There is quite a lot of buzz surrounding the AL Cy Young award this year. While there are a number of pitchers that possess a high number of wins (17, 18, 19, and even 20 games), there are many who believe the award should go to Seattle’s Felix Hernandex. Despite only winning 13 games and losing 12, Hernandez’s performance this year has been nothing short of amazing. His problem is that he played on one of the worst teams in the league. He was 8th in the league amongst starters in terms of runs support (86 runs over 34 starts) and was actually dead last in terms of runs support per nine innings (3.1). If you look beyond wins to the other two orthodox statistics that make up the pitching triple crown, Hernandez finished first in ERA (2.27) and second in strikeouts (233). It is his performance in these other two categories that have many arguing for Hernandez to win the award, since he shouldn’t be penalized for his team’s lack of ability to score runs to support his dominance.
If someone like Hernandez wins this year it would truly represent a paradigm shift in the way baseball writers evaluate player performance. In the history of the AL Cy Award, no starting pitcher has ever won with less than 16 victories (Zach Greinke won last year). In the NL, only Fernando Valenzuela managed to win the award with as few as 13 wins, and that was in 1981, and no winner from either league had a record as close to .500 as Hernandez does.
That being said, I would actually argue that Hernandez is not the only “non-orthodox” contender.
There is only so much control a pitcher has over the outcome of a game. And while starting pitchers have more control than most, they still must rely on their defense to play well and on their offense to score runs. So rather than focus on statistics such as wins (which are heavily dependent on a team’s offense), we should evaluate starting pitchers on their performance independent of their offense and–to the extent possible–their defense. Doing this means focusing on how often hitters deny batters the chance to put the ball in play (strikeouts), how often they give a batter a free pass (walks), how many base runners they allow (WHIP), and how deep into a game they pitch, which gives their bullpen rest and allows their manager to use only the team’s best relievers (thereby, giving the team the best chance to win).
So let’s look at a few statistics:
K/9 – Strikeouts per 9 innings: The more batters a pitcher strikes out, the better.
K/BB – Strikeouts to Walk Ratio: The more strikeouts relative to walks, the better.
WHIP – Walks + Hits per Inning Pitched: The fewer baserunners a pitcher allows to reach base, the better.
FIP – Fielding Independent Pitching: Measures a pitchers performance independent of the quality of their defense. Lower the better.
RS/9 – Run Support per 9 innings: How many runs a pitcher’s offense scores for them per nine innings.
IP/GS – Innings Pitched per Game Started: The more innings pitched per start, the better.
I’ve created a table with non-counting statistics for the top 10 pitchers in the AL this year, but I have not included their names or their traditional statistics (Wins, ERA, or K’s). Take a look and think about who jumps out as the best pitcher:
Now, all of these guys are good, but there is one whose performance really jumps out.
First, it’s hard to miss the obvious gap between Pitcher A and their K/BB ration of 10.28 and the rest of the field. For every 1 batter Pitcher A walks he also strikes out 10. That is more than double the next closest pitcher (Pitcher B at 4.31). That ratio of 10.28 is the second highest in the history of baseball and only the third time we’ve seen a double-digit ratio (the other other two times-1994 and 1884). Pitcher A also had the lowest WHIP, the lowest FIP, and the highest IP/GS. The only two areas he didn’t finish first is K/9 (10th) and RS/9 (4th fewest).
So who is Pitcher A? Felix Hernandez? Nope. It’s Cliff Lee.
Here’s the chart with the names included:
In terms of the traditional statistics, Lee only went 12-9 with a 3.18 ERA (6th in the AL) and 185 strikeouts (10th in the AL) in 28 starts. At first blush, his body of work doesn’t look that impressive. But if you go beyond mere “counting” stats, Lee’s dominance becomes more evident and Hernandez-esque. His higher ERA (still 6th best) can be explained by an unusually high .302 batting aver for balls in play (BABIP), meaning when batters actually managed to put the ball in play they reached based 1/3 of the time. BABIP is strongly correlated to ERA. My guess is that Lee’s high BABIP can be explained by the fact that the defense behind him wasn’t the greatest, reflected in the fact that he had the best fielding independent pitching in the AL amongst starters.
Hernandez had less run support (3.10 to 4.45) and more strikeouts per nine innings (8.36 to 7.84), but otherwise Lee was better than Hernandez in every non-counting category (and he was better than every other contender).
Will Lee win the AL Cy Young? I doubt it. My guess is it will either go to Hernandez or CC Sabathia (since he had 21 wins and played for the Yankees in the AL East), but it is hard to argue with how dominant he was over the course of the regular season.