FIP’ping Off the Cubs’ Starters

When was the last time that the Cubs haven’t had a below average season in the field? You guessed it, it was 2008. It has been three long seasons since the Cubs were simply average in the field.

That year, a spry 32-year old Alfonso Soriano led the team in UZR (which takes in several factors to attach a run value to defense), when he threw out ten runners from the outfield. UZR is not without its inefficiencies, but the statistic gives a good idea of how the player performed in relation to the rest of the league, and Soriano performed very well that season, as did the rest of the team.

Defense is, for some reason or another, rather under-appreciated when evaluating pitchers.

Let’s use the 2008 season to compare the Cubs’ performance last year:

(click on image to enlarge)

Clearly, the defense was better in 2008, and the ERA reflected the difference between the seasons, although the statistic that gauges how well pitchers do things within their control (i.e. limit home runs and walks, and strike batters out) is essentially the same.
Did the defense sabotage the pitchers last season? Yes, of course it did, but the 2011 season is in the past, and we as Cubs fans should be more interested as to how the Cubs will pitch in the upcoming year.

That said the defense could end up being just as awful in 2012. Bryan LaHair is largely seen as a downgrade from Carlos Pena, Ian Stewart is either a good third baseman, or an awful one (depending on what year you look at), and they will field three outfielders on the wrong side of 30.

So we can safely assume that there will be a fair share of ERAs that are north of 4.00, but ERA isn’t a true reflection of a pitcher’s performance.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average. A walk is not as hurtful as a homerun and a strikeout has less impact than both. FIP accounts for these kinds of differences, presenting the results on the same scale as ERA. It has been shown to be more effective than ERA in terms of predicting future performance and has become a mainstay in sabermetric analysis.

Definition of FIP from FanGraphs and a FIP Calculator

Let’s look at FIP to see how the starters did last year.

Matt Garza
If you look at Matt Garza’s record (10-10), you may be wondering why he’s been labeled as a potential ace and potentially a starter the Cubs could build a rotation around. Garza was by far the best pitcher on the entire staff, and arguably the best starting pitcher in the division. Garza posted a 2.95 FIP last year, nearly a half run lower than his 3.32 ERA, and 25% better than league average.

Garza did an excellent job missing bats (8.95 K/9) and limiting walks (2.86 BB/9) during his first season with the Cubs. He appeared to take several steps forward in his development but if he slips back to his career averages (link) he will most likely give up more home runs during the upcoming season, which may raise his FIP and ERA altogether.

Ryan Dempster
Ryan Dempster’s inflated ERA (4.80) and seemingly poor performance does not match his peripheral numbers. Dempster might have had a better 2011 campaign than most think. Dempster had a 2.33 K/BB rate, and registered a league average FIP (3.91). Hits fell in over 20% more than league average against Dempster, which contributed to his ERA being nearly a run higher than his FIP.

Paul Maholm
The Pirates’ defense was not very good last season but Pittsburgh seemed to put together their better defensive efforts when Paul Maholm was on the mound. Maholm’s ERA (3.66) was nearly identical to his FIP (3.78) – actually just a bit lower. Maholm did his part by limiting walks (2.77 BB/9) and keeping the ball on the ground (50% GB rate).

Travis Wood
Travis Wood actually had a somewhat decent season if you just look at his 4.13 FIP, but his 5.08 ERA made his season look awful. His FIP was only 5% below league average, and he did a fine job at limiting walks and home runs, while putting up an acceptable strikeout rate. Wood has the stuff to be a good big league pitcher in the near future but the sample size is too small to tell at this point.

Chris Volstad
It’s odd that Chris Volstad currently owns the lowest 2011 walk rate among potential Cubs’ starters, and he would have had a much better FIP than he did (4.32) if not for an inflated HR/FB rate (15.5). Volstad could end up figuring things out this season and give the Cubs some much-needed depth … or he could end up stuck in mediocrity.

Randy Wells
Randy Wells was one of the few Cubs that actually had a higher FIP than ERA (4.99). Wells was his own worst enemy as well a victim of the longball. Wells has been a starter for most of his career, but could end up in the bullpen as a swing man this season if he cannot get out of his own way.

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  • Ripsnorter1

    Pittsburgh’s up the middle INF defense was far superior to the Cubs. Ronny Cedeno is rated the 3rd best fielding SS in MLB by some, and in almost everyone’s top 10. Neil Walker had about twice as many double plays than Darwin Barney. And McCutchen is a better fielding CF than Marlon Byrd, et al that we had last year (Reed Johnson excepted). 

    All this was a help to Maholm, who gives up a lot of grounders up the middle. That is why Maholm’s ERA in 2012 is projected to rise–our defense is going to give up more “hits.”

    Also….about Garza’s ERA….Garza himself fielded a lousy–there just is no way to sugar coat this–a lousy .788% in 2011. Yup, a little over one error for every five balls he picked up. He gave up an unprecedented 17 unearned runs, many of them by his own poor fielding.  (Garza last year gave up the same number of runs he usually gives up: 90. But only 73 were “earned.”). Therefore I am looking at some regression on his part in the area of ERA. 

    • paulcatanese

      Good post Rip, and I agree. And one addition, I don’t care who the Cubs have in center field(right now) no one has the arm to carry it off. Byrd, Reed and Campana, weak with the throw’s to cut off runs.
      Garza, felt sorry for him, I don’t think I have ever seen a worse fielding pitcher than him. But got to hand it to him, he wipes it off and go’s after the next ball,(sometimes with the same result).
      No question Rip, the middle needs dramatic improvment.

    • cubs1967

      i expect his ERA to lower…….along with his bad bunting I assume team theo has hired a mgr and pitching coach that saw his bad bunting; losing to a closer in marmol in the bunting tournament and will make him work extra.  with that, also hit liners at his head all spring till he learns how to field his position.
      plus bjax will be up or should be up day one to help out in center.
      however; if castro and barney do not improve; pena was a magician last year; lahair or rizzo are not; which is why all this talk of an improved defense is rubbish; for every better position player; the replacement is worst.
      either way; garza pitched his butt off last year. they stole him from the rays so far……..let’s see if archer even makes their rotation some day or if lee can hit .300 in AA; he looked bad at it last year in a short stint there.

  • John_CC

    Nice job, Ray.  Your clear explanation makes is easier to understand what the new saber-minded  front office sees in Maholm, Wood and Volstad…and Wells (ugh).  Looking simply at ERA and then bemoaning how terrible a pitcher is is ridiculous. 

    Now to preempt the attacks; I am not claiming these guys will make up a great rotation, but they all have the very real potential of being “league average” or a little above.  Which would be a lot better than last year’s rotation.

  • cubtex

    Grady Sizemore out 8 to 12 weeks again! OK…..I was wrong. He just cannot stay healthy. Not crazy about DeJesus….but at least he is usually on the field.

    • Dorasaga

       Size matters. Playing time counts.

  • Aaron

    I don’t know what is going to happen this season, but I can guarantee you that I haven’t been this excited for a Cubs season in a very long time…and I say that knowing how average this team really is. If you think critically about it, you will see that the Cubs only have a handful of above average players:
    Soriano (yeah, I said it)
    Marmol (even though he sucked last year)
    Dempster (see above)

    That’s pretty sad if you think about it. Guys like Byrd, DeJesus, Stewart, Barney, Soto, Maholm, T. Wood, Volstad, etc. all have proven to be average at the MLB level.

    ….so the fact that I’m saying that I’m really excited should say something

    I’ve been on 2 teams in the past that weren’t given a snowball’s chance in hell at advancing to the playoffs…once in Little League, and once in high school. The reason for our advancement? Our coaching was FAR superior to most teams we played.

    I also like the depth in the rotation…even if it is average. At this time last year, we had retreads like Wellemeyer and Looper. This year, we have 20-somethings to choose from in Samardzija, Volstad, T. Wood, and Wells to choose from for 2 spots.

    The bench is also growing on me (if it shakes out this way):

    …lots of versatility in that group

    And if you think about during the season what we might see….Soriano and Byrd traded by the deadline, you could see an OF that includes LaHair in LF (with Rizzo at 1B), B Jackson in CF, and it’s quite possible that DeJesus might be traded if he’s having a resurgent season, and we could see Lake in RF.

    Overall, I’m excited for the future. FINALLY, the team has a sense of direction

    • Ripsnorter1

      If Brett Jackson put up Soriano’s numbers, the entire Cubs’ nation would be shouting for joy. 

      • Aaron

         I think so too…20+hr, 80+RBI….but the figure that you need to consider most is Byrd’s production…NOT Soriano’s, as LaHair (if Rizzo tears up AAA), and possibly even Vitters (if Stewart succeeds) might be in LF at the end of this year. I think you could almost guarantee that LaHair would put up at least 20+hr, 70+RBI as an everyday player. And given that, he’d be producing about equal what Soriano did his ENTIRE career thus far with the Cubs…aside from last year, his first 80+RBI season with the Cubs.

        Byrd likely isn’t going to net you more than 12-15 hr, 50-60 RBI, and I believe Jackson would be a shoe-in for those type of numbers.

        • SuzyS

          The better Byrd does…the better the return when we trade him…so I’m rooting for him to have an awesome start.

    • SuzyS

       Aaron, I can echo your excitement…In talking with a friend today…we agreed that this Cubs team might only win 71/72 games…BUT…might be the MOST FUN to watch since 03 and before….Mainly because it truly is going to be about development of players and young guys…NOT THE SAME OLD/SAME OLD.

    • Dorasaga

      What’s up with Cardenas? I googled it, and the first results were a castle town in Spain and a President of Mexico before WWII.

    • Gramps

      Aaron, it is nice to see Cubs fans feeling excited again. I was not too excited about Sveum being named manager, but I like his attitude. I just hope he is not blowing smoke and sticks to the principles he has outlined for the season. I am hoping for a lot of hit and runs, advancing more than 1 base on singles, and a gung-ho attitude on the field. It has been a long time since these basic baseball principles have appeared at Wrigley Field. My surprise for the year is Volstad….he had a pretty good last half last year and I hope he is finally getting it together. GO CUBS!

  • SuzyS

    Ray, thanks for a great job!!!

    • Raymond Firnbach


  • Reverse The Curse

    Dempster will dominate this year…. You’ll see.

  • Reverse The Curse

    Dempster will dominate this year!

  • Dorasaga

    Neil, please remove these “Reverse” spam posts. The guy’s clearly selling t-shirts, and I was stupid enough to click and made myself a fool. (Do not respond to him, fella.)

    • Neil


      • Dorasaga

         You’re the best.