There are several pitchers potentially available this offseason whose Statcast x-stats are significantly better than than regular stats. Should the Blue Jays target them?
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Conventional pitcher stats like ERA and BA/OBP/SLG against can sometimes be misleading, particularly in a small sample size like a single season. Sometimes pitchers are just unlucky – as a baseball philosopher once said, the difference between a .250 average and a .300 average is one dying quail per week. Sometimes the problem is endemic for a particular team, due to poor defense or a hitter-friendly stadium.
To deal with these issues, Statcast created a series of “expected” statistics (or x-stats). They take every play and assign a probability to it, and use those probabilities to calculate what a pitcher’s stats would be after removing the luck and uber or terrible defense factors. When a pitcher’s xERA is higher than his ERA in a particular year, it means that the pitcher was “lucky” and it generally foretells a future decline. For example, in 2020 Taijuan Walker had an excellent 2.70 ERA, but his 5.03 xERA predicted regression (his 2021 ERA was 4.47). Conversely, Joe Musgrove had a solid 3.86 ERA in 2020, but his xERA of 3.13 suggested upside. After a trade to the Padres, his 2021 ERA was 3.18.
Statcast is not a perfect predictor, but it does have some merit. Suppose the Jays were to use it this offseason to identify pitchers – either free agents or potential trade targets – whose ERAs are unremarkable but whose xERAs suggest upside? Who are the “Statcast Sweethearts”?
Boston Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez had a poor 2021, with a 4.74 ERA despite a career high in K/9 of 10.56 and a career low BB/9 of 2.68. But his xERA of 3.55 was tied for 21st in baseball among starters – tied with some fellow named Robbie Ray. And E-Rod will play 2022 at 29 years old, so a multi-year deal might be in order.
Jon Gray of the Rockies had a solid but unspectacular year, with a 4.59 ERA over 149 innings pitched. But his xERA of 3.95 was substantially better. Gray’s upside is likely that of a weak r-scale #2 / strong #3 – much like Steven Matz, or what Hyun-Jin Ryu might be in 2022. If the Jays were unable to re-sign Matz, Gray might be a good replacement.
The Cincinnati Reds were said to be marketing Sonny Gray at the trade deadline this season. Gray’s 2021 was, in his own words, “very average” with a 4.19 ERA. But Gray’s xERA of 3.24 was top-10 among qualified baseball starters, and Gray is under team control in 2022 with a team option for 2023. The Reds don’t like to use the word “rebuild”, but might their offseason “retooling” include a trade of Gray, particularly when they have young arms like Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo knocking on the door?
The Minnesota Twins were poster boys for Murphy’s Third Law in 2021 – pretty much everything that could go wrong, did. That prompted trades of Nelson Cruz, Jose Berrios, and Hansel Robles. Might the Twins also be open to trading Kenta Maeda? “Clark” Kenta’s 4.66 ERA was the highest of his career, and his opponents’ line of .258/.324/.433 was below MLB average. But his 3.73 xERA and x-stat line of .231/.296/.378 indicates a strong r-scale #2 starter. Maeda is not an innings-eater (he has only exceeded 150 IP once in the last 5 years) but 125-150 sub-4 ERA innings might fit a contending Jays team very well.
The bottom line
The Jays clearly use every tool at their disposal to make trade and free agent signing decisions. As I have noted before, they appear to place great weight on Statcast advanced stats where hitters are concerned. We shall see if the Statcast pitcher stats carry equal weight.
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