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How to Win 2014: ERA

In the old days, ERA was a pretty easy category to win. All it took was a team ERA in the mid-3.00's and you were set. Get an ace or two, some good relievers, and focus on strikeout pitchers decent enough to get you some wins, and you'd probably compete in ERA. Maybe even win. As a proxy for other all competitive leagues, the ERA leader in the MLBTR league rocked a 3.01 ERA. My 3.99 number was good for...last place. This ain't the '90's, that's for sure.

So, let us assume that the ERA's in your league are also likely to run from one end of the 3.00's to the other, and not get much worse (except in public free leagues when someone is bound to quit checking their team in mid-May) or better than that. The bar is high for success in ERA, which is probably why we're seeing higher ADP's for top starters, including a more-or-less-consensus that Clayton Kershaw belongs in the first round.

The category is, of course, notoriously luck-heavy, with park, defense, left-on-base rates, timing of hits and outs, and plain ol' random chance all playing parts. But there's a lot of skill going on too. As with any rate category, you can't force a win, not even by spending way too much of your budget trying to, but you can certainly put yourself in a good (or bad) position.

Let's take a look at last year's ERA leaders, with their FIP, and their ERA-FIP. We'll go back to using the top 12 players, for the potential anchor for each team in a standard league.

2013 ERA Leaders (min. 100 IP)*

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Clay Buchholz

1.74

2.78

3.41

3.2

-1.04

2

Clayton Kershaw

1.83

2.39

2.88

6.5

-0.56

3

Jose Fernandez

2.19

2.73

3.08

4.2

-0.54

4

Anibal Sanchez

2.57

2.39

2.91

6.2

0.18

5

Zack Greinke

2.63

3.23

3.45

2.9

-0.6

6

Bartolo Colon

2.65

3.23

3.95

3.9

-0.58

7

Hisashi Iwakuma

2.66

3.44

3.28

4.2

-0.78

8

Alex Cobb

2.76

3.36

3.02

2.4

-0.6

9

Madison Bumgarner

2.77

3.05

3.32

3.7

-0.28

10

Yu Darvish

2.83

3.28

2.84

5

-0.45

11

Cliff Lee

2.87

2.82

2.78

5.1

0.05

12

Max Scherzer

2.9

2.74

3.16

6.4

0.16

*Excluding Matt Harvey, who won't be pitching this season.

A lot of the usual suspects here, though Buchholz and Cobb have yet to be full-season aces, while Colon's strikeout rate is so low he's difficult to play in mixed leagues.

One might have been tempted to peg Scherzer as a regression candidate, but he and Lee are the only ones on this list to post FIP's better than their ERA. Of course, Scherzer's xFIP tells a different story...I'll sum it up as, "he'll be good," and leave the particulars to others.

Read on, and beware: there will be many charts!

Looking at the best ERA's in baseball last is only so helpful. I mean it is, but it doesn't necessarily give us the fullest picture we can get. In the charts below, we'll look at the best ERA performers of the last three years (much more projectable numbers) and those with the greatest differences between their FIP's and ERA's (for better and worse).

2011-2013 ERA Leaders (min. 400 IP)

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Clayton Kershaw

2.21

2.58

2.99

18.5

-0.37

2

Johnny Cueto

2.61

3.41

3.68

7.8

-0.8

3

Jered Weaver

2.77

3.54

4.06

11.1

-0.77

4

Cliff Lee

2.8

2.84

2.83

16.5

-0.04

5

Justin Verlander

2.81

3.06

3.35

19.1

-0.25

6

Chris Sale

3.06

3.22

3.08

9.8

-0.16

7

Gio Gonzalez

3.12

3.29

3.54

11.4

-0.17

8

Madison Bumgarner

3.12

3.08

3.29

11.2

0.04

9

Jordan Zimmermann

3.12

3.35

3.67

10.2

-0.23

10

David Price

3.13

3.14

3.23

13.4

-0.01

11

Cole Hamels

3.14

3.19

3.24

13.3

-0.05

12

James Shields

3.15

3.45

3.4

12.9

-0.3

The first thing that jumps out at me is that there's a reason Kershaw is so much more valuable than everybody else--that's his three-year ERA total we're looking at--nearly 700 IP of pitching data.

Another thing we see is that some of the guys near the top of this list have beaten their FIP's pretty handily over the years. Though Cueto just clears my 400 IP threshold, Weaver seems to have a skill in beating his peripherals. The same can be said for Matt Cain, who just would rank 13th on this list. Some other guys with long term ERA's better than FIP's who might have a repeatable skill include Jeremy Hellickson (-0.7), Ervin Santana (-0.6), Bronson Arroyo (-0.57), Kyle Lohse (-0.56), and Hiroki Kuroda (-0.5).

Whether or not the guys in this list beat their peripherals, their three-year ERA's have some decent predictive power. 

2013 ERA-FIP: Improvement from Regression

Getting back to 2013 numbers, here are some guys for whom regression to the mean should be a good thing--they appear to have been unlucky last time around. I was going to list the leaders, but frankly, there are a lot of pitchers on the lousy end of things (Edinson Volquez, for instance) in this section of the rankings, guys you won't be drafting for sure. So consider the next table highly edited.

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Edwin Jackson

4.98

3.79

3.86

2

1.19

2

Jeremy Hellickson

5.24

4.26

4.17

1.3

0.98

3

Juan Nicasio

5.14

4.25

4.32

2.2

0.89

4

Rick Porcello

4.43

3.57

3.22

3

0.86

5

Ryan Vogelsong

5.73

4.91

4.5

-0.6

0.82

6

Brandon McCarthy

4.53

3.75

3.77

1.8

0.78

7

Chris Capuano

4.46

3.68

3.77

0.8

0.78

8

Lance Lynn

3.97

3.28

3.66

3.3

0.69

9

CC Sabathia

4.78

4.1

3.76

2.7

0.68

10

Tim Lincecum

4.37

3.74

3.56

1.6

0.63

11

Dan Haren

4.7

4.12

3.69

1.3

0.58

12

Jeff Samardzija

4.34

3.77

3.45

2.8

0.57

13

Corey Kluber

3.92

3.36

3.12

2.6

0.56

14

Scott Kazmir

4.04

3.51

3.36

2.5

0.53

15

Tim Hudson

3.97

3.46

3.56

1.7

0.51

16

A.J. Burnett

3.3

2.8

2.92

4

0.5

17

Phil Hughes

4.95

4.48

4.36

1.4

0.47

18

Felix Hernandez

3.04

2.61

2.66

6

0.43

19

Doug Fister

3.68

3.27

3.42

4.5

0.41

20

Henderson Alvarez

3.59

3.18

3.97

1.9

0.41

 So here are the top 20 "unlucky" guys that might hold some fantasy interest next year. Might.

There's an interesting combination of names on this list, including strikeout-heavy guys like Lincecum, Lynn, and Samardzija, Tigers pitchers (maybe the no infield gloves experiment wasn't such a great idea), a legit ace, and a former ace. Not to mention a bunch of maybes worth keeping an eye on. It's also worth noting that, as good as he was, Adam Wainwright would occupy the very next spot on this list. Cole Hamels would be two slots down, and David Price just a little after that.

 2013 ERA-FIP: Watch Out!

 This next chart show some fantasy-relevant guys for whom regression will not be pretty, as smoke, mirrors, magic, or a little help from Jobu and a bucket of KFC made their ERA's a lot better than their FIP's.

 

Name

ERA

FIP

xFIP

WAR

ERA-FIP

1

Clay Buchholz

1.74

2.78

3.41

3.2

-1.04

2

Hector Santiago

3.51

4.49

4.66

1.5

-0.98

3

Chris Archer

3.22

4.07

3.91

1.2

-0.85

4

Randall Delgado

4.17

4.96

4

0.2

-0.79

5

Travis Wood

3.11

3.89

4.5

2.8

-0.78

6

Hisashi Iwakuma

2.66

3.44

3.28

4.2

-0.78

7

Zack Wheeler

3.42

4.17

4.21

0.6

-0.75

8

Kyle Lohse

3.35

4.08

4.03

1.8

-0.73

9

A.J. Griffin

3.83

4.55

4.18

1.4

-0.72

10

Chris Tillman

3.71

4.42

3.88

2

-0.71

11

Bronson Arroyo

3.79

4.49

3.97

0.8

-0.7

12

Ervin Santana

3.24

3.93

3.69

3

-0.69

13

Mike Leake

3.37

4.04

3.91

1.6

-0.67

14

Matt Moore

3.29

3.95

4.32

1.8

-0.66

15

Miguel Gonzalez

3.81

4.46

4.29

1.7

-0.65

16

Martin Perez

3.62

4.23

4.04

1.6

-0.61

17

Shelby Miller

3.06

3.67

3.73

2.1

-0.61

18

Zack Greinke

2.63

3.23

3.45

2.9

-0.6

19

Alex Cobb

2.76

3.36

3.02

2.4

-0.6

20

Bartolo Colon

2.65

3.23

3.95

3.9

-0.58

Consider these guys flagged red (though note that some have been doing this for the last three years). It's unsurprising to see top pitchers like Grienke and Iwakuma on a list like this--in fact, the next three pitchers are Kershaw, Weaver, and Jose Fernandez. Ace pitchers sometimes make their own "luck," but they can be recipients of good fortune just like everyone else. And they can regress just like everyone else. The guys to really watch out for, though are those without the strikeout skills to be useful and FIP's that are flat-out bad. Guys like Leake, Arroyo, and Wood could be big busts next year. Watch out for Moore too.

Park Effects

Location, location, location. I discussed park effects at length in this column over the last few weeks, but mostly from the perspective of which places will help your hitters. The following parks helped their pitchers last year, with a Fangraphs park factor of 99 or lower:

 94-95: San Francisco, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Los Angeles (Dodgers)

 96: New York Mets, Los Angeles (Angels), Cleveland

 97: St. Louis, Oakland, Pittsburgh

 99: Braves, Astros

 When you see negative numbers in ERA-FIP (indicating good luck) for pitchers in these parks, realize that some of that luck ought to be repeatable. Pitchers like Colon, Greinke, and Moore may regress, but probably won't regress all the way to matching ERA and FIP numbers. Take advantage of the good luck that happens in these pitchers' havens.

Interesting note: Seattle's famous pitchers' park wasn't last year--it played neutral. Perhaps moving those fences in made a difference. Remember that park effects change from year to year too--don't just draft on a park's reputation.

 Team Defense

Here were some of the best team defenses by UZR last year. For players sticking with the same team (if the same defenders are mostly in place), you can expect some of their good luck to follow them into 2014:

Royals (79.9), Diamondbacks (51.1), Orioles (39.9), Rays (37.7), Cubs (37.3), Giants (37.0), Rangers (35), Reds (29.7)

Kansas City led the pack by a huge margin and ought to be bringing back most of the same defensive unit. Expect some defensive regression, but their pitchers should still benefit. Note that the Rays and Giants had helpful parks and defenses--which seems nice, but ought to raise red flags about Tim Lincecum, since he should have had significant good luck...and yet appeared to have bad luck. Maybe having an ERA worse than a FIP is a "skill" he's got. It's also worth noting that the Giants defense takes a hit with Michael Morse playing the outfield.

Relievers

This article is running really long, so I'll leave you with this: get some good relievers! They're much better at putting up good ERA's than starters, so make sure to allocate some of your innings to elite relief pitchers. Maybe that's an argument to pay for saves, and maybe it means snagging the best non-closers at the end of your draft or auction. That's your call....

Join us again next week, as we return to the batter's box for batting average. We promise lots of excitement, plus charts and snide comments.




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