12 January 2015

O's Pitching Isn't as Good as You Might Think

On Tuesday, Matt correctly noted that the Orioles shouldn't perform too poorly on offense this year. Full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, coupled with Chris Davis's probable bounce-back, will make this an above-average hitting club. But scoring runs is only half the equation; to win, you have to prevent the other team from doing the same. And Baltimore might see some struggles in that regard going forward.

Let's look at projections. FanGraphs confirms what Matt asserted: It foresees a ninth-place finish in batting WAR. The problem is, it also thinks rather poorly of the club's pitching, as it predicts they'll end the season with a 4.30 combined FIP, giving them the sixth-lowest WAR.

How could this happen? After all, last year the squad's hurlers accrued 14.5 wins more than replacement, good enough for a respectable 15th in baseball. What would cause them to fall from (relative) grace?

Chiefly, more home runs. 2014's team-wide K/9 of 7.23 should carry over, as should its 2.91 BB/9, but its 0.93 HR/9 won't stay the same. The 2015 group's 1.2 mark in the latter regard will theoretically top every other team; even the Rockies will only allow 1.1.

That shouldn't really come as a surprise. This blog's eponymous park lends itself to long balls — it ranked 7th in homer-friendliness in 2014 — and the Orioles have, for some reason, assembled a staff of mostly fly-ball pitchers. Those two ingredients haven't yet come back to haunt them, but they probably will soon.

Of course, fWAR is based on FIP, not runs allowed. If you prefer the latter when gauging a team's performance, then Baltimore looked even more formidable in 2014: Their 25.2 RA9-WAR led the majors. Do they have any chance of replicating that 52-point ERA-FIP gap (which also paced baseball)?

Probably not. Steamer prognosticates a 4.04 team ERA; that's fairly better than their FIP, but still much worse than last year (in which they put up a 3.44 ERA). Looking at it on a pitcher-by-pitcher basis, you can pretty clearly see how each man's backslide makes sense.

Wei-Yin Chen should maintain his modest peripheral-beating power, with a 3.92 ERA and 4.30 FIP (the latter's rise coming because of regression on his walk rate). Chris Tillman, however, probably won't do the same, as Steamer anticipates a 4.34 ERA — exactly a run higher than his 2014 figure. Even in front of Baltimore's sterling defense, a .267 BABIP and 76.7% LOB% are hard to maintain; when those numbers approach the league average, as they tend to do, his output will suffer.

Miguel Gonzalez, who got even luckier than Tillman — among pitchers with 100 innings, he had the highest strand rate by a pretty wide margin — should fall victim to a similar fate, with a 4.56 ERA and 4.94 FIP. Kevin Gausman, one of the biggest reasons behind the 2014 group's low HR/FB%, will probably see that mark get noticeably worse, as it tends to do; if that happens, he'll put up something in the neighborhood of a 4.19 ERA and a 4.27 FIP. And Bud Norris, who had a history of underachieving prior to 2014, Will in all likelihood revert to his old ways, to the tune of a 4.04 ERA and a 4.33 FIP.

With ERAs of 3.12 and 3.22, respectively, Darren O'Day* and Zach Britton will most likely become average relievers, instead of the stars they were when Baltimore won the AL East. Brian Matusz will remain Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter's home run ills will return, and the rest of the bullpen will play like FanGraphs' name for it: "The Others".

*I'll have more on his projection next week.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that true overachievers aren't as common as many people think. The fact that Baltimore seems to have a good deal of them may not be a coincidence — perhaps Dan Duquette sees them as a market inefficiency — but this many, to this extent, reeks of simple luck. Once that runs out, as is its wont, opposing teams will score much more than they used to.

Many teams would kill to be in Baltimore's position right now; they have a solid shot at contending, and a much larger one than they did at this time last year. But if the Birds do fall short, it'll almost certainly be because of their arms, not their bats or gloves.


Tim said...

When did projections become predictions or prognostications? Also, what do projections confirm? A basic understanding of things like steamer would never wind up with those sentences.

Statistics Don't Lie said...

FIP consistently penalizes pitchers who have excellent defense behind them. Thus, actual ERA can be consistently lower than FIP.

Yes, the Orioles rotation could regress or implode. But no, looking merely at FIP is not a reasonable reason to expect that to happen.

Unknown said...

Yes, looking at FIELDING INDEPENDENT PITCHING does not make much sense when players dont change teams and defenses actually improve (because of losing Cruz and Markakis). Looking at FIP is really only valuable when the factors that make up the calculation change. When they don't change, how is it relevant?

Erik said...

WW-C: There is something to your criticism, but it is capped by the fact that there is no defending against fly balls more than a foot or so past the fences, and even then it is asking a lot. And Manny is probably not optimized stealing the doubles from the right-handed hitters that pull a ball from our righty pitchers. Maybe if he played against the lefties more?

Matt Perez said...

The difference between the 2014 Orioles ERA and FIP was .52 runs or the third largest difference from 2005-2014 for any team (sample size 300). Can the Orioles defense be that effective again? If our ERA is only .2 runs better than our FIP then that's another .3 runs per 9 innings or roughly 54 runs a season.

That's why FIP is relevant.

That stated I do think that FIP is a poor option for relievers like Britton and O'Day who excel at getting ground balls.

It would be surprising if the Os gave up 1.2 HR/9. Admittingly, the 2011 and 2013 Orioles did just that but only 7 teams have done that poorly since 2010.

Maybe I'll take a closer look.

Unknown said...

I usually don't put much into those kind've predictions mainly cause it's just pure guesstimating upon previous stats. You can't possibly rely on any of those because in real life players get injured and such, also I believe none predicted KC having the year they had, I'm sure now they are one of the favorites to repeat as AL Champ. As we all know it's a long season and a multitude of things occur over the season.

Tim said...

They are not predictions and it is not guesswork.

Ryan Romano said...

As Matt said, we can't count on them to repeat this level of overperformance. And as I said, they'll probably overperform to some extent — just not to the extent that they did this year.

Philip said...

FIP ignores team defense to focus only on pitching performance.
But that assumes that all defenses are the same.
I don't think there is a "Defense-Neutral" component to any pitching stats, aside from Walks Ks and Homers.
Our guys probably wouldn't do as well in front of a bad defense, and their ERA might well be higher.
But so what?
They play where they play.
They play in front of the best Infield defense in the AL, and the OF defense, though second to KC, is certainly going to be outstanding if Lough and De Aza can get more innings.
A high FIP might lower trade value, if going to the Rockies or Tigers, but shouldn't cause concern for the Orioles.

Anonymous said...

Good post! 'Nuff said

vilnius b. said...

FIP is usually a pretty good predictor for most pitchers.

But some pitchers who manage to out pitch the projected FIP every year. (Tim Hudson was a good example.)

Regarding Chris Tillman: his ERA for the last 3 seasons: 2.93, 3.71, 3.34. His FIP for all 3 years was over 4.

One reason: for outperforming his FIP is that his BABIP has been much lower than the average pitcher. From 2012-2014: .221 (half of a season), .269, .267. His GB rate has gone up every season.
His strand rate for those 3 seasons: 71.4%, 80.5%, 76.7%.

One reason for his ability to outperform his FIP: Showalter doesn't ask his starters to pitch fatigued.
Orioles starters averaged a little under 6 IPs per start in 2014 and I see no reason why Showalter will change his M.O.

The big question is: will the relievers continue to do such a good job of stranding the runners they inherit? Probably not; but Showalter doesn't stick with guys who can't do the job. Somebody from Norfolk or Bowie will be called up to replace a struggling RP.

The principle of a fresh arm out of the bullpen is better than a tired mediocre starter's arm worked spectacularly well for the Orioles in 2014.

There will be some regression with the starters. But IMHO it won't be as great as fangraphs predicts. Showalter is a very good judge of when a starter has nothing left in the tank and he always has a bunch of relievers that he is careful not to overwork. (He counts each time a pitcher gets up to throw in the bullpen as an appearance.)
We'll see. Sabermetrics vs. Showalter. It should be interesting.