The Giants’ defense and revisiting Lincecum v. Carpenter

Posted By on June 15, 2010 10:28 am

If you’ve paid close attention to the Giants this year, they have proven my point about why Tim Lincecum should not have won the Cy Young last year.

Yes, you read that correctly.

You’ll have to hang with me for a rather lengthy explanation, but the short version is this: One of the reasons that Lincecum edged Chris Carpenter, despite the fact that Carpenter was better at preventing runs and just as good at getting outs, is the fact that the modern stat people said Lincecum’s strikeouts were more indicative of good pitching than Carpenter’s groundouts. The thinking is that a pitcher does all of the work when he gets a strikeout, but when a batter puts a ball in play, the pitcher is at the mercy of luck and the quality of his defense.

I buy the former, but not the latter. Not at all. And if you look at what this year’s Giants have done defensively, you’ll see why.

Here’s the stat that sparked all of this: The Giants are leading the NL, and are second in the majors, in defensive efficiency (.718). What that means is that 71.8 percent of the balls in play against the Giants are converted into outs. Teams that rank high in defensive efficiency, theoretically, have good defensive players.

As the thinking goes, it’s the quality of the defense, not the quality of the pitching, that determines how many outs you’ll get on balls in play. That’s why a pitcher’s opposing batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is often used as a measure of how lucky the pitcher has been. Since the pitcher, as the theory goes, has no control over this.

The Giants pitchers have just been lucky this year that they have such a good defense behind them.

Uh, yeah. Does that make sense to any of you? Sure doesn’t make sense to me.

We can argue about just how good the Giants defense really is, but I don’t think even the most fervent Giants fan can make the case that the Giants defense is the best in the league. By reputation and the old eyeball evaluation, they are pretty close to the worst. I’m willing to say the eyeballs are inaccurate and they’ve been underrated, so, with a nod to these numbers, I’ll move them up to average. But best in the league? No way.

So the conclusion that leads me to is that the Giants defense has benefited from the quality of the pitching. In other words, the pitchers have been so good that they have caused opponents to hit the ball softly, into easy outs that even the Giants pedestrian defenders can handle with a high rate of success.

Lo and behold, if you look over at Baseball Prospectus, where they track opponents line-drive percentage, it shows that the Giants are second best in the majors at preventing line drives.

The art of pitching is not just about throwing pitches that hitters miss. It’s about throwing pitches that hitters hit softly. I just wrote a whole big story on the changeup, and how it’s become the “great equalizer” for pitchers looking for a way to induce soft contact. The same goes for the sinker. And the cutter. These are pitches that the pitcher wants the hitter to put in play, to get an easy out. An easy out.

Which brings me back to Chris Carpenter.

Last year Carpenter’s ERA (2.24) was lower than Lincecum’s (2.48). Carpenter’s opponents OBP (.272) was virtually the same as Lincecum (.271). So in terms of preventing runs and getting outs, Carpenter was better. Not tons better, but better.

(Lincecum did pitch more innings than Carpenter, which was the basis for some of his support, but I dismissed that then because Carpenter still pitched plenty of innings for his ratio stats to be significant. My case was that the Cy Young is about who pitched better, not who pitched more. In any case, that’s a separate issue from what I’m talking about today.)

Where Lincecum had an edge on Carpenter was in getting strikeouts. Lincecum struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings and Carpenter only 6.7. Carpenter still got outs just as effectively as Lincecum, but people didn’t want to give him credit because his fielders were doing some of the work for him.

I disagreed then, and I disagree even more now. As the Giants pitchers have shown this year, a good pitcher gets outs, period. Whether they are strikeouts or groundouts doesn’t matter. Either way, it takes skill to get a big league hitter to make an out. Even if you don’t strike him out.


7 Responses to “The Giants’ defense and revisiting Lincecum v. Carpenter”

  1. Nobody wants to see “3-time Cy Young Award” winner in front of Chris Carpenter’s name.

  2. Ryan blake says:

    You said it yourself it’s about who pitched better. Lincecum threw more innings, got just as many outs, but with a better strikout ratio, and more total strikeouts. Now with this giants sup-par defense behind him he still managed to get outs as efficently by striking out batters AND relying on his defense behind him. Who was a better pitcher and more entertaining to watch? Lincecum. If you had the choice of Lincecum or carpenter on your team? Lincecum is the choice across the board.

  3. Jeff Fletcher says:

    What about the fact that Carpenter prevented runs (lower ERA) better than Lincecum? That doesn’t count?

  4. Jeff Fletcher says:

    Anyway, the point of this post was not so much to say that Lincecum didn’t deserve the Cy Young, because that involves other issues (like the innings thing). Revisiting Lincecum was just sort of my hook to re-examine what I think is the larger issue: whether pitchers deserve credit for outs on balls in play.

    I believe they do.

  5. I agree that pitchers deserve more credit for outs on balls in play, but I don’t think you are looking at it the right way.

    For example, you compared ERA. Most sabers agree that ERA is not the most accurate measure of how well the pitcher threw. Luck with fielding affects greatly how your ERA turns out. Thus many prefer FIP or xFIP, which accounts for HR rates as well. A new measure out now that appears to handle the point of pitchers getting more credit for outs is tERA (takes into account types of balls hit in play). These are all on Fangraphs.

    For 2009: ERA – FIP – xFIP – tERA
    Carpenter 2.24 – 2.78 – 3.38 – 2.78
    Lincecum 2.48 – 2.34 – 2.87 – 2.61

    By any of the current saber-measures, Carpenter just happened to be much more luckier than Lincecum in terms of his over pitching on things he can control.

    He was particularly lucky on homers. You can see this in his list of his HR/FB:

    2002 – 13.6%
    2004 – 15.3%
    2005 – 10.3%
    2006 – 11.5%
    2009 – 4.6%
    2010 – 14.3%
    Total – 11.0%

    Pitchers are usually around 10% HR/FB, any variation is considered to be luck. His HR/FB rate was 4.6% in 2009. He was extremely lucky last season. So basically you want to give Carpenter the Cy Young because he got lucky in not giving up as many homers as he did in other seasons.

    Also, he missed 4-5 starts (ace usually starts at least 33 starts, and most full-time starters get 32 starts). So it is not just a matter of not pitching as many innings as Lincecum, he missed almost a whole month of the season, forcing the Cards to go with their 6th best starter for a whole month of the season. Plus their #2 faced the others’ #1, #3 face #2′s and so forth. That should have costed the Cards a few wins there.

    His missing a significant portion of the season costed the team their ace and forced everyone up a notch in the rotation to handle him being missing for nearly a month. I would consider that a huge negative to giving him the Cy Young, he was MIA for a whole month and screwed up the rotation for the same period.

  6. Jeff Fletcher says:

    Thanks for the reply OCG, but you are missing my point.

    My point is that FIP is a faulty metric because it eliminates outs on balls in play, as if the pitcher has no impact on those outs. My entire premise is that pitchers aren’t just blindly lucking into outs on everyone they don’t strike out.

    That’s all I was trying to illustrate with this post.

    The other part of the Carpenter-Lincecum debate (innings pitched) isn’t really related to my point in this post, but since you brought it up, I’ll give you my thoughts on that too.

    In order to judge who pitched the best, you just need a big enough sample. One sample being bigger than another doesn’t make the results better, as long as both samples are big enough. To qualify for the ERA title, you need to pitch 162 innings, so that’s generally considered a big enough sample. Carpenter pitched 192 innings. To me, that’s close enough.

    If you’re talking about which pitcher is more “valuable,” obviously the guy who pitches more innings is more valuable. but I don’t think the Cy Young is the Most Valuable Pitcher. I think it’s Pitcher Who Pitched the Best.

    When Carpenter pitched, he pitched better than Lincecum. Slightly, but better.

    It’s interesting that no one said a word about Joe Mauer winning the MVP even though he also missed a month. Mauer had a great year, and people decided that even though he wasn’t available for all 162, he was available “enough” for his AVG and OBP and SLG to be legit.

    Same with Carpenter.

  7. slamdunk says:

    Jeff, not to say that your case for Carpenter is wrong, heck it might even be right, however I am still glad that Lincecum won a close vote. I get the impression that the voters considered the strikeout more “sexier” than the ground ball outs that Carpenter was successful at getting, wrong or right.

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