The AL Cy Young award ceased to be a contest roughly in August when it became clear that Justin Verlander was on his way to a dominant season. There was no longer talk about if he would win the Cy Young, but whether or not he would add the MVP to his credentials as well (full disclosure: I feel that pitchers should be ineligible for MVP consideration). It was therefore no surprise when Verlander won the award handily last week. What should have come as a surprise for many baseball fans, however, was how the rest of the vote shaped up. Specifically, why on Earth did James Shields get more points than CC Sabathia? (I’m not even going to touch the fact that Jose Valverde came in fifth place in the voting because even at my young age I need to watch my blood pressure.)
2010 was meant to be the season that saw baseball awards voters take their analysis to the next level. That was the year that Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young on the strength of his 249.2 innings of 3.04 FIP baseball, despite winning only 13 games. King Felix’s crown was taken as evidence that the Cy Young voters at least were beginning to understand that the pitcher with the most wins is often not the best pitcher in the game, just a good pitcher on a good to great team. This year’s vote wasn’t subject to as much scrutiny because Verlander dominated in so many pitching categories in 2011, but the runners up for the award reveal that the baseball voters haven’t advanced as much in their logic as we’d assumed.
To begin, Verlander wasn’t the slam dunk for the award that so many of us thought he was. Who was the fWAR leader for AL pitchers in 2011? That’s right, none other than Carsten Charles Sabathia. As far as Fangraphs was concerned Verlander, despite leading the AL in ERA, Strikeouts and Innings Pitched was not the best pitcher in his league. He was the second best.
I don’t actually buy into pitcher WAR too much (or WAR in general as anything more than a good starting indicator for more thorough analysis). Earlier in the season I took a closer look at the numbers and concluded that Verlander was having a better season than CC, despite his lower WAR. My purpose for pointing to the WAR number isn’t to undermine Verlander’s well deserved Cy Young, but to point out that the contest for the award was closer than many realized (CC also had a better FIP and xFIP than Verlander) from a performance perspective, and to ask the questions: 1. What metrics probably drove this voting outcome? 2. Why did the big guy, who was a legitimate first place contender, slip all the way to fourth in the final tally?
The data in the table below are taken entirely from Fangraphs. The table compares the most important pitching metrics among the top four vote getters in the 2011 Cy Young race.
Glancing at these numbers the answer to the my first question jumps right out at me. CC Sabathia was the best of the four pitchers in FIP and xFIP, but the worst in ERA and, unsurprisingly, BABIP. The Cy Young voters are therefore not as sophisticated as we thought. They’ve moved past a pitcher’s win-loss record (thank GOD!) but they haven’t strayed very far. It looks like ERA has jumped up as their most valued stat, which is infinitely better than wins, but still indicative of an incomplete analysis.
This brings me to the answer to my second question. CC came in fourth because he had the fourth best ERA of the bunch, even though a case could be made that he pitched the best of the four. That, in turn, raises a third question. Where should the big guy have finished in the Cy Young vote? I argue he should have come in second place, ideally in a much closer race that what we had.
Justin Verlander was still probably a better pitcher in 2011 than CC was. He struck out more batters, walked fewer and pitched more innings than Sabathia. It is the innings total — admittedly out of CC’s control at the end of the season — that pushes Verlander over the edge in my mind. He was on the mound more and continued to give the Tigers excellent performance.
But CC was closer than many people realize. Most importantly, he smoked Verlander in allowing home runs while very nearly matching him in every other category. Two relevant areas detracted from Sabathia’s other credentials. First, even if the Yankees were ultimately to blame for this (a decision I agreed with), CC pitched 13.1 fewer innings than Verlander, a material difference. Two, he allowed 8.7 hits per nine innings, nearly a full hit higher than the 7.9 he allowed in 2010 and a full hit more than the 7.7 he allowed in 2009. While the extra hits could be due to poor defense — and explain many of CC’s peripheral stats — the extra base runners add up. All said, a more sophisticated voting bloc would have made CC their second choice overall, most certainly not the fourth.
Why, then, did Jered Weaver and James Shields finish ahead of Sabathia? The answer is almost certainly ERA and, in Shields’ case, complete games. All four pitchers threw a ton of high quality innings, but two of them, Sabathia and Verlander, did most of the dirty work themselves while Weaver and Shields got big assists from luck, their defenses and their home ball parks. The net effect was improved ERA numbers, which appear to be what drove the Cy Young voters this year, as well as a healthy dose of baseball idiocy. How else can we explain Jose Valverde coming in fifth place?
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