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How to Win: ERA

Like it's hitting cousin, Batting Average, ERA is a seriously unpredictable category, even for pitchers. It's less luck-dependent than wins, but only by so much. The main strategy for ERA is this: get good pitchers, don't throw too many innings. Hopefully we can do better than that today.

2012's Top 12

1. Kris Medlen                            1.57
2. Clayton Kershaw                  2.53
3. David Price                             2.56
4. Justin Verlander                   2.61
5. R.A. Dickey                            2.74
6. Johnny Cueto                         2.78
7. Matt Cain                                2.79
8. Jered Weaver                         2.81
9. Kyle Lohse                              2.86
10. Gio Gonzalez                       2.89
11. Jordan Zimmermann        2.94
12. Brandon Morrow                2.96

It's worth noting that Medlen pitched just 138 IP over 12 starts, while Morrow threw only 125 over 21 starts. Take those guys off the list and you get Chris Sale and Cole Hamels (3.05) in the last two spots. It's also worth noting that these top guys are all pretty good and you aren't likely to get more than one or two on your fantasy team. Fortunately for us, last year's ERA isn't such a good predictor of this year's ERA. Advanced metrics, here we come!

FIP (from Fangraphs.com, 120 minimum IP)

1. Kris Medlen                    2.42
2. Gio Gonzalez                  2.82
2. Stephen Strasburg         2.82 
4. Felix Hernandez            2.84
5. Clayton Kershaw           2.89
6. Justin Verlander            2.94
7. David Price                      3.05
8. Adam Wainwright        3.10
8. Zack Greinke                  3.10 
10. Cliff Lee                          3.13
11. Wade Miley                    3.15
12. Max Scherzer, Johnny Cueto, R.A. Dickey, Chris Sale tied with 3.27 

It's easy to say that if you see someone on this list but not on this first one, you can expect a little bit better from his ERA, and to expect the opposite too. That's mostly true, but it's not so simple. Again, this can be used for your benefit.

So, who had the biggest differences between their FIP's and their ERA's? Anyone with an ERA lower than his FIP probably benefited from a degree of good luck, anyone with an ERA higher than his FIP should have gotten the corresponding bad luck. You could do it either way, but I subtracted ERA from FIP, meaning that negative numbers are "good," showing FIP's lower than ERA's and offering optimism for the year to come. The lower the negative number the more the optimism, I suppose. The reverse is also true.

Better FIP than ERA--Opportunity?
1.Luke Hochevar                  -1.10
2. Tim Lincecum                  -1.00
3. Francisco Liriano          -1.00
4. Randy Wolf                     -0.86 
5. Adam Wainwright        -0.84 
6. Roy Halladay                 -0.80
7. Joe Blanton                    -0.80
8. J.A. Happ                       -0.78
9. Justin Masterson          -0.77
10. Derek Lowe                  -0.74
11. Jon Lester                      -0.71 
12. Rick Porcello                -0.68

There are a number of things that go into FIP, and what makes for repeatable success, so I wouldn't go out drafting Hochevar or Lowe just because they show up high on this list. Plus, their FIP's were still lousy (4.63 and 4.37, respectively), just not horrid like their ERA's. Some of the names on here are intriguing, though. Lester, for instance could be a lot more serviceable than his 2012 ERA would suggest, so long as you don't harbor expectations of a return to greatness on his part. Joe Blanton had a very large drop from a 4.71 ERA to a 3.91 FIP--but even farther to his xFIP of 3.39, which suggests that he should have been pretty good, not terrible. Maybe the Angels looked those numbers up when they signed him....

Halladay, as Mark has written before, is a great candidate to put up numbers that look more like his former self, as bad luck seems to have compounded his injury struggles and sunk him on ADP boards. Adam Wainwright appears on this list, and on the FIP top 12, so you know that impresses me. If he matches that FIP, he's right back where he belongs: with the best pitchers in baseball. Too bad he's already getting drafted like it.

Lincecum and Liriano are probably the most interesting cases, and a lot has been written about each elsewhere. I've even done some of it. Two of the three most extreme pitchers on this list have some of the highest upside--and lowest downside. Both of them had more going on than bad luck to produce differences between their FIP's and ERA's, and their prodigious strikeout rates probably hid their real struggles in composite measures. Don't think that FIP-ERA is a magical catch-all for isolating the unlucky, because there were a lot of factors that led to these pitchers' disastrous seasons. That doesn't mean you shouldn't take a chance on them, but you have to know it is one.

Worse FIP than ERA--Beware?

1. Jeremy Hellickson             1.50
2. Jered Weaver                       0.94
3. Kris Medlen                         0.85
4. Jason Vargas                      0.84
5. Matt Harrison                    0.74
6. Kyle Lohse                           0.65
7. Ross Detwiler                     0.64
8. Clayton Richard                0.63
9. Matt Cain                             0.61
10. Jordan Zimmermann    0.57
10. Travis Wood                     0.57
12. R.A. Dickey                       0.54
12. Hiroki Kuroda                  0.54 

Hellickson's number sure jumps off the page, doesn't it? So much so that number two Jered Weaver is actually closer to the twelfth spot than he his to overtaking Hellickson for number one. Maybe Hellickson has some sort of skill for beating his FIP with his ERA, but I bet it isn't a run and a half per game good. Look for some serious regression next year.

Speaking of regression, expect some out of Weaver and Vargas, not to mention small-sample superhero Medlen (though he can regress a long, long way and still be really good.) Weaver's high FIP comes with a shrinking strikeout rate too, so be extra careful. Both Angels starters have a good opportunity to post better ERA's than FIP's owing to their home park and defense (more on that below), but not to this extreme. 

Harrison, Richard, Detwiler and Wood could all see their ERA's go from good to lousy with more normal luck, as indicated by the difference between that number and their FIP.

Lohse, Zimmermann, Kuroda, and especially Dickey all posted good FIP's and amazing ERA's, which means even if and when they get hit with regression, they should still be useful to excellent pitchers. 

Cain is a special case, as he's shown a consistent ability to post a better ERA than FIP. He's done it every year since 2007, in fact, and it's long past the time that we all acknowledged that as a skill. Expect more of the same next year.

Defense and Park Effects
The purpose of FIP is to isolate a pitcher's contributions to his own success, which means taking out all the defense and park effects along with what we understand as chance. That's why they call it "Fielding Independent Pitching," after all. 
Of course, your fantasy league is won on results, not true talent, so we have to take defense and park dimensions back into account. On a team-by-team basis, here are the top seven defenses from 2012, by Fangraphs' UZR:

Top Defenses, 2012

Braves                     53.1
Angels                    44.3
Red Sox                   35.5
Twins                      29.5
Mariners                27.3
Athletics                 24.3
Diamondbacks    19.5 

The numbers will be different for 2013, since players have shifted teams (especially between the Braves and Diamondbacks), balls will bounce differently, and fielders will have up and down years. Still, this can be a starting point for evaluating how much the difference between a pitcher's "true talent" stats and ERA can be attributed to something that won't repeat, like luck, and something that should, like fielders' performance.

Here are some uglier numbers, again by UZR.

Bad Defenses, 2012

Indians        -57.0
Rockies         -41.6
Astros           -31.3
Tigers           -28.1
Orioles         -26.5
Mets              -23.3
Marlins        -21.1
Cardinals    -20.4
Blue Jays     -17.9 

If your pitcher underperformed his ERA for one of these teams--and he'll be pitching there again--don't be shocked if you see another year of better FIP's than ERA's.

The home park makes a big difference too. Here are some of pitchers' friendliest confines from 2012:

Pitchers' Parks, 2012

Mariners     0.687
Giants          0.737
Pirates         0.764
Angels         0.812
Padres         0.852
Dodgers      0.867
Rays            0.874
Mets            0.874
Athletics    0.888 

Notice the presence of the Mariners, Angels, and A's on the park effect list and the defense list, compounding the effect. Not only that, they all play in the same division, so they'll be spending a lot of time on the road at each other's parks. That might even help Texas and Houston pitchers a little. It also suggests a partial explanation for the discrepancies between FIP and ERA for the aforementioned Weaver and Vargas.

Below are some parks pitchers want to stay away from. Some are the usual suspects, but some could be surprising. Also, note the absence of reputed hitters havens like Yankee Stadium and the Phillies' Citizens' Bank Park.

Hitters Parks, 2012

Rockies                  1.159
White Sox             1.268
Red Sox                 1.206
Rangers                 1.183
Orioles                   1.173
Diamondbacks    1.171
Brewers                  1.168
Reds                        1.113
Tigers                     1.071 

While the Diamondbacks and Red Sox managed to mitigate their own park effects with their defenses, the Rockies, Orioles, and Tigers are compounding the issues of their pitchers (though perhaps one number alters another to an extent). The good news is that you were already staying away from Rockies pitchers if you want to win ERA, and you were already targeting a couple of Tigers pitchers. If you were on the fence about the Orioles' staff, maybe this'll push you over. 

A Few Last Words

Unless you want to really break your auction budget there really isn't any way to make sure you own the ERA category. In a draft league, there's almost no way to be sure about it. Maybe you could make your top five picks starters, but even that might not get you very far. It certainly wouldn't help you overall, so don't go out and do it and blame it on me.

By keeping track of team defense, park effects, and the difference between a pitcher's FIP and his ERA, however, you can put yourself in the position to take advantage of the most skilled pitchers. And the luckiest. That's about all you can hope for in ERA, where the winner will have to be both lucky and good. 

Ed. Note: A previous version of this post appeared without links to player names. Content has been otherwise unchanged.

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