Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hypothetical Ballot: Cy Young

There are no particular standout candidates for the Cy Young in either league, and I was tempted to open up this post by saying something like “Maybe it is a harbinger of things to come, as starting pitchers workloads continue to decrease and more managers consider times through the order in making the decision to go to the bullpen…we can expect more seasons like this, where no Cy Young contender really distinguishes himself.”

And then I stopped and concluded, “You idiot, don’t you dare write that.” This is exactly the kind of banal over-extrapolation of heavily selected data that I rail against constantly. In the long run, is it possible that those factors could contribute to a dilution of clear Cy Young candidates, leaving voters to comb over a pack of indistinguishable guys pitching 180 innings a year? Entirely possible. Does that make 2016 the new normal? Of course not. Just last year, there was an epic three-way NL Cy Young race. This year, only an injury to Clayton Kershaw seems to have stood in the way of a historic season and Cy Young landslide.

In the AL race, Justin Verlander had a 70 to 61 RAR lead over Chris Sale, with a pack of pitchers right behind them (Rick Porcello 59, Corey Kluber 58, Jose Quintana 57, Aaron Sanchez/JA Happ/Masahiro Tanaka 56). Convieniently, the first four in RAR also are the only pitchers who would also have 50 or more RAR based on eRA or dRA, with one exception. Verlander allowed a BABIP of just .261 and would so his dRA is 3.80, significantly higher than his 3.04 RRA. However, none of the others look better using dRA--all three are five to eight runs worse. So I go with Verlander for the top spot and Porcello second over Sale (he led the AL with a 3.14 eRA, and since we are talking about one run differences here, Bill James would at least want us to consider his 22-4 W-L record). I didn’t actually consider the W-L record, but he does rank just ahead of Sale if you weight RAR from actual/eRA/dRA at 50%/30%/20%, which has no scientific basis but seems reasonable enough. Again, there’s only a one RAR difference between Sale and Porcello, so using W-L or flipping a coin to order them is just as reasonable. I gave the fifth spot to Jose Quintana over Aaron Sanchez, and would not have guessed that Quintana had a better strikeout rate (8.1 to 7.8).

This leaves out Zach Britton, who I credit with just 35 RAR. I remain thoroughly unconvinced that leverage bonuses are appropriate. Each run allowed and out recorded is worth the same to the final outcome regardless of what inning it comes in. The difference between starters and relief aces is that some of the games the former pitch could have been won or lost with worse or better performances, while relief aces generally are limited to pitching in close games. But the fact that Britton pitches the ninth doesn’t make his shutout inning any more valuable than the one Chris Tillman pitched in the fourth within the context of that single game. To the extent that Britton contributes more value on a per inning basis, it’s because he pitched in a greater proportion of games in which one run might have made a difference, not because that is more apparent for any particular game at the point at which Britton appears in it than it was when the starter was pitching. I have alluded to this viewpoint many times, but have never written it up satisfactorily because I’ve not figured out how to propose a leverage adjustment that captures it, without going to the extreme that value can only be generated by pitching in games your team wins.

1. Justin Verlander, DET
2. Rick Porcello, BOS
3. Chris Sale, CHA
4. Corey Kluber, CLE
5. Jose Quintana, CHA

In the NL, there were seven starters with 60 RAR and then a gap of four to Jake Arrieta, which makes a good cohort to consider for the ballot. Of this group, Tanner Roark and Madison Bumgarner at the bottom in terms of RAR and had high dRAs (4.17 and 3.87) which justify dropping them.

That leaves Jon Lester (71 RAR), Kyle Hendricks (70), Max Scherzer (70), Johnny Cueto (65), and Clayton Kershaw (64). If you weight 50/30/20 as for the AL, all five are clustered between 60 and 64 RAR. This makes it tempting to just to pick Kershaw as he was much the best in every rate and narrowly missed leading the league in RAA despite pitching only 149 innings.

Among the four who pitched full seasons, Scherzer ranks first in innings and third in RRA, eRA, and dRA. However, he pitched significantly more innings than the Cubs candidates--25 more than Lester and 38 more than Hendricks. Comparing him to Cueto, who pitched nine fewer innings, Scherzer leads in RRA by .09 runs, eRA by .13 runs, and trails in dRA by .09 runs. So for my money Scherzer provided the best mix of effectiveness and durability.

All that’s left is a direct comparison of Scherzer to Kershaw, in which I think the innings gap is just too great without giving excessive weight to peripherals. The difference between Scherzer and Kershaw is 79 innings with a 3.62 RRA. To put it in 2016 performance terms, that makes Scherzer equivalent to Kershaw plus a solid reliever like Felipe Rivero or Travis Wood. That’s too much value for me to ignore looking at the gaudy (and they are gaudy!) rate stats:

1. Max Scherzer, WAS
2. Jon Lester, CHN
3. Kyle Hendricks, CHN
4. Clayton Kershaw, LA
5. Johnny Cueto, SF

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