For as long as kids have looked at the back of baseball cards, they’ve had a general understanding of ERA (Earned Run Average). If you look up the definition, the general consensus is “A measure of a pitcher’s performance by dividing the total earned runs allowed by the total of innings pitched and multiplying by nine”. My baseball education taught that it was earned runs multiplied by nine, divided by innings pitched but the numbers come out the same. The premise of the statistic was to not burden a pitcher with runs that had been enabled by errors or passed balls. In other words, eliminating from the calculation events that were out of his control.
If you’ve watched enough baseball to give the definition a personal “eye test”, you already know that numerous runs score in a game that don’t necessarily fit the criteria. If a pitcher leaves the game with the bases loaded (through hits & walks) and the relief pitcher gives up a triple, the original hurler just gave up three earned runs while he was sitting in the dugout. If there are runners on 2B & 3B with two outs and a weak groundball trickles under the glove of the shortstop into left field, two earned runs score whether the fielder in question was Pee Wee Reese or Pokey Reese. Outcomes like these are what motivate the development of advanced baseball statistics. One we’ve visited previously is DIPS (Defensive Independent ERA) and now there’s another stat for the research toolbox.
In an additional attempt to move beyond ERA, we now have a stat called ERC (Component ERA). The essential theory is that pitchers can only really control how they pitch, but not necessarily the outcomes. ERC estimates what a pitcher’s ERA should have been based on raw statistics. As a result, it might be able to tell us if pitchers were lucky or unlucky in a given season. You can find the ERC formula in the Bill James Handbook 2020 and the stats are also available at espn.com.
The question for those of us playing Fantasy Baseball is if the ERC numbers can assist in determining the value and predictability of pitchers. Many a team has been torpedoed by a couple of starting pitchers that didn’t perform to expectations and we’re always looking for an edge. As a 25+ year fantasy veteran has said many times, “I hate pitchers”. Just taking a superficial look at ERC results for 2019 reveals the following tidbits.
> For the season, eight major league starting pitchers had an ERA under 3.00, but amazingly, six of them actually pitched better than their base number led by Justin Verlander (2.58 ERA & 1.80 ERC). He was followed by Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Sonny Gray & Jacob deGrom. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Mike Soroka were the exceptions but even their ERC was less than 10% higher. These guys are solid contributors.
> The next dozen ERA leaders (under 3.60) show some interesting contrasts. #16 Dakota Hudson had the biggest negative gap (3.35 ERA / 4.40 ERC) followed by #11 Marcus Stroman (3.22 ERA / 3.74 ERA). The three hurlers whose stats should have been better are Stephen Strasburg (3.32 ERA / 2.64 ERC), Lucas Giolito (3.41 ERA / 2.76 ERC) and Walker Buehler (3.26 ERA / 2.66 ERC).
> Looking at the off-season free agent class, these analytic numbers must be important to GM’s. Zack Wheeler’s new contract is impressive but so is the breakdown of his 2019 performance…3.96 ERA, 3.60 ERC & 3.35 DIPS. Not so sure about the $18 Million Cole Hamels deal (3.81 ERA / 4.35 ERC). Madison Bumgarner may sign soon and his numbers should create optimism (3.90 ERA / 3.40 ERC). How would you feel about Dallas Keuchel (3.75 ERA / 4.62 ERC), Julio Teheran (3.81 ERA / 4.02 ERC) or Wade Miley (3.98 ERA / 4.19 ERC)?
> Expanding the category of possible sleepers finds Yu Darvish (3.98 ERA / 3.36 ERC) and Joey Lucchesi (4.18 ERA / 3.48 ERC).
You’ll notice that Win-Loss records aren’t part of this analysis. Fantasy players have long understood the cruel category of “Wins” but the real game has begun to catch up. With starting pitchers going less innings and teams spending $8 Million on middle relievers, the concept of a 20-game winner is a thing of the past. In 2019, Verlander & Cole were the only ones to achieve that milestone. MLB teams are no longer concerned with starters going deep into games because they’ve got lock-down guys in the bullpen. What they want is quality innings.
As always, Fantasy success comes from balance, both on your team and in your scouting, so maybe ERC (and DIPS) has a place in your toolbox. And, the next time one of your baseball buddies asks how you are, you can reply, “I’m feeling much better now that I’m monitoring my ERC”.