Friday, November 20, 2009

WHIP, FIP & The WAR Against Wins

Good morning, Fackers. In the wake of the senior circuit Cy Young, like the AL version, being awarded to a pitcher not on the basis of his won-lost record but on the quality and number of his innings pitched, we're again going to disagree with the well-respected Tyler Kepner.

As Matt pointed out on Wednesday, Kepner noted that Zack Greinke acknowledged FIP in his post-award conference call but was grasping at straws in an attempt to frame the knowledge of advanced statistics as a key component in Greinke's success. Last night, Kepner tried to connect what was said by Greinke (or more accurately, Brian Bannister) with Tim Lincecum's explanation of his approach and made the same conflation:
Obviously, there is no substitute for pure talent. But in Greinke, Bannister’s teammate, we are seeing what can happen when off-the-charts talent meets sophisticated understanding of numbers.

The same is true of Lincecum, to a degree. His stuff is filthy, but he said he was mainly concerned with how many walks-plus-hits he allows per inning – which was curious, in a way, because Dan Haren, Chris Carpenter and Javier Vazquez all had a better WHIP than Lincecum in the N.L. this season.
First, Lincecum's WHIP was a minuscule 1.05. Haren, Carpenter, and Vasquez? 1.00, 1.01, 1.03. That's a difference of one batter for every 20, 25 and 50 innings, respectively, which Lincecum easily erases with his superior strikeout ratio.

But more importantly, what if Lincecum had simply said that he was trying his best not to allow batters to reach base? It would have been dismissed as a typical cliche. On the offensive side of the ball, we frequently hear batters saying that they were "just trying to get on base" which is just a different way of saying that they were trying to improve their on base percentage.

In most cases, the goals in baseball are pretty obvious. If you are a batter, don't use up outs. If you are a pitcher, try to keep men off the basepaths, preferably via strikeout. There is still some wiggle room regarding the value of sacrifice hits and bunting, but there isn't a whole lot advanced statistics can teach players. Knowing about UZR isn't going to make someone a better defender. They already know they should be trying to field as many balls, as far away from them as possible.

The main function of the more advanced metrics that are steadily gaining in popularity such as WAR, wOBA, VORP, WPA, RE24, UZR, and FRAA is that they allow observers to more accurately compare players to one another. While players citing FIP and WHIP can only increase their popularity, which is certainly a positive thing, understanding them doesn't provide much in terms of strategical, on-field edge.

The real story emerging from the 2009 Cy Young voting is that the voters have begun to value better statistics and in turn, more objective analysis. Which is to say, they're not blindly picking the pitcher who had the most wins.

Kepner demonstrates this by comparing this year's voting to win-skewed results 1990 and 1998 (both of which illustrate the writer's old reliance on wins), but Dave Cameron over at FanGraphs sums it up best:
Congratulations to the members of the BBWAA, who have been willing to adapt as the game changes. They deserve recognition for being willing to accept the shift towards better analytical methods. And getting away from wins as a measure of the value of a pitcher is a big first step.
Of course, Adam Wainwright who left his last game of the season with a 6-1 lead in line for his 20th win still received the most first place votes in the NL. He only finished 10 points behind Lincecum, so maybe if his bullpen had held up, the aftermath of these awards would be slightly less celebratory.

Both Matt and I have taken turns raining on this parade, but I think it's likely that in hindsight, 2009 will be cited as the year that Advanced Stats won the war against Conventional Wisdom. However, I'm more inclined to think that this was the Battle of Saratoga. And considering Bill James penned the hardball version of the Declaration of Independence over 30 years ago, it's probably going to a while before we see any sort of Treaty of Paris.


  1. Well said Jay. Hypothetically speaking though, how much of that goodwill towards the BBWAA goes out the window if Pujols, and especially Mauer, don't win the MVPs?

  2. Almost all of it. But I think traditional and advanced metrics are largely in agreement on those two as the MVPs (with the exception of WAR saying Ben Zobrist is more valuable than Mauer based on small sample sizes at multiple positions inflating his defensive contributions). I'd be surprised if both weren't close to unanimous.

  3. Jay, sick metaphors at the end.

  4. Muchos Gracias, Senor.