ERA is dead; long live ERA!
|With a WHIP of 1.842 outside of one start, the Phillies' Curt Schilling's fortunate to have a 5.64 ERA. |
It's hard to believe that in this day and age, pitcher evalution nearly always comes down to two statistics: won-lost record and ERA. The problems with these two stats (three, if you want to separate wins and losses) are well-documented. Won-lost record is nearly useless for fantasy players; it reflects more on the pitcher's team -- particularly its offense and its defense -- than it does on the performance of the pitcher himself.
Earned run average's flaws are more subtle, but they're most evident in small innings pitched samples. You've probably run across outings where your pitcher posted a line like this 5 4 3 3 0 5. (That's five innings pitched, four hits allowed, three runs (all earned), no walks, and five strikeouts.) Did he pitch well? On the one hand, his ERA for the day was an unsightly 5.40; on the other hand, he only put four men on base in five innings. (Let's assume he didn't hit any batters.) There are several possible explanations: the pitcher could be homer-prone, he could play in front of an infield that doesn't get to many ground balls, or he could just have been unlucky in that start. Over time, if that same pitcher continues to allow a baserunner or less per inning, his ERA will probably come down unless there's some systemic explanation. Similarly, pitchers who post 6 10 2 2 4 4 lines aren't going to see their ERAs stay near 3 for long.
However, many baseball fans and fantasy players focus on a pitcher's ERA more than they consider his WHIP or other ratios, even though those uncommon measures often tell us more about a pitcher's future performance than his ERA does. This disjunction between reality and the way owners perceive certain pitchers presents an opportunity to upgrade your pitching staff by finding pitchers whose ERAs are lagging their solid WHIPs. In that vein, here are 10 pitchers whose ERAs are at least a half-run higher than we would expect them to be, plus five pitchers whose ERAs are at least one run lower than we would expect.
Eric Milton: You knew I'd work him in somehow, and magically, Milton's ERA differential (actual minus expected) is the highest among major-league pitchers with at least 30 innings. Milton's WHIP is 1.1116 as I write this column, placing him third among AL starters behind Pedro Martinez and James Baldwin. Milton's ERA has been skewered by a small number of very bad starts, but he has been simply dominant of late and still doesn't have an ERA under 5 to show for it. Get him before the discontinuity disappears.
Esteban Yan: Yan owners choking on his near-six ERA should take heart, because he's really not pitching all that badly. Of course, the fact that his ERA should be around 4.75 may not light the fires of too many would-be Yan owners, but it does indicate that he's making progress as a pitcher. Yan was a solid prospect in the Orioles' chain, and despite Tampa Bay's fumbling, it looks like he'll turn into a good No. 3 starter in the next 12-18 months.
Rick Reed: A low-WHIP stalwart coming off a disappointing season, Reed has been as successful as ever in keeping men off the bases. He has allowed 10 homers in 66 innings, not a great ratio compared to his history with the longball but right around average for a starting pitcher in this homer-happy year. His ERA could easily be three-quarters of a run or more lower, which would put him in the top 10 starters in the league in 4x4 value.
Jamie Moyer: This one comes with an asterisk. Moyer's 4.07 ERA in the little time he's pitched doesn't reflect his actual performance; he has allowed just 28 baserunners in 24.1 innings, which should have put his ERA at or under 3. He'd be a screaming buy, but the weak shoulder diagnosis is sufficiently vague to make me cautious. Don't overpay.
Kevin Tapani: Tapani is the first pitcher on this list that I won't recommend. True, he hasn't allowed as many baserunners as his 5+ ERA suggests, and he could easily slice a half a run off of that figure given enough time. However, Tapani's problem is his home park. Pitching in the Friendly Confines, he has allowed 16 homers in 81.1 innings, an unacceptable ratio of nearly one every five innings. I generally avoid non-superstar pitchers who play in hitters' parks, and I won't touch Tapani.
Glendon Rusch: As well as Rusch is pitching, his ERA is about a run above where we'd expect it to be for a guy who's allowing just over a baserunner an inning. The greater concern here is whether Rusch can stay that stingy all year, but even if his ratio rises a bit, his ERA is likely to stay solid.
Osvaldo Fernandez: We have little data to go on here, and Fernandez' uncertain elbow makes him an unlikely candidate for more than 15 starts the rest of the way. However, his ratios thus far have all been solid, save his K/IP ratio, and he's likely to score some wins by virtue of the team that employs him. If he's still sitting on the free agent wire in your league and you need a starter, he's a good gamble to take.
Darryl Kile: I'd hardly consider myself a Darryl Kile booster, since in his career, he's really had just one year (1997) where he was a valuable fantasy commodity, and that came in the safety of the Astrodome. But this year, Kile has been free and clear of the one bug that plagued him throughout his career: walks. He has issued just 22 free passes in 76.1 innings this year, a rate that even surpasses his career-lowest walk rate from '97. Kile hasn't been completely on target, since he has hit nine men already this year, but most fantasy leagues ignore HBPs, minimizing the damage Kile is doing. Kile's WHIP is around 1.20, and his ERA should be much closer to 4 than it currently is.
Jon Lieber: Ah, regrets, I've had a few, and Lieber is one. I didn't say "$15" in LABR this March, and it has pained me ever since. Lieber has been a coming star since '95, but his vulnerability to the longball kept him from making that final leap to the top tier of major-league starters. His ERA sat at 3.55 after his masterful performance on Sunday, but it should probably be around 2.75, since he's only putting 10 men on every nine innings he pitches. He's not quite the Eric Milton of the National League, but he's darn close.
Jose Lima: I suppose I've beaten this horse dead by now, but Lima's ERA probably is worse than it should be. There's an easy explanation here in his 22 home runs allowed, but if he really is getting that under control, there's a solid pitcher here for deep-league NL players.
The Dark Side
Now, for five candidates for massive ERA explosions in the next few weeks:
Kevin Appier: Appier's 4.44 ERA is so misleading, the FTC is investigating him for fraud. He's putting over 16 men on base per nine innings, and his ERA is above-average? Indeed, Appier has surrendered 34 runs this year, but nine of them were unearned, protecting his ERA but not his team. He won't stay lucky for long.
Curt Schilling: An 11-hit shutout that may have cost Schilling the rest of the career is the primary culprit keeping his still-ugly 5.64 ERA from looking worse. Outside of that start, Schilling has surrendered 45 hits (including 10 home runs), 17 walks, and 28 earned runs in 33.2 innings for an ERA of 7.49 and a ratio of 1.842. What's more, we'd expect his ERA in those games to be near 8.50. The Phillies are an organization out of control, and they just cost themselves their best pitcher and their best trading chit. Get off this train before it derails.
Jason Bere: Actual ERA? 4.73, which you know is just irritating me no end. WHIP? About 1.64. Expected ERA? About 6.33, which would likely earn him his release papers from the Brewers. Did I mention his 13 HR allowed in 64.2 innings? Don't say I didn't warn you about fifteen times.
Eric Gagne: If there's a guy on this list I'd consider owning, it's Gagne, assuming I was building for 2001. Gagne has walked 24 men and allowed 10 homers in just 39.1 innings, which isn't a recipe for an ERA under 6. He's a good guy to trade in keeper leagues if you want to trade the future for someone useful today.
Ron Villone: His K/BB ratio now sits under 1, and he's allowing more than a hit an inning, unlike last year. The magic is gone, and Villone doesn't belong on anyone's fantasy team despite his six wins.
The Panic Button
David Cone has been a fantasy lock for years. The last time he posted an ERA over 3.6 was 1987, when he spent half a season in the Mets' rotation. He has won at least 12 games 10 times in the last 12 years, failing once due to an aneurysm and once due to an inept offense in Kansas City. He won 20 games in 1998 and pitched a perfect game in 1999.
But the fact is that Big Daddy Cone is no longer getting the job done. His 6.49 ERA really does indicate how poorly he's pitching, and all of his ratios (K/IP, BB/IP, H/IP, HR/IP, K/BB) are shaping up to be career-worsts. His pitches haven't looked sharp, and his motion looks slightly altered, which might indicate shoulder pain that Cone simply isn't admitting. He might just need rest, but at his age, any rest or surgery could mean retirement. Cone's status as a Yankee should mean plenty of wins even when he's not his usual self, but he has been so awful that he has only managed one victory all year. It's time for Cone owners to press the Panic Button on him.