Should an NL pitcher’s hitting affect his Cy Young standing?

According to most of the established advanced pitching statistics, Matt Harvey is having a better year on the mound than Clayton Kershaw is. Harvey’s 2.00 FIP and 2.60 xFIP trump Kershaw’s 2.40 FIP and 2.94 xFIP by a pretty solid margin.

But although Kershaw is likely to win the Cy Young (and quite possibly the MVP as well), it isn’t the infamous win-loss record that’s putting him over the top; his 13-7 record is solid, but traditionally pedestrian and arguably competitive with Harvey’s 9-4 record for a much worse team. Kershaw will win the Cy Young because his ERA is a majestic 1.72, despite the fact that the difference between his ERA and FIP/xFIP is easily explainable by a ridiculous .231 BABIP and career-high left-on-base rate of 80 percent. Oh well, que sera, sera; we’ve seen this many times before.

But is there a sabermetric argument in favor of Kershaw topping Harvey? One could argue that although Harvey’s 5.9 fWAR (which is based off FIP) beats Kershaw’s 5.5, when you take batting WAR into account, Kershaw comes out ahead. Harvey is hitting just .088/.088/.123 this year, good for an awful wRC+ of -53 and -0.3 WAR, dropping his overall fWAR total to 5.6. Meanwhile, Kershaw has been one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball with a .156/.217/.250 slash line in 76 plate appearances, good for 0.4 WAR, bringing his overall fWAR to 5.9.

So the real question is: Should any of this matter?

First awarded in 1956 and invented by then-commissioner Ford Frick, the Cy Young award purports to go to the “best pitcher.” It’s not a stretch to distinguish between the “best pitcher” and the “player who pitches best” to make the case that being a pitcher in the National League entails not just pitching, but hitting.

Although we often think of pitchers hitting as some sort of cute sideshow to “real baseball” that doesn’t have much impact, the fWAR numbers aren’t any less real than those for Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera. The only question is whether the Cy Young award should consider a pitcher’s season at the plate (and, related, in the field and on the base paths, although those WAR numbers are usually low enough to leave them as a non-issue).

My gut answer would be “no,” that for the purposes of the award the intent is “who pitched the best,” despite the “best pitcher” language. But in terms of figuring out who had a more valuable season overall? Kershaw’s bat may prove determinative.

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Comments

  1. Jim said...

    It’s called the Cy Young award.  Young won more games than any pitcher in history, therefore the pitcher with the most wins should be the winner.  Case closed.

  2. Anon said...

    Best pitcher can be interpreted two ways: pitcher referring to the player of pitcher as a whole or to who performed best at the action of pitching.

    I do not know if further clarification or historical documentation exists that would point to a specific interpretation.

    Also, I do not agree that pitching evaluation should be limited to FIP based statistics. The range of skill for opponent contact quality is typically small for those who are in MLB, but a skill is present. FIP is a good tool, but other useful tools exist as well.

  3. hank said...

    Could be a dumb question, probably is a dumb question, but how are hitting statistics for WAR calculated for a pitcher? What is the replacement hitting level for a pitcher? How is this figured out?

    I know the basics of what a replacement player means, but obviously a replacement pitcher is going to be terrible and kershaw is going to dominate him from the mound. Why even include replacement level hitting when discussing pitchers?

  4. Lou Schuler said...

    Okay, so what about fielding? Adam Wainwright is at 5.8 fWAR as a pitcher, and -0.1 WAR with the bat. But he also has 5 defensive runs saved. Doesn’t that get him close to even with both Harvey and Kershaw?

  5. Ian R. said...

    My thought would be to include fielding but not hitting. A pitcher’s job is to prevent runs however he can, and if he can do it with his glove, that’s just as valuable as doing it with his arm.

    Hitting isn’t material to Cy Young discussions, but if a pitcher is involved in the MVP debate, his bat should matter.

  6. Bob Sacamano said...

    Replacement level for pitchers is done the same way as the other positions. Each position gets a different bonus, ranging from (I think) +12.5 runs for a catcher, to -12.5 runs for a first baseman, over a full season. Pitchers just get a much larger bonus, something like +60 runs. Of course they don’t play a full season so they don’t get the whole thing.

    Anyway, I hate fWAR for looking at end of season awards. You can say that FIP is more predictive of future ERA, but that doesn’t change what’s actually happened. Kershaw really has allowed that insanely low number of runs this year. Whether that is sustainable or not shouldn’t matter – the award is about who performed the best this year. And it’s not close unless Harvey can close the gap in this last month. If you have to use WAR, I prefer baseball-reference’s version in this case.

  7. Tom B said...

    “Kershaw will win the Cy Young because his ERA is a majestic 1.72, despite the fact that the difference between his ERA and FIP/xFIP is easily explainable by a ridiculous .231 BABIP and career-high left-on-base rate of 80 percent.”

    /boggle

    How does this even get written on this website?  Are you awarding Kershaw for what he has actually done this year (his ERA, stranded runners and BABIP are all REAL numbers) or what you think Harvey can repeat next season?

    It doesn’t matter if Kershaw’s numbers are “unsustainable”.  He has them, they happened.  Obviously you wouldn’t bet on them happening again, but they happened already and you can’t take that away from him.

  8. Dave Cornutt said...

    I agree that batting shouldn’t matter in awarding the Cy Young.  Rewarding pitchers for hitting is what the Silver Slugger award for pitchers is for.  Fielding, hmm.  My guess is that in most cases, pitchers won’t have enough chances for it to make that big a difference, but I suppose that if you were comparing two pitchers and one of them had done some slick fielding that year and the other had a bunch of errors, that might be a sort of tiebreaker. 

    As for Harvey vs. Kershaw, I’ll have to look into it some more, but right now I’m leaning Kershaw based on more innings pitched per start.  Yes, Kershaw’s BABIP is a good bit below his career avarage, but even his career average BABIP is below that of most pitchers.

  9. Pat Andriola said...

    Tom, it depends on what you value. I don’t just value process-based stats for future predictions; they also involve stats that are “REAL numbers” and determine how well a pitcher pitched (e.g. Strikeouts, walks. HR allowed). I’m not trying to take Kershaw’s numbers away from him, I’m trying to contextualize both his and Harvey’s performances.

  10. Tom B said...

    What it reads like you are trying to do is give Harvey more credit because Kershaw stranded more runners than him.  You seem to be trivializing what he has accomplished simply because you deem it an unrepeatable success.

    It doesn’t matter if you can explain the difference in their stats, that’s useful for making predictions for next year… you say the difference in their FIP can be “easily explained away” by, but I say that difference IS what matters this year for this year’s awards. 

    So Kershaw strands more runners…  Was that lucky?  Maybe, but it happened.  Has it led him to cleaner results than pitchers who strand less runners?  Yes, of course it did.  It doesn’t matter that Harvey “could have had” better results with a better strand rate, it matters that he didn’t.

  11. Ian R. said...

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to cite FIP or FIP-based stats in a discussion of what a pitcher has accomplished this year. It’s fair to point out that Kershaw has done an insanely good job of preventing runs, but it’s also fair to point out that the Dodgers’ defense has helped him significantly.

    FIP isn’t just intended to identify whether a pitcher’s performance is repeatable; it tries to filter out the defense and focus on the pitcher himself.

  12. Tom B said...

    I get the methodology you are referring to, it just sounded odd the way your wrote it.

    Is a 4% difference in strand rate and a .4 difference in xFIP enough to outweigh the 50-60 more innings Kershaw will pitch over Harvey?  Maybe that’s a better question.

    If the season ended today I like Harvey’s case for Cy Young, but it doesn’t. smile

  13. Tom B said...

    Also, to get “on topic” I think that a pitcher’s batting stats should matter for MVP voting, but not for Cy Young.

  14. Dave Cornutt said...

    “FIP isn’t just intended to identify whether a pitcher’s performance is repeatable; it tries to filter out the defense and focus on the pitcher himself. “

    Agreed, but it’s also true that FIP does an imperfect job of this.  FIP tries to take the defense out of the calculation, but the way it does it tends to penalize pitchers who get outs via routine ground balls and pop-ups.  Yes, the defense has to handle those balls, but I’m talking about balls that a replacement-level defense should be able to handle with no problem.  The issue is how to separate routine from non-routine grounders and popups.  FIP works around that problem by ignoring those events.  It’s a useful metric, but it does tend to favor a certain type of pitcher, which is why some pitchers consistently post ERAs lower than their FIPs.

    I think when we’re talking about pitchers with Cy Young-caliber stats, we can probably discount the possibility that the pitcher is “pitching lucky” to a significant extent.  If he was, it would show up in other places like a high line-drive rate or a high WHIP or an unusual number of unearned runs.

  15. Michael Lord said...

    Here’s my take:

    The Golden Glove award goes to the best fielder (who played the best defense).
    The Silver Slugger goes to the best pitcher (who hit the best).
    Therefore, should the Cy Young award, which goes to the best pitcher, be given to the player who pitched the best?

    Those three awards are given out and then the MVP goes to the player who best demonstrated all 3 skills.

    On another note, I agree with many commenters that whether or not Kershaw’s extremely low ERA is sustainable or predictable from year to year shouldn’t affect whether or not he wins the Cy Young or MVP. Maybe some of it is luck, but there is always luck in sports. The World Series trophy doesn’t go to the team with the highest combined WAR or the best regular season record; it goes to the team who was the best in October-a lot of which is luck! Give props to Kershaw for having an amazing year, lucky or not, but don’t count on him repeating it.

  16. Michael Lord said...

    In my last comment, I mistakenly typed “The Silver Slugger goes to the best pitcher (who hit the best).”

    Obviously, I meant to say it goes to the best hitter. Sorry about the typo.

  17. Paul G. said...

    The question is a good one.  If you want to take an extreme case, how about Babe Ruth in 1919 when he went 9-5 in 133 IP.  Obviously, he was not the best pitcher in the league or even in the discussion thereof, but he did have a monstrous season with the bat as he made his transition to a full time position player.  I don’t think hitting 29 homers while playing in the outfield makes him a better pitcher.  So there has to be a line drawn somewhere.

    However, with that said, the goal of a pitcher is to WIN GAMES.  And hitting (and fielding) well while on the bump helps to WIN GAMES.  So, yes, I would consider the pitcher’s bat (and glove) when choosing the CYA, but only when he is pitching.  Pinch hitting and position player double duty does not count.  That’s not an issue with either of these guys and has rarely been a concern in recent decades.

    As to the WAR/FIP debate, I am of the mind that it is proper to consider both the pitcher’s actual performance and the pitcher’s underlying “luck” statistics, but when push comes to shove the actual performance is, by far, most important.  If the guy’s ERA is 1.51 and his FIP says it should be 2.95, last I checked no one retroactively goes back and spots the other team additional runs in the box score.  This is similar to the actual records vs. Pythagorean record debate: they do not award pennants based on Pythagorean calculations.

  18. Tom B said...

    Well, with Harvey being shut down for the season a few minutes ago… Kershaw would have to pitch pretty poorly to lose the Cy Young now.

  19. JeremyR said...

    If you think the Cy Young should be based on FIP, then why not the MVP award by the player with the highest LD%?

  20. John C said...

    It’s always been my contention that FIP figures should only be used as a predictor of future performance. I could care less what some metric says a pitcher’s performance during the season SHOULD have been, I care about what they actually DID. If someone goes 22-4 with a 1.68 ERA some year, they should get the Cy Young Award, even if the performance was totally unsustainable, because they did go 22-4 with a 1.68 ERA and their team benefitted accordingly. The guy’s FIP is “only” 3.34? OK, great. I know not to expect another 1.68 next year. But that’s next year.

    As far as pitcher batting goes, I wouldn’t use it as a criteria in the voting for the Cy Young (although I would for MVP consideration). A pitcher benefits indirectly if he hits well, anyway. If he hits well, it increases his chance of getting a win, and we all know that voters still consider wins, even if not as much as they once did.

  21. Dave Cornutt said...

    Well, it’s ironic that yesterday we were all discussing this as the Mets were evaluating Harvey’s elbow.  Kershaw is pretty much a lock now.

  22. Matthew said...

    Interesting idea, although I agree with your conclusion and the others that pitcher fielding should count before pitcher hitting.  Although, if pitcher hitting did count, Bob Gibson probably would’ve won more than the 2 Cy Young Awards he did win.

    @Tom B – Wainwright’s not that far behind.  He almost certainly would need some help from Kershaw, but I could see Wainwright catch Kershaw without a huge stumbling on Kershaw’s part.

  23. Allan Classen said...

    Fielding should definitely count. Pitcher compromise their pitching effectiveness to hold runners on base. I consider pick offs and holding runners as fielding activities.

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