Using Strand Rates to Snag Value
Here’s some dynamite analysis: a pitcher’s statistics will look better if he doesn’t allow runners to score (Thank you. Looking forward to my trophy for Achievement in Baseball). Ideally, pitchers would probably prefer to not allow base runners. However that would lead to perfect games that go on for infinity, so it’s probably unrealistic. The next best solution is to strand the runners that do get on. The league average strand rate for pitchers is 72.9 percent, a number that has remained relatively static since 2008.
Sometimes great pitchers can get away with higher strand rates without concern for regression. In 2016, Jon Lester led the league, keeping 84.9 percent of baserunners from scoring. Max Scherzer held the third highest rate at 81.7 percent. These two guys are studs and there is no real reason to believe that their ability to strand runners will plummet dramatically back to league average. Lester and Scherzer share the top ten with some other pitchers that don’t quite have the same pedigree. By invoking the ancient wisdom of Sesame Street and playing a game of “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, it’s easy to bet on regression, both negative (and positive NEXT WEEK! MARK YOUR CALENDARS! GET EXCITED! Or you know, whatever. I don’t care. That’s cool.) when it comes to stranding runners on base.
Lester, Scherzer, and Ian Kennedy, and led the league in strand rate in 2016. Which one of those names looks out of place? Kennedy quietly had a totally decent year last year, posting a better than average ERA (3.68) and WHIP (1.22). He was even better than average with his strikeout (8.49 per nine innings) and walk (3.04 per nine innings) totals. The problem, however, is that the rest of his numbers indicate that this is highly unsustainable.
Kennedy stranded runners at an 83.1 percent clip in 2016. His fly ball rate spiked by nearly 10 percent from his 2015 totals, settling at 47.3 percent, the eight highest total in the league. It could be argued that the Royals’ defense (a massive upgrade over the statuesque 2015 Padre outfield) and Kauffman Stadium played a huge role in turning those fly balls into outs. While that’s true, Kennedy’s home run per fly ball rate dipped to 12.8 percent, falling nearly five points from his 2015 total. He gave up significantly more fly balls, yet yielded far fewer home runs. Add his .268 BABIP to the mix, and Kennedy’s 2016 campaign appears to be more façade than for real. The 195.2 inning workload still has value in some places, but don’t hang on or look to acquire Kennedy with hopes of him repeating his 2016 performance.
Don’t get me wrong, Hendricks is awesome, and at 27 years old, he would typically be the kind of guy you would target in dynasty leagues. However his underlying numbers indicate that his breakout 2016 season might not be replicable. Hendricks stranded runners at an 81.5 percent clip, nearly 12 percent better than his 2015 totals. He has never been a big strikeout guy, hovering around league average fanning around eight batters per nine innings, which means most of his outs come from batted balls. He was also the beneficiary of a legendary, record-breaking season for the Cubs defense, as the team somehow held opponents to a .255 BABIP. Normally, it would be easy to predict that Hendricks’s .250 BABIP would regress closer to league average, but I guess that would discount the wizardry going on at Wrigley.
So maybe it is better to just call Hendricks’s 2016 campaign confusing. He doesn’t walk anybody (2.08 per nine innings, good for 12th in the league), so that’s good. But he also faces similar questions laid out above for Ian Kennedy. Hendricks gave up five percent more fly balls in 2016, yet lowered his home run to fly ball ratio by three percent, making it better than league average. His 3.34 DRA would also indicate that something has got to give. That said, even if Hendricks does regress slightly next season to an ERA in the mid threes, that’s still pretty good for around 200 innings of work. The problem is that for a Cy Young finalist carrying the “Cubs-tax”, you probably will have to pay a lot more to acquire a little less.
The curious case of J.A. Happ started with a promising young prospect in Philadelphia. He bounced around from Houston to Seattle to Toronto before landing in Pittsburgh. We all know the story from there. Pitching oracle Ray Searage got Happ to throw his fastball and sinker more, his changeup less, and before you know it, Happ was signing a $12 million per year deal with the Blue Jays. As a 34-year-old, owners might not be rushing out to acquire him in dynasty leagues, even though he has posted two straight seasons of decent production. I tend to agree with that sentiment.
Happ stranded runners at a rate of 79.7 percent in 2016. Like Hendricks, Happ is a low strikeout pitcher. Unlike Hendricks, Happ strikes out around one batter fewer per nine innings, and hovers right around 7.5 punchouts per nine. He also carried a .268 BABIP, good for 15th lowest in the league (tied with our boy Ian Kennedy). Without the Cub defense and positioning, it’s unlikely that number will hold in the future. Despite a very good 3.18 ERA, Happ’s DRA was a hefty 4.42. Combined with a slightly below average cFIP of 104, Happ’s overall totals appear to be propped up by smoke and mirrors. As mentioned before, you’re probably not knocking anyone over for Happ, as if he’s a 32-inch TV on Black Friday. However if you already have him on your roster, now might be the time to use his 3.18 ERA in nearly 200 innings as bait for a prospect (or two, if you’re good).
Follow Mark on Twitter @hoodieandtie