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The largest DRA-RA9 differences in baseball: overperformers

Believe it or not, some of these pitchers have pitched even worse than indicated by their runs allowed!

Toronto Blue Jays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Carlos Rodón’s great season to date and how it is unlikely to be sustainable (his RA9 has since shot up from 2.99 to 3.45). As I mentioned in the article, I was stunned by the fact that his DRA was 2.70 runs higher than his RA9. I wondered who else had a large gap DRA-RA9, whether it be positive or negative, so I decided to find out!

The DRA run values chart at Baseball Prospectus was used for this exercise. Unfortunately, the only filter available is by pitcher name, so I could not sort by qualified pitchers or set any kind of innings pitched minimum. Sorting by largest positive DRA-RA9 gave me a ton of position players at the top. I decided that I will stick to pitchers who have pitched at least 120 IP (with one exception). Obviously this will mean all full-time relievers will be excluded, but I think it would be better to focus on larger sample sizes here to minimize sample size errors.

So why is this important? DRA-RA9 is the improved ERA-FIP. RA9 is just ERA without the silly, arbitrary distinction between earned and unearned runs. It counts everything. You almost never see it in articles, but it is always used instead of ERA in serious sabermetric research. Baseball Reference uses it to calculate its version of WAR. DRA takes that number and adjusts for everything imaginable that pitchers can and cannot control. Naturally, it factors in strikeouts, walks, and home runs, so you could say it has a FIP component to it. Unlike FIP, DRA is on the RA9 scale, not the ERA scale, so comparisons must always be made to RA9. If you want to learn more about DRA, I suggest you clear some time from your schedule. DRA does have its detractors, and I once wrote a response to those detractors.

Here are the seven top (bottom?) selections from the criteria I laid out. I’ll do the top under-performers by DRA later this week.

Brad Keller

Keller just squeezes in over the threshold as someone who has not been a full-time starter. With a 3.29 RA9, his results have certainly been very good. Of course, qualifying for this article means he is benefiting from factors beyond his control. He has a 5.26 DRA, and a 1.97 DRA-RA9 that is the highest of anyone who meets the IP minimum. One of the biggest factors working against him is his very low 16.2 K%. He has a low HR/FB ratio, he pitches in a pitcher-friendly park, and being in the AL Central means he faces a lot of poor competition.

Also working against him is the fact that he has started only 17 out of his 38 appearances. The DRA construct gives starters a helpful boost as a result of starting being more difficult than relieving (bWAR and fWAR do this too). Spending so much time in the bullpen means that Keller does not get that benefit. With everything working against him, you can see why his DRA is so high.

Marco Estrada

You don’t need DRA to tell you that Marco Estrada has pitched poorly this year. He has a 5.39 RA9 this year and a 5.18 RA9 since the beginning of 2017. His strikeout rate has fallen to under 17 percent. When your run average is that high, it might not really matter that you have a 7.09 DRA, or that the the standard deviation on that is 1.22. Estrada gets hit so hard that DRA concluded that he should be giving up a lot more runs than he already does. He is 35 years-old and will be a free agent after this season. He might be done. I can’t see any team signing him that is not tanking and in need of filling out a roster.

Andrew Cashner

Coming off the best year of his career, the Orioles decided to give Cashner a chance on a cheap two-year, $18 million deal this past offseason. His 5.30 RA9 is actually not that bad given the stadium he plays in, the tough division, and the Orioles’ terrible defense. He is still not pitching well, though. His 14.7 K% is the worst in baseball among qualified starters. Despite the aforementioned factors working against him, his DRA is still 1.43 runs higher than his RA9 at a 6.74 DRA.

The Orioles are about to embark on a long, painful rebuild, so it is not a big deal that Cashner is still under contract through 2019. If he continues to pitch poorly next year, the Orioles will likely cut him to prevent his third year option from vesting, which will happen if he crosses 340 IP total between 2018 and 2019.

Reynaldo López

López has had a rough major league career since debuting in 2016. Thankfully, this season he has improved some. He had a career 5.50 RA9 over just 92 23 IP going into this year, but in 2018 he has a 4.70 RA9 over 162 23 IP. As seems to be the trend here, he suffers from poor strikeout rates. Even the White Sox’s terrible defense and López pitching in the awful AL Central can’t save his RA9 from shooting up to a 6.12 DRA. His 17.5 K% appears to be a major factor, and he has also been lucky to not have given up more runs with the quality of contact he has given up.

Wade LeBlanc

LeBlanc has been an excellent free agent signing for the Mariners. He is making only $600,000 and has a 3.75 RA9! It is a great story from a pitcher who has pitched in so many places during his professional career. Other than his 2010 season, he has not pitched more than 80 major league innings in a season, and he is on track to crack his 146 IP mark from that year. Unfortunately, his 5.01 DRA does not exactly contribute to that nice story. He has a sub-20 K%, has been homer-prone, and he pitches in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark.

Surprisingly, he gets a boost from not-in-play runs, likely because of his great walk rate. Also surprising is that he gets a boost from out runs, which is unexpected because the Mariners do not have a good defense. It is unclear why that is because that level of granularity is not publicly available. It could be that BP’s fielding metric FRAA rates the Mariners better. More likely is the fact that DRA does not simply plug in a fielding metric into its calculation. As described on the DRA run values table:

“Runs saved or given up over average in terms of outs generated on balls in play. We model single-out putouts at each fielding position separately, and also do so for multi-out plays beginning at each infield position. The pitcher’s contribution to each of these metrics is fit by a mixed model, and the resulting likelihoods are multiplied by the linear weights of single and multi-out plays as appropriate.”

In other words, it could be that the Mariners’ defense has not performed as badly when he pitches. The same thing has been said about Aaron Nola pitching in front of the wretched Phillies’ defense. Jonathan Judge, if you’re reading this, let me know if I got that wrong!

Let me make it clear that I am in no way challenging LeBlanc’s DRA. That being said, the standard deviation of his DRA is the largest of this group at 1.37.

Chase Anderson

Anderson leads the league in home runs allowed, so it might not be a surprise that he is on this list. His 4.07 RA9 might look fine, but he pitches in front of one of the best defenses in baseball. Once again, we see a strikeout rate below 20 percent. His poor peripherals combined with the quality of contact he has given up are likely the major contributors to his 5.32 DRA.

Madison Bumgarner

MadBum is the exception here at only 105 23 IP. He did not debut until June 5th due to injury. His 3.41 RA9 is in line with his previous season, but that is where the similarities end. His 20.4 K% is down from last year, and is down substantially from 2016. What is most alarming is that he is not showing his usual excellent control. His 8.7 BB% is nearly double his walk rate from 2017! His peripherals and possibly the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the league combine to raise his RA9 to a 4.62 DRA. That is by no means bad, but it is easily the worst of his career. Bumgarner is only 28 years-old (I know it seems like he’s been around forever), so hopefully these are just the lingering effects from his injury and that he will bounce back next year.

This beginning of this article was updated to give a primer on DRA.

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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.