Learning from swinging-strike rate
As you probably have observed, advanced metrics have gone from baseball fringe to mainstream. We might not ever get away from batting average and RBI being shown on screen during a game, but that's OK, as we now usually get on-base percentage and, occasionally from some announcers, even things like ground ball rate and strikeouts per nine innings. Baby steps, folks.
This week we'll touch on one of my favorite metrics - swinging strike percentage (SwStr%). This measures the percentage of pitches thrown that hitters offer at and miss. The theory, of course, is that the higher the rate, the more dominant the pitcher, and the better fantasy stats his owners wind up accumulating.
Currently, 115 pitchers qualify for the league ERA title, but as I'm limited on word count, I'll simply look at some names that caught my eye as having either a higher or lower than expected SwStr%. It's not surprising that Cole Hamels (12.9 percent) and Stephen Strasburg (12.0 percent) top the charts while a pitch-to-contact guy in Henderson Alvarez ranks last with a 4.0-percent rate.
Note that relative to the 115 pitchers mentioned, the average SwStr% is 8.6 percent year-to-date.
Good surprises (higher than expected)
Jeff Samardzija, CHC (11.9%) - We've discussed Samardzija quite a bit already this season, but it was still unexpected to see him among the league's elite in generating swings and misses. Samardzija's breakout has been fueled by a year-over-year improvement in his control (3.1 BB/9IP vs. 5.1), and after moving to the rotation he's still striking out nearly a hitter an inning. Samardzija has also maintained velocity (95 mph average fastball), which is rare for pitchers converting from reliever to starter. The only conclusion to draw is we are seeing a pitcher with natural raw talent start to harness it.
R.A. Dickey, NYM (11.9%) - First off, this rate does not include Wednesday's masterpiece, so he's likely even higher now, above 12 percent. Dickey has been fantastic, and there's really no precedent for a pitcher breaking out at his age (37), so that makes forecasting his performance for the rest of this year difficult. But I can no longer hedge - he's among the league's elite starters.
Matt Moore, TB (11.8%) - By all accounts, Matt Moore was overdrafted in most drafts this year after finishing last season as baseball's top pitching prospect and subsequently impressing in the playoffs. He is missing bats, though, as a 9.3 K/9IP is solid and helps leave him with an xFIP of 4.31 compared to a 4.59 ERA. Moore has a 3.32 ERA in his last three starts, a number that he could certainly maintain or improve the rest of the way. He has that sort of talent.
Chris Capuano, LAD (11.0%) - We'll have to see how Brian Wilson recovers from his second Tommy John surgery, but perhaps he can take some encouragement from Capuano, a two-time Tommy John survivor. In a year in which Cliff Lee can't buy a win, Capuano has eight to go with a 2.87 ERA and 7.8 K/9IP. He's walking a few more batters this year compared to last, but to fantasy owners, he's been pure gold. With a .242 BABIP, there's a little reason for concern, so expect something in the range of a 3.50 ERA the rest of the way.
Dillon Gee, NYM (11.0%) - Seeing Gee with the same SwStr% as Gio Gonzalez was shocking given Gee's 4.42 ERA and the little attention he's received for his efforts this year. Gee has pitched better than his ERA indicates, posting a 3.35 xFIP on the basis of solid ratios - 8.2 K/9IP, 2.6 BB/9IP. He's generated more ground balls this year than last and is even throwing a couple ticks harder while featuring a slider that he's throwing more often and with greater success. I probably haven't given him the attention he deserves.
Tim Lincecum, SF (11.0%) - With all the challenges Lincecum has had this year, I was surprised to see his rate this high, a number in line with prior years. It's really been Lincecum's lack of control and command (there is a difference) that's done him in this year, but he's still proving capable of missing bats as indicated by a 9.6 K/9IP. Remember when Lincecum was a first-round pick a couple years? Those days are long gone, but he can still turn things around, though watch his velocity as an indicator that there's nothing wrong physically.
Gavin Floyd, CHW (10.2%) - Floyd has always been frustrating - more is expected from a former top-four draft pick than a 4.56 career ERA. He's been even worse this year with a 5.38 mark, but his 8.4 K/9IP is a career high, and a 2.4 BB/9IP compares quite favorably to his 2.9 career mark. Floyd has allowed 14 home runs, so that's a big factor, but his 16.1-percent HR/FB rate is likely to improve, making an ERA in low the 4s reasonable.
Bad surprises (lower than I would have expected)
Bartolo Colon, OAK (4.2%) - Given his stem-cell related success the last couple years, I expected this to be higher. That said, it was just 5.3 percent last year and hasn't topped 6.4 percent since the 2005 season. Colon is getting by on excellent control (1.6 BB/9IP), a decent ground ball rate of 45.1 percent, and probably a little bit of unquantifiable veteran savvy; a term I normally hate, but how else to explain fully what he's done?
Ubaldo Jimenez, CLE (5.9%) - The SwStr% is poor, but his K/9IP (5.7) and BB/9IP (5.6) are downright awful as well. Jimenez actually has been sub-replacement level with a -0.1 WAR, meaning the Indians could bring up a random Triple-A guy and upgrade their rotation. The best that can be said is he's only 28 and he used to average 96.1 mph on his fastball (92.3 now). All metrics point to his having a rough rest of the year, so unless it's a very deep keeper league with a spot to stash him, steer clear of Jimenez.
Johnny Cueto, CIN (6.7%) - Cueto has a 10.3-percent mark on his resume and an 8.6-percent career rate, so this year's 6.7 percent has been a bit of a surprise. By now most realize he's more of a No. 3 starter than a solid No. 2, but that's still useful. He's improved his control the last couple years (2.0 BB/9IP this year) while his strikeout rate has declined (6.0 K/9IP vs. 8.2 in his 2008 rookie season). Cueto has a 2.46 ERA, but with a 3.86 xFIP, we're likely to see him be a bit less effective the rest of the way.
Jered Weaver, LAA (6.8%) - With a three-year SwStr% trend of 11.2, 9.1 and 6.8, Weaver is trending in the wrong direction, but is there really any cause for concern? While his velocity is down a little so far this season, part of that may be due to the sore back, so let's see how the radar gun treats him when he returns. Weaver seems to have pitched over his head the last couple years, with ERAs of 2.41 and 2.61 and xFIPs of 3.80 and 3.74. He is generating a few more ground balls this year, so a low-3.00 ERA isn't out of the question.
Wade Miley, ARI (6.8%) - Miley has been far better than we expected this year, posting a 2.53 ERA despite a 4.10 xFIP and 5.4 K/9IP. He's not your prototypical soft-tossing lefty either, averaging a respectable 91 mph with his fastball while showing excellent control. Miley is doing everything he can to delay the debut of uber-prospect Trevor Bauer, and I've seen enough to say that he has a good chance to stick the rest of the season.
Ervin Santana, LAA (7.3%) - Despite the team's claims to the contrary, Santana's job is in jeopardy. He's already allowed 18 (!) homers, his ERA sits at 5.74 and he's allowed seven earned runs in each of his last two starts. His walks are up, strikeouts down and he's generally been a disaster for a good portion of the year. With Jered Weaver (back) close to returning and Garrett Richards faring well, Santana needs a good start next time out to avoid the bullpen. No, 23 percent of his flyballs (current FB/HR rate) aren't going to go for home runs the rest of the year, but better command and more swings and misses are necessary for Santana to keep his job, much less be a solid fantasy starter.
Yovani Gallardo, MIL (7.3%) - 7.3 percent is by no means abnormally low, but in relation to a one who's generally considered a No. 2/potential No. 1 starter, it's surprising to see Gallardo this low. Compared to his last three years - 9.2, 8.5, 9.0 percent - Gallardo's rate has really dropped this year. I haven't watched enough of him this year to more than speculate, but perhaps part of the challenges he's had relates to his lack of control relative to 2011: 4.0 BB/9IP vs. 2.6. When pitchers are struggling to find their spots, they can tend to overcompensate by catching too much of the plate and, thus, hitters swing and miss less frequently. Ultimately I think he'll be fine, but I've reassessed my opinion on Gallardo and consider him more of a No. 2 starter.
Regan, a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
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