Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Brewers pitcher Zach Davies
We are about 40% of the way through the MLB season, so I thought it would be a good time to check in on some of the luckiest pitchers to date. I simply started by looking at the biggest negative discrepancies on FanGraphs between ERA and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which assumes average outcomes on balls in play).
We don’t have the largest sample size, but it’s still a good starting point. I then dive into some other metrics to get a better performance picture and also compare past numbers. Has velocity increased? Has pitch mix changed?
Some pitchers will naturally run worse (or better) than their expected numbers based on “stuff” and how they pitch, so it’s not an exact science. However, you should expect to see regression over time if there are large discrepancies between ERA and FIP, xFIP and/or SIERA.
Inflated surface numbers (wins, ERA) that don’t really mean much over short sample sizes could also potentially create fade value in the betting market.
Let’s start by taking a look at the five biggest discrepancies among qualified starters this season before looking closer under the hood for each pitcher on the list — in addition to one other I’ll be looking to fade in the near future.
Fade a Brewin’
Brewers starter Zach Davies leads MLB with the most starts allowing three or fewer runs this season with 10 and has jumped out to a 7-0 record with a minuscule 2.41 ERA. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Davies is an average pitcher — as indicated by his 2019 4.0 FIP — right in line with his career ERA.
A good chunk of that discrepancy can be attributed to a ridiculously high 82.2% LOB% (left on base percentage). That ranks in the top 10 among all qualified pitchers in 2019.
Has anything changed with Davies? Not much. Walk and strikeout rates are right in line with his past numbers. Plus, his velocity and swinging-strike rates are actually below his career marks.
Davies is a soft-tossing control pitcher that relies on hitting his spots. He’s also a sinkerballer — yet he only has a ground ball percentage of 42.4%. That’s not going to fly much longer in Miller Park.
The one material change I can identify is an increased usage rate of his changeup, which he is getting hitters to whiff at an impressive rate. But, still, I don’t think he has good enough other weapons to keep up the level of success he has seen with that pitch.
Davies shouldn’t keep up this magic act much longer. You just can’t expect a guy that ranks in the bottom 10 among qualified pitchers in K-BB% (8.8%) to maintain the seventh-best ERA. Regression looms.
Another Zach to Phade
Speaking of Zach’s due for some regression, Philadelphia’s Zach Eflin has the second-luckiest E-F in all of baseball. He has given up one run or fewer in seven of his 12 starts. He’s also the only pitcher in the National League to throw two nine-inning complete games this year. Silly 85.6% LOB%.
Eflin has better stuff than Davies but he still owns a strikeout rate south of 19%. Almost all of his advanced metrics (xwOBA, hard-hit %, exit velocity, etc.) suggest average results. They certainly don’t suggest he should be one of the 13 qualified pitchers with a sub-3 ERA this season.
Don’t expect that astronomical 85.6% LOB% to persist too much further into the future. This is a good time to fade the righty.
The Other Trio
Cardinals pitcher Dakota Hudson doesn’t have the luckiest underlying metrics and he gets a plethora of ground balls with his sinker — which, when working, sets up his slider as an out pitch.
However, he still walks way too many batters and doesn’t consistently have the strikeout stuff to keep this pace up as a starter. Also, lefties absolutely dominate him. Just take a look at these splits:
Marlins starter Trevor Richards has been on fire of late on the surface. However, his underlying metrics are worrisome to say the least. Namely the third-lowest BABIP among qualified starters at .233 and an insanely high LOB% of 83.3%. Those can’t last.
He does boast an elite changeup — which he threw 58 (!) of in his last start. The problem is nothing else is really elite as of right now and he can’t keep up this success relying that much on one pitch. Batters will start to catch on.
Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu has arguably been the best pitcher in baseball this year. I mean he’s on this list with a 2.62 FIP — which sits 1.3 runs above his major league leading 1.36 ERA.
He has always had elite control at an average of about two walks per nine innings, so his 0.52 BB/9 rate in 2019 should certainly rise some. Also, he has an absolutely insane 94.7% LOB%. That’s a Houdini act. To put that number in context, Clayton Kershaw and Blake Snell led all qualified starters the past two seasons with a LOB% of around 88%.
While Ryu definitely won’t keep producing these elite results, don’t expect too much of a drop off. The LA southpaw boasts an extremely effective arsenal, featuring a nasty changeup.
Bottom line: he has strikeout stuff, doesn’t walk hitters and draws soft contact. That’s a winning combination. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the game.
Plus, in order to fade him, you have to fade the Dodgers, who seemingly never lose.
One of the biggest surprises in baseball this year has been the success of the Minnesota Twins. One of the reasons has been the emergence of Jake Odorizzi — who has been one of the best starters in MLB this season. He even recently became the first Twins pitcher to win nine consecutive starts since Johan Santana in 2006.
The primary driver of his success has been his fastball. Believe it or not, the league is only hitting .153 against Jake’s heater this year. That leads the league.
The peripherals on that pitch are impressive — and his velocity is up. But, come on. Jake Odorizzi does not have the best fastball in baseball. He’s still only throwing it at an average of 93.1 miles per hour.
Odorizzi is solid, but not this solid. His fortunate LOB% and BABIP should regress toward his long-term averages. This is still a pitcher that walks too many (sixth-highest BB% in 2018 among qualified starters) and doesn’t get ground balls. In fact, he has the lowest GB% among qualified starters this year at 28.2%.
Odorizzi pops up on one of the five luckiest pitchers if you focus on wOBA (weighted on base average) vs. xwOBA (expected woba).
Jake is on the top of my “look to fade” list over the next few weeks. Obviously, it will ultimately depend on price, but he’s on my radar.