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When Sabermetrics Fail (How FIP doesn’t work on the Yankees)

The Yankees rotation is full of talented young arms, but none of them is delivering this season. Is it really smart to wait around until their skills match their numbers? Probably not.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Pineda is probably one of the most coveted buy-low candidates at this point. Every single sabermetric of him tells that he should be one of the top pitchers in the league and his statistics should be adjusted sooner or later. He owns elite 10 K/9, 2.67 BB/9, and his 3.66 xFIP and 3.49 SIERA are very respectable compare to his current 6.33 ERA. It's easy to say, "Once his ridiculous 21.9% HR/FB and .359 BABIP regress to the mean, his numbers will start to look like an elite pitcher." At least this would be exactly what I would say if I was talking about someone other than Pineda.

Nevertheless, he is not so easy to evaluate because we have been through the exact same exercise before. Last year, Pineda put up 2.92 xFIP (8th among pitchers with at least 160 IP), 8.74 K/9 (23rd), 1.18 BB/9 (2nd), and 48.2% GB% (29th). His 3.34 FIP (21st) was little higher because of his inflated HR rate, but his well-rounded game was so hard to find any blemish. He still somehow finished the season with 4.37 ERA because his BABIP was relatively high .332 and he was unlucky with stranding the runners (68.6% LoB%). According to these numbers, he should have been primed for a breakout season at age 27.

Instead, he is having a worse one, and his young teammates, Luis Severino and Nathan Eovaldi are following his suit. Obviously, the Yankees and the AL East are not the most friendly environment for pitchers, but how these three talented pitchers are all recording 5+ ERA?

First things first, we have to acknowledge that these pitchers are currently recording 18+% HR/FB ratio, which is even ridiculous for the Yankees standard. According to Fangraphs, the Yankees Stadium owns 110 HR factor, which means if we assume 10.5% HR/FB as a league average, the Yankees pitchers should allow 11.6% (in fact, the Yankees pitchers average exactly 11.6% HR/FB since the 2009 opening of the new stadium). It's possible that the figure could vary pitcher to pitcher, but it might not be the craziest idea to think that those pitchers won't continue to allow one HR in every five fly balls.

It doesn't explain the whole story, however. We also need to take the Yankees defense into account. The group of expensive and feeble players put together 4th worst run saved from defense since last year, but they were still not shy to add Stalin Castro into the mix somehow (2nd worst after Athletics this year). For any young pitcher, the Yankees is probably not the most desirable environment.

2015

2016

Total

Name

ERA

FIP

ERA - FIP

ERA

FIP

ERA - FIP

ERA-FIP

Luis Severino

2.89

4.37

-1.48

6.31

4.43

1.88

-0.5

Masahiro Tanaka

3.51

3.98

-0.47

2.87

2.78

0.09

-0.38

CC Sabathia

4.73

4.68

0.05

3.81

3.53

0.28

0.09

Nathan Eovaldi

4.20

3.42

0.78

5.46

3.98

1.48

0.89

Michael Pineda

4.37

3.34

1.03

6.33

5.22

1.11

1.04

So far, I haven't brought up anything new. Let's dig little deeper and take a look at the ERA-FIP difference of the five Yankees starters. Severino only threw 80 innings since last year, so let's put him aside for now. If being a Yankees is the only issue here, than how come the older pitchers like Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia seem to be fine in matching their skills to stats?

It could be simply a luck, but anybody can say the same thing and that's not the answer you are here for. One obvious difference that splits Tanaka and Sabathia from the other three is their finesse pitching style. Each player is averaging 90.5 and 88 mph in their fastballs, which are apparently not strong enough to overpower the Major League hitters, while the other three young guns are classic flame throwers (Pineda doesn't light up the radar gun, but his K-BB and pitching repertoire suggest that he is not afraid to put his 92.8 mph into the zone). Is this somehow affecting the defense? I flipped through all kinds of numbers to find an answer, and I came across something very interesting.

2015

2016

No Shift BABIP

Shift BABIP

No Shift - Shift BABIP

No Shift BABIP

Shift BABIP

No Shift - Shift BABIP

Nathan Eovaldi

0.311

0.421

-0.11

0.289

0.395

-0.106

Luis Severino

0.238

0.341

-0.103

0.359

0.368

-0.009

Michael Pineda

0.323

0.346

-0.023

0.270

0.439

-0.169

Masahiro Tanaka

0.234

0.264

-0.03

0.250

0.256

-0.006

CC Sabathia

0.314

0.325

-0.011

0.333

0.346

-0.013

When you see those above numbers, you can see that the Yankees kill their pitchers with some dumb shifts. Everybody is somehow recording high BABIP in case of defensive shift since last year, and the gap is larger for the three young ones. Just in case you are suspicious, it's not normal for anyone to record high BABIP with shifted defense. According to Jay Jaffe's article, the league average of No Shift -€” Shift BABIP is 0.011 since 2015. The shift doesn't help out BABIP significantly, but it at least shouldn't hurt the pitchers.

Why is this happening? I have tried find some correlations with the batted ball data, but I couldn't find any meaningful answer. My best guess at this point would be that the Yankees simply use the opponent hitter's spray chart to apply their shifts, but they might be missing the point that the spray chart only works for the pitchers with the league average stuff, such as Tanaka's or Sabathia's. When pitchers throw mind-blowing fastballs, it should be a lot harder for the hitters to apply their regular swing timing, which could lead to more unpredictable result with the batted balls.

I honestly failed to find a solid evidence for my claim, but I still strongly believe that the Yankees defense is inept to assist their talented pitching corps.  I don't think Eovaldi, Severino, or Pineda will continue to put up their current ugly numbers, but it might be very difficult for them to translate their sabermetrics into the Fantasy relevant numbers unless the Yankees completely change their scheme. Remember, this is the team that likes to spend money on their bullpen when they have holes everywhere on the field, signs 30-year old third baseman with zero offense after his one good "defensive" season (Chase Headley has been even a below average defender since he signed the $52M deal), spends $20M to bolster their AAA rotation (Kei Igawa recorded 36 wins and 3.83 ERA as a member Scranton Yankees), and adds another defensive hole who everybody avoided via trade when they already have the league's worst defense (at least Castro has been hitting).

Yankees fans, I'm sorry to rip your beloved team apart, but I really don't think their front office is catching up to the modern era of baseball, and it has been showing up on their report card (Side Note: I had a job offer to join the Yankees as an analyst long time ago. If they were smart enough to offer me little more money, I could have helped them more than A-Rod did with his $275M. I don't believe I'm the brightest mind in the baseball, but I feel like even a regular person like me could be an upgrade to this archaic-minded team). Back to our point. If I were you, I would be selling the Yankees pitchers. Regardless of their raw talents, they are destined to fall short this year (obviously don't fire-sell, since they can at least do better than now). The Yankees aren't ready to deliver, so if any of your friend still believes that their strong FIP will start to play into their performances, you can let him deal with them. Your team can survive without the Bombers.

(Special thanks to HKfromSeoul, my league-mate who drafted Pineda, for this article's motive)

Remainder of the Season Steamer Projection

Player

SP Rank

IP

W

ERA

WHIP

SO

Masahiro Tanaka

18th

158

10

3.28

1.12

148

Michael Pineda

24th

130

9

3.33

1.1

125

Luis Severino

67th

123

8

3.71

1.26

109

Nathan Eovaldi

69th

129

8

3.81

1.26

108

CC Sabathia

113th

111

6

4.27

1.32

85