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November 15, 2010 at 9:36 AM

My desired stat change in baseball? Radically alter the whole “earned” run thing

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Felix Hernandez will likely win the AL Cy Young Award on Thursday and deservedly so. But there was one moment in his impeccable 2010 season that really bugged me. It occured when we were in Cleveland in mid-August and Chone Figgins committed a two-out error with none on and Hernandez on the mound in the seventh inning of a scoreless game. Six runs later, the game was no longer scoreless.
In the end, Hernandez was charged with not a single earned run and went on to win the ERA title with a 2.27 mark. Now, don’t get me wrong. Hernandez deserves the Cy Young regardless of whether he wins the ERA title or not. Forget Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP), which is a predictor stat and not a results stat. Cy Young Awards are about results and Hernandez had the best overall numbers of any pitcher out there at what he actually did — other than “wins”, which are a team-oriented result.
But this recent column by Joe Posnanski about stats and certain changes he’d make to them got me thinking: were those really “unearned” runs Hernandez allowed in Cleveland that day? I mean, the Figgins error allowed a guy on base, sure. Yeah, the inning should have been over. But still, does that give a pitcher carte blanche to totally collapse without blame?
You don’t see that in other sports. If a defense makes a stop on third, or fourth down, in football, but some linebacker drills a guy 10 yards out of bounds and prolongs a drive with a 15-yard automatic first down penalty, you don’t see teams let off the hook with unearned yardage, or resuting unearned points against. If a reciever drops a pass right on the numbers, or in his hands, the QB still gets tagged with an incomplete pass that hurts his passer rating.
So, if Felix Hernandez gives up a grand slam to Shin-Soo Choo several batters after Figgins allows a runner to get on with two out, why should the pitcher escape penalty? Why should Figgins catch all the blame?
Does this matter? Well, this year, it might decide the Cy Young race.

One of the things Hernandez has going for him is the fact that, despite the paltry win total of 13, he managed to win both the ERA title and the innings pitched crown. But he didn’t win the ERA category by very much — Clay Buchholz came in at 2.33
But let’s look at the totals runs allowed versus earned runs given up by the pair.
Buchholz allowed 55 runs, only 45 earned.
Hernandez gave up 80 runs, but only 63 of them were earned.
If you based ERA off total runs instead of earned runs, Hernandez would be at 2.88. Buchholz would be at 2.85.
In other words, Hernandez would win only the innings pitched crown. He’d still be deserving of a Cy Young in my book — being rated so highly in so many different categories — but the effect on voters could be very real. They might decide that Hernandez finishing first in just one major category isn’t enough.
We won’t have to worry about that this time around. Hernandez did win the ERA crown and will almost certainly win the Cy Young.
But I still don’t like the whole “earned runs” thing.
Posnanski suggests in his column that we do exactly what I just did above. Change the “earned run average” equation to an “every run average” total.
I think he’s on to something. But I’d go a tad further.
My solution would be a compromise of sorts. Give a pitcher a break when an error leads directly to a run. In other words, if Figgins bobbles a ball with the bases loaded and two runs score, they should not go on Hernandez’s ledger.
But if Figgins bobbles a ball that allows a runner to reach first base with two out and none on, then Hernandez still has to pitch his way out of it. Just like Ben Rothliesberger has to overcome Antwaan Randle El dropping balls in the endzone and try to convert a TD pass on the next play. You still have to play the game and setbacks are what sport is all about.
So, how would Hernandez fare in that case?
Well, a review of all the unearned runs he allowed shows that only one of them came as a direct result of an error. In that April case against Texas, with two out and runners at second and third, Figgins tried to throw out the speedy Julio Borbon on a grounder. Borbon beat it out, allowing a run to score. And when the throw got away from the first baseman, a second run scored — the unearned marker.
That type of unearned run I can understand.
So, Hernandez would have an ERA of 2.85 under that scenario.
Buchholz? Well, errors directly resulted in three of the 10 unearned runs he allowed all season. Obviously, if we take those three off the ledger, his ERA score gets substantially better — all the way down to 2.62.
This isn’t meant to argue that Buchholz was a better pitcher than Hernandez. He wasn’t. But clearly, there is a lot about ERA that could use some improvements.
It’s a big reason why sabermetric stats like FIP are gaining traction. But will the average fan ever really be able to grasp a formula that requires an advanced math degree to figure out? Probably not. And if the idea is to make stats accessible and understood by a majority of people who support baseball through following it, then I’d say the best solution is some surgery on an ERA category that most fans can already grasp. Doesn’t make it a better stat than some of the modern sabermetric stuff out there. But it does make for a better stat than current ERA at determining good and bad pitchers.
We could get even a little more detailed than that, if you’d like.
I’m all for an ERA stat that lets pitchers off the hook with unearned runs if an error allows a runner to reach third base and then that runner scores on a sacrifice fly. After all, the pitcher didn’t give up a hit following the fielder’s mistake. Yeah, pitchers should limit hits and try to bail out fielders who make gaffes. But requiring them not to allow a flyball out after such a mistake is, I believe, a bit much.
What if the run scores from third base directly on a groundball out? I’d still count that as an earned run. Most hitters aren’t trying to hit a groundball with a runner at third in any situation. But a lot of them are trying to hit a ball in the air to get that runner home.
By the same token, a pitcher who commits an error that directly results in a run should indeed be charged with an earned run. Not the current standard of that marker being unearned — even when it’s totally the pitcher’s fault. That’s a bit silly.
After all, a run that scores on a wild pitch is indeed considered an earned run. So, why is a pitcher held responsible for a bad throw to the plate, but not first base? Again, that’s silly.
But that’s about all the changes I’d do. It’s pretty simple to follow, as you can see. Unless a run scores directly on an error, you expect the pitcher to hold the line and get out of a jam — the one exception being if the error sends a runner to third and positions him for a sacrifice fly.
And pitchers are held responsible for runs where they commit a throwing error and a runner scores.
Make those changes, ERA would become a far more respectable stat. One that could still be easily understood by the masses.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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