Handicapping baseball? Pay attention to FIP, not ERA

Cubs pitcher Matt Garza is an excellent example of how baseball should be handicapped by FIP, not ERA.

Here’s how drastically the science of baseball handicapping has advanced in the past several decades: A baseball betting tutorial in a 1974 edition of a glossy magazine called Gambling Quarterly suggested that even a pitcher on a poor team can be a “very effective hurler.” To spot these hidden gems, the article advised, bettors should study a stat known as earned run average. It name-checked Wilbur Wood.

Today, of course, making wagering decisions based on ERA is as outdated a concept as a pitcher starting both games of a doubleheader. Good old-fashioned ERA does still have a role in handicapping, though. I like to compare ERA to Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), one of a wave of newfangled statistics, to identify the luckiest and unluckiest starting pitchers in baseball. FIP uses a complicated formula (I’ll spare you the details) to rate a pitcher’s performance independent of his team’s fielding skills and other factors beyond his control.

Comparing FIP with ERA this season yields four starting pitchers I’ll keep my eye on as the season progresses.

Travis Wood of the Reds and Matt Garza of the Cubs have been particularly unlucky. Heading into this week’s action, Wood had an ERA of 6.21 but an FIP of only 3.20, meaning he has pitched much better than his 1-3 record indicates. Garza had an ERA of 4.43 but a FIP of just 1.57, which tells me he has also pitched better than his 1-4 record suggests. Garza has struck out 11.69 batters per nine innings, the best rate in the major leagues. That’s what I call a very effective hurler. Wood and Garza have been money-burners so far. Bettors backing them in each of their starts would have lost six full units (a $100 bettor would be down $600). But I’d be inclined to bet on Wood and Garza, expecting their results to improve. I’ll also look to bet the “under” in their games.

Josh Tomlin of the Indians and Alexi Ogando of the Rangers have been the luckiest starters of 2011 so far. Tomlin started 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA, but his FIP of 4.71 suggests he could be headed for a fall. Ogando started 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA but an FIP of 4.20. I’d be inclined to bet against Tomlin and Ogando, and I’ll be looking to play the “over” in their starts.


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