Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Just Win (and Have Your Team Lose), Baby!

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Saint Louis, MISSOURI--At the end of the day, the biggest push back I received from my "Mike Trout for MVP" campaign centered on the indisputable fact that Miguel Cabrera led his team to the World Series and Trout did not even make the playoffs. While I will not dwell on this debate, nor carry it over to this article, it is the fundamental basis of this piece. 

Playoff appearances are so vital to that award and yet so trivial to others, primarily the Cy Young Award. I want to investigate why that is and if it needs to change.

Recent history has shown that pitching for a successful team is not a prerequisite for postseason awards. Since 1995--when making the playoffs got "easier"--actually doing so seemingly became antiquated. Ironically, you are now better served to miss the current expanded playoffs in order to be labeled the game's best pitcher. Is this a coincidence? Have we unknowingly created a new stat: the conditional win, which overemphasizes (and rewards) individual wins on a garbage team?

David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets were just named the 2012 winners of their respective league's Cy Young Awards. This mirrors what I projected using Pitcher Rating, meaning both are also taking home the (still fictitious) Walter "Big Train" Johnson Award. The latter award is strictly objective; the result of a complicated formula that does not take team record into effect whatsoever. The pitchers involved have a full season to put in the work. Come October 4, 2012, the numbers are what the numbers are. I take the pitcher in each league with the highest value... end of story.

Meanwhile in crazy land, the Cy Young is still voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA). This annual process had me assuming Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers would capture the AL award. Human instinct remembers the most recent performance and values the eye test. The show that Verlander put on in the 2012 postseason was unworldly. He was everything an ace should be, and looked the part of the game's best pitcher.

But the playoffs always have been, and always should be, discounted from the Cy Young equation. Easier said than done. Unless a writer's ballot was cast before Game 1 of the Division Series, the greatness of Verlander had to be fresher in the mind.

My assumptions were surprisingly wrong. The BBWAA got it "right." In the tightest vote since 1969, by a margin of only 4 points (or the repositioning of a single first-place vote), Price won the award. Whereas I should be happy, I am actually the complete opposite. This is because I am a contemporary BBWAA contrarian. Writers are making it harder to oppose what they stand for--and vote for--when their credentials are a roaming target. 

Just when I thought I had the BBWAA figured out, I am now left wondering--along with all Detroit fans, and most educated baseball fans--why it wasn't Verlander. In an even two-man race, he had the upper hand in WHIP, strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games. You know, everything recent votes have shown the writers value. It should have been (and thus should not have been) Justin Verlander with the Cy Young. How can I argue against it when they pull a statistical 180? They are "getting it wrong" all wrong.

Is this not the same BBWAA that voted for Felix Hernandez and his 13 wins two seasons ago? They are the reason I set out to make an objective, statistically-based postseason award in the first place. It seems that each year what Cy Young voters value changes. Notify the press, wins are back in vogue in 2012. 

Perhaps the writers understood how hypocritical it would be to award Miguel Cabrera the MVP and Justin Verlander the Cy Young. You cannot have the offensive Triple Crown stats carry an MVP candidacy, while the pitching equivalent is overlooked. A voter that says WAR and Runs Saved are not applicable in postseason awards cannot come back at me with WHIP or Run Support. Plus, wins and RBIs are equally dependent on extrinsic factors, mainly the quality of the team around the player. So, I see a situation where votes were backed into a corner. If they wanted Cabrera's RBI supremacy to have merit, they begrudgingly had to give Price's 20 wins their due.
Forget Obama/Biden vs. Romeny/Ryan, 2012 was a baseball fan's ultimate showdown. The American League Cy Young and MVP votes were a statistical crossroads. The Cabrera/Price ticket spoke to the old guard, where batting average and wins both maintain meaning. The Trout/Verlander camp was a sleek machine of sabermetrics, where hitting .400 means a player had an atrocious season (using OPS standards) and a pitcher's win-loss record has been eliminated from the baseball vocabulary.

I, for one, will admit I have been talking out of both sides of my mouth--pulling for Price and Trout. I admit it because I see the day when the Jumbrotron at a Major League stadium displays the lineup of a team with Player Name, Number, Position, and OPS (not batting average). But I cannot allow myself to envision a future where pitchers--warming up in the bullpen--do not have their win-loss record displayed. 

It would be nice if the BBWAA followed suit and admitted double-dealing. All we ask is that they share their vision of the future of the sport they care so much about. Pull back the curtain and let the fans see what the rules of the game are. It sure feels like writers wanted Cabrera and Verlander, but could not pull the trigger. If that is true, say so. Help us better understand the process, instead of releasing the voting results (in a zero explanation, take-it-or-leave-it fashion) and disappearing until the Winter Meetings. 

Like Congress, baseball fans must work across the ropes, figure out what standards they want, and demand it of the writers. Taking the guess work out of the vote begins with a simple survey. What consensus statistics do we value the most? The BBWAA will never come out and tell the general public what things they look for, so we either need to lead them to water or change the entire secret-vote process. 

To show you how far we are divided on these issues, I brought in the opinion of a friend--currently working for the St. Louis Cardinals. He recently wrote to me "if we didn't have the wins stat now, and somebody proposed it as a new idea, most people would think it was useless." The unfortunate thing is I agree with his assessment. I do not agree with the stat's fall from grace, but I certainly cannot argue the statement's validity.

I want to use wins, both by a pitcher and their respective team, to dive deeper into the comparison of Cy Young past vs. Cy Young present. After all, we have to see how we got here before we can plan a course of where to go. Let's start by looking at the team these players pitch for.  

Why team wins mean nothing to modern pitching awards:

Fitting, that in a year when more teams than ever make it to the playoffs, two pitchers from middle-of-the-division teams took home the top pitching prize. As time has passed, the bond between playoff appearances and being named the league's best pitcher has become a coin-flip afterthought.

Of the last five seasons of Cy Young winners, only Roy Halladay (2010) and Justin Verlander (2011) pitched their way to the postseason. That means a mere two out of the last ten recipients (20%).  

Take it back farther--to when the playoffs expanded to eight teams--and the numbers barely change. In these 18 years, now counting Price and Dickey, both leagues are dead even with nine playoff-bound Cy Young winners and nine October fishermen. This 50/50 split shows the playoffs are not on the mind's of contemporary voters as much as previously thought.

In that same span, from 1995-2012, the MVP came from a playoff team 81% of the time. This should not be news to anyone, as it was the thrust of most people's Cabrera counter-argument to my Trout campaign.

This is not how it used to be. The first eight American League Cy Young Award winners played on a playoff team, including 1967 and 1968 where there was still only one AL "playoff" team.

In the first 19 years of the Cy Young's existence the recipient(s) came from a postseason contender 21 out of 27 instances--a 78% correlation. The Cy Young was like the MVP voting of present day; you better have some kind of season to win it on a non-playoff team.   

This is why I contest Nolan Ryan was snubbed out of the Cy Young for his career. The precedent had not been set. In 1973 and 1974, Ryan had the best pitching seasons, hands down. But his California Angels were not in the World Series and, at the time, the two were synonymous. It took voters one more year, 1975, to award a pitcher who did not appear in the postseason (Jim Palmer).

So what has changed? How have qualified candidates, ordinarily buried in the standings, risen to elite status? Exposure has sure evolved; our 24/7 sports networks and ability to watch every team coast-to-coast on the internet. But the math is actually simpler than that. Voters finally understand how little responsibility a starting pitcher should bear in a team's 162-game record. In the era of thirty teams (or more) per professional sport, Major League Baseball is not the NBA or NHL in its postseason representation.  

If you exclusively awarded pitchers from playoff teams, selecting the Cy Young could only be drawn from 31% of the league's rosters. If the NHL chose the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) off the same criteria, 53% of the starting goalies would be eligible. This is why hockey can get away with an unspoken "no-playoff, no award" policy; no matter how terrible the offense is, no one can be the best goalie if their team is in the bottom half of the league.

Baseball, not so much. There is a grey area of being above the midpoint of teams in the league and still not appearing in the playoffs. Being above .500 is not guaranteed a thing in MLB standings.   

There is also the issue of utilization. For the second straight season, the Major League lead in games started was only 34 games (21% of team's games played). Once again seeing similarities between hockey and baseball, this would be the equivalent to an NHL goalie making 25 starts in net. Essentially, this means a starting pitcher is like a back-up goalie; neither of whom should be held all that accountable for the team's end-of-year record.

Not his fault, but Justin Verlander was utilized less often than Jhonas Enroth (an athlete you have likely never heard of) was for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. This is tongue-and-cheek and certainly not a comparison on their value/quality of play, but something to ponder. The point is, there are other players in the lineup every single day that shoulder the responsibility of team wins far more than pitchers. The past had it wrong; non-playoff pitchers are people too.   

Why individual wins are still meaningful to modern pitching awards:

I am all for the greatest pitchers coming from losing teams, as long as they win their games. The 2010 Felix Hernandez Cy Young, heralded as a victory for baseball nerds like me, was short-sided and frankly a travesty. Pitching in meaningless games is pitching in meaningless games; the difference is what you do in those games. Hernandez (2010) lost a majority of them, while Dickey (2012) won his fair share.  

These days, the modern Cy Young is evolving into something that resembles Andre Dawson's infamous NL MVP win in 1987. There seems to be a new focus on a single starting pitcher's percentage of total team wins. It is as if writers are saying "look at what this guy could do on an inept team, such that no one else on his team could do half as well." 

This is especially ironic when it comes out of the mouth of a sabermetrician who despises the pitching victory stat. They are all about rewarding a 20-game winner on a 60-win team, but hypocritically quick to discount 20 wins from a member of a division-winning team.

Run support is huge factor at play. Losing 1-0 is hard luck, while even the league's worst pitcher can pillage a 5-inning win for a team that puts up 8 runs. These are the extreme anomalies that everyone turns to, but they are also the reason averages exist. Take a look at the RS column in the Pitcher Rating table (below) and you will see that Verlander did more with less, but Price's Run Support Average was not that egregious. This was not a Tampa Bay juggernaut offense, constantly gifting Price 6-run leads. 

It is a given that a pitcher's win-loss record has evolved into something out of their own control. Complete games are on MLB's endangered species list. A starting pitcher can pitch brilliantly, leaving a game in-line for a win, and then helplessly watch from the dugout as the bullpen blows the save. 

But as the game gets more and more specialized, the expectation of perfection from the bullpen grows. For argument's sake, let's say a top-tier closing pitcher records a save nine out of ten tries--11 out of 30 full-time closers had a save percentage above 90% in 2012. Pair that with the fact that starters pitch every fifth day. It means that Price and Verlander (and every other team's ace, for that matter) had a one-in-five chance of running into their closer's one-in-ten bad days. It is negligible dumb luck. 

The modern game is also making the disparity in innings pitched between Price and Verlander a non-factor. Baseball has a mimimum criteria to qualify for a win. As long as Price consistently gets through the fifth inning, he should not be penalized for other player's who go deeper in the game. As a manager, a five-inning victory by my starter and an eight-inning victory by my starter are insignificantly alike. As long as the bullpen is not suffering fatigue from overuse, the innings are just descriptive words to the larger focus--the victory.  

More complete games and 27 1/3 more IPs does not prove to me that Verlander is a better pitcher. It is a sign of manager's assessment of who, at a specific situation in the game, gives the team the best chance to win.  

If nothing else, it leaves Price more susceptible to exiting with a lead and not getting the win. The fact that Price still got to 20 victories, despite this greater vulnerability, proves that Rays' manager Joe Maddon made the correct call more times than not. If Verlander pitched the 211 innings that Price did, he may have saved himself a hard-luck loss here or there, but his win total would not have increased. Verlander has very little excuse for not winning 20 games in a weaker division, with a playoff-bound team. 

The bullpen did not solely account for Verlander reaching only 17 wins and Price getting to 20. Verlander and Price had two of the best in the game (er... in the regular season at least). 

Fernando Rodney had a stellar season--eighth best Pitcher Rating in Major League Baseball--closing games for the Rays. He had only two blown saves in 50 chances. Yet, one of those two missteps cost David Price a win. Meanwhile in Detroit, Jose Valverde had a rockier year than his recent past would suggest and he blew five saves. But only once did a blown save come in a Verlander start (Opening Day). So you can add one victory to each Cy Young candidate's speculative win total and/or chalk it up as a wash.

Even if all of Valverde's blown saves cost Verlander directly--meaning a potential 22 wins--I still give the edge to Price. Postseason awards are not for extrapolation or speculation. It is like comparing pre-tax income and take-home-pay. It doesn't matter what you would have without deductions; it is about what you walk away with. Bullpens strip every pitcher of wins. Price dodged the minefield of a long season with the most to show for at the bottom line.

While win total seems to be the theme of the day, why are we not bringing up losses? It is not like Price went 20-10 on the season. His .800 individual winning percentage was far superior to Verlander's .680. Where was Verlander's powerful offense--led by the MVP--to spare him a loss here and there? 

The next argument I pose plays more to "the baseball gods" than it does hardline evidence. Baseball has natural ebb and flow; for every time that a starter helplessly watches a bullpen blow a win, there is a occasion of a late-game rally pulling a loss out of the fire. Or so it seems (I have no proof that it did, in fact, even out for both American League Cy Young finalists). Even if Price benefited from more "bail-out" no-decision games than Verlander, it was not enough to entirely account for a 12% edge in win percentage. 

And that is my thesis: pitchers makes their own breaks and their individual win percentage is the barometer. Most times the win-loss record gauges a player's success rate of wiggling off the hook. Price did what he needed to do, within the criteria necessary to rack up 20 wins.   

I do not care what external variables are involved; I want the pitcher that has the "it" factor to win a majority of his starts. Call it luck, call it a strong bullpen (one that guarantees a victory after 6 innings pitched), call it a potent offense that "wakes up" when a certain pitcher is on the mound. Call it beating up on weak-division teams and collecting "meaningless games" after being mathematically eliminated. Call it whatever you want. A win is a win is a win. Some pitchers know how to manage the game better than others. 

In a professional sports landscape, with super-economics at play, is it not the ultimate return on investment for a pitcher to win the games they start? Forget the ERA and the WHIP, the K/9 and the K/BB ratio. If you are paying a player five million dollars for 34 starts, winning 17 does not cut it. Simple as that.

Conversely, the pitcher can only blame himself for not executing. We live in a free agent world where aces have the right to shift divisions and chase a World Series championship. The circumstances surrounding him on the mound are all a direct result of the contract he signed.   

At the end of the day, the best pitcher in the game needs to have an intangible ability to win despite the worst of circumstances. Even if it is luck, Price put himself in better position to be lucky. Since joining the Rays, Tampa Bay has perennially over-achieved in the regular season (versus expectations and payroll figures), while the Tigers have under-performed (yes, they made it to the World Series, but their all-star roster suggested a 95-win, division-run-away team). 

The Rays have that something that can boost their ace to Cy Young winner. Put Verlander on the Rays and he would win 23 games a year. Their knack for dramatic walk-offs could at least prevent him for ever losing more than five games. In this, we have learned that a team's total wins is irrelevant to Cy Young voting, but found that it is still a team award. 

A fan of the Rays would never nit-pick how their ace won. Neither should the owner that pays him or the voters entrusted to reward his efforts. You pitch to win the game. Hello! 

Pitcher Rating Finale 2012