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Toolshed Stats: FIP-ing out top prospects
Dodgers' Alvarez even stronger when removing defense from equation
10/11/2016 10:00 AM ET
Yadier Alvarez held opposing batters to a .185 average over 14 starts this season. (Amanda Ray Photography)

In addition to our weekly Toolshed column, every Tuesday during the first half of the offseason our new Toolshed Stats series will use advanced statistics such as ISO, FIP, Spd and park factors to better understand prospect performance during the 2016 Minor League season.

Last week, we began our new Toolshed Stats series with a look at prospect power and isolated slugging percentage (ISO). This week we turn our attention to the mound and look at fielding independent pitching (FIP).

The goal of FIP, a stat that is growing in popularity at various levels of baseball fandom, is to evaluate pitchers using stats that are most under their control and ignoring hits and runs, which can be affected by defense. It relies on strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen and homers and puts it on a scale that looks like ERA:

FIP = ((13*HR)+(3*(BB+HBP))-(2*K))/IP + constant

You can find a more thorough explanation at FanGraphs, but be aware that each component is weighted according to game impact. As a result, homers put a big hurt on FIP, just as they do to ERA. The constant we use here is 3.48, derived from the combined numbers of all 16 domestic Minor Leagues from the complex levels to Triple-A. It's not a perfect system, given the wide range of environments in the Minors, but it's an easy way to put pitchers on the same plane.

When we put all that together in a spreadsheet, it produces the following top-100 prospect leaderboard:

Pitchers among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects (min. 50 IP)
MLB.COM RANK NAME IP K BB HBP HR ERA FIP
91 Yadier Alvarez (LAD) 59 1/3 81 21 0 1 2.12 2.03
81 Luke Weaver (STL) 83 92 12 2 4 1.30 2.40
70 David Paulino (HOU) 90 106 19 3 4 2.00 2.44
72 Mitch Keller (PIT) 130 1/3 138 19 11 4 2.35 2.45
95 Triston McKenzie (CLE) 83 1/3 104 22 3 4 1.62 2.51

Alvarez at No. 1 is notable for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the 20-year-old right-hander made his stateside debut in 2016 after signing for $16 million out of Cuba in July 2015. The Dodgers started the 6-foot-3, 175-pound hurler on the slow road with a first stop at the complex-level Arizona League, but after only five starts, he showed he was too good for the circuit with a 1.80 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 26 strikeouts and 10 walks in 20 frames. Because of those early results, he skipped Rookie-level Ogden, moved straight to Class A Great Lakes on July 20 and struck out a season-high 10 while allowing one run on three hits and a walk in five innings in his Midwest League debut. By season's end, he finished with impressive results in the full-season circuit with a 2.29 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 55 strikeouts and 11 walks in nine starts (39 1/3 innings) for the Loons.

Alvarez's final aggregated stats were a 2.12 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 81 strikeouts, 21 walks, no hit batsmen and only one home run allowed over 59 1/3 innings over his first two stops in his stateside debut.

In that way, Alvarez's 2.03 FIP looks like just a nice number on a small resume filled with them, even if it's even better than his already low ERA. But where did it come from? Start with the Ks. The righty averaged 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2016. That's third among Top 100 prospects with at least 50 innings behind Michael Kopech (13.7) and Alex Reyes (12.8) but ahead of noted K fiends such as Jose De Leon (11.6), Josh Hader (11.5) and Tyler Glasnow (11.1).

Armed with a fastball that could flirt with triple digits and three other pitches that can do more than just keep hitters honest, Alvarez was just too good at the lower levels at times, according to someone who saw him up close over the season's final month.

"I think the first game he pitched for us was probably the best stuff I've seen all year," said Great Lakes pitching coach Bobby Cuellar. "Even watching the film afterward, it kept getting better and better. His fastball has great life, can go anywhere from 94-99 [mph]. His curveball was really good and free and easy. The slider had a different shape to it. The changeup wasn't as good as the others, but still, those are three really good pitches with a changeup he's working on. His delivery is clean, easy and in line with almost no effort. That's too much for hitters at this level."

Perhaps the strikeouts weren't a big surprise. To add to Cuellar's glowing reports, Alvarez was given a 70 grade for his fastball from MLB.com with his slider given an above-average 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. That combination can lead to strikeouts against leagues primarily filled with teenagers or low-level talents.

What might be more of a surprise was how solid Alvarez's control was. The Cuba native was reportedly wild during his tryouts for teams and has earned just a 45 for his control from MLB.com. That noted, he averaged 3.2 BB/9 between Great Lakes and the Arizona League, just a shade below the 3.3 BB/9 averaged by top-100 pitching in 2016. What's more, he didn't hit a single batter he faced. Without the walks or HBP's dragging down his high strikeout count in the formula, Alvarez's FIP was allowed to continue to shine.

Cuellar said although Alvarez's control is improving, he remains a work in progress in that regard.

"The only thing I could place it on was with the stuff he had, maybe there were times when he was overthrowing a little bit," Cuellar said. "I believe what we started with him was to say, 'Throw toward the middle of the plate. Middle of the plate and down.' Now that's not saying, 'Don't throw hard.' But we wanted to let the stuff work. He'll pitch inside, and he does elevate at times. But we wanted to make sure he's finding the plate first. Whether you're 20 or 25 -- it doesn't matter what age -- you're still learning and the rest will come."

Finally, the home runs. In a vacuum, we might want to blame the fact that Alvarez allowed only one long ball in 59 1/3 innings (for a 0.2 HR/9 that ranked lowest among our group considered here) that he made his living in the Arizona and Midwest Leagues. The latter ranked lowest among all full-season circuits with an average of 0.5 HR/9 this season while the former was lowest among all leagues with a 0.4 HR/9. These weren't places that saw the ball leave the yard with regularity.

But combine Alvarez's ability to keep the ball low in the zone and on the ground (he averaged 1.51 groundouts per air out) and out of play period through his high strikeout total, and you have almost the perfect recipe for a low FIP.

"I think it's stuff," said the Great Lakes pitching coach of why Alvarez was able to limit homers in 2016. "If you're throwing 97, 98, 99 with a breaking ball that can go straight down, that's going to be really tough, no matter where you are. ... At our level though, you never see that. Guys are going to have to cheat a little bit, and that's when you can really get them. Now it depends some of the situation and certainly the hitter, but in the end, the level matters a little but the stuff is really what helps cut that."

Other FIP-related notes

Looking at the full table of Top 100 prospects here, you'll note that Cardinals No. 2 prospect Luke Weaver finished second with a 2.40 FIP after striking out 92 batters, walking 12, hitting two and allowing four homers in 83 innings at Double-A and Triple-A. So even if he wasn't as eye-popping stellar as his 1.30 ERA between the two stops indicates, he was still pretty impressive. The 23-year-old right-hander didn't quite enjoy the same success in the Majors, where he posted a 5.70 ERA and 4.33 FIP and was done in by giving up seven homers in just 36 1/3 innings. But there's plenty of hope in that the rest of his peripherals were solid with a 11.2 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9.

Sticking with St. Louis prospects, Alex Reyes saw the biggest decrease from ERA (4.96) to FIP (3.48) among Top 100 prospects with 50 innings. That FIP was still above the 3.13 average among Top 100 prospects, but it's still nicer to look at, thanks to his 93 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings at Triple-A Memphis. With two plus pitches in his fastball and curve, MLB.com's No. 7 overall prospect thrived in the bullpen for the Cards down the stretch and remains a big part of their future plans.

Tyler Glasnow was the biggest benefactor of his defense, it seems, among the group with a 1.39 difference between his 1.93 ERA and 3.32 FIP. As always, the 6-foot-8 hurler can rack up the strikeouts (11.1 K/9), but he struggled again with control (5.2 BB/9). That along with injuries kept him from playing a more major role with the Pirates toward the end of the summer.

The highest FIP belonged to No. 4 Reds prospect Robert Stephenson at 4.97 over 136 2/3 innings at Triple-A Louisville. The 23-year-old right-hander struggled with control (4.7 BB/9) and homers (17 in 24 starts) to put himself behind the eight ball with this particular statistic. Of course, it did him no favors in ERA either at 4.41, sixth-highest among International League qualifiers. Stephenson posted a 6.08 ERA and 6.50 FIP in 37 innings in the Majors and might not have much longer to show Cincinnati that he's capable of ironing out his control issues.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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