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The Saber's Edge: Elite Once More?

Jeff Zimmerman

Jeff Zimmerman

Jeff Zimmerman writes about all things Baseball for RotoWire. He also handles scouting and reporting for PrepBaseballReport.com. Jeff also contributes to RoyalsReview.com, FanGraphs.com and BaseballHeatMaps.com.

More than two months into the season, owners may be feeling that certain pitchers have figured out how to win and keep their ERA's lower. After all, pitchers can turn around their production. Many times though, the change is just an illusion with worse days right around the corner. This week, I am going to look at a few pitching leaders in ERA and wins and determine if they might be able to keep it up.

Every season some pitchers jump out of the gate and seem to be setting the world on fire. Last season, Matt Moore and Jeff Locke were two such pitchers. Here are their stats over the first two months.

Matt Moore
Apr to May: 8-0, 2.18 ERA
May to Sep.: 9-4, 4.08 ERA

Jeff Locke
Apr to May: 5-1 2.25 ERA
May to Sep.: 5-6, 4.31 ERA

Not every pitcher starts out hot and then cools down.

Take Ervin Santana. In 2012, was 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA. In the first two months of 2013, he only had four wins, but an improved 3.33 ERA. Over the rest of the season, he posted a 3.20 ERA and six wins. A new park and improved defense helped him right the ship.

I will give one rant: I rarely base any fantasy decision on wins. In my opinion, get the best pitchers who will help your rate stats, and strikeouts and usually the wins will follow. If I can't tell between two pitchers, I will take the younger pitcher (health). If I still can't decide, take the one with the higher walk rate (walk rates improve, strikeout rates rarely do). Finally, I will look at the pitcher's team for an idea of their offense, defense and bullpen, but this is typically the least important aspect of the process.

Mark Buehrle 10 wins, 2.10 ERA, 46 K, 1.19 ERA

Buehrle may be having a career season at age 35. The wins and ERA have been a great boon for his owners who got him for $1 on draft day or picked him up off the waiver wire.

Looking over Buehrle's stats, his ERA is supported by a completely unsustainable 0.22 HR/FB ratio. His career value is 0.99 HR/FB with season low of 0.73 in 2010. Generally, it is around 1.0 +/- .25.

Nothing is different this season to allow him to keep the value suppressed. His strikeout rate is at a career low, He is not throwing harder (down ~1 mph). His groundball rate (44%) is just under his career value. To put how low this value is, the lowest value for HR/9 for a single season between 2005 and 2013 was Charlie Morton at 0.31. His ERA is likely to increase as his home run increases to a semi-normal level. I expect his HR/FB ratio to be in the 0.75 range which will bump his ERA into the high 3.00's from this point forward.

As for the wins, 20 wins over the next four months is impossible, but I think he may be able to get 10 more for two reasons. One, Buehrle throws deep into games and can qualify for the win. The second and most important factor, the Blue Jays are knocking the sh....snot out of the ball. The Jays have scored the second most runs in the league and should continue to do so as long as they stay healthy.

Overall, I expect a decent amount of wins, but a significantly higher ERA.

Phil Hughes 6 wins, 3.12 ERA, 56 K, 1.13 WHIP

Hughes is finally becoming the player the Yankees always hoped he could be, but he is doing it for the Twins. Hughes has a career 4.30 ERA and it is down over a run so far this season.

Two sustainable items are driving the change. First, he isn't walking anyone. He never had a horrible walk rate, but a 3% walk rate is nuts. He is on pace for less than one walk per start, which is in Cliff Lee territory. He has dropped his walk rate by taking the Bartolo Colon approach – just throwing strikes (both are one-two in pitch percentage in the strike zone).

The other key to the Hughes turnaround is his low home-run rate, which currently stands at 0.5 HR/9 compared to his 1.2 HR/9 career value. Hughes hasn't become a groundball pitcher by any stretch – his GB% at 33.3% in 2014 is in line with the 33.6% rate for his career. The turnaround is fueled by getting out of Yankee Stadium. Taking the numbers from both Yankee Stadiums, he had a 1.65 HR/FB ratio. Away from the Bronx, his HR/FB ratio is half that mark (0.82). The difference can be validated by looking at the park factors. Yankee Stadium has an average HR park factor of 131 while Target Field's average home run park factor is at 88 (values over 100 favors hitters, under 100, the values favor pitchers).

With Hughes, his improvement can stick. His home run numbers are now in sync with his previous non-Yankee Stadium values. Additionally, he is throwing a ton of strikes which has all but eliminated walks from his line.

Johnny Cueto 1.68 ERA, 5 wins, 92 K, 0.79 WHIP

Cueto's superb start can be linked to one item, health. He has always been a good pitcher when physically on the mound. Here are his ERA's since 2011:

Season: ERA
2011: 2.31
2012: 2.78
2013: 2.82
2014: 1.68

While, his 2014 ERA is the lowest, all three values have been under 3.00. I don't expect his ERA to stay under 2.00. The main reason is his .186 BABIP. From 2011 to 2013, the lowest BABIP value for a qualified staring pitcher was .223 for Jeremy Hellickson in 2011. Even with some regression, it is believable for him to have an ERA around 2.50 by the end of the season.

The key with Cueto will be his health. Here are his starts and innings pitched from 2011 to 2014:

Season: GS, IP
2011: 24, 156
2012: 33, 217
2013: 11, 60
2014: 12, 91

He already has more starts and innings in 2014 than in 2013. Cueto may be able stay healthy, but history is not on his side. Even in 2012, when he threw over 200 innings, he was hurt and couldn't throw in the playoffs. Until September that season, he had a 2.48 ERA. Over the last month, he had an ERA of 4.33 while throwing hurt. If injury strikes again with Cueto, as it has each of the past three seasons, his production will drop a bit and then he will be DL bound.

I don't see any reason Cueto can't keep up his currently production level. The key will be if he can stay off the DL.

Drew Pomeranz 5 wins, 2.37 ERA, 35 K, 1.18 WHIP

Pomeranz has really turned things around, but most pitchers do once they leave Colorado. Going from hitter friendly Denver to pitcher friendly Oakland has helped limit the damage from batted balls. His HR/9 has dropped from 1.7 to 1.2, and his is BABIP has gone from .339 to .237. While some BABIP regression may be in line, the change is not completely out of line with expectations.

The main factor limiting Pomeranz from keeping up the low ERA is his 11% BB% with only a 23% K% to go with it. Here are some similar qualified pitchers from the last three seasons and their ERAs:

Name (season): K%, BB%, ERA
Tim Lincecum (2012): 23%, 11%, 5.18
Matt Moore (2012): 23%, 11%, 3.81
Gio Gonzalez (2011): 23%, 10%, 3.12
Ryan Dempster (2013): 21%, 10%, 4.57

Gonzalez's ERA was brought down with 77% LOB%. Right now, Pomeranz's LOB% is at 92%. The best LOB% from a starter from 2011 to 2013 was Yu Darvish last season at 84%. Pomeranz is no Darvish, so a few more of those baserunners will make it home and his ERA will rise.

Overall, he will likely see some regression, but not to his Colorado levels where he had a 5.00+ ERA. I expect his ERA to end up in the 3.50 to 4.00 range.

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Finding out if a pitcher has broken out or turned the corner can be a little murky. Sometimes, the pitcher's production is unsustainable (Buehrle). Other times, the production is warranted (Hughes). Finally, some factors point to an improvement, but not to the level the pitcher is producing at (Pomeranz). Looking into the root cause of the new production level can help to determine if the pitcher can maintain it until the season's end.