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Numbers DO Lie: cFIP Edition

There’s a common phrase that says, “numbers don’t lie” – but in baseball, often times the exact opposite is true. Luck frequently comes into play, creating misleading numbers in small sample sizes, making bad players look great, and making great players look below-average. One of my favorite exercises throughout the season involves pinpointing short swings in good or bad luck, and consequently finding the under- or over-valued players whose stats aren’t telling the entire truth. For pitchers, a key stat to look at is cFIP, which is explained here. Noticeable differences through the first third of the season in cFIP and ERA should be treated as a potentially key indicator that the following six pitchers might just be something other than they appear.

For the rest of this article, you can refer to the table below for where a player’s cFIP falls on the scale relative to the rest of the league.

Representative Examples, 2014 Season
cFIP Range Z Score Pitcher Quality Examples
<70 <-2 Superb Aroldis Chapman (36/best), Sean Doolittle (49), Clayton Kershaw (57), Chris Sale (63)
70–85 <-1 Great Zach Duke (72), Jon Lester (75), Mark Melancon (75), Zack Greinke (82)
85–95 <-.33 Above Avg. Hyun-jin Ryu (87), Francisco Rodriguez (88), Johnny Cueto (89), Joba Chamberlain (90)
95–105 -.33 < 0 < +.33 Average Tyson Ross (95), Sonny Gray (96), Matt Barnes(99), Brad Ziegler (104)
105–115 >.33 Below Avg. Brian Wilson (106), Tanner Roark (107), Nick Greenwood (111), Ubaldo Jimenez (112)
115–130 >1 Bad Edwin Jackson (116), Jim Johnson (120), Kyle Kendrick (124), Aaron Crow (125)
130+ >2 Awful Brad Penny (130), Paul Maholm (131), Mike Pelfrey (132/worst), Anthony Ranaudo (132/worst)

Jon Gray – Colorado Rockies (ERA: 5.95, cFIP: 84)

Gray saw his prospect stock fall significantly coming into the season after making nine starts in his 2015 debut, dropping from 13th on Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 in 2015 to 33rd this season. Despite an 87 cFIP last season, Gray saw his ERA balloon to 5.53 and his average start last less than five innings per game. This year, despite similar ERA results, Gray has seen his velocity return to the upper nineties, with his walk rate dropping below 3.00 per game for the first time since Double-A. Gray’s cFIP currently sits tied for 13th in the league with Jake Arrieta and Vincent Velasquez, ahead of aces Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Pitching in Coors will always hurt his value, but Gray still has the tools to be an SP3. And now may be the best time to try and trade for him from owners frustrated with his high ERA.

Drew Smyly – Tampa Bay Rays (ERA: 3.92, cFIP: 87) 

After performing well as a popular sleeper in 2014, Smyly was firmly entrenched in dynasty owners’ minds heading into last season. A partially-torn labrum took away a large chunk of 2015, though, leading to more questions than answers as the 2016 season approached. Through ten starts, Smyly’s velocity and shoulder have held up, but the results haven’t followed, as his ERA is sitting north of 4.00. Looking deeper, Smyly’s stellar strikeout rate has held from the previous season, but unfortunately, so has his propensity to give up the long ball. That problem has been magnified by the lowest ground ball rate in his career, with his curveball the biggest culprit. If he can figure out how to induce more grounders with the deuce again and continue to strike out over a batter per inning it’d likely be enough to reward patient dynasty owners with SP3 production, provided his shoulder holds up.

Robbie Ray – Arizona Diamondbacks (ERA: 4.67, cFIP: 94)

Ray burst onto the MLB scene last season with a 3.52 ERA while striking out nearly a batter per inning. Dynasty owners were expecting much of the same this season, but has been greeted with an ugly 4.67 ERA through the lefty’s first ten starts. The 11th best strikeout rate in the league has salvaged Ray’s value, but there’s been too much damage exacted on the 24-year-old this season. A good chunk of it has been self-inflicted, thanks to one of the highest walk rats in the league, but some of it has also been beyond his control, including a well above-average BABIP and comical HR/FB rate. If his luck normalizes back towards career norms, dynasty owners can expect decent ratio value beyond his strong strikeout rate. With his age and pedigree, now may be the best time to try and acquire Ray from unsuspecting leaguemates.

Martin Perez – Texas Rangers (ERA: 3.12, cFIP: 110)

The former top prospect has never really quite put it together in his five years in the majors. Injuries have been the main culprit, limiting the left-hander to less than 80 innings in all but one season. Hopefully putting the injuries behind him, Perez has raced out to a hot start, posting a 3.12 ERA through his first eleven starts this season. But looking closer, he’s walking nearly one batter for every strikeout, he’s earned a slightly favorable BABIP, and he’s proven a little too good at stranding runners. If you take those numbers and combine them with his checkered injury history, Perez is a player dynasty owners would probably do best to shop aggressively before the house of cards crumbles.

J.A. Happ – Toronto Blue Jays (ERA: 3.20, cFIP: 111)

Coming into the season as a popular sleeper after a solid 2015 campaign, Happ has rewarded owners early in the season with a solid ERA and six wins in his first ten starts. Similar to Perez though, Happ is striking out batters at a career-low rate, and stranding more of he fewer runners he’s allowed. If his BABIP and LOB rate come back towards his career averages, the 33-year-old is going to have a hard time maintaining an ERA under 4.00. Besides the unappealing peripherals, his age isn’t going to have prospective buyers lining up outside owner’s doors, so finding a trade partner may be tricky. Still, with the production he’s maintained since his trade to Pittsburgh, he retains plenty of present value, and there should be a few owners in each league that will be willing to give up a solid return piece for his services. 

Tyler Chatwood – Colorado Rockies (ERA: 2.69, cFIP: 111)

Chatwood’s situation doesn’t differ too much from Happ and Perez, and he has the added bonus of playing his home games in the elevation of Coors Field. Despite having an ERA that places him in the top 20 in the majors, Chatwood owners shouldn’t get too excited over the right-hander’s fantasy future. He’s done an okay job at keeping the ball on the ground so far, but he hasn’t been able to put away too many hitters with strikeouts early in the season. The 26-year-old has managed to walk the tight rope of an above-average BABIP with all of the balls being put in play, but given his career averages, he may not be able to keep that up for long. Couple his good luck with his home park, and you have a prime sell-high opportunity here.

Parsing through stats like cFIP and ERA is an important exercise to illuminate players who may not be properly valued by other owners in their leagues. Every dynasty owner is looking to sell high and buy low, at times basing their decisions off of face-value stats like ERA. Savvy owners can take advantage of those tendencies by using cFIP and other advanced metrics to predict which pitchers are merely victims of bad luck and which hurlers will falter as their luck normalizes. Which reminds me of another common phrase, timing (in deals like these) is everything.

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Jesse Meehan

Jesse Meehan

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