In the last piece I wrote, I mentioned that I have some concerns about the way that people tend to think about defense independent pitching statistics (DIPS), especially FIP. (Refresher: Fielding Independent Pitching is a metric commonly used as an ERA estimator based on a pitcher’s walk, strikeout, and HR numbers.) I’m writing this piece in part as a way for me to sort some of my thoughts on the complexities of defense and park adjustments, not necessarily to make a single point (and none of these thoughts are terribly original).
All of this analysis starts with this equation, which is no less foundational for being almost tautological: Runs Allowed = Fielding Independent Pitching + Fielding Dependent Pitching. (Quick aside: Fielding Independent Pitching refers both to a concept and a metric; in this article, I’m mostly going to be talking about the concept.) In other words, there are certain ways of preventing runs that don’t rely on getting substantial aid from the defense (strike outs, for instance), and certain ways that do (allowing soft contact on balls in play).
In general, most baseball analysts tend to focus on the fielding independent part of the equation. There are a number of good reasons for this, the primary two being that it’s much simpler to assess and more consistent than its counterpart. There’s probably also a belief that, because it’s more clearly intrinsic to the pitcher, it’s more worthwhile to understand the FI portion of pitching. There are pitchers for whom we shy away from using the FI stats (like knuckleballers), but if you look at the sort of posts you see on FanGraphs, they’ll mostly be talking about performance in those terms.
That’s not always (or necessarily ever) a problem, but it often omits an essential portion of context. To see how, look at these three overlapping ways of framing the question “how good has this pitcher been?”:
1) If their spot on their team were given to an arbitrary (replacement-level or average) pitcher, how much better or worse would the team be?
2) If we took this pitcher and put them on a hypothetically average team (average in terms of defense and park, at least), how much better or worse would that team be?
3) If we took this pitcher and put them on a specific other team, how much better or worse would that team be?
Roughly speaking, #2 is how I think of FanGraphs’ pitcher WAR. #1 is Baseball Reference’s WAR. I don’t know of anywhere that specifically computes #3, but in theory that’s what you should get out of a projection system like Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA or the ZiPS numbers found at FanGraphs’. (In practice, my understanding is that the projections aren’t necessarily nuanced enough to work that out precisely.)
The thing, though, is that pitchers don’t work with an average park and defense behind them. You should expect a fly ball pitcher to post better numbers with the Royals and their good outfield defense and a ground ball pitcher to do worse in front the butchers playing in the Cleveland infield. From a team’s perspective, though, a run saved is a run saved, and who cares whether it’s credited to the defense, the pitcher, or split between the two? If Jarrod Dyson catches the balls sent his way, it’s good to have a pitcher who’s liable to have balls hit to him. In a nutshell, a player’s value to his team (or another team) is derived from the FIP and the FDP, and focusing on the FIP misses some of that. Put your players in the best position for them to succeed, as the philosophy often attributed to Earl Weaver goes.
There are a number of other ways to frame this issue, which, though I’ve been talking in terms of pitching, clearly extends beyond that into nearly all of the skills baseball players demonstrate. Those other frames are all basically a restatement of that last paragraph, so I’ll try to avoid belaboring the point, but I’ll add one more example. Let’s say you have two batters who are the same except for 5% of their at-bats, which are fly balls to left field for batter A and to right field for batter B. By construction, they are players of identical quality, but player B is going to be worth more in Cleveland, where those fly balls are much more likely to go out of the park. Simply looking at his wRC+ won’t give you that information. (My limited knowledge of fantasy baseball suggests to me that fantasy players, because they use raw stats, are more attuned to this.)
Doing more nuanced contextual analysis of the sort I’m advocating is quite tricky and is beyond my (or most people’s) ability to do quickly with the numbers we currently have available. I’d still love, though, to see more of it, with two things in particular crossing my mind.
One is in transaction analysis. I read a few pieces discussing the big Samardzija trade, for instance, and in none did they mention (even in passing) how his stuff is likely to play in Oakland given their defense and park situation. This isn’t an ideal example because it’s a trade with a lot of other interesting aspects to it, but in general, it’s something I wish I saw a bit more of—considering the amount of value a team is going out of a player after adjusting for park and defense factors. The standard way of doing this is to adjust things from his raw numbers to a neutral context, but bringing things one step further, though challenging, should add another layer of nuance. (I will say that in my experience you see such analyses a bit more with free agency analyses, especially of pitchers.)
The second is basically expanding what we think of as being park and defensive adjustments. This is likely impossible to do precisely without more data, but I’d love to see batted ball data used to get a bit more granular in the adjustments; for instance, dead pull hitters should be adjusted differently from guys who use the whole field. This isn’t anything new—it’s in the FanGraphs page explaining park factors—but it’s something that occasionally gets swept under the rug.
One last note, as this post gets ever less specific: I wonder how big the opportunity is for teams to optimize their lineups and rotations based on factors such as these—left-handed power hitters go against the Yankees, ground ball hitters against the Indians, etc. We already see this to some extent, but I’d be curious to see what the impact is. (If you can quantify how big an edge you’re getting on a batter-by-batter basis—a big if—you could run some simulations to quantify the gain from all these adjustments. It’s a complex optimization problem, but I doubt it’s impossible to estimate.)
One thing I haven’t seen that I’d love for someone to try is for teams with roughly interchangeable fourth, fifth, and sixth starters to juggle their pitching assignments each time through the order to get the best possible matchups with respect to park, opponent, and defense. Ground ball pitchers pitch at Comiskey, for instance, and fly ball pitchers start on days when your best outfield is out there. I don’t know how big the impact is, so I don’t want to linger on this point too much, but it seems odd that in the era of shifting we don’t discuss day-to-day adjustments very much.
And that’s all that I’m talking about with this. Defense- and park-adjusted statistics are incredibly valuable tools, but they don’t get you all the way there, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you start doing nuanced analyses.