Our MLB handicapper looks at two sabermetric statistics in BABIP and FIP -- which are usually reserved for fantasy baseball gurus -- that are helpful in handicapping starting pitching matchups in Major League Baseball.
My 2016 MLB season ended at 55-40-4, which was good for +12 units over the season. The baseball season is a long slog, but if you followed along you might have heard me continually go back to the well for some stalwarts of the sabermetrics world in analyzing pitchers, such as BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and FIP (fielding independent pitching). These statistics are easily found on stat aggregators such FanGraphs, site that was created initially to help users with fantasy baseball advice but is just as good at handicapping pitchers and thus using on MLB odds.
Batting Average On Balls In Play (BABIP)
This sabermetrics statistic is as simple as it sounds and can tell you a lot about how a pitcher is performing in recent games. For the most part, the league average for BABIP for a pitcher will be around .300. Deviations from this level are due to the defense behind the pitcher, of which they have no control, pure luck and talent level.
First, let's get talent level out of the way as it leads to other analysis about a pitcher that can be easily ascertained by the pitching stats collected now. BABIP will be inflated when a pitcher is giving up hard contact and line drives. Those balls will fall in for more hits than weak fly-ball contact. A pitcher having a streak of high BABIP results, along with inflated hard contact, is legitimately going through struggles in results he controls. If BABIP is being inflated over a period of time with all other batted-ball statistics staying the same, those results are more likely to be blamed for bad defense and luck. As a bettor, look for value presented to you in the market by lines being influenced by these recent results, which are not representative of the true talent level of the pitcher.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)
By now you may have read on SBR about my method of betting team win totals based on projected WAR, or Wins Against Replacement. The main component of WAR is Fielding Independent Pitching, which is a statistic made to look like ERA based on strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs allowed. These outcomes completely take the defense, and sequencing, out of the equation when looking at a pitcher's true performance. Sequencing is the phenomenon that effects ERA greatly even though the same events happen in total, i.e. giving up a hit with the bases loaded is different than giving up that same hit the next inning with nobody on base.
FIP is a statistic that is normalized by a league average BABIP to make it look like ERA, so it is useful in comparing two pitchers during the same season. For this reason, it is also useful to see if there is value on a certain side in the betting markets when two pitchers match up. The same amount of hits and walks could produce vastly different ERAs, and public perception of a pitcher, while the FIP could reflect a much closer pitching matchup. My favorite way to use FIP is to identify underdogs on MLB picks, which could be profitably played on the run line.
Caveat Of Using BABIP & FIP
Neither of these statistics take park factors into account, so if you are concerned about analyzing a pitching matchup in the thin air Denver's Coors Field, there are statistics that adjust for park factors out there, such as FIP-. These derivatives are more complicated to explain, but because of the popularity of fantasy baseball a large array of statistics like those exist to help the savvy handicapper.