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Small sample size fun: pitchers edition

It’s too early to be drawing conclusions on players’ true talent, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with some of the crazy numbers.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

April is a difficult month for baseball analysts. It’s not until mid-May to June until we can conclude something new about a player’s true talent. Last year on my personal blog, I just took April off. Obviously, the baseball writing industry can’t do the same thing.

While the stats right now have little analytical value to offer, some of them can be really entertaining, and baseball is entertainment above all else. Let’s take a look at some of the crazy numbers that some players have put up so far this season. I looked at the hitters last week, so we’ll take a look at starting pitchers this week. Obviously I can’t cover everyone. I will not cover Clayton Kershaw because his dominance, while really, really fun, is more or less expected.

Chris Sale

Okay, his dominance is to be expected just like Kershaw’s. I mention him here because his dominance is at a whole other level right now.

Sale’s strikeout numbers were down drastically last year. He was trying to pitch to contact in order to achieve a more economical pitch count. Given his awful arm action, it is hard to blame the White Sox staff for wanting to push him that direction. The Red Sox, however, wanted him to go back to his old ways. So far it is working out phenomenally.

After five starts, Sale has a 1.43 RA9 and 37 percent strikeout rate. His walk rate is currently a career-low 4.3 percent. Only Jacob deGrom has a higher swinging strike rate than Sale’s 17 percent. He has already accumulated 2 bWAR, which is second only to the pitcher whom I will get to next.

Sale’s BABIP is not flukishly low at .278. What is unsustainable are his 84 percent strand rate and 3.4 percent HR/FB ratio, the latter of which is a third of his career rate. Fenway Park is especially hitter-friendly, but he has yet to give up a home run there in his three starts.

Sale’s run average and strikeout rate should get a bit worse, but I would not be surprised if they did not regress too heavily. He has a great, proven track record. For now, he is must-watch viewing.

Dallas Keuchel

The 2015 AL Cy Young winner was expected to take a step back in 2016, but not to the extent that actually occurred. His run average was over two runs higher. Keuchel has a mediocre fastball and not exactly electric stuff, so his 2015 season seemed to belie what he should be able to do. His strikeout rates have always been pedestrian. He succeeds by inducing a lot of ground balls.

The projections had Keuchel’s true talent pegged at roughly halfway between his 2015 and 2016 seasons, which seemed reasonable to me. Clearly, Keuchel disagrees.

Keuchel has a 1.21 RA9 and is leading the league in bWAR. The secrets to his success right now are a .186 BABIP and a ridiculously high 98.7 percent strand rate. The interesting thing about him is that he has always had a very high HR/FB ratio. It is a good thing that he is skilled at limiting flyballs.

He is going to come crashing down to Earth, but his true talent should still be significantly better than his 4.71 RA9 from last year. So far, he’s been a significant factor in the Astros having one of the best records in baseball right now.

Ervin Santana

Where on Earth did this come from? Other than his 2008 season, Santana has never been much better than an average pitcher. Right now he has a 0.77 RA9 after five starts. His strikeout and walk rates are along the lines of his career rates.

His success is really easy to explain. Santana has been enjoying an incomprehensible amount of good luck. He has a .129 BABIP, 5.6 percent HR/FB ratio, and a 99 percent strand rate. You don’t have to be an elite baseball analyst to project regression for him.

James Paxton

Last week I mentioned that Mitch Haniger is every Mariners fan’s new favorite player. Perhaps I should have said it was Paxton.

Paxton was a below-average pitcher last year with a 4.61 RA9. His DRA, however, was over a run better. Right now he has a 1.39 RA9, and his strikeout rate has skyrocketed to 31.5 percent, which he combines with a low walk rate. His swinging strike rate is up to 14.7 percent.

Paxton’s BABIP is a bit low and his strand rate is a bit high, but it’s nothing glaring. What is a red flag, though, is the fact that he has yet to allow a home run in 31 flyballs allowed.

Regression will certainly come for Paxton, of course, but he has made some real changes. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan covers it in detail here, as does my colleague Ryan Romano here.

Jason Vargas

Though it was not for a lot of money, Vargas’s four-year contract he signed before 2014 raised some eyebrows. He made only 12 starts over the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury, including Tommy John surgery. This season he has a 1.75 RA9. The interesting thing is that there are no major red flags about his performance, other than the fact that he has never performed anywhere close to this well before.

The most impressive aspects of Vargas’s performance are his 29 percent strikeout rate and his Kershaw-esque 2.1 percent walk rate. His swinging strike rate is up significantly too. He is in a contract year, so it would be great time for him to have a career season.

Things are looking pretty bad for the Royals right now, so they should consider trading him soon. Obviously they are not going to re-sign him.

Iván Nova

I’m sure that Yankees fans are thrilled about this one. He pitched poorly during his last few years in New York, so they traded him at the waiver wire trade deadline last year.

It appears that pitching coach Ray Searage has worked some of his magic on Nova. Although his strikeout rate is well below average, he has a 2.00 RA9. Of course, he has a .224 BABIP and his HR/FB ratio is nearly half of his career rate. The most amazing fun fact about Nova’s 2017 so far: he has faced 133 batters and walked only one of them. Just one walk.

The three-year, $26 million deal that the Pirates handed Nova looked strange at first, but if they have successfully turned him into a better pitcher, it will look like genius. If the Pirates are out of it at the trade deadline, they should strongly consider trading Nova.

Mike Leake

Leake had a 0.4 bWAR last year. He has 1.9 bWAR after just one month. His five-year, $80 million deal that he signed before 2016 looked like an odd move by an organization as smart as the Cardinals. He has never been much better than an average pitcher.

Last season, Leake had a poor 5.15 RA9, but right now his run average is at 1.35. His BABIP is not too low, but he does have a high strand rate. Like Paxton, he has yet to give up a home run this year. That will likely change fast because he has a career 13.4 percent HR/FB ratio, which is pretty high.

If the Cardinals are out of hit at the trade deadline, I doubt that they trade Leake. He will have over $55 million left on his deal, and he has a no-trade clause, too.

Like with the hitters article last week, the small sample size heroes among pitchers are benefiting from a lot of batted ball luck. I don’t see most of them being in the Cy Young race at the end of the year, except for Sale and maybe Keuchel. Just enjoy the crazy performances while they last.

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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.