Michael Salfino

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Michael Salfino provides quantitative player and team analysis for the Wall Street Journal and Yahoo! Sports.

  • Pitching by the Numbers: Bet on Buchholz

    Bet on Buchholz turning his rocky start around.  (Getty)Bet on Buchholz turning his rocky start around. (Getty)We have at least 30 innings in the books for 83 starters and more than that for most. So it’s time for our first look at the 2015 stat that matters most (K-BB)/IP. 

    I caution you that you will get angry about how some apparent dogs are flying high in the stat and how some ERA kings are lagging badly. You will scream about the unfairness of it. But forget your stakes and just consider that the stat is obviously generally good at identifying the best and worst pitchers. Therefore, shouldn’t having elite strikeout-minus-walk skill predict better results IF the strikeout-minus-walk number holds steady? Vice versa for the pitchers with a bad strikeout minus walk numbers.
    Yes, you can argue that this past performance in the stat doesn’t predict future performance but we are certain it’s much more predictive than ERA. So we bet the stat hoping it’s stable and that the ERA corrects in line with league averages. These numbers are entering Thursday’s action:

    The calls to make here are pretty
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Believe in Rays' Archer

    This is the worst time of the year for a guy like me because we don’t have enough numbers. But that doesn’t mean we just shut our eyes.

    Two stats that I pay particular attention to always are ground-ball percentage and strikeout rate. Strikeouts don’t risk bad breaks on balls in play and grounders, even if they sneak through, are almost always singles. Trying to string together three baserunners is tough and even then it’s one run. So pitchers who combine these skills are good bets to avoid bad innings and, especially, bad starts.
    And it’s a rare combination as most ground-ball pitchers tend to pitch to contact. The ground-ball specialist who can also ring up Ks is fantasy gold.
    So let’s at least see who these guys are so we know who to target in early season bidding and who to watch to see if these trends continue. Here are the top 20 pitchers in combined ground-ball rate and strikeout rate. But this doesn’t mean that a corresponding percentage of batters either walk or hit a ground
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Getting ahead

    Wacha: King of the 1-1 count. (Getty)Wacha: King of the 1-1 count. (Getty)Last week we looked at pitchers’ ability to compete when behind in the count by getting outs anyway.  But the league average rate of outs on only 51% of these counts last year made it clear that Job 1 for starters is not falling behind in the first place.

    We all know about the importance of the first pitch, and first-pitch strike percentage is widely available. But what is arguably even more important than that is turning a 1-1 count into a 1-2 count rather than falling behind 2-1 and giving yourself the steep, uphill climb to retire the batter.
    So let’s look at how pitchers with at least 100 IP last year fared in that stat. The league-wide rate was 57%. Here are the best pitchers last year at turning the at-bat decisively into their favor instead of against them:

    Remember one of the things we found last week with our “getting outs from behind in the count” stat is that the trailers were close to the league average. That meant that the leaders were hardly ever falling behind and the

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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Falling behind

    Falling behind in the count was no big thing for Phil Hughes in '14. (Getty)Falling behind in the count was no big thing for Phil Hughes in '14. (Getty)I’m very pleased that so many of you last week liked the deployment of my unconventional but easy-to-understand stats that help us better assess pitchers. And starting pitching is where the profits are made or lost and thus where our fantasy championships are decided.

    I’ve been at this here since February though. If you missed anything and want to see how your pitchers graded last year, check out my archives.
    This week, let’s use our MLB play-by-play database from last year to try to put a finger on something that’s usually chalked up to intangibles: competitiveness. Namely, how effectively do pitchers battle when they are behind in the count (2-0, 2-1, three-ball). The first thing to note is how very important it is to NOT fall behind in the count. In 2014, the league average in getting outs on these counts was 51%, meaning that batters have a .490 on-base rate in these situations (either via putting the ball into play or walking as this data set includes every walk).
    So pitchers
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Special K

    Carrasco: the AL's Kershaw?. (Getty)Carrasco: the AL's Kershaw?. (Getty)Fantasy baseball has increasingly become a game of efficiency and strikeouts, which don’t seem to go hand in hand.

    Efficiency is necessary to increase the probability of wins, handing the ball over to the dominant late-inning guys instead of the iffy middle-innings ones. It’s a product of our national obsession with pitch counts.

    But strikeout guys have to throw more pitches because you need at least three to register one and often more than three. But what if we isolated the efficient strikeouts, those that come on four pitches or less, as a percentage, not of total strikeouts but of all outs.

    That’s not only efficiency but even more pure dominance. What’s more in your face than dismissing a batter back to the dugout with the bat on his shoulder in a handful of pitches?

    Using MLB play-by-play data from last year, we’ve calculated this rate of outs on strikeouts of four pitches or less, as well as the league-wide average (13%).

    Not surprisingly, relievers who can let it all hang out on

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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Weak contact

    Milwaukee's Mike Fiers is an ideal late-round pitching target. (USAT)Milwaukee's Mike Fiers is an ideal late-round pitching target. (USAT)Let’s talk about the starting pitchers who were best last year in limiting hit quality while also having playable K rates in 12-team mixers.

    First a couple of caveats. There is a lot of sabermetric controversy about using ISO allowed, much of it lined up against the stat (and me). ISO allowed is simply a pitcher’s slugging percentage allowed minus their batting average allowed. It ignores the singles, which are most susceptible to the vagaries of batting average on balls in play luck. The controversy is whether we should use these stats because they take so long to be reliable — multiple seasons if you believe the statheads.
    But what is reliable? For me, it’s the direction, meaning can you bet on a guy who was elite in the stat the prior year will be good at it the next year? I think the answer is yes and it’s easy to prove by just looking at seasons where pitchers have ISOs allowed well better than league average (about .140). So I set the bar signficantly below that — .130 and
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Tiering up

    Don't let Danny Salazar's rough start in '14 scare you away this draft season..  (Getty)Don't let Danny Salazar's rough start in '14 scare you away this draft season.. (Getty)The assumption in fantasy baseball is that we need to project players in order to find hidden value beyond last year’s stats. Because, of course, any idiot can just pay the freight for the players’ prior-year numbers when they have similar roles and health.

    This is especially believed to be true with starting pitching. Given that pitchers are so volatile, why not look at the history of players, even going back to their minor league careers, to try to figure out who is likely to pitch much better or worse?
    Because I don’t think it’s necessary. And I also don’t believe it’s wise to look back to large samples with pitchers as if they are hitters.
    There’s general agreement that the most powerful pitching stat is some variation of strikeouts and walks. Mine is “(strikeouts minus walks) divided by innings pitched.” I do it this way so you can look at game logs and stats without having to worry about figuring out how this relates to a percentage of batters faced. 
    What this list (below)
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Walk the line

    Phil Hughes, control freak. (USAT)Phil Hughes, control freak. (USAT)We continue setting the table for our 2015 pitching analysis by putting today’s individual numbers into the modern context. Last week, we adjusted strikeout percentage for the league average, where 100 was average. This week, we do the same with BB%. 

    Next up, we put our K and BB analysis together in one formula and tier pitchers based on their 2014 numbers. You will see that many experts and fellow owners are largely ignoring 2014 performance in their 2015 projections/ADP. I believe that is foolish and it’s the basis of my recommendation to wait for pitching. Merely draft last year’s elite key stat without much pushback at all, even deep into drafts.
    Early March should be plenty of time for you to prepare for your drafts. But if you have a pressing matter in the meantime and want my opinion, just ask me on Twitter (@michaelsalfino).
    Last year, the average pitcher walked 7.6 percent of batters, which is historically low and exactly where we were in 1968, the fabled “Year of the
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Special Ks

    Mike Fiers (USAT)Mike Fiers (USAT)Baseball has changed dramatically in recent years and, in pitching, that requires us to rethink what makes a strikeout rate or walk rate good or bad.

    Usually we index stats to allow us to compare players of different eras. But I think it’s imperative that we index strikeout and walk numbers for the new game, where strikeouts are much higher and walks much lower than ever before. So the old rules of what makes pitchers valuable in creating category advantages above the league average must be adjusted, too.
    I adjusted strikeout rate for the league average strikeout rate, which is now an all-time high 20.4%. I used the percentages because that’s what the stat feed had and I’m tired of arguing about such a marginal issue. It barely matters if you did the same thing with K/9 instead of K%. But to further help you assess, note the average K/9 last year throughout major league baseball was 7.73/9 (for only starters it was 7.38). These are not typos. The important thing is that you adjust
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  • Pitching by the Numbers: Closing costs

    Aroldis Chapman is one of the few closers worth the premium price tag. (Getty)Aroldis Chapman is one of the few closers worth the premium price tag. (Getty)Last week I detailed my strategyof not drafting starting pitching when a top 80(ish) hitter is still on the board. Now let me make it clear, that doesn’t mean that I’m not drafting any pitchers in those rounds. I’m willing to pay the freight on certain closers.

    But the closers I want are of a very specific variety that also happens to typically be the most expensive — those who dominate in strikeouts.
    I hate paying retail for anything, of course. And, yes, saves are one category. But my targeted closers are not one category pitchers. Their strikeout ability not only provides a huge surplus relative to average closers but also likely reduces their ERAs and WHIPs to levels where they each take a second-tier pitcher and combine to create a first-tier hybrid totaling 270 or so innings. And of course I hope some of the “second-tier pitchers” I draft have a decent shot of ending up being first-tier, like Corey Kluber in 2014. 
    Drafting closers late is dangerous in Yahoo! formats that cap
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