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Monday, February 27, 2012
Mulligan ERA: The impact of awful starts

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

When it comes to evaluating fantasy options, we are far too easily fooled by consistency. That's because the human mind is far too willing to look for patterns in numbers, and when we see them start to emerge, we can't help ourselves. We are captivated by these patterns and can't wait to give them more significance than they deserve.

Case in point, consider the stats from the following two pitchers over the same stretch of seven games from the 2011 season:

Which pitcher would you rather have had in your fantasy rotation over this span? Most people, I think, would be far more inclined to select Pitcher A and his steady run of quality starts over the roller-coaster ride that Pitcher B put his owners through over the same month-plus of outings. However, if you take a look at the actual impact on fantasy standings for both pitchers across the standard pitching categories, you'll see that the difference between the two hurlers was negligible.

Of course, this comparison was made over a small sample size, one that happened to contain one of King Felix's worst outings of the season, a July 22 visit to Boston in which he allowed six runs on 11 hits and four walks. However, when all was said and done, both pitchers ended up with exactly the same ERA at the end of the season.

Still, if we were to give a "mulligan" to both pitchers and remove their worst three starts from the equation, the resulting comparison of their 2011 ERA yields quite a different impression of the two pitchers.

Simply put, a pitcher's "Mulligan ERA" shows what a pitcher's ERA would look like if we were to ignore each player's three worst outings of the season as determined by Game Score, a statistic developed by Bill James. Obviously, this will result in a better ERA for all pitchers. However, as you can see from our above example, the difference is greater for some pitchers than others.

This can be an extremely useful indicator for owners who play in weekly leagues. In a rotisserie league, all that really matters are the end-of-season statistics, and in that case both Latos and Hernandez had the same fantasy impact in terms of ERA.

But in a head-to-head league, which pitcher is more appealing, the one who has a 90 percent chance of giving you a 2.98 ERA or the one with a 90 percent chance at giving you a 3.39 ERA? Sure, both pitchers could blow up at any given week, but over the long haul, Hernandez helps you far more when he's "on" than he hurts you when he's "not."

One reason for this is the fact that managers will often leave their better pitchers out there longer during a bad start, hoping that they'll turn it around. They'll get that extra leeway to try and pitch themselves out a jam when they don't seem to have their best stuff working for them.

As a result, when good pitchers blow up, their ERA often takes a monumental hit that might not recover for many starts, if at all. Pitchers who haven't earned the complete confidence of their manager will get the quick hook and not see as much of an impact from their darkest days on the mound.

Mulligan ERA is a way to see which pitchers truly were the most consistent over the course of the season. A low difference between the actual ERA and the mulligan ERA means the pitcher was more consistent; his worst starts and his typical starts were close to the same. In this case, the consistency we see is not of the "foolish" variety, but rather one that you can expect to continue into the coming season, for better or worse:

There is one other factor to consider. It's what I call "balance." Some pitchers had bad outings that were so out of line with the rest of their 2011 body of work that these few bumps in the road might have a major impact on how their seasons have been perceived. Balance is determined by also giving a pitcher a "mulligan" on their three best starts and seeing if removing their best and worst truly comes out in the wash.

Here is a list of pitchers who had the biggest gap between their worst days and their best days. Perhaps we should give these guys even more credit when evaluating them for the 2012 season. If you're looking for sleepers, this would be a good place to start:

And finally, here is the complete list of Mulligan ERA and Balance numbers for all pitchers who started at least 20 games and threw at least 162 innings for the 2011 season:

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here. You can e-mail him here.

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