You Say FIP-xFIP and I Say Nay-Nay

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening — whichever is applicable to you. I realize it may be hard to fathom, but at one point in time, Matt Cain was a top-tier fantasy arm. For most fantasy diehards, Cain will be remembered as one of those pitchers who consistently out-pitched his peripherals. Despite good (not great) control and a closer to league average K/9, Cain managed to post a sub three ERA in three of four seasons from 2009 to 2012 (In the 4th season his ERA was 3.14). In addition to the quality, Cain gave you plenty of quantity as well. From 2007 to 2012 Cain met or exceeded 200 IP every season. 2013 began his downfall as Cain’s health and numbers began to betray him. He failed to hit 200 IP in 2013 and his ERA was 4.00. In 2014 the Matt Cain we had come to know died. Injuries and ineffectiveness turned him into the every fifth day punching bag you see today.

Fielding Independent Pitching, better known as FIP, measures what a pitcher’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing. In essence, it takes away the defensive aspects for the pitchers and creates an all-is-equal alternate world. FIP has become a staple for most fantasy players as they attempt to find diamonds or potential busts in the preseason, or they use it to evaluate the talent levels of players in-season. While FIP was found to be a useful tool, the original version failed to differentiate ground ball to fly ball prone pitchers. Fly ball pitchers naturally come with a little more risk given their propensity for home runs. The FIP process was tweaked by Dave Studeman, to incorporate the HR concerns and xFIP was born. Much like FIP, xFIP has become a research staple among fantasy players everywhere.

The appeal of FIP and xFIP in the fantasy community is completely understandable. It is difficult to find the time to analyze all aspects of pitcher performance. FIP and xFIP are built on many of the things we desire as Fantasy owners: K totals, WHIP control, and run prevention. Not only are the pieces beneficial, but the translation with ERA is rather remarkable. Among SP with 150 IP last season, only Michael Pineda (1.03) featured an ERA greater than a run higher than his FIP. Hector Santiago (-1.16), Marco Estrada (-1.16), Zach Greinke (-1.10), and Dan Haren (-1.01) all managed to have an ERA over a run better than their FIP.  Among 87 qualified starting pitchers, using a minimum of 150 IP, all but 5 posted and ERA and FIP within a run of each other.  Of the 87, 45 posted a better ERA than FIP, leaving 42 with a worse ERA than FIP.  If you need any further proof on the legitimacy of FIP, and by extension xFIP, as a research tool consider that 55% of the 87 players finished +/- .40 in ERA and FIP correlation. The end result is simple, over time the ERA and FIP will begin to mirror each other.

In the early stages of a baseball season the correlations have yet to be established. The question remains, over time will the pitcher produce more at the level of his current ERA or will his current FIP or xFIP for that matter be his calling light?  For the sake of this post I featured four prominent draft day arms who have posted diverse results when comparing ERA and FIP. These 4 Starting Pitchers were likely staff building blocks as all were drafted among the top 10-15 SP on draft day. The question is will their skill indicator of FIP more closely resemble the 2016 final line or will the current ERA serve as just that?  Most will base their decision on the FIP, letting skill sets be their guide. Generally speaking I, more often than not, would be in the same camp, but with this particular group I’m not so sure I wouldn’t say nay-nay.



David Price

Price currently has the highest differential in FIP (2.52) compared to ERA (6.00) among this group. With a 12.19 K/9 and solid control, having posted a 2.44 BB/9, it’s no wonder why FIP thinks so highly of David Price. With a 54.2% strand rate (career 74.3) and a .373 BABIP (career .288) there is plenty of reason for optimism moving forward. I certainly see better days ahead for Price, but I’m not quite ready to say that Price is the sub-3.00 ERA his FIP and draft day price tag would suggest.

My concerns with Price stem from his stuff oddly enough. Both of his Fastballs have netted below average results as has his Change-Up.  During his career, Price has never had more than one pitch below league average value over the course of a season. These effectiveness issues could be considered evident if you were to look at both Swing%’s and Contact types. Price is forcing less outside the zone swinging. He has managed a rate of better than 31% the last three seasons; this year that total is 28.5%. Price has managed to improve his Contact% across the board. The problem thus far has been the damage caused by balls where contact was made. Hitters are pulling the ball 41.2% of the time which is a big part of the 41.2% Hard Hit Rate Price has given up thus far. That 41.2% is a 50% increase over his career mark of 27.1.

Is this contact type due to a velocity decrease? The answer to this question will likely determine to what level these contact rates will settle in at. I have concerns moving forward with Price, not to the 6.00 ERA level, but in regards to returning draft day value. Ultimately Price will produce solid fantasy value, 200 K, and a real shot at 20 W’s, it will just come with a 3.40 ERA.

Zach Greinke

It hasn’t been the start DBack fans expected when they surprised the baseball world by signing Greinke to a long-term deal this winter. Greinke has posted a 5.33 ERA over 49 eye-wincing innings. On a more positive note, Greinke has managed to post a 3.65 FIP, leaving all pundits to suggest a turnaround is right around the corner.

Like all pitchers with this type of separation between FIP and ERA, Greinke has been the victim of some bad luck. A BABIP of .360 is 61 points higher than his career mark, and a 67.9 LOB% is a far cry from the 80 plus percent he had become accustomed to during his Dodgers days. Like Price, Greinke is being victimized by pitch ineffectiveness more than anything. Greinke has a career Four-Seam FB value of .62. During his Dodger years that number was above 1.00. This season he has managed a -2.19 Pitch Value per 100 pitches. The two-seamed fastball has fared much worse, coming in at -7.12 with a career mark of .52. Aside from his Cutter, Greinke’s value is lower on every pitch in comparison to his career marks.

Greinke has paid for his pitch ineffectiveness in Contact, as he has thus far posted a Z-Contact% of 92.9, which is over 5% more than his career mark of 87.5. With a home ERA of 7.61 and a 1.73 WHIP, its hard not to believe Chase Field is playing a big part into Greinke’s troubles. Much like Price, Greinke’s ERA will come down significantly; I just don’t see it being much better than 4.00 by season’s end.



Corey Kluber

The early returns from Corey Kluber have brought a mixed bag of results. Kluber has produced three stellar outings, three forgettable outings, and one start that closely resembled the QS minimum. He holds an ERA of 4.14 with a FIP of 2.69. Aside from a less than stellar 61.1% LOB% (career 72.4) Kluber doesn’t seem to be the victim of poor luck, with both BABIP and HR/FB below his career mark. Kluber’s pitch effects also shine a nice light on him. He has shown growth in every pitch except his Sinker, which also happens to be his lone negative value pitch at -1.32. Overall there’s plenty to suggest Kluber can be more of the sub 3.00 ERA that FIP would suggest.

Yet once again, I’m a little hesitant. By all accounts, improved GB% is a welcomed result. While improved GB rates make the home run ball less prevalent, it can open the door for a higher BABIP. Increased BABIP leads to men on base, which leads to my concern with Kluber. Simply put, Kluber is a much better pitcher from the windup than he is the stretch. His OPS this season with the bases empty is .475; with runners on it’s .931. During his career those numbers are .628 and .753 respectively.  If this increased GB% is here to stay I would find it difficult for Kluber to post an ERA south of 3.40.

Felix Hernandez

The exception among the list. The King has managed to produce a sparkling 2.27 ERA thus far in 2016. “Felix being Felix.” is what many would suggest. Yet today countless fantasy owners are freaking out knowing that at any moment the 4.64 FIP and 4.51 xFIP could come busting out.

Hernandez’s K rate is close to 2 per 9 IP off his career mark, and his BB/9 1.62 higher. Felix has been rewarded with a .218 BABIP that would seem to be providing the dam that’s preventing disaster. His velocity is down, the opposition is swinging less, and more contact is being made when they do swing. Honestly there are few compelling reasons if any to argue against the dam eventually succumbing to the pressure and bursting. It would appear that Felix could be heading into the same career arch as Justin Verlander……superstar – one disappointing season – cliff dive. The problem is he hasn’t.

We as fantasy owners see the signs, heed the warnings, and now we wait. We wait for that 2.27 ERA to blow up right in our face, all the while that 2.27 ERA is going into our stat pool. We may analyze in sabermetrics, but we’re still scored in actual results. Last season Hernandez posted a 3.53 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP. That isn’t the Hernandez we have come to expect, but over 200 innings – that holds value. Hernandez has improved every pitch value (with the exception of his curveball) from last season. Last season three of his pitches produced negative values; this season that number is at two. So despite what the K/9 tells you, there’s reason to believe those numbers could improve.  I’m not expecting this 2.27 ERA version of Felix to continue, but I’m also not willing to believe Hernandez has taken the nose dive off the cliff. Last year’s Felix should be your target, and quite frankly should have been all along.

* * * * *

FIP and xFIP did not care for Matt Cain. During the aforementioned Cain run from 09-12, his ERA was 2.89, 3.14, 2.88, and 2.79. His FIP during those seasons 3.89, 3.65, 2.91, and 3.40. During that same timeframe his xFIP has been 4.16, 4.00, 3.78, and 3.82. Matt Cain is one of many who managed for years to exceed the success level his skill set would suggest. It’s quite possible that all four of these individuals produce ERA that mirror what their current FIP suggest. But like Cain, it’s entirely possible for them to be slightly better or in some cases worse.

Like with any stat, FIP and or xFIP should be used as a guide, a tool if you will, to identify players who have potential upside. FIP or xFIP can prove to be a useful tool when searching the wire, or looking for trade targets. Too often fantasy players take them as gospel, a prelude of what’s to come. Just remember for every jewel you find, there’s always a Clay Buchholz you touted because of it.

 

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Josh Coleman
Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.
Josh Coleman

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