Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tim Lincecum, FIP and fungible roster spots

This spring, many clubs will make roster determinations based on how well players play, how well a particular pitcher pitches. This invariably happens every March. I won’t say it’s a fool’s errand – though it almost certainly is one – for the simple reason that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Stick with me for a minute.

Jeff Fletcher suggested to Marty Lurie today that Barry Zito was in the top-third of fifth starters in baseball. To which Marty replied, via Twitter: “I’ll have to look up that list and talk about it tonite [sic].” He shouldn’t have to look anything up because Jeff’s right. And that’s exactly why it doesn’t really matter which team picks what warm body to start fifth. Because that's all these teams are really looking for, or at least expecting to settle for.
GM: Does he have a pulse?
Scout: 60 beats per minute.

GM: Is his arm still attached?
Scout: As far as I can tell.
GM: Would he consider starting in Triple-A?
Scout: Maybe.
GM: I'm sold. Let's sign him. Seems like a front-runner.
Every single season the majority of teams break camp by selecting a fifth starter. Every single season they choose from a stable of guys that they really don’t want pitching for them, but they have no choice. They’re usually a handful of replacement starters, non-roster invitees, or whatever. This is because, contrary to what you may have thought previously, most major league teams don’t really have a steady fifth starter. The secret is out. What’s more, whoever they chose, by May or June that player will be swapped out for some other replacement starter that’s going to pitch about as well (read: Poorly). The cycle goes on and on.

The Giants don’t have this problem because they’re paying some guy a total sum of $126 million to be their fifth starter. A little steep, sure, but boy they must feel ahead of the curve having that fifth starter picked out an all. And so early. This is why I know Zito, with all his flaws and everything that’s said about him, is in the top third of fifth starters in baseball. It’s really not all that difficult to be better than a bunch of four-A nobodies that are being swapped out like tires in a NASCAR race.

Clubs will do this with position players too, and still it won’t matter much. These are fringe players that are being decided on, after all. It’s not like if Travis Ishikawa leads the Cactus League in home runs again anyone thinks he’s going to be the next Will Clark. But he might make the roster and the point still stands.

So, as meaningless as these decisions are, I’m going to give you a taste of why you probably shouldn’t be making much of a fuss when a minor league invitee starts tearing the cover off the ball or your favorite player can’t hit or pitch his way out of a wet paper bag all spring. Or why, when Todd Wellemeyer pitched as well as any of the Giants last spring, you shouldn’t have expected it to continue. So here goes.

Let’s say I want to look at pitchers who pitched in each season from 2007-2010 and find out which of them was the absolute worst. I do want to do exactly that, and have. It’s easy enough to do by going to FanGraphs, clicking on leaders, then pitchers, and then choosing multiple seasons (2007-2010). In this case, I decided to use fielding-independent pitching (FIP) to determine which pitcher had pitched the worst. By sorting the FIP column I find my man.

Our lucky winner is Dave Bush of the Brewers – Sorry, Dave. You’re one of the best pitchers in the world. It just also so happens you’re one of the worst starting pitchers in the MLB. Actually, it was Woody Williams who was last, but he only pitched in 2007. And Braden Looper was next but he didn’t get on the bump in 2010, so I didn’t use him. So, again: My apologies to Bush.

Bush has thrown 660 innings over that span and actually managed to win 34 games thanks to a pretty good offense in Milwaukee (to go with his 32 losses). In those innings, he’s averaged a well below-average strikeout rate of 5.99 batters per nine (K/9) while walking an unremarkable 2.65 batters per nine (BB/9). Also, it probably hasn’t helped he’s given up 1.40 home runs per nine (HR/9) – That's someplace between way too many and a buttload. Thus, his 4.90 FIP makes a lot of sense. So does his 4.92 ERA.

We would expect that he probably hasn’t pitched too brilliantly in spring training. Thanks to ESPN.com, I can check just that. Bush has pitched 83.1 spring training innings since 2007. In them, he’s yielded 99 hits and has an ERA of 5.29. No shock.

Let’s try another.

Tim Lincecum has pitched 811 innings from 2007-2010 while winning two Cy Young awards. He’s won 56 games (losing 27) with a crummy offense supporting him all the while. He has a spectacular 10.07 K/9 rate and 3.25 BB/9 rate – which isn’t great but you can afford that when you’re missing as many bats as he. He’s given up just 0.57 HR/9 in that span which is excellent, second best in all of baseball behind Colorado Rockies’ ace Ubaldo Jimenez* (0.55). Thus, his 2.86 FIP makes a whole lot of sense. So does his 3.04 ERA.

*Keep in mind that Ubaldo is pitching half his games in Colorado, which of course makes that all the more impressive. Should he lower that walk rate some or miss a few more bats, or heaven forbid both: watch out. His 51.3% ground ball rate is fairly awesome and he has one of the hardest fastballs in baseball.

How’s Tim pitched in spring training from 2007-2010? According to ESPN.com: He’s thrown 48 innings, given up 54 hits and pitched to a 5.81 ERA. In short, he’s been terrible. He’s even been a bit worse than Bush, who frankly we expected to be terrible.

I’m also happy to report that Lincecum, he of the worse spring ERA between he and Dave Bush, has the very best FIP in baseball from 2007-2010. In fact, it’s not even close. The next lowest FIP is 3.15 and owned by the awesome Roy Halladay.

Ah, the fungible fifth starter and twenty-fifth man. They make good spring storylines at least. Sometimes they make the only storylines. So who can really blame the writers?

But take my advice and never mind the spring stats for choosing who’s going to break out in the regular season. You’ll have about as much luck as you would choosing a good-looking adult dog by reviewing a picture of it as a puppy – every puppy is more or less the cutest thing on earth. Good luck with that.

Don’t concern yourself with the fact that Lincecum’s ERA is over 16.00 so far this spring. Instead, just enjoy the first baseball after a few frosty months. You’ll be much better off.


You'll also find me at the Hardball Times today: Aaron Hill's uphill season


  1. Then Lincecum goes out and looks down right Cy Youngish, 3 perfect innings (with one runner reaching on an error) and lowering his ERA 11 points down to 5.79.

  2. Don't mess with The Freak.......