If I Were Important: 2013 AL Cy Young

alcy

The question in this year’s AL Cy Young debate isn’t “What pitcher deserves it more?” but “What makes a pitcher deserve Cy Young?”

If one of the goals of sabermetrics is to take subjectivity out of comparative analysis, then it’s ironic that sabermetric-minded people are the only ones who disagree on who should win the AL Cy Young. It’s fWar this, RA9-WAR that, FIP these, xFIP those, WHIP something, WHIP something good.

To me, this is a trait of sabermetrics that people don’t talk about enough. There is quite a deal of disagreement over how to compare pitchers. We have a pretty good grasp over what’s repeatable and what isn’t, but how much should repeatability matter when discussing things like Cy Young awards? Some say we should only look at the runs that cross the plate while allowing for an adjustment for ballpark (this is what RA9-WAR does). Others also believe we should look at runs scored against, but that we should make an adjustment for defense (this is what Baseball-Reference’s WAR does). Others still say we should ignore the runs and just use a linear weight model that doesn’t factor in the sequence in which events take place (this is what Fangraphs’ WAR does).

A cynic may look at this and view it as a blight against sabermetrics. If they don’t give us a definitive answer, then what’s the point in looking for a definitive answer? I look at it more positively. Subjectivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not impossible to discuss concrete numbers and the abstract meaning of “value” without being hypocritical. Subjective sabermetrics might not be an oxymoron, after all.

And I don’t come down firmly on one side. I see the arguments for either. Yes, a pitcher’s job is to limit runs, so a run scored against him should serve as a black mark on his record. But if we factor in sequencing for pitchers, shouldn’t we also do it for hitters? Do RBIs come back into MVP discussions? Dave Cameron wrote a great article on this last month. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in this stuff.

But even if you’re not interested in that, and every word of this post so far has been tedious mumbo-jumbo, you’re still probably interested and may even have a strong opinion about the AL Cy Young award. This is, after all, a post about pitchers, not numbers. Here is how I would rank the top five pitchers in the American League this year.

5. Chris Sale

In just his second full year as a starter Chris Sale cemented himself as one of the very best young pitchers in the game, which is a huge statement considering how many young studs there are today. Just two years ago he was a successful reliever with less-than-great control. Now he has elite strikeout-to-walk skills and in 2013 he carried that over 200 innings.

Sale is a four-pitch pitcher best known for his beautiful slow slider. I mean look at it.

From Fangraphs

Sale threw his slider for 41% of his pitches when facing lefties. Not coincidentally, lefties hit .133/.203/.155 against him. Managers are apparently wising up when going against Sale; he only faced 163 lefties all year. He also has a killer change-up, which actually induces swings-and-misses at a higher rate than his slider (27.66% for his change, 19.77% for his slider).

Over 214-1/3 innings, Sale posted a 3.07 ERA, which falls nearly perfectly in between his peripherals (3.07 FIP, 3.17 xFIP). He strikes out lots of batters, hardly walks batters, forces a decent amount of groundballs, and eats innings – his four complete games were tied for second-most in the majors. He does everything you want a pitcher to do. All this and he’s only 24, and he’s only been starting for two years, AND he relies on a pitch that he didn’t even have when he was drafted.

With all apologies to Sale, who is among one of my very favorite young players in the game*, there’s no way I can rank him higher than fifth. American League pitchers were kind of ridiculous this year, but Sale’s season deserves recognition.

*Am I allowed to say this on what will become a Cubs-focused blog? I mean, that’s just a Chicago thing, right? And I’m not from Chicago so I’m not obligated to hate the Sox, right?

Right!?

4. Anibal Sanchez

Sanchez, the guy who was kind of a Cub for about an hour last winter, has already started earning the extra dough he coaxed out of the Tigers. He rewarded the Tigers for their commitment by giving them what was far and away his best season yet. Sanchez posted an ERA under 3.00 for the first time, leading the AL with a mark of 2.57. He also put up career bests in strikeout rate, strikeouts-to-walks ratio and swinging strike rate. Batters swung and missed a lot against Sanchez; his swinging strike rate of 12.4% was behind only Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey among starters.

You would think that Sanchez had made a major change in his approach on the mound. He’s been a good pitcher for the last several years, but his results have never hinted that he had this kind of season in him. Surprisingly, he didn’t do a whole lot different from what he’s been doing. The biggest change in his pitch usage was an increase in usage of his change-up, which is smart because that’s probably his best pitch. It’s particularly effective against lefties who swung and missed at about a quarter of the ones he threw to them. Other than that his usage rates were about the same as they were last year. There is one notable difference in 2013 Sanchez. His velocity increased all across the board.

In 2012, Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs introduced their pitcher aging curves. It’s fascinating stuff. One thing that’s clear is that it doesn’t take long for pitchers to start losing their fastballs.

This graph is taken from that article. Note the light blue line that represents average fastball velocity (all fastballs, not just four-seamers). Scherzer was 29 last year. According to that graph, his fastball should have been about 2 MPH slower than it was at age 21. Last year his four-seamer was up nearly 1.5 MPH from 2012 (92.38 to 93.75 according to Brooks Baseball) and his sinker was up 1 MPH (92.55 to 93.54).

I don’t know how he did it exactly, but Sanchez made a leap last year. It probably has something to do with throwing harder than ever before, which could also help his already-great change-up. The first year of his five year contract was better than anyone could have expected. And he was almost a Cub. Ergh.

3. Yu Darvish

I’ve already alluded to Yu Darvish a couple of times in these Cy Young posts. If you’re astute, or have followed baseball at all this year, you’d know that Darvish led all starters in strikeout rate, striking out 32.9% of batters faced. Here’s how crazy he was. You’d have to go back to Randy Johnson in 2001 to find the last time a starter struck out batters at a higher rate than Darvish did in 2013.

How’d he strike out that many? Largely by doing this.

From the gif master Drew Sheppard

You’ve probably seen that before, or at least some version of it. It’s worth it to watch it again (and if you haven’t seen it, you’re welcome!). That’s one delivery repeated perfectly to throw five pitches pretty much across the entire spectrum of pitches. Yu Darvish is pretty good at throwing baseballs.

Darvish’s second year on this side of the Pacific was even better than the first. His strikeouts and walks both moved in the right directions and as a result his ERA dropped by more than a run. An ERA under 3.00 isn’t easy when you pitch half your games in the bandbox that is the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. In fact, Darvish’s mark of 2.83 is the lowest ERA of a qualified Rangers starter since the Ballpark opened in 1994.

If there’s one thing that can get Darvish in trouble, it’s his control. His 9.5% walk rate was the sixth-highest among qualified starters. He had two games where he walked six batters and six more games where he walked four. It is worth noting that pitchers who strike out batters at high rates aren’t as affected by walks. Giving up a free base is less likely to come back to hurt you when opposing batters aren’t putting the ball in play. It wasn’t all luck that caused Darvish to hold his opponents to a .193 average, lowest among AL starters.

2. Felix Hernandez

If someone were to build an ideal pitcher, it would resemble King Felix. He did what he always did last year, and was in the top 10 in both strikeouts-to-walks and ground ball rate while pitching north of 200 innings for the sixth consecutive year.

Recall what I said above how pitchers gradually lose their fastball velocity throughout their career. Hernandez, still only 27, has been experiencing that to a fairly extreme degree. He has lost about 3.8 MPH off his four-seam fastball since 2008. And yet Hernandez remains a Cy Young candidate. He serves as a great example of how strong secondary pitches can overcome a loss of speed on the fastball, mixing in a good slider and a hard curve to go along with what might be the best change-up in the game. When he does throw a fastball, he opts for his sinker more often that his four-seamer.

So yeah, Hernandez is basically the ideal pitcher. He has been since he was 22 and he doesn’t show any signs of letting up any time soon. But I can’t help but notice his record of that stretch, 71-50, just barely better than Bronson Arroyo. There’s another example of how wins and losses don’t show the real value of a pitcher.

1. Max Scherzer

Usually, at least. Scherzer, AKA Mr. Blue Eye/Mr. Brown Eye, led all of baseball with 21 wins. He was also one of the best pitchers in baseball. Yes, those are separate statements, but that story’s been done to death.

The story of Max Scherzer, however, may just be beginning. Like his teammate Anibal Sanchez, Scherzer took a huge leap after several pretty good seasons. Scherzer’s dominance actually started last year. Since the second half of 2012, Scherzer has a 2.97 ERA. He had never before this year put up an ERA under 3.50 as a full-time starter. He did this while pitching half his games in Comerica Park, which actually plays as a hitter’s park despite its reputation.

Even with all the great pitchers in the AL this year, to me it comes down to only Sherzer and Hernandez. Here’s how they stack up against each other.

IP K% BB% K/BB GB% ERA WHIP FIP xFIP
Hernandez 204-1/3 26.3% 5.6% 4.70 51.4% 3.04 1.13 2.61 2.66
Scherzer 214-1/3 28.6% 6.7% 4.29 36.3% 2.90 0.97 2.74 3.16

That’s close across that board. Scherzer struck out more batters, but also walked more. Hernandez was much better at forcing groundballs, but Scherzer still allowed fewer baserunners. Scherzer leads in ERA and Hernandez has the advantage in the peripheral-based statistics. This goes back to what I said at the very beginning. Should those peripheral stats matter in Cy Young discussions or do we only look at runs allowed?

But let’s not just look at the unadjusted numbers. Remember, a run in one run environment might not be as valuable as in another run environment. I’ve already said that Scherzer pitches in a relatively hitter-friendly park. Hernandez, of course, plays his home games in the pitcher’s haven of Safeco Field. Here’s how they compare in the “minus” stats.

ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Hernandez 76 66 67
Scherzer 71 68 80

Well, that didn’t exactly make anything clearer. You can slice this any way and make a compelling argument for either. I go with Scherzer because I tend to lean more towards the runs allowed side of things, and he did have a 10 inning advantage in innings pitched, which isn’t a huge difference but does account for about one and a half extra starts. I wouldn’t begrudge somebody going with Hernandez, though. Look at it either way and you have a deserving Cy Young winner.

Or you could just ignore all this and go with the win leader. This time, at least, you’d have a deserving winner there too.

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