SIERA Underperformers: Starting Pitcher Targets

We have come a long way when it comes to evaluating a pitcher’s performance. No longer do we look at W/L record, hits allowed and other metrics that are greatly influenced by factors outside the pitcher’s control. We have learned to focus on the pitcher’s underlying skills. However, it remains very difficult to look past ERA for the majority of fantasy owners. This is somewhat understandable when looking at full year results, but when we’re still just a month and a half into the season with pitchers generally in the 50-60 innings range, ERA should be almost completely ignored. ERA estimators such as SIERA are much more predictive of rest of season performance. So with that in mind, here are your SIERA underperformers and acquisition target list. I have only included pitchers whose SIERA marks are below 4.00. If a pitcher is sporting a 7.00 ERA with a 4.70 SIERA, then sure he may be a bit unlucky, but he still stinks!

Name K% BB% BABIP LOB% HR/FB ERA SIERA Diff
CC Sabathia 23.0% 4.8% 0.350 70.7% 23.3% 5.28 3.07 2.21
Brandon McCarthy 22.2% 4.3% 0.301 59.6% 21.4% 5.01 2.87 2.14
Homer Bailey 20.1% 7.9% 0.348 73.5% 18.4% 5.44 3.71 1.73
Bartolo Colon 17.3% 2.4% 0.330 66.3% 11.3% 5.34 3.78 1.56
David Price 27.2% 2.3% 0.339 71.7% 13.8% 4.02 2.52 1.50
Zach McAllister 20.5% 8.5% 0.324 59.2% 5.5% 5.36 3.97 1.39
Tim Lincecum 23.7% 8.2% 0.366 74.4% 15.9% 4.74 3.46 1.28
Travis Wood 20.5% 7.0% 0.331 64.8% 6.7% 4.91 3.81 1.10
Hiroki Kuroda 17.6% 3.4% 0.303 58.9% 11.3% 4.62 3.58 1.04
Gio Gonzalez 24.4% 9.2% 0.312 69.4% 8.5% 4.62 3.62 1.00

It should surprise no one to see CC Sabathia‘s name atop the list. Mike Petriello broke down Sabathia’s early season results two weeks ago and concluded that some better luck should lead to better results. The southpaw is currently on the DL with a knee injury, which provides an easy explanation for his struggles so far. But his skills and SIERA are actually the best of his career, so we should immediately ignore any media outlet blaming his knee on his performance. It’s possible that his continued velocity decline will lead to an inflated BABIP and HR/FB ratio. But there’s just no way those two marks remain as high as they are. His DL stint provides an opportune time for savvy owners to buy at quite the inexpensive price.

Brandon McCarthy has parlayed significantly increased fastball velocity with a career high strikeout rate. His sinker’s SwStk% has essentially doubled over the past two seasons, while both his curve and cutter are generating swinging strikes at rates above his career averages. All this while displaying his always pinpoint control and inducing grounders at a career best clip. But like Sabathia, homers have killed him and they’re making it impossible for him to strand runners at a respectable rate. He hasn’t had homer problems since his first two years in the league, so you have to assume this is a complete fluke. He makes for an excellent target in NL-Only leagues and could even earn some mixed league value the rest of the way.

I have been a Homer Bailey fan for some time now, but when reviewing his 2013 performance, concluded that this is as good as it’s going to get. While I didn’t see any further upside, I never would have imagined an ERA in the mid-5.00 range in the middle of May. It’s true that his skills have deteriorated a bit from last year, which is precisely what I expected. But it merely puts him back in line with previous seasons. All of his underlying skills, as well as his fastball velocity, are right there. He’s even inducing a better than average IFBB%, while allowing line drives at a below average clip. Yet, his BABIP sits at a ridiculous .348 and he’s giving up homers like crazy. Neither of those two things should continue for much longer, making Bailey a prime hold for current owners and a target for non-owners no matter the league format.

I thought it would be impossible for David Price to sustain the elite control he displayed last year. Instead, he has improved it even further, having walked just six batters in nine starts and pumping in first pitch strikes like never before. Despite fastball velocity down another mile per hour, he has posted a career high SwStk% and strikeout rate. Unfortunately a high BABIP and HR/FB rate are hampering his results. Maybe Price and Sabathia should get together and figure out why their fly balls keep flying out of the park and balls in play simply cannot find gloves.

For the third season in a row, Tim Lincecum is significantly underperforming his SIERA. Both his walk and strikeout rates are solid, while he has limited fly balls. But as has been a theme here, he has suffered from a sky high BABIP and inflated HR/FB ratio. Unlike the rest of the list so far, his high BABIP looks deserved. His line drive rate is second highest and IFFB% second lowest among all qualified starters in baseball. Combine that with a ground ball tilt, and it’s no wonder his BABIP is high. With a sub-90 mph fastball now, one wonders if that’s the culprit. How much is it that weak fastball and how much has been poor fortune? Batters still struggle to make contact with Lincecum’s pitches, but when they do, they have no problem teeing off. It’s difficult to understand how that could happen. Since this has now essentially been going on since 2012, it’s also hard to remain confident this all turns around and his ERA drops toward his SIERA. He remains a head scratcher. As an owner, I’m holding, but I don’t think I’d target him in a trade.




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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.


42 Responses to “SIERA Underperformers: Starting Pitcher Targets”

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  1. I’ve discussed Tim Lincecum’s issues several times recently. He just isn’t a good pitcher from the stretch. His splits with men on base are terrible. With the bases empty he still pitches like an ace. With men on base he can’t miss bats or throw strikes consistently. This has been going on for three years now. It isn’t a trend. It is what he is.

    http://hiddenvigorish.com/2014/05/the-key-to-beating-tim-lincecum/

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    • First off, that only explains his low LOB%. Second, he never had problems from the stretch earlier in his career. So what changed? The why is much more insightful than the what.

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      • I posit like you that the loss of velocity is what hurts him. However most of the hurt is coming from the stretch. He still has enough deception from the windup to get batters to swing thru his offerings.

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  2. Bilbo Baggins says:

    Regarding Bailey – Is anyone aware of empirical evidence to correlate big time/long term guaranteed contracts for starting pitchers with their first season’s performance? I know this is fangraphs so I tread lightly when I say it seems by watching Bailey pitch (and react to adversity) since the start of the season he has settled in nicely to his long term comfort – as opposed to proving his value.

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    • Even if what you’re inferring is true, then how come his peripherals are as good as always? Settling wouldn’t lead to bad luck on balls in play but not reduce his strikeout ability.

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    • supgreg says:

      From a conversation I heard on a podcast or SXM, can’t remember which, Bailey said the groin injury he had during spring training kept him from working out his legs. He may just not be as strong as he has been due to the injury, and who knows how much he still be hurt.

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      • So again I ask – how could this injury have no effect on Bailey’s velocity and peripherals, yet cause a greater rate of balls in play to fall for hits and fly balls to go over the fence? The explanation just doesn’t make sense.

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      • Bilbo Baggins says:

        Evidence of stat sheet status quo peripherals, velocity, and bad luck aside, when watching Bailey pitch there seems to be an intangible – or perhaps a variable we have not yet measured – that takes into account a certain negative impact that MAY set in after a player signs a huge contract.

        I say this – again with great respect and deference to tried and true statistics – because 1) statistical evidence IS that balls are flying out of the park 2) Bailey’s strikeouts which contribute to his peripherals do not seem to be occurring in high pressure situations and 3) his pitch location, particularly in high pressure situation appears far from pinpoint. Consistently in every game I’ve watched, he has laid some flat pitches which have most certainly contributed to his ‘bad luck.’ His dominance is irrefutably down. Injury? Complacency? Poor conditioning after a $100 million off-season?

        So my question is not necessarily to refute impact or importance of peripherals and bad luck in a 8 game sample size, but rather to speculate on the possibility that signing a huge contract might have a counter-productive impact on the small necessary percentage of expertise that separates a great potential player from his actual performance. Carl Craword anyone?

        It’s a fair question.

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  3. LOL says:

    Don’t the Reds wish they have signed Cueto instead of BAiley to that monster contract.

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    • SF 55 for life says:

      Because of two months of baseball? No.

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    • tecjug says:

      Over a 5-year span (2011-15), the Reds will pay Johnny Cueto the same as they’ll pay Homer Bailey over a 2-year span (2016-17.) I think they’re plenty happy with Cueto’s contract.

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  4. Adam says:

    There’s a common thread among these pitchers–a big home run rate, tied, in most cases, to velocity issues. I don’t think this can be ignored. I just don’t buy that we should assume HR/FB rates will normalize, when a pitcher is showing reduced velocity and struggling to adjust. Lincecum and Sabathia may have been able to burn hitters with a FB up the middle in the past, but it’s not working anymore. Perhaps their HR/FB will normalize– but only if they can accept they can’t get away with the pitches they used to get away with. FOr Lincecum, its been well over a year and he still hasn’t gotten it.

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    • Except that McCarthy’s velocity is up and plenty of pitchers possess below average velocity and have normal or even below average HR/FB rates. I agree that it might remain above the league average, but maybe that’s 5%-10% above, certainly not double!

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      • Skin Blues says:

        It could be that pitchers who come up with lower velocity, made it that far because they are able to induce weaker contact. Whereas power pitchers like Lincecum and CC do not have that ability to suppress BABIP/HRFB%, and relied on their speed. Obviously this would seem to correlate with a rising of their SIERA (which it hasn’t) but it’s still something to look deeper into, IMO. The ability to continue to miss bats after loss of velocity, but while allowing harder contact on batted balls.

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      • I’m pretty sure there’s a slightly negative correlation between velocity and BABIP, meaning higher velocity results in a lower BABIP, not the other way around.

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      • Madoff Withurmoni says:

        Theoretically, isn’t it possible that aside from the swings and misses that lead to strikeouts, they’re also ending up with a lot of mistakes trying to be so fine and not walk anybody, leading to more HR’s and hard hit balls on those pitches which no longer have the velocity they used to?

        Having watched really only Sabathia and Price more than once this season, this seems to be what I see. It only takes a couple of fat mistake pitches per game to get mashed. Instead of foul balls, he gets hammered.

        Can a pitcher be both a K/BB machine and meatball thrower during a 100 pitch game consistently?

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      • Well of course that’s what you’re seeing because that’s what has happened so far. Balls are flying out of the park. But pitchers get away with mistake pitches all the time. A mistake isn’t always hit out of the park.

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      • Madoff Withurmoni says:

        Want to add that reading Tony Blengino’s recent piece on the Cleveland staff a couple weeks back really got me to thinking about this, especially as he wrote in concern with Corey Kluber’s hard batted ball rates. Another great K/BB, but high BABIP guy. Did you read that?

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      • I did, but it didn’t explain the WHY. We know Kluber has had high BABIP marks. That doesn’t necessarily mean he lacks the skills to prevent hits on balls in play and that a high BABIP will continue. All he did was show us what we already know. Kluber has had such a small Major League performance sample that we have no idea if he’s inherently a high LD% guy and therefore high BABIP guy.

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      • Skin Blues says:

        Right, overall, there’s an inverse relationship between FBv and BABIP. So for guys like CC, Lincecum and Price who are able to sustain an excellent SIERA even after a velo drop, maybe they are more susceptible to this inverse relationship. Either due to lack of movement on their fastball, lack of deception, or sequencing, they have a worse BABIP on 90 MPH fastballs than do pitchers who made it to the big leagues with that velocity (and presumably would have an even better BABIP were they ever skew to reach 95+). These are just theories, but like I said, it’s something that would be interesting to look at.

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      • Madoff Withurmoni says:

        Yeah, I know we’re supposed to regress when we don’t know because that’s what usually happens, but I hope someone would develop a Fat% metric, like Bill Petti’s Edge% so maybe we can identify these types of pitchers who are throwing the most “mistake” pitches per game.

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      • Yes Skin Blues, this is precisely something I have asked about beginning last year. Dave Temple published a piece in April that looked at some of this, including HR/FB rate, but not BABIP. As expected, HR/FB rate does rise when velocity declines. But the largest increase is barely 20%. That’s only going from around 10% to 12%.

        http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-minor-importance-of-velocity-changes/

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  5. Urban Shocker says:

    It’s always seemed to me that these lists should address the team playing behind them. In this case, McAllister’s .324 BABIP may not improve much due to a dreadful Indians defense behind him-pick a defensive stat (DRS, UZR, 90-100% plays) and you will find the Indians.

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    • This is very true, but his LOB% is more of the problem and cannot possibly remain that low. Of course, his HR/FB rate is due to rise itself which could offset some of the strand rate improvement.

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  6. baltic fox says:

    I agree with Pods on Sabathia. Sure, his velocity is down but the pitcher I’ve seen (limited sample size, to be sure) is still able to command the strike zone most of the time.

    He hits the catcher’s mitt, wherever the catcher sets up. That’s a skill plenty of pitchers with greater velocity don’t possess. His best days are behind him, but with his ability to continue to command the strike zone, there’s no way that HR/FB rate or BABIP is going to continue.

    When he comes off the DL, I’m guessing that the ERA will normalize. I don’t see it coming down to that SIERA number–Yankee stadium and the AL East is a tough place for a pitcher to earn his living and Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts up the middle won’t help him a whole lot with his BABIP–but a SP with an ERA somewhere in the 3.80 range along with good K and BB walk rates will still be a valuable pitcher. I like him especially in AL only formats. And his value increases if you’re in a league that uses quality starts.

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  7. Slevin Kelevra says:

    Small sample size but Bailey has been killed by LEFTIES this season, any further explanation why ?

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  8. Mr baseball says:

    Most data we use in modern baseball analytics is not very predictive, it’s much better at confirming.

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  9. Bill says:

    Latest news has Sabathia out until at least July.

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  10. Josh Miller says:

    What about Matt Garza? His SIERA is just above 4.00 (4.01), but his ERA is 4.83 (as an owner, I am honestly a little surprised it isn’t higher – sure feels like it), so he’s not quite in the same category as these guys. Does he get any better or is he droppable for someone like Lincecum/Simon/Koehler/Keuchel?

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  11. Paul Dreyfus says:

    I watch Lincecum every start, being a Giants fan. He is just scary, since to my eye he leads the league in PFBDM (predictable fastballs down the middle): there are a handfull of pitches in every game, where everyone knows that his next 89 MPH “fast” ball is going to be waist high right down the middle. Usually to a guy like Goldschmidt, but I have also seen him make BJ Upton and Michael Bourn and Gerardo Parra look like David Ortiz.

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  12. Bucfan21 says:

    McCarthy is intriguing. I picked him up in NL-only league (Jose Fernandez … ouch), when I ran the stats on Fangraphs and saw the massive difference between his ERA, FIP, and xFIP. McCarthy is a groundball control specialist, but his stellar velocity (93 mph this year, a career high) and very good K rate so far (8.5 per 9 IP) made him more palatable than guys like Erlin or Vogelsong. Vogelsong is constantly dancing between the raindrops. Just cannot sign onto him.

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  13. TonyTuTone says:

    Justin Masterson, anyone? Diff sits at 1.31 right now.

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    • Williemayshays says:

      I’d onlly start him if the opponent started a right handed heavy hitting lineup. He’s never been able to get lefties out.

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  14. bingo says:

    Price’s fly balls keep flying out of the park because he throws a straight fastball right down the middle of the plate way too often. And with Lincecum you’re alomst guaranteed a blowup in 1 of every 3 starts.

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  15. jim says:

    Advanced pitching metrics that are fielding independent and ballpark neutral are great for establishing “true” talent levels, debating hall of fame, talking about trades, etc. However, in fantasy baseball the pitcher is stuck with his park and his fielders. Is there a metric which uses the rest of the advanced data but does not remove fielding and ballpark? I don’t want to pick up a pitcher who “should” be better if his fielders were league average, but aren’t really.

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  16. Frank Sawyer says:

    I prefer looking at BABIP specific to ground balls for a pitcher and comparing that number to his team’s defensive GB BABIP. Homer Bailey has an ugly GB BABIP of .341 which is 33% higher than the Reds’ defensive GB BABIP of .226 entering Tuesday. That .341 GB BABIP resides in Outlier City (without taking into account respective defensive numbers) when compared to all starting pitchers from last season. While something is off with Bailey relative to last season, he could not maintain that .341 GB BABIP even if he tried.

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