BABIP is .280 which itself is a little better than league average. The law of averages suggests that .351 will approach the league mean. Going forward, Price’s BABIP should be .280-.300. Similarly, his career HR/FB is 9.7 percent, also a little better than average. You guessed it – his 21 percent is in line for a correction. The wrench in the Price analysis is his velocity is down a bit from last season. The disconnect is he is still fanning hitters at a solid rate, albeit a tick below normal. This introduced a little bit of uncertainty into the analysis as the drop in mph could be contributing some bad pitching to the bad luck, but this could also provide an opening to approach Price’s owner. Point out the drop but say you’re willing to incur the risk. Maybe you can pry Price from an overly concerned owner.
We may as well stay with the Cy Young theme and take a look at the thus far disappointing R.A. Dickey. From a skills perspective, his whiffs are down while his walks are up as compared to last season. Some of the drop is strikeouts is due to the league switch, but there is a drop beyond that what should be expected from having to face the DH in lieu of a pitcher two or three times a game. Coming into the season much was made of Dickey moving indoors, though most studies revealed the knuckler is just as effective, if not more so with a roof overhead. Truth be told, it very well could be last season was the outlier in terms of strikeouts as Dickey’s K/9 was significantly better than his career mark. His walks however, spiked to a mark above his career BB/9 which suggests to this point, Dickey has been unable to find the touch on his knuckler. It is this wildness that is at least in part responsible for an elevated home run rate. Dickey is inducing fewer grounders which imply he’s leaving the floater up in the zone. Furthermore, his HR/FB is well above league average so his HR/9 is taking a double whammy – more fly balls and a greater percentage leaving the yard. It’s this elevated home run rate that is the cause of a ballooned ERA. Having watched Tim Wakefield for his entire Red Sox career, I have had the expression, “If it’s low, let it go. If it’s high, let it fly” drummed into my head. Too many of Dickey’s offerings are high. I do anticipate he regains the feel and is a better pitcher going forward, but even coming into the season, I was leery he would be able to maintain the 8.9 K/9 from last season even after corrected due to the league change. The 400 pound gorilla in this room is last season, Dickey’s April ERA was 4.45 and we all know what happened after that. I’m not saying he will win the American League Cy Young, but better days should be around the corner. If I owned Dickey, I wouldn’t’ sell for 80 or 90 cents on the dollar, but I wouldn’t look to acquire him either. If you want to deal Dickey, the best means may be via a two for two. Maybe you pair a better hitter with Dickey and get back a better pitcher but lesser hitter. This way, you make the focal point of the deal the better hitter and pitcher and since Dickey is more of a balancing piece, he isn’t subject to that analytical discretion he would be in a one for one.
Now let’s look at a youngster at the other end of the spectrum – Matt Harvey. A major problem when evaluating Harvey is we don’t have a solid grasp on the skills aspect of his performance baseline. We don’t know how real his present 10.6 K/9 and we especially don’t know if he will maintain his surprisingly miniscule 2.2 BB/9. Many are pointing out Harvey has yet to face a team with an offense that is above average and want to see what happens when the quality of competition improves. I see their point but you don’t sport a 10.6 K/9 solely as a result of inferior lineups. The kid has mad skillz. While we aren’t sure where his skills will settle, it is quite likely his .189 BABIP and 4.7 percent HR/FB will correct. OK, here I will make an exception – they WILL correct. We just don’t know how much. Harvey has been both lucky and good. Hmm, sounds like a certain phenom outfielder that started to set the league ablaze this time last season. Harvey’s BABIP and HR/FB will regress and some will point towards the competition, but in reality it is gravity doing the trick. The ultimate question will be where he settles in terms of root skills; strikeouts and walks.
As a means of tying things together, if I was looking to sell high on Harvey, I would not deal him even up for Dickey and I doubt many, if any would. However, I would deal him for Price and would probably be in the minority.
Todd Zola has been with Mastersball since its inception in 1997, presently serving as Managing Partner in charge of the Platinum subscription content. Lord Zola, as he is affectionately known in the industry, also contributes to KFFL, the ESPN Insider and is a frequent guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports radio. He’s a veteran of Tout Wars and LABR and has won multiple National Fantasy Baseball Championship titles. Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddZola
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