Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does Zack Greinke Really Understand FIP?

Yesterday was a banner day for those who value advanced baseball statistics. Zack Greinke rightly won the American League Cy Young Award, and did so in convincing fashion, sparing us all a host of indignant rants about how the voters got it all wrong again for an award that the stats community clearly states doesn't matter anyway (see Gold Gloves and Rookie of the Year).

But whatever joy statheads derived from Greinke's victory pales in comparison to the giddyness and the sense of vindication that's spreading from a Greinke quote in this NYT piece from Tyler Kepner, emphasis mine:
“But I’m also a follower, since Brian Bannister’s on our team, of sabermetric stuff and going into details of stats about what you can control.”

Bannister, a right-handed starter, is known for his appreciation of modern pitching metrics, which emphasize the factors for which pitchers are essentially responsible: walks, strikeouts, home runs and hit batters. In Greinke, he found a like mind.

“He’s extremely bright, and he’s really picked up on using all the information out there to make his game better,” Bannister said by telephone. “He’s always had the talent. His confidence level, which is extremely high, combined with his knowledge of the numbers behind the game now, definitely makes him one of the best pitchers in the world.”

Bannister said Greinke has learned to adjust his pitching based on the advanced defensive statistics. Because of the size of the outfield at Kauffman Stadium and the strength of the Royals’ outfielders, relative to their infielders, it sometimes made more sense to induce fly balls.

“David DeJesus had our best zone rating,” Bannister said, referring to the Royals’ left fielder. “So a lot of times, Zack would pitch for a fly ball at our park instead of a ground ball, just because the zone rating was better in our outfield and it was a big park.”

To that end, Bannister introduced Greinke to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, the statistic Greinke named Tuesday as his favorite. It is a formula that measures how well a pitcher performed, regardless of his fielders. According to, Greinke had the best FIP in the majors.

That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.
I've referenced FIP many times here over the course of the year. I think it's a telling, if imperfect, statistic that gives better insight into a pitcher's performance than traditional metrics like ERA. I'm glad that at least some players are aware of these new metrics, and not at all surprised that one of Bannister's teammates would be amongst those to pick up on them. That said, I think the items I highlighted are absolute hogwash, and fly in the face of what FIP is supposed to represent in the first place.

First of all, for Bannister to credit Greinke's knowledge of advanced metrics as an element of his success is misleading at best, dead wrong at worst. Greinke is successful because he's a tremendously talented pitcher who strikes out a ton of batters, doesn't walk very many, keeps the ball in the park, and strands a higher than usual percentage of baserunners on base. Whether or not he's cognizant of the value of these attributes is inconsequential. You or I or any number of other baseball loving Americans know that these factors are key to a pitcher's success, but without Zack Greinke's arsenal of pitches, that knowledge isn't going to turn any of us into a Major League pitcher, much a less a Cy Young Award winner.

The rest of it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what FIP is. It's Fielding Independent Pitching. As such, balls in play - line drives, groundballs, flyballs, whatever - have absolutely no impact on a pitcher's FIP. And while it might behoove a pitcher to pitch for flyballs if his team's outfield defense is superior to his team's infield defense, attempting to do so demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how FIP works. No matter how bad of a shortstop Yuniesky Bettancourt is, 0% of groundballs result in home runs while approximately 8% of flyballs do. And since FIP values HRs four and a third times as much as BBs and six and a half times as much as Ks, allowing just one HR has a momentous impact upon a pitcher's FIP. Greinke's infield defense could give up basehits on a dozen seeing-eye singles a game; it won't make a bit of difference as far as FIP is concerned. But no matter how great David DeJesus's zone rating is, it doesn't extend any further than an arm's length beyond the left field fence. A single flyball extending an inch beyond that range has a major effect on Greinke's FIP.

Of course, of all that is predicated upon the assumption that a pitcher actually has control over the type of contact made against him. This is not a universally accepted principle in the stats community. In fact, the assumption that a pitcher has no control over such things is often cited as the reason that the vast majority of pitchers, irrespective of talent level, will finish the season with a BABIP against that's within 10 points or so of the league average. Any pitcher who doesn't is considered a statistical outlier rather than some sort of pitching prodigy capable of inducing favorable balls in play. That said, even if Greinke could actively select what type of contact is made against him, shifting groundballs to flyballs would have a favorable impact on his expected BABIP against, since groundballs generally result in hits more often than flyballs, but as described above, would actually have a negative impact on his FIP - which Greinke states he is actively trying to minimize.

Which brings me to last my last gripe. Whether Greinke knows what FIP is or not, isn't trying to keep it as low as possible the whole point of pitching? I mean, unless he's on the hill intentionally handing out HRs, or refusing to strike batters out, or continually plunking batters and issuing unintentional intentional walks, every pitcher - Greinke, Bannister, or the less enlightened - is attempting to keep his FIP as low as possible, consciously or not.

Don't get me wrong. Zack Greinke is a most deserving Cy Young Award winner, and I think it's a good thing that he and Bannister and others are embracing some of the more forward thinking ways of evaluating the game. But, I think Kepner's piece jumps to some conclusions that aren't quite evident. Performance is still predicated on talent level. Advanced metrics like FIP and zone rating are intended to illuminate quality performance in a better manner than their more archaic and generally accepted counterparts (ERA, fielding percentage). Greinke's awareness of these metrics doesn't make him any better, it just makes him smarter. And yet The Times article paints his knowledge as a hidden secret to his success despite the fact that many of the statements are in fact contrary to what the metrics are intending to measure. I wish more in the stats community would take a minute to look at that, rather than simply being happy their work was being acknowledged by the best pitcher in the game.


  1. It seems Kepner has the problem with the metrics, not Greinke nor Bannister. Neither pitcher connects Bannister's discussion about pitching to the better defenders with FIP. Only Kepner does that, appending Bannister's quotes to Greinke's quote and suggesting that they are talking about the same thing.

  2. Thanks for commenting Moshe. That's a fair criticism and perhaps Kepner's framing or lack of understanding is the main reason I'm taking issue with the piece.

    That said, Bannister does explicitly state that at times Greinke tried to induce flyballs. While I admit there may be some measure of value in that given the relative strenghts of KC's IF and OF defense, Bannister should also know that 1). Greinke has minimal control - if any - over what type of batted balls he surrenders and 2). That regardless of defense, there is an inherent risk in surrendering flyballs that is not present with groundballs.

    Perhaps Bannister spoke to that as well and TKep didn't include it in the final piece. But presented as it is, it doesn't strike me as being particularly insightful, epsecially in light of how sharp Bannister is reputed to be with this stuff.

  3. Yeah, I agree with that portion of your post, particularly in regard to #2. However, is this

    "Greinke has minimal control - if any - over what type of batted balls he surrenders"

    a generally accepted principle? I was under the impression that you could control GB v. FB, just not where that ball is hit or how hard.

  4. Moshe -

    I don't know if I'm the proper person to consult on that one. I'm by no means an expert on the advanced metrics.

    That said, my understanding is that the general assumption is that pitchers have far less control over batted ball types than batters do. I believe this is often sighted as the reason we see a large disparity in BABIPs for batters - that correlates well to overall skill level, while nearly all pitchers have BABIPs close to league average and those who don't are considered statistical outliers rather than it being a reflection on their skill level.

    I'm not saying that it's 100% true, but it is a working theory in sabermetric community and is surely one of which Bannister should at least be aware.

    I think certain pitchers are less subject to this postulate than others - particularly sinkerballers and knuckleballers. There is inherent value in being able to induce groundballs rather than flyballs and these types of pitchers seem to have skill sets that give them more control over that.

    In my opinion though, Greinke does not fit that mold. He's a classic power pitcher with a fastball/slider/curveball/change arsenal. To me nothing about that suggests an innate ability to induce a particular type of batted ball.

    On the other hand, according to Fangraphs Greinke had the best FB, second best slider, and third highest K-rate in the AL. If he can pick and choose what happens, why not just strike everyone out and take defense out of the picture all together? I realize that's a stupid statement to make, but to me, it's no less outlandish than Bannister inferring that Greinke could actively induce flyballs and that there was some unseen advantage to that.

  5. Thanks for the answer, I think you are right- unless you have a particular pitch that is specifically tailored for ground balls (ie Wang and his sinker), you don't have much control.

    Bannister is apparently very familiar with this stuff, so I wonder about the context. Then again, sabermetrics get abused all the time, so Bannister may be picking and choosing among concepts that need to be used in conjunction with each other.

  6. If i may jump into this a bit... though not as an expert, nor with numbers to back my thoughts up.

    I think i disagree with you about the amount of 'control' a pitcher has over a batter. inducing groundballs and flyballs is more a matter of pitch location than a batter's control. "Flyball" pitchers tend to have rising pitches, or pitch up and inside in the zone, causing the batter to swing under the pitch. The "groundball" pitchers have the sinking pitches, the sliders, and pitch lower in the zone, so the batter cannot get under the ball. Obviously, you are aware of this as I am. Its a pretty logical point. Of course, the location is key, because batters make adjustments. You pitch everything low and he will find a way to swing lower and rip a line drive. Same thing with the high pitches...the margin of error is very small, since many batters love the high pitches and look for them.
    But in talking of pitcher's control, consider this: its generally thought that good pitching beats good hitting. Basbeall is the unique sport where the defensive team maintains control of the ball as the offense tries to hit, or fight off each pitch. Sure, you can make the argument that if a pitcher has so much control, why not strikeout each batter. Well, of course, I would imagine they DO try for that, but thats where the batter adjustments come to play. Its hard enough to fool a batter, but to fool them completely everytime is something extraordinary. Thats why its never been done. Batters have about half a second or less to hit each pitch (aside from stupid knucklers). They rely on guestimating where the ball will be (its impossible for them to actually see the pitch when it actually hits the bat). Pitch recognition, location mistakes, pitcher tendencies, ball/strike count situations all play small factors. It doesn't mean it is easy for pitchers to control how the batter hits, but certainly feasible, as the batter must guess the type of pitch along with where in the zone it will be.

    Finally, to further show how much control pitchers have over batters... look at batting averages. The BEST of the best hitters bat around .330. Whats the MLB average? .280 maybe? Its less than .300 surely. Thats pretty astounding that you can be considered a star if you average a hit 1/3 of the times you are at bat!!

  7. Joshua -

    All valid points. I don't know that I wholly believe the assumption that pitchers have little to no control over batted ball types. I think there is some merit to it - but the general point I was trying to make is that this assumption is the foundation for a few of the stats and theories used in sabermetrics. Bannister should be aware of it, and if he is, it seems silly that he would suggest Greinke could influence groundballs vs. flyballs.

    I agree with you in that pitchers have some control - but I think that's based largely upon their arsenal of pitches, their release points/delivery, etc. I think that whatever control over it a given pitcher has is something that's characteristic to that given pitcher. I don't think that Greinke, or any other pitcher for that matter, can decide "I want to induce a flyball here" and then proceed to do all that much to make it happen. A pitcher is either a flyball pitcher or he isn't. He can't choose to be one when he wants to - at least I don't think so.

  8. The pitching for the flyball is not connected to pitching to optimize FIP, the two items are merely juxtaposed in the article. What Zack said to explain how he tried to optimize his FIP is posted in an article at the royals website:
    "So I try to get ahead of the count without leaving it run down the middle in a person's power zone, get ahead in the count. That helps me not walk guys, and then, when I get two strikes, I try to strike guys out. And that's how I try to pitch, to keep my FIP as low as possible."

    His Cy Young press conference including the complete Q&A with Kepner (approx. at the 9 minute mark) can be heard at the KCstar website:

  9. If I play for the Royals, I am trying to keep the ball out of play as much as possible and pitching for K's since their defense is pretty awful.

  10. If Bannister says Zack can try to induce flyballs, and Zack actually takes the differece in strenght of the outfield and infield, isn't safe to assume that pitchers have some, but obviously not full, control over groundballs vs flyballs? Don't these two have better knowledge of pitching than any in this forum?
    And so what if somebody misunderstands FIP or not, his point is that he also takes into account the fielders abilities when he pitches. And, he also has heard of FIP and that he values the stat?

  11. Some pitchers obviously have control over the nature of the ball in play, groundball v. flyball, the quality of the contact. What BABIP says is that the average batter's (as the rule does not work in reverse, hitters do seem to control their BABIP, and exactly how so should be an area of interest to teams everywhere, is what Tony Gwynn had teachable?) quality of contact doesn't affect average. Of course average tends to be less important than slugging, and your quality of contact does affect that. Of course BABIP is also slightly misleading in that it doesn't count home runs. Well, if the field was large enough those hits would have fallen in the field as well.

  12. I'm not sure where you got the idea that "the assumption that pitchers have little to no control over batted ball types" is common -- it isn't. There are clearly groundball pitchers and flyball pitchers, and by varying what pitches they throw and where in (or out of) the zone they throw them, pitchers can shift their results in one direction or the other -- as far as their control and command allow, anyway. Witness, for example, Joél Piñeiro's reinvention of himself as an extreme groundballer this year. Were this not so, then HR rate wouldn't be included in FIP, since there would be no meaningful variance among pitchers; we'd only use xFIP, which normalizes HR rate to a league-average HR/FB.

  13. Rob -

    It's a concept I've come across in several pieces in defense of FIP and DIPS and the like. I wasn't stating it to be definitive, only that it's a common postulate.

    Clearly, there are GB and FB and K pitchers, and these tendencies bear themselves out over the course of seasons and careers. But it seems to be something of a leap to me to suggest that a pitcher can selectively control on an at bat by at bat basis whether he pitches for a certain type of batted ball. Why not just pitch for all infield pop ups then?

    I understand your point about Piniero, but I think that may be a bad example. Several have suggested that his success this year is unsustainable because of his extreme luck on batted balls. He can't continue to produce such good results by "choosing" to induce so many groundballs.

    Perhaps xBABIP should replace BABIP then - a pitcher's "luck" would then be his BABIP relative to his xBABIP rather than the league average". If a pitcher can actively control contact type, flyball pitchers should have better BABIPs - or at least better xBABIPs(witness Jarrod Washburn this year) - but they're also going to have higher HR rates. It's a delicate balance to strike.

  14. If the premise of FIP is to isolate the pitcher's performance from his defense's, it makes perfect sense for Greinke to focus on FIP, as one of the debilitating symptoms of social anxiety is focusing on things one CAN'T control. See here, for example:

    I'd guess that someone specifically told Greinke to focus on things like FIP or DERA to keep him from worrying about how his teammates affected his performance's perception

  15. There was a whole lot of unfounded criticism here. For one, as others have noted, Greinke did not link pitching for fly balls in some situations to minimizing his FIP. Secondly, and again as others have noted, pitchers do have a good deal of control of their GB/FB ratios within a certain range. Lastly, when he talks about pitching to minimize FIP, you've basically argued that this is essentially meaningless, writing, Whether Greinke knows what FIP is or not, isn't trying to keep it as low as possible the whole point of pitching? I mean, unless he's on the hill intentionally handing out HRs, or refusing to strike batters out, or continually plunking batters and issuing unintentional intentional walks, every pitcher - Greinke, Bannister, or the less enlightened - is attempting to keep his FIP as low as possible, consciously or not." With that quote, you are essentially making the case that the only way a pitcher could seek to prevent runs would be to optimize the elements important to FIP. This is simply not the case--most notably, BABIP is left out of FIP. Greinke's decision to focus on K's, BB's and HR's significantly differentiates him from a large number of MLB pitchers who "pitch to contact", in a (likely misguided) attempt to reduce their BABIP. This is a meaningful difference, and one that your analysis completely ignores.

  16. Just flying by when I saw this discussion, but can't resist. I know it's already been stated above, But just reiterating: If you look at the numbers comparing pitch location, regardless of velocity or break, there's certainly an obvious connection w/ FB/GB ratio. So, insert pitcher w/ slightly spectacular control, you just gained control of this ratio w/ a good sample size. Seems simple to me. Now easy.... that's another story....