When ERA and FIP Don’t Match: Under-performers

The first month of the 2015 season has come and gone and there have obviously been a number of surprises. The Yankees, Mets, and Astros are all playing much better than expected and the Nationals have not been living up to their lofty expectations. Obviously these are just a few of the notable outcomes from the early season and there are many more I have not listed. There are always players who struggle or break out at the beginning of the year and the question always comes up: is this the real (insert player name here). One way of looking at if a certain performance is sustainable for pitchers is the difference between ERA and FIP.

For those who do not know, FIP is a measure that factors in the three results a pitcher directly controls — strikeouts, walks, and home runs — and turns it into an ERA-type number. This difference can be important to look at because it can indicate a particular pitcher’s luck or lack thereof. As it will be seen, there are common trends that create large differences between the two metrics.

First lets take a look at ten pitchers whose ERAs are significantly higher than their FIPs and are actually pitching better than their ERA suggests.

Name ERA FIP Diff
Clay Buchholz 5.76 2.62 -3.14
Jon Lester 4.71 2.37 -2.34
Stephen Strasburg 4.60 2.56 -2.04
Chris Sale 5.32 3.32 -2.00
Jeremy Hellickson 5.20 3.47 -1.73
James Paxton 5.74 4.04 -1.70
Jordan Zimmermann 4.88 3.18 -1.70
Corey Kluber 4.62 2.99 -1.63
Drew Hutchison 6.67 5.07 -1.60
Michael Pineda 3.73 2.22 -1.51

Now for some of these guys who find themselves in the top ten like Hutchison and Paxton, they have a large difference but their FIP is still high as well. The guys on this list whom I am really concerned with are the big name guys who have struggled to begin the season. Pitchers like Kluber, Lester, Strasburg, Sale and others have struggled to begin their 2015 campaign. However, these numbers suggest that these guys are pitching much better than it may seem. For many of these guys their main issue has been bad luck on balls in play. As can be seen from the chart below, these guys all have BABIPs that are in the high .300s and over .400 in the cases of Strasburg and Buchholz.

Name K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP
Clay Buchholz 11.88 2.88 0.72 0.403
Jon Lester 8.79 1.88 0.31 0.360
Stephen Strasburg 9.20 2.45 0.31 0.402
Chris Sale 8.18 2.05 0.82 0.373
Jeremy Hellickson 7.16 2.93 0.65 0.372
James Paxton 8.78 2.70 1.35 0.313
Jordan Zimmermann 5.86 1.95 0.33 0.344
Corey Kluber 9.00 2.08 0.69 0.366
Drew Hutchison 7.00 3.67 1.33 0.302
Michael Pineda 9.19 0.57 0.57 0.344

Over the course of the season these talented pitchers should find their ERAs dropping closer to their FIPs. One guy in particular who is pitching significantly better than his ERA is Buchholz. He has over eleven K/9, which is well above his career number of seven. He is also continuing a trend he has been developing over the past few seasons where his control is improving and he is limiting walks. Also he has always been above average at limiting home runs and thus year is no different thus far as Buchholz has allowed .72 HR/9 just below his career average of .87. If he can keep his strikeout numbers above his career average and the BABIP number falls like it should Buchholz could become the ace that the Red Sox desperately need.

For many of the guys on the above list their peripherals such as their K, BB, and HR figures are those of above-average pitchers but they have been unlucky when it comes to balls in play. Zimmermann’s struggles are interesting to look at because the right-hander is not striking out hitters like he has in the past but he is not really allowing home runs which is aiding his FIP numbers. Zimmermann’s FIP suggests that his ERA is due for some regression but his own track record suggests that his ERA could end up even lower than the FIP numbers suggest.

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