You're the kind
That I want to be with in the dark and
You're the kind
Who is capturing my heart
And I'm the lucky one
Baby I'm the lucky one
-Amy Grant, about Victor Robles, probably
It stands to reason that luck is a zero-sum game, that if a batter enjoys good luck on a particular play then the pitcher against whom he was batting was on the wrong side of that luck. A seeing-eye base hit counts as a hit for both; it’s just that, for one it’s a positive, and for the other it’s a negative.
So it makes sense that after finding a handful of players last week who are experiencing some poor luck, we would also find some players who have benefited from good luck through the season’s first few weeks. And we did. Let’s talk about a few of them here.
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It feels a bit like piling on to continue to point to Lester as a guy who can’t possibly keep it up, and yet here he is again, carrying a 2.37 ERA through four starts. More than ever, though, this feels like the year the wheels fall off, even if we’ve played the Charlie Brown to Lester’s Lucy before only to have the football pulled away. Lester’s Statcast page is icy enough to make the Night King jealous, with an expected opponent’s batting average of .318 and an expected opponent’s slugging percentage of .501. He still does some things well -- he’s striking out a quarter of his batters faced while walking less than 8 percent, and he’s always done an inordinately good job of stranding runners -- but there’s just too much evidence to the contrary to think he can keep up the charade much longer. I’ll gladly miss out on some serviceable production to avoid being left holding the bag with the 35-year-old.
It’s a bummer when our hopes and beliefs aren’t backed up by facts. Such is the case with Robles, a guy whom many had pegged as a breakout star heading into the year. And so confirmation bias might lead some to surmise that Robles is right on track as the calendar approaches May, with the 21-year-old hitting .273/.312/.477 with three homers, seven steals, 16 runs scored and 10 RBI through Friday’s games. That line is buoyed by a .368 BABIP, though, and he’s managed to hit .273 while striking out nearly 30 percent of the time to date. Despite that batting average and favorable BABIP, Robles ranks near the bottom of the league in exit velocity and hard-hit percentage while hitting the ball in the air close to half of the time. Robles is a high-end young talent who’s good enough to put up strong numbers without such great fortune -- it’s just not what’s been behind whatever success he’s had to this point in 2019, success that is likely short-lived if things don’t change.
I’m actually a bit surprised I haven’t touched on Arrieta in a column to this point; he was a player I latched onto in spring and for whom I had high hopes this season after it was learned he pitched half of last year with a torn meniscus in his left knee, helping explain some of his struggles. And while his 2.65 ERA through his first five starts was promising, there isn’t much propping it up when we peek behind the curtain. (After Saturday’s win over the Marlins, his ERA sits at 3.46, for the record.) Almost every metric suggests he’s in for regression, whether it’s an unusually low BABIP (.239) or unusually high percentage of stranded runners (84.8 percent) or the fact that he’s suppressed runs despite being average or worse in strikeout percentage and quality of contact numbers. His 1.28 WHIP and 4.49 FIP tell the story: the 33-year-old has been playing with fire, and he’s been lucky to not have been burned (much) to this point.
What you think of Sanchez in 2019 may depend on your memory. Some will view him favorably as a former first-round pick and top-50 prospect who’s healthy and performing after a couple of down, injury-plagued years. Others will look back on those recent seasons and see a mediocre pitcher who struggled even when injuries didn’t keep him off the mound. His 2.77 ERA lends credence to the idea that this obviously talented pitcher has found something this year, but there’s cause for concern. The biggest is that while he’s managed to strike out nearly 21 percent of the batters he’s faced, he’s also walked more than 14 percent. That’s just too many free baserunners, especially in a place like Rogers Centre that doesn’t mask many issues for pitchers. Add in the fact that he’s actually been hit pretty hard, too, and Sanchez has been really fortunate that more of those free passes haven’t turned into runs. Soon enough, they will.
We’re really picking on the Nationals here. And while Eaton’s success -- he’s hitting .310/.373/.400 with a homer, four steals, 17 runs scored and six RBI -- has been a little more deserved than Robles’, it’s not without its red flags. Like Robles, Eaton has benefited from a .385 BABIP and, like Robles, Eaton hasn’t been stinging the ball despite the high average. The 30-year-old ranks in the bottom 20 percent of the league in both exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, making solid contact just 5.1 percent of the time, per Statcast. Eaton historically has produced in spite of never being an advanced metrics darling, so in some ways this is not out of line with past years, many of which have ended up looking fine on the surface. Perhaps the biggest takeaway, then, is not that Eaton is destined for a decline, but rather that if he experiences one we won’t have to look far to see why.
A 4.50 ERA and 1.39 WHIP don’t stand out, but prior to Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals Mahle had numbers worth raising an eyebrow at -- in his first four starts, the right-hander posted a 3.52 ERA with a 25.8 percent strikeout percentage. That was fun while it lasted, but the profile -- a hard-hit percentage and exit velocity in the bottom 2 percent of the league, .355 BABIP, 80.7 percent of runners left on base -- screamed for regression. He has his moments, but they are too inconsistent to support the kind of production he gave the Reds out of the gate.