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Collette Calls: When to Buy Low, When to Let Go

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

Pitcher A is 1-4 with a 6.03 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP

Pitcher B is 2-4 with a 6.25 ERA and a 1.67 WHIP

I would absolutely pick up Pitcher A in a 15-team mixed league or a single-format league. I would not touch Pitcher B in either even though both, on the surface, are equally bad.

Pitcher A is Clay Buchholz.

Pitcher B is Chris Tillman.

Why is Buchholz rosterable and Tillman not? Many reasons. Let's look at the traditional crutches of the regression choir.

Batting Average On Balls In Play

Buchholz - .407

Tillman - .316

Tillman's BABIP is not what we would expect from someone with a 6.25 ERA. There's a reason for that, and it lies within the formula for BABIP.

BABIP = (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF)

Note the one stat that is removed on both sides of the formula -- home runs. Unfortunately for Tillman, he can't remove it from his stat line. Tillman gave up 33 home runs in 2013 in 206.1 innings and 21 home runs in 207.1 innings last season. His HR/FB ratio was a little high at 14.2 percent in 2013 and a little low at 8.3 percent last season. This season, Tillman has already permitted five home runs in 31.2 innings, and his HR/FB ratio of 13.5 percent is closer to what it was in 2013 than it was last season. Maybe those hard hit balls don't go over the fence, falling short into the gloves of outfielders. Or, maybe they find the gaps. Opponents are slugging .496 against Tillman, so when balls are being put in play, they're being hit hard.

Buchholz is a different monster as his .407 BABIP is exactly what we would expect to see from someone with an ERA exceeding 6.00. His issues are highlighted with his splits pitching from the windup versus pitching from the stretch. When nobody is on base, Buchholz has a .300 BABIP and is holding the league to a .213 batting average. If you put anyone on base, his BABIP is .537 and the league hits .421 against him.

When a pitcher has those kinds of splits, we can look at what is going on with him mechanically or guess what is going on with him mentally. I've looked at the video when he's pitching from the stretch, and he has been inconsistent, but his pitch type mixture with runners on is more problematic. With runners on, Buchholz leans heavily on his cutter, throwing it 31 percent of the time vs. 18 percent when bases are empty. When he uses the cutter out of the windup, the league hits .143 against it. When he is using it with men on base, the league hits .353. When a pitch goes so well in one situation and so poorly in another that speaks to mechanics and execution of the pitches. It is not just his cutter that is getting pounded out of the stretch; the league is hitting .500 against his fastballs with men on base.

Stranding Runners

Buchholz - 61 percent LOB rate

Tillman - 67 percent LOB rate

Buchholz's numbers are a direct relation to what was covered in the previous section. Once he puts runners on base, he becomes much more hittable and runners score. Not only is he more hittable with men on base, but he also walks more batters from the stretch. He walks 6 percent of the batters he faces out of the windup versus 9 percent out of the stretch. Extra baserunners plus more hittable pitches is a recipe for disaster, and a 60 percent LOB is about as low as it can get for a pitcher.

Tillman's LOB% is not too far below league average and near rates he had in 2010 and 2011. It is well below the 81 and 77 percent he had over the previous two seasons. Tillman's rate is not due to home runs as three of the five homers he has permitted have been solo shots. Tillman's issues are much like Buchholz's in that he is putting free runners on base (8 percent walk rate) and getting hit hard when guys are on base (.500 SLG).

The cure for both is simple in theory: keep runners off base.

Now, let's look at the other areas of concern for the pitchers.

Strikeout Rate

PITCHERK%K-BB%SWSTR%
Buchholz27.420.611.3
Tillman16.33.66.3

This is where things get confusing. Buchholz has near elite strikeout numbers. He ranks 13th among starting pitchers in swinging strike rate, ninth in strikeout rate and 12th in K-BB%. The only other pitchers in the top 15 for each category are Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, James Shields, Felix Hernandez, Carlos Carrasco and Chris Archer. This shows what should be for him rather than what has been.

Meanwhile, Tillman is in the bottom 20 in terms of SwSTR% and K-BB% and still below the league average in striking batters out.

Velocity
(via BrooksBaseball)

PITCHER2013 FB MPH2014 FB MPH2015 FB MPH
Buchholz92.8492.6992.87
Tillman92.7391.8392.34

Neither has lost any velocity that would point to an injury concern.

Release Point

Sometimes, pitchers adjust their release point when they want to get more horizontal movement on their pitches. Sometimes they do it to ease the strain on their shoulder because pitching is anything but a natural movement for the shoulder. Both of these pitchers are throwing from lower arm angles. Buchholz's drop is a contining trend in recent years while Tillman's is more recent. Perhaps this is why both are struggling to command their pitches with the extra movement that comes with a lower arm slot, but that is a speculative guess.

In short, we have two pitchers who haven't lost velocity but are struggling in different aspects of their game. Tillman is getting hit harder than he has in recent years while Buchholz is having issues once he puts men on base. We have one pitcher with ugly surface stats but, on the whole, is demonstrating an elite ability to strike out batters and get swings and misses. We have another pitcher who is struggling to miss bats and being very charitable with walks, thus compounding his struggles of being hit harder than in the past. Buchholz has a 6.03 ERA but his 2.99 FIP shows why he should do better. Tillman has a 6.25 ERA but his 5.46 FIP legitimizes his awful performance.

Picking up someone on a regression gamble isn't always about grabbing a good guy with bad stats. Sometimes good guys don't get better within a season, as James Shields proved in 2011. Buchholz should be much better the rest of the way while I can't say the same about Tillman.