“Statistics are the lifeblood of baseball. In no other sport are so many available and studied so assiduously by participants and fans. Much of the game’s appeal, as a conversation piece, lies in the opportunity the fan gets to back up opinions and arguments with convincing figures, and it is entirely possible that more American boys have mastered long division by dealing with batting averages than in any other way.” – Leonard Koppett in A Thinking Mans Guide to Baseball (1967)
There is no other sport that relies so heavily upon statistics as baseball does. From the executives in the owner’s suite, to the managers and coaches in the dugout, to the players on the field, and to the fans in the bleachers, numbers are dissected and divided; arguments are won and lost.
Stat-driven managers, like Joe Maddon, will break traditions and ruffle the feathers of those who believe a lead-off hitter should be a player with limited power and loads of speed by batting his high on-base percentage catcher in the lead-off spot. Writers like Keith Law will prove to you that using pitcher wins to evaluate a pitcher is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
“Baseball fans are junkies, and their heroin is the statistic.” – Robert S. Weider in In Praise of the Second Season (1981)
I couldn’t have said it better myself. If you are like me, ERA, wins, and strikeouts are not enough for you. You want more. You dig deeper. And if you are not like me I urge you to still take notice to a pitching statistic that every fan should know about and add to their arsenal in case the proverbial gun fight ensues at your next baseball outing.
The statistic is called FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and is used by Fangraphs in their statistic called WAR (remember that stat from last week?).
FIP derives from the DIPS theory (defense independent pitching) that a pitcher has very little control of batted balls that do not go over the fence. FIP tries to quantify the results a pitcher has the most control of: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs. After all, is it the pitcher’s fault that his shortstop or center fielder have below-average range? In short, no.
FIP is not here to take the place of ERA but to be used along side it and to be used as a better tool to predict a pitcher’s future stats.
As a Tampa native I am undoubtedly a Tampa Bay Rays fan. The 2010 off-season was a very memorable one for me. The Rays had just won 96 games, and the American League East, but lost to the Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers in full five game series in the American League Divisional Series.
The Rays had very few flaws as a team but one, that fans perceived to be a great flaw, was that of starting pitcher James Shields. Shields finished with a record of 13 wins and 15 losses, the only Rays starter to have more losses than wins, and an ERA of 5.18. Ouch! No wonder so many fans wanted to trade him that off-season. But the Rays front office knew better.
You see, James Shields’ FIP that season was 4.24, nearly a full run lower than his ERA. This gave the Rays front office hope, and a solid predictor, that James Shields’ 2010 win-loss record and ERA were more a sign of bad luck than true talent, or lack-there-of. The Rays, also not fond of selling low, decided to hold on to James Shields that off-season, believing that his true pitching outcomes and talent would regress back to the norm. Boy, were they right!
In 2011, James Shields became known as “Complete Game James” leading the league with 11 complete games. Shields also set a career high in strikeouts (225), ERA (2.82), innings pitched (249.1), WAR (+4.9), and, yes, FIP (3.42).
Shields carried that success over into 2012 with a nearly equal performance posting +4.6 WAR and a 3.47 FIP, almost matching his ERA of 3.52. Holding on to James Shields that off-season proved to be a great decision. He went on to be worth a combined +9.5 WAR and the Rays parlayed his predicted success into a trade for Wil Myers, one of the top five baseball prospects in the game.
FIP is not simply a new statistic for stat-heads that should be discarded by traditionalists and novice fans but a statistic that should become part of every baseball fan’s arsenal, from the most novice of fans to the biggest junkie of a fan, and for those junkies, FIP is thier gateway drug into even more stats.
“I don’t know whether you know it, but baseball’s appeal is decimal points. No other sport relies as totally on continuity, statistics, orderliness of these. Baseball fans pay more attention to numbers than CPAs.” – Sportswriter Jim Murray
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