Analyzing Starting Pitchers Using Statcast’s New xERA Metric (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you prepare for your draft this season. From our Cheat Sheet Creator – which allows you to combine rankings from 100+ experts into one cheat sheet – to our Draft Assistant – that optimizes your picks with expert advice – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball draft season.
We, as a fantasy baseball industry, are firmly in the midst of the “Statcast era.” Not too long ago we used performance indicators such as BABIP and FIP to evaluate players. Then in 2015 Statcast was made available for public consumption and things haven’t been the same since.
The game-changer of Statcast is that it can measure the quality of contact when it comes to batted balls. Whereas BABIP gives us a vague idea of what a hitter’s batting average should be, expected batting average (xBA) is a Statcast feature that is far more precise. Additionally, we can track exit velocity, launch angle, spin rate, barrel percentage, etc.
The latest metric made available to us is xERA, which aims to measure what a pitcher’s true ERA should be. Up until now, xFIP has been seen as one of the better ERA indicators as it measures what a pitcher can control – walks, strikeouts, and homers. Due to Statcast’s ball-tracking technology, xERA can account for balls in play based on the quality of contact.
It stands to reason then that this would be an upgrade over xFIP. While this might be true, xERA still shouldn’t be viewed as the one trust ERA estimator. However, let’s take a look at some starting pitchers whose value we should view differently based on this new stat.
Players on the Rise According To xERA
Chris Paddack (SP – SD)
Chris Paddack, to me, is the biggest winner of Statcast unveiling xERA. I am admittedly a big fan of his. In addition to the fantasy success he had in 2019, Paddack became one of the most fun pitchers to watch in all of baseball. He has a bulldog mentality and almost never walks anyone. In fact, he walked more than two batters in a game just twice in 26 starts last year. His rookie season culminated in a 3.33 ERA.
Why then did the 24-year-old have a 3.95 FIP and an even worse looking 4.05 xFIP? This is mainly due to Paddack being a fly ball pitcher during a juiced ball era. Fly balls that would’ve normally been outs turn into homers. Add in the fact that he posted what seems to be an unsustainable .237 BABIP last year, and you can make a strong case that he isn’t yet a true ace.
Here’s the thing about contact though; it isn’t all created equal, which is what xERA helps measure. Pitchers with elite changeups (which Paddack most certainly has) tend to post lower BABIPs than most, as the pitch is often intended to induce weak contact. So what is Paddack’s xERA anyway? Great question. It’s 3.28, ranking in the 90th percentile of the stat.
This confirms what proponents of Paddack have thought all along. Despite not rating as elite in certain advanced metrics, Paddack is still capable of being an ace. He just goes about it differently than some, relying on command and a signature pitch – his changeup.
Watching Chris Paddack highlights to distract myself from the fact we still don't have baseball
I cannot get over how much bravado this man has. Gets jacked up after every big K and I love it. pic.twitter.com/aW4OKXnjXu
— Brendan Tuma (@toomuchtuma) June 13, 2020
Julio Urias (SP/RP – LAD)
Julio Urias was one of my favorite late-round picks before spring training came to a halt. After years of shuffling him between the rotation and the bullpen, the Dodgers announced in February that the 23-year-old southpaw would begin the season as the club’s fifth starter.
The former top prospect posted a 2.49 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings last season. However, his 4.28 xFIP from a season ago was noticeable enough to give industry members some pause when advocating for him. The 3.09 xERA is far more comforting, and it falls right in line with Urias’ career ERA of 3.18. Add in the fact that Los Angeles should begin loosening Urias’ innings restrictions over the next couple of years and this is a talent that I’m even more confident in betting on now.
Aaron Civale (SP – CLE)
If we were to only judge him by xFIP then Aaron Civale has a ton of red flags as a fantasy asset in 2020. His 2.34 ERA from 2019 is very enticing but the 25-year-old struck out just over 20% of the hitters he faced as a rookie. a 4.61 xFIP had many running far, far away from the Indians’ right-hander this offseason.
A closer look at the Statcast numbers proves that Civale was able to effectively induce weak contact last year. A barrel percentage that ranks in the 99th percentile of performance is the reason why. Both his fastball and curveball excel when it comes to spin rate, which helps make up for the lack of any true swing-and-miss pitches in his arsenal. A 3.36 xERA doesn’t tell us that Civale was as good last year as it seemed, but it paints a much better-looking picture than xFIP does. Trusting in Civale means you trust in his “pitchability” and his talent of not allowing hard contact.
Players Whose Value Falls According to xERA:
Shane Bieber (SP – CLE)
As you’ve probably noticed by now, xERA is going to favor pitchers who don’t give up hard contact. At the opposite end of that spectrum are SPs such as Shane Bieber, who does give up hard contact. His 90.4 mph average exit velocity and 43.1% hard-hit rate both ranked in the bottom five percentile of qualified hurlers.
What made Bieber a Cy Young candidate a season ago was his ability to miss bats (81st percentile whiff rate) and elite command (4.7 BB%). What we have on our hands, therefore, is a pitcher who doesn’t give up a lot of contact, but the contact he does give up is hit hard. Bieber’s 3.94 xERA isn’t as nice looking as his 3.23 xFIP, which makes sense based on the quality of contact he allows. He should still be considered a top-10 starter in fantasy this year, but there might be more risk in his price tag than we initially thought.
German Marquez (SP – COL)
It is always difficult to write anything positive when it comes to starting pitchers on the Rockies, which remains the case with xERA. The entire Colorado trio of German Marquez, Kyle Freeland, and Jon Gray possesses a concerning xERA when compared to their xFIP.
Of course, a part of this is the fact that these guys call Coors Field home. To put it simply, a fly ball hit in Coors has a better chance of leaving the yard than a fly ball hit anywhere else. It makes intuitive sense why Colorado’s arms don’t fare well by this metric. It can often be tempting to view Marquez’s xFIP and think that he is on the verge of a true breakout. Let xERA be a reminder to you that we simply want not part of Rockies starters when it comes to fantasy baseball.
Dinelson Lamet (SP – SD)
I included Lamet on this list since he is such a popular sleeper pick entering the 2020 season. The right-hander from the Padres truly has some elite swing-and-miss pitches, evidenced by his 93rd percentile strikeout rate. His swinging-strike rate is equally impressive (86th percentile), which in addition to a 3.44 xFIP makes him an easy breakout candidate.
Lamet still has just two usable pitches and gives up plenty of hard contact. There’s a decent chance he profiles best as a multi-inning reliever rather than a true member of San Diego’s rotation. Is his average draft position low enough to make a late-round gamble on his strikeout upside worth it? Probably. Just know that xERA isn’t overly optimistic about his chances of making a considerable leap this year.
Conclusion (In Table Format)