A player’s traditional statistics – like a pitcher’s ERA, for example – can do a fairly good job of describing what actually happened over a given period of time. A more advanced statistic, like field independent pitching (FIP), can do a better job of expressing what should have happened over that same period. While there are many reasons to analyze and compare these stats, one way is to take the difference between the two and determine who was more or less lucky over a given stretch.
By arranging the differences (or distances) between the ERA and FIP of each team’s starting pitching staff, Wilson delivers a visually simple way of understanding how each staff over and underperformed what we might have otherwise expected to occur, at least based on those statistics. In addition to the chart, Wilson adds some analysis and commentary, making for an all-around enjoyable read – well, that is, with the exception of the team at the top.
Without peeking can you guess who outperformed their FIP the most in 2015 (i.e. Who was arguably the luckiest?). I’ll give you a hint: it is exactly the team you expect.
Indeed, the St. Louis Cardinals were the luckiest (or the most talented at getting lucky) starting pitching staff in 2015. With an FIP of 3.47, the Cardinals starting pitchers benefited by nearly a half a run (ERA 2.99) based on elements that were entirely out of their control. How could such a difference be supported? Mostly by their equally unusual 78.9% left on base percentage – i.e. the order in which events (hits/home runs/strike outs/etc… happened in their game was extremely luck, even though the frequency was otherwise normal.
While Owen (and I) admit that the Cardinals pitchers might have simply been better situationally, it’s impossible to escape that it was an exceptionally unusual season. In fact, the difference between the Cardinals’ ERA and FIP in 2015 (-.48) was the 10th largest in the past 15 years. Good for them. At least none of the other nine teams were able to match the difference in the following year.
Although, I didn’t bring this up to bum you out. In addition to being interesting, this type of analysis can be of particular note to the Cubs for 2016. Consider the Cardinals pitching staff going into next season: Lance Lynn is out after receiving Tommy John surgery, John Lackey is a free agent, Adam Wainwright is coming back from an Achilles injury, Carlos Martinez was shut down at the end of the year with a shoulder strain (missing the playoffs), Michael Wacha became extremely hittable in the second half, and top prospect Alex Reyes will be suspended for the start of 2016.
Even if all of those players repeated their 2015 season – which, clearly they won’t be able to – you could have expected an extreme drop off in actual performance for 2016. Given how many players will be out, unavailable, injured, returning from injury and/or suspended, it looks like the Cardinals starting staff will be in for some very real trouble next season. (Which, not coincidentally, is why they will almost certainly be involved in the starting pitching free agent market this winter).
In addition to the Cardinals, the top five “overachieving” rotations included the Blue Jays, Angels, Dodgers and Rays. The Top five underachieving rotations include the White Sox, Brewers, Rockies, Phillies and Red Sox. Rounding out the Central division, the Cubs, Pirates, and the Reds were underachievers, via the ERA/FIP calculation.
For what it’s worth, the Cubs’ starters had the best FIP (3.26) and third best ERA (3.36) of any team in MLB. If the Cardinals and the Cubs switched fortunes in 2015, in terms of the differences between FIP and ERA, the Cubs’ team ERA would have been an incredible 2.88 ERA, while the Cardinals would have ended the season with a mediocre 3.57 ERA.
To be fair, there are certainly ways a team can genuinely outperform their FIP (situational pitching, better defense, pick-offs, throwing out runners) – so you can’t discount the Cardinals too much – but it is not unreasonable to be frustrated that it always seems to be them.
Despite how angry any of this might make you, still take a moment to read the entire article here. There’s plenty more detail and analysis surrounding the other teams on the list and it is a good read. I’d like to tell you that, one of these days, the Cubs are going to cash in on the years of bad luck, talent and otherwise, but that’s just not how the universe (or math) works. Chance doesn’t owe us anything, because, if it did, the Cardinals would have had quite a different season in 2015. There’s always next year? Cheers!