Player’s View: The Best Stat to Evaluate Pitchers

I recently posed a question to 10 players. It was a question that 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.

——

Brian Bannister, former Kansas City Royals righthander: “The most useful stat when you’re out there on the mound is your zone-contact percentage. I think it’s a huge contributor to your long-term success. The better the pitches are, and the more swings-and-misses in the zone, is what differentiates a pitcher with an ERA in the threes and a pitcher with an ERA over 4.00.

“It’s valuable to be able to throw pitches in the zone, to get swings and misses and a potential strikeout, without feeling you have to pitch around the zone. I think you’ll see a huge relationship between the elite pitchers in the league and their zone-contact percentage. Whether it’s Clayton Kershaw, Johan Santana, Matt Harvey, or R.A. Dickey, statistically they will outperform pitchers who really struggle in that category. Pitchers who can’t get swings and misses in the zone tend to rely more on luck, or tend to go through periods where they under-perform the league because of variance in balls in play.”

Craig Breslow, Boston Red Sox lefthander; “Good question. I feel that all the things that come to my head, I could find fault with. I would dismiss conventional stats, like wins and losses. But if I started to think about WHIP, hits become subjective to a certain degree. There’s a difference between base runners and the severity of base runners, or not normalizing for defensive factors like range. Of course, you can obviously look at fielding-independent stuff.

“I think I might go with strikeouts-per-nine-innings. Probably the most significant metric of dominance… if you consistently strike out guys at a pretty high rate, you’re usually going to be successful. Or maybe strikeouts-to-walks, because you don’t want a ton base runners. Strikeouts might be a really good predictor of future success. They obviously don’t allow for as much volatility as batting average on balls in play.”

Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants righthander: “You have to be lucky to get wins at times, because you can pitch well and go against another guy who pitches well. That’s a hard stat to judge pitchers on. ERA can be skewed too… you don’t really know what happened. There are times where I’ve definitely gone out there and, numbers-wise, maybe not given up any runs, but guys were hitting balls right at guys. Sometimes it’s hard to go solely on stats.

“I like innings pitched, because it shows a lot of what you’re trying to do in a game; you’re not thinking about striking guys out, you’re worried about trying to stay in the game a long time. You have to earn the respect of the manager to go out there and get that extra inning here or there.”

Jason Castro, Houston Astros catcher; “WHIP is a great stat for pitchers that a lot of people don’t think about immediately, since there are wins and losses, and ERA. Limiting guys from getting on base is a good place to start.”

Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees righthander: “I’d probably have to say ERA. When you go back to Felix Hernandez, he was 11-11 going into his last six starts with a two-something ERA. I think he then won his last few decisions. He was obviously better than his record. Keeping your team in the game by not giving up many runs would be the biggest one for me. That’s ERA.

“As a reliever, your innings obviously ain’t as many, so if you give up a couple runs here and there, your ERA will become inflated. Inherited runners is probably more important. Hits allowed and strikeouts-per-innings-pitched are two more you look at.”

Brian Duensing, Minnesota Twins lefthander: “That’s a tough question. WHIP, maybe? If a guy’s WHIP is low, he’s obviously keeping teams down; he’s keeping them in check. With something like wins… a lot can go into getting a win, and a lot can go into a loss. ERA sometimes even gets skewed a little bit, because you might put guys on, but not be on the mound when they score. When I look at my own numbers, I do look at ERA, but I think WHIP is more important. If I’m giving up a lot of walks and hits, I’m obviously not doing my job as well as I should be.”

Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox lefthander: “I think they’re all important, although wins and losses get too much credit. You can only control what you’re doing. You can’t control how many runs your team scores for you, or a bullpen guy coming in and giving up runs. I’d say ERA and WHIP are probably the two you should look at.

“Strikeouts don’t matter. Strikeouts are a glorified stat. There are pitchers who don’t strike a lot of guys out having success. James Shields has had a couple of years with pretty good strikeout numbers, but for the most part he pitches to contact and goes deep into games. I think innings are another important stat. If you have a guy consistently going 190-210 innings a year… that’s important.”

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins catcher; “I think it could be different for different types of pitchers, and it depends on which pitcher you’re talking about. Is it a starter or a reliever. As far as starters, I think innings, a guy who can eat up a lot of innings, is real important. Opponents batting average is probably a pretty big stat. For a closer, opponents average would be big, too. ERA is important for both. But again, for a starter, I want him out there eating up as many innings as he can.”

Glen Perkins, Minnesota Twins lefthander; “I’d have to say FIP — fielding-independent pitching — if we’re talking advanced stats. If we’re talking more basic stuff, you could maybe say it’s your K-rate, either walks-per-strikeouts or strikeouts-per-nine. That feeds into FIP. Guys that strike out a lot of hitters are usually pretty darn good. But for someone who follows advanced statistics closely, it would have to be fielding-independent pitching.

“Wins matter, but not as a tool for evaluation. I don’t know if it’s the worst way to evaluate as pitcher, but it’s near the bottom. It just doesn’t tell you much at all. The other day, one of our guys threw four pitches and got a win. Earlier this year, I faced six guys, got two of them out, gave up a run, and got a win. It’s not like I pitched well. Wins is one of the worst ways to evaluate pitchers, but it is the best way to evaluate a team.”

C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees lefthander: “I guess it would have to be ERA, keeping runs off the board. The way I look at it, innings pitched are big, too, pitching deep into games and giving your team a chance to win. And wins are big. You want to have the team win when you’re out there. I don’t think you can just discredit wins. But I guess I’d say ERA and innings pitched are the biggest.”

——

FINAL TALLY

ERA: Two votes (Chamberlain, Lester 1/2, Sabathia 1/2)

FIP: One vote (Perkins)

IP: 2.5 votes (Cain, Mauer, Sabathia 1/2)

K/9: one vote (Breslow)

WHIP: 2.5 votes (Castro, Duensing, Lester 1/2)

Z-Contact%: one vote (Bannister)

——

Note: Thanks to Eno Sarris for procuring the responses from Matt Cain and Jason Castro.




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA


80 Responses to “Player’s View: The Best Stat to Evaluate Pitchers”

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  1. Chris Headley says:

    I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of players who are aware of advanced stats like FIP, and also find them useful. I went into this afraid half the answers were going to be win-loss record, but everyone seemed to realize it doesn’t mean anything in evaluating pitchers.

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  2. Chris Headley says:

    Oh and David, you’re from the U.P.? I had never noticed that before, where from exactly? It’s not often I see someone else online from up here.

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  3. Jeff says:

    I enjoy that James Shields offered as an example to not overvalue strikeouts despite the fact that he has struck out 220+ guys each of the last two seasons. Not that it’s Jon Lester responsibility to know other pitcher’s stats, but it is just interesting that sometimes perception doesn’t match reality.

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    • ned says:

      “James Shields has had a couple of years with pretty good strikeout numbers, but for the most part he pitches to contact and goes deep into games.”

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      • MLB Rainmaker says:

        There’s maybe 5 guys that have had more Ks than Shields over the last 5 years. That’s not “a couple of years”, thats elite strikeout stuff year in, year out.

        I think its a valid point, most players are remarkably out of tune with how management-types value them.

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        • Bob M says:

          In terms of raw totals, he is #9 in strikeouts since 2008. He also pitches a lot of innings (#4 overall), which is what Lester was talking about. If you look at K/9, he is #93. He is #55 if you look at SP only.

          Based on those three stats (K, IP, and K/9), I would agree with Lester that the reason Shields is good has more to do with how many innings he throws and less with how many strikeouts he has.

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        • Wobatus says:

          It can’t just be innings pitched though. Since 2008, Buehrle is 10th in innings, Arroyo 11th and Guthrie 15th. That has value, but not as much as Scherzer, wainwright, Josh Johnson or Anibal Sanchez, none of whom have thrown nearly as many innings as the the aforesaid.

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        • Travis L says:

          BobM: if you set a minimum IP threshold of 800 IP to eliminate pitchers who haven’t thrown that much, Shields jumps to #17. I think it’s fair to say he’s top 25 in terms of K/9 for pitchers who have thrown comparable #s of innings.

          He is #4 in IP, which is a testament to his quality as a pitcher and stuff. Even so, with that #4 in IP ranking, he is only #17 in WAR.

          He’s been elite in IP. He’s been damn good in K/9. He’s been pretty good in value.

          I think his k/9 and his value are close in the rankings, although his IP is elite. That tells me he pitches a LOT, strikes out quite a few guys, and has been good on a per-IP basis.

          I’d rather have 15-20 SP before him.

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        • Bip says:

          I wonder how much value, in WAR, a pitcher adds by saving the bullpen. It is really hard to quantify, since the effects of bullpen overuse can manifest not only in a higher ERA but also in more frequent injury and possibly even in an adjusted rotation.

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  4. MustBunique says:

    Love this series. Thanks.

    Can you do an in-depth interview with Glen Perkins? I enjoy hearing about players who are aware of advanced stats and would like to hear about how they use them. This is the second time recently I have been impressed by one of his answers.

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  5. Caveman Jones says:

    Love Matt Cain starting it off by talking about luck.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      “There are times (Basically, my entire career coming into this year) where I’ve definitely gone out there and, numbers-wise, maybe not given up any runs, but guys were hitting balls right at guys.”

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  6. BDF says:

    By far the best of this great series so far. Shocking to see how much sabr-talk has filtered down to the players. Some really really thoughtful answers. Brian Bannister’s response blew my mind.

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    • buddyglass says:

      Going to the fangraphs leaderboard and sorting by Z-Contact % blew mine. It does seem to correlate pretty strongly with success.

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  7. TKDC says:

    My favorite answers were a tie between all the guys that basically said pitchers wins don’t matter. Now go tell that to the idiots that broadcast the games.

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    • Drew says:

      Also, most beat writers, ESPN commentators, BBWAA voters…

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      • TKDC says:

        That’s easy, don’t read their shit. Problem solved. I’m incapable of avoiding the in-game commentators (I guess I could mute it, but that would be weird).

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        • BubbaBiscuit says:

          I would absolutely love having an option to watch the game without commentators and just listen to the sounds of the game as if I was at the park watching it.

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        • MustBunique says:

          Absolutely Bubba, I don’t know how many times I have daydreamed about there being such an option. I wish it were an option for all sports.

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        • EL says:

          MLB.com produces only a single video for the “Condensed Game” version of each game and instead of choosing one set of announcers, they just use the sounds of the game. That means that it’s clearly possible and is being recorded.

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        • bada bing says:

          Fox Sports Detroit did this for one of the Tigers’ broadcasts against the Nationals. It was pretty cool, but got boring quickly.

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        • Billy says:

          I watch the Yankees and I have to say, our color commentators are pretty good. Ken Singleton (a patient hitter who played under Earl Weaver), John Flaherty and the sabermetricly enlightened David Cone are rather intelligent in their analysis and usually don’t say silly things. They’re not all idiots.

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    • jeff says:

      Actually this is what i would look to see. same question to 10 Tv/Radio broadcast heads

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      • Bread n Mustard says:

        Just don’t ask Dave Sims (Mariners broadcaster) what is the best stat to evaluate a pitcher/team. He would probably say touchdowns.

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  8. Drew says:

    Bannister’s been a known stat guy for 5 years or so.

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  9. Guy says:

    If only every ESPN analyst listened to Glen Perkins talk.

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  10. mike wants wins says:

    I wonder how Jack Morris feels about these responses….

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  11. Dave S (the original) says:

    1 Max Scherzer 81.40%
    2 Anibal Sanchez 82.50%
    3 Hector Santiago 82.70%
    4 R.A. Dickey 82.80%
    5 Chris Sale 82.90%
    6 Justin Verlander 83.30%
    7 Yu Darvish 83.60%
    8 Ryan Dempster 83.90%
    9 Julio Teheran 84.00%
    10 Matt Harvey 84.00%
    11 CC Sabathia 84.10%
    12 Jeremy Hellickson 84.30%
    13 Clayton Kershaw 84.40%
    14 Ian Kennedy 84.60%
    15 Shelby Miller 84.80%
    16 Madison Bumgarner 84.80%
    17 Cole Hamels 85.10%
    18 Stephen Strasburg 85.30%
    19 Gio Gonzalez 85.50%
    20 Homer Bailey 85.50%

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    • Dave S (the original) says:

      lowest zone contact % among qualifiers

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    • Dave S (the original) says:

      would never have guessed Hector Santiago was top 3, or that Ian Kennedy was #14.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Ryan Dempster.

      I was going to say it’s great to have a low zone contact %, but if you are walking too many, low zone % and have a high flyball rate, etc., not so great anyway.

      Dempster, even if he has a good zone contact %, is still tied for 85th among 90 qualifiers with a 40.1 zone percentage. So he doesn’t throw it in the zone even though he can get guys to miss.

      Oddly, he is tied with Kuroda, also at 40.1% zone %. And Kuroda is 69th among 90 qualifiers in zone contact % with 89.6. And Bartolo Colon is 80th with 91.1. Yet Kuroda and Colon are 11th and 25th in WAR among starters. Maybe that’s some of the luck Bannister is talking about, since they are lower in xFIP than FIP.

      Lots of ways to be a good pitcher. I mean, King Felix is tied with Jeff Locke at 61st in that metric. It’s not the be all and end all.

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      • Gerald Westerby says:

        It’s not the end all be all (what stat is?), bit it’s a fascinating process stat; it tells us how a lot of good pitchers do what they do. And it’s not surprising that a guy like Felix – whose pitches have such movement that many start in the heart of the plate and then run outside the zone – would rank poorly.

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        • Gerald Westerby says:

          Perkins answer of FIP offers the best all around judgment at this point in time, but I prefer Banister’s response because it points to where I think we’re going. As we get more and more comfortable with Pitch F/X, and especially if we ever get access to Hit F/X data, we’re going to be able to break down pitcher performance at the moment of, or the moment just before contact, rather than on outcome. I am hoping that we someday get to see the Hit F/X stuff and are able to judge pitchers based on the percentage of pitches that make barrel contact. The more you know about the exact moment of bat to ball contact, or lack there of, the more you know about the components of the game that a pitcher actually controls. We’ve been leaning on True outcomes for so long – and rightfully so – because we haven’t been able to really track and quantify the moment of contact; as that changes, a fuller picture of pitcher performance will emerge.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Yeah, true enough. It is a very telling stat. But k/bb or k%/bb% may tell us as much, even if it isn’t as granular. Have a very high zone percentage with decent zone contact % (Cliff Lee), or just a very low BB% (Colon), or have great movement inducing hitters to swing at pitches that end outside the zone (as you posit for Hernandez)-however you get there, the end result may be more and beyond k%/bb% we may be guilding the lily as to how it happened, as good as it is to know.

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        • Marty says:

          Yeh. Felix is no longer a guy who uses his fastball to get swings and misses in the zone. Not surprising to see Harvey/Verlander/Darvish/Scherzer near the top because they have wicked heaters.

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        • Andy says:

          There’s not 1 stat that tells you everything. No, not even WAR.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Interesting, if you look at the top 20 in K/BB and zone contact %, 9 guys make both lists. Here are the 11 in the top 20 in k/bb who don’t make the zone contact list:

        1. Wainwright
        3. Price
        4. Lee
        7. Haren
        8. Felix Hernandez
        9. Iwakuma
        12. Minor
        13. Kuroda
        14. Fister
        17. Lackey
        19. Zimmerman

        Here’s the 11 in zone contact top 20 who didn’t make the k/bb top 20.

        2. Anibal Sanchez (just missed k/bb top 20 at 22)
        3. Santiago
        4. Dickey
        6. Verlander
        8. Dempster
        11. Sabathia
        12. Hellickson
        14. Kennedy
        16. Bugarner
        18. Strasburgh
        19. Gio Gonzalez

        I
        d probably rather have the first group, this year, but of course that is more results than how one got there. probably the contact percentage bodes well for Verlander, Dickey and Sabathia “bouncing back” and bodes well for Hector santiago if he gains some control.

        But if one looks at the bottom 20 of the contact percentage list, one also sees some decent pitchers: Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake, CJ Wilson, Kyle Lohse, Time Hudson, Jhoulys Chacin, Tim Hudson, Adam Wainwright. Not as sustainable, and some aren’t really great pitchers, but they are the worst at this metric and still pretty good to, in the case of Wainwright, very good or great even.

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  12. Tommy says:

    “Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants righthander: “You have to be lucky to get wins at times, because you can pitch well and go against another guy who pitches well.”
    Says the guy who was 83-78 with a career 124ERA+ in 245GS coming into 2013, for comparison Sabathia has a 124ERA+ in 155GS as a Yankee and is 86-39.

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  13. Daniel says:

    What David didn’t mention in the article is that Matt Cain broke down and started sobbing midway through his answer while talking about the luck involved in wins.

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  14. Ian R. says:

    Love that all these players agree that pitcher wins and losses are dumb. Can we work on RBI next?

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  15. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    Series remains awesome, Glen Perkins strengthens bid to become most awesome person, ever.

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    • wiggly says:

      It was Bannister’s response that blew me away the most. Awareness of FIP is cool, but we’re already kind of beyond that, don’t you think? I mean, is it FIP or xFIP? Bannister’s digging the deepest. As noted above, maybe the stat he identifies isn’t the be-all-end-all one stat to rule them all, but it’s a core issue rather than a summary, for starters.

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  16. Will says:

    Johan Santa had a sweet swing. Wonder why he couldn’t make it out of rookie ball.

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  17. Cory says:

    Definitely “P/BI”. Though CC’s been doing more “belly-itching” than “pitching” this season.

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  18. eddiegaedel says:

    Rally refreshing to see that starting pitchers don’t really care about wins. You should forward this over to half the announce booth’s in baseball.

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  19. Jon E (former 906) says:

    Good stuff David. Nice to hear the players thoughts on stats. I agree with those who think “IP” is a bit overlooked.

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  20. Alexander Nevermind says:

    I really enjoy the responses of players that simply use logic to deduce that certain traditional statistics are poor measures of talent. Players like Joba and Lance Berkman* may not be interested in devouring sabremetrics, but they grasp the benefits.

    *http://www.star-telegram.com/2013/05/11/4843118/advanced-baseball-statistical.html

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  21. fergie348 says:

    Nice to see that players recognize the difference between effectiveness and value. I think the awareness might be more prevalent on the pitching side because we have had true group separation for about 35 years (starters vs. relievers) but it’s nice to see such a nuanced understanding of the issue among current players.

    Great series, I’m enjoying this very much..

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  22. wiggly says:

    I also like the emphasis on the significance of IP. Obviously that’s not perfect either, since Mo is more valuable than Lucas Harrell, but it’s too easy to overlook the value of an innings eater.

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    • mgraves says:

      “…but it’s too easy to overlook the value of an innings eater.”– Unless you’re a member of the Twins personnel office, motto: we’re going to be bad, but let’s try to not be embarrassing.

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  23. Chris says:

    More Brian Bannister, please.

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  24. drewcorb says:

    I think Mauer voted for IP, opponent’s BA, opponent’s BA again, ERA twice, and IP again.

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    • N8*K says:

      As a Twins fan, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Mauer say anything controversial. I think he tries harder than any other athlete I know to not say anything wrong. It’s not a bad strategy but it’s very obvious. I’m surprised he hasn’t shaved his sideburns for fear of offending someone.

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  25. DNA+ says:

    I find it interesting that so many commenters seem to prefer answers when players confirm their beliefs. …you can’t really learn anything that way…

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    • TKDC says:

      This is simply not true. You could learn that the players don’t share the view of old crotchety sports writers when in comes to W/L record.

      But past that, this series of articles is designed to ask a question and just report the answers. Should they have sought out guys who did say wins and losses and only reported that? That is how you don’t learn anything.

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      • DNA+ says:

        You missed my point. I probably wasn’t particularly clear. …in any case it was more of a throwaway comment and not worth explaining….

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  26. DNA+ says:

    i would have liked to hear a few hitter’s perspectives. What type of pitchers do hitters least like to face?

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  27. EL says:

    For starting pitchers, I’ve been partial to strikeouts-per-100-pitches as a way of measuring both efficiency and dominance ever since seeing it on Rich Lederer’s site. It definitely has some FIP-related weakness in the denominator, but a single stat that measures all aspects of value while being intrinsically comprehensible is going to be tough to come by.

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  28. Grohman says:

    All of us love FIP, et al, but I still think the most interesting thing here is being reminded how much great players care about Wins (and RBI, for that matter). Like so many of us in our jobs – while the process is likely more important, the point is always a result you can take pride in.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Team wins, yes, of course. Individual wins… not so much. Sabathia seemed to be the highest on wins of all the players interviewed, and he still seems to value putting his team in a position to win more than going home with the W on his own statline.

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  29. Kevin says:

    Bannister and Perkins gave awesome philosophical answers.

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  30. Tim says:

    It’s interesting to me that all of the answers are externally-tracked statistics. Surely there’s some pitcher nerdy enough to be tracking mistake rate or something similar, that we wouldn’t be able to? They should have the ability to abstract out the pitcher’s performance far better than we can just by virtue of knowing the catcher/managerial contribution to pitch-calling.

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    • Tim says:

      In an attempt to explain that less obtusely: a pitcher who always throws the pitch called in the location called is still a great pitcher even if Dusty Baker the manager has no idea what he’s doing.

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  31. algionfriddo says:

    I start by looking at OPS against, although I like to look at OPS against vLHB & vRHB even more.

    RK PLAYER TEAM OPS
    1 Clayton Kershaw LAD .495
    2 Matt Harvey NYM .521
    3 Jose Fernandez MIA .531
    4 Max Scherzer DET .557
    5 M. Bumgarner SF .574
    6 Yu Darvish TEX .589
    7 S. Strasburg WSH .594
    8 Anibal Sanchez DET .601
    9 Patrick Corbin ARI .605
    10 Chris Sale CHW .615
    11 Travis Wood CHC .616
    12 Hiroki Kuroda NYY .618
    13 J. Masterson CLE .628
    14 Adam Wainwright STL .629
    15 Felix Hernandez SEA .634
    16 Hisashi Iwakuma SEA .638
    17 Cliff Lee PHI .641
    18 A.J. Burnett PIT .652
    19 Ervin Santana KC .652
    20 Mike Minor ATL .653
    21 Jeff Locke PIT .657
    22 Hyun-Jin Ryu LAD .658
    23 Shelby Miller STL .661
    24 Tim Hudson ATL .662
    25 Jhoulys Chacin COL .663
    26 Matt Cain SF .664
    27 J. Zimmermann WSH .665
    28 David Price TB .665
    29 Gio Gonzalez WSH .666
    30 Scott Feldman BAL/CHC .668
    31 Derek Holland TEX .669
    32 Bartolo Colon OAK .670
    33 Lance Lynn STL .672
    34 Homer Bailey CIN .675
    35 Mat Latos CIN .680
    36 Bronson Arroyo CIN .686
    37 C.J. Wilson LAA .688
    38 Doug Fister DET .690
    39 Tim Lincecum SF .692
    40 A.J. Griffin OAK .692

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