As baseball’s first quarter draws to a close, we have learned a lot of things thus far. The Cubs are a juggernaut. That Clayton Kershaw guy is still pretty good. Everyone prematurely jumped on the Astros bandwagon. And, oh yeah, Bartolo Colon is, and always will be, the most interesting man in baseball.
But it is important to remember that there is still a long way to go in the 2016 season. With fantasy baseball and the division races in mind, I want to draw your attention to five notable players off to torrid starts who are likely to regress as the season continues.
To be the most productive hitter on the Nationals thus far is saying something considering the reigning NL MVP is in the same lineup. However, Murphy’s league leading .409 batting average isn’t sustainable. The main reason why is because Murphy leads baseball in Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) with a .439 mark. To put that stat, which many believe is outside of the hitter’s control, into perspective, Murphy’s career BABIP is only .319. What’s also disconcerning for Murphy is that his strikeout percentage has risen from last year (7.1% to 11.0%). Taken together, it’s inconceivable that Murphy does not come back down to Earth within the next month or two.
That said, there is some reason to believe that Murphy can continue on a similar pace that he is currently on. His Hard hit ball percentage (Hard%) has increased by 35% and his Soft hit ball percentage (Soft%) has decreased by 53% compared to last year. It’s a small sample size, but hey, the numbers don’t lie. Maybe Mr. Murphy is still on a surge that began in last year’s playoffs.
I’ll turn next to Murphy’s former teammate, who has been one of the league’s top power hitters since joining the Mets last July. In 2016, Cespedes’ 11 home runs and and .649 slugging percentage rank third and sixth respectively in baseball.
I’m skeptical that Cespedes can maintain his current pace for a couple of reasons. First, his Home Run/Fly Ball % is 30.8%, which is twice his career average (14.6%) and much higher than his percentage last year (18.6%). This comes in spite of Cespedes hitting the ball any harder. His Hard% this year (36.9%) is only slightly higher than it was last year (35.8%) and just a tick higher than his career average (33.2%). In short, I think Cespedes has gotten lucky to have a few more fly balls sail out of the ballpark, making him a good bet to enter a home run slump very shortly.
Castellanos might not be as well-known as the others on this list, but his .362 average thus far makes him worthy of discussion. To put it bluntly, there are many reasons why Castellanos will fade quickly. For starters, his BABIP of .422 is third in all of baseball. This figure was actually a higher when I first checked it a week ago, signaling that his regression is already kicking in. Additionally, Castellanos is hitting far more fly balls (47.8%) than ground balls (21.1%) than he has in the past. This is important to note because hitting more balls into the air, particularly for someone without much power, is a less sustainable way to maintain an unusually high BABIP. To top it all off, Castellanos has a reasonably high strikeout ratio (K%) as well. So due to a myriad of factors, I doubt we’ll hear much else from Castellanos this year.
The Tigers must be pleased from what they’ve seen from Jordan Zimmermann after giving him an over $100 million deal last offseason because, on the surface, Zimmermann’s 5-2 record with a 1.50 ERA does look impressive. However, Zimmermann might be the most likely player on this list to disappoint the rest of the way. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) figure of 3.43 suggests that his ERA should be far closer to a number in the 3’s than the 2’s (forget about the 1’s).
While the discrepancy between Zimmermann’s FIP and ERA explains a lot, let’s look more closely. One number that sticks out is Zimmermann’s strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) ratio of 5.25, which is nearly 2 strikeout’s lower than his ratio last year (7.32) and far lower than his ratio from 2014 (8.20). On top of that, he is walking a few more batters than this compared to previous years.
So how is Zimmermann doing even better this year? His success can be explained by his high Left on Base % (LOB%) and his low HR/FB ratio. LOB% is useful because it essentially measures the timing of a pitcher’s outs. Plus, over the course of a season, it has proven to be beyond a pitcher’s control whether they consistently get outs when runners are on base. That is why Zimmermann’s 88.1% LOB%, which is 6th highest in the majors, indicates that he is poised to have some of those stranded runners score over his next few starts. Similarly, his significantly lower HR/FB ratio suggests that Zimmermann should give up a few more home runs over the course of the season. If you disagree and think that maybe Zimmermann might be improved this year, I’d counter with his lower strikeout ratios and his FIP as evidence that Zimmermann is no better than he has been in past years.
Arrieta has been universally praised for his success over the past year. And rightly so, for the most part. Having said that, I want to be perfectly clear with what I am about to say: based on Arrieta’s statistics in 2016, I’d argue that Arrieta has not been as dominant as everyone says he has been strictly in 2016. In fact, I’d say he has been worse this year than he was in 2015 and 2014.
I came to this realization after looking at Fangraph’s WAR leaders and seeing that Arrieta was only ranked 12th among pitchers. I was confused by this because all the talk in the media has been about how Arrieta is now the best pitcher in baseball. But if we look at a few revealing statistics, it will begin to make sense why Arrieta is actually being overrated.
I’ll start by looking at Arrieta’s FIP. Arrieta’s mark of 2.80 is only 17th in baseball and the disparity between his FIP (which can be viewed as what his ERA should be) and his ERA of 1.13 is one of the largest differences in baseball. What this means is that while Arrieta has certainly been very good, he has been getting a little lucky. How so? Well, his BABIP is only .203, third-lowest in the league. Similarly, his LOB% is 5th highest in baseball, meaning that he’s stranding runners at an abnormally high rate. Now, one could look at these two figures as testaments to his dominance. But pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard, statistically-speaking, are just as dominant as Arrieta and their respective BABIP’s, for instance, are .271 and .316. Basically, the prevailing logic in analytics is that pitchers can only control strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Everything else that happens, generally speaking, is either up to their defense or determined by luck. This means that Arrieta’s low BABIP and high LOB% are less of a reflection of his dominance and more of a reflection of the defense behind him and the good fortune he has been receiving.
In terms of how Arrieta’s performance in 2016 compares to his last two years, I’d say he has actually been a tad worse. His ERA may be lower, but that’s because his supporting cast has improved vastly. Arrieta’s FIP was actually lower in both 2014 and 2015 and he had higher strikeout ratios, lower walk totals, and allowed fewer home runs per nine innings in each of those seasons as well. Obviously, Arrieta’s 2015 season was highly praised, but if you’re wondering why it doesn’t make sense why I’m saying Arrieta was actually better in 2014 than he was in 2016, that’s because figures like his BABIP and LOB% were less in his favor. What this means is that Arrieta was simply not as lucky in 2014 as he has been this year.
At this point, I should address the elephant in the room: might Arrieta continue to sustain his low BABIP and his LOB% given that the Cubs defense is one the best in baseball? The answer if yes, he certainly could. But that would require a season’s worth of luck. Is that possible? Definitely. Is it likely? Probably not.
Even though Arrieta has been excellent this year, I think he will level off a tad over the rest of the season. To clarify, while I think Arrieta will continue to be one of the better pitcher’s in baseball, I believe a few of his statistics will regress towards the mean and cause the talk of him as the best pitcher in the game to diminish, particularly as pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Noah Syndergaard continue to be even more dominant than the Cubs ace.