ERA? Come on, man…

If you’ve read my stuff before, then you know that I have a problem getting past the usage of low value statistics when better ones are easily accessible. (Perhaps you were around for my batting average rant the other day…?)

And as I’ve said previously, because most of these discussions have been occurring for over 100 years, I shouldn’t be surprised when I tune into a broadcast to hear a former player show his ignorance – either willfully or unknowingly – about matters that those who are paid to know better, should. And even though I may no longer be surprised by old former players yelling from their porch about “analytics”, I still become frustrated and need to vent. (More on 100 year old stats and broadcasters yelling at clouds in a minute…)

For now, gather round kiddos, as your uncle My Baseball Page goes on a rant about Earned Run Average… (Henceforth, “ERA”…)

Yesterday, in game 1 of the Phillies-Nationals double header, one of the best pitchers in baseball, Aaron Nola, faced off against the Nationals’ Austin Voth. Due respect to the Voth family, Austin will never be confused with one of the best pitchers in baseball. So of course, the Nationals and Austin Voth won 5-1, well, because “baseball”. Voth pitched very well and Nola pitched…well, he pitched pretty well too. 6 Ks and 2 BBs over 6 innings you’ll sign on for 100 times out of 100 if you’re his manager.

So what happened?

The Phillies defense, which is usually awful, was awful. And if you’re familiar with the Phillies’ Keystone Cops routine in the field, it isn’t just the bad highlights and errors, it’s one bad defensive play after another that doesn’t show up in the box score and hurts their pitchers’ ERA in addition to their team’s chances. For example…

With two outs in the bottom of the first, Nats’ Juan Soto lined one to deep left that forced Phillies’ left fielder Mickey Moniak to turn in every single direction – except for the one that would have put his glove in the ball’s path. A ball that Statcast listed as an out 45% of the time, turned into Soto standing on 2nd base. The next batter, Asdrubal Cabrera, lined a hard single into right field. With two outs, we’re all expecting Soto to be rounding third and headed towards home – well, all of us except for Bryce Harper – who looked as if he was alarmed the ball was hit so hard and allowed it to get to him (instead of aggressively charging) before fielding and throwing home. When it became obvious that Soto would be safe at home, Phils’ 1st baseman Jay Bruce cut Harper’s throw off and looked and Cabrera, who had aggressively rounded 1st base. Unfortunately, “look” was all Bruce could do, because Phils’ 2nd baseman Jean Segura was standing in shallow right field, spectating along with the rest of us. Spectating, as opposed to, you know, covering 1st base, which is his job on that play. You know, just in the very rare case (sarcasm – it’s not rare, it always happens) the batter/runner takes a wide turn, you can pick him off… And don’t @ me with “2nd base isn’t his regular position” – major league 2nd baseman isn’t my job either, yet I know enough to know that much.

Then in the Nats’ 3rd, Andrew Stevenson lined a double to slight right center field. I say slight right because had Phils’ centerfielder Adam Haseley taken the right route to the ball, and oh, I don’t know hustled – he may have cut it off, which would have held Stevenson to a single. The Nats’ Brock Holt then followed with a hard ground ball approximately 12” to the left of Phils’ 1st baseman Jay Bruce. Due to Bruce’s disinclination to bending at the hips or knees on ground balls, and on this particular play, his disinterest in putting his glove down (“Hey, why not just keep my glove knee height – I’m mean the ball might just bounce right up into it – amirite?” – Jay Bruce) the ball rolled down the line into right field for a hit. That’s until Bryce Harper let it go through his legs, turning it into a hit and an error.

End of story? Nats beat Phils 5-1 despite Nola pitching well. Maybe if the Phils’ weren’t such a shit show on defense the outcome would have been different, but maybe not – after all, Voth pitched very well.

But we’ll never know. And the point that I’m sure you’ve been wondering if I’d ever eventually arrive at is this:

Bad defense obviously affects wins and losses. But it also affects pitchers’ ERA – which is why you shouldn’t use ERA as a stat to evaluate a pitcher’s performance.

Some of the mistakes in yesterday’s debacle were charged as errors, but most weren’t. Nola was charged with three earned runs of the five when, again, we’ll never know, but his defense being something better than feckless might have helped him keep it to under three.

Harper not charging the ball does not appear in the box score. Segura not covering 1st base does not appear in the box score. Haseley taking the wrong route and playing a single into a double does not appear in the box score. Bruce not bending down for a grounder does not appear in the box score.

But all those things can affect Nola’s ERA.

If you want to evaluate pitchers, start with FIP, xFIP and K%-BB%. They’ll tell you a lot.

Oh, and by the way: ERA was invented as a stat in 1867 in order to differentiate between runs scored by good offense as opposed to bad defense. Somewhere along the line, for some nonsensical reason, it became an tool to evaluate pitchers. If you didn’t know this, don’t feel bad – 10 year MLB veteran and current Phillies’ broadcaster John Kruk said he’s “just now coming around on some analytics” because watching this Phillies group has taught him that defense does in fact, “affect pitchers’ numbers”. [Rubs temples..]

Plenty of room on that porch John – Smoltz, O’Neill and Hernandez are waiting for you.

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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