Satchel Paige wasn’t worried about fielding errors or bad hops.
The Hall-of-Fame pitcher overpowered Negro League hitters by such a margin that, on occasion, he demanded that his outfielders abandon their posts before striking out the side.
Paige’s Negro League statistics aren’t available today, but his ability to retire batters without the aid of his defense lets us infer that he possessed one of the best fielding independent pitching percentages of all time. In a calculation that includes walks, hit batsmen, home runs and strikeouts — the four ends to a plate appearance that are solely under the pitcher’s jurisdiction — FIP can be interpreted as a pitcher’s earned run average assuming average luck and defensive production on balls in play. Because balls in play are out of the pitcher’s control after the crack of the bat, FIP purports to be a more accurate method of evaluating pitcher quality than the better-known ERA.
It would stand to reason that Michigan pitchers would tally higher FIPs than ERAs for one simple reason: They rave about their defense.
“We have an amazing defense, especially (junior shortstop Jack) Blomgren and (freshman third baseman Ted) Burton on the left side, and (fifth-year senior Matthew) Schmidt and (sophomore second baseman Riley) Bertram on the right side,” redshirt freshman left-hander Steven Hajjar said after his Wolverines debut. “Those guys are absolute brick walls behind me. I just try and go out there and throw strikes as best I can and compete.”
The numbers back up Hajjar’s 5-star review: He finished the season with a 3.00 FIP and a 2.70 ERA. In other words, while Hajjar allowed a little less than three runs per nine innings, he would have allowed a full three earned runs per nine innings with average defense and average luck behind him.
The Nos. 1 and 3 starters, junior right-handers Jeff Criswell and Blake Beers, experienced the opposite phenomenon: Both posted season ERAs that were higher than their FIPs. Criswell’s ERA (4.50, compared to a 2.85 FIP) was particularly ravaged by balls in play, an effect that can be attributed to coaching decisions and luck as well as defensive performance.
When Criswell exited the season opener against Vanderbilt in the seventh inning, freshman right-hander Cameron Weston inherited two runners. Weston’s first batter, a lefty, hit a ground ball to the right side. But with the infield playing straight away, what could have been an inning-ending double play ball against the shift instead became a run-scoring single. Criswell’s ERA was punished, but his FIP was not.
Enough theory: Should FIP be used to determine who should pitch and in what roles?
The Wolverines’ philosophy of pitching to contact and relying on the defense means that FIP is likely not a sabermetric that their coaching staff cares about.
“With (Nick) Schnabel, our infield coach, we take pride in (our defense),” Schmidt said after the MLB4 tournament this February. “I think when one person makes a good play it feeds off to the rest of us … We don’t want our pitchers making any more extra pitches so we try and have their back.”
Added Criswell: “That’s what we really stress here — defense wins championships.”
While balls in play hurt Criswell and Beers over their first handful of starts, it would have been safe to bet that their FIP to ERA differential would shrink as Michigan coach Erik Bakich finalized the starters at the corner infield and outfield positions. Even without consistency of personnel, the Michigan defense managed to turn 10 double plays before the remainder of the campaign was canceled.
Bakich may see a need to use FIP depending on Burton’s development, though. The freshman finished the season with the team’s second-most RBI, but committed six errors at third base. Should Burton continue to swing a hot bat but flounder with the leather in 2021, using pitchers with better FIPs than ERAs may be the best choice. It prioritizes pitchers who are more effective when they get the job done themselves, as they are better off relying on chase pitches and strikeouts than allowing the ball to be put in play.
But unless you’re Satchel Paige, there’s no accounting for a bad hop.