Dave Stieb was good

Since there’s nothing of any interest going on in the country or the world today, I decided the time was right to defend the honour of a Toronto pitcher from the 80s.  Looking deeper into this article, https://www.baseballprospectus.com/news/article/57310/rubbing-mud-dra-and-dave-stieb/ which concluded that Stieb was actually average or worse rate-wise, many of the assertions are… strange.

First, there’s the repeated assertion that Stieb’s K and BB rates are bad.  They’re not.  He pitched to basically dead average defensive catchers, and weighted by the years Stieb pitched, he’s actually marginally above the AL average.  The one place where he’s subpar, hitting too many batters, isn’t even mentioned.  This adds up to a profile of

K/9 BB/9 HBP/9
AL Average 5.22 3.28 0.20
Stieb 5.19 3.21 0.40

Accounting for the extra HBPs, these components account for about 0.05 additional ERA over league average, or ~1%.  Without looking at batted balls at all, Stieb would only be 1% worse than average (AL and NL are pretty close pitcher-quality wise over this timeframe, with the AL having a tiny lead if anything).  BP’s version of FIP- (cFIP) has Stieb at 104.  That doesn’t really make any sense before looking at batted balls, and Stieb only allowed a HR/9 of 0.70 vs. a league average of 0.88.  He suppressed home runs by 20%- in a slight HR-friendly park- over 2900 innings, combined with an almost dead average K/BB profile, and BP rates his FIP as below average.  That is completely insane.

The second assertion is that Stieb relied too much on his defense.  We can see from above that an almost exactly average percentage of his PAs ended with balls in play, so that part falls flat, and while Toronto did have a slightly above-average defense, it was only SLIGHTLY above average.  Using BP’s own FRAA numbers, Jays fielders were only 236 runs above average from 79-92, and prorating for Stieb’s share of IP, they saved him 24 runs, or a 0.08 lower ERA (sure, it’s likely that they played a bit better behind him and a bit worse behind everybody else).  Stieb’s actual ERA was 3.44 and his DRA is 4.43- almost one full run worse- and the defense was only a small part of that difference.  Even starting from Stieb’s FIP of 3.82, there’s a hell of a long way to go to get up to 4.43, and a slightly good defense isn’t anywhere near enough to do it.

Stieb had a career BABIP against of .260 vs. AL average of .282, and the other pitchers on his teams had an aggregate BABIP of .278.  That’s more evidence of a slightly above-average defense, suppressing BABIP a little in a slight hitter’s home park, but Stieb’s BABIP suppression goes far beyond what the defense did for everybody else.  It’s thousands-to-1 against a league-average pitcher suppressing HR as much as Stieb did.  It’s also thousands-to-1 against a league-average pitcher in front of Toronto’s defense suppressing BABIP as much as Stieb did.  It’s exceptionally likely that Stieb actually was a true-talent soft contact machine.  Maybe not literally to his careen numbers, but the best estimate is a hell of a lot closer to career numbers than to average after 12,000 batters faced.

This is kind of DRA and DRC in a microcosm.  It can spit out values that make absolutely no sense at a quick glance, like a league-average K/BB guy with great HR suppression numbers grading out with a below-average cFIP, and it struggles to accept outlier performance on balls in play, even over gigantic samples, because the season-by-season construction is completely unfit for purpose when used to describe a career.  That’s literally the first thing I wrote when DRC+ was rolled out, and it’s still true here.

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