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The 2019 largest DRA-RA9 differences in baseball: overperformers

For the second straight year, we’re taking a look at the pitchers who most outperformed their DRAs.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox - Game Two Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

I had fun last year looking at the largest DRA-RA9 differences in baseball, so I decided to do it again using the DRA run values chart at Baseball Prospectus. Like I did last year, I will stick to pitchers who have pitched at least 120 innings. 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 a pitcher’s RA9 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, however, 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.

Iván Nova

This season’s winner with at least 120 IP is Nova, which might come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his season because he had a 5.15 RA9 this year, and one would not expect someone with a high RA9 to have gotten lucky. Well, he had a 7.54 DRA. Interestingly enough, he was a 2.1 WAR player this year despite the high RA9, mostly because the White Sox defense was pretty bad, but that should also help out his DRA, yet it is almost 2.5 runs worse than his RA9.

Part of the problem was that while Nova’s 5.8 BB% is very good, he was one of the worst strikeout pitchers in baseball. Only Brett Anderson had a worse strikeout rate among qualified pitchers than Nova’s 14.1 percent. Also, Nova was pretty home run prone, and it might not have just been the juiced ball. He has struggled with giving up the long ball for four seasons now. Since 2016, he has given up 108 HR on a 15.7 percent HR/FB ratio.

In terms of the quality of contact Nova allowed, it was pretty high given the actual results. According to Statcast, he had a 38.4 percent hard-hit rate, and a .379 xwOBA on contact compared to a .351 wOBA. (It should be noted that DRA does not use xwOBA. I am just using it here as a proxy to demonstrate how hard Nova got hit.)

Even given all that I laid out here, an almost 2.5-run difference is hard to swallow. It is possible that Nova is breaking the limits for what DRA was designed for. Even the best models have their outliers.

Glenn Sparkman

I’m going to be honest with you: I had never heard of Glenn Sparkman before now. I wonder if he knows that his last name is one of the robot masters from Mega Man 3.

Sparkman debuted in 2017, but he barely got any playing time over his first two seasons of major league action. This year, Dr. Wily the Royals decided to give him a full season, and unfortunately, it was a disaster. Like with Nova, Royals’ fans might be shocked to know that Sparkman’s DRA is higher than his awful 6.35 RA9, and unlike Nova, he did not pitch in front of a particularly bad defense. He had a 8.56 DRA!

Sparkman had an even lower strikeout rate than Nova, and he pitched over 50 fewer innings than he did. Despite that, he gave up just as many home runs (30). He also got hit hard when he gave up contact, yielding a 41.8 percent hard-hit rate and a .394 xwOBA on contact versus a .364 wOBA.

Though Sparkman’s 2.20 DRA-RA9 is not as big as Nova’s, it is more extreme given how high his RA9 was. I suspect that this is something like Jered Weaver’s 2016 season, when he had a similarly high DRA. Sparkman is likely just not a major league quality pitcher, and RA9 estimators such as DRA were never designed for such players. After all, if a pitcher has an RA9 over 6.00, is his DRA really going to tell you anything?

Wade LeBlanc

Hey, we have a repeat from last year! Another reason why this is interesting is because he is on this list again despite having pitched much worse this year than he did last, with a 5.93 RA9 compared to a 4.11 RA9 in 2018. Unfortunately, he had a horrific 8.04 DRA this year.

LeBlanc’s strikeout rate dropped to to almost 17 percent, and he got killed by the juiced ball, giving up 28 HR in only 121 13 IP. Similarly to Nova, LeBlanc pitched in front of a terrible defense, yet it was not enough to prevent his DRA from shooting up. Also again, as has been the trend, he got lucky that he did not give up even more runs than he did given how hard he was hit. He had a 39 percent hard-hit rate, and a .395 xwOBA on contact versus a .359 wOBA. As with Sparkman, this might be another instance of DRA failing with a kind of pitcher it was never designed to handle.

Yusei Kikuchi

This was certainly not the debut season that the Mariners were hoping for when they signed Kikuchi from Japan. Even considering the team’s terrible defense, a 6.07 RA9 just doesn’t cut it. His DRA was much worse at 7.85.

Kikuchi only struck out about 16 percent of batters faced, and his 36 HR allowed was tied with Justin Verlander of all people for the third-most in baseball. I’m going to sound like a broken record now, but once again, he got hit harder than his runs allowed would indicate. He had a 38.6 hard-hit rate, and a .381 wOBA on contact versus a .368 wOBA.

Mike Leake

Kikuchi’s teammate for part of the season had a 5.21 RA9 and a 6.84 DRA. Let’s get right to it: he barely struck out 15 percent of batters faced, led the league with 41 HR allowed, and he had about a 43 percent hard-hit rate.

There are some differences between Leake and the previous pitchers on this list, though. While other pitchers mentioned here did excel in preventing free passes, Leake’s 3.2 BB% led the league among qualified hitters. Also, though he did benefit from not allowing as many runs as he should have given how hard he was hit, his split was extreme. He had a .403 wOBA on contact versus just a .341 wOBA.

Brett Anderson

Anderson actually had a respectable 4.09 RA9 this season, the first person on this list whom you can say that about, but he had a 5.65 DRA. He was the only person this year who had a worse strikeout rate than Nova among qualified pitchers (12.1 percent). His home run rate actually was not that bad, having given up 20 HR. That is a 2.7 HR% versus a league average 3.7 HR%.

Unlike other pitchers on this list, the Athletics’ defense is actually pretty good, especially in the infield, and Anderson is a groundball pitcher. That appears to be where DRA is dinging him the most. He does have about a 40 percent hard-hit rate and a 59-point difference between his xwOBACON and wOBA, but it appears that DRA is crediting the defense for that difference more than anything else.

The DRA-RA9 underperformers will be coming later this week!

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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.