Yesterday, I posted a quick primer on FDP, and the valuation tools associated with this new metric over at FanGraphs. FDP attempts to quantify everything that FIP (and, by association fWAR) doesn't, in a metric that complements fWAR. Today, we get into the fun stuff, and by fun stuff I mean we'll take an FDP look at the "Big Three" Braves starting pitchers from the 90s and 00s. Then, tomorrow, I've got a small piece on three other historically-great Braves starters, and how they look through the FDP lens.
Before you get going on this piece, though, I not only recommend reading my previous post, but also Dave Cameron's introductory pieces at FanGraphs: Introducing Fielding Dependent Pitching and FDP and Pitcher WAR. They're awesome.
The "Big Three" Braves Starting Pitchers (and FDP)
I grew up as a New York Mets fan in the 80s and 90s, and caught far too many Mets-Braves tilts on TBS. By the early 90s, the Braves were hosting a legendary rotation during almost every season. It seemed like the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-Veteran X-Young Pitcher Y rotation would roll out every season, crush all opposition, and move inexorably towards an NL East crown. So when I think of great starting pitching, I always default to the 1990s Atlanta Braves as the gold standard.
So, in an attempt to show what FDP can tell us about a pitcher's career, I tried to take the three pitchers that exemplify the Braves' run of success in the 90s: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and I've looked at how their FDP statistics can tell us a little more about their total value over their careers.
Smoltz is a tremendous example of a world-class pitcher who doesn't need FDP to tell you much about his historical performance. When it comes to Smoltz, his fWAR pretty much tells the whole story. Over his career, Smoltz has an fWAR of 82.5. That's world-class, folks. It's good for 25th all-time. Again, at least one metric has John Smoltz as one of the 25 most valuable pitchers in the history of major-league baseball. Let that one soak in your brain for a while.
Smoltz struck out batters in abundance, limited HRs and walks, and basically annihilated opposing hitters over two decades. And he basically did it all without any help from BIP-Wins or LOB-Wins. Small variances in BIP-Wins and LOB-Wins can probably be chalked up to luck of the draw and the vagaries of defense. If there's no powerful, consistent pattern, they probably don't tell much of a story about whether or not a pitcher was able to control the balls hit in play, or if they were able to adapt and pitch better with runners on base. Smoltz had a final career BIP-Wins score of 4.7. For a player with a 21-year career, that's nothing. Pretty insignificant. He also had a final career BIP-Wins score of -2.3. Again, that's almost wholly insignificant. When you add those up, he sits at an FDP-Wins of 2.4 over his entire 3,473-inning career.
FDP-Wins basically gives me this impression about Smoltz's accomplishments: he probably didn't rely overmuch on his teammates, or on blind luck, to reach the heights he reached. Consistent numbers, season-after-season, in regards to the things he could control, made him one of the best pitchers of the last 25 years and a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Tom Glavine is, in many ways, the complete opposite of John Smoltz when it comes to FDP. Glavine did pitch quite a few more innings than Smoltz, racking up 4,413.1 frames over his 22 years in the bigs. Where Smoltz carried dynamite velocity and stuff even into his later years, Glavine was a control artist, using movement, location, and deception to paralyze hitters. For years, the word was that Glavine could induce weak contact due to the extreme movement on his pitches. So, if this were true, one would believe that Glavine would post a high BIP-Wins score over his year, something that may not be reflected in his total fWAR amount.
Well, Tom Glavine's career fWAR of 68.5 is quite impressive, but sits below pitchers like Kevin Brown, Tommy John, Jerry Koosman, and Roy Halladay. Given his number of innings pitched, his ERA / Wins numbers, and the amount of effectiveness he had over his career, one might expect that number to be even higher. But what Glavine does have, is a huge number of FDP-Wins. Glavine has a BIP-Wins of 10.9 over his career, as well as an LOB-Wins of 15.2, which combines for a total of 26.1 FDP-Wins over his career. That's quite a lot, especially for a modern-era pitcher. In fact, it's the 22nd-most of any pitcher, ever. And most of the pitchers above him on the FDP-Wins leaderboard were from the pre-integration era.
But to be honest, I expected Glavine to post a larger BIP-Wins number, compared to that high LOB-Wins amount. If Glavine really was as excellent at inducing weak contact, I'd expect more consistency and higher totals when it comes to BIP-Wins. While Glavine only posted negative numbers for BIP-Wins in six seasons, I guess I expected more from this bucket of value. Instead, Glavine showed startling consistency in LOB-Wins, meaning that he stranded runners with great alacrity. He posted negative LOB-Wins numbers in his first three seasons, but only did that again twice over his career. Apparently, Glavine showed more abliity to strand baserunners than any other modern-era pitcher not named Whitey Ford or Jim Palmer.
Using RA9-Wins to determine Glavine's overall value status changes his career from great-but-not-amazing to truly phenomenal. By RA9-Wins, Glavine is the 28th-most valuable pitcher of all time. He sits just above Pedro Martinez and Ferguson Jenkins, and about 10 wins higher than former teammate John Smoltz.
In my opinion, and you can take it for what it is worth, Greg Maddux is one of the ten greatest starting pitchers of all time. Period. Full stop. Sure, he didn't have the strikeout numbers of a Randy Johnson or Nolan Ryan, but Maddux hardly ever walked anyone and never gave up home runs (chicks don't dig it when you give up the longball). This is a guy who gave up 0.63 HR/9 during an almost unprecedented era of home runs. His career fWAR of 120.6 is the stuff of legend, better than all but three pitchers in MLB history: Cy Young, Roger Clemens, and Walter Johnson.
You don't need FDP to tell you that Maddux was a phenomenal pitcher. However, one interesting thing comes to light when examining these numbers: Greg Maddux has roughly the same BIP-Wins as Tom Glavine did, with 11.7 over his career. Yes, Maddux threw about 600 more innings than Glavine, but the numbers aren't all that different when spaced out over time.
Where Maddux differs from Glavine (in regards to FDP-Wins) is in the area of LOB-Wins. Maddux actually lost value when trying to strand runners, much like Smoltz did. For this reason, Maddux has a career FDP-Wins total of 10.6, which is far lower than Glavine's 26.1.
Perhaps Greg Maddux was just as good as Tom Glavine when it came to inducing weak contact on balls in play? Or perhaps neither was especially good at influencing batted-ball outcomes on balls in play. Honestly, Maddux and Smoltz didn't need to be extra-effective on balls in play, or when attempting to strand runners, to be considered HoF talents. But Glavine's relatively consistent ability to add a little value on balls in play, paired with a little more value in stranding runners, transforms him from having the career value of a low-end Hall of Famer (averaging about three wins a season over his career) to a very impressive, no-doubt HoFer (averaging about four and a half). That's not a small difference.
So there you have it -- a quick (well, 1.4k words can be considered quick, I guess) FDP-centric look at the three stalwarts of the Atlanta rotation over the last 20 years. Do you have any questions or concerns about how FDP changes the way you viewed these pitchers? Is this at all relevant to your own judgements or research? Please help me carry on the discussion in the comments below. And don't forget to check out the third part to this piece tomorrow, as we look at a few historical Braves starters and I finish with a few final thoughts.
Note: Part 3 can be found here.