Baseball is usually about the true skill level of the player. We have great tests in every at bat. It’s pitcher vs. hitter and may the best man win. Contrast that to football where true skill level of the player is a secondary consideration to his environment and usage.
But location is not inconsequential just because 80-to-85% of a player’s baseball projection is based on his individual ability. There is the remainder that can elevate a player above or below players in his same skill tier.
Let’s start with the most obvious. This year, through Sunday, American League hitters have a .729 OPS and NL hitters .716. So all things being equal, you’d rather have the NL pitcher over the AL one. Note that this 1.8 boost is almost identical to the difference in OPS the prior 10 years (1.9% in favor of the NL).
This is a pretty faint tailwind for the NL pitchers, I admit. Sure, you don’t want to leave that kind of an edge on the table given the often slight differences between winning or losing a league. But it’s much less pronounced than what we might assume.
In baseball, however, teams play 76 games in their division (46.9%). This is huge. So division trumps league consideration. Let’s see how the divisions rank in OPS by their hitters this year, from most pitcher-friendly to least.
NL East: .700
AL Central: .712
NL West: .715
NL Central: .731
AL East: .736
AL West: .738
So now there’s a 5% difference in pitching in the worst division vs. the best (in those games; so technically 2.4% overall)
But some players overcome them because their skill level rises above their environment. Conversely, some just crater. And furthermore, some are pitching disproportionate division innings.
Jacob deGrom actually has a higher ERA in the NL East (1.72) than overall and his OPS allowed in the division is .554. That’s in 52.1 innings though. Max Scherzer only has 26.1 innings against the NL East (.605 OPS). So Scherzer hasn’t gotten his expected benefit yet from pitching in the league’s softest hitting division. (And, yes, deGrom doesn’t benefit from pitching against the Mets.)
As the season progresses, it’s important to target pitchers who are promoted into rotations in ideal division. In the NL East, you want pitchers on the Braves as they are sixth in OPS while the other four teams all rank 21st (Nationals) or lower (Marlins are last). While Anibal Sanchez has a tenuous hold on a spot in the rotation, he should be rostered today and is owned in only 29% of leagues. He’s been lights out, too. Another option coming off the disabled list imminently according to reports is Jeremy Hellickson, who was mixed-league worthy priory to hurting his hamstring. He’s just 26% owned. Braves rookie Mike Siroka (51%) owned may be available in your league too.
Our next target is the AL Central. Trevor Bauer has 56 innings in eight starts within the division (2.25 ERA). In seven starts (49 innings), Jose Berrios has a 2.39 ERA but only 39 hits plus walks. Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn have just 32.1 and 31.1 IP with a 2.51 and 2.30 ERA .515 and .641 OPS, respectively. Lynn, who we recommended last week, is still just 35% owned. He has three less starts against the division.
The NL West and NL Central are more neutral divisions. The ones we want our pitchers to avoid are the AL East and, somewhat surprisingly, the AL West.
But we can reasonably call these two AL divisions proving grounds. So J.A. Happ is just good — he has a 1.78 ERA within his division in 35.1 innings with 34 Ks and a .161 batting average allowed. He’s widely owned (but still just 85%). Yet people generally don’t seem as pleased with him as these numbers suggest they should be. Sure, there’s a division tax on Happ — but he’s not paying it.
Two pitchers who had some preseason buzz who are just getting annihilated in their division are Kevin Gausman (6.69 ERA) and Alex Cobb (10.13). Cobb’s OPS allowed vs. the AL East is 1.178. Basically Cobb turns every AL East hitter into “better than Mike Trout.” Yet Cobb is still 17% owned and Gausman is at 44%. Just cut these guys in mixed leagues. Their strikeouts are not worth it.
The AL West pitcher who is thriving despite the tough track is Tyler Skaggs who has a 0.74 ERA and .213 average allowed in 36.2 innings (36 Ks and .552 OPS allowed). Skaggs is up to 69% ownership but believe in him; he’s not a sell high despite his lack of any appreciable innings in recent years — his current upside seems real. Sean Manaea (2.73 ERA) has more than held his own and is worth the hit you take in Ks. But Daniel Mengden (40% owned) is probably not tenable given his ERA against the division is 7.86 with just 18 Ks in 34.1 innings).
The Astros are third in OPS (the Yankees and Red Sox hold the top spots). So if you could get an Astros starter, you’d be in good shape. Unfortunately for those shopping for starters, the Astros rotation seems locked up with five guys pitching well. However should an injury hit someone, see if the team promotes prospect Josh James, who could be a Jake deGrom-like late-bloomer from there fringe prospects ranks. The 25-year-old righty is also a converted position player and suddenly is throwing 97 mph after fixing a sleeping issue that made him too fatigued. Check out this video via Twitter:
— Michael Salfino (@MichaelSalfino) June 15, 2018