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The Minus Stats

Posted By Dave Cameron On April 5, 2011 @ 5:02 pm In Daily Graphings | 44 Comments

Last week, the big boss around here rolled out the newest stats to hit the site; ERA-, FIP-, and xFIP-. I know, I know, the last thing FanGraphs needs is more numbers with weird acronyms, and now we’re introducing stats that have acronyms followed by a mark that often indicates that subtraction is on the way? Who wants to be caught in conversation saying “Cliff Lee had a FIP minus of 62 last year”? Not me, that’s for sure.

But, that’s the beauty of these new numbers – they actually give us the ability to describe advanced pitching metrics in plain english. You can use them without ever actually using the acronym; for example, “Cliff Lee was 38 percent better than average at things pitchers have the most control over.” You’ve just explained Lee’s FIP- in one not-overly-confusing sentence, and you’ve done it without causing the person you’re conversing with to yell “NERD!” and walk away.

While our goal isn’t to proselytize the masses, statistical analysis is gaining a foothold in the mainstream, and more and more people are becoming interested in the conclusions that these kinds of metrics can offer. However, I’ll be the first to admit that our community has an alphabet soup problem – there are so many numbers with varying acronyms that it can be dizzying to try and keep up with. The FanGraphs Library that Steve Slowinski has created (and is always adding to) is a fantastic resource, but if you’re just talking with someone in conversation, odds are good that you’re not going to pull out your iPad and show the other person what Steve wrote about FIP-. I mean, that’s okay, but it seems awkward to me. I don’t know. Try it and let me know how it works – now I’m curious.

If you don’t want to go that route, though, these three metrics (along with wRC+, which is the offensive equivalent of this kind of statistic) give you the option of quoting a nerdy tool without sounding like one. Personally, I think the concepts that are revealed by the numbers are far more important than the actual number itself; I don’t really care what James Loney‘s wOBA against LHPs is, but I do want to be able to tell Dodger fans that he probably shouldn’t hit clean-up against southpaws.

This is where these three numbers will shine. There are a lot of people out there who don’t want to hear us try to pronounce BABIP while talking about Francisco Liriano, xFIP- gives you the chance to say that Liriano was “30 percent better than the average pitcher last year” without having to throw an acronym out there. From there, assuming the person you’re talking to doesn’t think you’re totally insane, you might have a chance to explain what goes into xFIP- (without even calling it that if you don’t want to), noting how Liriano’s walk rate, strikeout rate, and groundball rate were all excellent last year, and these are the kinds of things that are most consistent from year to year.

Not everyone’s going to want to hear it, and that’s fine. But I think there are people out there who would be open to “sabermetric ideas” but have no interest in trying to discern the difference between a FIP, a VORP, or an RE/24. There can be a legitimate barrier to entry created by the terms that we’re all familiar with, and that’s unfortunate, as I think some people who would enjoy the types of discussions we end up having can walk away before it ever gets started because they simply don’t understand the language we’re speaking.

That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop using FIP or wOBA around here, of course. However, I do think there’s room for measures that can help us converse more regularly with the casual fan, and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited to have things like FIP- and xFIP- on the site. They might look like more horribly named esoteric stats, but they’re actually an opportunity to use these concepts in a regular conversation. I look forward to using something like xFIP- without ever having to pronounce it.


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