Starting Pitchers With a High Positive ERA-FIP in 2019 (Fantasy Baseball)
I’ve previously discussed the pitchers who had a high negative ERA minus FIP (ERA-FIP, or E-F on the FanGraphs leaderboard). The pitchers highlighted in that piece had anywhere from a bit of good luck to a lot of good luck in posting the ERA they did last year. On the opposite end of things are those who had a high positive ERA-FIP and were unlucky to some extent. As I did in the other piece, I set the minimum innings pitched for starters at 60 innings on the FanGraphs advanced tab leaderboard and sorted the E-F column. Below, I’ve highlighted a handful of interesting starters who had a positive ERA-FIP of greater than 0.50 in 2019. Among the tough cuts is a starter who I’ll later be examining among starters with relief eligibility in a different piece as well as Kyle Gibson, who I already gushed about earlier this offseason. There were others who narrowly missed as well, and I’d advise checking out the link above to the leaderboard. Among the half-dozen pitchers featured below, there’s a wide range of average draft positions (ADP) ranging from going within the top-40 players to being selected outside the top-325 players.
Chris Sale (BOS): 1.01 ERA-FIP, ADP: 34.3
Sale’s 1.01 ERA-FIP was the seventh-highest mark among starters who pitched at least 60 innings last season. The southpaw’s 4.40 ERA last year was more than double his 2.11 ERA the season before. He dug himself an early hole with a 8.50 ERA in his first four starts spanning 18.0 innings, per FanGraphs, and his year came to an end in the middle of August when he was shut down with elbow inflammation. Sale received a PRP injection into his throwing elbow, and back at the beginning of December, he was cleared by Dr. James Andrews to begin throwing, according to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com. In the linked article, Bradford notes the plan is for Sale to participate in spring training.
Between Sale’s rough start and premature end to the 2019 season, he made 21 starts spanning 129.1 innings totaling a 3.83 ERA (2.97 FIP and 2.74 SIERA), 1.02 WHIP, 6.1 BB%, 38.6 K%, and 14.7 SwStr%. The veteran lefty was still a dominant strikeout force, stingy with free passes, and a WHIP asset. His ERA was solid but not Sale like even after shaking off his first four starts. During his last 21 starts, he gave up a 36.7 Hard%, 18.6 HR/FB%, and had a 68.7 LOB%. In 2018, he yielded a 26.5 Hard%, 9.3 HR/FB%, and had a 82.5 LOB%.
The rabbit ball is probably partly to blame for Sale’s increase in homers and hard hits surrendered, and his strand rate issues look like an aberration compared to both his recent work and career. Ultimately, Sale was rather unlucky, but he likely bears some responsibility for giving up harder hits and more homers. A return to a deader baseball could do wonders for Sale, but even if the same rabbit ball is used in 2019, Sale’s skills are strong.
The fact his season came to a close with elbow inflammation and he fell short of 160 innings each of the last two years are what provide me pause suggesting him at his ADP. Having said that, I think his cost is reasonable and would be delighted for him to be my staff ace at his ADP. I’d also prefer him at his cost to at least Shane Bieber (25.3) and Jack Flaherty (25.3).
Blake Snell (TB): 0.97 ERA-FIP, ADP: 37.3
Sale wasn’t the only American League East lefty ace whose ERA swelled from 2018 to 2019. Snell won the 2018 American League Cy Young Award after ripping off a 1.89 ERA in 31 starts spanning 180.2 innings. Last year, he totaled a 4.29 ERA in 23 starts totaling 107.0 innings. As the low innings total would suggest, Snell missed time with injuries.
First, he was placed on the Injured List (IL) in the middle of April with a fractured toe suffered in a weird accident, but he ultimately returned by the end of the month. In his first two starts after returning from the IL for the fractured toe, he coughed up 10 runs (nine earned) in just 6.1 innings.
Second, he spent an extended time on the IL from late July until the middle of September after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his throwing elbow. He made three abbreviated starts in September to build his arm strength up for the postseason, and he made three appearances (one start) totaling 5.1 innings in the postseason in which he was sharp. Neither the toe injury or the minor elbow surgery concerns me for his 2020 outlook. Cost considered, Snell is my favorite fantasy ace for this year. He’s a bargain at his ADP.
Snell’s 2018 and 2019 seasons aren’t as different as his huge gap in ERA would suggest. The young lefty’s 2018 illustrated what happens with a perfect storm of excellent pitching and favorable luck, and last year shows what happens when luck swings the other way. Amazingly, Snell’s plate discipline numbers last year were actually considerably better than they were in his Cy Young Award-winning campaign. He bumped his O-Swing up from 33.1% to 37.0%, nudged his 38.2 Zone% up to 40.0%, shot his 57.1 F-Strike% up to 67.8%, and kicked his 15.1 SwStr% up to 17.7%.
Carlos Carrasco (CLE): 0.85 ERA-FIP, ADP: 115.7
Before diving into Carrasco’s 2019 statistics, I’ll address the elephant in the room. The 32-year-old pitcher made his last start of the 2019 season on May 30 and would later return to relieve in September due to being diagnosed with, being treated for, and battling leukemia. In late September, Carrasco told his tale for The Players Tribune, and it’s a great read, though, I’d suggest having some tissues ready in case some stray dust makes its way to your eyes.
As for his pitching last year, he totaled a 4.98 ERA (4.14 FIP and 3.49 SIERA) in his dozen starts spanning 65.0. Carrasco had a sizable gap between his ERA and advanced metrics in large part due to a 20.0 HR/FB%, but he also struggled with limiting hard contact, yielding an ugly 41.3 Hard%. Beyond the batted ball issues, Carrasco was still quite good.
In his starts, he walked only 4.0% of the batters he faced while punching out 28.7% of them. His elite strikeout rate was supported by a 13.7 SwStr%, and his other plate discipline numbers were also in line with his marks in 2016-2018. During that three-year stretch, Carrasco was outstanding totaling a 3.33 ERA (3.21 FIP and 3.26 SIERA), 1.12 WHIP, 5.6 BB%, 27.8 K%, and 13.7 SwStr%.
Carrasco’s a fantastic bounce-back candidate. He’s underpriced and represents a modest-risk/major-reward selection. Getting him at an ADP outside the top 100 is a steal, and reaching a full round before his ADP to assure snagging him isn’t a bad idea.
Pablo Lopez (MIA): 0.81 ERA-FIP, ADP: 334.0
Lopez is the lowest-ceiling pitcher on this list, and he looks out of place compared to the others. Having said that, he’s also basically an afterthought in drafts with an ADP of 334.0. He was limited to 21 starts totaling 111.1 innings because of injuries, specifically a shoulder strain. He suffered the shoulder strain in the middle of June and didn’t return to the Marlins rotation until late August.
He wasn’t sharp in his return. In his seven starts after returning from the IL, Lopez managed a 7.01 ERA (5.87 FIP and 5.20 SIERA), 1.50 WHIP, 5.8 BB%, 14.2 K%, and 9.1 SwStr%. The way he closed 2019 almost certainly has impacted his ADP, but he was solid if unspectacular prior to going on the IL.
In his first 14 starts totaling 76.2 innings, Lopez rattled off a 4.23 ERA (3.57 FIP and 4.09 SIERA), 1.12 WHIP, 5.7 BB%, 23.3 K%, and 10.9 SwStr%. Those aren’t world-beater numbers, but they play as a fringe option in 12-team mixers and a solid back-end guy in leagues deeper than that. Further, his advanced metrics paint an even better picture. Lopez is one of the best pitching options after pick 300, and he’s a low-risk option worth selecting to see if he can get back to his 2019 pre-IL stint form — or better.
Noah Syndergaard (NYM): 0.68 ERA-FIP, ADP: 69.0
Syndergaard totaled an ERA north of 4.00 — 4.28, to be exact — for the first time in his big league career. On the positive side, he set new highs in starts (32) and innings pitched (197.2), and his 3.60 FIP and 3.55 SIERA painted a more favorable picture of his work on the mound. The biggest culprit for the gap between Thor’s ERA and FIP was issues stranding base runners.
Syndergaard totaled a 68.9 LOB%. In his career prior to last season, he had a 75.2 LOB%. Looking back at his minor league career, he did have some occasional struggles stranding base runners, so it might behoove gamers to split the difference between his pre-2019 mark and last year’s mark when projecting this year’s performance.
Also, Thor isn’t a total stranger to failing to post an ERA in line with his FIP. In 87 games (86 starts) totaling 518.1 innings before last year, he owned a sterling 2.93 ERA, but that was still notably above his 2.66 FIP.
As recently as 2018, Syndergaard was awesome totaling a 3.03 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 24.1 K% in 25 starts totaling 154.1 innings. The 27-year-old righty had even better seasons prior to 2018, too, so there’s certainly upside here. Gamers recognize that hence his ADP inside the top 70. However, Steamer projects a 3.89 ERA and ATC projects a 3.76 ERA this year, according to Syndergaard’s FanGraphs player page. My expectations for Syndergaard fall somewhere between his 2018 level of play and his ATC and Steamer projections. His ADP is fair.
Joe Musgrove (PIT): 0.65 ERA-FIP, ADP: 221.0
Last year was Musgrove’s second with the Pirates, and he once again underperformed his advanced metrics. In 2018, he totaled a 4.06 ERA compared to a 3.59 FIP and 3.93 SIERA. Last year, he recorded a 4.44 ERA compared to a 3.82 FIP and a 4.31 SIERA. Overall in the last two years, Musgrove has pitched 285.2 innings to the tune of a 4.28 ERA compared to a 3.72 FIP and 4.16 SIERA.
As you’ve probably deduced, Musgrove does some things well to support solid ERA estimators while struggling or being the recipient of bad luck elsewhere. The stand out stat holding Musgrove back from pitching in line with his advanced metrics is a 65.7 LOB% over the last two years. Last season, he recorded an ugly 63.2 LOB%. Not only was that mark well below the league average in 2019 of 72.3%, but it was also dead last among qualified pitchers. Maybe Musgrove has an actual skill deficiency pitching with runners on, but that seems unlikely after looking back at his numbers prior to 2018. In 49 appearances (25 starts) spanning 171.1 innings for the Astros in 2016-2017, he totaled a 74.0 LOB%. Further, in 362.0 innings pitched his minor league career he tallied a 73.0 LOB%, per FanGraphs. Steamer projects him for a 71.3 LOB% this year, but give his pre-2018 track record, Musgrove has a legitimate shot to best that in 2020.
Moving on to what Musgrove has done well, he’s already helpful in WHIP with a 1.18 WHIP in 2018 and a 1.22 WHIP last year. In 2019, he walked only 5.4% of the batters he faced while punching out 21.9% of them, and his bat-missing stuff and 12.0 SwStr% could foreshadow further growth in the strikeout department. Musgrove utilized three pitches last year with a SwStr% north of 17.0%, starting with his curve (17.3%), followed by his changeup (19.2%), and highlighted by his slider (19.5%). All three pitches also did a fantastic job of coaxing swings outside of the strike zone with the slider bringing up the rear with a 41.7 O-Swing%, the changeup leading the way with a 48.0 O-Swing%, and the curve nestled in the middle with a 42.3 O-Swing%. I’m completely enamored with Musgrove’s arsenal, and perhaps a new voice in his ear this year will help him better pile up strikeouts with his repertoire.
The Pirates fired Clint Hurdle last September, and they’ve also replaced former pitching coach Ray Searage. In recent years, Pirates fans have had to endure watching pitchers kick things up to a new gear with new clubs. The most notable names among those pitchers are Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, and Gerrit Cole. Musgrove doesn’t have the blazing heater each member of the aforementioned trio has, but he could be the next success story that results from the tutelage of a new pitching coach. The foundation is already there. Musgrove’s ADP should be closer to 200 or earlier, thus, he’s a steal at his actual ADP of 221.