When it comes to winning games, the only thing that matters is the outcome. Did you let that runner score? Did you hit that home run? If not, if the runs don't get on (or stay off) the board, then what might have happened -- or should have happened -- doesn't really matter. You don't win games based on hypotheticals.
But during the offseason, when teams are trying to make player decisions for the upcoming campaign, hypotheticals are everything. Teams look past the high ERA of a Rockies pitcher -- knowing Coors Field is a factor -- to try to find skill. General managers know that run scoring can be influenced by defense, a ballpark or simple bad timing or bad batted-ball luck. Everyone in the game is trying to find the next hidden gem or undervalued asset.
We can do the same here, because not every 5.00 ERA was attained the same way. Some pitchers got there simply by pitching poorly, while others deserved a whole lot better than they got. Let's identify 10 of those names right now among those who pitched at least 30 innings.
The way we'll do that is by comparing traditional ERA, where the Major League average was 4.36, to our advanced Statcast™ quality-of-contract metric, xwOBA. You can read more about how xwOBA works here, but it takes expected outcomes of batted balls based on exit velocity and launch angle, plus real-world strikeouts and walks, to give you a defense and ballpark-free indicator of contact skill. The 2017 Major League average xwOBA was .314. Among starters, Washington's Max Scherzer led baseball with an elite .242 mark, and among all pitchers, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen's .198 was the best.
If we had done this last winter, we'd have given you Anthony Swarzak (5.52 ERA in 2016), Kirby Yates (5.32), Shane Greene (5.82) and Aaron Nola (4.78) as pitchers who deserved better. All four of them were good in 2017, as Swarzak (2.33 ERA in '17) and Greene (2.66) sliced their ERA in half, while Nola dropped his by more than a run to 3.54 and Yates fanned 88 in 56 2/3 innings. Who's next?
Kenta Maeda, 4.22 ERA, .281 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Zack Greinke (3.20 ERA), Jimmy Nelson (3.49 ERA)
Maeda's two seasons in the big leagues have looked similar from a quality-of-contact perspective, as his xwOBA actually dropped from .289 to .281. His strikeouts and walks stayed the same, as did his BABIP, although like most everyone else, he had a bit of a home-run problem, which is partially why his ERA jumped from 3.48 to 4.22. This was also somewhat about two disastrous starts, because after not allowing more than five runs in a game in 2016, he did so twice in '17, giving up six to the D-backs on Apr. 22 and seven to them again on Aug. 31.
Chris Archer, 4.07 ERA, .292 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Giovany Gonzalez (2.96 ERA), Ervin Santana (3.28 ERA)
This is the second year in a row we're talking about how Archer's skill level was better than that of his performance level. But it's even starker this year, as the Rays' ace upped his strikeout rate (27.4 percent to 29.2) and lowered his walk rate (7.9 percent to 7.0). His underlying quality-of-contact level was basically that of Gonzalez, who finished sixth in National League Cy Young Award voting.
Jeff Samardzija, 4.42 ERA, .294 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Robbie Ray (2.89 ERA), Jon Gray (3.67 ERA)
Samardzija's second year in San Francisco was actually better than his first in most ways, as he increased his strikeout rate (from 20 percent to 24) and lowered his walk rate (from 7 percent to 4), on his way to finishing second in the NL with a 6.4 strikeout-to-walk rate. This was in some sense a team effort, as the last-place Giants were not strong in the bullpen or in outfield defense.
Marco Estrada, 4.98 ERA, .299 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Kyle Hendricks (3.03 ERA), Madison Bumgarner (3.32 ERA)
What made Estrada's 4.98 ERA in 2017 different from his All-Star-worthy 3.48 ERA in '16? Not a lot. Like most pitchers, he allowed a few more homers, but his strikeouts, walks and overall quality of contact (.296 xwOBA last year, .299 this year) stayed the same. The one thing that changed is that after allowing a .202 average in each of the previous two seasons, that jumped to .254 in '17 -- likely in part because the notoriously fly-ball-prone Estrada was in front of baseball's weakest outfield defense.
Buck Farmer, 6.75 ERA, .302 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Jacob Arrieta (3.53 ERA), Danny Duffy (3.81 ERA)
The 26-year-old Farmer started off his season with 13 scoreless innings before having his line collapse. But despite the ugly ERA, he showed solid quality of contact for the second year in a row, striking out more than a batter per inning. In 123 2/3 Triple-A innings, he struck out 114 while allowing 31 walks.
Jharel Cotton, 5.58 ERA, .313 xwOBA
SP with similar xwOBA: Marcus Stroman (3.09 ERA), Taijuan Walker (3.49 ERA)
Cotton's first full season was an inconsistent one, with too many poor outcomes (eight starts allowing five or more runs) while also showing enough talent to grab the attention of no less than the great Pedro Martinez.
Interestingly enough, despite the Oakland Coliseum's reputation as a pitcher's park, Cotton was far better on the road. Seven of those eight poor starts came at home, while his road ERA of 3.94 was much better than his 6.98 mark in Oakland.
Kevin Shackelford, 4.70 ERA, .259 xwOBA
RP with similar xwOBA: Chris Devenski (2.68 ERA), Cody Allen (2.94 ERA)
We're obviously not talking about huge samples here, because Shackelford pitched just 30 2/3 innings, but that's the nature of relievers. In his first MLB opportunity, the Reds righty struck out 38, after posting a 1.53 ERA and nearly 12 strikeouts per nine in Triple-A. Originally acquired in 2014's Jonathan Broxton trade, Shackelford allowed nine runs over his first seven games, and just seven in his final 19 -- thanks, in part, to a fastball that reached 95.1 mph.
Mark Melancon, 4.50 ERA, .288 xwOBA
RP with similar xwOBA: Wade Davis (2.30 ERA), Zach Britton (2.89 ERA)
After so many years of success, no one really thought Melancon's disappointing San Francisco debut was really indicative of who he is, especially because his strikeout and walk numbers were similar to his career averages. Like Samardzija, the situation around him likely hindered his results. Assuming there are no serious ill effects from his arm surgery, he's a good rebound bet.
Cam Bedrosian, 4.43 ERA, .290 xwOBA
RP with similar xwOBA: Wade Davis (2.30 ERA), Zach Britton (2.89 ERA)
A year ago, Bedrosian was a breakout arm who put up a 1.13 ERA in 40 1/3 innings. In 2017, he pitched a similar amount of innings (44 2/3), but his ERA ballooned to 4.43. The truth is probably somewhere in between, because he still struck out 53 batters and his walk rate didn't budge, though he said he was still working through the effects of an April groin strain. If the truth really is in between, that's a valuable reliever, one better than the 4.43 ERA shows.
Scott Oberg, 4.94 ERA, .298 xwOBA
RP with similar xwOBA: Brandon Kintzler (3.03 ERA), Brad Brach (3.18 ERA)
You could really insert any Rockies pitcher here -- Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson, Jake McGee and others all qualify. Like many, Oberg was much better away from Coors Field (4.05 ERA away, 5.68 home), but he also flashed a velocity increase, from 94.5 mph to 96.3, and allowed just four barrels all year. The underlying xwOBA was that of Kintzler, who was an All-Star.