2012 Fantasy Baseball: Making Sense of xFIP

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Major league baseball players must despise advanced statistical analysis. Take a guy like Jeremy Hellickson for instance. He makes his debut for the Rays in 2011 and throws 189 innings with 117 strike outs, 13 wins and a 2.95 ERA, good for 16th in the league and AL Rookie of the Year. Break out the champagne glasses and condoms right? It’s time to celebrate.  

Not so fast. Hellickson can't fully enjoy his rookie season success, because some Bill James crony, Professor Frink type, had to mess around in his lab (Mom's basement) and create xFIP and BABIP. All of a sudden it's 4.72 xFIP this and unsustainable .223 BABIP that. C'mon, really? Can I live? I, being Jeremy Hellickson. xFIP calculates expected future performance for a pitcher and is a real Debbie Downer for poor Jeremy. All of a sudden the shine is off the apple and everyone is talking about Matt Moore instead. Even a rational person would be excused for wiping themselves with pages from the “Bill James Abstract” in this situation.

That said, sucks to be you Hellickson, because us forward thinking baseball types understand and value advanced statistical analysis. We know it'd be poor fantasy management to overlook all the data available and ignore what it tells us. And as you'll see below, Hellickson could become the posterboy for ERA regression in 2012. And yes, I did type that last sentence one handed while using the other to pat myself on the back.

Real quick, xFIP is a slight variation on FIP, both of which are calculations whose bedrock idea is pitchers generally have no control over a ball in play and therefore ERA can fluctuate randomly from year to year. From Fangraphs glossary, “xFIP attempts to predict future pitcher performance by tracking the things a pitcher can control; strikeouts, walks, hit by pitchers and homeruns.” 

Here are the starting pitchers from 2011 whose ERA deviated furthest below their xFIP.

Jeremy Hellickson (poor guy) – 2.95 ERA versus 4.72 xFIP. Hellickson's high xFIP is driven by his 45% FB%, 5.57 K/9, 72 BB and 8 IBB, the latter of which are more of a reflection on manager Joe Maddon's strategy. With only one year of sample size and indicators pointing in the wrong direction you should be wary of drafting Hellickson and expecting 2011 level performance, especially with an ADP of 130, ahead of Anibal Sanchez, Tim Hudson and Max Scherzer.

Jered Weaver – 2.41 ERA versus 3.80 xFIP. Weaver had a great year in 2011, with 198 SO, 18 wins and that 2.41 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. The 3.80 xFIP is mainly driven by Weaver's higher than average FB% of 48.6% versus a lower than average HR/FB of 6.3% (league average was 36% FB and 9.7% HR/FB). This suggests his HR given up will rise, but Weaver has a good track record here with 20 in 2011, preceded by 23 in 2010, 26 in 2009 and 20 in 2008. This is a case where xFIP may not be a great indicator and you can feel ok about Weaver and his 33.77 ADP. Also consider the Angels addition of Pujols providing a good chance to increase on that 2011 win total.

Matt Cain – 2.88 ERA versus 3.78 xFIP. Cain benefitted from a 3.7% HR/FB rate in 2011 resulting in only 9 HR in 221 innings, after giving up 22 HR in both 2010 and 2009 in similar innings pitched counts. Cain's HR total is sure to rise in 2012 and bring his ERA more in line with xFIP. With another year of little run support on the horizon and an average of 13 wins over the last three seasons, let someone else grab Cain at his 60 ADP.

Ricky Romero – 2.92 ERA versus 3.80 xFIP. Romero continued his rise in Toronto with his best major league season in 2011, posting 15 wins, a 2.92 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. He was even victimized by a 13.2% HR/FB rate on a low 31.1% FB%, resulting in 26 HR allowed. His xFIP is hurt by his only league average 7.12 K/9 and some lack of command with 80 BB and 14 HBP. If Romero can clean up some of the wildness and increase his SO count, he could post a similar line to 2011 in 2012. I like him at an ADP of 87.22 after just Dan Hudson and ahead of Josh Beckett. 

Randy Wolf– 3.69 ERA versus 4.46 xFIP. Wolf is another that seemed to get lucky despite his 5.68 K/9, 66 BB and 13 HBP. He also had a lower than average 8.6% HR/FB on his 39.9% FB%. Going into his 14th season at 36, one has to wonder how long Wolf can keep up his 3 years 200+ innings pace, years in which Wolf was able to post an ERA outperforming his xFIP.  At a 296.76 current ADP, he’s most likely undraftable except in NL only leagues.

Now let’s take a look at the other side of the coin. The ballplayers who should be embracing the statistical revolution, inundating their managers with talk of xFIP and how their performance can only rise in 2012. Here are some starters whose ERA underperformed their xFIP last year.

Zack Greinke – 3.83 ERA versus 2.56 xFIP. You're obviously not going to shy away from drafting Greinke, his current ADP is 47.12 and he's coming off a 16 win season. His ADP puts him at 12th overall for starters and what you may not know is that he led the major leagues with his 2.56 best xFIP last year. He only pitched 171.2 innings in 2011, so if he can bounce back to his customary 220 IP level and continue to capitalize on his 10.54 K/9 he could end up as the number one overall starter in 2012. Also, note he was victimized by a 13.6% HR/FB in 2011 versus a career average of 9.0%.

Brandon Morrow – 4.72 ERA versus 3.53 xFIP. 179.42 ADP puts him after bad ERA/xFIP split guys like Hiroki Kuroda and Jordan Zimmerman. Toronto should be another year improved allowing him to build on his 2011 11-11 record and he still sports a nifty 10.19 K/9 rate, so increased innings could create a SO bonanza.

Ricky Nolasco – 4.67 ERA versus 3.55 xFIP. xFIP says Nolasco has been unlucky ERA wise in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as his xFIP has increased from 3.23 in 2009, to 3.37 in 2010, to last year's 3.55, his ERA has also decreased from 5.06 to 4.51 then back to 4.67. In '09 and '10 he was victimized by high HR/FB% and last year he had a nice 31.1% FB%. He's also had great control posting 44, 33 and 44 BB over the three seasons. He's going late with a 245.19 ADP around guys like Kyle Lohse and Erik Bedard and is probably a better bet than either of them. Just don't reach for him.

Ryan Dempster – 4.80 ERA versus 3.70 xFIP. Converted back to starter in 2008, Dempster had his worst season in 2011, his ERA rising a whole point from 2010 and posting a 4 year low with 10 wins. His down year caused a drop to 248.82 in ADP, making him a great sleeper for drafters who punt pitching to the later rounds. He's posted SO totals of 187, 172, 208 and 191 since 2008 and sports an average 8.27 K/9 over that 4 year period.

Ubaldo Jimenez – 4.68 ERA versus 3.71 xFIP. Ubaldo is another guy who had his worst year in 2011, coming off a 2.88 ERA and 19 wins in 2010 and getting traded to the Indians midseason. He's similar to Dempster in that he posted 172, 198, 214 and 180 SO over the 4 year period from 2008-2011 and an average K/9 of 8.31. You can't steal him like with Dempster though, as he currently sports a 156 ADP with drafters optimistic that he can bounce back to pre-2011 levels. 

Written by Ryan Coombs exclusively for Follow Ryan on Twitter @RMCoombs

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