On Defense and Unearned Runs: ERA Isn’t the Answer

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Last night, Justin Verlander was not at his best, but his overall line looked worse than it was because Torii Hunter made two poor plays in right that cost Verlander two runs, but neither was ruled an error. So Verlander’s ERA goes up because of poor defense even though conventional wisdom is that the “earned” part of ERA factors out your defense making mistakes behind you.

It does and it doesn’t. You don’t get charged for runs that come from errors but you do get penalized when the official scorer makes a mistake (as we saw last night) and when your defensive players do not make a play they should have even though it does not qualify as an error. Sabermetricians have devised other metrics like FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and others to stand in for ERA with a focus on elements of the game that pitchers can control because they have no control of what happens once contact is made. (Read my explanation of FIP for more specific information)

Today, I’d like to offer a little concrete evidence for why ERA doesn’t capture a pitcher’s value. Let’s take an independent measure of defense (Fangraph’s aggregate Fld score) and compare it to the number of unearned runs a team allows (or the percentage of a team’s runs that are unearned).

I haven’t looked back into history, but for 2013 the relationship is nonexistent. For the raw number of unearned runs, the results are not statistically significant and are substantively small. On average a team needs to increase its Fld score (range -21 to 18 so far) by about 7 to eliminate a single unearned run on average (range 5 to 25 so far). On average, from worst to first in Fld you can move only 20% of the range of unearned runs. This tells us that the strength of one’s defense does not predict the number of unearned runs allowed. The results are the same if we control for the total number of runs a team has allowed.

Here it is in graphical form:

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As you can see, the number of unearned runs has almost no relationship with Fld and if you squint hard enough can only come up with the slightest negative tilt. Basically, what this is showing you is that the difference between your runs allowed and the runs you get shoved into your ERA do not depend on the quality of your defense, it depends on the official scorer and it depends on a lot of other things that have nothing to do with a pitcher’s skill or performance.

This is all by way of saying that ERA is not a good measure of a pitcher’s true skill level. It’s not a bad place to start, but if you look at the Won-Loss Record and ERA, you’re getting very little useful information. Expand your horizon to K/9, BB/9, HR/FB, FIP, xFIP, and other statistics and metrics that enrich the game.

ERA attempts to capture the pitcher’s performance in isolation but it doesn’t. The defense and the official scorer play huge roles in determining that number. If you want to judge a pitcher by themselves, you need to look deeper.

If you’re interested in learning more, I encourage you to visit the Fangraphs Glossary or to post questions in the comment section. I’d be happy to explain or interpret any and all statistics about which you are curious.

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One response

  1. […] Something I’ve always found interesting is that pitchers get to deduct unearned runs from their ERA but they don’t get to deduct runs from their ERA when their defense doesn’t make an easy play that they should have. In the past, I’ve highlighted more advanced ways to demonstrate to measure a pitcher’s value that factors out defense like FIP, xFIP, and others and I’ve also pointed out why this distinction between ERA and Runs Allowed/9 is a little bit arbitrary. […]

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