3 Ace Pitchers Who Could Be Even Better in 2016
It can be hard to improve on excellence, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
But in order to see which players could have performed even better in the past, we have to dig into some peripheral stats to add context to their surface numbers.
For pitchers, that means that ERA and win-loss record isn't the end-all of measuring performance.
So, based on advanced stats, which aces from last year could have been better last year -- and, more important, could be even better in 2016?
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Chris Sale was a Cy Young candidate for the fourth straight season last year, so it sounds silly to declare it a down year for Chicago's ace, but his 3.41 ERA was the worst mark of his impressive six-year career. In fact, Sale boasted a 2.76 career ERA entering 2015 and was coming off of a season in which he posted a pristine 2.17 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. So, how does it make sense that the 26-year-old would experience a sudden decline in skills entering the prime of his career? Quite simply -- it does not.
Everything about Sale's 2015 season lines up with his career numbers. In fact, several of his peripheral stats point to an improvement in his skill-set from his standout 2014 season to last year's campaign. His Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) of 2.52 and xFIP of 2.6 both were better than his traditional numbers and indicate that his 3.41 ERA was very unlucky. Both ERA predictors trailed only Clayton Kershaw among starting pitchers last season.
Sale also posted career-bests in both his strikeout rate (K%) and walk rate (BB%). Sale's 32.1 percent K% and 4.9 percent BB% gave him the second-highest difference between his K% and BB% in the Majors, again trailing only Kershaw. Sale also posted a swinging strike rate of 14.6 percent, which was the highest of his career and ranked third among starting pitchers.
Sale's ground ball rate (GB%) and fly ball rate (FB%) both check out, too. His GB% went from 40.7 percent to 42.6 percent from 2014 to 2015, while his FB% dropped from 40.9 percent to 35.3 percent.
All of the underlying stats from Sale's 2015 season show that he took another step forward from a skills standpoint. His 13-11 record and 3.41 ERA can be attributed to bad luck, which the stats also agree with. Sale's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was a career high .323, which ranked as the seventh-highest mark in the Majors. If his BABIP falls back to the .285 mark he attained in the five seasons prior to 2015 or around league-average (generally .300), his ERA will likely follow suit.
Sale also posted the worst strand rate of his career, as his 73.2 percent mark was significantly lower than his 79.9 percent career left-on-base percentage entering 2015. Sale's home run to fly ball ratio jumped from 7.5 percent to 12.5 percent in 2015, too, despite allowing fewer fly balls. All of these stats would appear to be outliers among Sale's otherwise flawless resume.
With the additions of Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, the defense should be improved behind Sale. If his counting numbers normalize to where his advanced stats suggest they should, he should return to top-five form in 2016.
Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Most expected some regression from Corey Kluber following his 2014 Cy Young season and were satisfied when his record flipped from 18-9 to 9-16 and his ERA jumped a full point from 2.44 to 3.49. He probably isn't the pitcher he appeared to be in 2014, but advanced stats suggest that he's better than his 2015 numbers show.
Kluber's K% (27.7 percent) and BB% (5.1 percent) were almost identical to his 2014 marks, and his 12.9 percent swinging strike rate was a career-high. His xFIP (3.05) and SIERA (2.98) both imply a correction in his 3.49 ERA is coming too.
Kluber's horrendous record clearly doesn't reflect his skill-set -- but rather some incredibly bad luck in 2015. Kluber's 71.4 percent strand rate was the lowest mark he's put up since 2012. He also was offered only 3.32 runs support per nine innings, which was the fourth-lowest total in the Majors.
A full season of the improved team defense on the left side of the infield from Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor should help Kluber in 2015, and some better luck with strand rate could lead to a return to Cy Young-caliber performance.
Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
Following a brilliant 2014 campaign during which Carlos Carrasco posted a 2.55 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, many were disappointed when his ERA jumped to 3.63 last season. I'm here to tell you that Carrasco actually took a step forward in 2015 and is primed for another big step forward in 2016.
Carrasco's main source of value comes from his ability to miss bats. He built on his 2014 K/9 of 9.40 and put up a 10.58 K/9 last season, fueled by the MLB's fourth-highest K% of 29.6 percent and the fifth-highest swinging strike rate of 14.0 percent. He coupled his dominant strikeout numbers with an impressive BB% of 5.9 percent.
He also did a terrific job of limiting fly balls and inducing ground balls for the third consecutive season, posting a FB% of 29.8 percent and a GB% of 51.2 percent.
Carrasco's xFIP of 2.66 and SIERA of 2.74 both suggest that he could return to an ERA in the mid-twos, which indicates that his bloated ERA was a result of bad luck rather than a decline in skill. Carrasco saw an increase in his BABIP and a decrease in his strand rate from 2014, both of which back up the theory that he was a victim of bad luck in 2015.
If he is able to lower his ERA to the mid-two range while maintaining his elite strikeout rate, Carrasco will be one of the most dangerous forces on the mound in 2016. To put how dominant he could be in perspective, only one pitcher was able to match Carrasco's peripherals last season. Of 78 pitchers with at least 160 innings, Clayton Kershaw and Carrasco were the only two to put up a SIERA and xFIP under 3.00, a K% of above 29 percent, a BB% of under 6 percent, and a ground ball rate of at least 50 percent.