Saturday, August 23, 2008

Heavyweight Bout for the AL CY

Raise your hand if you predicted Cliff Lee would be a front runner for the Cy Young Award this season (put your hand down Steve Phillips, I said this season). That’s ok, nobody else did either. As incredible as it may seem, Cleveland’s remaining ace spent half of 2007 in Buffalo and had to fight for his spot on the roster out of spring training. Now, Mr. Lee is locked in a tight race with Doc Halladay for the AL Cy Young Award. Quite a turn-around, all things considered.

Lee and Halladay each have six starts remaining as of August 22, so there’s plenty of time for one of them to pull away. There’s also the chance that they will fall back to the pack, which features a few flashy albeit distant contenders who may catch the voters’ eyes.

I’m putting my money on either Lee or Halladay to win, but who will the BBWA voters favor in a close race? To try and answer that, I decided to look at the last ten CYA winners. I also compared the frontrunners to the rest of the field to see if there are any sleepers for the award. Finally, I compared Lee and Halladay directly in an attempt to find any chinks in their armor, as viewed by the voters (you may be thinking, this is an awful lot of work for something that will be fact in a couple months, which is true. Seriously though, where’s the fun in waiting?).

What’s the benchmark for the CYA?

The Baseball Writers of America are a notoriously picky bunch when it comes to voting for awards. The MVP award seems to have more controversy surrounding it each year than the Cy Young does, but there are some questionable trends that come into play for the CY as well. I’ll include less traditional stats later, but I wanted to focus on the voters’ tendencies to get a feel for what matters the most on the final ballot.

The strangest trend is how much weight the voters seem to put towards a pitcher’s win-loss record and his team’s overall record. Chances are, if you still think these two stats carry an equivalent value to ERA and strikeout rates then I doubt I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. Trying to determine the impact a starting pitcher has had over the course of the season and the context of those contributions can be helpful in determining how valuable the pitcher is, but only if put in the proper context. The win-loss argument is about as tired as it gets though, so I’ll be brief.

A pitcher’s record tends to be a direct reflection of how good the rest of the team is, specifically the bullpen, offense, and defense. The pitcher has little to no control over any of these factors (I suppose you could argue a groundball pitcher affects the defense and an innings-eater keeps a faulty pen off the mound, but in general, the pitcher has no say in the matter), yet they all directly impact the pitcher’s win-loss record. On the other hand, a pitcher can be made to look a lot better than he is if he has a superior defense or above average run support helping him suppress his ERA or rack up wins.

Looking at the past 10 AL Cy Young winners, you can compile a benchmark that voters will likely compare this year’s contenders to. The last ten winners posted an average line of 231 IP, 2.80 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 234 K. No pitcher had fewer than 18 wins or less than a .525 team win percentage. Even more exclusive was the fact that only three winners were on teams that did not make the playoffs.

Cy Young Award Winners 2007-1998

Player Year Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K 1st Place Votes^
C.C. Sabathia 2007 CLE (.593) 19-7 241 3.21 1.14 209 19
J. Santana 2006 MIN (.593) 19-6 234 2.77 1.00 245 28
B. Colon 2005 LAA (.586) 21-8 223 3.48 1.16 157 17
J. Santana 2004 MIN (.568) 20-6 228 2.61 0.92 265 28
R. Halladay 2003 TOR (.531)* 22-7 266 3.25 1.07 204 26
B. Zito 2002 OAK (.636) 23-5 229 2.75 1.13 182 17
R. Clemens 2001 NYY (.594) 20-3 220 3.51 1.26 213 21
P. Martinez 2000 BOS (.525)* 18-6 217 1.74 0.74 284 28
P. Martinez 1999 BOS (.580) 23-4 213 2.07 0.92 313 28
R. Clemens 1998 TOR (.543)* 20-6 235 2.65 1.10 271 28

Average: .575 20-6 231 2.80 1.04 234

*Team did not reach playoffs

^Out of 28 possible votes

Actually, the only pitcher in the past 10 years to have just 18 wins and a team WP below .530 on a non-playoff team was Pedro Martinez in 2000. The rest of Pedro’s stats were just so ridiculous (217 IP, 1.74 ERA, .92 WHIP, 284 K), that it’s probably more realistic to expect no fewer than 19 wins and for the pitcher to be on a strong playoff contender (I didn’t say it made sense, that’s just what past stats say).

The Field

So besides Mr. Lee and Doc Halladay (more on them later), is anyone else close to meeting the criteria of a CY winner? Ehhh, not so much.

CY Contenders as of 8/22/08

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K K/BB
D. Matsuzaka BOS (.579) 15-2 126.2 2.77 1.37 109 1.42
F. Hernandez SEA (.368) 7-8 151.0 3.04 1.34 140 2.30
J. Danks CHW (.576) 10-5 150.3 3.05 1.20 130 2.89
J. Saunders ANA (.613) 14-5 157.7 3.14 1.19 78 1.70
J. Guthrie BAL (.480) 10-9 177.0 3.15 1.16 110 2.20
J. Lester BOS (.579) 12-4 167.7 3.17 1.28 114 2.24
M. Mussina NYY (.528) 16-7 153.3 3.35 1.20 109 5.19

I initially ranked pitchers by their season ERA, K/9, and VORP on Baseball Prospectus’ stat sorting list, just to figure out a rough list of candidates. Guys like Felix Hernandez, John Danks, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jon Lester looked like stiff competition before their lack of wins and innings pitched were factored in.

I was surprised to see what an excellent season Felix Hernandez is having with a 3.04 ERA and 140 K. If it weren’t for his fragility and the fact that he’s on a terrible, West Coast team, Hernandez’s performance would have garnered him more attention. Lester and Guthrie were two more guys who are having solid seasons, but their lack of strikeouts (112 and 110 respectively) and wins (12 and 10) leaves them out of the CY conversation.

Once you move past the mid-tier pitchers, there are only three starters comparable to Lee and Doc in wins and ERA. Saunders is tempting at first glance, but considering his lack of Ks (78) and name recognition (the average voter would probably be more inclined to vote for John Lackey over Saunders, even though Lackey missed a large chunk of the season) his chances are nil. It’s easy to be overshadowed on a contender like Anaheim when the rest of the rotation is so good (also see Carmona, Fausto; 2007).

I’ve heard various media outlets toss Matsuzaka and Mussina into the CY conversation, which is odd considering neither of them can hang with the frontrunners. Mussina may reach 20 wins thanks to a hefty 5.31 runs of support per start, but even that’s the only category where Moose has a shot. Mussina would have to finish extremely strong in September (not unprecedented, he has a career 2.84 ERA in Sept.), but I don’t think he has the stamina to catch up in any other categories.

As for Matsuzaka, I think his 1.42 K/BB ratio and below-average .264 BAbip speak pretty loudly. Like Mussina, he’s got the wins, the contending team, and the hype, but I bet his ERA ends up closer to 3.77 than 2.77 by the time the season’s over.

The Frontrunners

Barring an epic collapse in their final six starts, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay seem to be alone in the AL CY race. Both pitchers have impressive resumes this season, but each goes about it in a different way.

Halladay is typically more of a groundball pitcher (57.2 GB%), allowing him to get fast outs, conserve pitches, and go deeper into games. Halladay’s strikeout rates have always been healthy, but he has reached 160 Ks only twice in his career. This makes his current combination of a 7.64 K/9 rate (168 K total) and 53.6% groundball rate particularly impressive.

The last time Halladay combined these two strengths in a healthy season was 2003, the last time he won the Cy Young (204 K, 58.4 GB%).

Lee has traditionally relied on flyball outs with decent strikeout rates, but like Halladay, has greatly improved upon his previous trends. By improving the quality of his pitches and approach, Lee has done a better job of keeping hitters off-balance than in the past. The fact that he can precisely locate his fastball and nasty curveball for a strike has also made hitters more inclined to swing at Lee’s pitch in an attempt to put the ball in play. This refined approach has led to a career high in groundball to flyball outs (1.34 2008, .83 career), thus leading to a career low in homeruns surrendered (.41 HR/9).

Obviously, more strikeouts and groundballs will lead to shorter innings (fewer baserunners, more double plays) and is a big reason why Lee has already matched his career total for complete games this season with three.

Lee vs. Halladay as of 8/22/08

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K K/BB
C. Lee CLE (.460) 18-2 177.7 2.43 1.08 141 5.42
R. Halladay TOR (.520) 15-9 198.0 2.68 1.04 168 4.94

The two frontrunners seem very close at first glance with Lee holding more wins and Halladay more innings and strikeouts. Lee currently leads the AL in ERA, K/BB ratio (5.42), wins, and win percentage (.900). Halladay is first in the AL in IP and complete games, second in WHIP and strikeouts, and third in K/BB ratio (4.94).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee and Halladay stay as close as they are now statistically, which means the two major points of contention will be wins and quality/quantity of innings.

If I had to choose between two similar pitchers, I would tend to go for the guy who will give me more quality innings (in this case, Halladay). First, I’d like to peel back a few more layers before definitively choosing anyone here.

Alternative Stats for Lee vs. Halladay as of 8/22/08

Player CG SHO ERA+ FIP Lead or Tie Blown RS per Start OPP QUAL OPS
C. Lee 3 1 180 2.63 5 5.24 .725
R. Halladay 8 2 158 3.09 2 4.25 .762

If you remove team defense from the equation, Lee has actually pitched much better than Halladay in terms of FIP. Lee posted a 2.63 FIP, despite having the fifth worst team defense in the AL in terms of defensive efficiency (.694). Halladay’s FIP of 3.09 indicates the groundball-heavy pitcher’s stats would be a bit worse if it weren’t for the All Star defense playing behind him. Toronto owns the third best defensive efficiency in the AL at .709.

Lee has also had to dodge bullets from his own bullpen, watching five potential wins go to waste after he left the game. Cleveland’s relief pitching has been the ultimate oxymoron this season with a 5.29 ERA. The fact that Toronto has a sparkling 2.98 bullpen ERA would be more of a factor if it weren’t for the eight games that Halladay finished himself this season. Granted, Lee may have incurred more losses by pitching deeper into games, but if Lee had even two of those decisions back he would already be at 20 wins with six starts to go.

Halladay earns some points by getting a full run less from his offense than Lee per start. Halladay also had to face a slightly tougher collection of hitters this season with a .762 opposition OPS to Lee’s .725. Still, Cleveland’s leaky bullpen closes the gap on the run support argument, in my opinion.

Finally, if you compare each pitcher’s ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark factors and measured against the league average; 100 indicates an average pitcher), Lee is 22 points ahead of Halladay (a sizeable margin). The first thing I thought of to explain this was that Halladay plays in the cavernous Rogers Centre with a superior defense. Odds are, a lot of potential hits are stolen in that ballpark, thus aiding Halladay’s numbers.

Taking into account adjusted stats like FIP and ERA+, it would appear that the quality of Lee’s innings partially negates or surpasses Halladay’s quantity. Combine that with Lee’s lead in the all-important (to the voters anyway) wins and traditional ERA and I think Lee has enough of a buffer from Halladay to take home the CY this year.

Where does K-Rod fit in?

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about all the buzz surrounding Anaheim’s ace reliever. Personally, I’m not a fan of giving the CY to a closer. The disparity between innings compared to starters and the fact that the save tends to be the main benchmark for evaluating closers (basically a win in reverse, it mostly depends on who’s played before you to set up the opportunity) are my two main points of contention on the matter. The CY has been awarded to a closer 10 times between both leagues though, so it still deserves a look.

K-Rod’s claim to fame in 2008 has been his chase of Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 saves in a season for the 1990 Chi Sox. Thigpen received just two first-place votes for the CY that year with Dave Stewart, Roger Clemens, and Bob Welch all receiving more votes than him. Since there’s only one record, how do K-Rod’s other stats compare to past CY winners out of the pen?

Past CY Winning Closers vs. Rodriguez Through 8/22/08

Player Team Year W-L SV IP ERA K WHIP 1st Place Votes^
F. Rodriguez LAA 2008 2-2 48 53.3 2.70 58 1.37 N/A
E. Gagne LAD 2003 2-3 55 82.3 1.20 137 .692 28
D. Eckersley OAK 1992 7-1 51 80.0 1.91 93 .913 19
M. Davis SDP 1989 4-3 44 92.7 1.85 92 1.04 19
S. Bedrosian PHI 1987 5-3 40 89.0 2.83 74 1.20 9
W. Hernandez DET 1984 9-3 32 140.3 1.92 112 .941 12

While Rodriguez is having a very good season, he’s not even close to the dominance shown by previous CY closers. K-Rod has just allowed more baserunners and runs period, as shown by his ERA and WHIP. Only one of the five previous winners had an ERA above 2.00 and no one had a WHIP above 1.20, while K-Rod currently has both.

If the race between Lee and Halladay comes down to the wire I don’t see many first place votes trickling down to Rodriguez.

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs.


I owe Cliff Lee an apology.

Lee posted a 6.29 ERA in 16 starts before being sent to Buffalo to finish out the remainder of the 2007 season. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Lee didn’t do himself any favors in mocking a booing throng of Jacobs Field fans before exiting from his final start in Cleveland that season. The air of apathy and apparent lack of respect for the fans and his teammates (there was a definite tension between Victor and Cliff back then) caused me to balk at the thought of Lee ever pitching in Cleveland again.

Where was the work ethic and focus that had accompanied Lee in his breakout 2005 season?

Lee ended up digging himself a hole he could not escape in 2007, but looking back on that season, I can’t say I blame him. It’s hard enough to maintain the intense focus and physical abilities needed to pitch at an elite level, but Lee also had to cope with his young son’s illness over the course of the season. I honestly can’t imagine the level of frustration he must have felt as the season wore on. Combine that with a nagging abdominal injury suffered in spring training and the pressure to hold down his spot in the rotation and it’s easy to see why the season snowballed on Cliff.

Sometimes fans get so caught up in the game that they forget the guys on the field have lives to deal with off the field as well; I’m certainly guilty of this at times.

Lee proved all the doubters wrong in 2008, coming into spring training relaxed, healthy, and motivated to win. To come back from such a terrible season, half of which was spent in the minor leagues, and evolve into one of the best pitchers in baseball in less than a year is an amazing achievement. While no one expected Lee to contend for the Cy Young in 2008, I have been especially hard on him. So, proving once again, I really have no idea what I’m talking about half the time.

Congratulations on the turn-around Cliff, you earned it.

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