Sir Christopher Of Volstad, Archduke Of xFIP

MIAMI GARDENS, FL: Pitcher Chris Volstad #41 0f the Florida Marlins Reacts after giving up a double to the Atlanta Braves at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

Might Chris Volstad, just traded to the Chicago Cubs for Carlos Zambrano and a boatload of cash, actually be better than Gio Gonzalez? Don't look so shocked!

Wednesday, the Chicago Cubs traded Carlos Zambrano and three surplus Kitty Hawk-class aircraft carriers to the Marlins, who are collecting starting pitchers and lawn ornaments for their new baseball palace. In return, the Marlins sent Chris Volstad to the Chicago Cubs.

Also Wednesday, I read this (translated from Twitterish): "Chris Volstad's 3.64 xFIP was tied for 32nd best in 2011, and was better than Gio González (3.73) & Trevor Cahill (3.90)."

Wait a minute. Jedstein just turned Baseball's Problem Child into Gio Gonzalez? It's alchemy, I say!

There are three questions you might have about xFIP:

1. "How do you pronounce it?"
I don't know. I never leave the house or answer the phone, so I've "heard" xFIP only in my head. And in my head, it's EX-fipp. You're free to make up your own pronunciation. Just don't bring your barbarism into my home. Or my head.

2. "What is it?"
Essentially, it's an ERA equivalent that utilizes inputs the pitcher controls, while leaving out the other stuff. So strikeouts and walks are big, while batted balls in the field play are not, because fielders and luck have a great impact on what happens to those. FIP stands for Fielding-Independent Pitching. And the x stands for expected.

Because there's one more little wrinkle, an obscurity that probably makes this too much trouble for even the most open-minded TV heroes ... basic FIP includes raw home runs allowed, because pitchers obviously do have a fair amount of control over those. Fly-ball pitchers give up more home runs than ground-ball pitchers.*

* That last bit of analysis is free, but next time you see me, you can buy me a dark brown beer if you like.

Here's the thing, though ... There's a lot of luck in home runs, too.

In 2010, Roy Halladay gave up 24 home runs in 251 innings.
In 2011, Roy Halladay gave up 10 home runs in 234 innings. Same ballpark.

Was he a fundamentally different pitcher in those seasons? Probably not. He was throwing the same fantastic pitches, and roughly 30 percent of the batted balls against him were fly balls in both seasons.

In his career, 10 percent of the fly balls Halladay's given up have turned into home runs.

That's what happened in 2010, too. But in 2011, only five percent of the fly balls turned into homers.

Did he do something? Maybe. Regardless, history suggests that while a long-time pitcher's FB/HR ratio will move up and down like a 2011 stock ticker, 10 percent is a really good guess for what's going to happen next.

That's what xFIP does. If a pitcher gives up fewer than 10 percent, xFIP will tack on a few extra home runs. If a pitcher gives up more than 10 percent, xFIP will wipe away a few homers, figuring the guy just got stuck with some bad luck. Usually -- not always but usually -- xFIP is right about these things.

3. "Why should we give a crud?"
First, I'm not your father. You can do whatever you want.

But there are a couple of reasons to pay attention to xFIP (or FIP if that extra step is scary). It's at least interesting to get some idea of how well a pitcher pitched, once you've stipped away some of the luck (good and bad). I will allow that it's perhaps not completely appropriate to base, say, your Cy Young Award ballot on xFIP. Zack Greinke (2.56) actually finished last season with a lower xFIP than Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw (2.84). Did Greinke actually pitcher better than Kershaw? To some degree that's a philosophical question. And in college I got a C in philosophy.

I got a B in logic, though. And there's one thing we know: As FanGraphs notes, "Along with FIP, xFIP is one of the best metrics at predicting a pitcher’s future performance." Better than ERA, for sure.

In fact, last season's xFIP predicts ERA better than last season's ERA predicts ERA. If you take home one thing from today's symposium, that should the thing.

What's that? Another question?

4. "So Chris Volstad's going to be better than Gio González this year?"
Well, maybe. But that's not necessarily what Volstad's small xFIP edge tells us. That's just one season. The other seasons count, too. His career xFIP is now 4.19, though, and that's also pretty good. You can make a good living doing that. And while everybody loves González because he's so freaking young, did you know that Volstad is almost exactly a year younger than González?

There are reasons for skepticism. He doesn't have a good fastball, and gets hurt throwing it. He's given up a lot of home runs, and is moving to a home ballpark that can be terribly unforgiving.

But what xFIP does tell us, and has undoubtedly told Jedstein, is that Chris Volstad is probably better than his 4.88 ERA over the last three seasons. Which, when combined with the chance to unload el Toro, was probably just about all they needed to know.

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