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Luck-Neutral “All-Stars”

It takes a little luck to be a real-life All-Star, or to win yourself some individual hardware. Both Cy Young winners outperformed their FIPs by a nice clip last season. Felix Hernandez (2.27 ERA, 3.04 FIP) and Roy Halladay (2.44 ERA, 3.01 FIP) also did this despite owning career ERAs and FIPs that were much closer together. Fantasy baseball sleeper lists are rife with those that underperformed their FIPs – Francisco Liriano (3.62 ERA, 2.66 FIP) and Yovani Gallardo (3.84 ERA, 3.02 FIP) might feature prominently.

But what about the players that suffered through a season of incredibly neutral luck? Should we not celebrate them somehow? They somehow managed to flip a coin a hundred times and get fifty tails. That seems worth… something.

Starting with xFIP, we find a collection of four players across different talent levels that showed ERAs that were within .05 of their xFIPs. Jon Lester (3.25 ERA, 3.29 xFIP) is the star of the group, but Ricky Romero (3.73 ERA, 3.75 xFIP) showed a smaller split. The pitcher that showed the smallest difference between his ERA and xFIP, Chris Volstad (4.58 ERA, 4.59 xFIP) probably won’t show up on many other lists, so he’ll enjoy his gold star for appearing here. Jeff Niemann (4.39 ERA, 4.35 xFIP) also won’t be enduring too much xFIP-fueled regression in the coming year.

What do these four guys have in common? Well, collectively, they averaged 9.8 home runs per 100 fly balls – all pitchers averaged about 9.5 home runs per 100 fly balls. They also had a .285 BABIP, while all pitchers averaged a .301 BABIP. Their true talent shown through, which is fine if you are Jon Lester, but a little less exciting if you are Jeff “Big Nyquil” Niemann.

If we take the focus off of the home run and return to FIP, we get a new group of four. The most talented of this crew is now Jered Weaver (3.01 ERA, 3.06 FIP) – you can argue that he may not be able to strike out a batter per inning if you like, but you can’t argue that he got extremely lucky. A .276 BABIP from a flyballer is not the same as that same number from a groundballer, for one. Tommy Hanson (3.33 ERA, 3.31 FIP) might have gotten lucky with the home run (he rode a 5.8% HR/FB to a 4.04 xFIP), but his combination of strikeouts and walks pretty much got the result that could be expected of it. John Danks had a similar statistical profile (and higher xFIP – 4.16) despite different circumstances.

Two names, though, showed neutral luck across the board. Ricky Romero (3.73 ERA, 3.64 FIP) just missed the second list by one spot, and Jake Westbrook (4.22 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 4.09 xFIP) is our true-talent luck-neutral all-star of 2010. He is the turkey-swiss of the sandwich shop, the pasta bolognese of the Italian restaurant – he was exactly who we thought he was.

You might expect the luck-neutral superstar to show a .300 BABIP and give up home runs on ten percent of his flyballs, but Westbrook’s numbers aren’t quite there (.288 BABIP, 11.7% HR/FB). What he managed to do that was so noteworthy was that he was lucky by just about as much as he was unlucky. Perhaps a few more fly balls turned into dongers than should have, and perhaps a few more grounders found gloves than should have. Somehow, those two ‘fews’ were similar in size.

And in the end, this is just a fun diversion before real baseball starts. Just because they were impressively luck-neutral this year doesn’t mean that they will repeat that feat next year. Maybe these guys are in a slightly more reliable grouping, as Tommy Hanson owns the biggest career splits betweeen ERA, FIP, and xFIP – 3.16 career ERA, 3.38 FIP, 4.04 xFIP – and that seems relatively mellow.

Jake Westbrooks’ career has mostly shown an ERA that he ‘deserves’ (4.29 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 4.02 xFIP), so maybe he would have been a little easier to project, had he not just switched leagues. Then again, in 2007, his last full year, he pretty much managed the feat in duplicate (4.32 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 4.37 xFIP). There must be something about his package that trends towards the luck-neutral. Take a look at his career, and while he’s had some more diverse years, it seems to depict a player that often puts up similar numbers in these three categories.

Perhaps we ‘know’ a little more about these pitchers than the average mound master. Their mostly neutral luck has allowed us to see them for who they are. For this group, you could actually build an argument about their value using their ERA, too. In other words, if it looks like a turkey-swiss, in this group, it probably is.