On Saturday’s San Francisco Giants and LA Dodgers game, hall of fame broadcaster and Fox employee said “You show me a pitcher who works slowly…and I will show you a losing pitcher”. This is a really common argument that you hear from people all the time (but because I am a big jerk, I am going to call it the McCarver thesis). The argument goes that pitchers who work slowly puts their defense to sleep and they get less defensive help. It is almost common sense isn’t it? Thanks to Fangraphs’ “pace” statistic, we are able to see which pitchers take a long time to deliver the ball and which ones are quick at doing so. So using FIP – and ERA – (I will also use xFIP – to get another look even though I am not a big fan of xFIP), I will look at teams and pitchers that are slow and quick between pitches to see if there is a correlation between quickness, success, and better defense.
The initial evidence seems to point in the McCarver Thesis’ favor, as the 5 lowest pace pitchers have better ERAs than FIPs, and 4 of the 5 have better ERAs than xFIP. However, one of them (Clayton Richard) is one of the worst pitchers in baseball according to FIP -.
The 5 slowest pitchers have mixed results. Ryan Vogelsong has been somewhat of a DIPs deviant since coming back to the Majors (my theory is that the effect of fly-balls in the Giants’ home park have not been adjusted to properly, and this is why Vogelsong and Matt Cain have made mockeries of SIERA, FIP, and especially xFIP. This doesn’t prove it, but league average OPS for fly-balls is .841, while the Giants’ hitters OPS on fly-balls is .741. It is not as nuts as Safeco, as the Mariners hitters have just a .633 OPS on fly-balls, but the Giants statistic just makes what Barry Bonds did look even more amazing). Josh Beckett’s ERA has been quite a bit worse than his FIP/xFIP, but his former teammate Clay Buchholz’s ERA and FIP are about the same this season (and he had higher FIP’s than ERAs in the previous 2 seasons). Mat Latos has a better ERA than FIP this year, while Yu Darvish has a better FIP than ERA.
League average “pace” is 22.1. Out of the 5 team’s with the highest “pace”, 3 team’s are underperforming their FIPS, while two are overperforming. The Rays are overperforming, while the Tigers are underperforming. You would expect this because the Rays have a good defense and the Tigers simply do not. When you look at the 5 teams with the quickest “pace”, 3 of them are underperforming their FIP. You wouldn’t expect this is the thesis about pace and fielding is correct. Of course, the difference between FIP and ERA is not just defense, it also has to do with luck and other factors. The 5 worst teams according to FIP – average 22.2 on pace, so they are roughly league average, while the worst 5 according to ERA – have an average pace of 22.24, almost no difference. The teams with the best 5 FIP – averaged 22.54 on pace, so they take slightly longer to throw the ball than the worst teams. The best teams according to ERA – averaged 22.34 on pace, so slightly better than the FIP teams (which you would expect if you believed the McCarver Thesis), but they were still worse than the worse ERA teams.
So it seems that there isn’t a lot of evidence for the McCarver Thesis, but lets keep looking. The 5 worst qualified pitchers according to FIP – includes a lot of quick workers, with a 20.9 average pace. The outlier out of those is Jeremy Hellickson, who takes 24.1 seconds per pitch. The thing about Hellickson is that he has been one of the guys that have made DIPs look pretty bad. He is one of the worst full time pitchers in the league according to FIP, but is better than average according to ERA so far in his young career. One exception doesn’t prove the rule (just as Hellickson doesn’t make DIPs useless) but he is pretty damming to the McCarver thesis. The 5 worst ERA pitchers have a 20.88 average pace, again much quicker than the average pitcher. The best 5 pitchers according to ERA – are faster than average workers at 21.3, but still slower than the worst pitchers. The best 5 according to FIP – average 20.7, which is better than the ERA guys, again contrary to the McCarver Thesis (although they are slightly faster than the worst pitchers). When you look at the 5 unluckiest pitchers according to where their FIP is compared to their ERA , they average 21.06, again below league average. The “luckiest” pitchers average 21.72, slightly slower than the unlucky pitchers. This is the opposite of what the McCarver Thesis tells us. It simply isn’t backed up by the data, data that is publicly available, data that can be found by anyone with internet access. Another fun exercise is to look at the five fastest pitchers and five slowest pitchers in the original Fangraphs pace article and ask which rotation you would rather have. I’ll take C.C. (the slow group).
The evidence seems to point to the McCarver Thesis actually being reversely true. The evidence for slower pitchers being better than faster pitchers is better than the evidence for the McCarver thesis. This could be because slower pitchers simply have more pitches and are slow because they are shaking the catcher off etc. They also may think about what pitch they want to throw more, or are deliberately slow to throw off the hitter’s rhythm (this is at least what Josh Beckett says he is doing). Or it could be just random (which I think it is). Either way, the myth that pitchers who take longer are worse pitchers or get less help from their defense is sort of like the Easter Bunny. We want it to be true (I definitely want candy delivered in my yard and for baseball to be played at a quicker pace), but it just isn’t.