Monday, October 15, 2007

Cy Young Award

Continuing to pick the award winners and set my IBA ballot (yes, I know the deadline to vote already passed, but this is pre-written), let’s move on to the Cy Young Award. Starting in the superior league, I think there are five candidates that stand out, all starters: Josh Beckett of Boston, CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona of Cleveland, John Lackey of Los Angeles, and Johan Santana of Minnesota. Eric Bedard was on pace to rank right up there with them, but injury held him to 182 innings and kept him out of the running.

This is one of the closest Cy Young races that I can recall in some time. I remember the 1997 NL race as being a real doozy, and last year’s NL race was well-contested as well. This one ranks up there with them. Let’s start by picking Cleveland’s top pitcher. Sabathia worked twenty six more innings than Carmona, and trailed him in RA (3.58-3.33), eRA (3.83-3.61), and Quality Start Percentage (74-81). He did enjoy a substantial advantage in FIP (3.67-4.42), although since they had the same defense behind them, this does not carry as much weight with me as it might. Overall, Carmona was +37 versus average and +67 versus replacement; Sabathia was +35 and +68.

This race is too close to call by the numbers, and so my judgment call is to go with CC. I try not to buy in to the talk about “leadership” and being a “stopper” and the like, but Sabathia is the Indians’ ace. He draws the ball for the opening playoff game, he is a veteran, he strikes more batters out. If you want to see it the other way, be my guest, but I go with Sabathia.

So how does Sabathia match up to the others? He leads Lackey and Beckett by three RAR and Sabathia by eight, although Beckett edges him by one run when compared to average. These razor-thin differences are essentially meaningless, and so it again comes down to a judgment call. Beckett led in RA by .3, but Sabathia tossed 41 more innings. That means that Sabathia is equivalent to Beckett plus a pitcher with 41 innings and a 5.07 RA. Considering that the league average was a 4.90 RA, this replacement is a guy you’d like to have lying around to fill in on your staff. The difference between Sabathia and Lackey is a seventeen inning pitcher with a 3.71 RA.

That approach is equivalent to RAR, but it just frames the differences in a different perspective. I think that the extra innings are valuable, and do put Sabathia ahead, however so slightly. He is my choice, but I can accept any of the top four.

In such a tight race, some people will begin to put more emphasis on factors that often can be safely ignored, like the quality of opposition faced. I am not sure that this is appropriate. Clearly, for determining who is of better ability or who is more likely to pitch better in the future, the quality of opposition is important. However, when it comes to value, I think one can make a case either way.

Comparing to a baseline pitcher, it is clearly true that the hypothetical pitcher will allow a different number of runs depending on the type of hitters he faces. However, regardless of what kind of opposition you face, a win is a win. If the Indians faced a worse average opponent than the Red Sox, this may provide us with evidence that Boston was a better team despite having an identical record. But the Indians’ 96 wins are worth every bit as much in baseball value terms as the Red Sox are, even if they were “easier” to obtain.

My point is that there are two issues in play when discussing quality of opposition. The first issue is that a baseline pitcher, be that baseline average, replacement, or anything else, would have a different expected level of performance based on opponent quality. But the second issue is that if a team is fortunate enough to face a weaker schedule, the wins are real, the playoff appearance that results is real, the revenue that comes from increased wins is real. So to me it is not entirely clear that it should be considered from a value perspective. This is another one of the potential adjustments that pop up in sabermetrics, and I think you need to define exactly what it is that you are trying to measure before deciding whether or not to adjust. To me, too many people have a visceral reaction and say “Oh, that’s not fair, and we can come up with a reasonable estimate as to its effect, so let’s do it”, without thinking about whether it really is the right choice given the goal.

So to me, and you are of course free to disagree, quality of opposition should only be considered within the context of one’s team. If a pitcher faced a lower quality of opposition than the rest of his team, then I would hold that against him. Suppose that Sabathia and Carmona are identical pitchers in terms of quality, but Sabathia faces an average .510 opponent and Carmona an average .500 opponent (this can be though of in terms of OW%; the W% figures are just easier to work with in this context). Sabathia will have less value when we figure RAA or RAR since we don’t account for opposition quality. But it wouldn’t have mattered one bit to the fate of the Tribe if they had flipped places, and Carmona wound up having less estimate value.

(In fact, Sabathia’s opponents hit a composite .263/.329/.409 versus .263/.334/.413 for Carmona. In terms of runs, those figures imply that Sabathia’s average opponent was equivalent to 4.63 runs per game, while Carmona’s was 4.76.)

However, if Sabathia and Beckett were of identical quality, and Sabathia faced .500 opponents while Beckett faced .510, the Indians will win real games as a result of this. Whether this is fair or not is not really my concern; it is real.

I see this great race as:

1) C.C. Sabathia, CLE
2) Josh Beckett, BOS
3) John Lackey, LAA
4) Fausto Carmona, CLE
5) Johan Santana, MIN

In the Neanderthal League, things are a lot clearer. Two candidates stand out above the pack, one of whom was my choice a year ago. He is Brandon Webb, and his rival is Jake Peavy. Behind them, the second tier of candidates includes Tim Hudson, Roy Oswalt, Brad Penny, and John Smoltz.

Comparing Webb and Peavy, Webb pitched 13 more innings, but his RA was .36 higher. They were essentially even in both eRA and FIP (+.04 advantage in eRA for Peavy, +.03 for Webb in FIP). The gap between Webb and Peavy was a 13 inning pitcher allowing a 9.48 RA. Peavy leads +44 to +37 in RAA and +73 to +68 in RAR. He also pitched a quality start 82 percent of the time versus just 65 for Webb. I see no reason at all to not side with Peavy.

The other candidates have very little to separate them; I take Oswalt and Hudson over Penny because I would sleep better at night with them in my rotation. Is that stupid, arbitrary reasoning? Heck yeah. But Penny’s maximum 2 RAA and 1 RAR edge over the lesser of those two isn’t worth much either:

1) Jake Peavy, SD
2) Brandon Webb, ARI
3) Tim Hudson, ATL
4) Roy Oswalt, HOU
5) Brad Penny, LA

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