Players to Avoid Based on Luck Factor Analysis (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
Luck is a big factor in baseball; there are a lot of events out of a hitter or pitcher’s control. In this article, we will go through a few statistical categories covering such situations and point out players that may have bloated ADP’s this draft season due to that good fortune in 2019.
BABIP – Hitters
This is probably the most well-known luck factor category. BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is actually a very simple calculation:
(H – HR) / (AB – K – HR + SF)
Since a strikeout and a home run are fully within a hitter’s control (meaning that the fielders have no say in it), those outcomes have less to do with luck than all other batted balls. When looking at a BABIP number, you’re seeing a player’s batting average when they do not strike out, hit a home run, or hit a sacrifice fly.
Last year’s league average BABIP for hitters with more than 300 plate appearances was .302; that is important to know for comparison’s sake. One other thing to note is that BABIP is correlated with line-drive rate. Here is a scatter plot showing that relationship using the last three years of data:
You can see that, as line-drive rate increases, typically so does BABIP. There is a tendency for people to see a .230 BABIP and just assume the player was very unlucky and should improve next year. However, this is only true if their line-drive percentage was not equally as poor as their BABIP. Let’s keep all of this in mind and explore some numbers from last year. Here are the 25 highest BABIPs last year with their line-drive rates given as well:
The names that really stand out are right on top of the list. Fernando Tatis Jr., Yoan Moncada, Keston Hiura, and Bryan Reynolds were all young, exciting breakout players in 2019. Besides Reynolds, they were all highly touted prospects that were either late-round draft picks or waiver adds that made a difference for fantasy teams. There should be some real demand for these players when your draft comes around, but there is also real reasons to avoid them. They all had higher than average line-drive rates, but none of them were near the league leaders. Although all were within three points of that average, they all had outrageously high BABIPs.
I cannot stress enough that you should not just avoid every player that had a high BABIP last year. There are other factors to consider. David Dahl and Trevor Story show up on the list, but that’s expected given their strong line-drive rates in addition to playing half of their games in the hitter-friendly Coors Field. Aaron Judge’s .360 BABIP is not nearly as alarming when you consider the 27% line-drive rate. The same goes for Luis Arraez who had a ridiculous 29.4% line drive rate. I encourage everybody to take this approach and use these two stats in tandem.
Expected Stat Differences – Hitters
One of the newer ways to judge a player’s luck is via the expected stats that come from MLB’s Statcast, which was instituted in 2015 and tracks every pitch and batted ball. There are two very interesting statistics that we can use from that data: Expected Batting Average (xBA) and Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA). These two statistics calculate batting average and wOBA based on a player’s expected batted-ball outcomes. We have full explanations of both stats here:
Long story short, a player with a significantly higher xwOBA than his wOBA was unlucky in that data sample. I collected all of the data and then calculated the differences for each of these categories.
Here are the 25 luckiest hitters, per Expected Batting Average:
We see a few repeat names from the BABIP analysis with Tatis, Hiura, and Tim Anderson sticking out as very lucky hitters last season. Some other notables:
Arraez and Ketel Marte stand out here with big differentials. However, it would be hard to not have a big discrepancy when batting above .325. Only one player had an xBA above .325 (Howie Kendrick at .336). The other advanced numbers (Barrel Rate and Contact Rate) back up both of these players’ incredibly strong 2019 seasons, so I would not hesitate to grab them just because they show up here.
Coors Field is a factor in this, as the thin air and huge outfield leads to a lot of extra hits. As long as Dahl, Story, Nolan Arenado, and Daniel Murphy are still on the Rockies, I would not worry about them just because they’re included here.
This is not good news for Kris Bryant, who had a pretty nice 2019 after a scary 2018 in which he hit just 13 homers. A lot of his appeal is batting average, as he’s a .284 career hitter. The significantly lower xBA, however, would give me a little bit of pause in hoping for another .280 season.
I have very little interest in Brandon Lowe, who had one of the highest strikeout rates (34.6%) in the league last year. He also experienced some good luck when actually putting the ball in play. You should probably let someone else take a shot on him on draft day.
Here are the top 25 for xwOBA:
While Statcast has started factoring in player speed to these metrics, it is still something to keep in mind. A slow player is going to have fewer infield hits and a lot of singles on balls that would normally go for doubles. Before adjusting, the differential leaders would typically be a bunch of old, sluggish guys like Kendrys Morales and Albert Pujols You do not see too much of that on this list, but just keep that in the back of your mind moving forward.
We see big names like Marte, Bryant, Alex Bregman, Xander Bogaerts, and Eugenio Suarez here. All of those guys had phenomenal 2019 seasons, and this is definitely a reason to look closer at them before investing a ton. Personally, I would not be too hesitant on Bregman or Suarez, as they have shown multiple years of elite production now, but I might want to dive a little deeper into Marte, Bryant, and Bogaerts before using a top-50 pick.
Yuli Gurriel is never going to be a high ADP guy (currently going outside the top 100), but I would steer clear of him this season. In addition to the big gap shown here, most of his production came in the few weeks when he was on the hot streak of all hot streaks. His wOBA by month really show that: .284 in March/April, .319 in May, .313 in June, .520 in July, .444 in August, and .291 in September/October. It is not to say he can’t have another monster month in 2020 and be very useful overall, but there are going to be a ton of safer options out there.
So there you have some hitters to possibly avoid this year. Now let’s talk about pitchers.
xFIP to ERA Differential – Pitchers
One of the most common ways to deduce pitcher luck factors is by looking at FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in comparison to ERA. FIP gives you an ERA-like number that uses only the things that a pitcher fully controls. Those outcomes are walks, strikeouts, and home runs allowed. None of those events involve any fielders, so it results in a stripped-down version of ERA that takes away some of the game’s randomness. The difference between FIP and xFIP is that xFIP uses the pitcher’s fly-ball rate and the league-average home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB).
Let’s display the relationships between ERA and these FIP factors. First, here is the relationship between strikeout to walk ratio (simply the number of strikeouts a pitcher has divided by their number of walks) and ERA:
You see a definite relationship there, with ERA generally getting higher as the K/BB ratio gets lower. The elite pitchers are all represented by the dots in the lower left-hand corner of that plot. High strikeouts and low walks typically lead to good ERAs, which is what you want for fantasy purposes. Now here is the relationship between home runs allowed per nine innings and ERA:
This is a pretty pronounced linear relationship, with both ERA and HR/9 increasing together.
This makes it pretty clear that xFIP is a useful metric, as all of its inputs clearly have a strong relationship with ERA. The more strikeouts a pitcher gets, and the fewer walks and home runs a pitcher allows, the lower the xFIP and ERA will be. The difference is that xFIP is a little bit less variable, as bad fielding and some ballpark factors are taken out of the equation.
We can feel good about saying that a pitcher with a much higher xFIP than ERA was probably lucky, and it will be tough for him to repeat that same ERA the next year. Of course, there are exceptions. It is possible for a pitcher to consistently beat his xFIP or get lucky multiple years in a row, but it is useful to look at nonetheless. Here are the top 25 “luckiest” pitchers in ERA – xFIP differential from last year (minimum 10 games started):
The story here is about strikeouts. Few of these guys are high strikeout pitchers, and therefore not a lot of them are super fantasy relevant. Let’s highlight a few that are important in drafts this year.
Zac Gallen threw 80 innings in his debut season and posted an impressive 28.7% strikeout rate and slightly above-average 10.8% walk rate, while limiting homers with a 0.9 HR/9 mark. He posted a strong 2.81 ERA, which was starkly different from the 4.15 xFIP. The reason for this was the HR/FB number. Just 10.8% of the fly balls hit off of him went for homers, compared to the league average of 16%. You might think being a Marlin for part of the season had something to do with this, but he only made three of his 15 starts in the cavernous Marlins Park. He gave up just eight home runs, which especially seems unsustainable in today’s environment when considering his below-average 39% ground-ball rate (league average was 43%). The strong strikeout rate bodes well for him moving forward, but Gallen was pretty lucky to have allowed so few home runs. He may be over-drafted this year because of it.
Mike Soroka has had nothing but success in his short major league career, posting a 2.79 ERA in his two years across 200 innings pitched. He is currently the 28th starting pitcher off the board on our ADP tracker. That is not a crazy high price to pay, but you are making him your second or third pitcher in most situations. Truth is, Soroka absolutely profiles as a guy who can outperform his xFIP consistently. This is due to the insane amount of ground balls he induces. Last year, he posted a 51% ground-ball rate, up from 44% in his rookie season. If you get this many ground balls, you are not going to allow many home runs. That was true for Soroka, as shown by his 0.72 HR/9 rate last year. It would be irresponsible to say he can’t repeat those numbers this year, so it is very likely that he will be a useful fantasy pitcher. However, the 20.3% strikeout rate is a problem in most leagues. It helps a little bit that he was stronger than average in the walks category (5.9 BB%), but a pitcher is opening the door for bad luck when allowing that many balls in play. His price right now is fine, but I am not willing to go much higher than that.
Sadly, we only got to see 12 starts from Tyler Glasnow last year, but they were all absolute beauties. He posted a ridiculous 33% strikeout rate with a strong 6% walk rate and crazy 0.59 HR/9. The low home run rate is backed up by an elite ground-ball rate at 50.4%. I do not think any pitcher can actually allow 0.6 HR/9 for a whole season, especially in the American League East, so Glasnow is clearly due for some regression. However, I am still all about him once again this year. He has always posted high ground-ball rates, even when he was constantly battered with the Pirates, and the Rays have seemed to fix his control issues. He looked like one of the league’s best pitchers in the short time he was healthy last year. I am not letting his presence on this list scare me away.
Hyun-Jin Ryu may have been the biggest “outlier” last year, posting a crazy 2.32 ERA. He even had a 1.64 ERA on August 17 before getting beat up a couple of times. He did this without getting a ton of strikeouts (22.5 K%), but also allowing almost no walks (3.3 BB%). The veteran lefty was also one of the league’s best ground-ball pitchers with a 50.4% rate. All of this is to say that it was expected for his ERA to beat his xFIP substantially. The question is, can he repeat that otherworldly level of control at age-33 when pitching his home games in Toronto? Fortunately, he doesn’t really have to as the 31st starting pitcher off the board. He’s a fine investment at that price if you already have a couple of high strikeout pitchers on your team, but don’t expect another ERA below 3.00 from Ryu this year.
Aaron Civale, John Means, Jeff Samardzija, Sandy Alcantara, Dakota Hudson, and Luke Weaver will get some looks in deeper leagues, and I would be careful with all of them. At this point, you really are not investing much, so I would be fine with giving Alcantara, Civale, or Weaver a shot just because they profile to have a little more upside given their age (for Alcantara/Civale) and previous success (Weaver). But in general, these are not pitchers I’m excited to draft.
HR/FB – Pitchers
It is clear that MLB hitters are extra focused on hitting fly balls, which makes the home run to fly balls ratio even more important to track. Here is a quick histogram of baseball’s HR/FB ratios from pitchers with at least 10 starts last year:
The league-average HR/FB for these pitchers was 15.8%, meaning that 15.8 of every 100 fly balls went for home runs. Anybody with a HR/FB rate under 10% should be considered very lucky. Here are the 20 “luckiest” pitchers by this metric:
The only top-50 pitchers for 2020 on this list are Glasnow, Gallen, Mike Clevinger, Lance Lynn, Charlie Morton, Kyle Hendricks, Frankie Montas, Zack Wheeler, and Zack Greinke. I’m only looking to avoid three of them at their current draft price.
Look, Lynn was awesome last year. He had a 28% strikeout rate with 6.7% walk rate. Elite numbers. However, how he allowed just 0.91 HR/9 with a 40% ground-ball rate in Texas’ old ballpark is pretty astounding, and this 9.9 HR/FB rate stands out even more because of it. There’s a good chance Lynn will be good again this year, but I’m not going to invest in the 32-year-old.
Wheeler was pretty uninspiring last year, posting a 23.6% strikeout rate and a 43% ground-ball rate. Moving to the homer-happy Citizens Bank Park is a bad move for his fantasy value. You see closer to a 17% HR/FB in 2020, which does not bode well for his ERA unless he can really ramp up the strikeouts.
Full disclosure, I have been crossing Greinke off my draft list for like the last three years. That has been a mistake, but I am not going to change my mind now. The 23% strikeout rate just is not what I’m looking for, and he’s now 36 years old. Greinke has always induced a lot of soft contact with precise control and deception, but this 10.9 HR/FB was his lowest mark in the last seven seasons. I am not investing a top-60 pick in him.
BABIP – Pitchers
If you did not read the BABIP section for hitters, go have a look, because we are bringing back line-drives rates with these pitchers. I’ll repeat this from above just a reminder: The league-average line-drive rate last year was 21.7%, with the league leaders (hitters) residing between 26% and 29% and the worst numbers falling between 14% and 17%.
Here are the “luckiest” pitchers in terms of BABIP last year, with their line-drive rate and WHIP displayed as well.
We see Justin Verlander well ahead of the rest of the league here. You would expect a lower BABIP with the 19% line-drive rate, but .218 is pretty hard to do. That was the lowest mark of his career, with the next lowest being .236 in 2011 and his career average sitting at .281. I am not sure that is a reason to not make Verlander an SP1 given his elite numbers everywhere else, but it is something to note.
In the same vein, Chris Paddack is another popular pitcher that seemed to benefit from some good fortune last year. Pitching in Petco Park will help BABIP, and so will that really low line-drive rate. A low BABIP should be expected from Paddack, but .237? I’m not sure if that is going to happen again, so I would bump Paddack down slightly, but take a close look at him just because of the elite K/BB ratio he posted as a rookie.
Jack Flaherty is being drafted as a top-10 pitcher, which may be too high. His low BABIP is not fully backed up by the line-drive rate, and he had a pretty mediocre first half. His second-half surge brought him back into SP1 consideration, but I would feel much better about having Flaherty as an SP2 or SP3. I imagine his draft stock will cool as the preseason goes on.