2010 THT Awards: Pitching

Welcome to the awards.

For award definitions, see this year’s primer.

This week’s proof that assigning wins and losses to a pitcher is an arcane practice that must stop

Good luck division

The Padres were a good team this year, but not one that was noted for putting a lot of runs on the board. So it is a little surprising to see Kevin Correia on the list of starters who received excellent run support. Nevertheless, it does explain his perfectly average 10-10 record in 26 starts and less than average 5.40 ERA. The average batter hit .271/.348/.435 against Correia and he had a 1.48 WHIP. He won three games in which he gave up four or more runs, including a six-inning, six-run shelling. And he had two starts in which he escaped with a no-decision while allowing five runs; in one, he didn’t make it to the third frame.

Tommy Hunter didn’t appear in this category all year until now. The reason is because he didn’t have any ugly wins in which he gave up five runs and still got enough run support to win a game he didn’t deserve. But he is here because he had some of the best run support in the business, which enabled him to put up a 13-4 record. He lost only one quality start all season, which as you will soon learn, in the bad luck division category, is something that not everybody can boast. He averaged more than five runs allowed per in his four losses. Hunter was a good pitcher this season, with a .255/.304/.436 line against. But he was not as good as his gaudy record would have you believe.

Jake Arrieta started only 18 games in his rookie season, but five times he failed to throw a quality start and avoided the loss. He was 1-2 with two no-decisions when he allowed five or more runs. You can expect to lose in those situations the vast majority of the time.

Daisuke Matsuzaka eked out a win or no-decision in 10 non-quality starts, including four in which he allowed five or more runs.

Javier Vazquez was almost unusable for large chunks of the 2010 season. The Yankees were forced to use him, though, and while he was terrible, there are definite perks to pitching for the team with the highest scoring lineup in the game. He had six games in which he lasted five or fewer innings, allowed four or more runs, and didn’t receive a loss.

Dice-K’s teammate Josh Beckett qualifies on the strength of his April alone. At the end of that month, he stood with a 1-0 ERA in five starts with a 7.22 ERA. He had back-to-back starts in which he gave up 15 combined runs and got no-decisions. After that month of non-stop shelling, he had three more games with either a no-decision or a win despite allowing five or more runs.

Chris Volstad had a run of three straight starts of allowing five or more runs. He went 1-0 in those three early September starts.

Bad luck division

If Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young Award, it will be despite the work of his teammates as much as because of it. While they gave him some helpful defense, the team scored fewest runs in a season since the early 1970s.

It has been well documented how poorly his 13-12 record reflects the real quality of his work and how pathetic the Mariners offense was this season. I will only belabor the point so much here, since I have some comments in a couple other sections. Right now I will only mention that by my count, Hernandez lost or received no result in 15 quality starts this season and that in five of those starts, he went at least seven innings and allowed one run or no runs.

Josh Johnson had 12 quality starts that resulted in a no-decision or a loss. In five, he allowed one run or fewer in six-plus innings. This is how you end up with a 2.30 ERA in 28 starts and only 11 wins. In his wins, he had a 0.91 ERA. In his 11 no-decisions, he had a 2.60 ERA with a .227/.280/.329 line against.

Ross Ohlendorf was not a great pitcher this year. He gave the Pirates a quality start in only 11 of his 21 tries. Batters hit .260/.335/.439 off him. The thing is, though, he was nowhere near bad enough to warrant a 1-11 record. He was 1-4 in those 11 quality starts. In his nine no-decisions, he had a .633 OPS against with a 2.62 ERA because almost every game in which he wasn’t really good ended up in the loss column.

In Johan Santana’s nine no-decisions, he averaged seven innings pitched with an ERA of 2.10. He ended this season with a 2.98 ERA and a 11-9 record.

Jered Weaver failed to get the victory in any game that wasn’t a quality start. He lost four quality starts and ended the season with a 3.01 ERA and a 13-12 record.

Zack Greinke’s 4.17 ERA means that his poor run support won’t cost him a Cy Young, as was the fear last year. On the other hand, while mortal, he should not have been 10-14. In 19 of his 33 starts, he received three or fewer runs of support.

Believe it or not despite winning 21 games, Roy Halladay deserves at least a mention here. He received losses in five quality starts.

Halladay’s teammate Cole Hamels is a more obvious choice. He lost or received no-decisions in 10 quality starts. It seems like he is a nominee in this category every season.

Another annual nominee is Matt Cain, who had nine quality start losses or no-decisions for the Giants, leading to a 13-11 record despite a 3.14 ERA.

Alternatives to pitcher wins

From time to time I get asked what people should look at to get an idea of how good a starting pitcher is. I would like to formally address the subject.

The answer is it depends on how complicated and accurate you want to get. If you just want something quick and dirty, quality starts (as a ratio of total starts) and ERA combined will give you a rough outline. It isn’t the gold standard by any stretch. You still haven’t taken into account unearned runs, the range of the defense behind you, or park factors, but it is better than saying somebody is 12-8. The next level would probably be ERA+ and quality starts or maybe innings pitched. At some point you can switch to WAR and FIP. Metrics like xFIP and SIERA add some more neutrality, but I think they’re more useful for what might happen next than what has happened.

Vulture alert

Tyler Clippard won 11 games out of the bullpen. Half of those came in games in which he was charged with a blown save.

Wes Littleton Award

Bobby Jenks saved 27 games and he didn’t even blow too many saves (four), but he looked shaky all year and with Matt Thornton, J.J. Putz, Chris Sale and Sergio Santos around, by the end of the season he was likely no better than the fifth best option in the White Sox pen.

Please hold the applause

Clippard is an obvious nominee here as well, given that he got the hold in 23 games and earned a -1.60 clutch rating according to FanGraphs.

Any sufficiently advanced defense is indistinguishable from pitching

Bronson Arroyo outperformed his peripherals for the second year in a row, striking out only 5.05 batters per nine. His .246 BABIP seems fluky to me. I wouldn’t expect a repeat of his 17 wins or his 3.88 ERA.

Trevor Cahill’s .238 BABIP is the biggest explanation for why his ERA was 2.97 and his FIP ended the year at 4.19. My keeper league team hopes that either his K rate climbs or his groundball ways keep him on the Tim Hudson career path.

On the other side of the coin, James Shields had a BABIP almost 50 points higher than his career average, which explains a lot about how his xFIP was almost a run and a half better than his actual ERA. His rates say that he’s still the same pitcher he was back in 2007 and 2008.

2010 AL Cy Young: a litmus test for sabermetric acceptance

I have sat down to write a brief editorial on the current state of sabermetric acceptance in mainstream baseball conscience at least a half dozen times this year, dating back to spring training. I have three pages in my notebook of thoughts and observations on the subject, often contradictory. But I never have finished any such piece until now.

I’m not the first person to present the current King Felix versus CC Sabathia Cy race as a barometer on inroads we’ve made into the public consciousness. Given that I write more than two dozen columns per year poking a sharpened stick into the eye of pitcher wins, saves, RBI and batting average, it is pretty obvious where my rooting interests lie. But I think it might be a little more complicated than that, both in the specific and the general sense. And that is probably why I have been unsuccessful at finishing this item so many times.

In the general sense, major battles have already been won. Anybody who is even a little intellectually curious about baseball has a world of resources. There are dozens of websites doing interesting work and the reader really can choose how deep to go, from working with entry-level saber-friendly triple slash stats to analysis that I don’t have the math chops to do anything with.

You have writers and analysts everywhere on the internet. Most team-specific blogs have significant sabermetric voices among the fans and/or the analysts. There is an army of influential columnists at traditional baseball media outlets who embrace the new school, starting with the obvious examples of Joe Posnanski and the longtime sabermetric gateway drug, Rob Neyer. His presence at ESPN at one time was easy to avoid and is significantly less so now that the Sweet Spot blog is prominently located on the Worldwide Leader’s baseball front page. If you want to know something and have internet access, it isn’t hard to get your fill.

The audience has grown as well, which should be obvious since media outlets wouldn’t be paying attention if there weren’t a growing audience. Anybody who is a serious seamhead is probably already familiar with the general themes and the approach. Fantasy players and gamblers looking for an edge are a good bet to be looking for analysis that goes further than clichés about the desire to win and pitching and fundamentals.

And the new school has been widely embraced within the management structures of almost every team, to a point where I wonder if the game has entered a post-sabermetric world and those of us on the outside are engaging in an argument that has been settled long ago.

All that said, the casual fan still walks around looking more at stats that predate the Spanish-American War than at WAR and FIP. Those fans have a better than passing familiarity with the concept that getting on base is important and is different than batting average, but they aren’t going to take a lot of time and effort to tell you that CC Sabathia wasn’t as good a pitcher as Felix Hernandez.

As much as I disagree with the sentiment, I think the mentality is reasonable and one that we all use in various aspects of everyday life. It is part of how we cope with the restrictions of time and attention. We can’t all be baseball geeks and music snobs and movie snobs and car snobs and drink snobs and food snobs and TV snobs and political wonks. Even if you don’t have kids and jobs and date nights and chores to run, it would be mentally draining to try to be all of these things. We have to draw lines and live with it. So I guess I need to come to grips with the idea that there is an audience for Colin Cowherd and Bill Plaschke.

In the specific, I think the complication is that award voting is a messy thing that doesn’t easily lend itself to black and white conclusions. I was optimistic last year after the BBWAA gave me no glaringly obvious reasons to become annoyed at my monitor. But it wasn’t as simple as Zack Greinke won, therefore good triumphed over evil. It would be one thing if it were only a choice of Carsten Charles or HRH Felix of Pugetshire, but while I think they will be the only two with first place votes, the hyper partisans on both sides of the debate will have enough Cliff Lee and David Price-like alternatives to push one or the other off of some ballots. So really I think the signal to noise ratio in the voting results will be such that we can’t draw really firm conclusions.

Best Pitcher

AL: There is a valid argument to made that Felix benefited from a friendly ballpark and a good defense behind him to a greater extent than a Jered Weaver, a Jon Lester or a David Price did. Still, he led the league in innings and ERA. Opposing batters hit .212/.273/.312 against him.

I can’t decide in what order to put Weaver, Lester, Sabathia, Price, Francisco Liriano, Cliff Lee and Clay Buchholz. The term “Year of the pitcher” may be overwrought and silly, but this really was a great year to watch elite pitchers. Coward’s way out? Maybe.

NL: This has been a nice year for Roy Halladay. At this point in his career, he feels like a force of nature. I love Josh Johnson this year and it is too bad that Adam Wainwright lives in a world in which he doesn’t have an award yet, but Halladay seems to get a little better every season. This year he ratcheted his command up even more, posted his highest innings total since 2003, threw nine complete games for the fourth straight year, and put up a career-best WHIP.

Johnson led the league in ERA and quality start percentage, but he played his home games in a much friendlier park than Halladay and threw a lot fewer innings.

Wainwright limited hitters to a .224/.274/.330 line.

Next week we take on the hitters. Until then, enjoy the playoffs.

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Comments

  1. Daniel W said...

    Dear John,

    As an avid reader of your weekly THT Awards I am extremely excited to see the year-end pitching awards now that the playoffs are underway. I believe that blogs like this are highly important to the advancement of sabermetric knowledge towards the mainstream consciousness and appreciate your point regarding the success this community has made in this arena. I find it interesting to think about how advanced statistics are going to progress into the casual baseball fan’s awareness. You mentioned it when you pointed to mainstream statheads in Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer, but I am interested to see if more and more bloggers such as yourself will start getting hired by the major sports providers; Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, or ESPN, for example. I recently read an article on CBSsports.com speaking to the very topic you are talking about here. The author, Gregg Doyol, has a very interesting point of view regarding why the study of advanced statistics has not become better accepted amongst traditional baseball fans. He believes that the sabermetrics community is not welcoming enough to the casual fan, and this is the reason that something so obviously superior to the traditional thought process could still be “on the fringes.” Do you agree with this sentiment? With the internet age bringing in the need for more and more innovative approaches in almost every field, it seems as though my generation would seem to be the first one to logically cognizant of advanced statistics as we have grown up with the ability to look anything up, so to speak.

    When discussing the Cy Young Awards specifically, I find the thought process behind the award much more interesting than who the BWAA actually selects as a winner, especially if this year’s winner is C.C. Sabathia. I think that it’s safe to say that baseball is the most tradition rich of the four major American sports. Whether it is the “unwritten rules” of the game or having the manager wear a jersey, you won’t find a sport with more historical quirks than America’s pastime. It is relatively obvious to those of us who follow the sport on a more advanced level that Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher in the American League this year. However, as some of the more antiquated analysts like to point out, the fact that he does not play for a team anywhere close to championship contention could be a hindrance to his candidacy. How do you see Cy Young voting playing out in the future when sabermetrics become much more widely accepted? One solution that might work would be a BCS like process that incorporates both the human element, which would undoubtedly favor the traditional statistics, with a pure data computer-based selection process. This would allow traditionalists to keep the historical beliefs in baseball, but also include the “correct” way to evaluate players. Do you think this would satisfy both parties? Overall, I find your points compelling and tend to agree with your picks for “Best Pitcher” in 2010.

  2. gdanning said...

    What about Clayton Kershaw?  8 losses or no decisions in starts in which he allowed 2 or fewer runs, plus another loss in a quality start (7 IP 3 runs)

  3. Paul E said...

    Well if Felix H. is King Cy, then perhaps we ought to re-think the MVP award going strictly to the best players on teams that make the post-season? Are Cabrera,Konerko and Bautista as worthy as Hamilton, Cano, and Longoria?

    Perhaps Roberto Clemente and Ken Boyer can forfeit their ‘66 and ‘64 MVP awards to Richie Allen or Ron Santo?

  4. Mitch said...

    Daniel,

    Interesting proposal about the BCS-like rankings. However isn’t the BCS generally ridiculed? I say that as only a very casual college football fan.

    One must be careful not to fall into the trap that many “main stream” baseball people accuse sabermetricians of; that is that we want to put data into a computer and decide the winners without actually playing the games. Plus, the world needs sports talk radio debates.

    Time to enjoy the playoffs, where, to paraphrase Billy Beane, this sabermetric **** doesn’t work.

    P.S. John, I really enjoy this weekly feature.

  5. John M Barten said...

    Daniel: Do you have a link to that CBS story? I really don’t have any desire to change who gives awards. I think there are alternative structures on the web who give out awards. Does BP or somebody still do the IBA? I don’t remember if they did last year or not. And any kind of system that blindly combines data and human opinion seems likely to be more flawed and unpredictable than simply going with the humans in the first place. I would prefer to watch as younger, more saber-friendly writers enter the voter pool.

    GDan: That was an oversight. Kershaw probably deserves a mention.

    Paul: If I had a vote, I would almost exclusively go for best player rather than eliminating players who played for inferior teammates. I certainly don’t hold it against Felix that Casey Kotchman and Jose Lopez are bad at their jobs. I haven’t heard anybody talking about retroactively reassigning awards. It would just be nice if in the future (or present for that matter) if we had something less convoluted than “most RBI for a team that made the playoffs” as a definition of what the most valuable player award.

    Thanks Mitch.

    I also just wanted to pop in and add a link to a really good Posnanski hit that I read after I wrote this week’s article. It’s good stuff. http://joeposnanski.blogspot.com/2010/10/simpsons-baseball-edition.html

  6. Rob W. said...

    This is the first time I’ve been to your site. I’m glad to see there are actually intelligent people commenting on the internet (as opposed to MLB.com for instance).

    To preface my next argument I think a strong argument could be made that Nolan Ryan was the best pitcher in the NL in 1987, but he was 8-17 for a lousy defensive team, with little offensive support, in a pitcher friendly park. He didn’t win the Cy Young nor should he have. He was 8-17 for God’s sake. As to the current Cy Young debate, I don’t believe it is C.C. vs Felix. I think David Price is the most appropriate choice. Felix plays in a dismal hitters park while Price plays in a fairly hitter friendly park. Certainly, the Rays defense is much better than the Mariners as is their offense. Price’s statistics are not quite in line with Felix’ (IP, K’s, ERA, etc.) however, they aren’t that far out of line either. I would attribute the lack of innings pitched to the thought that the Rays haven’t fully unshackled Price as a second year starter. The Mariners did the same thing for Felix.  Ultimately, the name of the game is to win, and I know this is anathema to you guys, but Price’s winning percentage is much better than Felix’. Given the fact that his stats aren’t that much out of line with Felix’ and he pitched almost as well and won much more frequently in a much more hitter friendly park, I have to go with David Price.

    Frankly, I don’t expect to win anyone here over but I’m one of those fans who has not and probably will not embrace the whole sabremetrics thing. There is certainly merit to deeper thought and analysis of the game. Obviously, Batting Average, RBI, and pitcher Wins are flawed statistics. But a .300 hitter is still a .300 hitter. Often hitters will take a walk instead of swinging for a hit and it kills rallies. Sure their On-Base Pct. goes up but nobody scores. Maybe I’m just not mathematical enough to go for it much. I also would question many of the definitions such as a “Replacement Level” player, for at many times, especially late, in a season major stars can become available over the waiver wire. And while it’s obvious that some ballparks are pitcher friendly or hitter friendly, I don’t trust that you can put an accurate number on it. Also, I’m a bit turned off by the snobbery bordering on arrogance that this message is often delivered.

    Thanks for bearing with me even though I’m not really on the sabremetrics Express train.

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