Trevor Bauer is currently the No. 7 starting pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater (No. 5 in ESPN's points format) and rostered in 97.3 percent of leagues. There's little doubt that, given the chance to add him to your roster for a fair price, you'd have few qualms about doing so. However, that was far from the case last year at this time.
Headed into the final two months of 2017, Bauer was 9-8, with a 5.25 ERA, a .273 BAA, a 9.9 K/9 and a 2.79 K/BB rate. Few fantasy managers would have been optimistic about his chances for success moving forward from that point. Yet, August was simply stellar for the Cleveland hurler. Bauer went 5-0 with a 2.31 ERA, a .265 BAA, a 10.2 K/9, and a 3.38 K/BB rate.
Was there any way we should have seen this coming? Not really, I'd argue. Sure, Bauer decided in late July to ditch his cutter and instead started throwing a modified slider, which the pitcher credits as a big reason for his terrific turnaround. Still, experimenting with new pitches in-season is far from a guaranteed cure-all for a sour season.
I'm not discounting the impact of Bauer's pitch selection, but more obvious in retrospect as a huge difference-maker was a far more tangible statistic. Through July of 2017, Bauer's left-on-base rate, otherwise known as strand rate or LOB%, was just 67.7 percent. In August, that number improved to an almost ridiculous 96.5 percent.
While there certainly will be exceptions, generally speaking, over the course of a full 162-game season, most pitchers will tend to see their LOB% settle around league average, which typically settles around the 72 percent mark. Pitchers who are well below the average two-thirds of the way through the season have a higher probability of improving their ERA going forward, simply due to the expectation of their strand rate improving for the rest of the campaign.
Last season, of the starting pitchers with the lowest LOB% after July (minimum 100 IP), nearly all of them saw improvement in this stat in August.
On the flip side of the equation, pitchers who entered August last season with LOB% of 78.0 or better tended to see a decline over the course of the month. Take away Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray and Kyle Freeland due to injuries, and even though nine of the remaining 10 pitchers who fit the bill -- Max Scherzer was the exception -- saw LOB% regression, you would have had a better than 50-50 chance at a poorer August from this SP tier.
All of this leads us to a look at 2018 and the names of the pitchers at the extremes.
Pitchers with LOB% of 80.0 or better are more likely than not to see an ERA decline in August: Ross Stripling, Justin Verlander, Blake Snell, Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, Jacob deGrom, Mike Fiers, Max Scherzer, Kyle Freeland, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole, Jon Lester and Chase Anderson.
Three of these pitchers threw yesterday, with Freeland allowing 3 ER in 5.1 IP, and Anderson giving up two solo homers over 6 IP. Not horrible, but not great either. Fiers lasted just two innings due to getting hit on the shin with a comebacker. Injuries like that can't be predicted, but outings like that -- especially in leagues with caps on starts -- certainly hurt.
As for pitchers at the bottom end of the scale with a LOB% of 68.8 or worse, meaning there's that odds are good for a majority of these pitchers to have a strong August: Alex Cobb, Jason Hammel, Jon Gray, Felix Hernandez, Lucas Giolito, Clayton Richard, Jake Arrieta, James Shields, Nick Pivetta, Lance McCullers Jr., J.A. Happ and Luis Castillo.
Cobb pitched in Yankee Stadium yesterday, improving his record to 3-14 on the season with 1 ER allowed (on a solo Gleyber Torres home run) in 6 IP. Sure, it's just one outing. That said, it was against a strong offense and over the past 30 days, Cobb has only two fewer points than Corey Kluber. If you're looking for a longshot, this tier is where you'll find them.