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Let's handicap the trading block

By Jeff Fogle  ( 

Yu Darvish
Yu Darvish is on the block, but his health is a question.
© USA Today Sports Images

With big-name pitchers on the trading block, let’s use handicapping analytics to get a read on the true skill sets of stars like Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray.

MLB: How good are Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray RIGHT NOW?

Hopefully you’ve gotten into the habit of studying relevant statistics when evaluating Major League Baseball starting pitchers. Let’s study some of those numbers to gain some insight into all the trade talk going on this week in the mainstream media. You know who the buyers are…and who the sellers are. What happens when you kick the tires? 

We’ll take the three most prominent names from youngest to oldest, using analytics stats from the highly recommended Fangraphs website. As we do in game previews, will toss in xFIP with the three true outcome stats. You’ll recall that xFIP is a “fielding independent pitching” stat that runs along the same scale as ERA.

Sonny Gray (will turn 29 in November)

  • Three true outcomes: 22.7% K’s, 7.5% walks, 0.8 HR/9, (3.41 xFIP)
  • Standard: 3.66 ERA, 1.18 WHIP
  • Zips/Steamer ERA Projections: 3.91 and 3.99 on 6.2 IP per start

Solid as a rock through 15 starts in 2017. He’s not as overpowering as some other aces in terms of getting strikeouts. But, he’s been keeping the ball in the park. For now, looks like a very good gamble to star this season and for years to come. Definitely a guy who can contribute to a playoff run, or a postseason challenge. 

Yu Darvish (will turn 31 in mid-August)

  • Three true outcomes: 26.4% K’s, 7.9% walks, 1.2 HR/9, 3.77 xFIP
  • Standard: 3.44 ERA, 1.12 WHIP
  • Zips/Steamer ERA Projections: 3.76 and 3.94 on 6.1 IP per start

He’s still a force to be reckoned with. Though, the juiced ball has made him slightly more mortal. The biggest concern with Darvish is his injury history. Healthy rotation starters will typically make more than 30 starts per season. It’s been awhile since Darvish pulled that off.

  • 2014: 22 starts
  • 2015: 0 starts
  • 2016: 17 starts
  • 2017: on pace for a full season…so far

Teams are always rolling the dice with pitchers when it comes to health. Darvish has been dicier than you’d like to see the past few seasons. 

Justin Verlander (34 years old)

  • Three true outcomes: 22.0% K’s, 10.5% walks, 1.1 HR/9, 4.78 xFIP
  • Standard: 4.50 ERA, 1.44 WHIP
  • Zips/Steamer ERA Projections: 3.95 and 3.99 on 6.1 IP per start

A lot of red flags waving for Verlander this season. Though that was true a few years back and he regained enough form to finish second in Cy Young voting last season. The problem with that is: he was very lucky last season in both batting average allowed on balls in play, and in percentage of runners stranded. He wasn’t as good as he looked last year. Respected projection systems say he won’t be as bad the rest of the way in 2017 as he’s been so far. 

That said, he’s more of a flyball pitcher than he used to be, and he’s allowing a higher percentage of fly balls to clear the fence in a juiced ball season. That plus a BIG contract makes him a very expensive gamble that’s waving red flags. If the projection systems are wrong…and Verlander’s going to stay in the 4.50 to 4.80 range in ERA…he’s not going to provide much real help to a championship contender. He could help some borderline contenders sneak into the playoffs because he’s better than they currently have on their back end. 

One of the great things about using analytics to handicap games is that you can use analytics to handicap trades. Keep that in mind in these final days before the trade deadline. And use what you learn when handicapping any new faces in new places next week and beyond. 

MLB: Studying rotation starters for AL Central contenders

Yesterday we looked at key stats for the NL Central rotation starters. Today seemed like a good day to do the same in the AL Central, with Cleveland and Kansas City both winning Tuesday, while Minnesota is still within shouting distance (though the sound of its voice is fading). 

Cleveland Indians

  • Corey Kluber: 2.74 ERA, 0.96 WHIP (2.46 xFIP)
  • Danny Salazar: 4.79 ERA, 1.42 WHIP (3.38 xFIP)
  • Carlos Carrasco: 3.62 ERA, 1.10 WHIP (3.43 xFIP)
  • Trevor Bauer: 5.58 ERA, 1.49 WHIP (3.78 xFIP)
  • Josh Tomlin: 5.59 ERA, 1.34 WHIP (4.14 xFIP)
  • Mike Clevinger: 2.73 ERA, 1.12 WHIP (4.23 xFIP)

If you run your finger down the parenthetical column of xFIPs, you can see why sharps and analytical models are optimistic about the Indians the rest of the way. That’s a solid rotation, backed up by what you know is a fantastic bullpen. But, if you run your finger down the ERA column, you can why they can’t pull away from the division. All sorts of factors, some likely luck, are keeping the Indians from accomplishing what the math says they should be. 

Kansas City Royals

  • Danny Duffy: 3.56 ERA, 1.27 WHIP (4.67 xFIP)
  • Jason Vargas: 3.08 ERA, 1.24 WHIP (4.89 xFIP)
  • Ian Kennedy: 4.61 ERA, 1.19 WHIP (5.04 xFIP)
  • Jason Hammel: 4.81 ERA, 1.42 WHIP (5.18 xFIP)
  • Travis Wood: 6.91 ERA, 1.82 WHIP (5.54 xFIP)

Wood has had three recent starts. But he’s made it clear he’s probably not a good replacement for still-injured Nate Karns. If you happened to catch Roxy Roxborough’s visit with Ron Flatter and Amal Shaw a couple of weeks ago, you’ll recall the Kansas City Royals were a topic of discussion. A fantastic run prior to the All-Star Break had the Royals on many short lists to contend for a playoff spot. Roxy, though, thought they might have peaked. That string of poor xFIPs offers some hints why. Their “aces” have been lucky, and they don’t have much behind those illusory aces. That’s obviously not a playoff caliber rotation unless Duffy and Vargas continue to pitch with very good fortune. 

Minnesota Twins

  • Jose Berrios: 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP (4.48 xFIP)
  • Kyle Gibson: 6.08 ERA, 1.71 WHIP (4.89 xFIP)
  • Adalberto Mejia: 4.10 ERA, 1.45 WHIP (4.90 xFIP)
  • Ervin Santana: 3.26 ERA, 1.15 WHIP (4.92 xFIP)
  • Hector Santiago: 5.63 ERA, 1.44 WHIP (6.12 xFIP)

Note that Santiago is on the Disabled List. Bartolo Colon is filling in temporarily as he tries to forestall retirement. We won’t even post his stats because you know Colon is hanging by a thread. Berrios, Mejia, and Santana go on the list with some of those Royals arms of guys who are due to regress toward mediocrity in short order. Not a playoff caliber rotation. It’s a miracle the Twins have been in the playoff discussion so long. 

All told, you can see why Cleveland has such strong futures prices in the AL. Fielding-independent pitching has them as a slam dunk.

(Quick note: some handicappers thought Berrios matched up well with Kenta Maeda Tuesday night in Los Angeles. If you look at ERAs, Berrios entering at 3.50, compared to 4.11 for Maeda suggested dog value. But using the more predictive xFIP, Maeda led 4.09 to 4.48. Combine that with the Dodgers much superior offense, and home field advantage, and you can see why an analytics-driven market would have LAD up near two dollars on the moneyline. Maeda beat Berrios 4-2 in the first five prop.)

MLB: Handicapping tutorial on betting Over/Unders

In prior weeks, we’ve used Wednesday’s to talk about approaches for handicapping -1.5 (and plus 1.5) run lines, five-inning propositions (baseball “first half” lines), and how to “arbitrage” market moves to lock in a profit. We hope you joined us a week ago today for that very informative Q A with sports bettor “Coast2Coast.” Click here to read that if you missed it.

Today, baseball totals.

Generally speaking, sharps focus on player skill sets when betting Over/Unders. Baseball totals aren’t great for team “trends” because the quality of starting pitching can change so much from day-to-day. If a team just played three Overs…but their ace is about to start the next game, that 3-0 “streak” on Overs doesn’t mean much.  

In short, focusing on skill sets means evaluating:

  • Run-scoring potential of the offense
  • Run-prevention ability of the starting pitchers
  • Run-prevention ability of the bullpens (focusing on pitchers most likely to pitch!)

Totals bettors will make their own Over/Under for the game based on the following questions:

  • How many runs will each offense score vs. the starting pitchers?
  • How many runs will each offense score vs. middle relievers?
  • How many runs will each offense score vs. late relievers?
  • What do those run counts add up to? 

It’s really that simple in terms of structure, but not so simple to do all the math against the starters, and then to make reasonable assessments about the caliber of relief pitchers who are likely to be called on in the last few innings. 

One shortcut we want to warn you against. Too many casual bettors believe that focusing on the ERA’s of the starting pitchers is enough to carry most of the load. Unfortunately, ERA’s can paint a misleading picture of a starter’s true quality (particularly over small sample sizes, as you saw in our rotation studies the past two days). And starting pitchers are much more likely to throw just 5-6 innings in the modern game compared to decades ago. 

Quick example: If you see that a starting pitcher has a poor ERA of 5.40, that doesn’t mean the opponent is probably going to score about five-and-a-half runs in the game. That 5.40 ERA is most likely to see that poor starting pitcher allow three earned runs in five innings of work (that’s exactly a 5.40 ERA). If he pitches to his ERA, you’ll be dealing with this challenge:

  • 3 runs scored by the opposing offense in 5 innings
  • ??? runs scored vs. the relief corps in the last 3-4 innings 

If the weak starter is backed up by a great bullpen, scoring might stall on the three. And, if it’s a ROAD team throwing that shaky starter, his whole team may only have eight pitching innings in a loss. 

Also, the simplest approach of “if there are two good starting pitchers I’ll take the Under,” and “if there are two bad starting pitchers I’ll take the Over” has little chance of working long term. The market knows how good the starters are! That’s the one thing EVERYONE pays attention to. You’ll have a better shot finding edges if you get a better read on middle relief and true team offense. 

If you’re thinking about adding baseball totals to your arsenal, or sharpening weaponry on a prop you already like to play, we strongly encourage you to focus on the following factors:

  • Park-adjusted offenses (try to evaluate REAL offenses, not park illusions)
  • Starting Pitchers on “three true outcomes” and xFIP
  • Middle relief if the starters are only going to go 5-6 innings
  • Late relief

We’ll continue our Wednesday tutorials through the summer. If you have any topics you’d like to see discussed, drop us a note!

CFL: Stat update 

We talked yesterday about a quick stat shortcut that helps you see at a glance which teams have sharp passing offenses, and which have sloppy passing offenses. There was time today to calculate and post season-to-date numbers for all nine CFL teams in that stat.

If you missed us Tuesday, we’re talking about the percentage of offensive plays that end in incomplete passes (remember that interceptions also count as incompletions in the passing line). Canadian football is so “contained” in terms of production, that this one stat helps you pin down execution in the sport’s most important area. (Granting that 2017 CFL may be more “contained” than usual, with underdogs going 15-6 against the spread through five weeks! The league is much more evenly matched so far than the market expected.)

Why do we say "contained?"

  • There’s a relatively tight Power Ratings spread from best to worst
  • Only getting 3 downs on a wide field forces offenses to emphasize possession passing
  • The nature of talent distribution means relative parity

The best football players in the world are in the NFL. There’s a HUGE number of players who are “not quite” good enough to play in the NFL. They’re up north in the CFL playing close games against each other. 

That leaves execution as an important tie-breaker when trying to evaluate teams. With that in mind, here are season-to-date performances heading into Week Six for “Percentage of offensive plays that are incompletions.”

Percent of Plays that are Incomplete Passes

  1. Edmonton 18%
  2. Montreal 19%
  3. British Columbia 20%
  4. Ottawa 20%
  5. Saskatchewan 21%
  6. Winnipeg 22%
  7. Calgary 24%
  8. Toronto 25%
  9. Hamilton 29%

If you’ve been reading our coverage this season, nothing there should surprise you. We’ve talked about Edmonton executing, Montreal’s conservative play, Ottawa moving effectively enough to just barely lose games. Down at the bottom, Calgary is failing to play to its lofty market expectations because they’ve been too sloppy. Toronto has a pass-happy offense that can lead to mistakes. Hamilton has been a special kind of horrible in this season’s boxscores. 

We’ll keep studying CFL action through this particular lens (in addition to our yardage and yards-per-play reviews) as long as the league stays on our radar. We’ll preview Week 6 for you Thursday. 

Don’t forget about that drawing on Aug, 19 for a free spot in the 2017 Westgate SuperContest. All subscribers will be in that drawing automatically. Click here if you’re not already a subscriber. (You’re free-rolling for a prize that has a $1,500 value!). Follow us on twitter for programming updates throughout the day. If you have any questions or comments about VSiN programming or the VSiN City newsletter, let us know! (Or use the widget below the article that lets you post comments to us on Facebook.)

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