Thursday, October 2, 2008

Does Sabathia Deserve the Cy Young Hype?

If you had asked me at the beginning of August who I thought should win the NL Cy Young, I probably would have said Webb, Lincecum, or Santana depending on how they fared down the stretch. Sure, C.C. Sabathia had been shredding National League bats into dust for over a month at that point, but I didn't consider him a serious CY candidate.

First, the fact that Sabathia had split his time between two different leagues made him seem like a tough sell for an award traditionally given to NL-exclusive pitchers. Second, it seemed like Sabathia's credentials for the NL CY were being hyped up because he happened to get traded to Milwaukee in the middle of a playoff race. I was rooting for the Brew Crew to make the playoffs, but there was no way Sabathia would be able to keep up such a torrid pace, right? It almost seemed like a slight to the other candidates, several of whom were fighting for their own playoff berth, to discuss awarding the recently arrived Sabathia the title of the NL's Best Pitcher.

The trouble is, Sabathia hit the ground running in Milwaukee and never slowed down. Sabathia made 17 starts from July 8 to September 28, posting a 1.65 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 128 K over 130.7 IP. Milwaukee made no effort to temper C.C.'s competitive nature either, unleashing him in the midst of the wild card race with little concern for a pitch count. To get an idea of how far Sabathia pushed himself in the second half of the season, remember that the Major League leader in complete games was Roy Halladay with nine. Sabathia collected seven CG in about half that time (he had three in the first half with Cleveland, marking his second consecutive year with 10 CG).

Sabathia went on to pitch a complete game shutout on the final day of the season to punch the Brewer's first ticket to the postseason in 26 years. The must-win season finale was Sabathia's third consecutive start on just three days rest (he's in line to make a fourth straight start on short rest against Philly in Game 2 of the NLDS). Besides dragging a struggling Brewers club over the finish line, Sabathia's season is a testament to his durability, athleticism, focus, and outstanding skill as a pitcher. In fact, Sabathia has far surpassed his 2007 Cy Young winning campaign (19-7, 241 IP, 3.21 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 209 K) in every category except win percentage and total wins, making 2008 the best overall season of his career.

Would his stats be so impressive if Milwaukee hadn't given the 27 year old Sabathia free reign over his pitch counts though? As effective as Sabathia has been, there is a potential downside to letting him go like it's 1950 again (but not for Milwaukee). Milwaukee's desperation combined with Sabathia's confidence and competitive nature may have valuted C.C. beyond his peers in terms of performance this season, but I just hope 2008 doesn't come back to haunt him down the road. Interestingly enough, Tim Lincecum is ahead of Sabathia in Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points metric by 62,699 points. Sabathia is still well ahead of the field though with a 33,826 point buffer.

The risks associated with logging so many pitches per outing would grind down most pitchers, but who's to say Johan Santana wouldn't have dominated in the same way as Sabathia if the Mets didn't have millions of dollars still invested in their ace's arm. Santana could have easily reached the 20 win level without the Mets' bullpen holding him back, likely pushing him to the front of the pack in CY consideration. In that sense, it could be argued that Sabathia had an unfair advantage over more restricted (and sane) pitchers.

A similar argument of circumstance can be made on behalf of Tim Lincecum and the fact that he plays for a basement dweller like the Giants. Many voters feel that whether a player's team makes the playoffs is an important part of the awards equation, but I personally disagree with this notion. The player doesn't get to choose the environment he pitches in, all he can do is give his best effort and suck it up when the offense gets shut out or the bullpen implodes. Interestingly, Lincecum, Sabathia, and Santana are all within two wins of each other overall, partly negating the disparate teams issue. All three pitchers have had to deal with either a poor offense (Lincecum, C.C. with Cleveland) or leaky bullpen (especially Santana) on multiple occasions this season.

Even with the pitchers' decisions removed from consideration, Sabathia is arguably at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the NL CY field. The NL features much softer lineups compared to the AL, but Sabathia has had to deal with both leagues over a roughly equal number of starts (18 AL starts, 17 NL starts). Meanwhile, Lincecum and Santana have had twice as many starts logged against NL lineups and appear to have an edge against Sabathia if his entire season were to be taken into consideration.

This brings us to the biggest sticking point in advocating Sabathia for the NL CY. Should C.C.'s entire season be considered in the voting process?

Rick Sutcliffe is the only player to be traded mid-season and end up winning the Cy Young for the league he was traded to. Sutcliffe was dealt from Cleveland to the Cubs on June 13 in 1984. Given Sutcliffe's less than stellar performance while with Cleveland (4-5, 94.3 IP, 5.15 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 58 K) and his near perfect run in Chicago, it's seems the voters didn't give his time in Cleveland much thought. Sutcliffe also faced a seemingly better pitcher in the voting that year. It may have been because he was a rookie or his team finished second to Sutcliffe's Cubs, but Dwight Gooden was better than Sutcliffe over 68 more innings and didn't get a single first place vote (Sutcliffe won unanimously).

1984 NL Cy Young Award Results
Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K 1st Place Votes^
Rick Sutcliffe CHC (.596) 16-1 150 2.69 1.08 155 24
Dwight Gooden NYM (.556)* 17-9 218 2.60 1.07 276 0
Bruce Sutter STL (.519)* 5-7 (45 SV) 123 1.54 1.08 77 0
Joaquin Andujar STL (.519)* 20-14 261 3.34 1.10 147 0
*Team did not reach playoffs
^Out of 24 possible votes

The precedent set by Sutcliffe shows that voters are not necessarily swayed by total innings or even if the pitcher has spent the entire season in the same league. Sutcliffe struggled the entire time he was in the AL that season (C.C. had a bad April, but was dominant after that), but like Sabathia, dominated after being traded to the NL. If anything, Sutcliffe's poor first half should have worked against him, but instead the voters saw the impact he made during a partial season in Chicago and ran with it. I think there is a strong chance Sabathia will benefit in the voting by helping Milwaukee to the playoffs in a similar manner.

I probably wouldn't vote for Sabathia if his time in the AL was banned from consideration. Technically, the NL CY is only supposed to consider innings logged in that league and the Sutcliffe vote showed that any AL starts tend to be ignored (that 5.15 ERA in the first half really sticks out).

If C.C. is limited to his NL starts, the gap in innings (over 100), wins (7), and strikeouts (over 130) compared to Lincecum is just too great to truly justify voting for Sabathia. The seven complete games and five shutouts are impressive, but unfortunately don't deserve to carry as much weight since Sabathia appeared to gain an edge from the fact that the Brewers' didn't need to worry about his arm beyond 2008. As great as Sabathia's impact was on the Brewers' second half, his 14.2 pitching win shares trail Johan Santana by 4.1 and Lincecum by 9.6.

I figured Sabathia would have been closer in win shares considering how bad the rest of the Brewers have been lately. Milwaukee went 49-40 (.550) before the trade and just 41-33 (.554) after, so it's safe to say they would have missed the playoffs by a wide margin with a slumping offense and an injured Ben Sheets had they not made the trade (again, a matter of circumstance).

The NL leader in wins, Brandon Webb, doesn't really deserve to be grouped in with those three pitchers; he just isn't good enough this year. I opted to include Webb into the table below anyway because he is still a serious candidate for the CY in the eyes of the voter. There are a few other pitchers who have come close to or surpassed Webb's performance this season (Cole Hamels gets honorable mention here), but have not been as good as the Big Three and are too far behind Webb in wins to have a realistic shot at getting many first place votes this year, so they were excluded from the conversation.

2008 NL Cy Young Candidates

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K CG SHO Pitching WS
C.C. Sabathia MIL (.554) 11-2 130.7 1.65 1.00^ 128 7^ 3^ 14.2
T. Lincecum SF (.444) 18-5 227.0 2.62 1.17 265^ 2 1 23.8
J. Santana NYM (.549) 16-7 234.3 2.53^ 1.14 206 3 2 18.3
B. Webb ARI (.506) 22^ -7 226.7 3.30 1.19 183 3 1 18.8
^Leads or ties NL

The Sutcliffe precedent may ultimately work against Sabathia because his AL starts are impressive in their own right. Here are Sabathia's total stats for 2008:

C.C. Sabathia Totals for 2008 Season
Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K CG SHO Pitching WS
TOTAL (.493) 17-10 253.0 2.70 1.11 251 10 5 22.4

After taking all of the above factors into account, I think I would stop just short of calling Sabathia the best pitcher in baseball this season. Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are the only two pitchers who would cause me to pause in terms of who has compiled the best overall season (yes, I'm backtracking a bit and saying Halladay may be more deserving of the CY than Lee).

Considering Sabathia only had a 116 ERA+ (adjusted by league, 100 indicating an average pitcher) with Cleveland and a ridiculous 262 ERA+ with Milwaukee, I think the difference in leagues has to be taken into account when comparing Halladay, Lee, and Sabathia in 2008. Lee's ERA+ of 175 and Halladay's 155 actually makes their respective campaigns even more impressive since they weren't able to feast upon National League lineups after the All Star Break.

So in conclusion, does Sabathia deserve the National League Cy Young Award?

Probably not.

Will he win it?

No, I'd put my money on Lincecum by a slight margin over Santana.

Fun Fact

The Cy Young Award was initially given to the single best pitcher in the Major Leagues from 1956 to 1966. Sandy Koufax was the last pitcher to win the unified title of best pitcher in 1966.

Isaac Out as Bullpen Coach

Longtime bullpen coach, Luis Isaac, was dismissed from the team this week. The announcement was made by Manager Eric Wedge, who apparently had the last word on the decision. Fans and the media alike seem to be surprised by the move, as there was no indication that Isaac had done anything to warrant getting fired this season. Even insiders like Tribe beatwriter Anthony Castrovince said he was "stunned" to hear the news, so the events leading up to the firing were really kept quiet.

A legitimate explanation has yet to be released and we may not find out why Isaac was let go for a while, if at all. Wedge did point out that Isaac was not being fired on account of the bullpen's poor performance this year, which led me to believe this was a personal matter. My initial guess was some sort of confrontation or rift occured between Isaac and another member of the coaching staff. Whatever it was, the team doesn't want to share the details.

The Diatriber provided a likely scenario in a post on Let's Go Tribe:
I think this is a move to clear the way for Scott Radinsky to replace Luis in the bullpen. Radinsky is ALWAYS lauded by the organization for righting players that are sent to him (Jen Lewis) or trying to put the finishing touches on young arms (I seem to remember a piece on him wanting to keep Stevens in AAA until he was “ready” for MLB) before they come to the parent club.

Who knows how the Isaac thing went down and why he wasn’t simply re-assigned, but my guess is that they decided that they wanted to get Radinsky into the Tribe bullpen and asked Luis to take another position. If he refused, he’s shown the door. Maybe more was in play, but I think it’s a matter of getting Radinsky up here with all of the young arms that he’s helped develop over the last few years.
This makes sense in terms of trying to advance the organization and Radinsky does seem like a logical replacement for Isaac. Still, I'm sad to hear that Luis is no longer with the team after 43 years. Isaac was first appointed bullpen coach in 1993 and has become sort of an institution at the Jake; one of the few constants left from that era of Indians baseball.

I wish Luis good luck at the next stop in his career, I'm sure he won't have much trouble finding an organization that values his pitching expertise.

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