Top 5 Pitchers Who Overachieved in ERA (2019 Fantasy Baseball)
ERA may be one of the five standard pitching categories in rotisserie baseball, but we’ve long learned that it does a pretty poor job of demonstrating a pitcher’s true talent or predicting future success. Sure, it tells us what did happen over the course of a season, but that includes outside factors independent of his individual abilities.
For instance, hurlers have little control over what occurs once a ball is in play, so they’re often left at the mercy of their defense and luck — good or otherwise — to determine whether or not they get an out. Pitchers can influence the types of batted balls they allow (ground balls, fly balls, hard contact, etc.), but at the end of the day, batting average on balls in play (BABIP) tends to fluctuate from year to year and can often make or break a player’s ERA.
Nowadays, we have all sorts of ERA estimators to help us cut through the noise and give us a better idea of pitcher performance — including metrics like xFIP and SIERA — but one of the originals, fielding independent pitching (FIP), remains plenty useful to this day. The basic premise of FIP — stripping out the luck of balls in play — can be an easy first step in determining which pitchers were particularly lucky or unlucky the year before, and using FanGraphs’ handy 2018 leaderboards, we can easily sort through them and spot the outliers.
Today, let’s check out the five pitchers who had the biggest negative difference between their ERA and FIP among qualified starters in 2018, or in other words, guys who overachieved in ERA, and what it means for their expectations this season. Next week, we’ll take a look at the hurlers with the biggest positive difference.
Mike Fiers (OAK)
2018 ERA: 3.56
2018 FIP: 4.75
Coming off a 5.22 ERA in 2017, Fiers was a total afterthought in fantasy drafts last season, but he would ultimately end up putting together a solid stat line, compiling 12 wins and 139 strikeouts over 172 innings with a 3.56 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. However, according to FIP at least, Fiers was last year’s “luckiest” pitcher, with a difference of -1.19 between his ERA and FIP, and a look over his numbers quickly shows why.
Fiers’ .269 BABIP was his lowest since 2014 and well below his career mark (.290). That was despite seeing a drop in soft-hit rate (15.1%) that ranked as the third-worst among qualified starters and a rise in hard-hit rate (39.1%) that ranked as the fifth-worst. In addition to the low BABIP, he also benefited from leaving more men on base (84.2%) than he’s typically done over his career (75.9%), another sign of good fortunate.
Outside of those lucky marks, there wasn’t much to suggest Fiers was a significantly different pitcher from the past couple years. He did post a career-best 5.2% walk rate, but it came with a modest 19.5% strikeout rate, falling in line with the 20.1% rate he produced from 2016-17. His struggles with the long ball also continued, allowing a 14.1% HR/FB rate that led to him give up 32 home runs for the second year in a row — tied for the third-worst total in 2018.
As one might expect, early drafters aren’t buying last year’s numbers, either, with Fiers’ ADP in NFBC drafts sitting just outside the top 300. Playing his home games at pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum could help with those home run woes, but overall projections are a mixed bag, with Steamer giving Fiers an ugly 4.69 ERA, while THE BAT is more optimistic at 4.17 — a pretty good snapshot of his range of outcomes. It’s safe to say we shouldn’t expect a repeat of a sub-4.00 ERA, and his upside is limited at best.
Jon Lester (CHC)
2018 ERA: 3.32
2018 FIP: 4.39
Lester added another solid fantasy campaign to his resume in 2018, but it’s fair to wonder if it could be his last. The Cubs’ veteran notched 18 wins off a 3.32 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 181 2/3 innings, but you don’t have to dig very deep to find all sorts of red flags. Much of his success was fueled by an especially fortuitous first half, highlighted by a .253 BABIP that created a sizable discrepancy between his first-half ERA (2.58) and FIP (4.36). His luck would eventually run out in the second half, with an ERA (4.50) more closely aligned with his FIP (4.45).
Overall, Lester also saw reduced velocity for the second straight season, posting just a 19.6% strikeout rate and 8.5% swinging-strike rate — his lowest marks since 2013 — leading to only 149 strikeouts over 32 starts. He also saw his walk rate rise (8.4%) and induced a far lower rate of ground balls (37.7%) compared to his career average (46.2%).
Although there’s something to be said about a guy who’s tallied at least 180 innings and 31 starts for 11 straight seasons — a remarkable feat — the quality of those innings are going in the wrong direction at age 35. Steamer and THE BAT are in line with last year’s FIP, with both projecting Lester for an ERA over 4.30 and a WHIP above 1.30. Assuming Lester continues to be an iron man, he’ll still accumulate wins and strikeouts, and his draft price isn’t necessarily outrageous, going just inside the top 180 of NFBC drafts. Even so, everything points to more downside than not, and this might be a case where you would rather be out a year early than too late.
Blake Snell (TB)
2018 ERA: 1.89
2018 FIP: 2.95
This probably isn’t a name you were expecting to see! Of course, when your FIP suggests you should have “only” produced a 2.95 mark, that just shows what a ridiculous season you just had — you know, like winning a Cy Young.
So, this is hardly any reason to put a damper on Snell’s expectations in 2019, where he’s going in the top 10 among pitchers and in the top 30 overall. Over 180 2/3 innings, Snell won 21 games and racked up 221 punchouts with a 1.89 ERA and 0.97 WHIP, finally living up to his billing as a top prospect and then some. The stellar line was backed up by improvements across the board in velocity, strikeout rate (31.6%), swinging-strike rate (15.1%), and walk rate (9.1%). He only got better as the year went on, too, posting an absurd 38.5% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate in the second half, while even adding an improved ground-ball rate to top it all off (47.9%).
But as his FIP indicates, we can expect a little pullback due to a .241 BABIP and 88.0% strand rate. That said, an ERA in the low 3.00s is nothing to scoff at — as projections suggest — and the skills are all there to fulfill that top-10 ADP in what should be a fantastic encore campaign.
Julio Teheran (ATL)
2018 ERA: 3.94
2018 FIP: 4.83
At a glance, it appeared Teheran enjoyed a respectable bounceback 2018 campaign, putting together a 3.94 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with 162 strikeouts over 175 2/3 innings. However, his .217 BABIP was easily the lowest among qualified starters (Snell’s .241 was second), and well below even an already low career average (.268).
Otherwise, there really wasn’t much to support Teheran’s ERA. Although he improved to a 22.4% strikeout rate and 11.2% swinging-strike, he exhibited a career-low in velocity and saw his walk rate rise to a career-worst 11.6%. He also continued his recent trend of home run issues, allowing an HR/FB rate of at least 13% for the third time in the last four years, giving up over 25 in each of those campaigns.
Steamer projects Teheran for an unsettling 4.85 ERA, while THE BAT gives him 4.47, suggesting he should regress closer to his 2017 output. He’s only going around 275th in NFBC drafts, but outside of staying healthy (he’s logged at least 30 starts in six straight seasons) there isn’t a ton to get excited about in his profile.
Kyle Freeland (COL)
2018 ERA: 2.85
2018 FIP: 3.67
A Rockies pitcher putting up a pristine 2.85 ERA will immediately draw scrutiny, and especially when he has a better ERA at Coors Field (2.40) than away (3.23). Along with the ERA, Freeland buoyed his 2018 line with 17 wins, 173 strikeouts, and a 1.25 WHIP over 202 1/3 innings, which are numbers that could regress across the board.
To no surprise, Freeland benefited from a heaping pile of luck at home off a .269 BABIP and 90.3% strand rate, so it’s say to say he won’t be achieving the same level of home cooking in 2019. On top of his good fortune at Coors, he didn’t demonstrate particularly dominant skills, with a league average-ish 20.5% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate, along with just a 9.0% swinging-strike rate. In addition to the higher FIP, he fared even worse in SIERA (4.35) and is unlikely to maintain an HR/FB rate in the single-digits again (8.5%).
When you put it all together, an ERA over 4.00 is a reasonable outcome, which is exactly what projections suggest. If Freeland can keep that on the lower end and log close to 200 innings again, he could still prove to be useful. But as a pick in the top 150 of NFBC drafts, it’s hard to see enough upside to get excited when there’s a very real risk of a Coors Field comeuppance. Maybe Freeland doesn’t faceplant like Jon Gray did last year, but that’s always a very real possibility with any Rockies starter, regardless of their skill.