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August 8, 2012 at 8:21 AM

Not a whole lot of difference between Mariners starters Kevin Millwood and Jason Vargas other than age

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Kevin Millwood takes the mound tonight trying to help the Mariners avoid getting swept at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. The Mariners lost a tough one last night in 14 innings, with the umpires doing little to distinguish themselves. For me, though, the real blame, as always, goes to the team that could not hold a 7-2 lead in the sixth inning. Just the way I was raised on sports.
The M’s have lost three games in 13 or more innings the past month. Last night, they scored just two runs the final 12 frames. At Tampa Bay on July 21, they scored just two runs the final 13 innings. And on July 8 at Oakland, they scored just one run in 13 innings all day and zero the final seven frames.
So, agreed, the umps didn’t look great. Have your five-minute beef and get over it. There are bigger reasons the Mariners keep losing games like these. And every team, at some point, has to overcome poor officiating in any sport. Winners overcome stuff over the long haul. They don’t sit and stew over dreamed-up conspiracies.
Speaking of Millwood, he’s having quite a season for a guy of 37 about to retire. How good a season? Well, the advanced metrics say he’s having a better season than Jason Vargas.
What’s that, you say? Impossible. Vargas just got named Pitcher of the Month for July. He’s the guy the Mariners wouldn’t deal at the deadline. The guy the team now will likely try to sign to a multi-year extension, rather than pay a hefty one-year arbitration award.
Yep, that Vargas.
And yep, Millwood has been better. At least, where advanced sabermetric numbers are concerned.
Photo Credit: AP


According to the more traditional pitching stats, Vargas appears to be much better than Millwood. After all, Vargas has a 12-8 record and 3.69 earned run average compiled over 161 innings.
Millwood is 4-9 with a 4.01 ERA over 121 1/3 innings and has just one win since May 23.
I’ve said it before, Vargas is poised to make a killing in arbitration over his $4.8 million salary if he keeps this up — think about $10 million — because arbitrators look at the traditional stats, not the sabermetric ones. Only thing that slows him down is if his ERA climbs back around 4.00 and the wins stop coming. Then, he’ll only earn about $8 million.
Millwood? Even if he did come back next season — and in my sparing conversations with him, he sounds to me like a guy who wants to get on with real life — he’d be looking at maybe a one-year deal in the very low seven figure range. If he’d even get a major league offer. Might have to go for another minor league invite.
So, how can Millwood be having a better season than Vargas?
Well, if you look at new metrics designed to measure the things a pitcher does independent of the fielders behind him, they pretty much give it to Millwood across the board.
In Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Millwood is at 4.30, while Vargas sits at 4.71.
If you look at xFIP, which differs slightly from FIP in that it takes a pitcher’s home run rate on flyballs allowed and “normalizes” it according to the league average, Millwood is at 4.26 and Vargas at 4.34.
That’s incredible when you think of how many home runs — 26 — Vargas has given up this year. The xFIP stat pretty much throws them out and declares Vargas and Millwood — who has allowed just seven homers — to have an equal home run rate on all the flyballs they give up. And still, Millwood comes out on top.
The reason they score xFIP that way is because allowing home runs is something many of today’s modern stats creators believe a pitcher has little control over once a flyball leaves the bat. So, if everyone were to give up home runs at the same rate on flyballs, this is what their FIP would be.
And some folks believe xFIP is the best way to measure a pitcher. And on that count, there isn’t a whole lot separating Vargas from Millwood. In fact Millwood is still said to be slightly better.
It’s all very interesting and provides a different context in how to look at pitchers.
Now, you still can’t take away the innings advantage for Vargas. He has pitched significantly more than Millwood and that is the same whether you do a sabermetric or more traditional analysis. And FIP and xFIP will give Vargas some credit for his additional innings.
Vargas, 29, is also a good baseball generation younger than Millwood — a product of the 2000’s, not the 1990’s — and that matters when it comes to signing guys longer term.
Are there flaws in FIP and its xFIP cousin? I think so. They discriminate against certain types of pitchers, favoring the overpowering strikeout types over the softer, more cunning throwers. Yes, you want a pitcher who can strike guys out because then you have zero reliance on the fielders behind you. But those guys can sometimes run into pitch-count trouble in the middle innings.
There is something to be said for pitchers who learn to be more efficient at the expense of a higher strikeout rate and who can steadily keep hitters off-balance by not letting them square up on balls. There has been some preliminary work done at trying to measure how big a pitcher skill this actually is — some of it helped by new technology that measures the velocity at which balls fly off bats. Can a pitcher control this and to what degree does it become a “skill” that can be measured?
Clearly, there is room for disagreement here, which means that FIP is not the be-all, end-all. But then again, ERA isn’t the greatest stat either. It certainly has plenty of flaws, most revolving around good defenses and certain ballparks helping make some pitchers look better — or worse — than they are.
And when you take two Mariners pitchers working in front of the same defense and throwing home games at the same park, the sabermetric numbers say that Millwood has been the better pitcher — albeit over fewer innings.
Something to think about this off-season when the talk of how much to pay Vargas comes up for discussion.

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