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September 26, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Should Hisashi Iwakuma win AL Cy Young Award? There’s a case

Hisashi Iwakuma could emerge as the AL's ERA champion while being just a couple of frames off its innings lead. He deserves consideration right up at the very top of any Cy Young Award discussion, regardless of whether his late surge has caught voters and analysts off-guard. Photo Credit: AP

Hisashi Iwakuma could emerge as the AL’s ERA champion while being just a couple of frames off its innings lead. He deserves consideration right up at the very top of any Cy Young Award discussion, regardless of whether his late surge has caught voters and analysts off-guard. Photo Credit: AP

Not too long ago, back before Felix Hernandez won his Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-win season, there was a case to be made that Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voters looked at three primary criteria when it came to handing out this prize: wins, ERA and innings pitched.

After those three basics separated the contenders from pretenders, you’d tend to have voters moving on to another plane that examined strikeouts and batting average against.

But unless it was a real close race, you’d rarely have to delve much deeper than that. And with the recent downplaying of the “wins” statistic by voters, starting with Hernandez’s record low total for the 2010 Cy Young, we’re really left with ERA and innings pitched on that first level of traditional stats.

And right now, Hisashi Iwakuma of the Mariners sits third in the AL in ERA and second in innings pitched. But Iwakuma also has a very strong chance of moving up the ERA charts, since his 2.66 is only a hair behind the 2.64 of leadersĀ Bartolo Colon and Anibal Sanchez — who both make their final starts this weekend.

So, it’s highly possible Iwakuma could emerge as the league’s ERA champion while sitting second only a couple of innings out of the innings-pitched lead as well. If you elimate wins from consideration, then Iwakuma’s final numbers would have had him up among Cy Young frontrunners just about any year.

Of course, things have since changed.

We’ve now got a whole bunch of advanced statistics that shed additional clarity on the Cy Young picture, but also complicate it at the same time. The trick is knowing which stats to choose from. And while there are folks who trumpet Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the catch-all stat at defining player value, it may actually do more harm than good come Cy Young time.

Part of the problem is there are different types of WAR stats for pitchers. If you look at FanGraphs WAR, it’s main component is Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which purports to eliminate the defensive factors outside of a pitcher’s control and focus solely on what the man on the mound did and should have done in the aggregate. This stat places heavy weight on a pitcher’s strikeout ability — since no defense is required on strikeouts other than a catcher actually holding on to the ball, or throwing a hitter out at first base if a strikeout pitch is dropped. As you’d expect, FIP tends to favor strikeout pitchers over contact pitchers — even ground ball specialists.

Since the FanGraphs version of WAR uses FIP as a prime component, you’ll see the strikeout specialists leading that WAR chart as well. In total, the FIP score looks like an ERA score and those who use the stat often point to the difference between FIP and ERA being a sign of whether a pitcher was better or worse than his numbers indicate. A pitcher with an ERA of 3.48 and a FIP of 2.78 will be looked at as “better” than his raw numbers in theory and as a candidate for better things down the road. Reverse the scores, and the pitcher with the higher FIP will be said to have gotten “lucky” and a candidate for a possible future downturn.

Iwakuma’s FIP score is 3.44, which is considerably higher than his 2.66 ERA and exactly what you’d expect for a pitcher who gets by on grounders and the fielders behind him more so than on pure strikeout ability. Folks will look at Iwakuma’s ERA and suggest it probably should have and would have been higher — we’ll forget how bad Seattle’s defense has looked this year for a second and just explain the theory — had his fielders not made plays behind him.

And that’s quite alright as a theory.

The problem is, we don’t usually give out awards for what should have happened in any given season, or what should happen down the road. The Texas Rangers should have won the World Series two years ago and would have 99 times out of 100 down the road if not for Nelson Cruz dropping the final out in right field and the baseball gods intervening numerous other times. Still, the St. Louis Cardinals own that trophy.

Do award winners get “lucky” from time to time? All the time, they do. R.A.Dickey may never have another season like he did last year in taking home the NL Cy Young and luck certainly played a role in some of his success. Miguel Tejada notched a ton of walk-off hits back in in 2002 that cinched him the AL MVP and that’s something neither he nor just about any other player has repeated since.

But those things still happened. Who are we to penalize players who actually accomplish something by telling them they fluked it off? Or they have to do it again and again in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to prove themselves worthy before we commend them for it in 2013?

Awards, by their very nature, are results-based in nature.

But with FanGraphs WAR, at least for pitchers, we’re venturing deeper into what should have happened than I feel comfortable doing for any award.

If you look at FanGraphs WAR, Mariners ace Hernandez sits second in the entire league despite the fact he’s pitched only five innings in September. For me, what a pitcher does over an entire season — not just five-sixths of the preamble ahead of the stretch run — is a determining factor in how much value he brought to a team. And it’s not just me. The reason Cy Young voters have always looked at innings totals is that any team knows a guy with 220 or 230 innings is more valuable than a guy with similar stats doing it over 180 innings. You can’t throw 230 innings without pitching in September.

This is why, when looking at Cy Young candidates, FanGraphs WAR isn’t all that helpful. Tigers pitcher Sanchez sits third in FanGraphs WAR and he’s thrown 43 fewer innings than Iwakuma with roughly the same base results other than a higher strikeout rate. So, that’s not going to give us much help here. In fairness, Sanchez has pitched well in September, so he’s got that going for him. But body of work? To make up the 43-inning gap, Sanchez would have to be demonstrably better than Iwakuma and he simply has not been in anything but strikeouts.

The Cy Young is a lot of things. But it’s never been a pure strikeout prize.

Pitchers can strike out 10 guys like Hernandez did in Anaheim the other night and not get deep enough into games to avoid relying on bullpen luck. Had Hernandez struck out five guys over each of his last two starts but managed to go six scoreless innings each time, he’d be potentially more valuable to his team but his FIP score would suffer because of fewer strikeouts per innings worked. Now, of course, we all assume that the strikeout rate and innings pitched totals should normalize over time.

A pitcher who strikes out eight guys and leaves after five innings each time won’t end up with a great FIP score. You still need innings and Hernandez should reach 200 this season. But it’s the distribution — as I just showed — that matters as well. What we won’t see in strikeouts/innings pitched ratios is how pitchers achieved those totals. Did they pile up a bunch of strikeouts in a handful of starts and look ordinary in others? FIP won’t tell us all that, despite the weight it places on strikeout ability.

And this matters in a Cy Young discussion if it’s going to be used to reward pitchers with high strikeout totals who barely pitch in September while penalizing those who gets outs in different fashion.

There’s a different type of WAR formula, this one calculated by Baseball Reference that — rather than FIP — uses a “Runs Allowed” component involving all runs given up by pitchers, both earned and unearned. For me, this is a formula I’d feel more comfortable with in a Cy Young discussion because it takes into account what actually happened in terms of the results of run prevention with a pitcher on the mound. When we gauge pitchers and attribute success or failure to them, their record of allowing or not allowing runs to score is arguably the first and last thing people look for.

And in this WAR version, Iwakuma has been the third best pitcher in all of baseball.

Now, it’s worth pointing out here that the second best pitcher in all of baseball in Baseball Reference WAR, Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox, is also the best pitcher in the AL by an ultra-slim 7.2 to 7.0 margin over Iwakuma. Given the margin for error we can see in all WAR scores, you’d have to call it a “push” between Sale and Iwakuma for now.

Making this even more complicated is that the pitcher everybody expects is going to win the AL Cy Young — Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers — sits behind both Sale and Iwakuma in Baseball Reference WAR with a 6.7 score.

In FanGraphs WAR, Scherzer leads the pack while Sale is fourth and Iwakuma 11th.

What about Yu Darvish, largely considered a main runner-up to Scherzer? He’s fourth in FanGraphs WAR and drops all the way to 9th in the Baseball Reference version.

Now, this might seem like a trivial matter of different WAR formulas and I’ve run across any number of sabermetric practitioners who will tell you FanGraphs WAR is more sophisticated and accurate at depicting the good pitchers.

And I have no real quibble with that. If we’re going to do a scientific study of which pitchers we might want to give a five-year, $100-million contract to, I’ll probably pick the FanGraphs version of WAR. But if we’re giving out a reward to pitchers whose primary job is to keep the other team from scoring, well, I’m going to look at the actual results of that pitcher’s performance.

So, if we’re going to use advanced stats to pick this year’s Cy Young winner, it starts to get very confusing. Which WAR is of more use in awarding a player for what he actually accomplished versus what he may or may not accomplish down the road? I’d argue that it’s Baseball Reference WAR.

And if we go with that, Iwakuma is right up at the very top of the best pitchers in all of baseball alongside White Sox hurler Sale.

If we go with the more traditional stats, Iwakuma could emerge the ERA champion and finish in the top-three of innings pitched. Normally, that would have him right up near the lead in Cy Young voting.

Scherzer has also done well in all of these areas and his 21-3 record is tough to overlook. But we’re supposed to be discounting win totals in this day and age. At least, not placing the same emphasis on them. If Iwakuma pitched for the Tigers, I have no doubt he’d be a 20-game winner. And right now, Iwakuma has beaten Scherzer by a third of a run in ERA and will wind up doing it over more innings.

Ultimately, I don’t care much whether voters pick Sale or Scherzer or Iwakuma. The reason I’ve made the case for Iwakuma today is that his ultra-strong September has, I’m sure, taken many voters by surprise. He’s literally come out of nowhere by going 4-0 with a 1.62 ERA in eight starts since mid-August.

But traditionalist voters haven’t had him on their radar because of a lack of wins and his second-fiddle status to Hernandez nationally. After all, up until his August vanishing act, Hernandez was right in the middle of Cy Young discussion.

And Iwakuma has been largely ignored on the sabermetric side of the Cy Young discussion because of his lack of strikeout ability, which leads to a lower FIP and lower score on FanGraphs WAR.

And to me, that’s an injustice. Iwakuma recorded outs, logged innings and allowed fewer runs when he was out there than just about any pitcher in the American League. In an award for performance and what actually took place on the mound in 2013, he belongs right up there at the top of any discussion — regardless of whether his late charge has caught everybody by surprise.

Comments | More in cy young | Topics: hisashi iwakuma; japan; cy young award; fip

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