Posted tagged ‘Cy Young’

The Drop Off to Second Best


This morning Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted, “Because of the difference between Rivera and others at his position, for me, he should be part of NYY’ Rushmore, with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio.” I find this an interesting claim in a lot of ways. First note the 4 players: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Rivera. I would without a second thought shove Mantle ahead of both DiMaggio and Rivera. Second, I take his claim to be that the dropoff from Rivera to others refers to all other relievers, not just all other Yankee relievers. That follows an earlier tweet which said, “The difference between Rivera and any other player at his position in history is the greatest of any position.” That is a more interesting question. To get a quick and dirty look at the drop from the best to the second-best at various positions, I’m going to do a bit of fiddling with WAR, as measured on Baseball Reference. I will also summarily exclude 19th-Century Players. (This means I excluded both Cy Young and George Davis.) The method is simple: Take the WAR of player 2, divide it by player 1, and multiply by 100. This gives the second player’s production as a percentage of the first player. So, is the dropoff from Rivera the biggest? Let’s turn to the stats.


Player 1 WAR 1 Player 2 WAR 2 Percentage Total Drop
Gehrig 118.4 Foxx 95.2 80.41 23.2
Hornsby 127.8 Collins 126.7 99.14 1.1
Wagner 134.5 Ripken 89.9 66.84 44.6
Schmidt 108.3 Rodriguez 105 96.95 3.3
Ruth 190 Aaron 141.6 74.53 48.4
Cobb 159.5 Mays 154.7 96.99 4.8
Bonds 171.8 Musial 127.8 74.39 44
Bench 71.3 Fisk 67.3 94.39 4
W. Johnson 139.8 Clemens 128.8 92.13 11
Rivera 55.8 Gossage 39.5 70.79 16.3
Eckersley 58.3 Rivera 55.8 95.71 2.5
Rivera 55.8 Hoffman 30.4 54.48 25.4

First, these are full career WAR stats, so Ruth has a serious bump from being a pitcher, and Walter Johnson gets a nice little bump from his hitting. Second, I calculated relievers three different ways. First, I ran Rivera against Gossage, the two highest pitchers who accumulated almost all their WAR in relief. Next I did Rivera against Eckersley, because Eck had the highest WAR of any pitcher who is in the Hall of Fame as a reliever. Nonetheless, his WAR is so high because he gets a giant boost from all of his years as a starter. Finally I compared Rivera to the next highest modern closer, that is the highest WAR from a reliever since the advent of the modern closer circa 1980. That would be Trevor Hoffman. So where does this get us?

First, the drop at shortstop is gigantic. Even adding George Davis back in doesn’t help much. That is the lowest percentage drop among position players. Next, the drop from Ruth to Aaron is impressive. It is the largest raw WAR drop, and the third lowest percentage. Quite a drop considering this is Hank Aaron we are talking about. Finally, relievers are tricky. First, if Eckersley is included, Rivera isn’t the best ever. Next, if you include higher inning relievers from the 1970’s, the percentage is not the lowest, but it is second. Finally, if you limit Rivera to his most comparable group, other closers, you see Buster Olney’s point in big numbers. Rivera is nearly twice the pitcher of any other closer, when measured by WAR. I find that fact astonishing.


Are Modern Players Better?


In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that modern basketball players are substantially better than their historical predecessors.  This view is common across sports.  In baseball, Bill James has been known to advocate a weak version of the thesis, and anyone who listens much to sports talk radio can hear its football-based proponents weekly.  But is it true?  Here, the key is defining the question carefully?  What precisely do we mean by saying that modern players either are or are not better than players that have gone before?  We need to dig into this question in all of its permutations before we can begin to give it a satisfying answer.

Claim #1: Modern leagues are better at getting the best players to the big leagues.

This claim is simply true. Reason #1 is integration. A league that excluded all members of non-white races is not getting the same amount of talent as an integrated league. In the NHL and NBA, leagues that allow European players are drawing from a substantially larger talent pool than leagues that do not. Other reasons also abound. In baseball the decline of the minor leagues as separate sources of baseball power increased the quality of play in the major leagues. As an example, Joe McGinnity won 246 games in the major leagues in only 10 seasons. He then moved to the minor leagues and won another 207 games. The National League without McGinnity was not as good as the National League with him.

Response #1: The claim does not prove as much as it seems like it would.

Just because the current leagues are better in aggregate, because they funnel talent more efficiently, does not mean that individual players are better. Old ballplayers, it is likely, have inflated stats because they get to spend more time playing against weaker players. That says nothing about raw talent, though it does form an important part of evaluating statistics.

Claim #2: Players today are bigger, faster, and stronger.

This claim is trickier. In one sense it is clearly true. Compare two left tackles, Jonathan Ogden and Forrest Gregg. Ogden was listed at 6’9″, 340 lbs., making him one of the largest players ever to play in the NFL. Gregg, one of the largest players of the 1960s, was 6’4″, 249. The discrepancy is astounding. As a matter of fact, the discrepancy is so astounding as to undermine the point of the claim.

Response #2: Players are bigger, faster, and stronger, yet they do not possess appreciably more natural talent.

Gregg was 6’4″ and weighed 249 lbs. Nate Newton was 6’3″, 318. Walter Jones was 6’5″, 315. The change is in weight. Did Newton have extra talent that helped him gain 70 more pounds? Of course not. Instead, Newton had better weight training, nutrition, and supplements. Gregg did not have access to the wonders of BALCO, protein shakes, and regular weight training. To get at the question of talent, imagine time travel. What happens if Walter Jones was transported to 1962? He begins by dominating, and then he would shrink. I mean that literally. Walter Jones, upon losing access to modern weight training and nutrition would literally watch the pounds fall off him. Gregg comes forward? Watch the pounds get added to his frame. What would Lebron James look like in the early 1960’s? Probably a lot like Elgin Baylor. The changes cannot be ascribed to something internal to the player, and because of that they cannot be ascribed to talent differences.

Claim #3: Modern players have better stats.

This claim is only sporadically true. Modern quarterbacks have substantially better statistics than their older counterparts. Fielders in baseball commit half of the errors of players a century ago in more games.

Response #3: Stats do not exist in a vacuum.

Why do modern quarterbacks have better stats? They play with laxer passing rules during seasons with more games. Why do fielders commit fewer errors? They play on carefully manicured fields. The 1924 World Series was decided by a ball that took a funny bounce off a rock. That would not happen today. Along with these changes, some older players did have better stats. Consider Wilt Chamberlain or Cy Young as the obvious examples here.

These are three possible ways to answer the question posed in the title. I think #1 is the strongest point. Nevertheless, I don’t think that modern players are more talented. They simply have more favorable circumstances. What are other possible ways of interpreting the claim? Do you think the question is true in any sense?

An Awards Retrospective


As we leave baseball’s awards season, how did the writers do, as judged by my picks? Pretty well.

AL ROY: Andrew Bailey. I picked Bailey second and Elvis Andrus first. The writers flipped them. Tough to complain too strongly.
NL ROY: Chris Coghlan. Here was my biggest gap with the writers. I picked Andrew McCutchen, who only came in 4th. I didn’t put Coghlan in the top 3. Batting average appeared to rule all in this pick.
AL Cy Young: Zack Greinke. He won with ease, which was the only thing that surprised me.
AL MOY: Mike Scioscia. I wanted Ron Gardenhire to win, but Scioscia was not a bad pick. In particular, holding his team together after Nick Adenhart’s death deserved recognition. I’d have placed him third, behind Gardenhire and Joe Girardi.
NL MOY: Jim Tracy. The obvious pick won easily.
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum. I picked Lincecum and have since wondered if I was wrong. Given the closeness of the vote, the writers agree that this was a tough pick. Given the controversy over votes for Dan Haren and Javier Vazquez, both of whom had great years, I think the Cy Young ballot should be extended to 5 names. This makes easier to honor very good years that have been overlooked, and it would have done nothing to change the outcome of the voting.
AL MVP: Joe Mauer. My only complaint is that he was not unanimous. I am very pleased at how easily he outdistanced Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira. I thought it would be closer.
NL MVP: Albert Pujols. I realize this has not happened yet, but I suspect the world might stop spinning on its axis if Pujols lost. The only question: Will he be the first person this awards season to win unanimously?

The writers and I were basically on the same wavelength. I don’t know if that is a compiment to either side, but it happens to be true this year.

Preparing for the Baseball Awards Season


As Major League Baseball prepares to hand outs its season-ending awards, I thought it time to recap my own picks. Links are to my earlier posts explaining my rationale.

Rookies of the Year – November 16
My Picks:
Elvis Andrus
Andrew McCutchen

American League Cy Young Award – November 17
My Pick:
Zack Greinke

Managers of the Year – November 18
My Picks:
Jim Tracy and Ron Gardenhire (No post on these picks.)

National League Cy Young Award – November 19
My Pick:
Tim Lincecum (This is the vote I would be most likely to reconsider. Lincecum ended poorly, minimizing his statistical advantages, while Wainwright had similar run support problems and worse bullpen issues depressing his numbers unfairly.)

American League Most Valuable Player – November 23
My Pick:
Joe Mauer

National League Most Valuable Player – November 24
My Pick:
Albert Pujols

I suspect my picks will win the AL Cy Young, both MVPs, and the NL MOY. If I had to guess, Rick Porcello will pick up the AL ROY, Mike Scioscia the AL MOY, and Adam Wainwright the NL Cy Young. We will see.

Who do you think will win? Who do you think should?

Sabathia’s Big Push


How much should late season performance factor into award voting?  On Saturday, C.C. Sabathia threw a seven-inning one-hitter to defeat the Red Sox and push the Yankees magic number to clinch the division to 1.  Will this last bit of dominance push Sabathia to the front of the Cy Young voting?  In the Cy Young Predictor, developed by Bill James and Rob Neyer, puts Zack Greinke slightly ahead of Sabathia after Greinke’s 1-run shutdown of the Twins on Sunday.  If Sabathia wins one more game, he will be the only pitcher to reach 20 in the American League.

One important comparison would be Chipper Jones’ MVP in 1999.  In the first three months of the season, Jones hit 14 homers with a .291 batting average and 44 RBIs.  Over the last three months, in slightly less at bats, he hit 31 homers, 65 RBIs, and a .349 batting average.  Jones had an exceptional last three months of the season.  He also had an outstanding year against the Mets, the chief rival of the Braves that season, hitting .400 with 7 home runs and 16 RBIs in 12 games, including dominating the Mets in September.  That same season, Larry Walker led the league in batting average, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage.  Walker, of course, played for the Colorado Rockies, and his numbers were subsequently discounted.  He hit .461 at home and only .286 on the road.  Clearly, factors beyond simply on-field performance are important, including when and where you do what you do.

If you look at the numbers, Jones, like Sabathia, had a very good year.  His performance down the stretch, though, was certainly essential as he won the MVP nearly unanimously over Jeff Bagwell, Matt Williams, Greg Vaughan, and Mark McGwire.  Could the same happen to Sabathia?  His September ERA is 1.29, by far his lowest of any month.  He is also 4-0 with 35 strikeouts.  Greinke, of course, has an 0.55 ERA with 35 strikeouts and a 3-0 record in September, but he has done it with less fanfare.  My prediction?  If Sabathia wins 20, he will win the Cy Young award with voters referencing his exceptional performance down the stretch and how sad it was that he did not win last year in Milwaukee.  I would still support Greinke, but I would not be surprised to see him lose.

NL Cy Young Race


I have been focusing primary on the Cy Young race in the American League up to this point, basically because I am an American League guy at heart.  However, I think the NL race is much tighter and subsequently more interesting and worthy of discussion.  The race, at this point, seems to have three viable candidates and a host of other good pitchers that will be unfortunately lost.  To start with those left behind, Javier Vazquez, Dan Haren, and Josh Johnson are all having excellent years that are being lost in the discussion.  Vazquez and Haren rank 2nd and 3rd in strikeouts and are both in the top 10 in ERA.  By advanced stats, Vazquez is second in FIP and third in WHIP, while Haren leads the league in WHIP.  If the Braves make the playoffs, Vazquez might end up part of the vote for the Cy Young.  At the moment, he would be third on my ballot.  But let us turn to three contenders getting the most attention, Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter, and Adam Wainwright. 

Linceum is leading the league in strikeouts, K/9, FIP, WAR (Wins above replacement, not likelihood to survive a 1-year tour in Iraq), etc.  He has the misfortune of playing for the offensively putrid Giants, which has hurt his won-loss record, nevertheless it is still a respectable 14-7.  However, that is the worst of the three major candidates.  He is also second in ERA

Carpenter has the best storyline, coming back from major surgery that caused him to miss all of the 2007 and most of the 2008 season after winning the Cy Young in 2006.  He is leading the league in ERA, third in fewest walks/9, second in fewest HR/9, third in FIP, and has a sterling 16-4 won-loss record, allowing him to lead the league in winning percentage. 

Wainwright leads the league in wins with 18, is third in ERA (behind only Carpenter and Lincecum), 5th in strikeouts, and leads in inning pitched.  That last stat is important, because it means the Cardinals have the advantage of ignoring their bullpen when Wainwright is pitching more often than any other team with any other pitcher in the National League. 

So given these three cases, how should the vote turn out?  Carpenter’s story, though inspiring, should be ignored.  His ERA is a bigger mark in his favor, but he has pitched substantially less innings than any of the other candidates.  Though he has probably been the best pitcher in the National League since he has returned from the disabled list, it is by a small enough margin that his time on the DL outweighs his later contributions.  Health matters.  Despite the fact that Lincecum pitches for a weaker hitting team, Wainwright ranks higher in tough losses (losses in games in which a pitcher went at least six innings and gave up 3 or less runs).  However, in the end I think that Lincecum’s lead in strikeouts overcome his deficit in wins.  But I could easily be talked out of that choice. 

My Ballot:

1.   Tim Lincecum

2.   Adam Wainwright

3.  Javier Vazquez

AL Cy Young Wrap-Up


The Cy Young ballot is unusual among baseball awards.  You only get to vote for three players.  The MVP ballot and the Hall of Fame ballot both run 10 players deep, but for some reason the Cy Young is limited to three.  I think five pitchers have a legitimate shot to be part of that 3 on the AL side:  Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Mariano Rivera.  Scott Feldman had a chance, but his last start killed his ERA and allowed Hernandez to pass him for the league-lead in winning percentage and tie for second in the league in wins.  He should no longer get a vote.

Sabathia leads the league in wins, but I think he is the weakest candidate of the five.  That does not mean that he won’t win the award in November, but he should not.  Sabathia’s ERA is slightly lower than Verlander’s, who has the highest of the five candidates listed above, however he has done it with 70 less strikeouts for a notably superior team.  Verlander leads the league K/9 and is second in FIP, the stat introduced yesterday.  He is hurt by playing in front of a poor fielding team in Detroit.  Greinke leads the league in FIP, ERA, fewest hits, complete games, HR/9, etc. He is having the most dominant season in the majors. His only problem is a lack of wins. He has won 15 to Sabathia’s 18, and Verlander and Hernandez’s 17. That is what pitching for Kansas City will do to you.

That leaves Rivera. I have already argued that Rivera might win the Cy Young. It is difficult to predict when a reliever will pick up a Cy Young, but they do it with regularity. Rivera is the best closer in the American League this year. If relievers are added in, Rivera suddenly leads the league in ERA and pulls ahead of Greinke in K/9, BB/9, and K/BB. However, he has only pitched 62 innings, fewer than any reliever to have won a Cy Young. I don’t think he will or should win, but it would not be a travesty if he nudges past Greinke for the award.

My ballot:
1. Zack Greinke
2. Mariano Rivera
3. Justin Verlander