Corbin Burnes’ Masterful Season Deserves a Cy Young Finish

Saturday afternoon, Corbin Burnes made several uncharacteristic missteps. He walked Max Muncy on five pitches, only the 34th walk he’d issued all year. The next batter, Justin Turner, deposited a 3-1 cutter into the left field stands for a three-run home run, only the seventh Burnes had allowed all season.

He pitched another inning without incident, then — back in the lead in the ERA race after briefly falling behind Max Scherzer — came out of the game for good, his regular season now complete. That ineffective outing might worry Brewers fans for the playoffs, but it also emphasized how spectacular the rest of his year has been. Surrendering a walk and a home run? It happens to everyone — batters hit 5,944 homers this season, third-most in history, and walked roughly 9% of the time they came to the plate. But it doesn’t happen to Burnes — and that’s why he deserves to win the NL Cy Young this year.

There’s no single criteria for the most outstanding pitcher in the National League, but in my eyes, Burnes has claims on several axes, and no real warts. More than that, his 2021 season is a towering achievement, one that we’ll hear about in 20 years when we talk about the best pitching seasons in history.

Let’s start with something simple: the ERA crown. No starter with 100 innings pitched had a lower ERA than Burnes this year. None had a lower RA9, either; if you’re looking for a pitcher who stopped opponents from scoring, you couldn’t find a better ace than Burnes. He didn’t do it in a cavernous home stadium, either; American Family Field (ugh), where he made 15 of his 28 starts, is a marginal hitter’s park, particularly when it comes to home runs.

About those home runs: it’s comical how few Burnes allowed. The seven he surrendered work out to 0.38 homers per nine innings, the best mark among starters with 100 innings pitched (limiting statistics to qualifying pitchers in this season of light workloads undersells how thoroughly Burnes trounced the competition). Only Miami’s Trevor Rogers came close — and among other Cy Young contenders, Burnes sticks out like a sore thumb:

HR/9 Leaders, 2021 Starters
Player IP HR HR/9 HR to match
Corbin Burnes 167 7 0.38
Trevor Rogers 133 6 0.41 1
Logan Webb 148.1 9 0.55 4
Zack Wheeler 213.1 16 0.68 6
Antonio Senzatela 156.2 12 0.69 6
Lance McCullers Jr. 162.1 13 0.72 7
Nathan Eovaldi 182.1 15 0.74 7
Adrian Houser 142.1 12 0.76 8
Charlie Morton 185.2 16 0.78 8
Framber Valdez 134.2 12 0.80 8

That “HR to match” column denotes how many homers Burnes would have to give up — without recording another out — to fall behind that player in HR/9. With a respectful tip of the cap to Antonio Senzatela, who calls Coors Field home, Burnes suppressed home runs better than anyone else in baseball, and even Rogers, with the benefit of fewer innings (more randomness) in a pitcher’s park, couldn’t keep up.

Pitching is about more than a low ERA and few home runs allowed, though that’s a lot of the game. Strikeouts have always been the mark of a great pitcher, and as the league strikes out more and more, running the highest strikeout rate in the game has gotten progressively harder. As recently as 2010, Jon Lester’s 26.1% strikeout rate led baseball. This year, that would be 18th. If you want to stand out these days, you need to strike out a lot of hitters.

Despite the tougher competition, Burnes stands alone here as well. He’s the major league strikeout rate champion this year with a 35.6% mark. Excluding 2020, that’s the fifth-best full-season mark since 1999, and you might have heard of the guys in front of him: 2019 Gerrit Cole, 1999 Pedro Martinez, 2001 Randy Johnson, and 2017 Chris Sale. Sure, a rising strikeout tide lifts all starters, but Burnes still stands ahead of the rest of his 2021 competitors.

The least home runs, the most strikeouts — what are you going to tell me next, that Burnes walked the fewest batters in baseball too? Not quite, but it’s only by a narrow margin. Burnes walked 5.2% of the batters he faced this year — 11th-best among starters who pitched 100 innings. Even if we limit it to qualified pitchers, he ranks third, behind Nathan Eovaldi and Julio Urías. What a bum! He didn’t even lead the league in all three FIP categories — though he might have if it weren’t for a relatively wild September, where he walked 7.2% of the batters he faced.

It’s easy, if you want to, to paint Burnes’ season as a triumph of FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching refers to the outcomes that fielders don’t influence — strikeouts, walks, HBPs, and home runs. As we covered above, Burnes stands out in all three categories, which makes his place on the 1969-present FIP leaderboard unsurprising:

Best FIP Seasons, ’69-present
Player Year FIP ERA
Pedro Martinez 1999 1.39 2.07
Corbin Burnes 2021 1.63 2.43
Dwight Gooden 1984 1.69 2.60
Clayton Kershaw 2014 1.81 1.77
Tom Seaver 1971 1.93 1.76
Jacob deGrom 2018 1.99 1.70
Clayton Kershaw 2015 1.99 2.13
Matt Harvey 2013 2.00 2.27
Steve Carlton 1972 2.01 1.97
Shane Bieber 2020 2.07 1.63

Martinez’s season is widely considered to be the greatest since the mound was lowered. It’s hardly surprising that Burnes couldn’t match up to him, but in the class of “every season other than the greatest of all time,” he more than holds his own. Given that Martinez’s 1999 season isn’t eligible for the 2021 NL Cy Young award, that’s hardly relevant.

The most strikeouts. The lowest ERA. The fewest home runs allowed, and nearly the fewest walks allowed. Burnes has an overwhelming rate-based argument — none of his closest competitors bested him in even a single category. Scherzer came close — with a near-identical walk rate and a 34.1% strikeout rate that was second in baseball — but allowed 23 home runs instead of seven, an HR/9 mark three times higher than Burnes’s.

If you want to make a case against Burnes, it can only be about volume. After all, he led the league in ERA and RA9, even disregarding the historically dominant peripheral numbers. It’s definitely true that Burnes carried a lighter workload than some of his closest competitors:

Cy Young Candidates, IP and WAR
Player IP ERA FIP WAR rWAR
Corbin Burnes 167 2.43 1.63 7.5 6.3
Zack Wheeler 213.1 2.78 2.59 7.3 6.7
Walker Buehler 207.2 2.47 3.15 5.5 7.4
Max Scherzer 179.1 2.46 2.97 5.4 6.7
Brandon Woodruff 179.1 2.56 2.96 4.7 6.4

Given that his ERA lead is less commanding than his FIP-based margin, that puts Burnes in a pack with the rest of his competitors, rather than alone out front. If you’re subscribing purely to a WAR-based evaluation of pitchers, that leaves Burnes and Wheeler in a rough tie at the top, assuming a blend between FIP-based and RA9-based WAR.

Personally, I don’t think that WAR is the proper framework for a Cy Young vote, and I don’t even think it should be controversial. If Burnes had pitched another 20 innings of exactly league-average baseball, his WAR would increase. That’s just how it works — league average is better than replacement level, and every inning of work where you beat that low baseline accrues value. But an extra 0.2 WAR in exchange for a much higher ERA — 2.62 in this hypothetical case — wouldn’t flatter Burnes’s case at all. It’s fairly clear to me that adding average innings to a Cy Young level pitcher should make their case worse, not better.

Given that, I prefer to look at innings pitched as more tiebreaker than criteria. Is there some minimum bar to clear? Absolutely! If Burnes had pitched only 120 innings with his current rate numbers, I don’t think you could credibly have him in the award conversation. At that level, he’d fall far short of the bar when it comes to total contributions, enough so that his 2021 season wouldn’t feel like a full year’s work.

This is clearly not that. Twenty-eight starts doesn’t fall far short of a 32-start full season. Burnes missed two turns due to a COVID diagnosis earlier this year, and the Brewers have used a six-man rotation more often than not this year, which works out to roughly one fewer start every two months.

You could look at each pitcher’s contributions relative to average rather than to replacement level if you preferred to account for playing time that way — again, it’s not my preferred method. Here, Burnes is again in the thick of things when it comes to run prevention, and ahead of the pack if you blend our two versions of WAR (or WAA):

Cy Young Candidates, IP and WAA
Player IP ERA FIP fWAA rWAA Blend
Corbin Burnes 167 2.43 1.63 5.8 4.6 5.2
Zack Wheeler 213.1 2.78 2.59 5.1 4.5 4.8
Walker Buehler 207.2 2.47 3.15 3.4 5.3 4.4
Max Scherzer 179.1 2.46 2.97 3.6 4.9 4.2
Brandon Woodruff 179.1 2.56 2.96 2.9 4.6 3.7

I still think this framework misses the point. If Burnes threw 20 more innings of 4 ERA baseball, he’d improve his marks relative to average — and again, would look worse as a Cy Young candidate. Burnes has pretty clearly been the most outstanding pitcher in baseball when he pitches — again, he has the ERA title, strikeout title, home run title, and missed the walk title by very little. Whether you care about the runs that actually scored or the events that he exerts the greatest control over, he’s been the best in the business. Doing it over 28 starts of 5.96 innings per start — as opposed to 33 starts of 6.29 innings per start, the numbers Walker Buehler has put up — doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me at all.

If you accept that “best” makes more sense as a rate judgment than a celebration of counting statistics, Burnes is a slam-dunk candidate. Even if you don’t, though — even if you prioritize raw numbers — I still think he has the best case.

Prefer Buehler to Burnes? Buehler has fewer strikeouts — 212 against Burnes’ 234 — despite pitching 40 more innings. Prefer Wheeler? Wheeler muscled his way to 213.1 innings — and 13 more strikeouts. He also surrendered nine more home runs, and his ERA-, which accounts for his tough home stadium, was nine points higher, which means Burnes was 9% better relative to league average — in the rate statistic that least flatters Burnes. Max Scherzer? He barely pitched more innings than Burnes, had a worse ERA and FIP, didn’t go deeper into starts, and gave up three times as many bombs.

If you only took a brief glance at the NL Cy Young race, it would be a nearly impossible web to untangle. Five pitchers — seven, really, because Urías and Kevin Gausman had wonderful seasons as well — all have standout numbers. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s a false equivalence. They have similar-ish numbers, but only if you don’t think on it too long. Burnes laps the field in the most impressive numbers. He’s neck-and-neck in total value accrued, even with fewer innings logged. There’s no one who does so well in both categories — and that sells him short, because his mastery of strikeouts, walks, and home runs over a full season’s work puts him in rare historical air.

I don’t have a vote this year — I’m not a BBWAA member, and the San Francisco chapter isn’t exactly an easy place to get a vote even if I were. If I did have one, though, I’d place Burnes first on the ballot and feel great about it. I’d have Scherzer, who was Burnes-esque except for the homers, second. After that, I’d place Wheeler third, Buehler fourth, and Urías fifth, though I wouldn’t quibble with someone for mixing Woodruff in there somewhere.

One last thing — I’ve heard a few people mention the defense behind Burnes as a reason that his ERA is less impressive than it first appears. Don’t buy the hype. Whatever your view of their overall defense, per Baseball Savant, the Brewers actually cost him three outs relative to average with their play behind him. Meanwhile, Wheeler has gained nine outs from his defense, Buehler has gained five, Scherzer has gained two, and Woodruff has gained four.

We had the pleasure of watching one of the great pitching performances of our era this year. A run at the FIP triple crown, league-leading run prevention numbers, and sheer “here is my cutter, you won’t hit it” dominance at every turn — he did it all. Watching a Burnes start felt like a rare treat every time out, and hitting a homer off of him — or even drawing a walk — seemed like a rare achievement. This season will live on in the record books — and I think it should live on in a chunk of metal on Burnes’ shelf, as well.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Yeah, I don’t agree whatsoever, and there’s a lot here. First and foremost, FIP doesn’t mean a thing to me when it comes to assessing past value. The Cy Young award is not about projecting for the following seasons, it’s about rewarding the results achieved in the season that was just completed, and FIP based ERA for pitchers is a ridiculous notion imo. I mean, for example, fWAR says Burnes’ 2021 is over a full win better than Verlander’s 2011, which is just… LMAO. A pitcher’s job isn’t to strike guys out, limit walks and limit homers, it’s about pitching as many innings as possible while allowing as few runs as possible. If that’s done through a super low BABIP, home run or sequencing luck, then guess what? It still counts the same in a CY race. This is about results, plain and simple.

The next thing is the difference in innings pitched between Burnes and Wheeler (who’d be my pick) is very, very significant. 45 more innings is damn near 8 more starts’ worth, or a whole reliever if you want to look at it that way. Also, the value of a workhorse starter goes far beyond the stats he puts up while on the mound; he keeps the bullpen fresher, usually keeps the bad arms from seeing the mound on his good starts, etc.

167.0 IP is just not enough. People are going to say “well, the Brewers run a six-man rotation and Burnes missed time with COVID, that’s not his fault!” and sure, it’s not his fault, but it sharply decreases how valuable he can be. Individual pitchers have never mattered less throughout the history of baseball, and Burnes is the most clear example of this whole phenomenon. I mean, we’re judging guys purely on rate stats now? These are starting pitchers, not relievers!

I’d easily go with Wheeler as my NL CY. He’s been outstanding on a rate basis and worked more than anybody else, which I give him a huge plus for considering how little starters pitch right now. Buehler would be number 2, then Scherzer/Burnes, then the rest. Waino better get some votes as well!

willbun
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willbun

FIP isn’t *strictly* predictive; it’s descriptive as well. A key difference between ERA and FIP is in the name. FIP is fielding-independent, while ERA doesn’t even attempt to isolate pitcher performance. Much of ERA is on the pitcher’s performance, but much of it is on the defense’s performance as well. The Cy Young award should honor the best pitcher, not the best pitcher/defense combination.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

1. FIP completely ignores balls in play, which is ridiculous.
2. ERA being fielding dependent doesn’t matter in a CY race. If I’m projecting for who to sign as a GM? Sure, FIP will be more related to performance. But in a results based award? I couldn’t care less, because the pitcher did his job, which is to have as few runs cross home plate while he’s on the mound as humanly possible, however it’s done.

willbun
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willbun

The job of having as few runs cross home plate as humanly possible is a job shared by the pitcher and the defense.

Imagine a 1-2-3 Cardinals/Reds inning in which India lined out to Sosa, Arenado threw out Castellanos at first after an incredible diving stop, and Votto flew out to Bader. No runs were scored. If I’m a Cardinals fan, I’d be happy with that result. But we disagree on whether or not the pitcher did their job.

(Please forgive me if my imaginary scenario doesn’t make sense, given a typical Reds batting order.)

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

The job was done very well, because fielders exist for a reason. This ain’t golf lmao. Here are two imaginary starts:

A: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K, 0 HR
B: 8.0 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 HR

Which start do you think is better?

willbun
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willbun

To answer your question, I think Start A is better. From the perspective of pitcher performance, 10 K’s over 6 innings is more impressive than 3 K’s over 8 innings. The pnly aspect of Start B that is superior to Start A is IP. If the purpose of this comparison was to suggest that B > A because of the lower ERA, then I disagree with you per my above comments. If the purpose of this comparison was to suggest that IP should be a significant factor in awards voting, then I’m not sure how that’s relevant to our discussion on ERA and FIP.

Imagine a four-person group assignment in school. Three of the four people crushed the assignment with hard work, insightful research, and clear presentation. The fourth person partied while the other three worked, and that person didn’t speak at all during the presentation. The result was an A, but I wouldn’t say that fourth person did their job well, even if the result was an A.

Per your argument, why not give the Cy Young to Urias because he leads in pitcher wins? The job of winning games was done very well, because the other players on your team exist for a reason, right? If you’re not sold on that idea because a pitcher can’t control his team’s offense, then you’re already isolating performance, but in my opinion, you’re not isolating enough.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

In other words, what you’re saying is every time a batter puts the ball in play, a pitcher has not done his job. I disagree completely, so I’ll leave this here.

SucramRenrut
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SucramRenrut

A

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

How is A better? Pitcher B allowed the same amount of runs and got six more outs.

mytablesaremycorn
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mytablesaremycorn

Who pitched 33% more innings than Burnes while giving up the same number of runs?

mytablesaremycorn
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mytablesaremycorn

Construct an A and B where A has an equal or lower era (which is necessary for your larger argument) please

Very On Line Guy
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Very On Line Guy

Easily A. Pitcher B allowed 4 more baserunners, and potentially gave seven more the opportunity to get on base. Getting lucky that your pitcher didn’t allow 4 to 11 more baserunners than another pitcher does not make for a better pitching performance one bit.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

Dude, this is a Cy Young vote. Which is about…how good a pitcher is, not how good the fielders behind him are.

You’re all over the place with what you’re arguing.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

You can’t separate one from the other. Even the biggest strikeout aces still allow the ball to be put in play over half the time. To use a metric that removes over half the events that happen to a pitcher is laughable. And again, any stat that says Burnes’ 2021 is well ahead of Verlander’s 2011 is flat out laughable.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

No, your doubling down on ignorance is what’s laughable.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Verlander pitched 251.0 innings of 2.40 ERA (172 ERA+) and 0.92 WHIP. Burnes pitched 167.0 innings of 2.43 ERA (176 ERA+) and 0.94 WHIP.

In what universe is Burnes’ season even in the same ballpark as Verlander’s? JV got 252 more batters out with the same rate stats!!

Very On Line Guy
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Very On Line Guy

Not even close to the same rate stats unless you’re cherrypicking overall rate stats – Burnes has less than half the HR rate, a 25+% boost in K rate, a massive advantage in swinging strike rate and a lower percentage of XBH on hits he does give up. Way way way more dominant.

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

“More dominant” yet Verlander allowed fewer baserunners and the ERA+ is virtually identical. Verlander also averaged like 116 pitches and 7.3 innings per start. Burnes went over 110 once in 28 starts and below 6 innings per start.

It’s just very funny to me how Burnes had a historical season on the peripheral side and he still couldn’t manage 6 IP per start despite it. Part of that is on Counsell and the Brewers handling him like a delicate piece of clothing, of course, although with how much of a max effort guy he is it may be warranted.

hughduffy
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hughduffy

Burnes has a HIGH TTO penalty.
34.2 IP, 4.41 ERA, .312/.365/.440 allowed.

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

But would Burnes have been “way way way more dominant”, had he pitched 251 innings as Verlander did? Remember, Burnes was throwing fewer innings per start AND taking more days off between starts. His “degree of difficulty” was simply a lot lower than Verlander’s.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Yes, this is a legitimate question and criticism.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

It isn’t ignorance, it’s stupidity.

hughduffy
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hughduffy

The best pitchers use the defense behind them to make outs. The Cy Young award should honor the best pitcher, no matter how they get guys out. The most important thing is getting outs. If you’ve got Andruw Jones in center field, make use of him. If you’ve got vacuum cleaners in the infield, make use of them.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

You need to go back and reread the article, also review FIP.

Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back
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Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back

I don’t agree with anything, and a lot is happening here. First of all, the FIP menu does not make sense when calculating past costs. Young said that it does not refer to the design for the upcoming season, it is an award gained during the season that has just ended, and the rough FIP for pitchers is one term, FIFI. I mean, for example, fVAR says Burns is 2021. It’s a completely better win than Verlander 2011. Only this year … LOOK. Binh’s job is not to overdo it, but to deliver as many unions as possible, while allowing as few as possible. If it was done with a super short child, running home or a pure chance, guess what? It is always important in the CI race. We are talking about results, simple, easy to understand.

The next thing is that the difference in height between Burns and Wheeler (that would be my choice) is very, very big. half of 45 is almost the beginning of the eighth or all the relief if you want to see it that way. Also, the value of a novice workaholic exceeds the statistics he sees a lot like an embankment, keeps the music cool, often doesn’t allow the bad guys to see the dam when I’m off to a good start, and so on.

An IP address of 167.0 is simply not enough. People will say, “Yes, Brevers has one of six male rotations and it burns time with COVID, it’s not his fault! And that’s certainly not his fault, but this is it. They’ve greatly reduced their own value. The pitchers have never been more important in the history of baseball, and Burn is a great example of this phenomenon. I mean, we’re not guessing now. Human prices based on betting statistics? This is the original set, not for the gearbox!

I could easily have chosen to be Wheeler, my primary assistant. He is exceptional in betting and works more than anyone else, which gives him a huge advantage considering how few shoes he has now. The central attribute will be number 2, then bright diamonds / flashing, then the rest. Vineau is also better to get votes!

mariodegenzgz
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mariodegenzgz

Idk what this is, but it’s funny. Good stuff

Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back
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Serbian to Vietnamese to French is back

{looks like you may be new here. I take all kinds of comments and run them through some layers of translation before going back to English again. I post the best ones on here from time to time – most of them come from either long, colorfully stated comments (like yours), or ones so poorly written that the translation actually makes just as much sense as the original 😉

– Serb}

FunFella13
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FunFella13

Contributes nothing to the discussion and is only used on comments that are critical of the article, seemingly as a means of “dunking” on the person by making them sound dumber than the original comment.

drewsylvania
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drewsylvania

In this case, it was hard to sound dumber.

Look It Up
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Look It Up

You sure know how to have fun, fella.

BarryZitoBarChords
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BarryZitoBarChords

The last two paragraphs are priceless!

Left of Centerfield
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Left of Centerfield

I’m quite concerned as to why Wheeler has so few shoes…

dl80
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dl80

Don’t worry too much; he’s working more to presumably buy replacements.

Jason B
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Jason B

DON’T LET THE BAD GUYS SEE THE DAM!!!

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

This fundamentally misunderstands why FIP is predictive. It is predictive because it captures the pitcher’s contribution better than ERA or RA9.

It’s very likely that xERA is better for this purpose if we can trust the batted ball measurements (I think we can, but we can debate it) and I personally like SIERA because it gives extra boosts to ground-ball pitchers (who are shortchanged by FIP). But judging the pitcher based on ERA is a bet that we can mentally or mechanically adjust based on defensive contributions and if you want to defend the proposition that we measure defense accurately enough to do that, good luck to you.

jonah-pride
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jonah-pride

I agree that xERA is probably better for this kind of discussion, Burnes lead the league in that also (2.01 to Wheeler’s 2.78).
I don’t know the math behind SIERA that well, but Burnes lead the league there too (2.61, Wheeler is 4th with 3.18).

To me the guy who goes up there and never gets teed up, almost never gives up the free base, and strikes the other team out like crazy is the Ace-iest pitcher in the conversation.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Yeah there is really no argument that Burnes was best on a rate basis. He leads in every single one. The only question is whether it was enough to compensate for the lack of innings.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Just going to to throw this out here too, since I suspect it will eventually be required:
This related to why we trust hitter BABIP more than pitcher BABIP. It is because the hitter is constantly hitting into different defenses. Pitchers are always pitching behind the same (or at least very similar) defenses. We never get to observe them under a different condition (at least not in a single year).

sbf21
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sbf21

I agree 100%. Wheeler is the clear pick. Can’t believe all the down votes.

Sometimes I think a lot of the people commenting here should skip the actual games and just play endless simulations so the real world doesn’t intrude upon their firmly held belief in the numbers. My lord, some nerve the Mariners had winning 90 games when they should be under .500. And how dare the Yankees edge out the Jays when they should be well behind them.

Jason B
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Jason B

Those…those seem to be rather disingenuous arguments. Some people were cheering for the Mariners specifically BECAUSE of their poor run differential. And people want the Yankees to finish behind the Jays because it’s the GD Yankees…

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

FIP is a more accurate evaluation than ERA FOR THE PRESENT. The whole point of relating FIP to future ERA is not to predict future ERA but rather to show that FIP is a more accurate evaluation FOR THE PRESENT.

airforce21one
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airforce21one

It’s hard to take someone seriously when I keep reading “LMAO”.

Thanks for the layman’s view on baseball analytics, I guess.

Spahn_and_Sain
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Spahn_and_Sain

It stands for LayMan’s Analytic Outupt?