Making their pitch for the Cy

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.

Whew.

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.

On wins

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.

Defense

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 bullpen

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.

Interesting tidbits

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.

Finale

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.

{exp:freeform:form form_name=”al_cy_a”prevent_duplicate_on=”ip_address” return=”http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/forms/thanks/”}

Select your choice for the AL Cy Young award:

Zack Greinke
Justin Verlander
Felix Hernandez
Roy Halladay
C.C. Sabathia

Or write in your own candidate:

{/exp:freeform:form}

References & Resources
As usual, Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and THT’s own Stats Page provided the ammo.

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Comments

  1. Jason said...

    Mark, You’re leaving out one very important factor—Greinke never got to pitch against the Royals! Can’t penalize him for having an “easier” schedule and not take that into consideration.

  2. kcghost said...

    This “strength of schedule” thing is a chimera. Turn it around and ask yourself how many times did he get to pitch against the Royals?? Everytime Greinke went to the mound he had a weaker offense and a worse defense than the opposing pitcher. Good Grief, if he had pitched for the Yanks he would probably have 22 wins by now.

    I prefer Greinke, but have no problem with Hernandez or Halladay winning the award.

  3. ecp said...

    Strength of schedule shouldn’t be considered at the team level, but the individual level.  The knock that Greinke didn’t see the Yankees at all and the Red Sox only once is nonsense (not to mention insulting to the Angels and, to a certain extent the Rangers, who Greinke shut down twice at a time when they were spraying balls all over the place).

    I prefer to look at opponent OPS, where actually Halladay faced the strongest opposition and Sabathia the easiest:

    Hallday .772
    Verlander .762
    Hernandez .761
    Greinke .755
    Sabathia .750

  4. Devon said...

    Awesome article!

    You got me curious…so I had to look it up. I wondered how many AL starters with 200+ IP have posted an ERA under 2.15 since the DH era began. Only 6 (not including Greinke) …besides Pedro, Guidry, & Clemens, there was Palmer in ‘75 with a 2.09. So even if Greinke has a bad outing this weekend, he’ll still likely end up with one of the top 6 or 7 ERA’s of the DH’d AL.

    Greinke also leads the league in WHIP.

  5. Jesse said...

    My ballot would read:

    Greinke
    Halladay
    Verlander
    Hernandez
    Sabathia

    Greinke gets the edge for his ridiculous K-rate in conjuction with excellent BB-rate

    Halladay is second based on both competition and a very solid K-rate in conjuction with insane BB-rate.  Also, he pitched an average 7.5 innings/start, which is incredible considering the patience of teams like the Yanks and Red Sox.

    Verlander is basically neck-and-neck with Halladay and if Halladay hadn’t pitched a shutout after this was written, it might be a different story.

    Hernandez has been great but has also benefited from quite a bit of luck.  A .283 BABIP-against has helped him.  He also leads the league in Wild Pitches.

    Sabathia has had a fine season, but his argument is based solely on wins.  Pass.

    By the way, you mention Greinke has had a bad defense behind him, but a better measure of how his defense has fared when he pitches would be his BABIP-against (.306, which is not high at all).

  6. Cyril Morong said...

    Great job. How can Halladay have more IP than Greinke, a lower xFIP and have faced tougher opposition in terms of OPS, yet not be the better choice? How can he have a lower WAR?

    Also, to try to see how much difference the OPS of the opposition might make, the relationship between runs per game and team OPS this year in the AL is

    R/G = 12.75*OPS -4.93

    So what is the expected runs per game of the opponents each guy face?

    Halladay   4.91
    Verlander   4.79
    Hernandez   4.77
    Greinke   4.70
    Sabathia   4.63

    so Halladay has a .21 run per game advantage here. I know that is a stretch with numerous complicating factors like linearity vs. nonlinearity, parks, who actually batted in those games, platoons, relative importance of OB vs. SLG, etc

  7. pinball1973 said...

    I love that the stats seem so close, but that I have no question that Greinke gets the Cy Young this season – despite wanting Felix to win one, thinking Halladay deserves another one, and having nothing at all bad to say about Verlander’s fine, fine season.
      Sorry, but anyone playing for the current Yankees needs to be better without any doubt.  With 6 runs, Felix might never have lost a game this year.

  8. Mark said...

    Thanks for this overview.  How much weight would you put on strength of competition?  Grienke seems to have a had a relatively easy schedule compared to a couple of the other pitchers you’ve mentioned.

  9. Davor said...

    Another factor: if Detroit loses the next two, an Minnesota wins them, Verlander is saving the season on Sunday. If he gets W and is dominant, everyone who hasn’t filled their ballot by then will have him as Cy. If he pitches poorly and Detroit falls out of the playoffs, he falls off of all the ballots.

  10. Bob Rittner said...

    Thank you for this article. I wish it was more common for these kind of rational articles to appear allowing readers to consider multiple angles and avoiding overheated rhetoric, non sequiturs and dogmatic assertions.

    As for my own choice, I pick Greinke. Prior to reading this I would have done so without any hesitation and considered any other selection as nonsensical. Your breakdown both lends support to my own view and respect for those who see it otherwise.

  11. KC Refugee said...

    I’ve got one other question, and that’s how many times any of the candidates got to beat up on the Royals. (And add in any amazingly bad offensive team.) 

    I pity poor Zack that never gets an easy win against the amazingly inoffensive team that he plays on.

  12. KC Refugee said...

    I’ve got one other question, and that’s how many times any of the candidates got to beat up on the Royals. (And add in any amazingly bad offensive team.) 

    I pity poor Zack that never gets an easy win against the amazingly inoffensive team that he plays on.

  13. steve said...

    The argument that Greinke didn’t face his own offense grates on me.  It’s cute and reasonable but aside from Verlander, who faced them three times, none of his competitors faced the Royals more than once.  You can also make the same supporting argument for Felix.  So yes, while Greinke didn’t get to feast on his own team and pad his stats, nor did anyone else to any meaningful degree (again, aside from Verlander).  The one time that Greinke didn’t get to face his own team like his rivals did is more than balanced out by Halladay’s schedule for instance.  Halladay faced the Yankees, Red Sox and Tampa Bay an astounding fifteen times, Greinke three.  Comparing anyone’s schedule to Halladay is unfair.  Greinke, Verlander and Felix are about on the same footing competition wise.

    Difficulty of schedule, from hardest to easiest, I’d go Halladay, Felix (because of Angels), Verlander, Greinke.  I left out Sabathia altogether because he can’t be a serious Cy Young candidate.  He just can’t.

  14. steve said...

    Jason, maybe the OPS of opponents does say the competition they both faced was about the same or in any case, hardly all that significant.  I just don’t buy it.  In the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, Halladay faced the 1st, 3rd and 4th best offenses in the AL fifteen times.  Greinke meanwhile pitched fifteen games against Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit who ranked 8th, 11th and 12th.  Both Chicago and Detroit were hardly any better than Kansas City offensively and people go on and on about how Greinke didn’t get to face his own sad team.  Nearly half their respective games were against the opposite end of the offensive spectrum.  Greinke racked up 104.1 innings against paltry offenses. 

    I’m not saying Greinke shouldn’t get the Cy Young.  He didn’t choose how the schedule broke for him.  Based on his tremendous numbers, he’s the hands down choice but the notion that the degree of difficulty was just slightly smaller for Greinke is wrong.  He lucked out with an easy schedule.

  15. Jason said...

    Steve, Other posters have pointed out the OPS of opponents as well as the expected runs per game of opponents. Either way you slice it, Halladay’s opponents were somewhere between 2-5% better than Greinke. Ok, great. Greinke’s ERA is something like 2.16 after giving up 4 runs yesterday. Throw in the other peripherals, and he’s outperformed Halladay in practically every category that matters except BB per 9. Kudos to Roy for having another great year in the AL East where the greatest baseball players in the history of the world play, but it wasn’t good enough this year.

  16. Jim said...

    For awhile I was on the “Halladay pitches against better competition” train but Greinke has posted a 7-4 record against teams with winning records and against the three best hitting teams he faced (Texas, Boston, Angels) he was 2-2 but had an ERA of 0.95, a WHIP of 0.84 and a k/9 of 9.00. Halladay has had the toughest road to hoe for sure with the aforementioned 14 starts against Boston, Yankees (6 starts and 3 CGs) and Tampa.

    CC has had the easiest of the top 4 contenders with 9 starts against the Sox, Tampa and the Angels, amassing a 3-4 record with an ERA of 3.75. He’s 10-1 against Baltimore, Mets, Twins, Royals, Jays and Indians with an ERA under 2. His win against the Twins was not during their current surge.

    Hernanadez has an impressive resume. He has faced the Angels, Rangers, Sox, Yankees and Tampa a total of 13 times, is 6-2 with an ERA of 2.26. Just under half of his innings this year are against those 5 teams. Pretty good stuff.

    To me, it’s Greinke by a nose but if Hernandez, or Halladay won it I don’t think it would be a crime. Verlander won’t and probably shouldn’t but that guy can freaking hurl it. He’ll get his some day.

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