Player’s View: The Best Stat to Evaluate Pitchers, Part 2

I recently posed a question to 15 players. It was the same question I asked 10 other players earlier in the season. It doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it doesn’t even have a right answer.

What is the best stat to evaluate pitchers?

Their responses are listed below in alphabetical order.


Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers catcher: “I’m not sure if there is just one. Not using all of the information wouldn’t be smart. You need to look at everything that has contributed to a pitcher having a good season.

“As a catcher, I could care less about all the other stats. The only thing I want is quality starts. That’s it, because you have to give your team a chance to win. One of the biggest things our pitchers, as a whole, have been able to do is put quality starts together back to back to back. We don’t really allow the opposition room to breathe.”

Scott Feldman, Baltimore Orioles righthander: “For a starting pitcher, I think it’s inning pitched. Obviously, you don’t want them to be crappy innings. Guys who throw 200 innings every year, like Adam Wainwright and Roy Halladay when he was in his prime — guys like that. If you get 30 starts but only average five innings, you’re not going to reach 200.

“Secondary to innings, I’d probably say one of those sabermetric stats. I don’t know too much about them, but they’re usually more indicative of how you’re pitching than your ERA. The other night, I walked six guys and only gave up two runs, Usually, when you do that it doesn’t work out that way. The stats that take the luck factor out of it give you a better idea of how you pitched.”

Tyler Flowers, Chicago White Sox catcher: “It’s not wins. It’s definitely not losses. Right now, my brain would go to WHIP. Limiting the number of opportunities for runs to score per inning seems like a good measuring stick for pitchers as a whole. And not just for starters, maybe even more so for relievers. If you can have a WHIP around 1.00, the chances of you giving up multiple runs are slim. If you’re a guy with a WHIP approaching 2.00, you’re obviously doubling your chances of giving up runs.

“I’d say ERA is kind of up-and-down. For the most part, if you’re a solidified starter, you’re going to have a lower ERA, although those do fluctuate every year. Sometimes that’s based on the defense behind you, and the division and league you’re in.”

J.A. Happ, Toronto Blue Jays lefthander: “I don’t look too deep into it, but I think WHIP is probably pretty important. Innings pitched are important as well. Mark Buehrle just got to 200 last night, so he’s eating up innings and helping the bullpen. He’s doing a good enough job while he’s out there to get those innings. You’re obviously doing something right if you’re pitching deep into games.

“Wins are probably the most overrated stat. Someone who has a lot of wins is usually doing a really good job, but you can also do a good job and have quite a few losses. Unfortunately, wins are something a lot of people look at.”

Casey Janssen, Toronto Blue Jays righthander: “I don’t really have an answer. ERA can be deceiving. WHIP can be deceiving. I think you have to look at a combination of things.

“I have no idea what FIP is. I’m not much for the new era of stats. I think they’re just starting to make up junk, and trying to make these things relevant. It’s not that complicated. If you’re giving up less than a hit per inning, and your walks are down, you’re going to be good. If you’re giving up more than a hit per inning and your walks are high, regardless of any other stats, you’re not going to be good. I guess that goes along with WHIP, but there are also good walks and bad walks. Situations matter, and that can skew stats a little bit.”

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander: “ERA probably. If you give up runs… I don’t look at a lot of stats. I feel like innings pitched are important because if you’re pitching deep into the game, that’s good, but the only way you’re doing that is if you’re not giving up runs, and ERA shows that. It’s hard to look at one stat. You have to look at the whole thing.”

Brian Matusz, Baltimore Orioles lefthander: “What it comes down to is that wins are the most important thing. Ultimately, that’s what matters most. But to address what makes a pitcher better than the others, I guess I’d go with ERA. WHIP is in there. I’d say it’s between ERA and WHIP. “

Bud Norris, Baltimore Orioles righthander: “For a starting pitcher it’s inning and quality starts. Your job is to go out there and help your team win ballgames, and the only way to do that is to keep your team in the game. If you can go six, seven, eight, nine innings — whatever it might be — you want to keep it close enough for your offense to score some runs and win it. At the end of the day, it’s about wins, but as a pitcher, you can’t control wins. That’s what Roy Oswalt told me when I got to Houston: Just go out and give the team a chance to win.”

Jake Peavy, Boston Red Sox righthander: “The two stats I’d look at to assess how good somebody is would be their ERA and walks-and-hits-to-innings-pitched. Their ERA would be second to their WHIP. ERA can be directly affected by the ballpark you play in and the teams you face on a regular basis, not to mention the defense you take the field with. WHIP is the most telling tale of your craft.

“As far I’m concerned, Wins shouldn’t even be a pitcher stat. This is the problem I have with wins and losses. Tonight, people are going to look up at the scoreboard and see John Lackey has a record of 8-11. I hate that they’re going to look at that, because some fans are going to think, ‘Man, Lackey is only 8-11.’ It has zero reflection on what he’s done this year. John Lackey has had a hell of a year. What they should have up there is the numbers that matter. It would not hurt my feelings one bit if Wins disappeared. I know that’s not going to happen, but why is it such a big stat when pitchers have so little control over it?”

Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants outfielder: “Definitely not strikeouts. If you’re getting ground ball outs, it can be just as good as a strikeout, sometimes better because you can get double plays. I think earned run average is a pretty good indicator, and WHIP, how many guys are getting on base.”

Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants catcher: “It’s either ERA or WHIP. Probably ERA. I think some guys have a knack for pitching out of trouble. Your WHIP might suffer for it, but you can still keep the other team from scoring.”

Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers righthander: “You can’t really deduce it to just one. They’re all relevant and you have to take something from everything to pull it together. You can say strikeouts are very important, and they are, but so is minimizing walks. You can definitely say strikeouts-to-walks ratio is a key component of what you do. If you can strike them out and not walk them, that’s a huge part of being successful.

“I’m also a fan of FIP. I understand what it’s trying to say. If you’re able to keep the ball in the ballpark, get strikeouts, not walk batters, and pitch deep into the game — those are the results you want to strive for over the long haul.”

Matt Thornton, Boston Red Sox lefthander: “I think it’s a combination of things. The sabermetrics that have come out over the years have been a help to evaluate players, but there is also the naked eye of baseball players and baseball personnel. I don’t think you can put your finger on any one thing that makes a player good.

“For the Cy Young award… look at Max Scherzer. Look at the whole picture. There is Max’s base runners per nine, his strikeouts, his wins. I know wins are something you can’t use as a primary consideration — look at Felix Hernandez a couple of years ago — but at the same time, 19 wins are 19 wins. He’s been a dominant pitcher all year long, and the wins are backed up by other numbers.

“You can take certain numbers and make someone look good, and you can take those same numbers and make someone else look average, or even poor. You can do whatever you want with numbers. It’s what you put stock in, whether it’s front office personnel or the media.”

Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers righthander: “I don’t think there’s any one stat. There are a bunch of them. Maybe it would be Fielding Independent Pitching. Guys with the best defense in the league are obviously going to have a lower ERA than guys with the worst defense in the league. You try to take that to a mean. That’s probably a pretty accurate representation. And while a lot of guys would probably say wins and losses are overrated, I think there’s a knack to winning games.”

Neil Wagner, Toronto Blue Jays righthander: “This is one of those questions that is difficult. If you’re talking in regard to the Cy Young, I don’t necessarily think the answer is the same every year. I know that wins are an overrated statistic in many ways, but if you’re Max Scherzer and go 20-3, that’s very hard to do. To me, it’s not a one-statistic sort of thing. I think you have to look at statistics in the context of how they happened and make a decision from there. In my mind, without context, statistics aren‘t all that valuable.”

FINAL TALLY (including the 10 responses from the earlier poll)

WHIP: Six votes (Castro, Duensing, Flowers, Happ ½, Lester ½,Matusz ½, Peavy, Pence 1/2)

ERA: Five votes (Chamberlain, Kershaw, Lester ½. Matusz ½, Pence ½, Posey, Sabathia 1/2)

Innings pitched: Four-and-a-half votes (Cain, Feldman, Happ ½, Mauer, Norris ½, Sabathia 1/2)

A Combination of Stats: Four votes (Janssen, Scherzer, Thornton, Wagner)

FIP: Two votes (Perkins, Verlander)

Quality Starts: One-and-a-half votes (Avila, Norris 1/2)

K/9: One vote (Breslow)

Z-Contact%:: One vote (Bannister)


Note: Thanks to Eno Sarris for procuring the responses from Matt Cain, Jason Castro, Clayton Kershaw, Hunter Pence and Buster Posey.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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10 years ago

I wonder if Scherzer and Verlander got together and were like “yeah, our defense does kind of suck. We have to say FIP for our sake if nothing else.”

10 years ago
Reply to  James

Came here to say just this, being a Tigers fan and all. Doug Fister and Rick Porcello might be even more vehement than Verlander and Scherzer were… :-p

10 years ago
Reply to  James

I laughed out loud at Verlander’s comment about ERA.

10 years ago
Reply to  James

Their defense probably does make the pitching staff appreciate FIP more if they understand it.

I know you were trying to be funny, and it was, but there’s probably some truth in there.