5 Unlucky Pitchers Poised to Bounce Back (Fantasy Baseball)
Last week, I wrote about five pitchers who had inflated ERAs in 2017. This was determined by comparing their ERAs to their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which has been shown to be a better predictor of future performance than ERA alone. This time around, we’re looking at the opposite: Pitchers whose 2017 ERA was significantly higher than their FIP, indicating they may have gotten unlucky last year.
The following are the pitchers who had the largest difference between their ERA and FIP in 2017 among fantasy-relevant starters.
Lance McCullers (HOU)
2017 ERA: 4.25
2017 FIP: 3.10
Some (definitely not this author) advocated strongly for drafting McCullers last year. Coming off back-to-back seasons in which he put up a 3.22 ERA and struck out a combined 27 percent of batters, the sky seemed to be the limit for him. If you just look at his ERA, you’d think he took a step back. The reality is that McCullers’ 2017 would have been quite similar to his prior two seasons if not for some bad luck and timing. He struck out 25.8 percent of batters and walked a career-low 7.8 percent while maintaining elite swing-and-miss numbers, good for an FIP of 3.10 that was right in line with his career numbers. The bad luck came in the form of a .330 BABIP allowed, which, admittedly, he has struggled with in the past. The unfortunate timing, though, was completely new to him – his strand rate of 67.6 percent is unusually low, especially for someone who strikes out so many batters. If that number returns to normal, and it should, McCullers could be poised for a bounce-back year.
Jameson Taillon (PIT)
2017 ERA: 4.44
2017 FIP: 3.48
Taillon and McCullers have a lot in common. Both are young pitchers who had promising starts to their career before seeing their ERA jump in 2017. They also both have a double L in their name. Like McCullers, Taillon’s ERA last season didn’t represent how well he actually pitched. Despite the ERA jump of 1.06 between 2016 and 2017, his FIP actually dropped from 3.71 to 3.48 thanks to an increase in strikeouts and a newfound ability to limit home runs. Whether he can continue those trends in 2018 remains to be seen, but one area in which he should expect to improve is his BABIP allowed, which was third highest among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2017. And while he’s only thrown 237 innings over his two-year career, Taillon should be expected to take another step forward in that department as well now that he’s recovered from cancer.
Jeff Samardzija (SF)
2017 ERA: 4.42
2017 FIP: 3.61
Samardzija was another guy I was high on last year, and throughout the season he teased owners with what he was capable of. He struck out 24.2 percent of batters, the second-highest rate of his career, and did it while allowing just 3.8 percent of them to reach base with a free pass, the lowest rate of his career and the lowest among qualified starters in 2017. That combination gave him a 6.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was fourth highest in the majors behind only three of the top pitchers in the game: Corey Kluber, Chris Sale, and Clayton Kershaw. Unfortunately for him and his owners, teasing was all he did, as he wasn’t able to put it together and finished with a 4.42 ERA. Part of the reason why was a 67.5 percent strand rate, which should correct itself in 2018. The bigger culprit though was his 13.8 percent home run per fly ball rate, notable because only 8.9 percent of opponents’ fly balls at AT&T park cleared the fence in 2017.
Danny Salazar (CLE)
2017 ERA: 4.28
2017 FIP: 3.48
Unsurprisingly if you know how FIP is calculated, Salazar is another high-strikeout pitcher who underperformed last season. In fact, he had the fourth-highest strikeout percentage (33.0 percent) among pitchers with at least 100 IP last season, behind only perennial Cy Young candidates Kluber, Sale, and Max Scherzer. He did it with a 10.0 percent walk rate, but his strikeout numbers were high enough such that it barely mattered. They weren’t a fluke either – among pitchers with least 100 IP, no pitcher missed bats more than Salazar, who allowed contact on just 67.5 percent of swings and caused swinging strikes on 16.4 percent of pitches. When hitters did make contact, it didn’t go so well for Salazar, but much of that was due to a .343 BABIP allowed. Additionally, more than 16 percent of the fly balls he allowed went for home runs, considerably higher than league average. If not for his bad luck on batted balls, Salazar could have been one of the best pitchers in MLB last season – his xFIP of 3.21 was seventh lowest the majors.
Luke Weaver (STL)
2017 ERA: 3.88
2017 FIP: 3.17
Weaver only made 13 appearances in 2017 for a grand total of 60 innings, but he made the most of them. His ERA of 3.88 was good-not-great, but his 3.17 FIP shows that he had the potential to be even better. While it’s not much of a sample size to work on, the numbers he posted were mightily impressive. Weaver struck out 28.6 percent of batters he faced and walked just 6.8 percent, good for a 4.24 strikeout to walk rate. Like the others, he was undone by a .335 BABIP, the second year in a row now that he’s experienced bad batted ball luck. It was also the second year in a row in which he allowed a home run per fly ball rate of over 16 percent, leaving him with an xFIP of 2.93. What Weaver’s capable of over a full season is still unknown, but he’s shown incredible potential as a 22- and 23-year-old in his first two partial seasons in the majors, even if it hasn’t been as obvious as it has been with other young hurlers.