Cocks in the Hen House 08.11.10-A Very Brief Introduction to Sabermetrics


“Cocks in the Hen House” is a weekly column by friends of the Chicks that aren’t, well, chicks. Stop by every Wednesday to see what the men-folk have to say about the weeks biggest baseball stories.

By @Utley4God

“I think he’s become Andy Pettitte — and he’s actually pitching better than Andy”–ESPN.com writer Jayson Stark relaying a scout’s opinion.

“Happ is a fifth-starter type with good command and deception but fringy stuff without a real knockout pitch.” – ESPN.com writer Keith Law.

Two weeks ago, the Phillies dealt 27-year-old starter J.A. Happ as the center piece in a deal for Roy Oswalt.  The trade created an immediate divide among Phillies fans.  Some were outraged.  They saw Happ as a young, quality lefty.  Happ was coming off a 12-4 season where he posted a 2.93 ERA and was the runner up for Rookie of the Year.  He was under team control through 2014 and not even arbitration eligible until after 2011.

The other side saw this trade as a massive win for the Phillies.  They viewed Happ’s success as unsustainable.  This argument relied on Happ being below average in stats such as FIP, xFIP, his BABIP with runners in scoring position, and his “lucky” strand rate.

This divide could be accurately described as traditional fans vs. sabermetrically inclined fans.

On the surface it doesn’t seem like a big deal.  People disagree on players all the time (apparently Mets fans think Jose Reyes is good, I disagree).  Unfortunately for Phils fans, this is the third time in the past year that we’ve had to see this debate all over Twitter.

The first time was Cole Hamels during the ’09 season.  Most traditional fans believed he lacked a third pitch, lost his composure too easily, and would never duplicate the success of 2008 (He also lost points for carrying a dog around in a backpack, but that’s for another time).  SABRs believed he was exactly the same pitcher as 2008, and that he was simply going through a string of (buzz word) bad luck.

The second time was the Ryan Howard extension, but let’s not get into that since I’m still pissed at second base for hurting The Big Piece.

The goal of this article is to introduce some “advanced” stats and explain their purpose.  This will hopefully allow traditional fans to decide which stats they like, which ones are hogwash (Charlie Manuel’d), and if nothing else, take part in the Twitter debates.

FIP – (Fielding Independent Pitching) In order to calculate FIP, you take the stats a pitcher has can control (K’s, Walks, Homeruns, Hit batters).  The output is what the pitcher’s ERA would be with a normal defense, and eliminating luck.  I like to think of it as the “If life were fair” ERA. However, if life were fair Greg Dobbs would be hitting .289 in Lehigh Valley and Danys Baez would be jobless, so let’s move on.

xFIP – (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching)  This is basically the same stat as FIP.  The only difference is it “normalizes” the home runs a pitcher allows.  Rather than just take HRs allowed like FIP, xFIP take the number of flyballs the pitcher allows and multiplies it by the league average of HRs allowed per flyball.   

Breakdown: After calculating FIP/xFIP (and by calculating I mean looking up on Fangraphs.com or BaseballReference.com), the next step is to compare it to the pitchers ERA.  Pitchers are expected to eventually regress back to their xFIP.  In 2009, J.A. Happ had a 2.93 ERA to go with a 4.33 FIP and a 4.49 xFIP.  The difference between his xFIP and ERA was one of the largest in baseball, making him a prime candidate for a painful regression.  On the contrary, Big Joe Blanton’s 2010 xFIP is 4.40 in comparison to his 5.65 ERA. That would imply (and we can only hope), that he’ll be giving up less runs while eating innings for the rest of the year.

BABIP – (Batting Average on Balls in Play) This simply looks at what percentage of balls hit in the field of play fall for hits.  It can be viewed from a hitter or pitcher’s perspective. 

Breakdown:  Many view BABIP as the “luck” stat.   The logic behind this stat is that a pitcher doesn’t control anything after releasing the pitch.  If a ball is hit softly at the shortstop for an out or softly up the middle for a hit, the results are much different but the pitcher performed exactly the same.  Expected (or average) BABIPs do change based on the type of pitcher (flyball vs groundball) but league average is generally around .300.

The difference between a pitcher’s BABIP allowed and his batting average allowed is made up of his strikeouts and homeruns (plays not involving a ball hit in fair territory).

It’s nearly impossible to read an article about Cole Hamels in 2009 without seeing a reference to his BABIP/bad luck.  His BABIP allowed jumped from .270 in 2008 to .325 in 2009.  This goes a long way to explaining his ERA jump (his FIP was an identical 3.72 in ‘08 and ‘09).  Many have countered this stat by saying better pitchers induce weaker contact which should mean fewer hits on balls in play. Unfortunately for that argument, Tim Lincecum and Adam Eaton both have a career .305 BABIP against (and we all know about the big ball of fail that is Adam Eaton).

Strand Rate – The percentage of base runner’s that the pitcher prevents from scoring.

Breakdown:  This stat really drives at the heart of what made J.A. Happ so good in 2009 and likely not as good going forward.  Happ stranded 85% of base runners last year, well above the league average of 72%.  Its pretty easy to see how much worse his ERA would’ve been if he allowed 28% of runners to score rather than 15%.  The possible counters to this argument are that J.A. bared down with runners on (you decide) or is much more comfortable in the stretch than the windup (seems unlikely). 

Conclusion:  This is only a few of the stats that sabermetricians use to analyze players. Many people have turned baseball into SABRs vs. traditional fans.  I don’t believe it needs to be that way.  Additional knowledge about the game we all love can only be a good thing.  From there, you can choose the stats you believe in and form your own opinion.  By combining both forms of analysis, we can all be more informed baseball fans (and don’t worry, not matter how you analyze it, they are still the LOLMets).

————–

Full Disclosure: The original plan for my article was a Ruben Amaro report card.  I was going to grade Ruben’s major moves and determine his GM GPA.  Then Ruben turned around and made three great transactions (in my opinion).  He acquired Oswalt + 11 million in cash (for my enjoyment I assume this cash came in a briefcase or as First Lady O’Malley put it “Italian Style”) for Happ, + 2 very young, high-risk prospects.  He finally promoted top prospect (top human?) Domonic Brown, providing a huge boost to the fan base.  To complete the hat trick, Ruben acquired Mike Sweeney from Seattle for essentially nothing.  I’m sure any fan that watched Sweeney’s post game interview after Friday’s win already loves him.  These moves have left me physically incapable of saying anything negative about Amaro at the moment.  Perhaps I’ll revisit that post in the future.

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