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Hot Starts and Broken Hearts – a Recent History

Incredibly, the 2020 regular season is already half over! Many fantasy owners are benefiting from incredible starts to the season, including six starting pitchers with a sub 2.00 ERA so far into the year. Normally, over 162 games we’d expect all those starters to regress back to, at best, an ERA between 2.25 and 2.50 but this is not a normal season. With only about 30 games to go, it’s reasonable to ask if these six starting pitchers can maintain this amazing pace for one more month.

The six pitchers noted include some superstars (Jacob DeGrom 1.80 ERA, Yu Darvish 1.47) some emerging superstars (Shane Bieber & Max Fried, both with 1.35 ERAs) and some who could be considered surprises (Sonny Gray 1.94 ERA, & Lance Lynn 1.54,). Maybe you feel Bieber was already a superstar coming into 2020, or that Sonny Gray was emerging; that’s fine. What’s more important is the categories of the pitcher the last 3 years, as you’ll find as you read, there is a correlation to sustainable success, even if we are only looking at their next five or six starts. Over 162 games, the last one hundred years of baseball suggest that the chance of keeping an ERA below 2.00 as very rare.

Rather looking into the things that these pitchers have done right so far, I’m going to look at pitchers who have gotten off to the same amazing start in past years and compare their next thirty days. Thirty days feels like a small sample, but we’re only playing a sixty-game season. So, to point out the obvious, we only have to worry about the next five or six starts.

2019

The 2019 season feels like ages ago given everything 2020 has thrown at us, but there were five starting pitchers to put up a sub 2.00 ERA in April. A lot of good young talent here, but no big names at the time.

Here is how they performed in the next 30 days–or their May stats–from 2019:

May Stats
Name April ERA Classification W IP SO  ERA   WHIP 
Luis Castillo, Reds            1.43 Emerging 2 26 32      3.76        1.29
Mike Soroka, Braves            1.62 Emerging 3 34 25      0.79        0.76
Joe Musgrove, Pirates            1.64 Emerging 2 30 20      8.10        1.67
Mike Minor, Rangers            1.75 Surprise 2 35 41      2.57        1.51
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays            1.76 Surprise 2 31 21      4.31        1.63

*Classifications are my own, obviously.

Joe Musgrove took the biggest step back, followed by Stroman. Soroka actually put up better numbers in May, and Castillo and Minor pitched very well but more down to earth numbers.

2018

The year that the Astros had seemingly figured baseball out [how naive we all were- Ed]. Not only would they eventually become World Series champs, but they had a formidable pitching staff and had three pitchers start the season with sub 2.00 ERAs

May Stats
Name April ERA Classification W IP SO  ERA   WHIP 
Justin Verlander, Astros            1.60 Superstar 3 41 50      0.86        0.70
Charlie Morton, Astros            1.72 Surprise 3 31 40      2.90        1.06
Gerrit Cole, Astros            1.73 Emerging 3 33 48      2.45        0.88
Reynaldo Lopez, White Sox            1.78 Emerging 1 33 19      5.61        1.28
Tyler Anderson, Rockies            1.88 Surprise 2 29 21      5.28        1.21
Max Scherzer, Nationals            1.91 Superstar 4 40 63      2.21        0.89

The big names on this list–Verlander and Sherzer–continued to put up excellent stats in May. The emerging stars went in different directions, with Lopez seemingly falling apart, and Cole rocketing upwards into an eventual ace.  The two surprise names also went in different directions, as Morton continued to produce solid numbers all the way through 2019, and Tyler Anderson descended into relative obscurity.

2017

I was a bit torn including a third year, as it seems like a lot has changed in the way we think about baseball since 2017, but I think including 2017 gives us a better sample size to work with overall.

May Stats
Name April ERA Classification W IP SO  ERA   WHIP 
Ervin Santana, Twins            0.77 Surprise 3 42 30      2.57        1.00
Chris Sale, Red Sox            1.19 Superstar 5 40 58      4.24        1.04
Mike Leake, Cardinals            1.35 Surprise 2 35 23      3.09        0.89
Jason Vargas, Royals            1.40 Surprise 2 35 23      3.09        0.89
Ivan Nova, Pirates            1.50 Surprise 2 41 18      4.17        1.37
Gio Gonzalez, Nationals            1.62 Surprise 1 35 34      4.37        1.66
Dylan Bundy, Orioles            1.65 Emerging 3 39 26      3.92        1.28
Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies            1.80 Surprise 1 30 13      7.04        1.53

While ‘Big Erv’ Santana put up a very nice stat line in May, it was a long way off the 0.77 April ERA. Similarly, the rest of the ‘surprise’ names on this list put up serviceable numbers but were no longer carrying fantasy teams to ERA titles. Even superstar Sale and the ‘emerging’ Bundy fell back to solid but nothing special production.

Stats in Aggregate

So the point of reviewing these last three years of data was to get some sort of baseline expectation for this year. Here are the 2017-2019 May stats in aggregate by classification

Classifications IP W SO ERA WHIP
Emerging 195.3 14 170          4.06            1.19
Superstar 121.5 12 171          2.44            0.88
Surprise 344.3 20 264          3.87            1.27

Probably not surprising, the superstars continued to be superstars, but not at a sub 2.00 ERA level. It is certainly possible, and these guys are must-start pitchers, but it would be prudent to expect some slight regression. The surprise names pitched to a better ERA than the ‘emerging’ stars as a group, though with a higher WHIP so there may have still been some luck involved. I think it’s reassuring to see there is a good chance these players will remain serviceable, but as mentioned you should not expect them to continue to carry your team to an ERA title. The wild card of the bunch is the emerging stars, as for every Mike Soroka (0.79 May ERA) there is a Joe Musgrove (8.10 May ERA). This seems to be the group that will either sink your team or captain the ship to the promised land.

There are 6 cases in the last 10 years of starting pitchers putting up sub 2.00 ERAs over a full season, so there is hope.  But overall there’s more data to suggest there will be some regression. In a season where there’s very little time to make up for bad starts or natural regression, owners will hopefully have a realistic expectation of what to expect, rather than falling to the hot hand fallacy.

The Author

Ken Balderston

Ken Balderston

20+ years of fantasy baseball experience & currently only playing in dynasty leagues. Christian, proud father of 3, husband to the strongest woman in the world, accountant, golfer, cook.

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