If you’ve followed my work, you know I am borderline obsessed with barrels and strongly believe in in the predictive forces of Barrel FIP. I have tweeted out starting pitcher barrel stats daily for two seasons now, and from the feedback I have received over that time, I know my follower base believes in it as well.
Late last season, I started to look what the Barrel FIP figures can let us know about each individual start. While remaining a big fan of the various forms of Game Scores that have been created over the years, I wanted to create a new one that better incorporated the pitcher’s ability to avoid the barrel.
For some reason my mind went astray from the 1–100 game scores we’re accustomed to and wanted to go straight to a grade book. There is absolutely nothing wrong, or difficult to comprehend, about looking at a score on the scale, but I thought the A-F “report card-style” worked for what I was attempting to create.
I wanted to grade each start on two things — first… length: I didn’t want a pitcher earning an A if he wasn’t completing the job. In 2018, the job of a starting pitcher continued to get murkier, with the accepted usage of “The Opener,” but for my purposes, I wanted to stick with the more “traditional” goal of a starting pitcher. This is not to say I am against The Opener — I’m strongly pro-, in the right situations — but these grades will be attempting to grade one start against another, and an even playing field would have to be created.
With that said, I believe a starting pitcher should be proud of a strong six-inning appearance. The quality start definition is set at six innings. A manager has historically been comfortable with going starter/seventh-inning guy/ eighth-inning guy/closer. And no, I will not be discussing the Win definition. Six innings feels like a good bare minimum for an “A” performance.
The case for the “goal” of The Opener gave me some issue, and I can only assume the role will gain steam moving forward in 2019. It’s possible my definitions will have to be tweaked in time, but for now, it’s just a variable to include when looking at the final product.
The other facet to be included in the grading would be performance-based. While pitch scores include defensive-influenced metrics such as runs and hits, here I’d only include the Barrel FIP factors — strikeouts, walks, and barrels.
Using the Barrel FIP calculation with those factors, the number of runs “deserved” can be determined. I’ve already set six innings as a minimum for an “A,” but when you pair that with putting up a BFIP less-than-or-equal-to three, the definition is complete.
Six innings, three runs is as familiar to anyone as the quality start definition but one of the biggest complaints about using QS is 6 IP/3 ER actually extrapolates out to a 4.5 ERA. Allowing over four runs is a tough pull to be labeled “quality.” Having a BFIP equaling three is different than allowing three runs, as this already takes care of the extrapolation. A pitcher deserving of three runs allowed if going nine innings seems deserving of an “A.”
When taking a look at all 4,862 starts in the 2018 season, my hopes were around 20% (one-fifth) of the starts would earn the distinction of being graded an “A” start. Lo and behold, 1,004 starts met those marks, right at 20.7%.
My next hope was to make the B-F qualifications all near 20% as well but it turns out, there are a lot more poor starts than you may assume.
Here are the spectrums I set for each grade and the percentage which fell into each category for 2018.
The D category comes out a little low but I felt allowing more than six runs is a failure in a universe where 4.4 was the average runs scored per game (as it was in 2018).
Giving a C for any performance less than a three BFIP, regardless of innings pitched, seems a little cheap but this was my concession to the Opener strategy. If a pitcher isn’t making it to five innings, but is pitching that well, it’s likely they are being used as an Opener. Therefore, they didn’t fail, but they aren’t deserving for anything greater than a C.
Let’s jump into some totals, or GPAs, to see if the results carry some weight.
Here are the top 15 GPAs from the 2018 season.
Nothing feels off here. Jacob deGrom put up one of the best seasons in recent memory and he clearly jumps off the page here in the lead.
A potential question here may be how was deGrom only a 3.4 “student.” Shouldn’t he be much closer to a 4.0? First off, there is no curve here. Second, deGrom did have at least a few stinkers. Although it was close, he wasn’t an “ace” every single time out.
On May 13, deGrom only completed one inning, walking three of six hitters faced (he did strike out two of the other three) and then left the game. If you don’t remember the circumstances, this start was a first off the disabled list and it took deGrom 45 pitches to complete an inning where he stated he only had control of two of his pitches. Due to the three walks, deGrom earned an F from my grading system for this start.
It’s not surprising that start was — by far — the worst of deGrom’s 2018, but he did receive his only “D” in a June 23 start. Despite completing six innings with only three runs allowed, deGrom walked three to go along with six strikeouts, and allowed two barrels. The first barrel was a solo homer in the first and the second was a one-out triple in the fifth, which deGrom pitched around.
Even in his worst start — according to the peripherals — deGrom was able to keep the damage low.
Looking at these numbers from a team level, we’re also left with few surprises.
The Astros put together one of the best rotations in baseball history and these numbers show just how dominant they were. I threw in how many A’s and F’s each team received to give a feel on how often their starters were giving them gold (or giving them a dud). To only have 22 out of 162 to be stinkers really gives a team a great chance to put up a lot of Ws.
The Mets and Pirates were the only teams not to be strong contenders in the playoff race which sit in the top half of this table, showing their issues rested elsewhere. The Athletics were able to reach the playoffs with over a third of their starts being “failures.”
Where to go from here? Starting with the 2019 season, I do plan on posting these results regularly on Twitter with summaries here on the website.
My belief is with the combination of using barrels as the measuring stick along with the additional element of how many innings a pitcher is getting through, this tool will give an excellent insight to how a starting pitcher will fare in the future.
It also leads into one of my favorite things to do after a game–analyze! If a starting pitcher was given an A by my ratings, but gave up six runs, how could those two things both be possible?
My favorite example of this from 2018 was on July 15, Justin Verlander went six innings and allowed six runs… but received an A! He struck out 12 Detroit Tigers while walking no one. He did give up four home runs… but only one of them was a barrel. On another day, in another ballpark, Verlander would have come away with a gem, but Minute Maid wasn’t very friendly to him that day.
I saw examples of mismatches between grade and performance come down to defensive performance as well–another hidden item in a box score–but can easily be tracked down using the grading system.
I’ll end with this. The belief I hold strongest when looking at the game of baseball is there are so many individual roles which are dependent on other factors going on in the game. It’s unfair to give credit, or place blame, on any individual event, or even one player. That statement may go against what I’m trying to create here, but I’m mentioning this more so in showing what exactly I’m trying to output.
Yes, there may be an at-bat a pitcher gains advantage in giving up a walk. Yes, there are pitchers who succeed without the strikeout. But there is never an advantageous time to allow a barrel, and a pitcher is never trying to have the opposing batter do that. This system was set up to grade a start based upon that presence, with the belief a pitcher has the ability to retain that skill.