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September 9, 2009 at 11:06 AM

Will 2009 be the year that “FIP” decides Cy Young Award race?

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Was doing my Talkin’ Baseball gig this morning on KJR AM 950 when host Mitch Levy made a good point about what Felix Hernandez showed us last night. In many ways, the 3-2 loss to the Angels, in which Hernandez went seven innings, allowed one earned run and took a no-decision, was a clear example of how he has matured as a pitcher. Levy said these are the games that, for him, help make the case that Hernandez has become a top pitcher and I agree.
Two years ago, Hernandez might have come off the rails in an outing like this one. Hernandez told us last night that when he pitches following an off-day — which prevents him from playing catch — he has trouble controlling his two-seam fastball. It began moving all over the place in last night’s third inning, leading to Hernandez walking the bases full. But Hernandez eventually got out of that jam by switching to his curveball, a pitch he is able to locate down in the zone for strikes. Helped him get his game back under control. Not every young pitcher can do that. It’s a learning process.
So, is Hernandez matured enough to be Cy Young material? Well, all of these seven-inning “quality starts” that aren’t materialzing into victories could cost him. But they could also cost a guy whose ERA is better than Heranandez’s, Zack Greinke of the Kansas City Royals.
As of last night, Grenike had an ERA of 2.22 compared to 2.61 for Hernandez. Of the other Cy Young hopefuls, only Roy Halladay is below 3.00 at 2.98, but his star seems to be fading in this competition.
Now, it would seem like this has become a two-horse race, right? Well, not exactly. There’s a guy in Detroit, Justin Verlander, now leading the league with 16 wins. He can’t be ruled out. No, his ERA is not as good. It’s at 3.29 — sixth best in the league.
But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
What if Greinke, with an ERA a full run lower than Verlander’s, gets stuck with 14 or 15 wins by season’s end because of his lousy Royals team? No Cy Young starter has ever won fewer than 16. Already this month, we’ve heard suggestions that Hernandez, the only guy with an ERA even close to Greinke’s could get the nod if he finishes with 15 or 16 wins.
That’s entirely true. Or, Cy Young voters could take a quantum leap forward this year and start looking at a little-known (to the mainstream) stat called Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP). And if that happens en masse, Hernandez is as done as the Mariners offense outside of Mike Sweeney was after last night’s first inning.

Here is how The Hardball Times website stats glossary describes FIP.
“A measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded.”
There is an additional, experimental stat called xFIP, which looks at pitchers who have been extremely fortunate, or “lucky”, not to have their flyballs leave the yard. The theory is that pitchers have little control over whether flyballs turn into routine outs or home runs. So, xFIP “normalizes” a pitcher’s home run/fly ball ratio to what an average pitcher’s rate would be and gives you a new ERA-like number.
Cy Young voters, apparently, could not care less about that xFIP stat. How do I know this? Because if they did, there is no way Cliff Lee would have run away with last year’s Cy Young Award race over Halladay. Halladay posted an xFIP of 3.23 compared to 3.69 for Lee. So, take away home run “luck” on flyballs and Halladay would have had the better ERA. Or, so the theory goes.
But the voters didn’t buy it.
If they didn’t buy xFIP, then how are they going to get into the FIP stat it’s based off of?
Well, this year should provide the reason.
Because if Greinke had 18-20 wins, we wouldn’t even be having a Cy Young discussion. His ERA is blowing away the field. He’s up there in complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts and all the other things Cy Young voters love. So, why is there even a discussion? Because voters can’t wrap their heads around giving a Cy Young to a guy who could very well end up with the same 13 wins he has right now.
And that’s helping to fuel Hernandez’s candidacy. As the only guy with an ERA in the same stratosphere as Greinke, with other peripherals to match, including victories. Not if he’s stuck at 14, mind you. But if Hernandez can win three more and get over that 16-win smell test threshold, he’d make a nice, comfortable alternative to having to vote for Greinke.
OK, but what if voters’ conscience gets the better of them and they can’t look past Greinke’s ERA? After all, a 2.22 ERA is great in any year. But to post one with a defense as poor as the Royals have? Why, that’s tremendous. And if folks want to look for a reason to give Greinke the award, they can start with FIP. Because it proves just how good Greinke has been despite having Yuniesky Betancourt, Willie Bloomquist and a guy who’s now a minor league starting pitcher playing shortstop behind him all season.
Take away all the things beyond his control and Greinke has a FIP of 2.36. That means, while his defense has maybe helped him out a tad, he’s still a guy who deserves to have an ERA in the low 2.00s.
Hernandez, meanwhile, has a FIP of 3.13. That’s still excellent, just above the 3.03 posted by Halladay last season, but it’s still much higher than his 2.61 ERA. Think about Franklin Gutierrez, Adrian Beltre, Ichiro, Jack Hannahan, Jack Wilson (no last night, though) and all the other glovemen who have helped Seattle pitchers this year.
If those FIP numbers were ERA totals, no way Hernandez wins a Cy Young when he’s at 3.13 compared to 2.36 for Greinke.
But what if Cy Young voters start to embrace FIP and still feel uncomfortable giving the award to a guy with 13 or 14 wins? Or fewer than 16?
That, my friends, is where Verlander comes in. Because he has a shot at 20 wins with a playoff bound Detroit team and his FIP is at 2.86 compared to his 3.29 ERA. In other words, the defense behind him, at times, has made his ERA look worse than it should.
In a race where FIP mattered ahead of ERA, Verlander would be wearing the shoes Hernandez currently has on if we’re looking primarily at ERA. In other words, Verlander is the only FIP guy remotely close to Greinke and could produce a nice, comfy alternative for voters not keen on handing a Cy Young to a 13-to-15-win pitcher,
Hernandez winds up losing out in both cases. Which is why, for now, it’s in his best interests to hope FIP remains a stat confined to the ranks of sabermetrics enthusiasts and stays outside the mainstream for at least another year.
Oh yeah, here’s one final tidbit to consider. The guy who invented FIP? None other than fellow Montrealer Tom Tango, now working as a stats analyst for the Mariners. Interesting how these things come around, isn’t it? In Hernandez’s case, it might come around to bite him in the butt.
Can just picture Chuck Armstrong in a meeting with Tango, if it ever came to that level, which it usually doesn’t, But if it did?
Armstrong: “Hey, Tango, ixnay on the ipfay. And don’t even breathe a word about the xipfay. Not until the season’s done.”
But for those of you who do want to follow FIP, you can find it at Fangraphs.



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