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Baseball by the numbers: Time to address Chris Sale’s FIP code

White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale struggled against Baltimore Tuesday night suffering loss.|  Nick Wass~AP

White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale struggled against Baltimore on Tuesday night, suffering the loss.| Nick Wass~AP

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Updated: October 5, 2012 6:17AM



From the earliest days of sabermetrics more than 30 years ago, the won-lost record has fallen out of favor as a way to rate pitchers. Wins and losses are team events, and a pitcher’s W’s and L’s depend on his run support, team defense and bullpen, along with his own contributions.

It’s a way of thinking that has influenced the mainstream. Felix Hernandez’s 2010 Cy Young Award would’ve been unthinkable a generation ago. No starting pitcher had won the award in a non-strike year with fewer than 16 wins or a record fewer than eight games above .500. Hernandez’s 13-12 record with a 2.27 ERA on a Mariners team that lost 101 games was quality stuff, but in earlier years, voters’ heads would’ve been turned by CC Sabathia’s 21 wins or the 19 wins by Jon Lester or David Price.

If we’re not going to rate pitchers by W-L record, where should we look? ERA is important, but even that’s influenced by team defense. Voros McCracken found in the late 1990s that for any pitcher, results when balls are put in play vary widely from year to year. Pitchers have less control over what happens when the batter puts the ball in play than most would’ve expected.

Several researchers since have worked on defense-independent pitching stats. One, called FIP for “fielding independent pitching,” was developed by Tom Tango, co-author of Playing the Percentages in Baseball who maintains the Tango on Baseball site Tangotiger.net. Tango’s formula adds 13 times home runs to three times walks, then subtracts twice times strikeouts. The result is then divided by innings pitched.

FanGraphs.com does a couple of tweaks, first including hit batters in the walk element, then adding a constant. The constant has hovered around 3.1 in recent years and is based on subtracting league average FIP from league average ERA. It doesn’t change the order of rankings. It’s just there to give the final number a familiar ERA-like look.

Let’s apply the formula to young White Sox ace Chris Sale: 13 times 17 home runs is 221. To that add three times (43 walks plus five HBP), or 144, for a total of 365. Subtract two times his 162 strikeouts, or 324, to leave 41. Then divide that 41 by 163 innings, and his raw FIP is 0.25. Adding the constant for results so far in 2012 leaves the 3.36 FIP listed on FanGraphs.

Is that good? Yes, very. Sale ranks fifth in the AL among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. He trails Hernandez (2.80), Justin Verlander (2.96), Price (3.21) and Sabathia (3.30). Jake Peavy also ranks high, eighth at 3.61.

In the NL, two Nationals lead the way — the soon-to-be-shut-down Stephen Strasburg at 2.63 and Gio Gonzalez at 2.84. The top Cub is Jeff Samardzija, 18th at 3.69.

Defense-independent pitching stats have been shown to be better predictors of the following season’s ERAs than ERAs themselves.



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