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Gaming The System: Searching for ERA Bargains

A fresh look at Sabermetrics and how they can help you identify potential Starting Pitching bargains. Skill may not be as important as you think.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

I once thought finding a player's "true talent" was the Holy Grail of fantasy. Sabermetrics were the map on my quest, and they served me well. Now my league-mates and their favorite fantasy gurus are more sabermetrically inclined than ever. As a fan this is welcomed news, but as a fantasy owner it's less so. Gone are the days of trading a guy like Jeff Locke [c. 2013], whose smoke & mirrors act may once have been construed as a breakout, for a decent return. Everyone has the same info, reads the same aforementioned gurus... so where's the advantage?

Using ERA- to Identify SP Targets:

ERA- "neutralizes" ERA by removing park and league differences (Lower = better). Park Factor data is somewhat, but not entirely, dubious (parks appear to "change" from year to year), but it works well enough to give us an idea of how much a players' value derives from their environment. It's no secret the National League is friendlier to pitchers than the American League, but I think it's understated. In 2013, there was a .25 difference in ERA between the AL (3.99) & NL (3.74). According to Razzball's league statistics, the difference between finishing in 1st and 6th place in a 12-team roto league is usually about .42.

Let's look at three performances from last year:

Zack Greinke 28 177.2 52 2.63 74 90 3.60
Chris Sale 30 214.1 73 3.07 74 77 2.89
Felix Hernandez 31 204.1 69 3.04 76 66 2.77

ERA- suggests Zack Greinke, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez would have performed similarly given the same schedule in 2013. This assumes each players' defensive help and luck would remain intact (I'm looking at you, Zack). I've included SIERA (the best ERA estimator out there) and FIP as "true talent" measures. It appears King Felix and Chris Sale were in a different class from a skills perspective, and SIERA ranks them as they're being drafted.

There are a couple of things to take away from the chart. First, league has a larger impact on pitcher performance than park. The perceived difference between pitching home games at The Cell v. Safeco is overrated. Felix's ERA at The Cell would have been just a tad higher than Sale's. With AL pitchers, I care less about ballpark and more about skill and defense. Second, a sub 3.00 ERA in the AL is a feat. In 200 innings, the difference between 2.70 and 3.04 ERA is a measly 7 earned runs. Over the course of 30+ starts, facing DH's like Billy Butler or David Ortiz instead of pitchers (and pinch hitters) has a substantial effect on end of season stats. I'm not saying Greinke is a more valuable asset, but rather that the ERA upside of NL pitchers is substantially higher because there's a lot more room for error.

Without further ado, here's a shortlist of pitchers I'm targeting for ERA help this season:

1. Doug Fister- Always underrated, Fister is not only moving to the National League, but he's also the benefactor of a huge defense and ballpark upgrade. Pitching 4th in the loaded Nats rotation should give him the opportunity for Wins as well. He's my dark horse NL Cy Young candidate [2013: 3.67 ERA, 90 ERA-].

2. Hyun-Jin Ryu- Ryu keeps the ball on the ground with his excellent change up. The fly balls he does give up are often beat down by the Chavez Ravine's cool air. The downside here is HanRam's questionable defense, and the looming threat of Alex Guerrero taking over the keystone [2013: 3.00 ERA, ERA- 80].

3. Andrew Cashner- No SP taken outside the Top 35 matches Cashner's ceiling/floor combo. He throws high 90's heat with a decent changeup and above average slider. If he can stay healthy, I expect a very good season [2013: 3.09 ERA, 87 ERA-].

This methodology isn't limited to draft day. Situational data often acts as a tiebreaker for me when scouring the waiver wire or setting daily lineups. It's not full proof, but identifying players in optimal situations is generally good for business. Now go forth and prosper.

Find me on Twitter @WordSmithSilva