Fantasy baseball Stats Focus: Which pitchers have room to improve?

Thursday June 13th, 2013

Edwin Jackson's high ERA is bound to come down based on his below-average strand rate percentage.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Since we changed it up with this week's Pitching Report, I thought we could do the same in the Advanced Stats Focus. Instead of profiling a player and a specific stat, we'll look at a handful of players and identify some good trade targets -- as well as sell-high candidates -- based on a pair of sabermetric numbers.

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If you've been paying attention to the advanced stats revolution, you know that a pitcher's BABIP and strand rate have a whole lot to do with luck. Of course pitchers have some control over how well a hitter strikes a ball, but generally once it's in play, he can't really influence what happens. He also has no control over how many of his base runners score once he leaves the game. League-average BABIP falls somewhere between .290 and .310, while the average strand rate is about 75 percent. We can safely expect any outliers to make their way back to those league averages.

Now that we got that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let's first look at pitchers whose BABIP and/or strand rate suggest brighter days ahead.

PitcherBABIPStrand Rate
Justin Verlander.35572.6 percent
Edwin Jackson.35057.1 percent
Derek Holland.33973.5 percent
Brandon McCarthy.33566.1 percent
Doug Fister.33069.6 percent
Wade Miley.32570.3 percent
Edinson Volquez.32562.2 percent
Wily Peralta.32558.9 percent
Dan Haren.32067.7 percent
C.J. Wilson.31570.8 percent
Yovani Gallardo.30968.4 percent

So which of these guys can you target in a trade? Well, we can immediately cross Verlander off the list. No one is going to trade him. In fact, his current owners can take heart that they've still gotten what they have out of him despite his ridiculously high BABIP. Holland will also be very tough to get, and Wilson almost certainly carries too hefty a price tag. Fister, too, has been very successful, despite a bit of bad luck. He won't be easy to get. I'd cross McCarthy, Miley and Peralta off the list since they're low strikeout guys. There's really no reason to trade for a guy who's only going to give you six strikeouts per nine innings.

My favorite target on this list is Jackson. It's hard to say which one of those stats, his BABIP or his strand rate, is more ridiculous. He's striking out nearly a batter per inning and is on pace for a career-best ground ball rate as a starter. His FIP is more than two runs better than his ERA, by far the biggest spread in the majors. And given his ugly 2-8 record and 5.76 ERA, he'll almost for sure come cheap.

I would also consider Gallardo as a trade option. He's having the worst year of his career, and his strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff, but that 68.4 percent strand rate tells us his ERA (4.74) should improve over the rest of the season. Perhaps best of all, his owner probably drafted him fairly early, and is doubtlessly very frustrated with him. That's the kind of owner you can exploit.

And now the other side. Which pitchers have been just a tad fortunate this season?

PitcherBABIPStrand Rate
Travis Wood.22076.7 percent
Hisashi Iwakuma.22287.7 percent
Jordan Zimmermann.22980.2 percent
Chris Sale.23278.2 percent
Mike Minor.24180.4 percent
Jeff Locke.24283.9 percent
Clayton Kershaw.24980.2 percent
Yu Darvish.25379.8 percent
Ervin Santana.25585.0 percent
Patrick Corbin.25884.1 percent
Clay Buchholz.25884.1 percent
Matt Harvey.26080.1 percent
Jeremy Guthrie.26185.9 percent
Hiroki Kuroda.26480.8 percent
Chris Tillman.27785.1 percent
Alex Cobb.27981.9 percent
Shelby Miller.28082.6 percent

So right away, we're knocking Kershaw and Darvish out of the question, since there are plenty of reasons why they post low BABIPs. I'm also not including Miller, because a .280 BABIP over two-plus months of the season isn't all that lucky. While Wood, Locke, Corbin, Guthrie and Tillman would be great sell-high candidates, no one is going to give you much of anything for them. Iwakuma, Zimmermann, Sale, Minor and Harvey all fit the bill. All are great pitchers who have earned their numbers this year, but they've probably outpaced where they should be. In addition, they'd all command huge returns on the trade market. If you're deep at pitching, you can go ahead and consider trading them.

However, my favorite sell-high targets are Kuroda and Santana, in that order. Not only has he been lucky this year, his K/9 is just 6.47 and his ground-ball rate is 44.9 percent. He has a 2.84 ERA, yet his FIP is 3.49. There's plenty of room for him to regress to the mean. You can also play up the fact that he's on the Yankees, which should give him plenty of win opportunities. As for Santana, other than Iwakuma and Locke, he has the farthest outlying combo of BABIP and strand rate. He does have a career-high strikeout rate and career-low walk rate, so he's not doing it all with a four-leaf clover sticking out of his cleats, but the fact remains we should expect some regression here. Best to get out too early than too late.

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