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!

 

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