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Roenis Elias and DRA

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What do the Mariners ultimately have in Roenis Elias?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If I were to guess, I’d imagine that most people felt positively about Roenis Elias’s debut campaign. In fact, I’ve even attached a poll below, and unless my bravado unintentionally manipulates the vote, I’ll bet that most of you will select one of the top two choices. Elias was an obscure non-roster invite to spring training in 2014. He’s now in the rotation. People like getting something out of nothing.

For a couple of reasons though, it’s difficult to evaluate what the Mariners have in their Cuban lefty. He wasn’t a big signing out of Cuba, never appeared on a top prospect list, and before seeing his stuff take a jump in 2013, wasn’t a huge organizational asset. That sounds like it shouldn’t matter, but it probably impacts how you look at him. If you can, think back to early 2014, and what you thought and expected of him then. Would you have taken his future or Danny Hultzen’s? The answer is clear now, but top prospects have cachet even while they struggle in a way that Elias didn’t. To some extent, that may linger.

Then again, we now know more about Elias than we did. Our collective concerns that the jump from Double-A to the rotation would prove to be too much proved unfounded when he looked every bit like a major league pitcher. His fastball sat in the low nineties. He dazzled with his curve. He threw some pretty good changeups and he had some old-school success by varying his arm slot. For stretches, he threw like a mid-rotation starter, and looked even better than that when he shut out the Tigers and struck out ten Yankees at the stadium.

Fangraphs metrics like Elias quite a bit. Among pitchers who threw more than 150 innings -- a group that self-selects itself as most of the best pitchers in the league -- Elias's numbers placed him squarely in the tier of No. 3 starters. A quick table:

ERA ERA- FIP FIP- xFIP xFIP-
3.85 (71st out of 102) 104 (68th) 4.03 (72nd) 108 (72nd) 3.95 (64th) 104 (62nd)

Just looking at those totals, his 2014 looks like numbers we'd expect to see out of a good No. 3 starter. While he didn't excel in any particular category, he struck out a decent number of hitters -- 7.6 SO/9 -- and while his control disappeared in a few starts, he kept the ball in the park often enough to grade out well in three true outcome based metrics.

Shifting gears briefly, Baseball Prospectus unveiled a new pitcher statistic called Deserved Run Average earlier this week. If you haven't read the full explanation, I strongly recommend that you give it a look. For our purposes, I'll post the relevant part here:

Step 1: Compile the individual value of all baseball batting events in a season.

Step 2: Adjust each batting event for its context.

Once we have the average value of each play in a season, we start making our adjustments. Home runs depend, among other things, on stadium, temperature, and the quality of the opposing batter. Ball and strike calls tend to favor the home team. The likelihood of a hit depends on the quality of the opposing defense. The pitcher’s success depends on how far he is ahead in the count, and both a catcher’s framing ability and the size of the umpire’s strike zone help get him there.

So, DRA begins by adjusting for the average effect of these factors beyond the pitcher’s control in each plate appearance, using what is known as a linear mixed model. These environmental factors include:

  • The overall friendliness of the stadium to run-scoring, accounting for handedness of the batter (using our park factors here at Baseball Prospectus);
  • The identity of the opposing batter;
  • The identity of the catcher and umpire;
  • The effect of the catcher, umpire, and batter on the likelihood of a called strike (e.g., framing / umpire strike zone, from 1988 onward);
  • The handedness of the batter;
  • The number of runners on base and the number of outs at the time of the event;
  • The run differential between the two teams at the time of the event;
  • The inning and also the half of the inning during which the event is occurring;
  • The quality of the defense on the field for each individual play (assessed through BP’s FRAA[1] metric);
  • Whether the defense is playing in their home stadium or on the road;
  • Whether the pitcher is pitching at home or away;
  • Whether the pitcher started the game or is a reliever; and
  • The temperature of the game at opening pitch (from 1998 onward).

There are a few more parts of the algorithm that you can read up on but for now, that should give you a basic idea of what's going on. The idea behind DRA is to try to quantify every conceivable event, and to do so based not on what happened -- as ERA and FIP do -- but by the expected run value of each event. Like with all of these things, the secret sauce isn't published online, so we can't break it down and evaluate exactly how significant each of these factors are. But it is scaled to resemble ERA and that makes it pretty usable.

DRA does not like Elias: last year, he posted a 4.86 DRA, which is ninth worst in the league, and it puts him behind guys like Ryan Vogelsong, Roberto Hernandez, and John Danks. You can take a look at the leader board here; Elias grades out at roughly replacement level. Why? Well, he gets dinged a little bit for a few of the factors in the algorithm that FIP, xFIP, and ERA don't account for.

Overall friendliness of the stadium: Elias made sixteen of his twenty-nine starts in Safeco, which is as friendly as it gets for a lefty pitcher. He also made a handful of starts in good pitchers parks on the road.

Identity of the catcher and umpire: I'm not going to dissect umpires -- although Elias had to go to the Barbershop --  but in Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre, the southpaw is bound to get the benefit of the doubt on close pitches.

Quality of the defense: The Mariners were good on that side of the ball last year.

Whether the defense is playing at home or on the road/game at home or on the road: It's not quite double counting, but fly balls tend to hang in the air at Safeco, where Elias made more than half of his starts so he gets dinged here too.

Temperature at the start of the game: There's been some discussion about whether humidity should have been included or not -- it wasn't -- but again, playing in Seattle, he threw a lot of games in cold weather. More than most pitchers, which will hurt him in DRA.

Whatever you think of Elias as it relates to DRA, it's important to remember that the factors that drag him down in the statistic aren't going away: he'll always get to throw a lot of games in cold weather to a superior framer. The extent to which that helps him is certainly up for debate, but it does help, and most or all of those advantages will remain for as long as he stays in Seattle.

I'm curious if any of this changes your impression of Elias. He's pretty good at controlling three true outcome events, but even before DRA came out, we'd have had to concede that he has a lot of things working in his favor. Taking it all into consideration, my gut says he's a No. 4, but I'd certainly understand people who think he's closer to a back-end starter or swing man.

What are your thoughts?