Saturday, October 18, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: Starting Pitchers

The 2008 regular season is behind us, and as more and more writers push their picks for the various regular season awards, I can’t shake my frustration with many of those picks (some of which are downright infuriating), but also with sportswriters who don’t do their statistical homework and instead rely blindly on metrics that I and many others believe to be fundamentally flawed (wins, batting average, RBIs, etc.) or on vague intangible words like “clutch,” “grit,” “hustle,” and so on. So I decided that with the MLB regular season awards on the horizon, I would stop complaining and start typing. Over the next two weeks or so, I will be ranking the top MLB individual performers by position, making my case for position/league MVPs and other award winners (CYA, RoY) along the way and guessing at who will actually win those awards.

If you don't care about baseball (and if this applies to you, why are you reading this blog in the first place?), I suggest closing your browser, turning off your computer, punching directly through your monitor, and then running around in circles until you're too tired to feel feelings. That said, welcome to Installment #1: Starting Pitchers.

2008 was a great year for starting pitchers. In my opinion, there are five, maybe six legitimate candidates for the best pitcher in the Majors this year. Of those six, only four (two from each league) should be legitimate Cy Young candidates, and both CYA races are too close to call (though I do my best to do so regardless). I suspect that my pick for the #1 slot will upset a lot of people; frankly, I didn’t expect him to come out on top, even knowing my own statistical biases, until I crunched the numbers. But he did, and barring an unexpected and tremendously strong counter argument [EDIT: read to the end of this post for just such an argument], I stand by my decision. And now, on with the list!

6.) Brandon Webb is a borderline Cy Young candidate at best. Sure, those 22 wins look pretty to a lot of CYA voters, and they may even be enough for him to win the award this year, but wins are a vastly overrated statistic (too reliant on bullpens and run support), and every other pitcher on this list outperforms Webb on most if not all of the following metrics: WHIP, ERA, ERA+, SO, and IP (Webb’s respective totals: 1.196, 3.30, 138, 183, 226.7). Webb deserves votes for the CYA—he just doesn’t deserve first place votes. Sadly, he'll likely get some.

5.) Tim Lincecum is a 2008 NL Cy Young favorite, but the race (or perhaps more accurately, my race) is extremely close between Lincecum and Johan Santana. Since I haven’t written anything about Santana yet, most of you have probably already guessed who my choice is, but Lincecum’s 2008 season was Cy Young quality and included a 1.172 WHIP, 2.62 ERA, 164 ERA+, 265 SO (84 BB), and 227 IP, not to mention (due not only to unreliability in general, but also to unreliability in Lincecum’s specific case) an 18-5 record for an abysmal Giants team (72-90 and 12 games out in one of the two weakest regular-season divisions in baseball).

Impressive though it is, Lincecum’s record should actually be significantly better: San Francisco relievers blew four saves for the young right-hander, and the Giants’ anemic offense resulted in Lincecum taking no-decisions four times after going 6+ innings without giving up more than 3 runs (he gave up 3 twice, 2 once, and 1 once). All told, Lincecum had an even better year than many baseball “pundits” give him credit for, and although I would be happy to see him win the NL Cy Young Award, I believe that honor should go to the next man on my list.

4.) Johan Santana should be getting a lot more Cy Young attention than he is. He had a monster year, as his 1.148 WHIP, 2.53 ERA, 163 ERA+, 206 SO (vs. 63 BB), and 243.3 IP (3 CG, 2 SHO) show. Unfortunately for Santana’s real-world CYA chances, his record is a fairly pedestrian 16-7, but his low win total says much more about the Mets’ shaky bullpen than it does about Santana’s pitching.

Frankly, Santana’s 2008 season is a textbook example of why wins are not a reliable metric for judging pitching performances: Mets relievers blew seven (!) saves for Santana, which is absolutely criminal. If the ‘pen had converted even four of those seven save opportunities, then Santana is almost certainly the runaway NL CYA winner (he’s my pick even at 16-7, but unfortunately English professors don’t get votes). Santana also left two games in the 6th or later having given up two or fewer runs; he went 0-1 in those games.

Admittedly, Santana over Lincecum is a tough call, but Santana’s got the edge in WHIP, ERA, and IP, and the two posted virtually identical adjusted ERAs of 163 (Santana) and 164 (Lincecum). Lincecum’s candidacy largely hinges on his higher SO total, higher SO/9IP total (10.51 to Santana’s 9.33), and better record. But Santana’s record suffered from three more blown saves than Lincecum’s did, and Santana actually outpaced Lincecum in SO/BB 3.27 to 3.15. Frankly, Lincecum is an excellent pick for the NL Cy Young. He just isn’t mine. But both Santana and Lincecum deserve far more consideration for the NL CYA than the next man on my list.

3.) I’ve read more NL Cy Young cases for C.C. Sabathia than I have for Johan Santana, which is ridiculous. C.C. had, in my mind at least, a better season than Johan, but there is no Major League Cy Young Award, and Santana did more for the Mets over the course of the entire regular season than Sabathia did for the Brewers in the second half. On top of that, both Sabathia and Santana came up huge during their teams’ playoff runs, which, in a perfect world, would eliminate vague notions of “clutchiness” from arguments for Sabathia over Santana (note: ours is not a perfect world).

With all that said, Sabathia, not Santana, was the better pitcher in 2008, which should speak volumes for just how dominating Sabathia was throughout much of this past year. His switch from the AL to the NL means that he shouldn’t even sniff the NL CYA, but his season-long numbers are ridiculous: 1.115 WHIP, 2.70 ERA, 162 ERA+, 251 SO (59 BB), 253 IP, and an absurd 10 CG with 5 SHO. Sabathia’s 17-10 record is much less fluky than Santana’s; he had more bad starts than Santana (but also more dominating starts), and Indians and Brewers relievers combined to blow only one save for Sabathia all season. C.C. did take two tough losses (8.0 IP, 1 ER; 7.0 IP, 2 ER) and a 7-inning, 1 ER no-decision, though, so a composite record of 19-21 wins against 9-10 losses would have been a very realistic finish for Sabathia in 2008. But—and I can't stress this enough—he should not be the NL CYA winner.

2.) Cliff Lee is not my pick for the best pitcher of 2008. He’s not even my pick for the 2008 AL CYA. I suspect I have a lot of explaining to do.

First off, let me make one thing clear: Lee had a phenomenal year. He’s an excellent pick for the Cy Young (and will almost certainly win the award), and a great case can be made for Lee as the best pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2008. His 22-3 record will jump out at CYA voters immediately, and unfortunately* will probably be what wins him the award, but there’s a lot more to Lee’s season than his eye-popping .880 winning percentage. He put up a 1.110 WHIP, 2.54 ERA, 175 ERA+, 170 SO against 34 BB, and threw 223.3 innings with 4 CG and 2 SHO. He led the American League in ERA+, BB/9IP (1.37), wins, and winning percentage, and tied for the league lead in SHO with the next man on my list.

And Lee’s ridiculous win total could have been even higher: his bullpen blew three saves, and on July 1st Lee threw 8 innings of 1-run ball against the White Sox but left with a no-decision. On the other side of the hyphen, Lee could just as easily have had a 5 in the loss column: in the three games in which Lee gave up six runs, he went 1-1, though in that one loss only five of the runs were earned. But Lee’s 22-3 record is no fluke; the lefty had a ridiculously consistent year on the mound. In his 31 starts, Lee gave up four or more runs only seven times, and never gave up more than six. Despite such a tremendous year, Lee is still #2 on my list. He will probably win the AL Cy Young, and he is a great choice for the award, but I believe that the next man on my list had the better year.

*I use the word “unfortunately” not because Lee doesn’t deserve the award, but because a W-L record is not a good barometer for CYA voting

1.) Roy Halladay had a brilliant 2008 campaign, posting 20 wins (no, I don’t like the stat, but CYA voters do) against 11 losses in arguably the toughest division in baseball while compiling a 1.052 WHIP (!), 2.78 ERA, 155 ERA+, 206 SO to only 39 BB (a 5.28 SO/BB ratio), and a league-leading 246.0 IP, including 9 CG and 2 SHO. He led the American League in WHIP, IP, CG, and SO/BB (5.28). Among Halladay’s 246 IP are four consecutive starts in which he threw CGs but went 1-3 (including a heartbreaking loss to the Red Sox on April 29th, when he threw 8.2 scoreless innings without any run support only to lose the game 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth) and 2.1 innings of scoreless relief work against the Phillies on May 18th; the man, as always, was a workhorse.

Statistically, Halladay’s 2008 season was actually much stronger than his Cy Young campaign in 2003. His ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and SO totals were all better in 2008 than in 2003. Unfortunately, this year Halladay probably won’t be able to overtake Cliff Lee’s 22-3 season and win the AL CYA.

So why would I pick Halladay over Lee? Lee has the edge in ERA, ERA+, and BB/9IP, gave up fewer home runs (12 to 18), and had a better record in 2008. But Halladay beat out Lee in WHIP, SO, SO/BB (5.28 to 5.00), IP, and CG. The most likely arguments for Lee over Halladay, therefore, are ERA/ERA+ and wins/winning percentage.

Lee’s ERA and adjusted ERA are both significantly better than Halladay’s: 2.54 to 2.78 and 175 to 155, respectively. But Halladay’s WHIP was a ridiculous 1.052 (to Lee’s 1.110). And because I believe that WHIP (which is, quite simply, how many runners a pitcher allows to reach base per inning) is a better measure of a pitcher’s ability to control a ballgame than ERA or even ERA+ (both of which can be influenced by the bullpen), I give the nod to Halladay here. But frankly, this point hinges on which statistic you give more weight: WHIP or ERA+. For the sake of time, and to delay my inevitable case of carpal tunnel syndrom, this is a debate that I will leave for another day.

The difference in wins/winning percentages (22-3, .880 for Lee; 20-11, .696 for Halladay), however, demands more analysis than my cursory WHIP vs. ERA+ treatment. After all, the Blue Jays bullpen didn’t blow a single save for Halladay whereas the Indians bullpen blew three for Lee, so the gap could actually have been much larger. And as I have already written, Lee’s 22-3 record will likely be the final word for many, if not most, Cy Young voters.

Both pitchers were very consistent this year. Neither gave up more than 6 ER in a start, and both gave up 4+ ER only seven times all season. But wins aren’t just about pitching: they’re also about run support, and for these two similarly dominant pitchers, run support made a world of difference in 2008. Halladay’s support was almost a full run lower per game than Lee’s (4.61 for Halladay vs. 5.58 for Lee). The Blue Jays scored 2 runs or fewer in 10 of Halladay’s 33 starts, and were shut out in three of those games; the Indians gave Lee 2 runs or fewer in just four of his 31 starts, and in only one of those starts were they shut out. Since both pitchers posted ERAs in the 2.5-2.7 range, the differences in their loss columns, when compared to the differences in their run support, make a lot of sense. Halladay’s team scored fewer runs than his ERA 10 times, and he lost 11 games; Lee’s team scored fewer runs than his ERA 4 times, and he lost 3 games.

As for the other side of the W-L hyphen, Halladay’s Jays scored 3 or more runs 23 times (he won 20 games), and scored 10 or more runs only once; Lee’s Indians scored 3 or more 27 times (he won 22), and scored 10 or more on 5 occasions.

Because the Cy Young Award should be determined by individual performance, wins/winning percentage is a misleading metric for determining the value of a starting pitcher. And because Halladay and Lee both had such strong seasons, I have to go with the pitcher with the lower WHIP, more SO, and better SO/BB who ate up more innings in a tougher division. I have to go with Halladay. He probably won’t win the Cy Young, and if this honor goes to Lee I won’t be upset in the least. But I think that Halladay was the most valuable starting pitcher in the Majors in 2008, and the most deserving Cy Young candidate in either league.

[EDIT: When I sat down to write this post, Lee was my #1 pick and Halladay was my #2. It was only after going through a lot of numbers that I boiled down the debate between the two pitchers to WHIP vs. ERA+, with Halladay (and WHIP) coming out on top. Unfortunately, I missed some other very important numbers:

Lee 2.92
Halladay 3.09

Pitching Win Shares
Lee 26.0
Halladay 23.6

Lee 75.0
Halladay 71.5

Add WHIP and ERA+ to the mix, and it's 4-1 Lee. I should have trusted my gut; Lee's #1.]

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