August 22, 2014
Adjusting for Era
While some of us have come to use plus-or-minus stats that adjust to league average to make our determinations on where a player lands within his ranks, it’s clear that many people still use the standard ERA to evaluate a pitcher or batting average to evaluate a hitter. There’s no issue with that, especially when those are the relevant categories in a fantasy league—but there’s something of a collective benchmark that we have for what determines a good, great, or elite ERA or batting average. Even more advanced stats like FIP or xFIP fall prey to this collective benchmark and to our failure to adjust for context.
Focusing on the pitching side of the equation, based on the era I grew up in a 3.00 ERA was/is my benchmark for whether someone is a good pitcher. There are shades of gray of course—a mediocre pitcher can have a fluky season—but everything revolves around that 3.00. A 3.30 was pretty good and a 3.50 was solid. A 4.00 was fit for a fifth starter/long-man type. Reality, of course, is a different story. We all know that we’re in a down offensive period in baseball, but I do wonder if enough of us have adjusted to what that means on the pitching side of the equation. This is an effort to show just how dramatically things have changed over the last few years, so that we can recalibrate what an elite or good pitcher is, and then use that as a new frame of reference.
From 2012 to 2014, we’ve seen the league average ERA drop from 4.01 to 3.78, and you can see the top 10 ERAs by season and how in most cases they’re close to half a run different. While that is only the top 10, it’s worth noting that Madison Bumgarner’s 30th best 3.14 ERA in 2014 would have ranked him 15th in 2012.
Second verse, same as the first. Once again, a fairly drastic difference just looking at the top 10 FIPs, as the best FIP in 2012 wouldn’t come in the top 10 in 2014 (it would rank 12th). Looking past the top 10, 30th ranked Scott Kazmir’s 3.31 FIP would land him at 16th back in 2012.
This is becoming a refrain. Big difference yet again,with 2012’s top mark failing to register in the top 10 in 2014 (it would rank 16th). Mike Leake’s 30th ranked 3.45 xFIP would tie him for 18th if this were 2012.
So what does this mean, aside from the fact that I’m basically an old fart? Well, a 3.30 ERA is still “pretty good,” but it’s not as good as it used to be. It would rank 17th in baseball in 2012 versus 36th in 2014. We need to be aware of the context in which we’re playing fantasy baseball, and note that “good” pitching may be more abundant than ever -- or more accurately, what defines “good” is different these days. Given that my childhood definitions of “good” and “great” are lost to the ravages of time, and that The Simpsons marathon has everyone breathless, I’ll leave you with a pertinent quote from Abe Simpson.
“I used to be with it, but then then changed what ‘it’ was, and now what I’m with isn’t ‘it.’ It’ll happen to you someday.”