Predicting positive and negative regression for pitchers

When we analyze pitching, there’s a lot that the pitcher can control, but also plenty that comes down to short-term variance and isn’t particularly predictive over the long term.

One major part of betting on baseball – or any sport for that matter – is being able to identify what is the signal and what is noise. Pitcher velocity, spin rates, and pitch shapes can help us identify how good a pitcher’s stuff or location is. Swinging strike rates, strikeout rates, and walk numbers indicate how effective he is at avoiding bats and maintaining a place in the zone. Hard-hit rate and barrel rate gives a good indicator of the quality of contact the pitcher will allow.

Here are the league leaders across a variety of metrics that suggest negative regression could be coming to help bettors get ahead of the market.

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Advanced stats, positive / negative regression for these pitchers

Home run per fly ball rate

The MLB league average is that 11.2 percent of fly balls will leave the park as home runs. In the short term, though, there’s a lot of variance within that statistic that can wildly alter the perception of how well a pitcher is really pitching. The top 5 highest on this list (minimum 40 IP) are likely to see some positive regression to the mean with their home run numbers as the season progresses.

  1. Nate Eovaldi 21.6 percent
  2. Elieser Hernandez 21.2 percent
  3. German Marquez 20.3 percent
  4. Lucas Giolito 19.6 percent
  5. Bruce Zimmermann 18.5 percent

There’s a handful of pitchers at the other end of this list, who have been quite fortunate not to see more of their fly balls leave the park. For example, Patrick Sandoval has now made 10 starts for the Angels this season and just allowed his first homer of the year on Sunday. That’s not sustainable either.

Batting average on balls in play (BABIB)

Batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is one of the better known regression indicators and something that tends to stabilize over time as well. It has its flaws, though. A ground-ball pitcher will naturally allow a higher BABIP than a fly-ball pitcher, for example. Defense plays a big role in helping out a pitcher on balls in play, and better defenses will also inherently allow lower BABIPs.

Despite this, the extremes remain outliers when compared to the league average.

Triston McKenzie's .173 BaBIP is unsustainable and he will see more traffic on the bases in the future.
Triston McKenzie’s .173 BaBIP is unsustainable and he will see more traffic on the bases in the future.
Getty Images

Five best BABIP allowed

  1. Triston McKenzie .173
  2. Michael Kopech .177
  3. Tony Gonsolin .193
  4. Devin Smeltzer .194
  5. Reid Detmers .194

No matter how good your defense is (McKenzie) or how much you rely on fly balls (Kopech), it’s not sustainable to maintain an opponent BABIP below .200. These are the only five names below that mark, but guys just above .200 like Justin Verlander, Jakob Junis, and Michael Wacha are also likely going to see more traffic on the bases in the future.

Strand rate, Left on Base (LOB)

Rays lefty Jeffrey Springs' 96.8 percent strand rate is among the highest in the majors.
Rays lefty Jeffrey Springs’ 96.8 percent strand rate is among the highest in the majors.
AP

Ability to pitch out of the stretch and in clutch situations definitely varies from pitcher to pitcher. It’s hard to quantify, though, and doesn’t tend to be predictive in large samples. Instead, we get shorter, smaller samples of pitchers being lucky or unlucky with runners on base. Certain pitchers will run really well for months and seemingly never give up the big two-out hit with runners on, while another keeps giving up soft grounders through the infield with two outs and runners on base.


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Top 5 pitchers by LOB percent

  1. Jeffrey Springs 96.8 percent
  2. Devin Smeltzer 92.3 percent
  3. Nate Eovaldi 89.6 percent
  4. Shane McClanahan 88.8 percent
  5. Triston McKenzie 88.7 percent

McClanahan is a bit of an exception on this list because of his elite strikeout rate. A pitcher with the best K / BB ratio in the sport like McClanahan isn’t going to regress quite as much with runners on base as the others.

Anthony Dabbundo analyzes MLB for Action Network.

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