September 26, 2013 at 10:38 AM
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 leaders 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.