22 January 2015

How the Orioles Broke FIP

One could argue that the golden age of the Orioles Franchise was from 1960-1985. Over those 26 years, the Orioles won three World Series, lost another three World Series and were knocked out in the ALCS twice. The Orioles had twenty-four winning seasons over that time frame including eighteen consecutive winning seasons from 1968-1985. They had a cumulative record of 2374-1749 or a winning percentage of 57.6% which was easily the best winning percentage in baseball over that period. The next closest was the Yankees with a winning percentage of 55.6%. Outside of that time frame, the Orioles haven’t made it back to the World Series (although the St Louis Browns did in 1944) and have made it to the playoffs just four times. All in all, it was a pretty good run.

When I was looking at some of the numbers from that 26 year time frame, I noted a few interesting things. Our offense was one of the best in the majors but averaged the third most runs per game. The Red Sox led the majors during that time frame and scored 4.53 R/G compared to our 4.35 R/G. Then again, the Orioles won nearly 240 more games than them over that period or more than 9 wins per season.

The Orioles had an FIP of 3.65 over that 26 year period which tied for ninth in the majors. This is decent but indicates that their pitching was not as good as one would expect from a team that was dominant for 26 years. If the Orioles offense was great but not elite while the pitching was merely good then how were the Orioles so successful over that period of time?

Over that 26 year period the Orioles outperformed their FIP by .29 points. The next best team was the Yankees who outperformed their FIP by .17 points.  In addition, their RA_9 was just .08 points larger than their FIP. The Yankees were the next best club but their RA_9 was .27 points larger than their FIP or nearly three times the difference. In absolute terms, the Orioles allowed only 348 runs more than their FIP suggested.  The next closest team was the Blue Jays who allowed 581 runs more than their FIP suggested. Then again, the Blue Jays gave up that many runs in 12,495 innings while the Orioles gave up that many runs in 37,163. As a result, despite having the ninth lowest FIP, the Orioles allowed the second fewest runs per game in the majors over that 26 year period. The data suggest that when the Orioles were elite it was because they had a strong offense and were giving up fewer runs that their FIP suggested. In essence, the Orioles broke FIP.

Last week I noted that even an elite defense should only be expected to outperform their FIP by about .20 points. So how were the Orioles able to outperform their FIP by nearly .3 points? According to Fangraphs fielding metric, the Orioles defense was valued at 1276 runs from 1960 to 1985. The next best team was the New York Yankees and their defense was valued at only 498 runs over that time period. The #2 through #4 teams defensively were worth 1239 runs from 1960 to 1985. The Orioles defense was about two and a half times better than the second best defense in the time frame or by about thirty runs per year. The reason why the Orioles outperformed their FIP by the extent that they did is because their defense wasn't merely elite. It was legendary.

A closer look at the defensive results suggests that the Orioles weren’t elite defensively at each position. Rather, they focused on having strong defensive players at second base (#2), shortstop (#1), third base (#1) and center field (#1) but weren’t particularly good defensively at first base, catcher, right field or left field. All of this makes perfect sense because it is common baseball knowledge that a team needs good defensive players at those positions.  Meanwhile, the Orioles weren’t particularly good offensively at center field (#11), DH (#7), third base (#10) and catcher (#17). They relied on offense from first base, second base, shortstop (it’s more that their players at this position weren’t as bad as most teams) and outfield.

If the Orioles were able to be elite from 1960 to 1985 at least in part due to their excellent defense than it makes sense for the Orioles to try and focus on what once made them great. Excellent defense makes good pitching look like its elite and therefore the Orioles shouldn’t be focusing on trying to find the best pitchers. Rather, the Orioles need to focus on doing the following.

They need to avoid spending big dollars on any pitching free agents. Jim Palmer won three Cy Young awards, had eight twenty win seasons and made it into the Hall of Fame on his first year eligible with 92.6% of the vote. He also benefited greatly due to having an elite defense behind him. Is he a Hall of Famer if he was on the Cubs instead of the Orioles? Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar also had strong ERAs and only decent FIPs. Were they great pitchers or simply lucky to play behind a dominant defense? It seems reasonable to conclude that an elite defense turns great pitchers into Hall of Fame caliber pitchers, good pitchers into great pitchers and decent pitchers into good pitchers. If you don’t have enough resources to focus on everything than ignore pitching and trust your defense to make your pitchers look good.

That allows most of our resources to be devoted on building a strong offense and an elite defense. They need at least two elite players that are strong both offensively and defensively at either second base, shortstop, third base and center field. They need to find another two defensive wizards that can fill the other two positions. And they need three players that are strong offensively that can play at either first base, left field, right field and DH.

What’s interesting is that the Orioles are loosely following this plan. The Orioles have potential elite offensive and defensive talent at third base and shortstop. Schoop is excellent defensively at second base while Adam Jones has elite offensive ability at center field. The Orioles have potential above average offensive talents at first base, catcher and right field. The Orioles would strongly benefit from having an excellent center field option that can both hit and field that could push Adam Jones to right field. It would also be nice to add another platoon bat that can team up with Delmon Young to hit right handed pitching. Still, the Orioles are close to having the offensive talent to be successful.

The Orioles have wasted some resources on pitchers like Ubaldo Jimenez. But for the most part their rotation is filled with pitchers that may not seem to be special but have a knack for over performing what is expected from them. They may not be as successful on a team with poor fielders but they're on the team that they're on. More importantly, most of their pitchers are cheap which makes it possible to spend money on the more important position players.

What if the Orioles decided that what they’ve been doing wasn’t working and therefore decided to go back to what has been successful in the past?  This team has a lot of similarities to the Orioles teams in 1960-1985 and with two playoff appearances in the last three years the plan seems to be working.


CBC said...

Interesting, but I think you might be shoehorning School as an excellent defender. Also, I would suggest that their is no practical lineage of defensive play. Thsee things are disparate. If good defense up the middle and leaning to bat at corners in the way to go then it is because the team and the market are positioned for this. Anyway, it seems like many teams try to win with good defense and hitting while letting pitching go. I do not think your story framework holds up.

Also...the team did not essentially break FIP. Breaking FIP would be about significantly changing the value of walks, strikeouts, and Homers as opposed to aspects that FIP chooses not to cover.

ifsteve said...

Very interesting read and I tend to follow the logic. However, what has not been addressed is how the game has changed over the last 25 years. Look at the teams that have won it all the last 10 years. Generally speaking every one of them had an honest top of the rotation ace. Because the playoffs are so dragged out now compared to years ago starting pitching plays a HUGE role in the playoffs, much more so than the regular season. I think the basic approach is still valid but I believe to win in the postseason consistently you must have a true ace.

Matt Perez said...

Literary license about breaking FIP.

Fair point about the playoffs. This doesn't measure postseason success.

Ryan Romano said...

Good stuff, Matt. In particular, Palmer has always fascinated me, as many metrics have him as the luckiest pitcher in (recent) history.

Unknown said...

Great read