In the last iteration of Mystery ADP Comparisons, I argued that J.D. Davis was not only a better value at his ADP than Kris Bryant, but also a better hitter on a per-plate-appearance basis. With playing time, Davis could be a star in 2020.
I have another player who I like more than his expensive, name-brand counterpart. This time, I’ll shift the exercise to starting pitching. I’ll refer to the two pitchers as Player A and Player B, and I won’t reveal their names until the conclusion.
Player A’s National Fantasy Baseball Championship ADP is 50.2. Player B’s is 161.3. Rather than trying to guess who they might be, I recommend considering the analysis and waiting until the conclusion for the big reveal.
Let’s begin by discussing what counts. In 5×5 categories leagues, that’s wins, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. As they’re both starting pitchers, neither one had a save. Otherwise, how did they perform in 2019?
|Name||IP||Innings Per Start||Wins||Saves||Strikeouts||ERA||WHIP|
These guys make for an excellent comparison because they pitch at similar paces for similar teams. Though Player B missed about three starts due to injury, they both pitch about six innings per start with above-average lineups behind them. Both guys actually throw the same pitches too: four-seam fastball, sinker, changeup, and curveball.
Player A sacrificed ratios for the sake of the strikeout, with a K/9 over 10. He certainly augmented your strikeout total, but never really moved the needle for your ratios. If anything, he hurt you in WHIP last year.
Player B’s 7.63 K/9 was decidedly low for a starting pitcher, but he helped depress your ratios throughout the season. Relatedly, according to ESPN’s park factors, Player B has a significantly more favorable home park for pitching than Player A.
Still, there’s more to fantasy baseball than the base categories. To determine how they might pitch in 2020, we should also examine how they performed peripherally.
These guys were far better at inducing swings off the plate than swinging strikes in general, with Player A winning the latter category and Player B the former. Significantly, Player A pitched to the three true outcomes. He struck out batters at an excellent clip but surrendered an abundance of walks and home runs. His 9.4% walk rate was actually the eighth-worst among all pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched.
Conversely, Player B had elite control and a below-average strikeout rate. His 4.4 BB% was the fifth-lowest among all pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched. While he was less dominant than Player A in terms of net strikeouts and walks, he was able to outperform Player A’s ERA by limiting the worst types of contact. That’s evidenced not only by his lower HR/9 and WHIP, but also by his Statcast metrics:
|Name||Hard Hit%||Exit Velocity||Exit Velocity on FB & LD||Average Launch Angle||xwOBAcon|
|Player A||39.5||88.5 mph||93.9 mph||8.7°||.376|
|Player B||31.0||85.2 mph||90.8 mph||13.0°||.351|
And therein lies Player B’s true skill: contact management. For context, Hard Hit% refers to the percentage of balls in play hit at or above 95 mph. While Player A’s 39.5% mark was poor (22nd percentile), Player B’s was fantastic. Player B also ranked in the 97th percentile for exit velocity allowed by limiting hard contact.
On that note, Player B impressively allowed seven fewer barrels than Player A in 25 fewer innings. Indeed, it’s no mistake that Player A ceded so many more home runs than Player B considering their respective exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Of the 152 pitchers with 250+ BBEs, Player B’s exit velocity on flies and liners ranked 10th overall.
While hitters had far more success putting the ball in the air against Player B, that contact was fairly weak overall. That’s clear from his low exit velocity on flies and liners allowed. And we know that weakly hit fly balls are basically the worst type of contact a hitter can make. Accordingly, Player B remarkably managed the expected outcomes on the balls put in play against him, as evidenced by his xwOBAcon, which was 25 points lower than Player A’s.
Bringing It Full Circle
You may have noticed I omitted their ERA indicators. The reason is that it’s best to look at ERA indicators after a deeper analysis because they are most useful in context.
At first glance, you might think Player A has the best shot at a dominant 2020 because of his lower SIERA. Yet, while SIERA accounts for batted-ball mix, it does not account for the quality of those batted balls. Therefore, it may overestimate Player A, a prolific ground-ball pitcher, and underestimate Player B, who is known for limiting hard contact.
Indeed, have a gander at Player B’s ERA compared to his SIERA the past four seasons:
You would have missed out on a lot of fantasy value just using Player B’s SIERA to estimate his future performance. He likewise managed a lower FIP than SIERA in all four of those years because FIP accounts for only strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Remember that Player B posts excellent HR/9 marks and low walk rates.
With all that said, Player A was worth 3.4 fWAR to his team in his 202.1 innings. Meanwhile, with 25 fewer innings pitched, Player B earned 4.1 fWAR. From a real baseball perspective, there is a strong argument to be made that Player B was the better pitcher in 2019, despite his ADP and the baseball community’s consensus on these two pitchers.
Without further hesitation, I’ll reveal that Player A is Aaron Nola and Player B is Kyle Hendricks. Understandably, the first reaction of many will be that Nola’s ADP is so high because of his pristine 2018 season: 17 wins, 224 strikeouts in 212.1 innings, and a 2.37 ERA and 0.97 WHIP.
To those I say, what about Hendricks’s similarly excellent 2016 season? That year, he had 16 wins, 170 strikeouts in 190 innings, and a 2.13 ERA and 0.98 WHIP. I think most people discount that season because of his ugly ERA indicators and low strikeout total. Therefore, it must not have been repeatable. Yet, in each of the last four seasons, Hendricks has posted an ERA under 3.50 and WHIP under 1.20. Nola has only done either of those once.
Unlike with Bryant and Davis, I’m not arguing Hendricks is a better pitcher than Nola. It’s not what I believe. Ultimately, run prevention is the name of the game for baseball teams, so I think one could cogently make that argument. Still, for fantasy baseball, here’s how I conceptualize these two pitchers. Nola has a wider range of ratio outcomes but is more likely to hit his ceiling than Hendricks, which also offers a nice strikeout total—whereas Hendricks has a higher ratio floor but lower ceiling accompanied by fewer strikeouts. Within that framework, I’d draft Nola every time.
However, these pitchers do not exist in a vacuum. Given the 110-pick discount, I’ll forgo Nola and wait for Hendricks instead. And I’m not even sure it’s disputable.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)