J.A. Happ, FIP and Situational Walks

“That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.

“You’d like everybody to cut down on walks,” [J.A. Happ's pitching coach Rich] Dubee said, “but you have to look at the walks . . . Are they just some real bad deliveries or are they walks where you are pitching around a guy in a situation? Some walks are justifiable. Some aren’t. He’s got intelligence. He’s got awareness of lineups, hitters, situations. Those all play into the game.”

***
FIP is fielding independent pitching, a metric I devised following Voros McCracken’s sabermetric-shattering DIPS (defense-independent pitching stats) theory. If you split a pitcher’s performance based on those that involve his fielders and those that don’t, then FIP is only concerned with that one component of pitching which does not involve his fielders. This would be analogous to SLG not considering walks, or OBP counting a walk and HR equally. Each of these metrics is only concerned with one perspective.

The focus of FIP is on weighting a pitchers walks, strikeouts, hit batters, and homeruns, and it is a constant across all game situations. This is of course wrong. It is wrong because a strikeout has much more value with a runner on 3B and less than 2 outs than if it occurred with bases empty. A walk is less costly with first base open and two outs, than if you had a runner on first base. As I said, all these metrics are focused on one perspective.

There is another metric I devised called Situational Wins (i.e., sum of each individual WPA/LI), and it gives a separate equation for each game situation. In short, the very thing that Happ’s pitching coach is (correctly) bringing up as a shortcoming of FIP is being handled with Situational Wins.

The average walk costs a pitcher about .030 wins. That is, a pitcher gives up a walk, and his team’s chances of winning goes down by 30 points. If they had a .560 chance of winning before the walk, it goes down to .530. This is true on average. But, Happ’s pitching coach is saying that Happ is not the average and that his walks are actually issued more often when it least matters. Is this true of Happ?

David was kind enough to send me the Situational Wins for J.A. Happ’s unintentional walks. Of the 54 walks he issued, their average win value was… .030 wins! That is, his walks were NOT situational. His strikeouts tell a similar story, as the win value of Happ’s strikeouts are similar to those of the average pitcher.

Where Happ did excel was not allowing many singles, doubles, and triples. In addition to that, he minimized this aspect of his game in dangerous situations. This double-whammy is where he was very successful. It explains how he was able to strand a league high 85% of his runners on base, and no one was anywhere close to that. However, it’s more accurate to say that the Phillies with Happ on the mound were very successful.

The historical precedence is that it would be very difficult for a pitcher to repeat his situational pitching with regards to batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Not only did Happ have a low BABIP overall (.270, which was among the league leaders), but in high-leverage situations, it was an unfathomably low .141.

In the face of two metrics that show Happ performed fantastically well, but in an expectedly non-persistent manner, it is his performance with walks, strikeouts and home runs that are persistent. And his performance in that regard, his FIP, was league-average.




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38 Responses to “J.A. Happ, FIP and Situational Walks”

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  1. twc84 says:

    Great article and read. But that would be James Anthony (J.A.) Happ and not Justin Happ…

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  2. fairmount1 says:

    Here’s the problem I see – a pitcher’s definition of a “situational walk” might differ from what WPA says is a “situational walk.” There are so many factors involved in how a pitcher approaches a hitter — his history against that pitcher, his recent performance, the recent performances of the batter behind him, the the next batter’s history against the pitcher, the dominant hand of the next batter in the order, etc. While WPA measures the effect the walk had on the odds of winning, it doesn’t measure the pitcher’s intention. Let’s say you have a young pitcher on the mound in a tight game with two out and the bases empty and Albert Pujols at the plate in the middle of a hot streak. There’s a good chance the plan – perhaps dictated from the bench – is to pitch around him and take a chance on the next guy. If the AB results in a walk, I’d assume the WPA would drop. WPA might suggest the startegy is flawed, but the execution of it wasn’t.

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  3. chappd says:

    Wow fairmount1, that’s nearly a whole paragraph of sabermetric blasphemy.

    Let’s see, “his history against that pitcher” – nearly entirely meaningless due to size of sample

    his recent performance – also meaningless
    the recent perofrmances of the batter behind him – also meaningless
    the next batter’s history against the pitcher (see first)
    the dominant hand of the next batter (ok, this is worthwhile, but still small compared to value of the walk)

    young pitcher (seems to be me I’d rather have a young pitcher than an old one!)
    “tight game with two out and the bases empty” – pretty sure situational wins captures this!
    etc, etc, etc…

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    • Neil says:

      There might be a fairer way to make the same/similar point without resorting to arguments like ‘recent history’.

      Does WPA address the relevant strengths of the batter that Happ is pitching to? Because if Happ is walking above-average hitters (ie. pitching around them because the guy on-deck is not as good), then that should be reflected in the stat, somehow. Walking Albert Pujols and walking David Eckstein – even if, in both situations, the bases are empty and there’s two out – should not be treated similarly.

      Perhaps the relative effect on WPA is the same, but the odds are also better that making a mistake to Pujols will cause a pitcher to *lose* a game. (Does there need to be a different metric to account for that?)

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    • Joe R says:

      To be fair, history against pitcher isn’t totally insane.

      IIRC, Lou Merloni and Tanyon Sturtze used to play each other for years (both grew up in the Worcester, MA – Metro West area), and Merloni had crushed him at pretty much every level.

      So logically, when they both hit MLB, Lou Merloni would start in every game Sturtze started while Sturtze was a D-ray, and continued mashing against him.

      Now I know it’s only 25 PA, but he went .522/.560/.870 w/ 2 HR against him, but judging from those #’s and what I had heard about from before MLB time, Merloni pretty much had Sturtze’s number.

      Albeit using one example of two pretty mediocre players isn’t exactly the strongest case to discount pitcher v. batter matchups.

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  4. bsizzle says:

    Looking at the leaderboard for LOB%, it struck me how similar Happ, Jurrjens and Matt Cain’s peripherals are. I highly doubt Happ can duplicate his rookie success, but it seems like Happ’s ended up as the fall guy for FIP-ERA differences go.

    On a completely separate note, I love the fact things like FIP and xFIP are being explained in major publication. This is probably going to whittle away my fantasy baseball average, but it’s no less fascinating. :-)

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  5. ToddM says:

    I assume there’s a fair amount of sarcasm in there, chappd, but if not, I think it’s important to realize that even the creators of the metrics understand the enormous number of variables inherent in any situation. Although the average value of a walk is -30, tangotiger notes this is only an average.

    Happ’s pitching coach claimed his pitcher issued walks more frequently in less-damaging situations, which, it turns out, wasn’t actually true. Along with a discussion of Happ’s ridiculously low BABIP in important situations, that’s basically the article in a nutshell.

    In short, while the factors fairmount1 mentioned tend to average out over time into the normal negative value of a walk, every individual situation is, of course, different. It’d be awesome to control for every variable in a situation, but that’s not realistic — how about current weather conditions? the pitcher’s feel that day for his usual out pitch? rest status of the bullpen? part-time infielders playing that day? the pitcher’s contract status?

    This is what makes the game of baseball, and the analysis of it, so fun,

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  6. lincolndude says:

    Awesome, awesome stuff. Thanks Tom.

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  7. fairmount1 says:

    You are missing my point — My point is that, even if the numbers show these factors to be meaningless, what matters is if the pitcher/coaching staff believes them to be meaningful. I’m talking about a pitcher’s execution of his plan, versus his execution of what WPA says his plan should be.

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    • Jon S says:

      You have a point here. If I’m reading what you are saying correctly, you are pointing out that walks ARENT ALWAYS UNDER THE PITCHER’S CONTROL. When your manager decides to take the bat out of someone’s hands, you get charged with a walk, which negatively affects your FIP, SIERA, or any other pitching metric. The “rightness” or “wrongness” of this managerial decision (or sometimes the pitcher’s decision) can be evaluated on a case by case basis. The WPA of walking a dangerous hitter would be -(WPA of the hitter’s PA) – (WPA of a walk in this situation). I will ruminate on how to calculate expected WPA of a PA.

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  8. Everett says:

    “what matters is [someone] believes them to be meaningful”

    No, what actually matters is whether they ARE meaningful. What a pitcher and coaching staff believe is irrelevant – that’s the entire point of statistical analysis.

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    • Nick says:

      I think he means that in those situations, Happ is issuing the walk because he *WANTS* to, not because he pitched that AB poorly. The fabled unintentional-intentional walk, while still a walk and counted as normal, is still in truth intentional, and not necessarily reflective of a pitcher’s ability.

      But, my counter to that is that those situations are not very frequent, and over the course of the season, the WPA will accurately reflect the vast majority of situations.

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      • joser says:

        The fabled unintentional-intentional walk, while still a walk and counted as normal, is still in truth intentional, and not necessarily reflective of a pitcher’s ability.

        But if he was a better pitcher, he would be able to strike the batter out (or induce a weak ground out), and both he and the coach would know it: there’d be no pussy-footing “unintentional-intentional” anything. So it is indeed reflective of his ability, and should count towards (or in this case, against) it.

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    • Steve says:

      No, what actually matters is whether they ARE meaningful. What a pitcher and coaching staff believe is irrelevant – that’s the entire point of statistical analysis.

      true, but it has nothing to do with what the guy is trying to say.

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  9. JayCee says:

    I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate here.

    Hitters are aggressive by nature (the swing is a violent act, perhaps as violent as any single act in a major professional sport). Many if not most successful pitchers become that way by getting batters to swing at pitches just outside the strike zone. Guys like Glavine and Rivera come to mind. Is there not some correlation between throwing balls and issuing walks?

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  10. Joe R says:

    Poor J.A. Happ is about to hear the same stuff Cole Hamels heard in 2009.

    “WHAT’S WRONG WITH HAPP GUYS?”

    Nothing. He was lucky the season before. He’s not as lucky now. He’s still a perfectly decent pitcher.

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    • Dan says:

      +++++++100,000,000!

      I am waiting on those very articles/call ins to radio shows.

      “Happ let the pressure of his success get to him!” That will be the cry.

      Funny thing is, he can actually pitch better (lower FIP, etc) but be unlucky in BABIP and LOB%, and his ERA would double. Nothing would be wrong with him, and everyone would be down on him. I’d say how he handles this will be very interesting indeed.

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      • Joe R says:

        I dread the day the Red Sox hit their first 2 game losing skid for this exact same reason.

        I’d probably just flip off the media and hope to receive a Zambrano treatment, just so internet nerds can FJM all the articles about what a disgrace I am after each start where I allow more than 2 ER.

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  11. Sky Kalkman says:

    Just to be clear, pitchers certainly DO have control over when they give up walks and DO tend to give them up when they matter less. Happ, like others, is probably good at controlling when he gives up walks. It’s just that he’s not any better than the average MLB pitcher.

    Some ideas for related future articles:

    1. Find the pitchers who are the best/worst at giving up walks when they hurt the least/most.

    2. Do the same for other events, like HRs, Ks, GIDPs…

    3. Show the league average walk-rates for different game states. There’s a wide range of granularity options for this.

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  12. don says:

    I find it somewhat interesting that Happ had a 3.15 K/BB with 0 outs, 2.50 K/BB with 1 out, and 1.32 K/BB with 2 outs last year (about 225 PA in each situation).

    The 2009 MLB average trended in the same direction, but at 2.24 / 2.00 / 1.87 not nearly as strongly. I don’t know how quickly K/BB regresses to normal…

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    • tangotiger says:

      Good job. You would be better off presenting the data as K minus BB per PA, excluding IBB in the numerator and denominator.

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      • don says:

        That comes out to .117/.116/.030 vs. a MLB average of .093/.097/.103 for 0/1/2 outs respectively, unless I did the math wrong. I have no idea whether or not that means anything, but it looks unusual.

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  13. Jon says:

    I can’t stand this babip talk surrounding Happ. Are people not acknowledging that Wolf, Cain, Jurjjens, (bsizzle did mention it) Kershaw, Haren, and Carpenter, all had lower, equal, or just a tick above Happ’s babip. There are no articles being written about their amount of luck.

    The defenders of Happ will reference that he understands how to pitch and that he can pitch well under pressure. A stat that completely backs that is road era. Happ led the majors in road era last year (1.99). Maybe his era should have been a little higher but he is much better than any 4 starter in the league and most 3 starters. Watch Happ this year and try and tell me he is a mediocre pitcher.

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    • Joe R says:

      Sure, some pitchers can outperform their FIP (Buerhle is a good example).

      But Happ’s LOB% was 85.2% in 2009. Only one other time in the decade has someone been over 85% (Pedro Martinez in 2000, 86.6%).

      Sure some guys are better at stranding runners than others. But the highest modern player is Mariano Rivera at 80.1%. For starters, it’s Santana at 77.4%.

      ERA can be approximated by the equation:
      ERA = 13.16 * BABIP + (-6.55) * LOB + FIP + 0.8387 (all coefficients are statistically significant).

      So, if nothing else changes, and Happ regresses to a .774 LOB rate, then you’re looking at a .5109 (0.51) increase in ERA right there. If his BABIP normalizes to CHONE (.293), then it adds another .30268 (0.30) addition. So add the .81 to his previous year’s ERA and expect like a 3.74 ERA.

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    • Joe R says:

      Essentially, it’s not all BABIP. Happ had a low BABIP AND a low strand rate. Maybe the BABIP is sustainable (though the minor league #’s don’t support it), but there’s no way he strands that many people again.

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  14. Joe R says:

    Comments section

    Phillie fans have become Red Sox / Yankees fans in a hurry. I don’t want to root for Happ to rock a 4.00-4.50 ERA, but people like that make it hard not to.

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    • JayCee says:

      I like your general sentiment, but Yankees fans don’t belong lumped in with the Phillies and Red Sox fans, in terms of wanting to have sex with their GM.

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      • JoeR43 says:

        Move to Boston and see what the overwhelming sentiment about Theo Epstein is right now.

        It can be summed as “OMG WHY DOES HE LIKE DEFENSE WE NEED HOME RUNS UZR IS STUPID ELLSBURY IS AWESOME JD DREW IS OVERPAID DID I MENTION I WANT ELLSBURY’S BABIES OMG!”

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  15. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Maybe what Dubee means by a “situational walk” is pitching around Pujols with 1st base open and two outs.

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  16. neuter_your_dogma says:

    …but not pitching around the pitcher with first base open and 2 outs. Sorry for the disconencted comment.

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    • joser says:

      And so the argument is that knowing to do this, and being able to, is an unusual skill that Happ is one of the few to possess?

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      • Neil says:

        It could be, if he’s better able to limit walks to weaker hitters, proportionally speaking. SOMEone was walking Bobby Kielty all the time, and it wasn’t because he could hit the ball like Barry Bonds, y’know?

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      • Joe R says:

        Speaking of Kielty, apparently he’s trying to convert into a pitcher.

        …yeah

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      • neuter_your_dogma says:

        Not an argument, just a thought.

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  17. Mike Green says:

    The FIP/ERA disparity isn’t very well captured by a WPA analysis in Happ’s case. His BBRef career splits do not show any difference in how he pitches in close games, but so far they do show tremendous difference in how he pitches depending on base/out state. So far, he has actually not done well with a runner on first alone (strangely for a left-handed pitcher), but has been awesome with multiple runners on base. In other words, he has pitched better in high-run leverage situations, as opposed to high game leverage situations.

    There is no pitcher that I am aware of who has been able to sustain a huge disparity in performance between high-run leverage and low-run leverage situations. Jim Palmer did, over his career, have a very noticeable difference, and Happ may follow Palmer in this regard.

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  18. Jamie says:

    I think if someone looked at Pitch F/X and did a study on this it could help a lot. see what his pitches look like in 0 out states, then 1 out states, then 2 out states. all with different amount of men on base.

    agreed the sample size won’t be that large for some of these, but you can probably get a discernibly different graph with some of the situations rather than no men on 0 out.

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