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September 30, 2008 at 4:21 PM

Thoughts on GM candidates, Cy Young

For anyone who missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment on KJR 950 AM’s Mitch in the Morning show, here it is. We wrapped up the Mariners season, talking about Ichiro, the GM search and where this team goes from here. Where I go from here, is away for a while. It’s been a long season and now, it’s time to recharge. Been fun chatting with all of you throughout this season, even those of you who disagreed with me. The future, as always, is unclear. But that’s what keeps life interesting.
We can all cross Brian Cashman off the Mariners GM list, as he just signed a three-year extension with the New York Yankees.
One name you can certainly add to the list? That of Tony LaCava, the assistant GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. I hear the Mariners already contacted the Blue Jays over the weekend to seek permission to interview LaCava and have received it. Perhaps they wanted to get a head start on their Toronto calls, considering team president Paul Godfrey announced yesterday that he was stepping down. The Mariners might have been tipped off in advance that this was about to happen and likely wanted to take care of business before things got complicated. By the way, former Mariners GM Pat Gillick is among the leading contenders to replace Godfrey (see chart to the right of story). We already told you last week that Gillick wasn’t coming back here.
Been getting some feedback on a Baseball Tonight appearance I made on Sunday on ESPN, in which I talked about voting Roy Halladay ahead of Cliff Lee in the AL Cy Young Award ballot I have this year. I often read a lot of speculation about what goes into writers’ award choices, so I figured I’d share my thought process with you as a point of future reference.
Yes, I am taking Halladay over Lee, but not for the reasons some of you suspect. I was all prepared to vote for Lee, then Halladay, then Daisuke Matsuzaka third. No, I’m not taking K-Rod. Give me a break. But anyhow, I changed my mind in taking one final look at the numbers on Sunday. Many of you know I’m a big Halladay supporter, but hey, I’m not about to make a fool of myself nationally by picking him just because I used to cover the Blue Jays. Believe me, I know full well I might be the only BBWAA writer picking Halladay first. The easy thing to do would be to take Lee like just about everyone else (including John Kruk, Steve Phillips and everyone else on Baseball Tonight). But, well, I just couldn’t do it.
The big thing that kept gnawing at me was the whole “wins” thing. Everybody I spoke with, who mentioned Lee being a “slam dunk” for the award kept mentioning his win total and winning percentage. Now, I’m not one of those who automatically dismisses wins as useless. I think that winning is important and that pitchers who win 20 or more tend to be very good pitchers. But there is an element of luck involved, as anyone who followed Felix Hernandez and the Mariners this season could attest to. Was Hernandez really only three wins better than Roy Corcoran?
In this case, Lee won 22 and Halladay 20. So, we can assume they are both excellent pitchers. Because of the luck factor involved in wins, I’m not going to say Lee is the better pitcher just because he won two more games. So, for me, the whole “winning” thing as Lee’s edge is sort of invalidated.
Yes, Lee had the better ERA (the next thing writers always look at) with a 2.54 compared to Halladay’s 2.78.
Both totals are still excellent. But we all know that ERA is not the be-all, end-all stat either. I would never pick a Cy Young winner strictly on ERA. So, now let’s do some real research.

For me, the thing that begins to tip the scales in Halladay’s favor is his advantage in innings pitched (246 to 223 1/3). That difference of nearly 23 innings is hardly slight, considering both guys went well beyond the 200 threshold. It’s three very good starts worth of difference. At a point where pitchers’ arms tend to feel like they’re falling off from an extended workload. And that can’t be overlooked.
Halladay made three more starts than Lee, at 34 to 31 (actually, as a reader points out, it was only two more starts and a 2 1/3-inning relief outing. Makes no difference, really). The fact that Lee, not feeling 100 percent, chose to sit out his final start against a desperate White Sox team caught my attention. Would the White Sox have pounded on an ailing Lee, — driving up his loss total and ERA — in a game Chicago had to win? We don’t know and never will because Lee sat that one out.
For me, taking the ball every fifth day is a major criterion that should be used to judge excellence in starting pitchers. Halladay took the ball three more times than Lee did. It may not matter in a huge way, but when there’s a razor thin gap between pitchers, it matters to me. It’s these late games that tend to make pitchers’ numbers look worse. Also, the late innings of games, when tiring pitchers are not at their sharpest. Halladay tended to stay in his games longer, obviously, judging by the innings difference and his ML leading nine complete games (a huge deal in that it gave his bullpen more days off than any other in baseball). His 5-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio is the same as Lee’s, but over significantly more innings.
To me, that whole innings and starts thing narrows the gap more.
How about “luck factors” in stats?
Well, Lee’s Fielding Independant Pitching (FIP) score of 2.85 is slightly better than Halladay’s 3.03. But here’s the kicker on that: Halladay notched more strikeouts and groundballs than Lee, who gave up more flyballs. We’ve all heard this year how flyball pitchers tend to be victimized more by home runs. But not in Lee’s case. In fact, Lee’s home run percentage on flyballs allowed was an absurdly low 5.1 percent compared to 9.4 percent for Halladay. Considering that Halladay only yielded 27 percent flyballs compared to 35 percent for Lee, it’s safe to say Lee had some luck in this area. Just enough, in my book, to cancel out any FIP advantage. So, I’d call it a draw in the luck department.
In other words, there’s almost nothing to choose from between the pitchers.
And for me, it comes down to this:
Halladay had a much tougher schedule of opponents.
I mean, it’s not even close. Halladay pitched in arguably the toughest division in baseball, where the 89-win Yankees could only muster a third-place finish. Lee pitched in the AL Central, where the rebuilding Twins are a win away from a division title. Where the highly-favored Tigers and Indians tanked early.
Halladay had to face the Rays and Red Sox five times apiece and the Yankees in six of his starts — for a total of 16 starts against teams that won 98, 95 and 89 games respectively. Despite an ERA of 2.50 against New York, 2.56 against Boston and 4.11 against the Rays, Halladay suffered six of his 11 losses against those squads. They are all good teams and tough to beat.
Lee only faced those squads four times total. A quarter of what Halladay had to endure.
Lee went 5-0 against the Royals, posting a 2.63 ERA in those outings. Halladay only faced them once, throwing nine innings of four-hit, one run ball. How much better would his ERA have been if he’d faced them five times and the AL East’s Big Three only four times instead of 16? We can only guess. Halladay only got to make two starts against his own division’s worst team, the Orioles.
Halladay stonewalled the hot-hitting Texas Rangers twice in the season’s first month. Lee got knocked around twice by them.
As for other “good” teams in his own division, Lee only faced the White Sox, Twins and Tigers nine times total, compared to the 16 starts Halladay made against the better teams in his division.
This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job on Lee. I feel he is very deserving of a Cy Young Award. I know he’s going to win this one and I won’t mind one bit. There isn’t much to choose from between the two pitchers.
I also know that Lee didn’t get to pick his schedule and did his job against whoever he had to. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore this schedule difference. I mean, with that logic, we should all just happily accept BYU being crowned national champions if they run the table in college football. Or, maybe we should have just had the University of Hawaii playing in last year’s BCS title game?
Come on. If strength of schedule matters in college football, why can’t it matter here?
Now understand that I’m being cautious. There are specific criteria that make Cy Young voting a little more rigid than MVP ballots. It’s supposed to be more about the stats when you pick a Cy Young. That’s why I’ve ignored all arguments that Halladay pitched in more meaningful games than Lee with Toronto on the fringes of a wild-card race. That makes no difference in a Cy Young contest. But the strength of schedule does. It has a very tangible impact on the stats being considered. When you face good teams and good opposing starters, your chance at wins and a low ERA (or high strikeout totals, fewer walks and a lesser batting average against) generally tends to decrease.
That’s a fact of life.
And from what I can see, the entire premise for giving Lee the award is based largely on wins, winning percentage and a slightly better ERA.
As for Halladay losing 11 games compared to only three by Lee, I’d counter that Halladay had 31 decisions compared to Lee’s 25. Good pitchers get plenty of decisions, win or lose. Halladay stuck around longer than Lee and often got tagged for losses because of it. Losses, for me, are like wins. A lot of randomness goes into the equation. You can use wins as a guidepost to narrow the field, since only a select few talented pitchers win 20 or more each year. But trying to judge anything beyond that is pointless. You just can’t get too hung up on wins and losses and what they mean for pitchers.
Matsuzaka finished third on my ballot. He put up some great numbers, but his innings total was just too low. My minimum is 200 to give a guy an award and he was more than 30 innings shy of that. The more you pitch, the worse your numbers tend to get. I suppose I could have given the nod to Jon Lester and it was close. But I didn’t. I gave it to Matsuzaka. For me, it’s a two-horse race and everyone else is window dressing.
That includes K-Rod. Blew too many saves. Got too many cheap ones. I never felt confident he was going to nail down a tight game. That’s not a Cy Young winner. Not for me.
For me, it boils down to this simple formula:
When all was said and done, the slight difference between Halladay and Lee wins and ERA-wise, was cancelled out by Halladay’s innings totals, three more games and nine complete games. Luck factors were even.
So, it comes down to who faced the tougher opponents. That was clearly Halladay. And that’s why, with apologies to all of my fellow BBWAA members who will vote differently than me, I just can’t buy the argument that Lee was the better pitcher.
ADDITIONAL COMMENT (5:21 p.m.): For the reader who asked, Lee’s run support was 6.13 per game compared to 4.72 for Halladay. So, obviously, Lee got the better run support, which likely contributed to his higher win totals and winning percentage.



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