When I first came of age as a baseball fan, ERA was considered one of the Holy Grail pitching statistics. Rather than focus on a pitcher’s win/loss record, which can be marred by all sorts of flukiness and variance, ERA gave us a better idea of how effective a pitcher really was. It was often the first pitching stat I looked at, albeit quickly followed by the water of pitching analysis, K/BB rate.
In the modern fantasy baseball era, ERA isn’t such a hot thing anymore. We have better ways to measure how effective a pitcher has been, and better tools to try to predict — as maddening as pitchers can be — where the story is actually headed. Sure, ERA is one of the 5x5 categories, and we have to respect that. I’m not calling for an overhaul of the basic fantasy baseball scoring rules. But let’s try to take advantage of the data advancements.
Today I ran the list of the most ERA-fortunate starting pitchers in 2022’s fantasy market, trying to figure out who’s had good luck on their side. Often these lucky pitchers can be good candidates to trade off your roster, trying to command something close to peak value. As always, I implore fantasy managers to never loudly declare any specific player is on your move list, unless he’s one of the buzziest names in the land. Instead, make it known that you have depth at a particular position, and see if your opponents will land on the name you’d prefer to swap.
Prime Trade Candidates: Logan Gilbert, Adam Wainwright, Triston McKenzie, Michael Wacha
Gilbert sits with a 2.66 ERA and there’s some buzz here. He was a first-round pick in 2018 and landed inside the top 40 on most prospect lists before the 2021 season. Those pretty nine wins pay the fantasy bills, and he’s averaging just under a strikeout per inning, which is playable. Heck, his FIP is still a palatable 3.46.
Here’s where it probably becomes a matter of how much you trust Statcast data. Gilbert’s hard-hit metrics are all worrisome; he’s in the bottom-10 percent of the league in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. He’s also having trouble getting swings-and-misses out of the strike zone, though his strikeout count still isn’t bad.
Gilbert’s suggested Statcast ERA is 4.09. Maybe he won’t pitch to that level the rest of the way, but we’re talking about a shiny new toy with interesting back-of-card stats. I’m confident some fantasy traders could receive an overpayment on this type of player.
It pains me to have Wainwright on this list. He’s one of my all-time favorites, and I think he has a plausible Hall of Fame case. He’s quietly become the answer to one of my favorite trivia questions — he’s the pitcher with the most career Cy Young voting shares without winning the award. And while Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols are role players in their Last Dance seasons, Wainwright (who could be in his last year; that’s not definite yet) remains a featured, valuable player.
But we have to try to stay open-minded. Wainwright’s strikeout rate isn’t up to code. His 3.26 ERA belies his 4.40 xERA, and although St. Louis’s sublime defense could explain some of that, betting on 40-year-old pitchers to continue with batted-ball luck is generally a losing game.
Wainwright, of course, is working through the guile portion of his career. His fastball can hardly be stopped for speeding in 2022. He’s been under 90 mph on average for six years, and this season it’s down to 88.6 mph.
I’ll probably hold Wainwright in one of my head-to-head leagues, where trading is rare and starting-pitching volume has an evergreen value. But sometimes you have to give a nod to gravity. Wainwright’s swinging-strike rate is down, his chase rate has dropped and his WHIP has jumped significantly after two tidy seasons. Sometimes we have to make difficult calls on our favorite guys.
With McKenzie, it could be a matter of trying to time the market. He just threw a weekend gem against the Yankees: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K. But he’s had plenty of missteps in recent turns, too. The Twins got him for 13 runs in back-to-back turns, and the Orioles nicked him for five runs. Then again, McKenzie also shined in a Coors Field start. Sometimes there’s no discernible pattern to this stuff.
McKenzie’s two ratio stats tell a conflicting story — the 3.71 ERA doesn’t jibe with the 0.99 WHIP. Generally, when ERA and WHIP disagree, the rule of thumb is to trust the WHIP. Alas, FIP says McKenzie should be carrying a 4.59 ERA, and the Statcast data suggests a 4.61 number. If McKenzie regresses to either of those expected ERAs, he’s going to hurt us in the second half.
We also have to consider possible load-management concerns. McKenzie is 6-foot-5 but just 165 pounds, and he’s already at 87.1 innings. His professional high for innings is a modest 143, and he was around that number last year, too, if you combine MLB and Triple-A work. I’m not insisting a McKenzie shutdown —or a skipped turn here or there — is imminent, but merely suggesting it’s something we need to think about.
Is there recency bias in your league? Maybe you can cash in on the McKenzie case.
Wacha could be the trickiest guy to sell because there might not be a market if your opponents are savvy. The 2.69 ERA and 1.11 WHIP are lovely on the page. But your rivals could be hip to the 4.58 xERA, or the 3.97 FIP.
Wacha’s strikeout rate is just 6.4 per nine, and his K/BB ratio is a modest 2.8. That’s not up to code in a standard mixed league. He’s benefitted from a .240 BABIP this year, 59 points better than his career average. Last year Wacha had a garish ERA over five, despite a better strikeout rate and a slightly better walk rate (home runs, and a more standard .312 BABIP, did him in).
The Red Sox have yet to enter the teeth of the AL East schedule. Seven of Wacha’s eight best turns this year have come outside the division. Alas, the big kids just got out of school — Wacha faces the Yankees (first meeting this year) and Rays in his next two turns. I won’t be surprised if Wacha is on the most-dropped list before July is over.
Let’s be fair here — it’s too cute to drop a pitcher with ratios this good. But I’d sure be trying to trade Wacha if the return was reasonable. And I have to be realistic long-term and consider a short fantasy leash.