Talking Pitching and Defense

OK, let’s begin by going over some well-known baseball history. When the game was first played professionally, not long after the Civil War*, pitching was simply a trigger to get the play started.

*Or as my daughter’s seventh-grade history teacher calls it: "The War of Northern Aggression."

Pitchers stood just 50 feet from home plate and were required to pitch the ball underhand like horseshoes (which is why they are still called pitchers). In those early days, the rules were often adjusted to keep pitchers from doing anything cunning or illusory to trick hitters. It took NINE called balls for a walk then — pitchers were just supposed to get the action started.

In those days, you would probably say that run prevention was split this way:

Pitcher 5-10%
Defense: 90-95%.

Over time, of course, pitchers took a more aggressive role, and what baseball people found was that the one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter was quite exciting. Rules changed rapidly. Pitchers were given the freedom to throw the ball from above the waist, and balls necessary for a walk were reduced almost annually. The pitcher’s mound was moved back. Catchers were allowed to wear padded gloves. Numerous other rules were changed and added in to deal with this major shift in the game.

Ever since then, there has been an effort to determine just how much of run prevention should be credited to the the pitcher, and how much of credited to the eight other defenders on the field.

This will eventually lead us to Steve Kluber** and Felix Hernandez, but before that we have to begin with the earliest and so far most popular effort to separate pitcher and defense: Earned Run Average.

The idea of “earned runs” and “unearned runs” goes back to just about the beginning of baseball record keeping. As Alan Schwartz explains in “The Numbers Game,” earned runs began as an OFFENSIVE statistic — Henry Chadwick, the inventor of the boxscore, wanted hitters to only be credited for the hits they made and not for the blunders of fielders. Pitchers were still throwing underhand then and so were not much of a consideration.

For most of the early years, the only pitching statistics that mattered were wins and losses — a theme that has kept some momentum for more than a century — but about 100 years ago, earned run average was introduced to much acclaim. Here was a statistic that, using errors and a bit of logic and ingenuity, would tell you exactly what runs had been the pitcher’s doing and what runs had scored simply because of defensive incompetence.

You know the simple formula:

ERA = (Earned runs x 9) / innings pitched.

Of course, the formula is not THAT simple because “earned runs” is a complicated deal. We don’t think much about it now because earned runs have been around for so long, but the earned runs concept takes up a full four pages in the baseball’s officials rules and includes a full paragraph on how to properly score earned runs after catcher’s interference. There’s also this gem:

“When a fielding error occurs, the pitcher shall be given the benefit of the doubt in determining to which bases any runners would have advanced has the fielding of the defensive team been errorless."

All of this earned run stuff is based on some guy’s decision up in a press box whether or not a fielder should have caught the ball. Then everybody has to imagine what WOULD have happened if the error had not occurred. There really isn’t a concept like it anywhere else in sports.

Well, as you know, ERA for many people settled the question of what responsibility a pitcher bears for preventing runs. If a fielding made a bad play, hey, that wasn’t the pitcher’s fault. You can’t blame him because the ball went through the third baseman’s legs or a centerfielder threw the ball over the catcher’s head. ERA became the run prevention statistic of choice, and remains so to this day.

There are, of course, some problems with ERA. For one thing, it manages to clear pitchers of responsibility when fielders mess up but it doesn’t counterbalance that by giving the fielders credit when they save the pitcher with great plays. If an outfielder leaps at the wall and saves a home run, the pitcher doesn’t have an imaginary run added to his ERA, even though by ERA logic he should. He gave up that run. The fielder took it away.

But even more to the point, ERA itself is make-believe. It pretends that those unearned runs scored somehow didn’t count. But they did count. The runs did actually score. We’re just not recording them on the pitcher’s record. We’re chalking them up to some vague notion of lousy defense.

I was thinking about this when looking hard at two pitchers with very similar records: Curt Schilling and Kevin Brown.

By some statistics, Schilling’s career and Brown’s career are freakishly similar. They pitched almost the exact same number of innings:

Schilling: 3,261 innings
Brown: 3,256 innings

They had very similar won-loss records.

Schilling: 216-146
Brown: 211-144

They have ERAs that are close, and their ERA+ —which compares them against league average and considers park factors — is identical:

Schilling: 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+
Brown: 3.28 ERA, 127 ERA+.

And yet most people — including me — think Schilling was a noticeably better pitcher (For instance: I annually vote Schilling for the Hall of Fame, and did not vote Kevin Brown). Why? Well, there are some clear reasons. Brown was mediocre in the postseason, Schilling was legendary. Schilling had more good seasons. Schilling has the greatest strikeout-to-walk ration in baseball history.*

*I’m not counting Tommy Bond, who pitched in the 1870s and 1880s.

But there is something else that is right there, in front of our faces, but has become hidden in the record because of ERA. Kevin Brown gave up 107 more unearned runs than Schilling. That’s a big difference. Brown’s ERA was .18 better than Schilling, but his RA — Runs Against — is not as good.

Brown: 3.75 runs per game.
Schilling: 3.63 runs per game.

Now, you consider the ballparks they played in, the leagues, and so on — look, Kevin Brown was a superb pitcher. But, in reality, he wasn’t as good as Schilling at preventing runs. His ERA is, at least in part, an illusion.

This is when some people will say: No! Not an illusion! You can’t blame Kevin Brown for those unearned runs.

I want to talk about this word “blame” in a minute.

Point is: This is the baseball argument that goes on and on.

In the last few years, there has been a new kind of effort to separate pitching and fielding and it goes by the not-quite-natural-sounding acronym: FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP is based on Voros McCracken’s theory that pitchers have much more control over strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed than they do over balls hit in play. The statistic FIP (and its more belligerent cousin xFIP) is significantly more complicated than ERA:

FIP == ((13 x HR) + (3 x (Walks but Hit By Pitch)) - (2 x strikeouts)) / innings pitched plus constant.

The constant at the end there is just meant to make FIP look like ERA so that it’s easier for people to digest. The main point is, the only three things that make up a pitcher’s FIP are homers, walks (and hit by pitch) and strikeouts.

FIP, like ERA, has believers and skeptics at all levels. Some think pitchers have almost no control over balls hit in play, that the fate of those balls in play is entirely based on defense and luck. Some think pitchers have some but limited control over balls in play. Some think pitchers have the majority of control and that the whole FIP thing is bunk.

Which leads us, finally, to Kluber and Hernandez. A few people have written in to say that they are disappointed in my Kluber choice for Cy Young, and they will throw a flurry of statistics that prove their point (mostly ERA and WHIP) and that it’s not fair to “blame” Hernandez because he happened to have a better defense and home pitching ballpark.

But I think “blame” is the wrong word. I don’t blame Hernandez for any of it. I’m just one of the voters trying to determine who was the better pitcher.

If you have two sprinters, and one runs a 10.0 100-meter dash and the other runs a 10.2, then you know that the first performance is better.

But what if the first one ran with a tailwind, and the the second ran into the wind? What if the first ran on an Olympic track and the second ran on gravel? What if the first ran wearing running shoes and the second ran wearing boots?

We’re just trying to determine which performance is better. That’s all. Nobody blames the first runner for running with the wind behind him, nobody says that was in his control. But it’s reality. He had the faster time. But he might not have had the better performance.

Hernandez’s advantages over Kluber come down to two things: He gave up fewer hits and gave up fewer runs. He did these things even though Kluber struck out more batters and gave up fewer home runs. How? Essentially, it comes down to this:

Batting average on balls in play:

Felix Hernandez: .260
Corey Kluber: .318

So, now you ask — how much of that major difference was Hernandez’s pitching and how much of it was Hernandez’s circumstances? We are back to that question: How much of this was due to the pitcher and how much was due to the conditions and fielders?

Those who think balls in play are almost exclusively the domain of the pitcher’s work will say that Felix Hernandez had the better season.

Those who think balls in play are almost exclusively the domain of defense and luck will say that Kluber had the better season.

And those of us somewhere in the middle will go back and forth. I sure did. They both deserved the award. I picked Kluber by a nose.

One final thought to wrap this up: We again had an ERA illusion in this race. Hernandez’s ERA was 2.14, while Kluber’s was 2.44. That’s a big difference.

But again, the RA is closer. Hernandez gave up 12 unearned runs this year; Kluber gave up eight.

Hernandez: 2.59
Kluber: 2.75

When just about everyone — including those pushing for Hernandez — seem in agreement that King Felix had markedly better defense behind him, it doesn’t seem right that Felix gets bonus ERA points.*

**The Steve Kluber reference is an inside joke … I was going to leave it without mention, but it occurs to me that some might not get it. In my Cy Young column, I called Corey Kluber Steve twice for reasons that even now I cannot quite get clear in my mind. And so every time I write about Corey Kluber, I intend to call him Steve at least once.