Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cy Young Predictions

Yesterday I made my predictions for the MVP awards, and as promised I'll discuss the Cy Young awards today. I wrote a post in June at which time I predicted:
AL Cy Young Clay Buchholz
NL Cy Young Adam Wainwright

Have I changed my mind since then? I only made minor adjustments to my June MVP picks, so read on and see if I was prescient.

American League
This chart shows the top 10 pitchers by Baseball-Reference WAR, data through Monday, August 19th:

The top two pitchers in WAR, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez,  have absolutely no shot and might not even garner any votes. I wrote two posts decrying the absurdity of the win (this is the first and this is the second), and Felix winning the 2010 Cy Young suggests that it's possible for a pitcher with lights-out stuff but a so-so win-loss record to win, but it isn't likely. 

Take a close look at Chris Sale's numbers, and also view his numbers at this section of Baseball-Reference that goes into greater depth. He has a very ordinary 9-11 record, with:
1. A 2.78 ERA, 6th-lowest in the AL and 10th-lowest in baseball. The Sox team ERA is 3.84 and increases to 4.03 when Sale's numbers are removed.
2. ERA+ adjusts for the fact that Sale pitches in a hitter's park and folks like Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma don't.
3. The number in the second-to-last column is an intriguing one and I might even explain it correctly. It's a measure called win percentage for an average team, and Sale's .702 is a full 252 points greater than his actual winning percent. This suggests how poorly the White Sox offense and defense support Sale when he's on the mound, but that's coming later--for now I've spent enough bandwidth on someone who might not even get a vote.

It is to Boston's credit they've maintained their excellent record despite Clay Buchholz going on the 60-day DL. He was due to come off it a couple of weeks ago so I have no idea what his status is other than someone who won't get any Cy Young votes. Jose Quintana is another White Sox enigma showing that despite the myriad problems the Sox have on offense and in the field, pitching doesn't appear to be one of them. Derek Holland and Anibal Sanchez are having very solid seasons and Hiroki Kuroda leads the AL in ERA, but none will receive more than token notice. No relievers jump out although I'd be shocked, SHOCKED if someone didn't vote for Mariano Rivera just because. 

I'm pretty sure the award will go to Max Scherzer, and feel free to take a moment to tweet me with your shows of respect for that CUTTING EDGE prediction. Yes, to use a term I learned reading "Barbarians at the Gate," it is a blinding flash of the obvious, and as I wrote yesterday, if he were to finish the year with some ridiculous record like 22-1 (he's already tied with Roy Face with most wins against just one loss), I can see him winning the MVP as well. But before we coronate him as the second coming of Tom Seaver, consider these numbers--these are the pitchers with the most run support:

Baseball-Reference has two run support calculations, one that normalizes runs over 9 innings (RS/GS) and another that measures runs scored only while the pitcher is pitching (RS/IP), the number I chose. 3 of the top 7 pitchers in run support are Tigers--I humbly submit a strong case can be made for Miguel Cabrera as the deserving recipient of the Cy Young. And by the way, Sale's run support is 2.8, 6th-worst in baseball, but NOT the worst on the Sox--that would be 2.6 for John Danks.


And none of this matters, since despite an increased knowledge of the shortcomings of looking at wins only, it will be difficult, no, IMPOSSIBLE to overlook someone with a record like 20-2. If Scherzer goes on a 5-game losing streak to finish 18-6 voters will abandon him like the plague, but absent that:

AL Cy Young   Max Scherzer
2nd                  Yu Darvish
3rd                   Felix Hernandez
4th                   Matt Moore
5th                   Chris Sale (there are SOME voters who can see through the noise)

National League
It's a much different story, and tremendous change has occurred in the past two months:

I'm beginning to have second thoughts and will state up front that I suspect this race will go down to the wire and the next 6 weeks will have a tremendous impact on the outcome. In other words, I'm fully prepared to be wrong on this one, much less than I am for AL Cy Young or either MVP vote--I'll confidently state that absent dramatic changes my picks are for those awards are solid. I'll begin by clearing out those with no chance like Bronson Arroyo, Jorge De La Rosa, Cliff Lee, Patrick Corbin, Jose Fernandez and Jhoulys Chacin. I'll discuss Fernandez more tomorrow in the Rookie of the Year post (after I've read more about him, cough cough).  There is something very intriguing in this list--two Rockies pitchers having good traditional AND sabermetric years--that doesn't happen very often and look where it got them--59-68 and floundering as usual in the NL West. Even when they have decent pitching they're bad.

Realistically Matt Harvey has no shot but will receive votes. The Mets are so woeful that he's pitched about 200 points better than his record suggests and he's lurking near the bottom third in terms of run support, but if the Mets can put a decent team behind him and David Wright (and that's a BIG if), he can be a key part of their future. That leaves three pitchers with three completely different stories.

The success of the Pirates isn't due to their offense--they have an OPS+ of 99. No, it's the pitching as their ERA+ is 113 (and tied with the White Sox for 6th, proving that good pitching leads to success, except when it doesn't), with (ex-White Sox) Francisco Liriano far and away the anchor of their staff. It's a feel-good story since after his promising start in 2006 injuries and bad luck never allowed him to build on and fulfill that promise. If he can finish the year at around 18-6, he'll command votes as the pitcher who led the staff much as I suspect Andrew McCutchen will in the MVP race. The saber numbers aren't as dominant, but the question will be which will prevail, emotion or measurement.

Because measurement would favor Clayton Kershaw, along with a white-hot second half. On June 21st Kershaw had a 5-5 record for a Dodgers team that was 30-42, one I suggested was ripe for the breakup. Since that time he's gone 7-3 with a 1.73 ERA, opponent batting average of .170 and a WHIP of .699. The Dodgers just finished a historic 42-8 streak due to Kershaw's pitching, Hanley Ramirez's hitting (.339/1.015 OPS since June 21st) and some rookie whose name escapes me. Kershaw pitches half his games in a pitcher's park (a 3-year park factor of 95), but so does Chris Capuano. It's very difficult to be the best pitcher in baseball for much more than 2-3 years unless the pitcher is a potential Hall of Famer, but it is very possible that mantle may be passed from Justin Verlander to Kershaw.

I wrote about the Cardinals and how they built their current roster, and Adam Wainwright is very much an anomaly. He was acquired in a trade (as a minor leaguer) and is signed through 2018 at significant money, around $98 million.  This is his velocity scatter chart from Brooks

Nothing here suggests overpowering stuff that leaves hitters scratching their heads as they return to the dugout in disgust and awe, but he clearly has that most important quality--the ability (not the will) to win and compensate for low velocity with movement, placement and planning. As we get closer to Hall of Fame balloting in the winter I'll write a post discussing Greg Maddux, the modern-day equivalent of brains over brawn, but Wainwright could be his successor. He struck out 11 when facing the Cubs on Sunday, August 18th and threw 3 pitches in the first inning--THREE! He barely topped 92 mph and had the Cubs confused all day. The Cardinals may regret his contract come 2017 or 2018, but until then...


Which leaves me in a dilemma--I'll present two scenarios, my Cy Young voting and what I think will be the actual vote, because I think they're going to be different:

I think Kershaw's numbers are undeniable, and if he finishes the year out strong at around 16-7, I can see him prevailing because even old baseball writers will take note of an ERA under 2.00, but I'm already beginning to hear quite a bit of talk about Liriano, and I don't generally watch sports on TV (you read that correctly--I don't have ESPN, Fox Sports Network and pretty much limit my baseball viewing to Sunday games on WGN). Liriano will be the equivalent of McCutchen, the pitcher who ended Pittsburgh's long dark baseball night. It will be a difficult narrative to resist.

There IS a change in the manner of pitcher evaluation that is gradually working its way down to fans (GMs have known the flaws of looking solely at wins for years), but for some reason, change occurs slowly in baseball. In football, the Rules Committee could change the value of a touchdown to 35 points, outlaw the tackling of quarterbacks and eliminate all kicking and punting in one off-season if they were so inclinded, and while there would be significant talk it would blow over. Baseball is downright glacial when it comes to change but it doesn't mean it can't occur. Broadcasts are increasingly making use of WAR, WHIP and other metrics. The Cubs TV team of Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies discuss a different statistic every Sunday in depth, from the traditional (wins) to the arcane (weighted on-base average and weighted runs created +, believe it or not). Even I'm hard-pressed to make the case for Chris Sale over Max Scherzer for the Cy Young, even though multiple metrics suggest Sale is having a better year. The win won't go away any time soon until pitching staffs are expanded to 20, team rosters to 32 and a new flame thrower comes in every inning, but until then we can still used advanced metrics to better evaluate pitching. 

And don't be surprised to see Francisco Liriano lauded come early November.

PS--I was not aware of the ESPN Cy Young Predictor until AFTER I had written this post--check it out to see how I square up with them.

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