WHIP it good

As I’m writing this, Carl Pavano boasts the fifth lowest WHIP among all starting pitchers in Major League Baseball and is tied for the fifth highest win total. And, if disturbing facial hair was a category, he’d be neck and neck with John Axford and Clay Zavada for dominance in that category as well. According to Yahoo, he is the 34th ranked player in fantasy baseball, and 10th among pitchers. So, why am I unable to trade him in my 12-team mixed league?

Normally when somebody asks this question, my default answer is that the player’s owner is asking too high a price. I don’t think that is the case here. The only player whose ranking is particularly close to Pavano’s who I’ve asked for is Jose Bautista, and the fact that his season is at least equally, if not more, improbable as Pavano’s mitigates the significance of his ranking as much as I would expect as prospective trade partner do to Pavano’s.

I do think there’s a bit more at play regarding my leaguemates’ denial of Pavano’s value and I think it has to do with economies of scale regarding different stats. Pavano’s two main statistical strengths this season have been his wins and his WHIP, though his 3.26 ERA doesn’t hurt either. I can certainly understand dismissing the importance of his 12 wins, as it is hard to bank on wins. However, it should be mentioned that Pavano pitches a lot of innings for a good quality team, in a pitcher-friendly home park and in a division with no dominant team. This seems like a pretty complete profile of the context that lends itself to amassing wins. Anyway, one of the dynamics I believe to be at play here is that the value of the fifth lowest WHIP over the fifth most innings of any pitcher this season isn’t intuitively grasped by all.

In this league, the lowest team WHIP is owned by my team with a mark of 1.20 – Pavano is certainly a major contributor to that. The team with the worst WHIP clocks in at 1.35. The WHIP differential between teams is necessarily small. In fact, the .015 range between king and peasant is half the size of the batting average gap between top and bottom. I think WHIP is largely dismissed when looking at a player’s value in the context of a trade because a mark of 1.20 doesn’t intuitively look allthe different from a 1.30. But, in reality, lowering your team’s WHIP by four-hundredths can often mean three, four or five points if you’re in the middle of the pack. Now, does that mean adding a guy like Pavano can reduce your WHIP by that magnitude? Well, it depends who Pavano would be replacing on your staff. Let’s take a fairly extreme example.

The team that owns A.J. Burnett tin this league has basically just endured his travails, I would presume because of Burnett’s potential, history as an elite K-pitcher and because it’s just tough to sit any proven commodity with that lineup backing him up. This owner has not pitched Burnett every start, but has so for most of them. So, as a little experiment, I removed Burnett’s line (taken from this owner’s “Team Log” page) and replaced him with Carl Pavano’s line from my log. This swap lowered the other owner’s season WHIP from 1.32 to 1.25, which would have been good for a four-point improvement in the standings, right behind two other teams tied at 1.24. Conveniently enough, this owner is in last place in strikeouts, so losing Burnett there wouldn’t have made a difference. But, to avoid the cheap way our of this aspect of the hypothetical, Burnett has not been fanning batters at a great rate this year, and because of the innings disparity between Pavano and Burnett, such a swap wouldn’t be likely to largely affect the strikeout category either.

When preaching the value of WHIP, it is also important to restate the obvious to remind us what the stat is actually measuring. In its essence, WHIP is about limiting baserunners. Practically, what that means is that having a good WHIP indicates fewer pitches thrown per inning, which allows a pitcher to stay in a game longer, giving him a better chance to factor in the decision. It is no accident that so many of the starters with elite WHIPs have high win totals and rack up high innings totals.

The high innings totals I refer to is a second-tier point in this discussion as well. I’ve often mentioned that a team’s rate stats should ideally be properly in relation to skill set and sample size. When it comes to WHIP, this balance often works itself out because the pitchers who post great rates often get the most innings over which to do so. A workhorse with a high WHIP is like a batter who clocks 650 ABs with a .300-plus batting average.

To be sure, if you’re reading this and saying to yourself, “I’m still not sold on Pavano as a reliable front-line fantasy pitcher,” I’m not going to tell you that isn’t a fair position to hold. My point is that, if you do believe in the power of smoke, mirrors, low walk rates and beguiling mustaches, there’s no cheaper way to significantly improve your team WHIP than Carl Pavano. Every other starting pitcher in his range is a certified stud (Josh Johnson, Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, etc.) or Matt Latos, a young up-and-comer who you’d have to pry from an owner’s dead, lifeless, mouse-clicking finger in a keeper league.

By the way, just to share with you some strategic thoughts and an anomalous situation, the reason I am trying to trade Pavano in this league is because I am over the innings cap pace and leading in WHIP. Since assuming co-ownership of this team, my buddy and I are, for the first time, floundering toward the bottom of the standings at this fairly late point in the season. I’ve never seen a team put together a pitching category performance like this. Here’s how many points, out of 12, we are taking in each category, right now:

Wins – 1
Saves – 9
Ks – 12
ERA – 3.5
WHIP – 12

We have about 30 more innings pitched than the next team, so if we scale back our starts, I’d think we’d drop down to 10 points or so in Ks, but not much farther than that.

Meanwhile, our offense is brutal, despite not drafting a single starting pitcher until the 100th pick in the draft. Of course, three of those bats were Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hill, and the finally awakening Aramis Ramirez. I am proud of the fact that we did actually draft Pavano though.

Fantasy baseball is just like real baseball in the sense that every season is its own animal, and no matter how much you think you’ve seen, you haven’t even come close to seeing it all.

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Comments

  1. Mike L said...

    I like your take on WHIP.  I’ve found most owners still put more weight on ERA than WHIP, when WHIP is the more reliable indicator of true ability. 

    Although it’s frustrating when you’re trying to trade, the overvaluing of ERA by owners is a much greater advantage during draft time. 

    I’m pretty content to hang on to the guys like Marcum and Pavano, and move pitchers like David Price for the bigger returns.

  2. db said...

    Pavano’s whip last year was 1.37, pretty lousy.  There is no basis to assume his strong whip will carry through to the end of the year.  His abysmal K rate, especially in an innings capped league, gives him highly negative value in that category.  Whip is a hard number to go after, but the only relatively low K guys (I consider less that 8 for 9 innings low for a shallow league) I would ever want for Whip are Halladay or Carpenter.  Pavano may be performing, but I don’t see how he is any more likely to give you a good whip that Gavin Floyd, who until a few starts ago, was waiver wire material.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...

    DB,

    Sometimes you have to just ride the wave. There’s no guarantee that Pavano will continue his awesome throughout the entire remainder of the season, but for the price it may not be a bad gamble. His walk rate has always been very good. Sure, his strikeout rate is not particularly good, but that’s part of the reason he’d be obtainable to teams looking for WHIP help. Players without flaws are difficult to acquire, ya know.

    It’s interesting you mention Halladay, because basically Pavano is having a season similar to Halladay ‘06 or ‘07.

    I understand your desire for high K/p pitchers – that’s really how I build my starting staff too, but to only go after 8-per and better guys is a little unrealistic. Only 24 current starters in all of baseball make that cut off. So, we get back to the idea of balancing stengths in ways that offset weaknesses. If you own a Jonathan Sanchez, owning a Carl Pavano might be a nice complimentary option – combine their two performances and you have 2 seasons worth of four-tool starter!

  4. DB said...

    Derek,

    I hear what you are saying, but considering the variability in WHIP, especially from a guy like Pavano, who has never shown an ability to maintain it, I think giving real value for Pavano to improve your Whip would be a fool’s errand.  For the same reason I generally don’t try to chase batting average and I don’t think that anyone is getting a huge premium for Adrian Beltre this year based on his average, simply because a .265 hitter is hitting .333.  If you are going to go after a high variability category (i.e., average, whip, wins) I think you have to go for a blue chipper in that category or not at all.  Otherwise, just role the dice and hope that your Gavin Floyd puts up more W’s and a lower whip the rest of the way compared to a Pavano, a bet that is pretty even money, and doesn’t have the opportunity cost of a Bautista, who I admit I am still skeptical of, and probably will be skeptical of when hits his 50th homer this year.

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