Starting Pitchers With a High Negative ERA-FIP in 2019 (Fantasy Baseball)
Posting good pitching numbers is part skill-based, part fielding-dependent, and a dash of good luck. Even the best pitchers need some help from the fielders behind them and some lucky bounces to find themselves in the Cy Young Award mix. Others, however, can post deceptively good numbers thanks to a disproportional amount of good fielding behind them and good luck. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) attempts to more fairly represent a pitcher’s controllable skills by normalizing results on balls in play and when hits occur. It’s not a perfect metric — no statistic without context is perfect — but it’s useful.
One way to quickly get an idea of which pitchers were probably luckier than their peers in 2019 is to sort by ERA minus FIP (E-F) on FanGraphs advanced pitcher’s tab leaderboard and see who posted high negative ERA-FIP marks. The linked table shows starters who pitched a minimum of 60 innings. The higher the negative number, the larger the gap between the pitcher’s actual ERA in 2019 and their FIP. Just because a pitcher appears highly on the list doesn’t make them a bad fantasy option. For instance, Justin Verlander’s -0.68 ERA-FIP was tied for the 24th-highest mark among starters who pitched at least 60 innings last year, but he’s justifiably being selected as a top-three pitcher. Others, however, might be getting overdrafted relative to their actual skill level, and this leaderboard is a great starting point for diving deeper into who might be overrated. Below, I’ve highlighted a half-dozen pitchers who stood out among the top-25 pitchers in 2019 in negative ERA-FIP.
Dakota Hudson (STL): -1.55 ERA-FIP, ADP: 252.0
Hudson had the highest ERA-FIP among starters with a minimum of 60 innings pitched last year, and, frankly, it wasn’t close. The second-highest mark to his -1.55 ERA-FIP was Erick Fedde’s -1.21 ERA-FIP. The gap between Hudson’s mark and Fedde’s is as large as the gap between the second-highest mark posted by Fedde and the 13th-highest mark (-0.87 ERA-FIP) totaled by Michael Wacha. Hudson was exceptionally lucky last year, and the other shoe should drop this year.
The 25-year-old righty needed a perfect storm of good fortune to total a 3.35 ERA, as his skills-based stats were bad. Among qualified starters last year, Hudson’s 6.8 K-BB% was the second-worst mark, per FanGraphs, and it was the product of both a below-average strikeout rate (18.0 K% compared to 23.0 K% for league average) and dreadful walk rate (11.4 BB% compared to a league average of 8.5 BB%). He allowed a .275 BABIP in his starts, and that was well below his .320 BABIP allowed in 150.1 innings pitched at the Triple-A level in 2017 and 2018 combined.
Even with exceptional luck in 2019, Hudson ranked as the 53rd-most valuable pitcher, per our Value-Based Ranking (VBR). Hudson’s ADP is just outside the top 250, but he’s not even worth a pick inside the top-350 players. He’s a pitcher to avoid.
Dallas Keuchel (CHW): -0.97 ERA-FIP, ADP: 237.7
Keuchel’s season got off to a late start — in large part — due to a broken compensation system that hurts non-star level players. Teams didn’t want to fork over a pick for signing Keuchel as a result of him turning down a tender from the Astros. Ultimately he signed with the Braves in early June after the MLB Amateur Draft took place and Atlanta would no longer have to forfeit a pick for signing him.
Despite the late start, if you look at just his 3.75 ERA, you wouldn’t think he skipped a beat from totaling a 3.74 ERA the year before. In 2018, his 3.74 ERA was largely supported by a 3.69 FIP, 3.84 xFIP, and 4.15 SIERA. The same can’t be said about his 3.75 ERA with the Braves that was accompanied by a 4.72 FIP, 4.06 xFIP, and 4.39 SIERA. The southpaw had a career-best 80.4 LOB% that helped him significantly best his ERA estimators. For his career, he owns a 73.9 LOB%.
A career-high 23.9 HR/FB% helps explain the big gap between his 4.72 FIP and 4.06 xFIP, but be careful making the assumption he’ll revert back to his pre-2019 homer rate. By signing with the White Sox this offseason, he’ll be returning to facing the designated hitter in the American League, and he’ll be moving from homer-suppressing Truist Park (0.930 park factor for homers) to Guaranteed Rate Field (1.124 for homers). Keuchel hasn’t had an ERA north of 4.00 since 2016, but his skills indicate he’s probably in store for doing so this season. He’s not a helper in WHIP, and his 18.7 K% is also well below average. Keuchel’s not worth the top-250 pick that’s required on average at this point in draft season to roster him.
Zac Gallen (ARI): -0.80 ERA-FIP, ADP: 123.7
Gallen’s the first true high-profile pitcher in this piece with an ADP inside the top 125. Suffice to say with an ADP in that range, I’m not going to suggest avoiding him completely. Even if I was bearish on his 2020 outlook, there would come a point when he’s worth picking. Is he being selected too early, though?
If gamers are selecting him at his ADP with the expectation of repeating a sub-3.00 ERA — he had a 2.81 ERA in 15 starts spanning 80.0 innings last year — then, yes, he is being taken too early. Of course, if gamers were largely expecting a repeat of last year’s sterling ERA, he’d be going earlier in drafts. As it stands, he’s being popped as the 37th pitcher off the boards. The ranking is fair, and, in a vacuum, I’d prefer him to some of the starters going ahead of him. Whether he’s a good pick at that point is largely dependent on what your team looks like at that point in drafts.
Interestingly, Gallen’s 3.61 FIP was considerably better than his 4.15 xFIP and 4.24 SIERA, making the gap between his actual ERA and other advanced metrics even starker. The rookie’s .284 BABIP was below the league average of .296, and his 83.7 LOB% was much higher than the league average of 72.3%. Both are better than he posted throughout most of his minor league career, too. Those numbers are likely to regress, but there’s a lot to like about Gallen.
First, he struck out 28.7% of the batters he faced with tantalizing plate discipline numbers. Gallen totaled a 35.3 O-Swing%, 61.6 Z-Swing%, 67.4 F-Strike%, and 12.8 SwStr% that all bested the league averages of 31.6%, 68.5%, 60.9%, and 11.1%, respectively. The young righty was equally good against lefties and righties, yielding a .287 wOBA to the former and .288 wOBA to the latter, and he has numerous bat-missing offerings at his disposal. Gallen threw three pitches that netted a SwStr% north of 14.5%, starting with his curve (14.8%), followed by his cutter/slider (16.0%), and rounded out by a lethal changeup (21.3%). His strikeout ability appears to be legitimate.
Second, Gallen should improve his walk rate this season. He had a 10.8 BB% as a rookie with a previous high walk rate of 8.2% at Triple-A in 2018 and just a 6.9 BB% in 56 starts spanning 316.2 innings in Double-A and Triple-A combined in his professional career. Improvement to his walk rate could help stave off some of the regression to his ERA that’s on tap with BABIP and LOB% regression.
Finally, after pitching 171.1 innings combined between Triple-A and the majors last year, he should be ready for a full workload. Gallen’s a rock-solid SP3 with SP2 upside.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (TOR): -0.78 ERA-FIP, ADP: 105.3
Ryu is no stranger to blowing his FIP out of the water. In fact, his -0.78 ERA-FIP is actually lower than his overall mark from 2017-2019. In 391.2 innings during that time frame, he has a 2.71 ERA and 3.61 FIP, good for a -0.90 ERA-FIP.
Last year’s ERA leader among qualified pitchers has done an otherworldly job of stranding base runners. Last year, he had a 82.2 LOB%. Since 2017, he has a 82.5 LOB%, and he has a 78.2 LOB% or higher in four of five seasons in his career in which he’s started 15 or more games. His ability to avoid base runners turning into runs has played a huge role in his ability to thoroughly beat his FIP in recent years. Further, his 3.61 FIP since 2017 and 3.07 FIP since 2018 are excellent anyway.
Not everything comes up roses for Ryu, though. Ryu’s struggled mightily to stay healthy in his career. He pitched 182.2 innings in the regular season and added five more innings in a postseason start last season. They were the second-most innings he’s pitched in his career, trailing the 192.0 regular-season and 10.0 postseason innings pitched in his MLB debut back in 2013. He’s bested 150 innings only one other time in his career.
Additionally, he’ll now be pitching in the American League after spending his career to this point in the National League with the Dodgers. Further, he gets a park factor downgrade going from toeing the rubber at home in Dodger Stadium (0.910 park factor for runs) to doing so in Rogers Centre (0.978 for runs). Ryu’s ADP is about 20 picks higher than where I’d consider selecting him in drafts, but if he falls into the 120s, he’s a reasonable pick.
Mike Soroka (ATL): -0.78 ERA-FIP, ADP: 92.0
Soroka’s rookie season was everything the Braves and fantasy owners could have hoped for and then some. He spun a 2.68 ERA that was the fifth-best among qualified starters in 174.2 innings, but his 3.45 FIP, 3.85 xFIP, and 4.28 SIERA all suggest he’s more of a very good pitcher than an elite one. Gamers apparently haven’t gotten that memo, as his ADP of 92.0 is foolish.
Soroka did an elite job of avoiding free passes with a 5.9 BB%, and his 51.2 GB% should help him avoid long balls. However, his 20.3 K% and 10.3 SwStr% were both below average. Also, his .280 BABIP bested the league average of .296 and is 10 points lower than his .290 BABIP allowed in his minor league career. The righty also is likely in store for some strand rate regression. His 79.9 LOB% was better than the league average of 72.3% and clobbered his minor league 70.1 LOB%.
Soroka’s being grossly overdrafted. It’s not an exaggeration to say he should be selected at least 30 picks later and probably more like 40-50 picks later than he’s being drafted on average.
Jack Flaherty (STL): -0.71 ERA-FIP, ADP: 26.3
First of all, Flaherty’s a very good pitcher. Among qualified starters last season, he ranked sixth in ERA (2.75), tied for third in WHIP (0.97), and tied for 11th in strikeout rate (29.9 K%). He wasn’t a slouch in the advanced metrics, either, ranking 15th in FIP (3.46) and xFIP (3.64) as well as 12th in SIERA (3.68). Last year was Flaherty’s second straight strong season after whipping up a 3.34 ERA (3.86 FIP, 3.58 xFIP, and 3.57 SIERA), 1.11 WHIP, 9.6 BB%, and 29.6 K% in 28 starts spanning 151.0 innings as a rookie for the Red Birds in 2018. Add both years together, and among starting pitchers in that time frame, he ranks seventh in ERA (3.01), tied for fifth in WHIP (1.03) and fifth in strikeout rate (29.8 K%). Once again, however, he’s a bit lower in the advanced metrics ranking 16th in FIP (3.55), 15th in xFIP (3.62), and tied for 10th in SIERA (3.63).
Flaherty’s ADP makes him the eighth starting pitcher off the board, and his traditional stats last year and over the last two years combined support his placement. The advanced metrics are more indicative of a high-end SP2/fringe SP1 than a slam-dunk SP1.
One area for concern with Flaherty is his BABIP. Last season, his .242 BABIP allowed was the third-lowest among qualified starters. The year before, he yielded a .257 BABIP that would’ve ranked as the sixth-lowest mark among qualified pitchers if he’d pitched enough innings to be qualified. Perhaps Flaherty can continue to post a BABIP allowed that ranks in the top-five annually, but I’m not buying it. In 30 starts totaling 180.1 innings in the upper minors (Double-A and Triple-A combined), Flaherty surrendered a .278 BABIP, per FanGraphs. Also, his batted-ball data in the bigs doesn’t support his tiny BABIP. Flaherty held hitters to a .198 batting average (AVG) in 2018 and a .190 AVG in 2019, but his expected batting average (xBA) was a .205 xBA in 2018 and .217 xBA in 2019, according to Baseball Savant.
As good as Flaherty is, he’s pitched a bit above his true talent level and is being selected too early. To be clear, I’m not claiming Flaherty will be awful or anything of that sort. He’s being selected at least a full round earlier than he should be going, though, and a full round is a lot when talking about a top-50 selection.