When I first came of age as a baseball fan, ERA was considered one of the pitching stats of the Holy Grail. Rather than focusing on a pitcher’s win and loss record, which can be marred by all sorts of quirkiness and variance, ERA gave us a better idea of how effective a pitcher really was. It was often the first pitching stat I looked at, albeit quickly followed by the water of pitching analysis, K/BB speed.
In the modern fantasy baseball era, ERA is no longer so popular. We have better ways of measuring how effective a pitcher has been, and better tools for trying to predict – no matter how crazy pitchers can be – where the story is actually led. Sure, ERA is one of the 5×5 categories and we have to respect that. I am not advocating a revision of the basic rules of fantasy baseball scoring. But let’s try to take advantage of the data improvements.
Today I ran the list of the most ERA-lucky starting pitchers in the fantasy market of 2022, trying to figure out who had luck on their side. Often, these lucky pitchers can be good candidates to trade your roster, trying to command something close to the peak value. As always, I beg fantasy managers never to loudly declare that a particular player is on your move list unless he’s one of the hottest names in the country. Instead, announce that you have depth on a particular position and see if your opponents will land on the name you’d rather trade.
First Trade Candidates: Logan Gilbert, Adam Wainwright, Triston McKenzie, Michael Wacha
Gilbert is sitting with a 2.66 ERA and there is some buzz here. He was a first-round pick in 2018, landing in the top 40 of most prospect lists for the 2021 season. Those nice nine wins pay the fantasy bills, and he has an average of just under a strikeout per inning, which is playable. Heck, his FIP is still a tasty 3.46.
This is where it probably becomes a matter of how much you trust Statcast data. from Gilbert hard hit stats are all worrying† it sits in the bottom 10 percent of the competition in average exit speed and hard hit rate. He also struggles to get swings-and-misses out of the strike zone, although his strikeout count is still not bad.
Gilbert’s suggested Statcast ERA is 4.09. He may not pitch to that level the rest of the way, but we’re talking a shiny new toy with interesting back-of-card stats. I’m sure some fantasy traders can be overpaid for this type of player.
It pains me to have Wainwright on this list. He’s one of my all-time favorites, and I think he has a plausible Hall of Fame case. He has quietly become the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions – he is the pitcher with the most career shares Cy Young votes without winning the award† And while Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols his role players in their Last Dance seasons, Wainwright (who could be in his last year; that’s not final yet) remains a recommended, valuable player.
But we have to try to stay open. Wainwright’s strikeout rate is wrong. His 3.26 ERA belies his 4.40 xERA, and while St. Louis’s superb defense might explain that in part, betting on 40-year-old pitchers to continue hitting the ball is generally a losing game.
Wainwright, of course, works through the artful portion of his career. His fastball can hardly be stopped in 2022 for speeding. He has averaged under 90 mph for six years and that has dropped to 88.6 mph this season.
I’ll probably keep Wainwright in one of my head-to-head competitions where trading is rare and the volume of starting pitches has evergreen value. But sometimes you have to give a nod to gravity. Wainwright’s swinging stroke rate has dropped, his chasing rate has dropped and his WHIP has increased significantly after two neat seasons. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions about our favorite guys.
With McKenzie, it can be a matter of trying to time the market. He just threw a weekend gem against the Yankees: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K. But he’s also made plenty of mistakes in the past corners. The Twins got him for 13 runs in back-to-back turns, and the Orioles got him for five runs. On the other hand, McKenzie also shone in a Coors Field start. Sometimes there is no discernible pattern in this stuff.
McKenzie’s two ratio stats tell a conflicting story – the 3.71 ERA doesn’t match the 0.99 WHIP. In general, when ERA and WHIP disagree, the rule of thumb is to trust the WHIP. Unfortunately, FIP says McKenzie should have a 4.59 ERA, and the Statcast data suggests a 4.61 number† If McKenzie falls back to one of those expected ERAs, he’s going to hurt us in the second half.
We also need to consider potential tax management issues. McKenzie is 6-foot-5 but only 165 pounds, and he’s already at 87.1 innings. His professional high for innings is a modest 143, and he was around that number last year too, when you combine MLB and Triple-A work. I’m not insisting that a McKenzie shutdown — or a skipped corner here or there — is imminent, but I’m just suggesting it’s something we need to think about.
Is there recency bias in your competition? Maybe you can cash in on the McKenzie case.
Wacha can be the toughest man to sell as there may be no market if your opponents are smart. The 2.69 ERA and 1.11 WHIP are beautiful on the page. But your rivals may be hip for the 4.58 xERA, or the 3.97 FIP.
Wacha’s strikeout rate is only 6.4 per nine, and his K/BB ratio is a modest 2.8. That’s not up to code in a standard mixed league. He took advantage of a .240 BABIP this year, 59 points better than his career average. Last year, Wacha had a showy ERA of over five, despite a better strikeout rate and a slightly better walk rate (home runs, and a more standard .312 BABIP, put him in).
The Red Sox have yet to sink into the teeth of the AL East scheme. Seven of Wacha’s best eight appearances this year have come out of the division. Alas, the big kids are just out of school – Wacha faces the Yankees (first meeting this year) and Rays in his next two innings. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wacha is on the most dropout list before July is over.
Let’s be honest here – it’s too cute to drop a pitcher with such good proportions. But I would definitely try to trade Wacha if the returns were reasonable. And I have to be realistic in the long run and consider a short fantasy line.