For the last four years, I have been writing the By the Numbers column, and it will be back for a fifth year.
In this space, however, I am taking a step beyond my usual data-centric approach. This is the first-ever installment of Beyond the Numbers, a series in which I will try to explain some of the crazier, more confounding stats that I come across. The focus will usually be on a single player or a small group of players, but in piecing their stories together, I will also look at other players who might be in the same boat. The ultimate aim is to see what lessons we can learn about how to better assess their Fantasy value.
This week it's the White Sox pitching staff that gets the under-the-microscope treatment.
Over the last three seasons, they have had an uncanny ability to make their launching pad of a home park look neutral, if not quite biased towards pitching. From 2009 to 2011, only 248 of the 548 homers hit at U.S. Cellular Field were notched by the visiting team. Despite playing in one of the best stadiums for homers, the White Sox had the 11th-highest HR/9 rate in the majors last season. All of the other teams that play in extreme homer parks -- the Yankees, Rangers, Rockies and Reds -- ranked among the seven teams with the highest HR/9 rates. If you think the Pale Hose achieved this distinction by loading up on ground ball specialists, you'll need to find another explanation. According to FanGraphs.com, the White Sox had only the 17th-highest ground ball rate in the majors last year.
When setting Fantasy rotations from week to week, park factors play a role in making start-or-sit decisions for many owners. If the White Sox have found a way to blunt the impact of their home stadium, that could give us reason to rethink the importance we assign to park factors. Last season, the Sox made a strong case for reconsidering a park factor-based strategy, as none of their primary starters (Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, Jake Peavy and Philip Humber) allowed more than 1.05 HR/9 at home last year. Also, all but Danks compiled flyball BABIPs well below the American League average of .137, so they were good at avoiding doubles and triples as well. Even the team's most Fantasy-relevant relievers -- Sergio Santos, Matt Thornton and Chris Sale -- were adept at minimizing extra bases.
Thornton attributes his team's ability to cheat opponents of extra-base hits to pitching coach Don Cooper. According to Thornton, Cooper's philosophy is simple: "If you're going to miss, don't miss over the plate." Thornton has taken Cooper's approach to heart, coming inside frequently, especially against righties. Humber and Buehrle were also loathe to leave the ball over the middle of the plate, and perhaps not coincidentally, they owned the lowest extra-base hit rates (as a percentage of total hits) among the White Sox's starters last season. In fact, they ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in this category among AL starters for 2011.
In recent seasons, the White Sox's staff has shown that pitchers don't have to be victims of their home stadium's park factors. For Fantasy owners, one implication is that White Sox pitchers are not as risky at home as one might think. Humber could be the target of suspicion in Fantasy circles, since last season's 3.75 ERA and 1.18 WHIP were lower than what many expected. But given that he has a knack for locating his pitches on the outside edge of the plate, he shouldn't be much of a home run risk. Buehrle has done a great job of avoiding extra base hits as a member of the White Sox, and with the move to the Marlins' spacious new park, his ERA and WHIP could be among the best in his career. Buehrle's new pitching coach, Randy St. Claire, likens his ability to spot his pitches to that of another resourceful southpaw, Tom Glavine.
The impact of the White Sox's unusual success extends beyond the South Side. Avoiding extra-base hits is a tendency that can be owned by pitchers who aren't extreme ground ball specialists or don't have the advantage of playing in a pitcher's park. Here are five other starters who have been giving up fewer extra-base hits than you might think, given their home park environments and/or ground ball rates. At first glance, each of these pitchers might look like regression candidates, but they show indications of being able to stay on a roll.
Matt Garza, Cubs: Before increasing his ground ball rate dramatically last season, Garza was prone to giving up the long ball, even though his home park was pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. Both with the Cubs and Rays, Garza has had a knack for avoiding flyball hits inside the park. A view of his pitch location heat map on FanGraphs.com reveals that he tends to locate his slider low and in on lefties and away against righties, and given that he used the pitch more frequently in 2011, it is no surprise that Garza got more grounders and allowed far fewer homers. He is still fairly flyball-neutral, though, and he pitches his home games at Wrigley Field, but that doesn't mean Garza is due for a fall after last season's breakout. If there is an owner in your league that feels like he got "stuck" with Garza, now is a good time to buy low on the solid No. 3 mixed league starter.
Josh Beckett, Red Sox: Many pointed to Beckett's .252 BABIP from last season and said that his 2.89 ERA and 1.03 WHIP were too good to be true. It is reasonable to expect Beckett to give up more hits this year, but not as many as you might think. He used his cutter more often and did a good job of keeping it away from righties. That likely helped Beckett to experience a dramatic decrease in flyball hits, including homers, and he induced popups at a higher rate as well. Owners have legitimate reasons to be concerned about Beckett's durability, but when he does pitch, they can expect him to perform at a level not far off from last season's.
Matt Harrison, Rangers: Despite mediocre strikeout, walk and ground ball rates, Harrison was a surprisingly robust Fantasy option last year. Opposing hitters slugged just .374 against the lefty, and they hit all of 13 home runs off him all season. Harrison has posted flyball BABIP rates below league average for three straight seasons. Though Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is one of the easiest parks in which to hit a homer, Harrison does a good enough job of staying down in the zone to keep extra-base damage to a minimum. Despite a history of unimpressive peripherals, he should be viable in standard mixed leagues again this year.
Doug Fister, Tigers: Fister may not pitch for Don Cooper, but he seems to have taken his philosophy to heart. Last year, he started pounding his fastball in on righties, and batters swung and missed on it nearly twice as often as they did the year before, according to PitchFX data on BrooksBaseball.net. Fister was not only aided by an increase in strikeouts, but also by a miniscle home run rate, which he was able to maintain even after leaving the AL West. Though his flyball BABIP last year was slightly elevated at .150, his career rate is just .119. Fister may have left his pitchers' paradise in Seattle behind last July, but he continues to be more effective at limiting extra-base hits than his middling strikeout and ground ball rates would suggest.
Jason Vargas, Mariners: Vargas, on the other hand, does continue to get the benefit of playing home games at Safeco Field, but his ability to limit extra base hits goes beyond the impact of park factors. Even though Vargas is decidedly flyball-leaning, his 1.0 HR/9 rate away from Seattle over the previous two years has been respectable. Vargas has also put up a flyball BABIP below the league average -- including an .096 rate in 2011 -- in each of his years with the Mariners. Because of a lack of strikeouts, Vargas can't be trusted in standard mixed leagues every week. Bear in mind, though, that 40 of his 64 starts (63 percent) going back to 2010 have been of the quality variety, a rate just below Ervin Santana's and higher than Brandon Morrow's. Vargas is worthy of streaming onto a standard mixed league roster when you're unsure of the other alternatives.
While the five pitchers above are all poised to deliver more value than expected, the next five pitchers could be disappointments. Each has either had trouble in preventing extra-base hits or profiles to have more difficulties this season.
Zack Greinke, Brewers: Fantasy owners have good reason to be tantalized by Greinke's superb strikeout and walk rates, and those numbers alone suggest that he could be due for a second Cy Young Award. However, there's a reason that Greinke had a less-than-elite 3.83 ERA and 1.20 WHIP last year. He has compiled flyball BABIPs over .150 in each of the last three years, and over those seasons he has coughed up 128 doubles. Unless Greinke can induce weaker contact when batters connect, he is going to have to miss even more bats to be a true Fantasy ace.
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Ricky Romero, Blue Jays: Romero shaved nearly a full run off his 2010 ERA to finish with a 2.92 mark last year, and this spring owners took him off the board within the first five rounds in many mixed leagues. He became a Fantasy favorite, even though last year hitters batted .192 on flyballs in play (which doesn't include the 26 homers they mashed) against him. Romero kept his opponents' batting average to .216 due to an extremely low line drive rate, but that is more likely to regress than his extra-base rate. If that happens, Romero won't perform like the No. 2 Fantasy starter that many owners drafted him to be, and there will be more outings like the difficult one he suffered in Cleveland on Thursday.
Kyle Lohse, Cardinals: After wrecking the Marlins' housewarming party on opening night, owners are already starting to flock to Lohse. He had been added to rosters in eight percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com less than 24 hours after he held Miami to a single run over 7 1/3 innings. Lohse hasn't been especially homer-prone, but he has allowed 217 doubles over his last 138 starts -- that's just over four full seasons' worth of starts. Last season's 49 two-baggers fit right into the pattern. Unless he can hold batters to a sub-.200 average on grounders again this year -- and I'm guessing he won't -- owners shouldn't expect to see the 2011 or opening night versions of Lohse very often this year.
Chris Capuano, Dodgers: Capuano's 4.55 ERA with the Mets last year wasn't too impressive, but xFIP estimates that with better luck and defense, he should have finised at 3.56. What xFIP doesn't realize is that Capuano consistently gives up more extra-base hits than a typical pitcher with his strikeout, walk and ground ball rates. Last year was the third time that Capuano had made more than 30 starts, and in each of those seasons, he has allowed at least 27 homers and 49 doubles. The two-time Tommy John survivor is fine to use in NL-only leagues, but in mixed league formats, he should only be used when facing an especially weak lineup.
Joe Saunders: Saunders is the anti-Fister. Frequently leaving his fastball out over the plate, he is routinely taken out of the park, even though his ground ball rates are slightly higher than average. Owners looking for Saunders to repeat last season's 3.69 ERA are due for a letdown. Given his proclivity for giving up homers, it strains credibility to think that he will strand 77 percent of his baserunners again this year.
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| xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango. |
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-fly out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats