MLB Pitching Preview: 5 Overvalued Starters Heading into 2019
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jon Lester.
- Thanks to fickle statistics like ERA and public perception, the betting market is going to overvalue several pitchers, leading to value on the other side.
- Three very big names that will be popular plays, despite not being as good as they used to be, are Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester and Madison Bumgarner.
- Two guys who aren't household names, but greatly overperformed last year en route to solid results, are Julio Teheran and Jhoulys Chacin.
If you’re making your bets using back-of-the-baseball-card stats like wins or ERA, you’re stuck in the past. If you still think some Cy Young candidates from 2015 are as good as they were a few years ago, you’re stuck in the past.
It’s time to dig deeper!
Last year’s results, as well as overall public perception of a pitcher, are going to lead to value on the 2019 betting market. Some of these pitchers are still decent — even great — but the market is going to inflate their value more than it should.
Below is a mixture of guys who either aren’t what they used to be, or guys who significantly overperformed last season. Some might be a bit of both.
2018 Betting Results: 16-10, -1.6 units
The Clayton Kershaw era of absolute dominance appears to be over.
Now comes the Clayton Kershaw era of … still probably very good.
The soon-to-be 31-year-old ace has started slipping and has had trouble staying healthy over the past few years. Last year, he still managed a 2.73 ERA over 26 starts, but had some of the worst numbers of his career.
He threw the ball significantly slower, which allowed batters to achieve a 36.1% hard-hit rate — easily topping his previous worst of 28.9%.
Given his great control, he’s still projected to have an ERA around 3 this year, which is still good, but not Kershaw-esque.
Considering he was favored in all of his games last year, -150 or higher in 22 of 26 starts and -200 or higher 12 times, there should be some value in fading him this year.
2018 Betting Results: 24-8, +9.7 units
Accomplished aging southpaw No. 2: Jon Lester.
Lester was actually the best bet of all the Cubs pitchers last year and was one of the most profitable pitchers in the league. His 3.32 ERA was fine and dandy, but when you take a closer look, you’ll see that it could’ve and should’ve been much higher.
Of 57 qualified starters, Lester’s difference between his ERA and FIP of 1.07 was the second-highest (aka second-luckiest) behind Mike Fiers. His xFIP of 4.43 actually ranked 47th out of those 57. For those of you blissfully unaware of these advanced metrics, they both suggest his ERA should have been much worse than it actually was based on factors like his strikeout and walk ratios.
Lester is still a big name and the Cubs are still a good team. Last year, he was an underdog just 5 times, topping out at +140. On the other hand, he was -150 or higher 14 times. Not quite on Kershaw’s level, but books are going to give him respect. They also have to account for the fact he’s a popular pick, as he received less than half the bets just once last year, while he got 70% or more a whopping 16 times.
2018 Betting Results: 9-12, -2.2 units
Yet a third big-name, aging, National League lefty. While Lester was very profitable last year, Madison Bumgarner wasn’t able to manage that despite his 3.26 ERA. Perhaps the Giants’ absolutely atrocious offense had something to do with that …
After missing the first third of the season with a broken finger, MadBum posted his second-consecutive season with an ERA around 3.30 and a FIP around 4. His K/BB ratio of 2.53 was easily the worst of his career.
He’s still not very old and won’t turn 30 until August. However, the recent trends aren’t promising. Perhaps all of those innings over the past decade are catching up to him.
Per Fangraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman, Bumgarner’s curveball dropped five fewer inches last year than in 2017, which led to the swinging strike rate on that pitch to fall from 22% to just 12%. Since he’s not going to overpower guys with his 91 mph heater, he’ll need to be better on his secondary pitches.
Bumgarner is still a household name and bettors may be jumping at the opportunity to take him on what looks like a good price, but he’s nowhere as good as he used to be and the Giants’ bats aren’t going to do him any favors.
2018 Betting Results: 18-13, +4.9 units
Between 2013 and 2016, Julio Teheran was actually pretty good. In three of four seasons, he posted an ERA of 3.21 or lower. 2017 was god awful, though, and although he was profitable for bettors last year and appeared to be half-decent on paper with an ERA of 3.94, he was very lucky to even get there.
He managed to get below an ERA of 4 by posting a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .217 — 24 points lower than the runner-up. Given his ghastly 4.3 BB/9, his ERA should have been closer to 5 if he didn’t have so much batted ball luck.
Don’t let last year’s results fool you, though. Over the past two seasons, Teheran’s xFIP of 4.84 is the second-worst out of 48 qualified starters. He’s essentially one of the worst pitchers in the league to have nailed down a regular starting job.
That job could be on the line if he his luck catches up to him though, as the Braves have a bunch of young starters looking to land a spot in the rotation soon. With the Braves expected to be a contender, their opponents should have some value when Teheran takes the hill.
2018 Betting Results: 23-12, +9.2 units
Jhoulys Chacin started 35 games for the NL Central champion Brewers last year and truly helped them get the job done. He now enters the 2019 season as their ace, but there’s a reason this guy has been on six teams since 2014 — he’s just not that good.
Last year, he achieved a 3.50 ERA, helping prove ERA is such a random statistic. His BABIP of .250 was a good chunk higher than Teheran’s, but still the third-lowest in the league. His HR/FB rate of 9.3% also ranked in the bottom ten in the league. That is how someone with a K/9 of 7.29 and BB/9 of 3.32 ends up as an ace.
In each of his past three seasons, Chacin has consistently posted around a 7.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 — both quite subpar for a modern-day starting pitcher. Those three seasons have spit out ERAs of 3.50, 3.89 and 4.81. Like I said, very random. His FIP and xFIP have consistently been in the 4-4.50 range over those three years, but he just happened to outperform both last year.
I expect Chacin and the Brewers to take a step back this year. He’s probably not often going to be a very large favorite like some of the other names on this list, but he’s a mediocre pitcher and should be treated as such.