Familiarity is apparently not an advantage for the hitter.
In fact, using data from the past three seasons, the argument can be made that the pitcher gains the upper hand when facing the same opponent within a short span of time.
Claim that it's not unexpected if you wish, but there's a belief out there that the pendulum swings from pitcher to hitter the more times the hitter sees said pitcher. The next logical step is therefore to assume that a team would probably enjoy more success in a rematch several days following its initial battle with the same starting pitcher. Not so!
But before we delve into the research nitty-gritty, let's start from the beginning. The topic came up on a recent episode of the Fantasy Focus podcast, where Eric Karabell and I answer listener emails. Jordan from Halifax, Nova Scotia, wrote in asking, "Does a pitcher facing the same team twice ever factor into your decision to start or sit them the second time around?"
Jordan's question was apropos in that, through two-plus weeks of action (through Monday's games), 22 of the 386 starting-pitching assignments to date were claimed by individuals who had faced the same foe just five or six days earlier. And in the remainder of fantasy's Week 3 -- the six-day period from Tuesday through Sunday -- another 13 pitchers are scheduled to face the same opponent they did in their most recent appearance.*
Among those 22 pitchers were some known fantasy commodities who struggled in their rematches: Homer Bailey (April 8 at the St. Louis Cardinals), Tony Cingrani (April 7 at the Cardinals), Tim Lincecum (April 9 versus the Arizona Diamondbacks) and Lance Lynn (April 8 versus the Cincinnati Reds). No matter how many times we caution overreacting to early-April returns, these patterns nevertheless can inspire fear -- or at least spawn the question.
But the collective group of 22 pitchers actually didn't struggle, managing the following statistics in the initial and rematch outings:
Start No. 1: 5.76 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 31.8 QS%, 20.6 K%, 5.39 IP/GS
Start No. 2 (the rematch): 3.13 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 59.1 QS%, 21.2 K%, 5.76 IP/GS
Claim the small-sample influence, but it's not a one-year trend. Using data from 2011 to 2013 and a sample of the 50 most consistent pitchers during that three-year span -- using ERA, WHIP, strikeout rate, K-to-walk ratio and quality-start percentage -- it turns out that pitchers have long secured the edge in a rematch played less than 10 days after the initial battle.
The chart below breaks these 50 pitchers down by their initial games (Start No. 1) and the rematches (Start No. 2) by number of days between outings (Days between).
Outings 10 or fewer days apart exhibited the most improvement in the rematch, their ERAs more than a half-run better, WHIP 0.05 lower and quality-start percentage nearly 9 percent higher. Now that was due in part to their initial games resulting in worse ratios (ERA and quality-start percentage, specifically) than in any of the other groups; I don't have a logical explanation for that and would suggest the possibility that it's an anomaly.
But the rematch numbers are still better than all but those in the 21-30 day group -- another potential anomaly -- showing that there's no disadvantage to hitters having recently seen a particular starting pitcher and that there might, in fact, be an advantage for said starter. Certainly one should not avoid a pitcher in these rematches. In fact, on the heels of a pedestrian fantasy outing, these pitchers could be more apt to rebound in the rematch.
This is a reason why fantasy owners need not fret outings like Jordan Zimmermann's 1 2/3-inning, five-run stinker versus the Miami Marlins on April 9 when considering his rematch with them at Marlins Park on Monday. (Zimmermann rebounded with a seven-inning, two-run outing.) It is also why they shouldn't worry about Stephen Strasburg's poor history at that venue when he pitches there Tuesday, even if he dominated the Marlins in their last head-to-head battle. In either case -- each approaching it from a different angle -- the data doesn't support the Marlins having an advantage in their familiarity with their division rival; it's not the exposure to division rivals that dictates the matchup but rather the strength of said matchup. (Keep that in mind, those of you who fear American League East pitchers.)
By the way, even breaking down the above analysis as to where the outings occurred -- home versus road -- thus far in 2014, the numbers scarcely changed. Ten of the 22 repeat-matchup pitchers endured their rematch assignment at the opponent's ballpark (a road start). Their stats:
Start No. 1: 6.23 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 20.0 QS%, 22.4 K%, 5.20 IP/GS
Start No. 2 (the rematch): 3.76 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 60.0 QS%, 17.7 K%, 5.27 IP/GS
The small-sample caveat again applies, and those rematch stats are hardly outstanding, but remember that all pitchers enjoy a home-field advantage; the major league ERA for starting pitchers in home games in 2013 was more than a quarter-run lower (3.84-4.18), WHIP nearly a tenth of a point lower (1.27-1.34) and quality-start percentage 6 percentage points higher (55.6-49.6) than on the road. In short, it's not that it's a rematch that makes a road assignment less attractive; it's that it's a road game in the first place.
* These 13 pitchers: Tom Koehler (WSH) and Stephen Strasburg (@MIA) on Tuesday; Yovani Gallardo (@PIT) and Edinson Volquez (MIL) on Thursday; James Shields (MIN), Ricky Nolasco (@KC), Wade Miley (@LAD), Dan Haren (ARI), Kyle Lohse (@PIT) and Charlie Morton (MIL) on Friday; and Kevin Correia (@KC), Trevor Cahill (@LAD) and Paul Maholm (ARI) on Saturday. In addition, during the April 11-13 Atlanta Braves at New York Mets series, Aaron Harang, Ervin Santana, David Hale, Bartolo Colon and Zack Wheeler will all be facing their respective opponents exactly 10 days apart.