Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Completely Unnecessary Pitching Metric

There are a number of methods available to evaluate pitcher’s starts on a game-by-game basis rather than the more traditional full season method. There are Game Scores, Support Neutral records, Win Values, and a number of other approaches. There really is no need to add another approach to the mix, and I’m not really going to here--I'm simply going to take a conventional approach for evaluating a full season pitching line and apply it to individual starts.

Of course, I’m not going to claim that this approach is better than the others, because it’s not. It is relatively easy for me to implement, though, and I thought it would be nice to be able to offer a category on my year end stat report for starting pitchers that would consider distribution of performance rather than just aggregate performance as is the case for the rest of the metrics.

The idea is basically to estimate the winning percentage that a team should have over the long haul given the runs allowed and innings pitched of the starting pitcher. I am not using any sort of component RA estimate, and will not bother to explain the implications of this, which I’ll assume you’re well aware of (and thus can also decide for yourself whether you still have any interest in the results). To do this, I use Pythagenpat and assume that the performance of everyone other than the starting pitcher is league average. That is, the offense scores an average number of runs, and the bullpen allows an average number of runs. For the latter, I’m not going to account for the difference between the RA allowed by relievers and the overall league average.

That is not at all an inevitable choice, and if I was trying to construct a perfect metric I wouldn’t do it. But this is so obviously not a perfect metric that the extra effort would be of questionable value. Making that adjustment would also highlight the fact that this approach does not attempt to account for the effect of the number of innings the starter is able to log on the subsequent performance of the bullpen, despite research that suggests there is such an effect. Of course, using the league average doesn’t do anything to address that issue, but it also keeps things simple.

An additional benefit of not making any adjustment for the lower RA of the bullpen is that it allows this metric to be more easily comparable to other metrics that compare the performance of starting pitchers directly to the overall league average--which is a sizeable number. The overall expected winning percentage for the team of a league average starting pitcher at the end of this road will be sub-.500, which while obviously false does in fact match the results of many full season-type metrics.

One thing that cannot be ignored is park effects; the question is how to apply them. One option is to only apply them to the elements of the team other than the pitcher--the bullpen and the offense. I’ll call that option A; option B is to apply the park adjustment only to the pitcher himself.

Option A is a little harder to implement, since there are two adjustments that need to be made. On the other hand, it has some appeal because it allows us to keep the actual run environment of the game rather than recasting it in an imaginary neutral park. I’ve decided to go with Option B because simplicity is a guiding principle here, and because it is more consistent with the way I apply park adjustments to full season metrics. Again, it’s far from an inevitable choice. I’m also assuming that all games are nine innings.

With the thought process out of the way, this isn’t a particularly hard metric to demonstrate. I’ll start simple, with a pitcher throwing a complete game in a neutral park in which he allows zero runs. His expected winning percentage for the game is 1.000.

Seriously, let’s consider a pitcher in a neutral park working seven innings and allowing two runs. I’ll assume it’s an AL pitcher, so we need to know that the 2010 AL average R/G was 4.45 (this is the constant N later). The pitcher’s team can thus be expected to allow 2 + (9 - 7)*4.45/9 = 2.99 runs and score 4.45 runs. This is a 2.99 + 4.45 = 7.44 RPG environment, which has a Pythagenpat exponent of 7.44^.29 = 1.79, and thus the pitcher’s team has an expected W% of 4.45^1.79/(4.45^1.79 + 2.99^1.79) = .671.

We could go through and count up the wins (.671) and the losses (1 - .671 = .329), but I’d rather keep it in rate terms, so the final result will just be the average expected winning percentage across a pitcher’s starts.

To generalize the formula, let N be the league average R/G with R and IP as the runs allowed and innings pitched for the starting pitcher in a particular. Let dPF be the Park Factor without any adjustment so that it can be applied to full season statistics combined for home and road games. For example, the park factors I publish (which are the ones I’ll use here naturally) adjust for this. A 1.03 PF does not mean that the park inflates scoring by 3%--it means that the park inflates scoring by 6%, and is diluted by averaging with 1.00 (neutral park) so that it can be applied to full seasons statistics which are, at least in theory, comprised of one-half home games and one-half road games.

A (team RA for game) = R/dPF + (9 - IP)*N/9
X (Pythagenpat exponent) = (A + N)^.29
gW% = N^X/(N^X + A^X)

There’s really not much to it when you write it in math rather than English.

I’m very tempted to cap it off by unscrambling it from a W% back into an estimated run average, but I’d rather not deal with the implications of aggregating multiple Pythagorean exponents. One of the advantages of a game-by-game approach is that you’re able to better match performance with the run environment in which it actually occurred, and thus avoid some of the distortions that are inevitable when performance is aggregated across different run environments.

I intend to implement this fully for 2011 starting pitchers (although I might change my mind on that depending on how I feel about the effort/usefulness tradeoff in October), but for now I ran the top five AL starting pitchers from 2010 (IMHO) through the process. For comparison, I’ve included a column called sW% which is based on a traditional use of a pitcher’s full season line to estimate the theoretical W% of his team (albeit without making any adjustment for innings/start):

X = (RA/PF + N)^.29
sW% = N^X/(N^X + (RA/PF)^X)

If you use R and IP as the criteria, Felix Hernandez turned in the best performance of any AL starter, whether you aggregate or consider each game separately. Sabathia and Weaver come out about the same either way, but Lee and Price move in opposite directions when you look at the game level. This implies that Lee’s distribution of runs allowed and innings was such that it would figure to produce more wins than the averages would suggest, with Price the opposite.

This is more of a freak show stat than anything else, but it does provide a relatively simple way to compare starters at the game level on their bottom line results, and if a Cy Young race is particularly close, you may want to consider it. Or you may not; I don’t have a lot of conviction about this, and there are more rigorous approaches available, but there you go.


  1. So I tried posting earlier and my comment got lost so I'm just going to try to cut to the chase. I'm currently looking into comparing pitchers with an emphasis on number of innings pitched per start to determine optimum combinations of starters and relief pitchers, and the equation I'm using is pretty close to what you have here. I was wondering if you had looked into anything of the sort and if so could you point me in the direction of it? Any insight would be much appreciated thanks.

  2. I haven't done anything on that, but if you haven't seen this article from Colin Wyers (I linked it in the post), I think it might be helpful to you--he examines the relationship between innings pitched by the starter and bullpen RA.


  3. I did see that, thanks, and I actually sent him a message asking him about that since he alluded to working on something similar to me in an earlier article. I wasn't really expecting a message back since BP has a big disclaimer about not getting messages back so I figured I'd see what your were thinking. Great article and thanks a lot for the quick response!


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