June 1, 2015
The Buyer's Guide
In the baseball world, it’s admittedly difficult to stay current on the latest and greatest advanced statistics. Moreover, at least for me, many of the advanced statistics serve as sobering reminders of my limited intelligence, which instinctively causes me to shy away from them.
I’m working to overcome this knee-jerk reaction to resist the novel. I don’t think I’m alone in this aversion to scientific and mathematical innovation; in fact, much of the fantasy baseball community remains mired in the “past” and miss out on the benefits newer advanced statistics can provide.
By “newer advanced statistics,” I don’t mean SIERA, BABIP, FIP, or anything of that sort. I’m speaking of the truly infant statistics -- such as Deserved Runs Average (DRA) and cFIP. Here’s what our own Jonathan Judge had to say when he rolled out his new statistic in early March:
To help address these issues, this article introduces Contextual FIP, or cFIP. (I recognize that “cFIP” is a commonly used shorthand for the FIP constant that puts FIP on an ERA scale. Unfortunately, I haven’t thought of a better name, so cFIP it is. Sorry.) Building on the mixed-model approach we developed at Baseball Prospectus for Called Strikes above Average (CSAA), cFIP seeks to provide this missing context. Each underlying event in the FIP equation — be it a home run, strikeout, walk, or hit by pitch — is modeled to adjust for, as appropriate, the effect of the individual batter, catcher and umpire; the stadium; home-field advantage; umpire bias; and the handedness relationship between pitcher and batter present during each individual plate appearance.
cFIP has multiple advantages: (1) it is more predictive than other pitcher estimators, especially in smaller samples; (2) it is calculated on a batter-faced basis, rather than innings pitched; (3) it is park-, league-, and opposition-adjusted; and (4) in a particularly important development, cFIP is equally accurate as a descriptive and predictive statistic.
The last characteristic makes cFIP something we have not seen before: a true pitcher quality estimator that actually approximates the pitcher’s current ability. I recommend both its use and its further refinement.
The utility of cFIP for fantasy owners should be obvious. Judge argues that cFIP “is more predictive than other pitcher estimators” and is “a true pitcher quality estimator that actually approximates the pitcher’s current ability.” Thus, if fantasy owners are striving to improve their pitching staffs, it seems that it would be wise to target pitchers with a low cFIP. It also seems that owners would benefit from targeting pitchers with high ERAs and low cFIPs as potential bargain buys on the trade market.
Carlos Carrasco is a 28-year-old hurler who struggled as a starter in his first four big-league seasons. The Cleveland Indians relegated him to the bullpen in the 2014 campaign after he allowed four-or-more runs in each of his four starts. Reaching his prime, the vast majority of baseball analysts had tossed Carrasco into the trash bin. He was done.
The proverbial light bulb switched on, though. Carrasco went to the bullpen, and between April 30 and August 5, the right-hander posted a 2.30 ERA with 39 strikeouts and just nine walks. His velocity climbed dramatically and his offspeed pitches danced with regularity. It’s an old adage to hear about a pitcher’s stuff improving in the bullpen; however, when the Indians moved Carrasco back to the starting rotation, his stuff forgot to decline. It resulted in a tremendous 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts and 11 walks over his final 10 starts.
It hasn’t been as pretty in 2015. His 4.24 ERA is barely below his career-average and is 11-percent worse than the league’s earned run average. What’s the catch? Our new cFIP statistic loves Carlos Carrasco. Here are the top cFIPs in all of baseball (min. 30 IP):
When giving the “eye test” to predictive pitching statistics, it’s always comforting to see elite pitchers near the top of the list. Guys like Kluber, Scherzer, Kershaw, Archer, and Sale should be on any list that attempts to predict the best future performers. However, for our purposes, it’s particularly interesting to see Carrasco included on such an impressive list.
Truly, it’s not difficult to ascertain why cFIP adores Carrasco so much. He boasts The Holy Trinity, which is our term for when pitchers have a better-than-average strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates—for Carrasco, they’re 10.36 K/9, 2.04 BB/9, and 48.3 percent, respectively. Any predictive formula should certainly favor pitchers with this combination of statistics.
Without being too reductive, I’m sold. The combination of one of the lowest cFIPs to the ideal skill combination for a pitcher, the Holy Trinity, is enough to convince me that Carlos Carrasco is one of the best “buy-low” starters in fantasy baseball at the moment. However, it’s prudent to do the leg-work and ensure nothing undermines that common-sense conclusion. That is, is there anything that would suggest Carrasco could be one of the few pitchers who struggles, despite great peripheral statistics?
The right-hander has undoubtedly lost velocity on his four-seamer this year. He averaged 97.29 mph on his fastball in August 2014, when he grabbed everyone’s collective attention with 12-consecutive scoreless innings against the Yankees and the Orioles. He backed it up throwing 96.69 mph in September. In 2015, though, he has only averaged 95.72 mph and 95.59 mph over the past two months, respectively. Perhaps a decline in velocity is a harbinger for declined performance.
It’s too early to glean too much information about Carrasco’s velocity decline, though. Each year since 2013, the Venezuelan native has taken a few months to ramp it up on the radar gun.
Via Brooks Baseball, we can see a recent history of Carrasco’s velocity fluctuating early in the year before peaking in August and September. It even dropped below 96 mph in June 2014, when he was pitching in the bullpen and was presumably throwing max effort for short stints. While the velocity has declined from 2014 to 2015, two suggestions seem to present themselves: (1) Carrasco’s history shows this to be a common occurrence; and (2) his current decline in velocity certainly isn’t enough to suddenly make him ineffective, as only 10 starters have thrown harder than him this year.
Although the velocity can perhaps be explained and the strikeout numbers remain high, it’s still important to know if he’s missing bats, not just striking out batters looking. That points to the nastiness of his stuff on the mound and indicates the stability of his high strikeout rate going forward.
Carlos Carrasco has a 12.0 percent swinging-strike rate, which ranks 13th among 108 qualified starters. That’s down a percentage point from the 2014 season, but hardly anything about which to raise a fuss. He’s getting opposing hitters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and to miss when they do swing. A lovely combination.
It seems to me that Carrasco has a phenomenal statistical profile, but his struggles can’t be wholly ignored. His .336 BABIP and 67.7 percent strand rate must be addressed and not simply thrown into the “bad luck” basket. After all, there’s a reason why the Cleveland Indians pitching staff has a league-worst .323 BABIP—their defense is horrible. In fact, it’s so bad that it was historically bad in early May.
Say what you want about the BABIP gods and bad luck in baseball, a poor defensive squad is a poor defensive squad. That isn’t likely to change much. Carlos Carrasco will have to deal with roughly the same level of defense in August and September as he has in April and May. That fact should mitigate the rainbows and butterflies that have been hovering around Carrasco throughout the course of this article.
Still, even taking the defensive deficiencies into account, Carrasco remains an attractive buy-low candidate. His BABIP and strand rate are still worse than his team’s average, which suggests that they should be expected to regress, even if not to the league norms. His combination of the Holy Trinity and minuscule cFIP further emphasize the good times ahead.
BUYER’S GUIDE: BUY
Things are beginning to turn around for Carrasco. He’s delivered back-to-back quality starts with a brilliant one-run outing against the Texas Rangers on Wednesday the 27th. The opportunity to buy low appears to be coming to a perilous end. However, it’s my hope that Carrasco’s case can serve as a useful window into how cFIP can help identify buy-low pitchers for fantasy leagues. Advanced statistics can be difficult with which to keep up; however, the endgame can be extremely rewarding.