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This Just In: Our Starters Don't Suck

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2006 AL Pitchers, ranking by ERA:

  • (1) C.C. Sabathia - 2.62 (if qualified)
  • 28. Jake Westbrook - 4.77
  • 29. Paul Byrd - 4.81
  • 31. Cliff Lee - 5.04
  • 43. Jason Johnson - 6.00
What if I told you that Jason Johnson is an above average pitcher?

What if I told you that Jason Johnson is not even our worst starter?

Crazy, right?  But it appears to be true.

Johnson -- and all our starters other than Cliff Lee -- all look above average under a stat called called Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP.  It's a formula devised by Tangotiger and discussed by Ryan before on this site. FIP is explained at The Hardball Times web site:

Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded.

In other words ... on the baseball diamond, some things happen that are entirely in the hands of the pitchers.  Some things are mostly in the hands of the fielders, or the luck of a bounce ("fielding dependent pitching").  In fact, some things are entirely in the hands of the fielders ("pitching independent fielding") -- baserunning outs for example.  All of these events, plus luck, are rolled up into ERA, even though many of them have little or nothing to do with the pitcher.

ERA = FIP + FDP + PIF + luck

FIP = ERA - FDP - PIF - luck
FIP was designed to assign an ERA type of number to pitchers, representing only those things that are mostly or entirely in the hands of the pitcher.  No bad fielding, no good fielding.  No good bounces, no bad bounces.  It's an attempt to remove the noise, to look as closely as possible at "pure" pitching performance.

2006 AL Pitchers, ranking by FIP:

  • (4) C.C. Sabathia - 3.45 (if qualified)
  • 19. Jake Westbrook - 4.21
  • 20. Paul Byrd - 4.40
  • 28. Jason Johnson - 4.71
  • 33. Cliff Lee - 4.89
These numbers are directly comparable to ERA -- that is, the league average FIP is set equal to the league average ERA, which at the moment is 4.72 -- see, I told you Johnson was above average, if only barely.  But how is this possible?

Seemingly to answer that very question, the Hardball Times also presents a stat called FIP-ERA.  It's called that because they haven't come up with a better name, I guess.  I think they should call it HMYDISY, which is short for "How Much Your Defense Is Screwing You."

2006 AL Pitchers, ranking by HMYDISY:

  • 1. Jason Johnson - -1.29
  • 14. Jake Westbrook - -0.56
  • 17. Paul Byrd - -0.41
  • 24. Cliff Lee - -0.14
  • (40) C.C. Sabathia - +0.83 (if qualified)
You will notice that C.C. is the only starter not getting screwed by the defense, a fact easily explained by his team-leading strikeout rate and the fact that he's faced far fewer batters.  C.C.'s consequently has seen far fewer balls put into play -- 164 to be exact, compared with an average of 277 among the other four starters.  In other words, Sabathia hasn't given the defense nearly as much opportunity to screw him.  Cliff Lee unsurprisingly has the second-best K rate and is the second-least affected by our defensive woes.

Ryan has written about FIP before, but it's important not just to understand what it does to individual stats, but what those distortions mean in the context of the whole league.  And these are the conclusions:

  • Our defense is killing our starters' starts, and
  • Our starters' starts are killing our bullpen, so
  • We are getting killed, even though
  • Our rotation is solidly above-average and deep, and
  • Jason Johnson is the most screwed pitcher in the American League.
Johnson's screwing is all the more maddening because he is, based on the underlying stats, apparently doing the best pitching of his career.  His groundball rate has jumped from .52 to .61, while his flyball rate has decreased almost as much and his line drive rate continues a long-term trend of slow decline.  These numbers don't make him a great pitcher or even a very good one.  But they do make him an average pitcher.

And just to add insult to injury, who do you think is the worst pitcher in the American League, as ranked by FIP?

  • 49. Scott Elarton - 6.92
This suggests that, to a degree, the front office's offseason moves regarding the rotation were right on target.  But the pitching staff clearly was designed around the presumption of a fundamentally sound defense, perhaps even an excellent defense.  And for whatever reasons, that design has collapsed.