By Andrew Thell
As the statistical arsenal of the fantasy baseball player grows more complex by the year more and more owners are turning to metrics like BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and FIP or xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, or expected ERA given only the profile of the pitcher’s interaction with the batter and not the actual result). These statistics can help us determine the true performance and expected value of pitchers and batters by assessing the level of good or bad luck they have experienced to this point. Articles detailing who’s been lucky or unlucky based on these stats are commonplace, but we need to take them with a grain of salt. I’m going to make some recommendations based on these numbers, but I first want to address a few necessary caveats that far too many writers are ignoring in their analysis. These stats are extremely useful, but they only paint a part of the larger picture.
In employing these metrics we need to be careful in how we project regression to the mean. Because a given player has been extremely unlucky to this point does not mean that he is “due” for a stretch of good luck, it simply means that we should not expect the bad luck to continue. We should expect them merely to perform at their expected level going forward. Although it often happens incidentally, bad luck is not necessarily followed by good luck, or vice versa. If you flip a coin 10 times and it comes up heads 9 times, that doesn’t mean we can expect it to come up tails 9 of the next 10 flips – we go into each flip with a 50/50 expectation of either equally probably outcome.
The all-important issue of sample size must also be taken into account. With this level of complex statistical analysis we need extremely large sample sizes to draw any meaningful conclusions, and one month of data simply isn’t enough. Sometimes a year or more of data isn’t enough, as players have full seasons of bad luck (or, quite often, seasons with nagging injuries that show up on the purely linear spreadsheet as “bad luck”).
On top of that, we also need to keep in mind that there are players and playing styles that will consistently stray from “normal” expectations in BABIP or the relationship between FIP and ERA. We know that in general, when a Major League Baseball player puts a ball into play it will drop for a hit about 30% of the time, or the league average BABIP will be approximately .300 (Thanks, Voros McCracken). Players with exceptional speed, line-drive rates or (in very rare cases) bat control can consistently post higher than average BABIP while slower players or players with unusually high infield fly ball (pop up) rates will consistently underperform league averages in BABIP. Likewise, pitchers who struggle from out of the stretch, are given to mental breakdown or suffer from unusual proneness to home runs can consistently post ERAs well above the ERA we would expect given their FIP. These are just a few examples of what can spoil a simplistic BABIP or FIP analysis that seems to indicate good or bad luck on the surface.
The point is, these metrics can only tell us some of what has happened and give us a basis for making an educated guess about the future. And even in that endeavor, they’re only a part of the complete picture. No player is owed anything going forward based on previous luck, and some players consistently make their own luck. With all of that in mind, here are a few of my favorite sell high and buy low trade targets right now based on BABIP and FIP:
Six players you should be targeting in your fantasy baseball league, after the jump …
– Matt Garza should be at the top of any “buy low” list right now. We knew the switch out of the AL East and into the National League would be good for Matt Garza’s strikeouts and the temperamental kid always had good stuff, but I don’t think anybody expected this explosion in his K-rate. Garza has rung up 58 batters in just 44.2 innings on the season, giving him an obscene 11.69 K/9 figure, the highest in baseball among starting pitchers. Pair that with a career-high 50.9% ground-ball rate, and you know where else Garza ranks highly? FIP, where his 1.57 number is second only to the Cylon Roy Halladay among all starting pitchers. Despite his great numbers, Garza has just 1 win on the season and an ugly 4.43 ERA and 1.37 WHIP to show for it. The new Cub has only stranded 59% of his baserunners this season, which is just plain unlucky for a guy that typically leaves 73% on the bags. Even more unlucky is that balls put in play against Garza are finding a hole 39% of the time even though he had a .290 BABIP in 730 MLB innings coming into the season. He’s going to start stranding runners and balls are going to start finding gloves at a normal rate at some point. There may be no better buy low pitcher opportunity all season as a result.
– Another extremely talented young pitcher with the BABIP blues right now is Daniel Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. After being sent to the desert in exchange for the always-overhyped Edwin Jackson midway through last season, Hudson posted a jaw-dropping 1.69 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and .183 batting average against with 70 Ks in 79.2 innings for Arizona last season, leading to a 7-1 record in 11 starts. As a result, he was a hot commodity in draft season. Nobody could expect a repeat performance this year, not after he posted unsustainable metrics in LOB% (83.1) and BABIP (.241) on the season. Still, things haven’t gone smoothly thus far in 2011 with a 4.47 ERA and 1.26 WHIP, but the kid is pitching just fine. His 2.59 FIP and 40.3% ground-ball rate are both career highs and the K/9 of 8.73 is plenty healthy. Hudson showed how dominant he can be last weekend with 7 scoreless frames in San Diego (5 hits, 6 Ks, 0 BBs, and yes, in PETCO), and the buy-low window is closing fast.
– The Baltimore Orioles new man manning the hot corner, Mark Reynolds, may be the most extreme True Three Outcomes (strikeout, walk or home run) hitter in all of baseball. He’s a hacker, and he’s likely never going to hit above .270 at any point in his career. That doesn’t mean he isn’t useful though. The man has light-tower power and can even swipe a few bags playing at fantasy baseball’s thinnest position this season. Last year Reynolds finished the season below the Mendoza line (.198 batting average) and still managed to 32 home runs with 85 RBIs and a .320 on-base percentage. Reynolds was never going to keep up the .340+ BABIP he posted in 2007-09, but he had a miserable .257 BABIP last season and it’s carried into this year with an even worse .224 BABIP and just 3 home runs thus far. It’s worth noting that while Reynold’s 31.9% strikeout rate is still terrible, it’s the best in a career that has seen him rock 104 home runs in the last three seasons. Again, he’s going to hurt your batting average, but Reynolds will heat up at some point and provide very useful power numbers. If The Sherriff has been dropped in your league, scoop him up and wait for it. If not, float a lowball offer. Players with his power stroke and strikeout numbers will always be streaky, but the bombs will come eventually.
– The Texas Rangers offense has been plenty healthy this year (third-most runs scored in baseball) despite injuries to Nelson Cruz and 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton and two of their best offensive players experiencing some of the worst luck in the American League. Newly signed third baseman Adrian Beltre’s .210 BABIP is well below his career .292 mark and he’s currently showing some of the best plate discipline of his life while striking out in a career-low 9.4% of at-bats. The .239 BA won’t last. Meanwhile, stud second baseman Ian Kinsler is nearly as bad with a .221 BA and .214 BABIP (.296 and .288 career, respectively), though he’s still notched a healthy 5 home runs and 7 stolen bases on the season. If you can get any kind of discount on either of these studs playing at two of the thinnest positions in baseball, pounce. Arlington is a fun place to play when the summer months heat up and these two are poised to put up some huge numbers in this park and offense.
– The aging Jorge Posada wasn’t a sexy pick, but he figured to see a boon in production moving from catcher to full-time designated hitter this season. Turning 40 this August, the switch should help to keep Posada healthy all season, but thus far the longtime Yankees backstop is hitting a woeful .147 on the season with just 15 hits, 11 runs scored and 14 RBIs. Posoda may be the most unlucky hitter in the league thus far though, sporting an MLB-worst .134 BABIP. The owner of a career .296 BABIP, Posaada should be in line for a major batting average correction as the year goes on and his current strikeout rate (28.4%), walk rate (11.2%) and isolated power numbers (.196, 6 home runs on the season) remain right in line with career averages. If you need a catcher, sell his owner on his advanced age and terrible batting average. There is value to be had here in that healthy lineup and ridiculous home ballpark.