Earlier this month, the weekly article about starting pitchers around the league included a metric called E-F, which is ERA minus FIP, a way of determining pitchers that have gotten unlucky. These pitchers have been unlucky either from bad batted ball luck or have had the unfortunate task of pitching with a subpar defense behind them.
While “unlucky” is a generic way to describe these pitchers, it’s more than just a coincidence. Defensive runs saved, a metric developed by Baseball Info Solutions, is a plus/minus system that takes into account a lot of different factors regarding balls in play. From the FAQ page at FieldingBible.com, factors like speed, distance, direction, and type are all considered, along with similar plays that have been made or not made throughout the season. All of these balls in play are charted and tracked as one of the most reliable defensive metrics available.
There are a lot of flaws with most defensive metrics and it remains a work in progress for baseball statisticians. Nevertheless, it’s an area in which statisticians are constantly improving and evolving, and the implementation of a PITCHf/x system for fielding by Major League Baseball will be groundbreaking for that area of study.
Back to the E-F stat… Here are the top ten pitchers in E-F:
1. Edwin Jackson (CHC)
2. Ricky Nolasco (MIN)
3. Phil Hughes (MIN)
4. Tyler Skaggs (LAA)
5. Brandon McCarthy (ARI/NYY)
6. Travis Wood (CHC)
7. Justin Verlander (DET)
8. Drew Hutchison (TOR)
9. Stephen Strasburg (WSH)
10. Ervin Santana (ATL)
The first thing you notice in that list is that two pitchers from each of the Cubs and Twins are present. Looking at this list in order, here are the team rankings in defensive runs saved: 18th, 29th, 29th, 16th, 8th/23rd, 18th, 28th, 24th, 9th, 14th. Only the Nationals and Diamondbacks are in the top ten. Remember what stats make up the calculation for FIP – home runs, strikeout, walks, and hit by pitches. Of this list, five of the starters are better than average (7.2 percent) at limiting walks and Santana is at league average. Six of the ten are above the league average strikeout rate (19.4 percent).
Balls in play are always a dangerous proposition with subpar defensive teams and that seems to be one area where the oddsmakers may not be accurately rating teams. Advanced study can give bettors an edge because oddsmakers don’t have time to dig deeper into the defensive ratings of teams that will make mediocre starters better or turn good starters into mediocre ones.
Not only will this affect pitchers and their chances of picking up a team win, but defenses have a direct impact on totals. The top five teams in defensive runs saved are St. Louis, Cincinnati, Oakland, San Diego, and Baltimore. The totals for those five teams are 209-266-22 on the season. The bottom five teams in defensive runs saved are Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Texas. The totals for those five teams are 251-222-23 on the season.
To further support this point, consider the list of the top ten pitchers by sorting E-F the opposite way, so basically F-E, or pitchers whose ERAs are outperforming their FIP:
1. Chris Young (SEA)
2. Josh Beckett (LAD)
3. Alfredo Simon (CIN)
4. Johnny Cueto (CIN)
5. Mark Buehrle (TOR)
6. Scott Kazmir (OAK)
7. Julio Teheran (ATL)
8. Jason Vargas (KC)
9. Jered Weaver (LAA)
10. Henderson Alvarez (MIA)
Teams by defensive runs saved: 19th, 17th, 2nd, 2nd, 24th, 3rd, 14th, 7th, 16th, 20th. The park factor plays a huge role for Chris Young because Safeco Field is a tremendous park for fly ball pitchers, so he is a tad misleading, but the Mariners OF ranks 14th in DRS at +6, so they have had an impact. The same can be said for Jered Weaver, whose teammates in the Angels outfield are +15 defensive runs saved, which ranks sixth. The same can also be said for Jason Vargas, whose fly ball rate has gone down slightly, but the Royals lead all of baseball with +27 defensive runs saved from their outfielders. Henderson Alvarez is a guy who you may look at for regression because the Marlins OF is +27 defensive runs saved, but the team is -4 defensive runs saved overall. Alvarez has one of the sharpest ground ball splits in the league.
If you’re not factoring in defense when handicapping the starting pitchers, you’re really missing out on a golden opportunity to gain an edge. If a pitcher seems to be underachieving, it may be because of the defense and that could change one way or another. Traditional metrics and the expectation of regression are things that oddsmakers will look at, but if you look into the “why” and not the “what”, that may be just the edge that you need.
This is especially true this time of year. Oddsmakers have preconceived notions about pitchers and teams and the football season is coming up. Less attention will be paid to baseball and books may not be as fast to adjust. Defensive upgrades via trade or minor league call-up may go unnoticed and could help a pitcher or team immensely.
We’re all excited about football season, but don’t forget about baseball and the profitable opportunities that will still present themselves.