Not so fast…by John Brattain
August 20, 2008
The Cy Young Award should go to the best pitcher in the league.
Now that I have demonstrated my rapier-keen grasp of the obvious, it almost seems a certainty that the Cleveland Indians’ Cliff Lee is on his way, although not so much to being given the award; rather he is undergoing a coronation as the season winds down. It is a forgone conclusion that he will be the recipient of the American League half of pitching’s top prize.
It’s hard not to argue that Lee is having a magnificent season: the man is 17-2 on a team so far below .500 that it needs to win 25 games the rest of the season to reach that plateau—to put that into some kind of perspective, 25 more victories for the home nine this year would mean an 89-win season for the Blue Jays.
Further, Lee’s 2.43 ERA is tops in the AL. If 17-2 and the league’s best earned run mark isn’t worthy of the Cy, then there must be a problem. After all, Roy Halladay’s 14-9, 2.64 ERA (of this writing) pales in comparison to those totals.
However, these numbers are a lot like a string bikini: they show us a lot, but they don’t reveal everything. So, for the BBWAA's consideration...
Some relevant history: In 1988, 23-year-old Joe Magrane led the National League in ERA with a tiny 2.18 mark. He didn’t even receive a Cy Young vote—why? Magrane pitched just 165.1 innings and finished with a 5-9 record. The previous season, Nolan Ryan led the league in that department and also topped the league in strikeouts, yet his record was just 8-16. On the flip side, in 1930, Pirates hurler Ray Kremer went 20-12 but posted an ERA of 5.02. Eight years later the St. Louis Browns’ right-hander Bobo Newsome also won 20 games but had an ERA of 5.08.
Of more recent vintage: in 1992 Jack Morris went 21-6 for the Jays with a (barely league-average) 4.04 ERA, and three years before that, Storm Davis of the Oakland A’s had an ERA of 4.36 when league average was 3.70, but he finished 19-7.
As we can see, the value of certain numbers depends on a number of factors. For example, would Joe Magrane have maintained his ERA if he had to throw over another 100 innings that season? (The Dodgers' Orel Hershiser threw 267 innings that year.)
Is a 2.18 ERA in 165.1 IP more valuable than 267 innings of 2.26 ERA pitching?
What would Ryan’s win-loss record have looked like with better support? Conversely would Jack Morris have won so many games had the 1992 Jays hit like the 1997 or 2008 Blue Birds?
As we know, when looking at a pitcher’s record, we need to look beyond the traditional numbers to get a better idea of who did his job better. We're aware that win-loss records often have as much to do with the lineup behind them and ERA have to be weighed against things like innings pitched and the ballpark in which they play. In 2000, a 4.00 ERA over 240 IP for a pitcher on the Colorado Rockies probably represented a better season than a 3.00 ERA over 170 IP for a hurler on the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Let’s look a little closer at the seasons of Halladay and Lee. Thus far, Lee has received much more run support than Halladay—were you to neutralize their stats (give them both league-average run support; in 2008 it‘s 4.42 runs per game thanks to Sean Forman as always)—and the Tribe’s ace is 19-6.
Not too shabby.
However, Halladay’s record rises to 20-8.
Then again, it shouldn’t surprise us since Halladay’s nine losses have seen the Jays score 2, 1, 3, 0, 1, 2, 4, 0 and 2 runs of support—about 1.7 runs per loss. Had he given up a single run in each of those starts his record would’ve been just 5-2 with a pair of no-decisions in those contests. In games in which they didn’t get a win Lee’s ERA is 3.54 to Doc’s 3.70, but the Jays’ ace logged 80.1 innings to Lee’s 48.1.
We see that their respective win-loss records tell us little about the quality of their year to date.
Lee’s superior ERA of 2.43 to 2.64 has to be weighed against the fact that Halladay has thrown 21.1 more innings. In other words, if you were to give Lee three more starts of 7 IP from Opening Day to present, would he be able to keep his ERA at the current level or would the extra workload have caused it to rise? In effect, Halladay has given his team three extra starts of 2 ER/7 IP work than Lee has given the Indians.
Examined from another angle, Halladay leads MLB with eight complete games to Lee’s three; distribute some of those innings and stick them at the end of some of Lee’s starts and would his earned run mark remain the same? The fact he was pulled for a reliever indicates that Indians’ skipper Eric Wedge felt Lee was done.
The bottom line: the difference in ERA really isn’t indicative of a better season on the part of the Indians’ southpaw.
The key part of a pitcher’s job is run prevention, best accomplished through base runner prevention. Some of this obviously involves the defense; however the quality of pitches thrown generally affects the degree of difficulty of balls put into play (unless you’re pitching to Vladimir Guerrero who will likely one day go yard during a pitch out).
How do Lee and Halladay compare in this regard?
One thing that has gotten a lot of publicity is Lee’s sick strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.58) however, Halladay is no slouch in this regard either (4.97). While Lee walks fewer (1.27 BB/9 to Halladay’s 1.51) Halladay strikes out more 7.5 K/9 to Lee’s 7.1 K). Their WHIP’s (Walk+hits/IP) favour the Jays’ ace (1.042 to 1.078).
If the BBWAA is paying attention they will realize that Halladay is having as good, if not slightly better season than Lee through August 19 and the award is still very much up for grabs. Lee has a career high in innings of just 202 while the Doc has enjoyed four seasons of 220 or more with a career-best 266 when he copped the award in 2003.
As we go down to the season’s final weeks chances are good that things will start evening out a bit and Lee will see a few more losses and Halladay a few more in the win column—let’s just hope the writers haven’t already mentally filled out their ballots since it may well look a lot like last year when Josh Beckett’s slightly sexier 20-7, 3.27 ERA lost out to C.C. Sabathia’s 19-7, 3.21 ERA and over 40 extra innings pitched.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.