How to Hold Your Own at a Sabermetrics Cocktail, Part 2: ERA+/-

You have most likely heard of ERA, and have a pretty good grasp on the concept. It’s the average number of runs a pitcher allows over a span of nine innings. The lower the better, and one of the oldest barometers of pitching success.

The purpose of ERA+/- is to eliminate the variables associated with different ballparks and environments that factor into traditional ERA.

ERA+/- is a new take on an old concept. For starters, a typical ERA might be 3.95, and a typical ERA+ might be 104. The evident difference in those two numbers indicates that ERA+ must be interpreted in different ways.

WHAT IT MEANS:

Ignoring ERA- for now, the higher the better with ERA+ with a baseline average of 100. With ERA+, the difference between the observed result (ex. 104) and 100 is the percentage by which the league’s average ERA differs from the pitcher’s.

So, if Pitcher A has an ERA+ of 104, the league’s ERA is 4% higher (worse) than Pitcher A.

Now, important distinction here, that does not mean that Pitcher A’s ERA is 4% better than the rest of the league. In ERA+, the player is the baseline and the league’s ERA is the variable. It measures how far away the league is from the pitcher.

Most people would agree that it is more useful to see how a pitcher performs compared to the league rather than the other way around. That’s where ERA- comes into play. With ERA-, the difference between the observed result and 100 is the percentage that Player A’s performance differs from the league.

For example, if Bartolo Colon has an ERA- of 91, it means that his ERA is 9% better than the league’s ERA.

HOW IT’S CALCULATED:

The difference between ERA+ and ERA- comes from the mathematical equation itself:

ERA+ = AL or NL ERA/ ERA + [ERA – (ERA x PF)]

ERA- = ERA + [ERA – (ERA x PF)] / AL or NL ERA

As you can see, the only difference is that the numerator and denominator are flipped. This is where the difference comes in: 4/5= 80%, but 5/4= 125%. That 5% difference in the example is same concept that leads to the difference in ERA+ and ERA-, and why one player’s ERA+ and ERA- can be different distances from 100.

Before I go any further, the obvious question remains: Why have both? In short, convenience. ERA- is more useful, to be sure. However, ERA+ was developed first and is a more readily available statistic than ERA- on websites like baseball reference. For a casual fan (or serious fan, if you are truly diving into a pitcher’s advanced stats like this), the difference is mostly negligible. ERA+ is more flawed than ERA-, but it achieves the same basic concept. It still gives you a comparison between the pitcher and the league, and it attempts to eliminate the same variables that can artificially alter ERA.

WHY IT’S USEFUL:

*Exhales*. With all the technical stuff out of the way, let’s get into why ERA+/- is useful. After all, you can compare a player’s ERA to the league ERA in any given year without all the mumbo-jumbo up above. Why ERA+/-?

Now, I know you are wondering about the “PF” in that equation. PF stands for Park Factors, and that is where the value of ERA+/- lies. Park Factors has its own complicated formula, but in short it attempts to compensate for the difference between a bandbox like Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and a pitcher’s paradise like San Diego’s Petco Park. ERA+/- can be useful to analysts in determining how much the outside factors of a pitcher’s park and the league hitting environment are influencing a pitcher’s performance.

The best example I can give of the value of ERA+ is the 2007 Colorado Rockies. Many thanks to Baseball Reference for almost any and all stats, but unfortunately they don’t provide ERA-; therefore, we have to use ERA+ in this example.

The 2007 Rockies made it all the way to the World Series, where they were swept by the Boston Red Sox. Still though, the first World Series in franchise history was reason for excitement. It’s easy see why they were successful based on the offensive numbers…but wow, how did they make it through the playoffs with that pitching staff?

Their ace was Jeff Francis, who sported an extremely mediocre 4.22 ERA. None of their starters had an ERA below 4. Even our beloved FIP had them at a team-wide 4.52. Yet, they were good enough to make the World Series. How?

Well, the Rockies had seven different players accumulate at least eight starts that year, and all except for one had an ERA+ of over 100. Coors Field is the most difficult place to pitch in the majors by a wide margin, and ERA+ accommodates for that, as the team wide ERA+ is a respectable 112. It probably would have been even higher if it weren’t for a whole host of guys they had that pitched 15 or less innings (read: garbage time inning eaters) who were downright abysmal. ERA+ allows us to reference the Rockies against the rest of the Coors Field-less league. What appeared at first to be a terrible pitching staff actually ended being a pretty solid one.

Image result for coors field

(Photographer not given)

The other benefit of ERA+/- is it allows for comparison across different decades. In 1968, Carl Yastrzemski won the AL Batting title while hitting just .301. Tough time to hit. Everyone knows about the dead ball era, but fewer know about how much easier it was to pitch before the mound was lowered  in the 1960’s largely due to Bob Gibson’s dominance. And trying to pitch in the steroid era? Forget about it. Because the league’s ERA is built into the formula, it’s easier to compare players from different generations. It should be noted that Pedro Martinez’s dominance of the late 90’s and early 2000’s came during the most prolific offensive period in baseball history. That’s reflected in his ERA+, which ranks second all time.

Image result for pedro martinez pitching expos

(Photographer Not Given)

ERA+/- is a complicated stat, and much more difficult to explain and interpret than traditional stats. However, the reward for the extra effort put into understanding ERA+/- allows fans to gain a clearer picture of a pitcher’s performance and it quantifies and eliminates the variables of time period and location, essentially stabilizing the hitting environment over 100 plus years of baseball.

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How to Hold Your Own at a Sabermetrics Cocktail, Part 1: FIP

For most of baseball’s existence, you measured a pitcher’s success with three stats-Wins, ERA, and strikeouts.

Nowadays, if you speak those terms, you’re a baseball dinosaur. Any in depth article you read will reference FIP, ERA+, and WAR. I’ve always considered myself to be a baseball expert-but with these terms I wasn’t even sure if it was better for the number to be high or low.

Here’s an explanation of GM’s and analysts’ new toy for player evaluation, and how you can use it to determine the performance of a particular pitcher or more importantly, hold your own in a conversation with a baseball geek.

FIP

FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. In short, FIP attempts to isolate the pitcher’s ability to prevent runs independent of outside factors. Evaluate FIP in the same way you would ERA-the lower the better. FIP allows analysts to gauge how much the defense behind them is affecting their ability to prevent runs. Another way to say it would be that it helps you determine how lucky or unlucky a pitcher may be.

FIP attempts to quantify the difference between having Jose Canseco and Ken Griffey Junior patrolling the outfield behind you. Even if a a poor defensive player does not make an error, that may simply be because they didn’t get close enough to make a play on the ball. FIP is calculated using only strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs allowed-outcomes that do not involve the defense. This eliminates several confounding variables in a pitcher’s performance.

FIP is not a panacea to the issues present in ERA, but does help to clear the minefield a bit when attempting to evaluate if your pitcher truly getting rocked or the balls are just finding holes.

ERA is still a valuable tool-after all, a pitcher’s primary purpose is to prevent runs. It’s still important to take FIP with a grain of salt-a pitcher with a good FIP never won any ballgames-it’s ERA that gives a team a chance to win. However, a significant FIP and ERA difference can indicate that a pitcher’s success is unsustainable, or that a recent skid is more due to poor luck and/or timing than a true red flag. Think of FIP as the norm that an oscillating ERA should, in theory, return to.

The formula is math spaghetti, so feel free to look that up on your own, but the important thing is to realize what factors play into calculating FIP and what FIP represents in terms of a pitcher’s value.

(Getty Images)

AJ Griffin tossed 200 innings for the A’s in 2013 and posted a respectable 3.83 ERA. His FIP of 4.55, however, suggested that he was getting hit harder than you might think at first glance. This was most likely due to the fact that he gave up an incredible 36 home runs. Sure enough, in Griffin’s next two seasons (he missed 2014 with an injury) he posted ugly ERA’s of over 5-to go along with even higher FIP’s, indicating that he was not, in fact, unlucky; he was just ineffective.

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija throws against the San Diego Padres in the first inning of their baseball game Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) Photo: Eric Risberg, Associated Press

(Eric Rinsberg/Associated Press)

On the other hand, the Giant’s Jeff Samardzija has posted a terrible 2-9 record and unsightly 4.81 ERA this season, numbers that twenty years ago everyone would agree indicated a very poor season indeed. However, his excellent strikeout to walk ration of 104 to 13 buoys (or sinks, however you want to look at it) his FIP, which instead stands at a 3.40, indicating a solidly above average performance. Taking the holistic approach, Samardzija’s numbers must accommodate for the 2017 Giants’ general incompetence. Though Eduardo Nunez is no great shakes at third, the rest of the Giants infield defense is excellent. Where Samardzija is getting killed is the outfield, where Samardzija especially suffers because he is by nature a fly ball pitcher. The Giants have started double digit players in left, including career infielders Eduardo Nunez and Orlando Calixte. In center field, lower body injuries and age have robbed Denard Span of the athleticism that once made routine plays easy, as the case is now exactly the opposite. Hunter Pence has always done things in his own weird way, which was fine when it worked, but now every fly ball to right threatens to send Giants fans into cardiac arrest. And Gorkys Hernandez, well he can’t really hit, but it’s fine because he can field, except, well, he can’t seem to do that either.

But you have a job and a life and what you don’t have is time for all of that analysis, so…FIP!

 

The 2017 Warriors are Not Going to Ruin Basketball

If you listen to the press outside of the Bay Area, there are a good number of people who believe that the Warriors would be better served building their new arena on Alcatraz Island rather than in San Francisco. Terms like “competitive imbalance”, “the easy way out”, and “ruining basketball” are tossed around carelessly without any rational thought behind them as the Warriors unopposed romp through the Western Conference has vilified them in the eyes of a jealous nation.

As flawed as these statements are, it makes sense that they are so prevalent. After all, takes like these are born of emotion-in particular, frustration-not clear headed thought. After all, it’s frustrating when your team stinks and the Warriors have such an unbelievable collection of talent concentrated on one team. Some fanbases have suffered years without success, watching dynasty after dynasty pass them by while they were thrilled to be competing for the eighth seed. And now, a team with three All-Stars, a team in contention to be among the greatest teams of All-Time, went out and signed Kevin Durant in free agency. It would be like if the ’96 Bulls went out and signed Gary Payton. Except Kevin Durant is a more dominant player than The Glove, for all his greatness, ever was.

But this line of thinking is incorrect, for multiple reasons. If there’s any team who embodies this “competitive balance” it’s the Warriors. It would be one thing if the Lakers or Celtics signed Durant and created a superteam-then, people might have some grounds on which the complain that their team could never win. But the Warriors should be an inspiration that event the worst of teams can one day become dominant.

The 1997 Warriors had one All-Star: the talented but unstable Latrell Sprewell, who was traded after choking out his own coach. He later turned down a 21 million dollar contract, claiming that it wasn’t enough to feed his children. Moving on. It wasn’t until 2013, when David Lee was selected to play in the All-Star game, that a Warrior once again made the All-Star team. In between, the Warriors had their magical “We Believe” season and…not much else. Some notable draft picks since the Run TMC era, the last instance of sustained success for the Warriors, include Joe Smith, Todd Fuller, Andris Biendris, Patrick O’Bryant, and Epke Udoh-a litany of busts that prevented the team from ever acquiring a player to build around.

That all changed with the selection of Steph Curry with the 7th overall pick in the 2009 draft. But success wasn’t instantaneous. Curry struggled with ankle injuries and at one point it was a real debate if he would sign with Charlotte to be closer to home once he hit free agency. It was just three years ago that the Warriors were bounced in the first round against the Clippers in the last year of the Mark Jackson era.

Up until the 1990’s, the Lakers and the Celtics dominated the NBA so thoroughly it was comical. From 1950 (the first year of the NBA finals) to 1990, the Lakers or Celtics won 27 out of 40 NBA Finals. That’s two teams winning the Finals 68% of the time. That’s absurd. The teams that have dominated in the last thirty years had virtually zero success prior to that-the Bulls, Spurs, Heat, Cavaliers, and Warriors were all afterthoughts in NBA lore before securing their place as All-Time great teams.

It should not be forgotten that the current iteration of these Warriors has just one championship to their name. Dominant teams come in cycles-which is why Jordan’s two three-peats are so impressive, and why the question of whether or not he could have won eight straight titles had he not decided to play baseball will forever remain as one of the most entertaining hypothetical situations in NBA lore. LeBron’s Cavaliers couldn’t break through the first time and the current group can also claim just one championship. The “Boston Three Party”-one of the finest pieces of trade engineering ever-was supposed to unbalance the league and it too produced just a singular title. LeBron’s “Heatles”-a crime far more egregious than the signing of Kevin Durant because it involved three star free agents instead of just one-was one lucky missed call on a Ray Allen travel from also managing just one title as well.

The dynasties with staying power involve home grown players-buying wins sacrifices long term success for moderate short term improvement-and this is evident in the teams and players with the most rings. MJ and Pippen. Magic, James Worthy, Kobe. Duncan and Robinson, with a little help from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.

That’s the number one reason why the Warriors scare people so much. It’s not just that the Knicks or the Nuggets or the Kings or any other number of irrelevant NBA teams have no chance to win a title.

The issue is that nobody else in the entire league, save for perhaps the Cavaliers, has a chance to win a title. A perfect storm-and a herculean effort by LeBron triggered an improbably comeback last season, on the back of superb play by LeBron but also injuries and recklessness by the Warriors. Yes, the Cavaliers beat the Warriors, but the Warriors also beat themselves. The number one seed Boston Celtics, winner of 60 plus games-not just beaten, but embarrassed in the conference finals. The Houston Rockets, the modern iteration of Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven seconds or less” offense? An afterthought. The Spurs held a commanding lead before losing Kawhi Leonard to an injury, but the successive blowouts proved that one man couldn’t have rescued even the Spurs, who haven’t been bad in twenty years.

If you’re not from the Bay Area, it’s a depressing outlook for an NBA fan. LeBron has been to the last seven NBA Finals, with no indication that anybody is line to slow him down. Out west, the Warriors are unbeatable with a healthy Curry.

However, as the examples above of superteams demonstrates, expected or planned brilliance (“Not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4..”-LeBron James, all the way up to seven, on the number of championships he expected the Heat to win) rarely pans out in the fashion expected. The disastrous results expected of an unstoppable superpower failed to materialize, and it was that much more significant and exciting when the veteran Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki and his own version of the flu game, knocked off the heavily favored Heat.

The success of the Mavericks and Spurs against the Heat indicates why the Warriors shouldn’t be cause for distress. The 1927 Yankees, “Murderer’s Row”, was among the most dominant teams ever and certainly didn’t ruin baseball. In fact, it drew more fans because people want to see greatness. Casual observers had their interest piqued by a team that was so talented at their craft it was a sight to behold.

Competitive balance? How about the Yankees from 1949-1953, when they won five straight World Series. Baseball was not ruined.

Or the New England Patriots, owners of three Superbowl Rings, adding the best receiver in football in Randy Moss?

But sports can be fickle. Those 2007 Patriots are a perfect example. Eighteen victories, zero losses, facing a deeply flawed 10-6 New York Giants team led by an erratic Eli Manning (at that point in his career). Yet they failed to take home the trophy.

Greatness needs to be appreciated. People may complain bitterly at the time, but when it’s gone people wish they had it back. Just look at the reception Derek Jeter got at the end of his career-even the most bitter of rivals paid him their respects. The Warriors aren’t just a collection of uber-talented players. They are the next generation in the evolution of basketball. The pieces fit perfectly, with Curry, Klay, Durant, and Draymond each having the ability to stretch the floor and slash inside. Klay can guard 1-4 and KD and Draymond can guard anyone on the court. The seamless flow and positionless basketball is a sight to behold, and a far more advanced concept than the bully-ball that Wade, LeBron, and Bosh employed in their heyday. Bosh, the best shooter of the three, was forced into a perimeter role in the same way Kevin Love is today, which made no sense as he is 6’11 and should have been a dominating post presence, his value diminished as a floor spacer. Wade and LeBron were essentially the same player in their first year together, and there wasn’t enough space to go around. The “there’s only one ball” argument had far more validity hear than it does with the ball movement and spacing oriented offense of the Warriors.

That’s not to say that LeBron’s Heat wasn’t a great team. They were, as evidenced by their 27 game win streak. But they didn’t break the league, and their era of dominance ended more abruptly than expected. These Warriors are a team you will tell your grandchildren about. Appreciate their greatness, built in the right way.