Contrarian betting is a useful tactic that involves going against the public. In this case, adopting that mindset helps explain why Carlos Martinez’s PECOTA projection is not that dumb.
Carlos Martinez became a hot topic of conversation once his PECOTA projection was released. Baseball Prospectus’ projection system has Martinez pegged for an ERA of 4.20, more than a full run higher than he has given up in each of his two full seasons in the starting rotation.
Cardsblog writers are right with the fans on this one, as our staff has bashed the projection. On the surface, the projection doesn’t make sense. Why would Martinez’s ERA jump so much? And yet, I see why it can happen, and why it’s a very real possibility.
The Contrarian Mindset
In certain areas, the public is just wrong more often than not. One of those areas is betting against a point spread in professional sports. In fact, it has been shown that if you simply bet against the public every time, you can expect to come out ahead. Contrarian betting is when the public is really pushing one side, and you still fade it. Generally, the cutoff for a contrarian bet is that the public must have placed at least 75 percent of bets on one side.
Contrarian betting tends to have a much greater return on investment than just fading the public on any random bet. Depending on what sport, contrarian betting can have a 55-60 percent success rate. In this case, I haven’t actually seen an over/under on Carlos Martinez’s ERA. I don’t know what the official one is, but it’s more the mindset that I care about here.
It’s clear that the vast majority of people think PECOTA’s projection is way too high. That’s understandable, as Martinez has done much better in the past. However, if you look for reasons to buy into PECOTA’s projection, they certainly exist.
Instead of looking at the projection as ridiculous, I see it as an indication that a contrarian mindset can help us understand what is really at play here. The books will have the over/under on his ERA much lower than 4.20, and fans will still hammer the under. However, I would go contrarian, siding with a higher ERA than expected, and here’s why.
For all of the valid criticisms of the high ERAs projected for the Cardinals, there is one piece of it going largely ignored: fielding. PECOTA projects the Cardinals as the second worst fielding team in the major leagues next season.
That is why you see poor projections across the board for Cardinals’ pitchers; all of those ERAs and WHIPs are partially a reflection of how the fielders will do when each pitcher is on the mound. The Cardinals may not be 32.5 runs below average in the field, but they will lose something there.
We have covered the defense ad nauseam on Cardsblog, so I won’t get too far into the details here. However, it is worth noting that nobody really expects the defense to be good. There might be some improvement from subtracting Matt Holliday and starting Kolten Wong, but everyone seems to be in agreement that there will be a net negative this year in the field. That will hurt Martinez’s ERA to some extent.
Batted Ball Luck
Despite the fact that the Cardinals as a team had an FIP .19 runs higher than their ERA, Martinez posted an FIP .57 runs higher than his ERA in 2016. There will likely be some regression to the mean next season, and it won’t be in Martinez’s favor.
Based on the team’s trends last season, Martinez probably should have had an ERA closer to 3.80 in 2016. Even if that were the starting point, a 4.20 projection seems a little high. On the other hand, I think Cardinals fans would still object to a projection of 3.80 for Martinez.
Another indicator of ERA that tries to take into account balls in play is SIERA. SIERA looks at the type of contact that a pitcher gives up in addition to the three true outcomes. The major league average SIERA in 2016 was 4.11, not that far off from the average ERA.
You might expect that the Cardinals’ top pitcher would have a SIERA far better than league average, but he didn’t. Martinez’s SIERA was a pedestrian 3.97 in 2016, and indicates that he got a little lucky on balls in play. All of a sudden, 4.20 doesn’t seem that far off.
One of the common refrains that I have heard about Martinez’s pitching is that he pitches to contact with runners on base in order to get more double plays. I think people are expressing too much confidence with that statement due to Martinez’s NL-leading 33 double play balls in 2016. That screams “confirmation bias” to me. I don’t buy that a pitcher can just choose when he gives up more contact, and then do better in those situations.
If Martinez is giving up more contact, then it should be more likely that he gives up hard contact, too, and not just double plays. There is a lot of research suggesting that pitchers do not have much control over what happens on a ball in play. We don’t know that Martinez was responsible for making sure that those grounders didn’t become “gorks.”
The Strikeout Rate
One thing a pitcher does have control over is his strikeout rate. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, 100 MPH does not always equal lots of K’s. Martinez’s strikeout percentage dropped from 24.4 percent in 2015 to 21.5 percent in 2016.
That may not sound like much, but in 2016, that constituted the difference between the 78th percentile and the 56th percentile, by that metric. Martinez is a high groundball pitcher, and thus can get away with a little more contact. However, the big drop in strikeout rate for Martinez is very discouraging, to say the least.
The Cardinals would love to be able to say that Martinez will definitely get his K rate back up to his 2015 levels next season. Martinez certainly has the stuff to get there, but there’s no telling if he will. Large drops in strikeout rate at the age of 24/25 are very rare.
There just isn’t much history to tell us if he will bounce back or not. Without knowing that, we have to do some guesswork as to what will happen. For the sake of optimism, I would like to be able to tell you that he is more like the pitcher we saw in 2015, but I really have no idea. If he doesn’t get back there, an ERA in the low 4’s is more likely than you would think.
I can see it happening
Ultimately, I don’t think that Martinez’s ERA will quite get to 4.20 next season. The point of this article is to say that I can see it happening, at least more so than most fans. That doesn’t mean that what I can see happening is right, but I don’t think 4.20 is that stupid.
The key is really that it takes a contrarian mindset to understand why Martinez might get there. You have to think about what is influencing the public’s opinion, and why it might not be accurate.
In this case, the public seems to be ignoring fielding, yet overvaluing ball in play results. Also, when someone throws 100 miles per hour, we tend to miss it when his strikeouts dip. If that dip is real, then Martinez likely doesn’t hold the top spot in the rotation for many seasons. Going contrarian is difficult because it often means ignoring your first, second, and maybe even third instincts.
But sports fans argue all the time; it’s unavoidable. When everyone agrees on something, then I get uncomfortable. In this case, I urge you to consider the contrarian stance, and not place any bets on the under for Carlos Martinez’s ERA.
Photo Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki – USA TODAY Sports