I am forever grateful to the posters on this site for tempering what was building into a fanatical devotion to sabermetrics. What I’ve come to now realize is that to truly honor the spirit of these new ideas and metrics one can’t let a critique of a certain group think become just a different sort of unchallenged conventional wisdom. So I am happy, then, that I was taken to task for simplistically claiming that Lannan is trash because his already unimpressive body of work was due to regress to even more terrible lows since, well, I couldn’t challenge the almighty FIP, now could I? Now I realize that there are just certain pitchers who should not be expected to close the gap between what they did and what FIP tells you should have been expected to happen, and Lannan seems quite clearly to be one of them.
That said, my oldest of old school analytical tools -- that is, my eyes -- told me more than once at the ballpark that he was worse than his ERA, seeing his opponents crush ball after ball when he was on the mound. And now I think I’ve found a reason to explain that while he isn’t worse because FIP says so, it is because UERA does… that is, unearned run average.
I started with another old-timer tool, my gut, to start to believe that he does, indeed, have a "skill" in creating errors, what with the many ways his pitches allow hitters to really square up: low velocity and poor movement combining to create a toxic influence on his most-used pitch, his pitching to contact creating more opportunities for a mistake, and his inability to balance any of that out by having a better than average ability to limit walks all came to mind. But I am still very much a numbers guy, so I turned to all qualifying starting pitchers from 2008-2011 to see if there mightn’t be connections to those assumptions amongst his UER creating brethren.
Ok, so there are 151 qualifying pitchers over that time span. I looked, then, for the 15 worst UERA hurlers (or the worst decile) and then looked to see if they appeared more than average as the worst 10% at generating outside swings, keeping hitters from connecting on pitches in the zone, strikeout percentage, swinging strike percentages, ground ball percentage, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Right, so our man Lannan is 15th in UERA so he gets on the list. And the members of this group happen to appear in the worst decile on the lists of the aforementioned metrics an average of over 4 times per list… or over four times as much as average, which is pretty damn significant. And Lannan is both in the first decile on three of the lists and at least within spitting distance of each of the others: 20th worst in O-sw%, 16th in Z-con %, 18th in Sw-str%, 13th in GB%, 11th in K%, and a whopping 4th in K/BB… all out of 151 starting pitchers. That, too, is quite eye opening.
In other words, he and the other high-UERA pitchers get it hit really hard and often at the fielders defending behind him (who, by the way, aren’t the reason behind the results: the Nats fielders gave up, on average, no more than .06 runs more than average per game, and for the others on the top-15 UERA list their average defense was even better), making it more likely that they muff the putout attempt. Now, I had to do all of this by hand, so I only calculated the players who were likely to post a bad score and therefore don’t know what an average UERA is -- which I know needs to be done, but this is just a start -- but FYI Lannan’s was 0.54 which, again, I can at least say is worse than 90% of his peers. Whether or not this first stab will stand up under further scrutiny I don’t know, but I think it at least provides a basis for some good discussion…