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