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The Best Pitching Statisic You’ve Never Thought of Using

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Those who are familiar with statistics like FIP, xFIP, BABIP, and other per 9 rate stats, need not to head to the MLB.com page for their analysis of pitchers in 2010.  When you go to the sabermetrically challenged league stats page, you get a bunch of counting stats, some more valuable (Ks, BBs, HRs, GBs, Wild Pitches) than others (wins, saves), but only one rate statistic (ERA) on that first page, at least.

Does that make the league’s statistic page completely trivial?  I say no.  There’s one statistic on there that can be used to evaluate starting pitches better than ERA, although you’d probably need to let the full season play out to feel confident in how it ranks players.

It’s plain old innings pitched.

Time in baseball is measured in thirds of an inning, or in peasant terms, “outs.”  Three thirds of an inning or three outs is equivalent to an inning pitched.  The fallacy of using a counting stat like innings pitched to judge the quality of starting pitchers is that not all outs are created equal.  A 1-2-3 inning is three outs, as is an inning where a pitcher faces seven batters giving up two doubles and two home runs.  That’s an excellent reason why you would never want to use IP to judge the quality of a reliever’s season, but for modern starting pitchers, those who face seven batters in an inning also tend to throw 25-30+ pitches in the inning.  In a era where 100 pitches effectively acts as an unofficial pitch limit for every player but a few aces of staff, pitchers that struggle through innings early tend not to make it through a bunch of innings later.

There was once a time where a pitcher could throw 70 pitches in the first three innings, but then settle down and start getting 3 or 4 pitch outs and keep guys off the bases and end up pitching deep into the game anyone.  However, the status quo in the modern game is that a guy who finishes an inning over 100 pitches gives way to the bullpen after that.  I’m not necessarily in agreement with this hard and fast way of managing, but it’s rise in popularity has improved the validity of IP as more than just a stat that indicates a workhorse pitcher.

I looked back at the last four years, set a (somewhat arbitrary) cutoff at 225 IP in a season, a mark that usually only about five pitchers per season make.  There are, as expected, a lot of guys who have their names show up on the list in consecutive years: Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum (who is on pace to make it a third straight year in 2010), CC Sabathia, and even Aaron Harang.  You may not have known that Bronson Arroyo once lead all of baseball (in 2006) in IP.

You probably thought of Roy Halladay as soon as I mentioned innings pitched, and it’s true that Halladay has gotten more outs than anyone else in baseball in the last five years (by a considerable margin).  It’s hard to remember, however, that up until 2008, Roy Halladay wasn’t the most elite out-creator in baseball.  Brandon Webb recorded 2,093 outs from 2006-2008, compared to “just” 2,074 for Halladay.  Halladay again finished second in the AL in IP last year (starting three fewer games than Justin Verlander, who beat him by an inning).  Even a disabled list trip can’t stop Halladay from being at the top of the league in outs recorded.

Innings pitched is why Brandon Webb’s career might be underrated, it’s why Roy Halladay should be a hall of famer, it’s why Adam Wainwright, not Chris Carpenter, is the most valuable pitcher on the Cardinals’ staff, it’s why the Royals need not be concerned about Zack Greinke’s status as a true ace, and it might be the deciding factor that makes CC Sabathia worth the value of the contract that the Yankees gave him before last year.

Now, the number of pitchers on pace to throw 225+ IP is on the rise. From 2006-08, only five pitchers per year hit that innings figure, and only four players (including Harang hit the mark more than once).  In 2009, eight pitchers threw 225 innings including AL up-and-comers Verlander, Greinke, and Felix Hernandez, plus Dan Haren of the D-Backs.  Barring injury, all are on pace to make it to the 225 threshold again this year.

I also like IP because it does penalize a player for getting hurt and being unable to play (like all counting stats).  ERA, nor WHIP isn’t adjusted for a player who misses a trip through the rotation or two for hitting the DL, but pitchers who aren’t accruing their innings aren’t earning their contract value.  Those who are among the league leaders in innings pitched are the most valuable players in the game.  Therefore, if I’m going to pay a pitcher for one thing, it’s not strikeouts or walks (components) so much as the more basic tenets of baseball, getting outs and getting deep into games.

Maybe you’ve never treated innings pitched as anything more than helpful context for ERA or Hits or Walks or Strikeouts, and while IP is useful for all those things, it’s probably even better as a stand alone stat than any of those descriptive statistics.  I like it because it tells a story in itself.  The best players in the game accrue the most IP, and those that pitch the most innings will remain the best players in the game until they stop pitching so many innings.

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