MASTER NOTES: PRO pitchers

Last week in this space, I debuted a new player-evaluation system that I called “PRO,” which stood for “Positive Relative Outcomes.” I say "stood" (past tense) because I’m changing the name. “Positive Relative Outcomes” seemed too vague, and somehow that word “relative” made me think of my in-laws. And there’s not much “positive” there, believe me.

So PRO now stands for “Percentage Ratio Outcome,” which gets my mother-in-law out of my mind and is more descriptive. The metric calculates the percentages of positive and negative outcomes per plate appearance (for batters) and per batter faced (for pitchers). This week, we look at pitchers.

As a reminder, for pitchers, positive outcomes are:

  • Soft- and medium-hit grounders and fly balls
  • Infield pop-ups
  • Strikeouts

And negative outcomes are:

  • Hard-hit grounders and fly balls
  • Line drives
  • Walks and HBP

For hitters, the reverses are true.

The median score for for good outcomes among starting pitchers is around 63%, with elite scores at 67% and up and bottom scores 58% and below. In 2016, Clayton Kershaw had good outcomes in 74% of his batters faced. The median score for bad outcomes is around 38%, with elite scores down around the low- to mid-30s and the worst pitcher performances at 41% bad or higher. Kershaw was at 28% in 2016.

To complete this work, there’s one extra step: I subtract the percentage of bad outcomes from the percentage of good outcomes, to get the PRO. To set a level, the top quintile of starting pitcher PRO trend in 2016 was +29% or higher, and the best was, no M. Night Shamyalan surprise twist here, Clayton Kershaw, at +46%. Which is frigging amazing, if you’re keeping score at home.

At the same time, I checked for pitchers who had declined year-over-year-over-year. Again to level-set, the 2016 bottom quintile was a PRO difference of +16% or lower between good outcomes and bad. By that measure, the worst starting pitcher in the review was Erik Johnson, who had six starts for the Padres at a measly +3%. (Memo to self: don’t draft Erik Johnson.)

I looked for pitchers who had good PRO trends over the last three seasons, from 2014-2016. The playing time requirement was 100 TBF in each of the three seasons, with at least one start in 2016. That left 133 starters for the review. Once again, the targets were those starters whose PRO grew from 2014 to 2015, and grew again in 2016.

As with the hitters, more than two-thirds of the starters did not show trends in either direction. That said, the test found 12 starters who improved their PRO each season, including:

CC Sabathia (NYY), who had a bit of a comeback season in 2016, earning $7 in standard 5x5 after two previous seasons as a money loser. Sabathia has never really been a special “K” guy, with only one season above 9 K/9. His Dom is still nothing special, around 7.4 K/9 last year, and his K percentage hasn’t moved a lot. But from 2014-16, Sabathia upped his soft grounders (GBSft%) by four points, to an elite 10%. At the same time, he cut his line-drive percentage (LD%) by four points, to 12%, which is well better than average. Overall, Sabathia was at +32% in 2016, up from +22% in 2014 and +29% in 2015.

Detroit RHP Jordan Zimmermann could be one of those “last year’s bum” candidates who go for a few beans because drafters recall his 2016 stinkeroo and a poor spring training outing against Toronto. But Zimmermann had a couple of decent early exhibition outings, and has declared that the injury to a nerve in his neck hasn’t been an issue. Zimmermann’s Ks were way down last year, but he still managed to log a +3% PRO on the strength of improvements in five of the nine categories. A small investment could have big payoffs in 2017, even if Zimmermann only returns to the $13 guy he was in 2015. But lest we forget, Zimmermann provided around $24 in both 2013-14 production, so he could be the kind of huge profitmaker who wins leagues.

The starter who led all his peers in PRO% growth from 2014 to 2016 was MIA RHP David Phelps. Phelps boosted his good outcomes from 58% in 2014 (among the worst in the game that year) to 68% this year (among the best). At the same time, he cut his bad outcomes from 43% in 2014 (again among baseball’s worst) to 32% (again among the best). The resulting +36 PRO and accompanying 21-point improvement should at least be worth a note on your cheat sheet.

And what does Kyle Hendricks (RHP, CHC) have to do to get some tout love? It seems like a lot of experts are warning fantasy owners to be cautious about Hendricks, but he has bumped up his good outcomes by three points and cut his bad by two, to gin up a 5-point gain in his PRO. In fact, Hendricks is elite in all three aspects of PRO.

Honorable mentions go to possible profit sources like Shane Green, Rick Porcello, Christian Friedrich, Miguel Gonzalez, James Paxton, Ervin Santana and Josh Collmenter.

Other honorable mentions go to the starters who were in the PRO elite in 2016, although they might not have had the steady growth that qualified them for notice in this study. Of course we start the list with that Kershaw fella, and other top names include Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, Jon Lester, Corey Kluber, Madison Bumgarner, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta. Arrieta is interesting in that he is still elite in both good and bad outcomes, despite steady movement in the wrong directions on both. Scott Feldman, Drew Smyly, Taijuan Walker and Drew Pomeranz.

And a special case can be made for Juan Nicasio, the latest reclamation project of PIT pitching coach Ray Searage. If 2016 is anything to go by, Nicasio could make a decent endgame target—but not as a starter. True, he was starting in PIT for the first part of last season, and was decent, or decent-ish, until family issues seemed to derail him. After some time away from the team, Nicasio returned and pitched exclusively in relief, where his two-pitch repertoire (69-28 FB-SL) was much more effective: he went 5-1, 2.96/1.24 (the puffy WHIP partly the result of a 36% Hit Rate). And he sported a Dom of 12.9 K/9, Cmd of 4 K/bb, and a 0.5 HR/9. And in this review, Nicasio's PRO stats showed a five-point gain in good outcomes, led by strikeouts, and a three-point overall drop in bad outcomes. Of special note was a drop in HHFB, a promising sign for a pitcher who has historically had trouble with HR/FB ratio.

Overall, Nicasio's +9% PRO growth was elite (in the top 15% of all starters), but remember that solid score was colored by his impressive success as a reliever. In fact, Nicasio is unlikely to be a starter for the Pirates, as manager Clint Hurdle has already said Nicasio will pitch from the bullpen. But here's the tickler: Hurdle also said he would use Nicasio in “higher-leverage” situations. Nicasio's success as a reliever last year might make him a dark-horse candidate to close should there be changes in the PIT bullpen.

On the downside of this study, the test identified 33 pitchers whose PRO declined in 2015 and again in 2016. Here are some prominent players whose PRO trends were continuously downward (percentages shown without plus signs or percent signs):

  • Sonny Gray (RHP, OAK): 35  32  21
  • Chris Sale (LHP, BOS): 42  41  28
  • Dallas Keuchel (RHP, HOU): 43  40  29
  • Jacob DeGrom (RHP, NYM): 36  26  24
  • Zack Greinke (RHP, ARI): 38  35  27
  • Cole Hamels (RHP, TEX): 32  29  24

Remember: This sort of analysis is not meant to replace the standard analyses of pitcher assessment and valuation. But you can add it to your toolkit to break ties or tweak values.

There’s a table of all qualified starting pitchers here and a table of relievers here.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.