A few years ago — well, yikes, it’s actually more than 15 years now — a guy named Voros McCracken developed a fascinating and counterintuitive theory. He couldn’t help but think that while pitchers have firm control on some parts of pitching (walks, strikeouts and home runs) they have much less control, if any, on balls actually hit into play.
As he worked on it, he found that the numbers backing his theory were even starker than he expected. Understand that at that point, everyone believed — as many still believe — that great pitchers must give up fewer hits on balls in play than merely good or average or below average pitchers. It was more than belief, it was obvious fact. It went without saying that Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson were much less likely to give up hits on balls in play than, say, Marco Estrada or Jeremy Hellickson.
Of course, I didn’t just come up with Marco Estrada and Jeremy Hellickson by accident. Those two have the lowest Batting Average on Balls in Play for a season since 1990.
Lowest BABIPs among qualifiers since 1990:
Marco Estrada, 2011, .217
Jeremy Hellickson, 2015, .224
Chris Young, 2006, .230
Curt Schilling, 1992, .230
Zack Greinke, 2015, .232
Estrada, by the way, also has the seventh lowest BABIP season, just last year.
As for Maddux, in 1999 his BABIP was .331, one of the highest totals in the last quarter century. But his BABIP one year earlier was .267, well below the league average. Who would have thought that Pedro Martinez in 1999, when basically unhittable, actually gave up a .325 average on balls in play. Numbers like those led McCracken to his controversial but fascinating conclusion that starting pitchers don’t have control of balls in play. Those balls are the stuff of luck and the Gods and the weather and defense.
As you no doubt know, this theory has remained controversial … and it has been extremely influential in various baseball circles. The incoparable Fangraphs began publishing a stat called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and built its pitcher WAR statistic on the FIP framework — both work off the premise that a pitcher’s contribution to baseball comes down to strikeouts, walks and home runs. Fangraphs has made some adjustments to WAR (counting infield flies as strikeouts, for instance, and also treating relief pitchers a bit differently) but even now Fangraphs WAR does not take into account how many hits or how many runs the pitcher allows.
This leads some people to discount Fangraphs’ WAR … and others to embrace it wholeheartedly. I have a friend who loathes the very idea of FIP and Fangraphs WAR; at any given moment he will just start ranting: “You cannot separate what a pitcher does from a defense does,” he shouts. “It all works together. You can’t just count strikeouts, walks and homers. You can’t separate a pitcher and defense!”
“Do you like ERA as a statistic,” I ask him.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“Well,” I say. “ERA tries to do exactly the same thing.”
Yes, ERA is the original FIP, the original effort to isolate what a pitcher does from what a defense does. Of course, ERA is quite a bit less elegant. I have told the story many times, but I’ll tell it again — the first baseball story I ever wrote in a newspaper, a four-paragraph story about a high school game, was read by my baseball-averse mother. “Good story,” she said. “But I have one question. Who are you to say that the team scored an unearned run? Aren’t you supposed to be unbiased?”
It’s one of my favorite stories — my mother, who has suffered through this blog forever and now knows WAY more about baseball that she would care to know, isn’t crazy about it — but really she was right. Calling any run “unearned” is just a silly judgment. Unearned how? Did someone round the bases and touch home plate? Yes? Then wasn’t the run earned? This is another one of those judgmental baseball stats that would look like madness in any other sport. Empty net goals count as goals. Of course they do. Catches made after the defensive back fell down count as catches. Of course they do. Breakaway dunks after stupid turnovers count as baskets. Of course they do.
And runs should count as runs. No adjustment would be easier than turning ERA into a true counting stat: Just make it Run Average. That’s it. End of story.
Even if you want to live in the fantasy world of ERA, there are two specific points that make ERA kind of ridiculous. Actually, there are two and a half points.
Point 1. If you want to play this imaginary game where pitchers do not deserve to be blamed for defensive miscues, well, how do you not also consider the opposite. Let’s say that the bases are loaded, and the pitcher grooves a fastball that gets hammered. The centerfielder rushes back, leaps at the wall and takes away the home run.
Shouldn’t the pitcher be charged with four runs? I mean, in this fantasy world we have created, the pitcher EARNED those runs.
Point 2: It really is a fantasy world that ERA creates, an alternate universe, sort of like in the movie Source Code, where you try to go back and imagine what the world would look like if the bomber was caught before he blew up the train. Think about this: If a fielder makes an error with two outs, every run for the rest of that half inning is considered unearned. The pitcher could give up six home runs, and none of them would count against his record because, of course, there’s an alternate universe where he is already out of the inning.
In football, this would be a bit like saying that every touchdown scored on a drive where a defensive penalty gave the team a first down is an unearned touchdown. Hey, if not for that penalty, they would have punted back on their own 35.
Point 2.5. If the pitcher is the one who makes the error that leads to the run, it’s STILL considered an unearned run. This has led to numerous Abbott and Costello routines:
Abbott: It’s an unearned run.
Costello: How is that an unearned run?
Abbott: Because somebody made an error. You can’t blame the pitcher for that.
Costello: But it was the pitcher who made the error.
Abbott: No. He was not a pitcher when he made that error.
Costello: What was he?
Abbott: Why he was a fielder of course.
Costello: Wait a minute, we’re talking about the same guy right.
Costello: Same guy on the mound. Same guy who caught the ball.
Costello: So … why …
Abbott: No, why is in left field.
I’m only giving this half a point, though, because I’ve heard from various statisticians that if you are going to have unearned runs, you have to stay consistent, you have to count it as an unearned run even if it’s the pitcher’s error. I have no idea if this is true or not. It sounds to me like saying, “Well, if you are going to believe in unicorns, you have to make them purple.” But so it goes.
Now it should be said: We have grown so used to ERA that it has taken up residence in our minds. We get ERA. We are attached to it. Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 looks right; his 1.45 RA does not. Nolan Ryan’s 3.19 career ERA feels right in a way that his 3.64 RA does not. We think of the quality start as six innings, three EARNED runs, when it certainly makes a lot more sense as six innings, three runs whether earned or unearned. ERA has been around so long that it’s hard to imagine life without it. I suspect we won’t ever change to RA, and I don’t think that’s any great tragedy.
Still, after all these years I have to say: My mother was right. Who are we to judge if a run was earned or unearned?