First Pitch: Should We Change the Way We Value Pitchers?

This afternoon, A.J. Burnett signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. If you’re looking for my reaction to the deal, you’re not going to find it here. I’ve spent plenty of time discussing my thoughts on Burnett. To sum it all up once again, I think the Pirates rotation looks good, and I don’t think Burnett was necessary to have a contending team. If you’re looking for more detail, there are plenty of articles I’ve written on Burnett this off-season.

Today I want to focus on what could turn out to be a very interesting case study during the 2014 season: the impact of park factors and defense on a pitcher.

As we know, Burnett came to the Pirates after struggling with the Yankees for two years. Almost immediately he saw success with the Pirates. Part of that success came due to his new approach, pitching more with his two-seam fastball, and focusing more on ground balls. Burnett saw his ground ball percentage go from 49% in 2011 to 56% in 2012 and 2013. That adjustment definitely led to Burnett’s turnaround, but I think PNC’s park dimensions, the defense behind Burnett, the defensive shifts, and Russell Martin’s pitch framing played just as big of a role.

People talk about park factors and defense all the time. The defensive shifts were a big topic this past year, as was the topic of pitch framing. But the general consensus is that all of these things are complementary to the skill of a pitcher. The focus is always on adding a talented pitcher, then boosting that talent with these “minor” upgrades. But what if we have it all reversed? What if it’s not so much about the talent of a pitcher, but it’s more about the situation a pitcher is in?

Let’s look at Burnett in 2011 and 2012 for a second.

2011: 5.15 ERA in 190.1 IP, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9

2012: 3.51 ERA in 202.1 IP, 8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9

Burnett remained a guy who got a lot of strikeouts. He improved his walk rate, probably because he increased his fastball percentage and focused on pounding the strike zone. His home runs went down, which was expected, since his 17% HR/FB ratio in 2011 was expected to regress, and was probably a result of Yankee Stadium. He also saw the drastic increase in ground balls. The change in his game played a role in all of this, but I think the defense and park factors helped more than people realize. Here are some numbers from the Yankees in 2011, and the Pirates in 2012.

Defensive Efficiency

Yankees: 21st

Pirates: 10th

BABIP on Ground Balls

Yankees: 27th

Pirates: 8th

Park Factors

Yankees: 6th highest in runs, 4th highest in HRs

Pirates: 28th highest in runs, 27th highest in HRs

The Yankees had a bad defense that allowed a lot of hits on ground balls, and a park that was one of the most hitter friendly in the majors. The Pirates had a good defense that didn’t allow many hits on ground balls, and a park that was one of the most pitcher friendly in the majors. If you don’t think that played a massive role in Burnett’s turnaround from 2011 to 2012, then you’re kidding yourself. Yes, Burnett made a key adjustment to focus more on ground balls, but that only played into the system. Burnett wouldn’t have had the same success with an increased number of ground balls in New York with the Yankees infield behind him.

If you’re interested, here are the numbers for the Phillies, based off the 2013 season.

DE: 28th

GB BABIP: 28th

Park: 6th highest in runs, Highest overall in HRs

Burnett has basically rejoined the 2011 Yankees. He’s now pitching for a team that has horrible defense, horrible infield defense, and he’s pitching in an extreme hitter’s park. On top of that, the Phillies don’t do defensive shifts, and they don’t have good pitch framing catchers. We’re going to get the chance to see exactly how much the adjustments by Ray Searage helped Burnett, and how much the outside factors played a role. I’m not going to be surprised if Burnett puts up poor numbers in Philadelphia, and I think it will mostly be due to the park factors and the defense behind him.

You might say that Burnett would probably have success with the Pirates, due to their park factors, strong defense, pitch framing, and defensive shifts. I’d absolutely agree with that. But what if the success is largely based on all of those outside factors? Does it make sense to pay for a pitcher’s numbers if those numbers are a result of the park and defense more than the pitcher’s skill? Why would you pay for any pitcher if you can just plug the right guys into your current system and get good results?

Burnett is a popular revival for the Pirates. The other popular reclamation project is Francisco Liriano. He had a very similar situation. Here is the same study with Liriano.

2012 Stats: 5.34 ERA in 156.2 IP, 9.6 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9

2013 Stats: 3.02 ERA in 161 IP, 9.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9

And here are the differences in park factors and defense.

2012 DE (MIN): 18th

2012 DE (CHW): 11th

2012 GB BABIP (MIN): 26th

2012 GB BABIP (CHW): 23rd

2012 Park Factors (MIN): 10th highest in runs, 14th highest in HRs

2012 Park Factors (CHW): 2nd highest in runs, 4th highest in HRs

Those aren’t as extreme across the board as Burnett, but they’re bad. Both had poor infield defenses. Minnesota had a poor defensive efficiency. The White Sox have an extreme hitter’s park. And then you have the Pirates in 2013:

DE: 5th

GB BABIP: 5th

Park Factors: 24th highest in runs, 29th highest in HRs

Keep those numbers in mind for a bit, because there are some other pitchers to look at who don’t get the same attention as Liriano and Burnett, but who also saw massive turnarounds overnight after joining the Pirates.

Vin Mazzaro

2012 Stats: 5.73 ERA in 44 IP, 5.3 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9

2013 Stats: 2.81 ERA in 73.2 IP, 5.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9

2012 DE: 28th

2012 GB BABIP: 30th

2012 Park Factors: 12th in runs, 16th in HR

Jeanmar Gomez

2012 Stats: 5.96 ERA in 90.2 IP, 4.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9

2013 Stats: 3.35 ERA in 80.2 IP, 5.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9

2012 DE: 24th

2012 GB BABIP: 16th

2012 Park Factors: 21st in runs, 20th in HR

Mark Melancon

2012 Stats: 6.20 ERA in 45 IP, 8.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9

2013 Stats: 1.39 ERA in 71 IP, 8.9 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9

2012 DE: 20th

2012 GB BABIP: 5th

2012 Park Factors: 3rd in runs, 10th in HR

That’s three more pitchers who had horrible numbers in 2012, then moved to PNC in 2013 and had great results. All three saw an increase in ground balls, just like the previous pitchers. Melancon went from 50% to 60%. Gomez went from 48% to 55%. Mazzaro went from 46% to 52%.

Mazzaro had a horrible defense, horrible infield defense, and was about middle of the pack in park factors. Gomez had a horrible defense, middle of the pack in infield defense, and bottom third in park factors. Melancon had a horrible defense, but a great infield defense. However, he had a huge hitter’s park, plus the AL East is full of hitter’s parks. Plus, Melancon’s biggest issues were the home runs, which totally disappeared in 2013 (that low rate is probably unsustainable, but he won’t get close to the 1.6 HR/9 again).

There’s a common trend with all of these pitchers.

1. Find guys who had a horrible defense, a horrible infield defense, and/or a hitter friendly park. Usually these pitchers will have the ability to get strikeouts, and get good ground ball rates.

2. Get those pitchers focusing more on getting ground balls and pounding the strike zone, thus increasing grounders, and cutting down on walks.

3. The increased ground balls plays into the team’s biggest strength, thus leading to much improved numbers.

The common argument against this is to point to guys like Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald, and talk about how not every pitcher will work out. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the pitchers who don’t work out are usually the ones who refuse to change any part of their game. Jonathan Sanchez, for example, did not get a lot of ground balls, and refused to make the requested adjustments that seemed to have worked for everyone else. That’s not a smart move for a pitcher, since you’re avoiding pitching into the team’s strength, which can only help your own numbers.

As I said before, I think there’s a good chance A.J. Burnett will struggle in Philadelphia, and if that happens, I think it will be largely due to the defense and the park. If we can pre-excuse him for that, then can’t we also suggest that his success was largely due to the Pirates’ defense and their park? You might argue that Burnett is a skilled pitcher, but what argument do you make for guys like Gomez and Mazzaro, who were in similar situations and saw the same massive improvements as Burnett?

So what if we do have it reversed? What if, instead of looking for the best possible talent, you just look for the right talent? Sometimes that can be as simple as a guy who gets ground balls and strikeouts, and would benefit more from pounding the strike zone, pitching to contact more, and getting a lot of forgiveness from his park and defense. I’m not saying Burnett is not a skilled pitcher. I’m not saying that all pitchers are just a product of their environments. What I’m saying is that I think the impact of the defense behind a pitcher, and the park that the pitcher plays in are both much bigger than we think.

Because we under-value defense and park factors, it makes the transformations from the pitchers above seem like flukes or good luck. And because we look at these pitchers as a string of good fortune, we dismiss the idea that the Pirates can just build a strong defense, take advantage of their park factors, and continue to find inexpensive pitchers who “surprisingly” put up strong numbers after coming to Pittsburgh. If that is indeed possible, then it would never make sense for the Pirates to spend a lot of money paying for pitching, or more specifically, a pitcher’s stats.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Rotation

**A.J. Burnett Signs a One Year Deal With the Phillies

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Draft Preview: Prep Hitters

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Y2JGQ2

    very strong article tim, one of your best actually

    • http://atung.net/ Steve Zielinski

      Yep. Very good article.

    • stickyweb

      Absolutely a great article Tim. Everyone harps on JMac and Sanchez and forget about the relievers you mentioned. But another thing to realize is that this argument is entirely based on comparisons to a pitcher’s performace on other teams. So you can’t just say JMac and Sanchez sucked, you have to consider how bad were they relative to how they were with other teams, either before or after the Bucs.

      For example, JMac’s stats with the Bucs are considerably better than his stats with the Dodgers, even taking the roller coaster into account. Sanchez’s stats are worse than his best days as a Giant but on par with his prior year or two before joining the Bucs. Plus 13 innings as a Pirate could be the SestSS in history, making any comparison impossible.

      Basically I agree with your article with the disclaimer that a minimum talent level and certain mentality (confidence, tenacity, willingness to learn/adapt) need to be present to even have a chance.

      • buster09

        Sticky,I think that last paragraph you added is so true,and so very important.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

      Y2JGQ2 said it first.
      Second the motion.

      Great article, Tim. Because it reads well and a non-sabremetrician can easily follow and grasp.

      Spectacularly well done article.
      Now the important question: Do great baseball writers just happen or do we have it backwards? Do favorable website factors and story framing make the journalist?

      Hmmmm.
      Personally, I think it’s the readership.

      Have a great day Tim. You did a fine article there.

      -Wabbit

  • https://profiles.google.com/115522615427589477970 Mike C.

    Great article Tim.

    Just curious if you or anyone knows the MLB rules for changing ball park boundaries.
    We know we have a short right porch, great for left handed pull batters and a big spacious left field.
    What if the Buccos somehow switched that??
    Other than Pedro, maybe Walker/Lambo/Snider to a smaller extent, we have no good batters profiling to take advantage of that right now. Although further down the line Meadows and McGuire are also LHBs while Hansen and Bell are RHBs.
    RH bats r usually cheaper to find.
    Plus Cole and all our young up and coming Pitchers are right handed.
    spending the the $$ to change the walls a bit seem cheaper than finding players that “fit” for our park.

    Sure I know some will say we can’t change the wall all the time, what if our next stud player is a lefty etc., but just humor me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jordy.hall.90 Jordy Hall

      Gregory Polanco is a left handed hitter and he is going to take full advantage of the wall in right field.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jordy.hall.90 Jordy Hall

      Also, Hanson and Bell are BOTH switch hitters.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

      Mike C.

      The whole configuration of PNC works either way and you don’t need to change the wall or flip the north side notch or anything.

      A good pitcher is going to take advantage of the big lefty slugger who is drooling over the Clemente Wall. He wants it. So the pitcher knows this, righty or lefty, and simply uses the big left handed hitter’s desire AGAINST him.

      It’s one (1) of the reasons the shifts work.

      With right handed sluggers it’s more of the same. The pitcher knows that he can surrender a pretty decent fly ball that will A) be caught just this side of the warning track or B) go foul or C) in a vast minority of cases the ball will be hit just right so that it gets over the wall just inside the foul pole.

      The park factors Tim is pointing to above have a lot to do with the latitude a pitcher has with the batter and in using the strike zone.

      I only hope that the rest of baseball is as slow on the Pirates’ uptake as they have been historically. Because right now, Tim’s article is a golden flashing sign to the rest of baseball to get with it. The slower baseball is in adapting, the longer the Bucs have an advantage.

      There should be pitchers knocking down their agents’ doors to get into the Burgh.

      -Wabbit

  • blackmax

    Tim, I think you’ve nicely articulated the strategy that the club has been pursuing for a year or two.

  • SportOMania

    What the offensive stats you stated do not factor how good the offense is of the home playing in that park. Good offensive teams will skew the park factors.

    • Kevin_Young

      No they’re adjusted for that.

  • https://www.facebook.com/nate.wilder1 Nate Wilder

    Shhhhhh! Other teams are going to find out about this!

    But seriously, great article. Just curious, but what exactly has Volquez been working with?

    I’d love to see that signing look like a steal.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: Truly an excellent article especially with all of the contrast numbers from one ballpark to another, and the defensive ratings of each team. All of the aspects you pointed out are correct, but what could be the most influential condition is the success that comes and the impact that has on the mental approach of the pitcher. If he is tentative (Burnett in NY for instance) fat pitches tend to come more often. You start to grip the ball just a slight bit tighter, and try to guide the ball. When he came to Pittsburgh and found that his infield and outfield defense was much better than the Yankees, and that even his worst mistake pitches had a chance to stay in the ballpark, he began to throw loose and confident, and it paid off. And, also throw in the negativity that comes from the fans and press when you are not performing at or anywhere near your best.

    He is gone, but the other pitchers you mentioned are still here and joined by another guy (Edinson Volquez) who has never reached his full potential. I discount SD because I do not think he was mentally prepared for that move, and know that his career as we knew it was spent at Great American Ballpark in Cincy – another launching pad. I like his chances to get a lot better numbers posted in 2014.

    • Cato the Elder

      Seems to me if there was a notable impact on “mentality” causing him to throw “loose” and with ” more confidence” that would have shown up in a higher strikeout rate and this is not supported by the numbers.

      • emjayinTN

        Not necessarily more strikeouts, but pitching to contact with better command of a sinking fastball and slider will result in more GB’s. He became a smarter pitcher with more ways to get batters out.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=661881564 Bob Smith

    I wonder if or when mid-level free agent pitchers will see this and focus or reach out to the pirates or like teams toget one year deals to better their chances of long term deals later

    • stickyweb

      Great point Bob. And to take it a step further, will agents start advising their clients about this? Can you imagine a world where Scott Boras is calling NH to get a “bounce back” contract for his pitcher, i.e. Kyle Lohse last year?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      They already do this in some cases. Guys sign with San Diego to try and revive their careers at Petco. Hitters will sign with Colorado or Texas due to the good hitter’s parks. Although I don’t know if they do it to the extent where they also look at the defensive tendencies of the team.

    • Cato the Elder

      I think so. Furthermore, I think the fact that they let AJ get his payday by not attaching draft-pick compensation to him will not hurt future attempts to attract bounce back pitchers.

      • https://profiles.google.com/116269181038744632419 Shawn Inlow

        DING!
        WE HAVE A WINNER!

        Dead-on, Cato.

        -Wabbit

  • jaygray007

    Volquez is basically the same pitcher as what Burnett was in 2011.

    ERA FIP xFIP GB% K/9 BB/9
    Volquez: 5.7 4.2 4.1 48 7.5 4.1
    Burnett: 5.1 4.8 3.8 49 8.2 3.9

    Volquez’s struggles were more BABIP-based (.325! that’s significantly high! career BABIP of .306!), and Burnett’s were more homeritis-based (just look at the FIP – xFIP differential of ~1.0. i look at FIP – xFIP difference to gauge homeritis). PETCO is bad for hitting homers, but it’s so huge that there’s a lot of room for the balls to land if you don’t have a good defense! (i have no idea how good or bad the padres’ outfielders are.)

    It amazes me haw many people HATE the Volquez signing. How quickly we forget what the other guys looked like when they signed. Granted, Volquez was in PETCO. Maybe burnett had a slightly higher chance of success because we could add “Yankee Stadium Homeritis” to his list of reasons for a bounceback. it’s much more obvious than just bad BABIP luck.

    But it truly amazes me how quickly we forget how much of a buy-low burnett was. he wasn’t even particularly good before his yankee days! a few years in the 3.5 range (reached 3.3 in 2002. but in his last 2 years with the blue jays, he had ERAs of 3.98 and 3.75!!!

    To agree with Tim, This is a absolutely a case of the Pirates’ system and Burnett just being a wonderful fit for each other. He’s good too! look at that curveball! but the Pirates’ system is what made him great.

    • Andrew

      I agree with this but the one year contrast overstates the comparison, both Burnett and Liriano had multiple seasons of success, Volquez had one, and has a career BB/9 a batter higher than Burnett or Liriano. Also the Pirates gave a lot less money to Volquez that should say something about his potential or upside, but I agree Volquez can be an effective back end of the rotation starter.

      • stickyweb

        True enough about the smaller commitment to Volquez, but there are other factors there as well: 1) market demand (some fans are saying Volquez doesn’t even belong on a roster);
        2) Buc’s needs (last two years rotation wasn’t nearly as stable as it is now)
        3) Prospects so close (similar to #2, but 2 years ago, Bucs had no idea when Cole, et al. would be in MLB. Now, Taillon, Kingham and Glasnow are expected in the next 2 years)

      • Mr. Goodkat

        AJ was a salary dump. I doubt they would have gotten him for essentially nothing if they asked NY to cover a higher % of the salary.

        Would have been interesting to see what he would have gotten on the market though, had he been released. I remember a lot of people saying the Bucs should have just waited for that.

        I agree with you on Liriano though — higher potential due to stronger past performance. And even then, people thought the Pirates initial offer was far too much.

      • jaygray007

        My argument is that Burnett wasn’t even all that successful in his pre yankee days. an absolutely durable #3 type for his whole career. That’s awesome, but not like he was elite or anything. Liriano absolutely had elite years.

        But other then VERY early on in his career, his Pirate years were his best. his career ERA is 3.99. It’s not like he was a bona fide ace with the blue jays and fell apart only when he went to the yankees. He was a durable 4ish ERA guy with a few better years sprinkled in. Granted, that’s all in the AL.

        Overall you and i are in agreement though. probability of Volquez being a great success is surely lower than the probability that Burnett and Liriano had, but it’s higher than most people are giving him credit for.

        • jaygray007

          “wasn’t all that successful” is a strong phrase. but my only point is that it wasn’t like he was putting up 3.5 ERAs year in and year out.

    • Mr. Goodkat

      I love the signing. I think a lot of the people who don’t, feel that way because of the price tag.

      Yes, pitching is expense, but no one was reporting his market as being in the price range that the Pirates paid. Does that matter? No. MLBTR is a great site for fans, but everything on there has to be taken with a grain of salt until official details are released. Who knows what the real market was and what other offers he had on the table…

      I’m excited to see them turn this guy around, because I really think they can. Stuff, numbers, and potential aside, he’s in the same position that Burnett and Liriano and all the other guys on this article were — this could very well be his last REAL chance. I think he’ll be willing to put the time in and be open to making the changes that Ray has been implementing with such great success.

      If he doesn’t, he’ll be on the scrap pile skimming through minor league offers, invitations to ST, and mere chances to compete for the 5th spot in rotations.

      • piraddict

        Mr. Goodkat,

        The thing I like least about the Volquez signing is the way it fails to set up the 2015 team. At the end of 2014 Liriano’s, Wandy’s and Volquez’s contracts expire and there will be three open starting slots to fill before Spring 2015. Target one of those for Taillon and you still have two slots to be filled by: Locke, Kingham, Pimental, Cumpton, Wilson or a resign of Liriano or Volquez. That is a lot of uncertainty. I would rather have seen the $4.5MM differential between Volquez and either Locke, Pimental or Cumpton as the 5th starter applled to either a contribution to the extension of Liriano or other organizational development costs (finding the next Polanco). The pitcher developed instead of Volquez would be a better contributor to the 2015 team.

        Can we reasonably expect Volquez to perform better than Locke, Pimental or Cumpton would have in his place? I have great reservations about that. The decision to add Volquez can’t be done in a vacuum, so to speak. Yes, Searage will make Volquez better. But what would he have done to Pimental or Locke? The later two have more long term value because they are cheaper for longer than Volquez will be. If Searage is successful with Volquez then Volquez’s salary will go up for 2015 and beyond. Not so for the younger pitchers.

        So I don’t like the Volquez signing for long term strategic reasons. Hope he works out for 2014 though now that the Bucs have spent $5MM on him.

        • Mr. Goodkat

          The odds of him outperforming a Locke or Cumpton may not be high due to his historical struggles, but his upside certainly is higher than those two. Stolmy and Wilson are cheaper and have great stuff, but are even less of sure things as starters than EV.

          Both are options for the rotation next year (in our minds at least), but I don’t think you’d want to go into the season with either of them penciled into the 5th spot. As much as I’d like them to set themselves up for 2015, I’d much rather have them put together the best possible rotation THIS year within their budget. I see EV being a step above all those I mentioned above. Plus then you’ve improved your depth, which we saw last year is crucial. If the Pirtates WANT Stolmy or Wilson to ever move back to the rotation, they will probably get that chance at some point during the year. I would think Cumpton and Gomez and Taillon would be first in line though.

          If Liriano pitches anywhere close to how he pitched last year he’ll be in line for a big, fat multiyear contract. The $4.5M difference you speak of wont matter one bit. The Pirates wont give a player his age the 5+ year or $100M+ contract he’ll get elsewhere.

          However, I DO wish they would have gotten a club option on EV, for the exact 2015 issue you bring up. Now, if he pitches well, they probably lose him. Hopefully they would at least get a comp. pick, but as we saw with Burnett this year, they’d have to actually give a QO…

  • OldTimeBucsFan

    Another great article, Tim. However, I think it’d be more valid if the failed pitching options are also considered. How did their before and after stats stack up?

    • buster09

      Tim, excellent work, it explains a lot. OTBF : with regards to MacDonald, I am not so sure any of his stats are going to help explain his collapse. I watched him pitch several times las year in Altoona,and it was apparent to me that he either A,had a physical problem of some kind,or B,mentally he was lost. He had absolutely no confidence in any thing he was doing,even when it came to throwing a strike somehow.

  • https://www.facebook.com/nate.james.125 Nate James

    Tim, definitely your best article ever. Very interesting and I tend to agree with all your points. The way the pitching staff has been since AJ got here, it’s like a well oiled machine. Can’t wait for this season!

  • glassers

    Thought provoking to say the least . There are so many parts that make a team successful that IMO it is impossible to focus on just one . If you look back at all the pitchers that have come and gone I wonder what those numbers would look like . Also I don’t think you can understate the importance of Ray , he has a habit of instilling a lot of confidence to his pitching staff .

    I enjoyed this one Tim !

  • PiratesFan1975

    Great article

  • jaygray007

    One thing doesn’t make sense to me. Since FIPs, xFIPs, etc don’t factor in how good the defense is, why aren’t all the Pirates’ pitchers’ ERAs drastically lower than their FIPs?

    is it basically because there is a 0% chance that a ground ball turns into a homer?

    burnet’s FIP/xFIP (2.80 2.92) were actually lower than his ERA. why didn’t the ground ball/defense system make his ERA lower than the FIPs? I feel like that a good defense would make your ERA lower than your FIP.

    i’m going to go with… more grounders –> less homers —> lower FIP/xFIP.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      FIP numbers neutralize certain things. It sets BABIP around .290. xFIP sets HR/FB to around 10%. LOB is set to around 70%.

      The majority of the players on the team saw their ERAs lower than their FIP numbers. There were a few cases where that was different, such as Burnett. In his case, I think it comes down to the away numbers. Here are the ERA/xFIP splits.

      Home: 2.37/2.59
      Away: 4.22/3.24

      The difference is largely because he performed worse than his FIP numbers on the road. When he was at home, he pitched better than the FIP numbers.

      • jaygray007

        fantastic. thanks for the answer.

        • Andrew

          Check out Fangraphs value section for pitchers it has a breakdown of RA-9 WAR vs FIP WAR.
          FIP WAR assumes league average BABIP and strand rates. In Burnett’s case, he has had only two season were his LOB Wins was positive, I’ll speculate this could be due to his propensity to give up steals. As a contrast look at Arroyo, he consistently beats his FIP.

    • stickyweb

      007, instinctively it seems like a good defense would make ERA lower than FIP and xFIP, but there are other considerations. I’m certainly no expert on the advance metrics, but I know they focus a lot on BB and K rates. AJ was very good at both of these.

      As for ERA, especially in a small sample of a year or two, luck and sequencing would have big influences. Specifically for AJ, do you remember how many games he had last year (maybe 2012 too, I don’t remember) where he pitched exceptionally well for 5 or 6 innings, then kind of fell apart for an inning? So he ended up with a line close to 6IP, 3ER, 5H, 2BB, 10K. The last inning where he gave up all of the runs taints the ERA (4.50) and some of that may have even happened after he left the game. But the advanced metrics all look good.

      I could be way off on this, but that’s what I thought of first when I saw your question.

      • jaygray007

        ya the stuff about sequencing and falling apart makes some sense. when hits are bunched in an inning, you need a lot less hits to make runs. 1 hit in every inning for 6 inning will give a much different score than 5 no-hit innings and 1 6 hit inning.

        Thanks for that. that could definitely be at play here. makes sense, at least.

  • skliesen

    Excellent article Tim. Certainly one of your best efforts.

    One of the key indicators I noted was the dramatic drop in BB/9 for all those listed, except Gomez. What this tells me is the combination of defense and park dimensions allows Pitchers to pitch to contact more confidently. Combine this w Martin’s pitch framing capabilities and it’s no wonder walk rates drop so precipitously.

    Big difference between pitching to the inner and outer 1/3 of plate to trying to paint the black.

    Every reason to believe Volquez will benefit from this, too.

    Count me as being on record as saying Volquez is the next great Pirates pitching reclamation project.

    • jaygray007

      Dude, I’m all in on Volquez too haha. I have a bet with a friend that he’ll have a better ERA than Burnett with the Phillies this year haha. (won’t necessarily be the better pitcher, but he’ll have a better ERA)

      At least until the Pirates trade for Burnett at the trade deadline, embraces shifting because of bad defense in Philly, leads them to the WS, and we all live happily ever after.

      • Mr. Goodkat

        I’d take that bet as well. Between his age and that park/defense, AJ could be in for a very rough year ERA-wise…

        It’ll be interesting to see if the Pirates are on his limited no trade clause if he actually got one. That would certainly tell us if a bridge was burned or not this winter. My guess is even if he’s holding any kind of grudge, the proximity to home (and the lack of other, close options) would keep a return to Pittsburgh open…

      • skliesen

        Like the bet you made! Don’t count on AJ being on Pirates staff, but we still might live happily ever after!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    Tim…I’ll echo what the others have stated…great article.

    Since I live near Philly, I have lots of Philly phriends (they were on my softball team…otherwise…lol). I have sent them KLaw and Olney’s critiques of the AJ deal and I will now send them this. They were happy at first, but now it is more of the same “Ruben ‘spend like there’s no T’Amaro”

    Good luck in Philly AJ. You’re gonna need it!!

  • Andrew

    Great article, my only question is how stable, year to year, are defensive inefficiency and GB BABIP, there has to be some regression back to league average for outliers, the important question is how much?

  • The Masked robshelb

    .

    Wowser !! What an incredible tour de force. Undoubtedly the very best baseball analysis article I’ve read in a long, long time. And who knows ?? Maybe it will become Newtonian in the way baseball does, or should, evaluate the quality and the value of pitchers.

    Super good stuff.
    .

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

    “But what if we have it all reversed? What if it’s not so much about the talent of a pitcher, but it’s more about the situation a pitcher is in?”

    If it isn’t about the talent of the pitcher then I need an explanation for 2001 – 2011. The ballpark hasn’t changed. Team defense is better overall now, but at times it was pretty good. Jack Wilson played a lot of years at short and was very strong defensively. And shifts, shmifts. The impacts of shifting are greatly overemphasized. They help some. Not nearly as much as people lead you to believe.

    • stickyweb

      Vig, yes Jack Wilson was pretty good defensively, but only played one position at any one time. The catching stands out as really sucking for the entirety of your timeframe, and I’m not going to look it up, but I’d think several other postions were below par defensively.

      Also, there wasn’t the pitching philosophy of emphasizing groundballs, etc that they now employ. And to actually analyze the theory, you need to compare what the Bucs pitchers during those years did elsewhere in their careers. My memory’s so bad but I don’t think many of them went on to bigger, better things (Maholm is the only one standing out as being decent after he left but I’m sure I’m missing several)

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      It’s not just about one player. Jack Wilson was strong defensively, but that’s one position out of eight. The difference between 2001-2011 and now is that there was no system them. Now? You’ve got the following.

      1. Speedy outfielders who can cover the massive ground at PNC.
      2. Strong defensive infielders.
      3. Pitchers who are focused on generating ground balls to play into that strong infield defense.
      4. Defensive shifts to help the success of those ground ball pitchers.
      5. Strong defensive catchers who add extra strikes with pitch framing skills.

      From 2001-2007 there was no resemblance of a plan at all. From 2008-2011 you could see that they were adding players with a plan in mind. The majority of the pitchers they were adding were good at generating ground balls. Most of the players added were strong defensively. Basically the difference between 2001-2011 and now is that they finally have a plan to capitalize on PNC Park, and that plan is all coming together.

      • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

        I don’t disagree the organization now better understands how it needs to play at PNC. But it is still mostly about the talent. And is the Pirates infield defense now all that good? Barmes was the only above average defender in that infield, and his playing time is going to be lessened by an inferior defender.

        • buster09

          You don’t need great individual defensive talent to have a strong team defense.Do the defensive metrics from last year lie ?

          • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

            The Pirates defensive efficiency in 2012 was 71.4%. In 2013 it “improved” to 71.5%. Over the course of a season that would be about 5 additional outs. The improvement in team defense last year was over stated.

            • Mr. Goodkat

              Other than Jack Wilson there was some TRULY awful defensive baseball being played during that time. Both in the infield and the outfield. Jason Bay’s poor knees trying to chase down fly balls…everyone in the league stealing at will off our pitching staff year in year out…

              Please please please don’t make any of us look up the names or stats. I’ve been having a rather enjoyable day, and doing so would surely ruin it.

        • jamminjoe66

          AJ in NY had Martin. They had ARod at 3rd Jeter at SS Cano at 2B Texira at 1B. Far suppior D to Pedro, Barmes, Walker & Jones/Sanchez

          • jamminjoe66

            No geek stats. Just watching the game.

    • Cato the Elder

      You’re right to point out that the talent of the pitcher matters. This is a classic example of a rising tide raising all ships. It is silly to suggest that a very talented pitcher doesn’t reap similar benifits of good defense and homerun suppression. If there were any truth to that, then the Pirates should just trade all of their talented pitchers and pitching prospects for bats, because Cole and Co. are just wasting their talents playing in front of a good defenses, etc. Again, that is just silly.

      Now, there may in fact be specific market inefficiencies to be exploited, but that would require far more research than is shown here. Frankly, I’m a bit incredulous at every the amount of ballyhoo this article is getting for merely pointing out that pitcher’s tend to put up better numbers when they play with a good defense behind them and half of their games in a pitcher-friendly home park. Seems pretty obvious to me and the numbers are far from new or obscure.

  • Ecbucs

    It is a good article but (and it is a big but) I don’t think the comparisons of Burnett’s last 2 years with Yankees compared to two years with Bucs are relevant.

    Basically AJ was getting booed out of park his last 2 years in NY and he had become a head case. Getting out of NY and away from negative media attention may have been an even bigger factor in his turnaround than pitch framing, defense or ballpark.

    With the Bucs, AJ returned to being similar to what he was in Toronto with improved control.

    • Ecbucs

      forgot to add that AJ did have Russell Martin’s pitch framing with Yankees

    • jaygray007

      Philly will definitely be an interesting case study then. Not as much media attention on him since Hamels and Lee are the kings there, plus the team is already bad so i doubt there will be a ton of pressure.

      we shall see if his success in pittsburgh is more about media coverage or more about the system!

  • wvbuccos

    Love the analysis. A few things that I would like to look at in addition (if I knew how to find the data), though, are pitch framing ranks (or some type of defensive catcher metric ranks), more than just a 2-year sample, and average away park factor rank for each pitcher (or maybe just home/road splits).

  • scrappy2499

    Great article Tim! I do have a question though. With our current SS rotation how much of a drop do you see for our infield D-fence going forward?

  • capirate

    In your article and the comments, there is little mention of home/road splits for these pitchers. If park factors is one part of the equation to make these pitchers successful, it would seem there might be some significant home/road splits – perhaps more than is typical. Did any of these pitchers have significant home/road splits and, if so, how do these splits compare to league averages?

  • Ecbucs

    Here is link to home road for AJ

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=burnea.01&year=2013&t=p

    Has quite a bit better stats at home.

  • piraddict

    So should the Pirates add the development of pitches that sink to their stated agenda for minor league pitching development? I know they start with locating the fastball and work from there. But if keeping the ball on the ground is so key then one would think they would have a specific agenda to teach pitches that sink, be they two seam FB, fork ball, 12/6 curve etc.

    I was never a pitcher past youth baseball. How easy is it for pitchers to add another pitch and be effective with it after they pass say age eighteen? I guess that the ability to throw a 95+ MPH fastball is likely due mostly to genetics, you either have the ability or you don’t. Likewise the ability to locate your pitches may be more a result of having fine muscle motor control which is innate rather than taught. But is the ability to throw certain pitches more taught than innate?

    • piraddict

      An obvious candidate for a pitch addition is Melancon. In the Playoffs he threw slider after slider on the outside corner, daring the Cards to hit it, and eventually they did. It was almost as if he were a one trick pony. The guy has stellar control. But if he had Morton’s sinker to compliment his slider he would be even more devastating. But how realistic is it for a MLB pitcher to add another pitch at that level?

  • piratemike

    If all of what Tim says is true then the lights will be burning late in the commissioners office to overcome this unfair advantage a low revenue team might have.
    Not to forget about the players union. How dare somebody propose that a pitcher is not worth $30m per season !

  • joshuabobby

    Excellent analysis, Tim. Very well said.

    This got me thinking. While it seems the individual contributors to runs saved (defensive shifts, fip/xfip, fielding, park factors) have been pretty well normalized, could this be a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts?

    In other words, if a team increases defensive shifts (10 runs saved) AND plays in a pitcher friendly park (10 runs saved), can a team save 25 runs instead of 20? Do they build on each other in a non-linear fashion? Does having 4 above average defenders on an infield further exacerbate a pitcher’s increase in ground ball %?

    Just wondering if anyone has studied that or if it is somehow inherent in how the data is pulled, but it doesn’t seem to me like it is.