The baseball season is a cold-blooded truth-teller. Over the course of 162 games, anomalies are smoothed out, slumps are reversed, bubbles are burst and contenders break away from pretenders.
But sometimes, even that isn’t enough.
Sometimes, there are lucky and unlucky streaks that span entire seasons, hidden even in sample sizes as robust as 600 plate appearances or 200 innings pitched.
As the Cubs and hordes of their winter-sick fans descend on Mesa, folks will start refreshing their memories, pulling up the 2014 stats of new and returning Cubs alike as they look to the recent past to shape their player expectations for the near future.
Careful with that.
While the vast majority of the players on the Cubs’ 2015 roster had peripherals in line with the statistics they put up, there were some who over-performed and some who under-performed. Some by a little, some by a lot.
So with that, here’s the not-at-all comprehensive collection of the 2015 Cubs’ top candidates for regression, both positive and negative, relative to their output in 2014.
The new Cubs backstop wasn’t acquired primarily for his hitting. In fact, it’s been documented by Cubs Insider’s Tommy Cook and, to a crappier extent, yours truly that pitch framing is Montero’s carrying skill.
Still, for a catcher, Montero has been very respectable with the stick throughout his career, with a lifetime weighted on-base average of .333.
But he wasn’t so hot in 2014. In 560 plate appearances last season, Montero put up a meager .307 wOBA, just 21st among catchers with at least 300 PA. This was largely the byproduct of a .243 batting average that could not be offset enough with power, as he posted just 13 HR with a .127 isolated power rating.
Look closer, though, and you’ll find a sizable amount of bad luck baked into Montero’s 2014 campaign. Despite hitting line drives last season at a healthy rate of 20.8%, Montero’s final BABIP for the year settled in at just .275.
That isn’t just a bit disproportionate. Using a standard adjustment for his LD%, Montero’s BABIP should have been significantly higher, somewhere near .310. That would put Montero among the 30 or so unluckiest players among qualified hitters last season.
Montero may not reach a wOBA of .350+ in the upcoming season, which he’s done three other times in his career. But he’s a safe bet to regress positively in 2015 toward his career mark of .333.
Cubs fans were largely content with the news this winter that the team had re-acquired the guy who had been flipped midsummer in the Addison Russell coup. Hammel’s stint with Oakland was nothing short of a nightmare, but folks are selectively remembering his time on the North Side, where he had pitched consistently like a solid, mid-rotation starter.
That bias might turn out to be right, because despite that disastrous stint in Oakland, even with Hammel’s quality first half of 2014 with the Cubs, the peripherals suggest a significant bounce-back for the righty.
Hammel’s 2014 FIP spiked to 3.92 after hovering much lower during his time in Chicago. But while FIP may be a cleaner representation of ERA, stripping out defense for which a pitcher was not responsible, it still doesn’t touch up pitchers’ sometimes-wild variations in home run/fly ball rates.
One stat, however, does just that; xFIP says that Hammel was very probably hit for more homers than deserved last season. He finished 2014 with a 3.57 xFIP, significantly below that 3.92 FIP. In terms of the gap between FIP and xFIP, Hammel was the 11th unluckiest pitcher among qualified starters in 2014.
Expect him to mostly return to his North Side form in 2015.
The Cubs probably didn’t acquire the former Cardinal just to have another majestic, Schlitter-esque beard in the clubhouse. That’s fine; Beard Above Replacement is still a nascent statistical area anyway.
But the team did see a potential bullpen lotto ticket in Motte, who is coming off his second season following Tommy John surgery and hoping to solidify a spot near the top of the Cubs’ bullpen.
Whether Motte fully returns to form is yet to be played out, but, if healthy, this isn’t just another viable right arm of out the pen; it’s a potentially dominant one.
In fact, the effectiveness Motte displayed in 2012, his last full season, was actually understated. Motte pitched 72 innings that year, posting a fantastic 0.92 WHIP and 3.12 FIP. Factoring in his HR/FB% for that season, though, that FIP should’ve regressed positively to about 2.88.
In other words, if Motte’s fantastic 2012 performance was injected in the 2014 MLB season, he would’ve still been in the 85th percentile of the unluckiest qualified relievers.
To be sure, it’ll be a stroke of great fortune if Motte truly does return to 2012 form. The neat thing is, 2012 Jason Motte was even better than people realized.
Now for a little bit of cold water…
No one could have asked for more than what the rookie starter was able to produce last season. In just over 80 innings, Hendricks truly “pitched” his way to a 2.46 ERA, propelled by a terrific 1.08 WHIP. He didn’t strike out many batters, seen in his tepid 5.27 K rate, but he didn’t walk or surrender hits to many either.
The freshly-turned 25-year-old did have a significant amount of good fortune, though. While Hendricks was among baseball’s top-performing rookie pitchers last year with a 3.32 FIP, he also benefited from a noticeably out-of-sync HR/FB%. That anomaly, in turn, produced an xFIP of 3.92,
Relative to his FIP, this is no small discrepancy. In fact, had he pitched enough innings to qualify while holding those FIP and xFIP rates, Hendricks would have been the luckiest pitcher in all of baseball last year.
This isn’t to say Hendricks didn’t accomplish anything tangible, or that expecting him to stick in a rotation is fool’s gold. That’s absolutely not the case, because in his first stint in The Show, Hendricks displayed the command and composure of a veteran, traits that have carried countless starters to solid careers.
It’s simply worth pointing out that his 2014 performance included fewer homers than the peripherals suggest there should’ve been. He was good, but not 2.46 ERA good.
To read a whole lot more on Hendricks and how much negative regression he’s truly due for, check out the excellent work here from CI’s Nate Schmidt.
Few current prospects have left observers feeling the kind of whiplash caused by the rise, fall and resurrection of Soler’s stock. The Cubs’ equivalent of the Hulk brought some of it on himself, needing to be pulled aside to get an earful about professional comportment.
He was also nagged by a few injuries, enough that, particularly when compounded with the makeup concerns, had many hastily whispering about a high bust potential. But Soler promised his bosses that he was ready for the majors. The front office, by all accounts, loved the confidence and promoted him aggressively in turn.
Soler didn’t just hold his own upon being called up. He killed baseballs, lots of them. In just 97 PA, Soler collected 26 hits, including 5 homers, 8 doubles and a triple. He hit .292 and, more impressively, posted an elite .386 wOBA.
There was a lot of helium in that balloon, though.
Soler had a line-drive rate of just 11.9% in those 97 PA, which is not only low, but wildly incompatible with the .339 BABIP that helped drastically inflate the overall output.
How significant was the discrepancy in Soler’s LD% and BABIP? It’s actually very similar to the Hendricks example. Were those two rates to hold up over enough plate appearances to qualify him, Soler would have essentially been the luckiest hitter in baseball last year.
This is where a disclaimer is advisable: SOLER IS STILL A MONSTER PROSPECT.
Feel free to keep dreaming big on the big Cuban. Dream on the explosive power tool, the advanced approach at the plate and that ridiculous arm. Dream on all of the components of all of the scouting reports that have gushed over Soler’s potential, knowing that his success last year in triple-A and the big leagues softened a lot of the risk built into the overall profile.
But if you’re penciling Soler in for a .390 wOBA in 2015 because “he already did it last year,” you’re oversimplifying things and you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Few high-leverage relievers were as dominant in 2014 as Rondon. The righty closer limited opponents to just over one baserunner per inning while striking out almost nine per 9 innings and walking just over two per. Among qualified relievers last year, only 14 posted lower FIPs than Rondon’s 2.26 output.
In that respect, the company he kept included the Pirates’ Mark Melancon, the Marlins’ Steve Cishek, and the ageless wonder, the Padres’ Joaquin Benoit.
But a bit of luck probably kept him there, too.
Against that 2.26 FIP, Rondon had an xFIP in 2014 of 2.73. That’s still a perfectly good rate, and most teams would take it from a top-of-the-bullpen arm that hits 97 with both his four-seamer and sinker.
It just means his HR/FB% was probably a bit too favorable over the course of those 63.1 innings he pitched last year, and that a re-simulation of Rondon’s 2014 season would’ve included a little more damage via the fly ball.
Here we go. Clearly an attempt at trolling.
That’s not the intention here, rest assured. Lester is about as safe a commodity as it gets for veteran pitchers, one who has done it not just in the AL, but in the most historically-competitive division in that league. He doesn’t rely on overpowering stuff and his significant body of work, spanning more than enough seasons so smooth out “luck,” speaks for itself.
But it would be unfair to the process of this article not to draw attention to some of Lester’s fortuitous 2014 peripherals. Against his 2.80 FIP , Lester posted an xFIP of 3.10, a noticeable spread.
How significant are we talking? Well, to the extent that FIP/xFIP discrepancy can reveal good or bad fortune, Lester was the 16th-luckiest pitcher last year among 88 qualified starters. That’s not enormous, but it’s worth noting for context.
What’s more, it can’t be said that Lester is simply someone who historically over-performs his xFIP. Of Lester’s past eight seasons, two have had nearly identical FIP/xFIP discrepancies, three have had significantly higher xFIPs, and three have had significantly lower xFIPs. Lester’s been on both sides of the luck equation, as has virtually every veteran pitcher.
So did the Cubs just plunk down $155 million on an overrated starter? Hardly. That “high” 3.10 xFIP that Lester posted last year was still good for 11th-best among qualified starters. This is an ace who, even after stripping out his “luck,” still was near the top of the major-league leaderboard in 2014.
However, enough of a case can be made that it’s not reasonable to expect Lester to reach quite the same heights he did a season ago. That 2.80 FIP was the first time in his career that he finished the year under 3.0, and the career discrepancy in his FIP/xFIP numbers is, of course, significantly narrower than the difference seen in 2014 (0.09 vs. 0.30).
So there you have it: a semi-scientific, non-exhaustive rundown of prime regression candidates for the 2015 Cubs.
The takeaways here shouldn’t be that Jorge Soler won’t have a terrific rookie year, that Miguel Montero will rake, or that Jon Lester just robbed the Cubs. Soler is still arguably the Cubs’ safest prospect, Montero is still two full seasons removed from his last good year offensively, and Lester is still a legitimate staff ace.
Instead, this should help augment some of the true projection models out there, from ZiPS to Steamer to PECOTA. Each of those systems takes the entire body of work into account, not just the player’s most recent season.
But if Hammel starts producing again like the guy Billy Beane thought he was getting in July, or if Kyle Hendricks doesn’t post another sub-2.50 ERA, you’ll know from some of the 2014 peripherals that the regressions, positive and negative alike, didn’t come entirely out of nowhere.