Whenever my dad and I get into a conversation about starting pitching, he’ll inevitably mention the 1997 Atlanta Braves. That rotation was a four-headed monster featuring Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Denny Neagle. Although they got upset in the NLCS, we can learn some lessons from them.
This year, the last two teams standing boasted some of the best starting pitchers out there. We already know that there’s a widening win-gap in Major League Baseball, so I wanted to see how pitching is contributing to it.
To investigate this disparity, I analyzed advanced pitching stats for every team since 1920, segmented them by starters and relievers, and looked for a statistic that correlated with this change over the past few seasons. After freezing Excel a few dozen times, the stat that stood out: starting pitchers’ FIP+.
While I do recommend you look at the full definition of FIP+, here’s a quick breakdown.
“Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a statistic that estimates a pitcher’s run prevention independent of the performance of their defense. FIP is based on outcomes that do not involve the defense; strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs allowed. FIP uses those statistics and approximates a pitcher’s ERA assuming average outcomes on balls in play.” (FanGraphs)
“The ‘plus’ means we take a player’s FIP and normalize it across the entire league. It accounts for external factors like ballparks and opponents. It then adjusts, so a score of 100 is league average, and 150 is 50% better than the league average.” (MLB.com)
Just using the eye test, this makes sense. In recent years we’ve seen significantly more home runs, strikeouts, and walks. Naturally, the pitchers who are more successful in these at-bats will be more valuable.
When broken down by individual pitchers, this disparity in talent becomes even more clear. Having a FIP+ of 130 in any given season means that your fielding independent pitching is 30% better than the league average. That’s good. That’s really damn good. Below is a chart of the number of starting pitchers that did that every season in the last 70 years.
From this chart, we can see that the number of pitchers performing well above average in terms of FIP is increasing, while the average starter is losing ground on that top tier. This is all happening while a starting pitchers FIP is progressively becoming the key indicator of how successful teams are at preventing runs.
Put simply, the starting pitchers that shove in K/BB/HR at-bats are putting a gap on the ones that don’t, and they’re more valuable to their teams than ever before because of it. So how do the Yankees stack up right now, and what do they need in 2020? Let’s go down the line assuming everyone is healthy.
Luis Severino is ace material, and I don’t care what anyone says. Since 2017, he has a FIP+ of 147, good for 5th best in baseball. When Sevy is in the zone, he’s a straight-up bully.
James Paxton, in that same period, put up a 135 FIP+. This year we saw him struggle early, but once he healed from those injuries he performed above that level down the stretch.
Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t fared quite as well in this metric, posting a 106 since 2017. He’s been streaky, but we know what he’s capable of. Hopefully, the new coaching staff can help him stay right.
These three guys should not be our definitive top three, but they should all be a part of our very own four-headed monster. That being said, I don’t think Gerrit Cole is going to be a Yankee, and that’s okay. I would love to see Cole in pinstripes, but he’s going to cause an ungodly bidding war only to end up on a west coast team.
Management should focus their efforts on signing a guy like Zack Wheeler (124 FIP+ since 2018), or trading away some unused MLB-ready talent for someone like Trevor Bauer (119 FIP+ since 2016). I’m not advocating specifically for one of them, but someone in that range is likely to come at a better value.
One of our big four is going to either get hurt or not be right for a part of the season. We know this from experience. The Yankees are going to need some depth. I believe they should get one guy that can fall in between Tanaka and Happ. That way, we have two options for the 5-spot to start the season, and an adequate replacement when someone goes down. Meanwhile, Monty can work on recapturing his 2017 form down in Scranton.
In case you were wondering, the ‘97 Braves rotation had the 7th best FIP+ (128) and the 4th highest WAR (25.4) in the live-ball era. The 2020 Yankees might be just one move away from emulating that. All they need to do is focus on the stats that get results.