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The Saber's Edge: ERA Estimators

Jeff Zimmerman

Zimmerman writes analytics-focused baseball and football articles for RotoWire. He also handles scouting and reporting for and contributes to, and Jeff is also a two time FSWA award winner, including the 2016 Football Writer of the Year award.

Fantasy owners should know better than to focus on ERA as pitchers don't always have control over the runs they allow. Defenses can let them down. Bullpens can allow inherited runners to score. But some owners let their emotions take over. They may now be at or past the point of thinking that a pitcher is unlucky, and are ready to sell low on a talented pitcher who has an inflated ERA. This week, I will look at a few high ERA pitchers that you should consider as targets in trade and on the waiver wire.

To get an idea of which pitchers to target, I am going to compare their current ERA to an average of three different ERA estimators, FIP, xFIP and SIERA. FIP looks at the strikeouts, walks and home runs a pitcher gives up. It basically takes the fielders out of the equation. xFIP uses strikeouts and walks also. Instead of home runs, it uses the pitcher's flyball rate and then estimates the pitcher's home runs allowed by adjusting to the league average HR/FB rate. Finally, SIERA is the most comprehensive of the three because it uses a wide mix of inputs such as groundball rate, walks, strikeouts, flyballs and velocity to get a pitcher's ERA.

While each estimator has its advantages and disadvantages, I will just use an average of the three. So here is the list of 2014 starting pitchers (min 8 GS) ranked by “ERA - Average of 3 Estimators". The pitchers outperforming their peripherals will be at the top of the list and those underperforming will be at the bottom.

I will now concentrate on some of the starters to look at buying. Conversely, I will look at a few pitchers who I would try to sell while their ERAs are still low.

To put the ERA values into perspective, here are the 2014 league average values.

AL: 4.04
MLB: 3.90
NL: 3.77

Jacob Turner (6.23 ERA, 3.82 average estimator): He is our hard luck loser right now. His estimators suggest that he's a league average NL pitcher. Even the Marlins are not happy with the results and moved him to the bullpen in mid-June. Turner's main issue is his 60% LOB% (73% is the league average).

Turner's struggles stem from the Marlins' porous infield defense. Turner has a 54% GB% which is in the top 5% of all starting pitchers. The Marlins have one of the worst infield defenses in the league. For reference, here the teams ranked by infield UZR (and outfield UZR and team BABIP included).

Reds 20 9 0.274
Cardinals 18 7 0.285
Athletics 15 11 0.270
Red Sox 10 19 0.304
Mariners 10 10 0.267
Orioles 9 10 0.292
Twins 8 -16 0.300
Rockies 7 2 0.301
Angels 7 12 0.283
Dodgers 5 -15 0.291
Cubs 4 -2 0.298
Royals 3 47 0.294
Braves 3 22 0.299
Padres 1 2 0.284
Giants 1 -9 0.283
Tigers 1 -27 0.307
Mets 1 4 0.291
Brewers 0 7 0.286
Blue Jays -1 0 0.297
Nationals -2 -8 0.299
Diamondbacks -2 3 0.313
Rangers -4 -14 0.325
Yankees -4 -4 0.304
Rays -5 8 0.291
Phillies -12 -12 0.294
White Sox -15 -5 0.296
Astros -15 -28 0.304
Marlins -16 6 0.311
Pirates -18 -18 0.285
Indians -28 -21 0.314

Since he is no longer a starter, his value is limited. I see him being useful only in leagues where relief pitchers qualified as starters are valuable. He can be plugged into an SP slot and accumulate stats on a starter's off day. He is one pitcher to keep an eye if the Marlins improve their infield defense, or if he is traded to another team which can more capably take advantage of his high groundball rate.

Brandon McCarthy (5.01 ERA, 3.23 Estimator Average) - He is another pitcher whose groundball tendencies was miscast in Arizona (the D-Backs rank in the bottom third of the league in infield defense). The problem is that he is going to a team with an even worse infield defense, the Yankees. After this past week, he is probably owned in all AL-only leagues, so picking him up is not an option in those leagues. In larger leagues, I am not sure how much his value is going to change with the porous Yankees infield behind him. He may be worth a speculative pickup in case the Yankees make additional moves and improve their infield defense in the coming weeks.

Matt Shoemaker (4.38 ERA, 3.46 Estimator Average) - Not a huge difference between the two values, but Shoemaker is turning into a nice starting pitcher. Since he has moved to being a regular starter, he is getting a respectable number of strikeouts and wins. His 17.4 K%-BB% (min 60 IP) ranks 23rd in the league ahead of such pitchers as Jordan Zimmermann, Adam Wainwright and Jeff Samardzija. His main issue is his.333 BABIP. Unlike the previous two pitchers, his batted ball mixed is pretty average. Right now, I think he is in play in any league with 12 or more teams.

Wade Miley (4.43 ERA, 3.53 Estimator Average) - Miley is currently my favorite under the radar pitcher. Good strikeouts and an above average groundball rate (unfortunately it is happening with the Arizona defense behind him). Also, he is improving as the season has gone on. He has increased the amount he uses his groundball inducing two-seam fastball from 28% in May to 39% in July. He threw his four-seamer 38% in May and only 22% in July.

His two-seamer is by far a superior pitch.

Pitch: GB%, SwgStr%
2-seamer: 49%, 6.5%
4-seamer: 44%, 4.8%

It seems pretty simple, throw the pitch which generates more groundballs and swinging strikes and you will get better results. Rocket science.

Chris Young (3.11 ERA, 5.29 Estimator Average) - Unlike McCarthy and Turner who are not in the best situation for their pitching ability, Chris Young is in the right place. An extreme flyball pitcher (58% FB%) in an extreme flyball park. He won't give a team many strikeouts, but he is a great spot starter at home and in some road parks.

Danny Duffy (2.86 ERA, 4.22 Estimator Average) - Duffy is a feel good story coming back from Tommy John surgery, but his ERA is a not a good representation of his talent level. A 10% K%-BB% is in the Jason Vargas/Edwin Jackson/Ricky Nolasco range. Think of him as a useful starter in AL-only or deeper mixed leagues.

His ERA is down because of a .235 BABIP. The Royals' league leading outfield defense (see table above) has helped keep that number lower, but some regression will be in his future. I would trade Duffy straight up for Shoemaker or Miley even though both have an ERA ~1.50 runs higher at this moment.

Alfredo Simon (2.78 ERA, 4.16 Estimator Average) - Simon and Duffy are putting up similar strikeout, walk and BABIP values. The big difference in their GB%. Duffy's GB% is at 35% while Simon's is at 48%. It is key to keep the ball on the ground when pitching in Cincinnati and Simon is doing that. Like Duffy getting help with the Royals' top outfield defense, Simon is getting some help from the top rated Reds infield (table above). Still, Simon won't keep up his .235 BABIP, and I would only use him when available for two-start weeks against weaker opponents. At this stage of his career, the 33-year-old isn't going to start striking out more batters.

Josh Beckett (2.26 ERA, 3.64 Estimator Average) - Now that he's hurt, there is need to analyze him until he returns.

Johnny Cueto (1.99 ERA, 2.95 Estimator Average) - If Cueto regresses to his estimators, he will still be top flight pitcher. With Cueto, it is time to sell high. He is pitching lights out and has been able to stay healthy. What more is he going to do? His value won't be higher. With his injury history, he is not moving into the top-50 players drafted next season. Move him to a team in need of pitching for a top-50 bat. Some owner will be looking to fly a championship flag, and that's an opportunity to profit.