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Are Innings Eaters Really Valuable?

December 21, 2011

Today in discussing the myriad of Gio Gonzalez rumors – which today mostly center around the Washington Nationals – MLBTradeRumors.com had an article by Ben Nicholson-Smith titled, “Remaining Free Agent Innings Eaters” saying,

“Finding an innings eater is not as easy as you’d think. Seven MLB teams didn’t have a single pitcher throw 200 innings in 2011 and none of those seven clubs made the playoffs. Only five teams — the Angels, Phillies, Brewers, Giants and Diamondbacks — had three pitchers log 200 innings. Those five clubs averaged 93 wins and accounted for all three division titles in the National League.”

I have always felt and said that innings eaters are valuable. Their utility is quite obvious, they pitch a lot taking the burden off of the bullpen. If they are able to give good quality innings chances are they are average at worst, above average at best. At the very least their durability means that you can have confidence in their pitching every fifth day – which to me has an inherent value. In my recent discussions of why I don’t think Trevor Cahill was a significant loss to this team, I have frequently commented I think he is a fourth starter innings eater, something he was fairly compensated for, but not the type of pitcher you build a team around and the type of pitcher that while not always easy, is also not as hard to find as a frontline starter type. Cahill this season pitched 207 2/3 innings this year which got him over that magical 200 innings mark that seems to define the innings eater, meaning the A’s had two, Cahill and Gonzalez.

The comment however on MLBTradeRumors.com was an interesting one and made me think, how valuable are innings-eater to their teams? After all the teams this year at least with three did seem to excel. To complete my study I took every team from 2007-2011 to cover five seasons in both the American and National Leagues and took their number of wins and how many innings eaters they had. The definition of an innings eater for this relatively unscientific study was 200 innings pitched or more and they had to be entirely with one club because that one team would seemingly see the benefit of possessing said innings eater throughout the year.

The results? Some terrible teams had multiple innings eaters, with the 66 win 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 67 win 2011 Seattle Mariners, and 68 win 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates all featuring two innings-eaters – the worst three innings eaters team being the 2007 Chicago White Sox managing 72 wins. On the flipside, the 93 win 2009 Philadelphia Phillies had no innings eaters, and the 2008 Los Angeles Angels managed 100 wins with just one. It should be noted that no team in this period exceeded the three innings eater threshold, ten teams had three (6.7%), forty-two teams had two (28.0%), seventy-teams had just one (46.7%) and twenty-eight teams had none (18.7%). Overall the scientific results are as follows: an R2 of 0.1332 meaning an exceptionally weak correlation. The methodology is decidedly suspect in my little study here and perhaps there is a method that works better at answering the question, but maybe innings eaters aren’t as valuable as I or many baseball pundits suspect.

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