Making their pitch for the Cyby Craig Brown
October 02, 2009
With most of the pennant races a snooze—excepting the AL Central—we need a diversion as the season winds down. This year, it seems there’s been a plethora of attention given to the balloting for the postseason awards that will be bestowed by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). It’s made for a lively couple of months.
Today, I’d like to focus on the American League Cy Young Award. Here are the candidates and their statistics in starts through Sept. 29, with leaders in a particular category indicated in bold.
The first thing that jumps out is the fact this is a fine class of starters who are in the running for this award. CC Sabathia leads the league in wins. Felix Hernandez is tops in won-loss percentage. Justin Verlander has thrown more innings and recorded more strikeouts than any pitcher in the AL. Zack Greinke has the best ERA and is tied with Roy Halladay with the most shutouts. Halladay owns the most complete games. Halladay also has the lowest walk total among qualified pitchers in the league.
Baseball award voting is similar to political elections in that one issue can sway a voter into making a decision for or against a candidate. There are 28 Cy Young ballots distributed to two writers from each American League city. The ballots are blank, leaving the voters the chore of deciding among the entire universe of pitchers. It could be a daunting task, given that more than 330 pitchers toed the slab this summer. Thankfully, most of the potential candidates eliminate themselves.
This year, it seems we’re left with five starting pitchers worthy of consideration. So when the pool is whittled to the remaining few, how does a voter reach his final decision? Maybe wins is the most important stat to some because this is, after all, a game and wins are the ultimate measure of success. Others may put more weight on ERA. Hell, there even could be a throwback who enjoys a starter with stamina, thus giving the edge to a pitcher who throws more innings and complete games.
Going back to the raw stats, this year seems difficult. Fortunately, other data allow us to go a little deeper than wins and ERA.
Again, we’re all over the board. Verlander is the strikeout king, while Halladay is the best in the league when it comes to controlling the strike zone. Greinke has the best average Game Score and laps the field in ERA+. Hernandez made more quality starts (defined as going six innings or more in a start while allowing three earned runs or fewer) than anyone in the league and was the stingiest when it came to giving up the extra base hit.
With such a statistical spectrum, we need to look a little deeper... beyond the bold of the leaders.
Greinke is second in strikeout percentage, strikeouts per nine, extra base hit rate and quality start percentage. He’s allowed the second fewest walks and has the second lowest walk rate among qualifiers for the AL ERA title. Hernandez ranks third in most categories and is second in the categories in which Grienke is the leader. Statistically, those two seem to be the most consistent.
Perhaps the most impressive of all the stats I've listed so far is the ERA+ for Greinke. In the aughts in the American League, only one starter has posted an ERA+ higher than 200—Pedro Martinez. In fact, Martinez accomplished this twice. He had an ERA+ of 210 in 2003 and a mindblowing ERA+ of 291 (which is the record) in his magical 2000 season.
It also should be noted that Greinke has a shot at lowering his ERA to below 2.00. He’ll need to throw seven or more scoreless innings in his Saturday start in the Metrodome to have any kind of a shot. He can’t allow an earned run or it won’t happen. If it does, he’ll be in rare company. Since 1973, when the AL began using the designated hitter, only three AL starting pitchers have posted a sub 2.00 ERA while qualifying for the ERA title.
Pedro Martinez—1.74 ERA in 2000
Roger Clemens—1.93 ERA in 1990
Ron Guidry—1.74 ERA in 1978
Amazingly, just two of those three won the Cy Young. Clemens was beaten by Oakland’s Bob Welch in 1990 despite having a statistical advantage in every category except for wins. Welch won 27 games, Clemens won 21.
Speaking of wins, here's how valuable each of the five candidates has been this season:
That all are in the top five in the AL in each category validates these pitchers as clearly the best starters in 2009. Greinke leads in both Wins Above Replacement and Pitching Runs Created. Sabathia is fifth in both. The remaining three are left to play musical chairs.
If I had a vote, I'd give it to Greinke. That's not my bias talking—even though I picked him to win the award in the preseason prediction article here at THT. For me, the important measurements are runs prevented (as measured by ERA and ERA+) and overall value (represented by WAR and PRC). Greinke leads in all four categories, and by a sizable margin.
There's been some discussion about the value of wins when measuring the effectiveness of starting pitchers. The knock on Greinke this summer has been he hasn't won enough games. Detractors will point to his record of 16-8 and the fact that the Royals are barely above .500 in his starts (they are 17-15). There are several things that are out of the pitchers control once the ball leaves his hand and is met by the bat. Greinke had the misfortune of pitching in an environment that was hostile to quality starting pitching.
The pitcher can’t be everywhere. Unfortunately for Greinke, he played in front of one of the worst defenses in baseball.
As Dave Cameron notes, Seattle’s defense has been outstanding this summer, which benefits Hernandez. Kansas City’s hasn’t been historically bad, but the Royals still have been awful with the leather. Greinke's hit rate of 7.6 per nine innings is second only to Sabathia's 7.5. Imagine what Greinke (and Sabathia) could have done if they'sd had average defenses behind them. Certainly some of those hits would have been turned into outs.
His own team’s offense
Greinke had the misfortune of pitching for an inept collection of bats. The Royals ranked at or near the bottom in every meaningful offensive category. It actually got worse when their ace was on the hill.
Greinke wasn’t the only one who suffered. As bad as the Royals offense was, the Mariners was worse.
They still couldn’t hit a lick, but they give did Hernandez a little more pop than they usually provided their pitchers. The Mariners hitters supported their ace a little better than those on the Royals did theirs. Let’s see how someone did with a real offense behind him.
Yankees hitters slugged 100 points higher for Sabathia than the Royals did for Greinke. New York’s offense has been going full throttle for most of the season. The Yanks hit the pedal a little harder—if that’s possible—for Sabathia.
The Tigers offense was fairly middle of the road. Let’s call them consistent. That consistency extended to Verlander's starts.
The starter can't get the win if his bullpen can't protect the lead.
The “Blown W” represents the additional number of wins a pitcher would have to his credit if the bullpen hadn’t given up the lead it was entrusted to protect. The “Avg RA” was the average number of runs the bullpen surrendered in a start for that particular pitcher. This number includes allowing inherited runners to score.
Sabathia didn’t have the strongest bullpen behind him, but usually left the game with a large enough margin—thanks to the 4.4 runs given to him by his offense in his starts—that the bullpen coughing up a couple of runs wasn’t going to cost the Yankees a win. On the other hand, the Royals bullpen in Greinke’s starts didn’t have that buffer thanks to an offense that plated just 3.3 runs per start, which would help explain his four blown wins. Then you have Verlander, who was handicapped with the most unsupportive bullpen of the bunch, while Hernandez had the stingiest.
When you combine the bullpen and a given team's offense, you can get a good handle on the chore facing a starting pitcher just to keep his team in the game. The following graphs represent the number of runs scored for a starting pitcher while he was in the game. The color codes represent the outcome for the starter: A win, a blown win or a loss/no decision.
Lack of run support in the middle of the season doomed Greinke to just two wins in 12 starts.
Hernandez's run support isn't much better than Greinke's, but it's fairly consistent. Unfortunately, when it falls out of the three-to-six run range, it falls to the wrong (lower) side.
Since the end of June, Sabathia has received some quality offensive support on his way to 13 wins
Verlander's run support is all over the place, and he's done well when his team scores four or fewer runs.
Once the amazing run support disappeared for Halladay, so did the wins.
Both Greinke and Hernandez made eight starts in which their team scored one run or none while they were on the mound. However the edge for number of starts with less than ideal run support would go to Verlander, who made nine starts in which he received one or zero runs while he was in the game. But note the peaks on his graph... much higher than the peaks for Hernandez or Greinke. The same could be said for Halladay and Sabathia.
A little trivia to finish...
—Verlander faced the pitchers in this article head to head more than any other starter. He made one start against Halladay, one start against Hernandez and two starts against Sabathia. He also made two starts against Cliff Lee, who could be in this conversation had he stayed with the Indians.
—Greinke was the only pitcher in this group who didn’t go head to head against any of the other four starters.
—Yankees batters were hit 15 times in Sabathia starts.
-- Halladay was never pulled from the game in the middle of an inning.
The five starters discussed all have had quality seasons and are deserving of consideration. You know who I would choose; now it's time to cast your vote for the AL Cy Young Award. We'll collect votes over the weekend and post the results to THT Live on Monday.
References and Resources
As usual, Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and THT's own Stats Page provided the ammo.
Craig writes about the Royals at Royals Authority. The Royals Authority 2009 Annual, featuring detailed player profiles and a complete look at the minor leagues is now on sale. He welcomes all questions and comments via e-mail. Or just follow him on Twitter.