Pitching statistics are far from perfect. Around the early 1900s’, a pitcher was expected to throw the complete game. So determining a pitcher’s effectiveness by a simple “win” or “loss” was a decent barometer. That is until James Otis Crandall began to pitch. Widely considered the first pitcher to be consistently used in relief, Crandall earned the nickname Doc because he was “the physician of the pitching emergency”. As relief pitchers, like Doc Crandall, became more common to the game, a new way to evaluate a pitcher’s performance was needed. So a new stat was born — ERA.
Henry Chadwick, the “Father of Baseball”, created the ERA stat. Chadwick was born in England and grew up watching cricket. He moved to Brooklyn when he was a boy and discovered baseball as a young journalist. He fell love with the game and helped shape it by becoming one of baseball’s first sportswriters and statisticians. Chadwick’s influence on the game is so wide-ranging that he is a member of the Hall of Fame. Ever wonder where the box score came from? Chadwick. How about the term “K”? That was his abbreviation for struck out. He was the original baseball stathead, who also compiled the first database of stats that included games played, runs, home runs, strikeouts, and more. Chadwick was obsessed with finding ways in which to measure how an individual’s performance affected the game. This drove him not only to create ERA but also the batting average.
A lot has changed in the 100 years since Chadwick helped create the language of baseball. In 1895, before the glories of the MLB.TV package or even the arrival of radio, Chadwick edited Spalding’s Baseball Guide and Official League Book for 1895. People unable to attend games, or people who wanted to know how the other teams performed, would pick up this guide to read about the previous year in baseball. In the 1895 edition, Chadwick writes about how the National League had worked to curb “hoodlumism” that season. Worried that rowdy ball players would drive away fans from the blossoming sport, Chadwick claims that the league worked to cut back on acts that might sully the game,
“… such as that of spiking or willfully colliding with a base runner; bellowing like a wild bull at the pitcher… or that of “kicking” against the decisions of the umpire to hide faulty captaincy or blundering fielding”.
From that passage, it’s apparent that a lot has changed in the game and, well, some of it has stayed the same. As much as I would love to see Bryce Harper with Warrior-esque eye black bellowing at a pitcher, it’s not going to happen. Meanwhile, intentional spiking of players has all but vanished, except for extreme cases, and has been replaced by the less dangerous hard slide. And, while players or managers don’t literally kick umpires anymore, they have been known to do something similar for the same reasons.
So with all the changes that have occurred in the game, why is ERA still so prominent? Why is this stat flashed across the screen, or read over the airwaves, every time a new pitcher takes to the mound? Supposedly, Chadwick did not create ERA solely to judge a pitcher’s performance. In an era when errors were rampant (baseball gloves didn’t even have webbing until the 1920s), Chadwick revered good defense. So ERA was also meant to help understand how good the defense was behind the pitcher, thus the separation between “earned” runs from “unearned” runs. As defenses improved and errors became less prominent, thanks to players no longer wearing a glorified winter glove, ERA was mainly seen as a metric to access a pitcher’s overall effectiveness.
Eventually, baseball statheads came to understand that ERA, like batting average, was not refined enough to measure all of the nuances that go into a player’s performance. Unlike batting average, the next generation of refined pitching stats, with the exception of WHIP, never gained much traction amongst baseball’s general public. While broadcasts often flash Jean Segura’s slash line on-screen (.325/.352/.465), or even his OPS (.849), when was the last time FS Wisconsin or Sunday Night Baseball showed a pitcher’s FIP/xFIP?
I understand some of the reasons why FIP/xFIP are not apart of the common baseball terminology. FIP/xFIP dabble too much in the hypothetical for some. No little league dad, who’s watching his kid pitch, can easily adjust balls put in play to the little league average. It’s just too difficult. But that same dad can sit there and look at his kid’s batting line and calculate the OBP, SLG, and OPS within minutes.
Now, all this isn’t so I can make a wild claim that ERA is outdated and should be trashed, though I fully endorse Brian Kenny’s campaign to “kill the win”. ERA, like batting average, has its place in the modern game but should not be the only stat considered. FIP/xFIP are more refined stats than ERA and tell a more detailed story. So what, if anything, can we learned from looking at the FIP/xFIP of the Brewers pitchers? After a horrendous first half of the season, can we expect things to get better, worse, or just stay the same?
To gauge this, let’s look at the E-F for Brewers pitchers, as calculated by Fangraphs. E-F is simply a player’s ERA-FIP. Players with a positive number have a higher ERA than FIP, which suggests they are pitching better than their ERA and could see their numbers improve. Negative E-F suggests a pitcher is throwing the ball better than expected and might regress. I love using this stat to help me target undervalued pitchers to trade for in my fantasy baseball league.
On Thursday, Ron Roenicke announced the five-man starting rotation coming out of the all-star break. Also included is Marco Estrada, who is still battling his way back from the DL. Here’s how they fare —
A look at the starting rotation suggests a stronger finish to the season for Yovani Gallardo, though his numbers are still disappointing. Wily Peralta has been great in his last five starts. Don’t expect that continued level of production, but he has a better second half coming his way. When Estrada returns, the numbers suggest he should catch a few more breaks. Though his 4.76 FIP still leaves much to be desired.
Donovan Hand has been strong when called upon and posted a very respectable 3.52 FIP. He’ll run into problems after opposing batters have seen him a few times. His numbers look solid now but his continued success will depend on the adjustments he makes once batters known him better.
Kyle Lohse seems primed for regression but recent history suggests otherwise. This is the third season in a row that Lohse has out-pitched his FIP. Last year, his season’s E-F was –0.65. It was –0.28 in 2011. The veteran’s E-F might tighten slightly but don’t expect his ERA to slip close to 4.50, as his FIP suggests.
Finally, Tom Gorzelanny has won himself a spot in the starting rotation after making three successful spot starts. According to E-F, Gorzelanny has the most ground to lose. Yet, last year, he ended the season with a –1.09 E-F from a 2.88 ERA and 3.97 FIP. Even if there’s some slippage, the Brewers would be bowled over if he posted anywhere near a 3.00 ERA from here to the finish.
On to the relievers —
First, the good news — Burke Badenhop has thrown better than his ERA suggests and Brandon Kintzler will continue to be extremely valuable out of the bullpen. If other relievers are traded, they will help stabilize the bullpen through the transition.
John Axford and Jim Henderson are due for a little regression, though Henderson’s numbers still suggest that he’ll be excellent. Both Axford and Henderson had problematic innings in Arizona before the all-star break. Don’t expect complete meltdowns but maybe just a few more bumps in the road.
Finally, the big worry for Brewers fans is that K-Rod will implode before the team can trade him. K-Rod’s E-F suggests that he has the farthest to fall, though a 3.06 FIP is still valuable. Of course, E-F isn’t predictive and sometimes players defy the numbers. Look at the amazing season Fernando Rodney put together for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012.
The ERA stat was born in baseball’s earliest days. It’s a relatively simple calculation in comparison to FIP. Yet both, more often than not, end up in the same ballpark. A lot has changed in the game of baseball since ERA was introduced. It’s far from a perfect stat but it’s one of the game’s building blocks. The weight of one hundred years of data might have cracked it but it hasn’t crumbled.
Like it or not, ERA will still be the main stat that most baseball fans use to evaluate pitchers. For those of us willing to dig a bit deeper, ERA, like its place in baseball history, is but the first simple step down the path to truly understanding a pitcher’s impact on the game.