In the early MLB season, we’re looking at which fast and slow starts can be trusted to hold up for the entire season and which may be the results of small sample size and variance. Today we look at one of the areas of the game most impacted by outside noise—pitching—and a statistic that tries to silence much of it: FIP
Trust no one. That might sound pessimistic, but it’s easy to feel that way in the first month of a baseball season, as players or teams you expected to do well struggle early, while others come out of nowhere with a strong start to the year.
As we navigate the late spring, we’re looking at some of the advanced statistics that can help you decide who to trust and whose starts to take with a grain of salt. Today, we look at one of the areas of the game most impacted by outside noise—pitching.
Noisy Pitching Lines
There are plenty of reasons to believe a pitcher is better—or worse than his numbers. Has he taken the mound in pitchers’ parks—artificially improving his stats—or bandboxes—making them look worse than usual.
Has he suffered from a lack of run support, which has hurt his win-loss record, or benefitted from a powerful offense, masking some games he should have lost? How has his team’s fielding helped or hurt him? While ERA eliminates the impact of errors on a pitcher’s line, the bad defense can be poor range or judgment in the field, leading to hits instead of outs.
FIP, which stands for Fielding Independent Pitching, tries to eliminate many of those sources of noise. The statistic focuses on the aspects of pitching that the pitcher has the most control over. If you’ve heard talk of the “three true outcomes” in modern baseball discussions, it all comes from FIP.
FIP focuses on the true outcomes—strikeouts, walks, home runs, and hit by pitches. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got eight gold glove winners behind you or guys wearing frying pans for mitts, the true outcomes aren’t affected by balls hit into play.
If you’ve looked at baseball analytics, you might be familiar with the term BABIP. That’s the flip side of FIP. It stands for Batting Average on Balls in Play. In other words, if a batter makes contact, and it’s not a home run, BABIP looks at how often he gets a hit out of it.
Here’s the thing with BABIP: Decades of research have shown that it’s almost completely random. There’s no difference between some of baseball’s best hitters and worst hitters on BABIP, and it fluctuates wildly for the same hitter from year to year.
The conclusion to draw from this counterintuitive fact is that once the ball is hit into play, it’s really up to chance whether it turns into an out or a hit. The old announcer’s saying, “It’ll look like a line drive in the box score,” when a bloop hit falls in, is a tribute to this fact about BABIP.
So FIP removes all this randomness from the equation to look at how a pitcher is doing.
How Does FIP Work?
Pretty well, actually. It’s scaled to resemble a pitcher’s ERA and the idea is to give an idea of what the pitcher’s ERA would be if he had a league-average defense and an average amount of luck and timing on batted balls.
And, in the next counter-intuitive fact that’s bolstered by reams of research—FIP is a better predictor of a pitcher’s future ERA than the pitcher’s current ERA.
In other words, if you’re looking at a pitcher’s stat line and wondering whether to trust it, you’re better off looking at FIP than ERA to see what he’ll do going forward.
This Season’s FIP Story
Clayton Kershaw flirted with a perfect game early this season and is off to a fast start, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA. But can the 34-year-old really capture his old magic, or has it just been a case of him getting breaks to go his way in April? Well, his strikeouts per inning are at a career-high and he has yet to walk a batter this year.
Home runs against him are up slightly, but still, when you combine the true outcomes, his FIP of 1.92 indicates (with all proper warnings about sample size included) that he’s actually suffered from bad luck in the early going and could be even better going forward.
At a team level, you can also rely on FIP to get an idea of who to trust. The Diamondbacks were the worst pitching staff in the National League last year at 5.11. This year, they’ve posted a 3.32 ERA in the early going, just outside the top five.
Meanwhile, the World Champion Braves are more than a run worse, at 4.56. Don’t trust either of those trends to continue, warns FIP. The D-Backs are third from the bottom in FIP at 4.13. The Braves, meanwhile, are flirting with the top five in the NL, at 3.55.
Expect the Braves pitchers to start stringing together outs, while Arizona will see more crooked numbers on the opponents’ scoreboard in the future.
What Does It All Mean?
It’s hard to “hit ’em where they ain’t,” so using an analytical tool that avoids plays with a high degree of chance can help you determine whose luck may be about to change in one direction or the other.