On Greinke and Things Related
Zack Greinke won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award yesterday, capturing 25 of 28 first place votes. I am going to dive into Baseball Reference's Play Index to try and gain some perspective on Greinke's 2009 season, but first let's have a look at a couple of mainstream baseball pieces that appeared yesterday.
Since we tend to wander into the realm of media criticism from time to time here, let's start off with the negative, a look at Steve Kornacki's defense of his first place vote for Justin Verlaner.
Verlander received my first-place vote because nobody was tougher on the mound with the season on the line for his team.
He threw at least 120 pitches in six of his last eight outings and won his last three starts, forcing a one-game playoff against the Minnesota Twins with his final victory.
He was an inspirational "horse," using Tigers manager Jim Leyland's term for him, on a fading team.
Verlander was excellent in 2009, don't get me wrong. I don't know about "inspirational horse" but whatever, he was really good. But an honest 30-second comparison between Verlander and Greinke should do away with any confusion as to which pitcher had the better 2009 season. But Kornacki's writing in Detroit and more or less employed the classic BBWAA "I know what my eyes tell me" crutch to cast a vote for Verlander.
And that's fine. He's just one voter, and Greinke ran away with the thing. Unfortunately for Kornacki, as Tyler Kepner notes, yesterday may have represented a landmark in terms of advanced statistics infiltrating the mainstream, and Kornacki appears to have missed the boat. There's always next year, Steve!
You won't find a better piece of baseball writing all year in a daily newspaper, so be sure to go on over and check out Kepner's piece on yesterday's Greinke vote and its broader significance. But here are a couple of excerpts:
It was not surprising that Greinke won, since his earned run average, 2.16, was the lowest in the American League since 2000. But his decisive margin of victory over Seattle’s Felix Hernandez was a sign that voters overlooked his deficiency in another bedrock statistic: wins.
The article goes on to note that, thanks to his teammate Brian Bannister, Greinke has been turned on to more progressive pitching metrics. And really, in a world where so many still value wins, who can blame a Kansas City Royals starting pitcher for looking to convince himself that he really is pitching well? One can imagine how the dialogue between Bannister and Greinke might go:
Zack: Sheesh, sure feels like I am pitching well. But I only have 11 wins.
Brian: You are, and people are noticing. Here, check out Fangraphs. And Rob Neyer. And Poz.
Zack: Oh, cool. But wait, I have been digging into this stuff, and...wait...did we really just trade for Yuniesky Betancourt?
Brian: Let's not got there, Zack. Stay focused. You're an awesome pitcher.
I have read and re-read this next excerpt about 12 times now, because I can't even believe it. Kepner writes:
To that end, Bannister introduced Greinke to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, the statistic Greinke named Tuesday as his favorite. It is a formula that measures how well a pitcher performed, regardless of his fielders. According to fangraphs.com, Greinke had the best FIP in the majors.
“That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.
A big, hearty congrats to the guys over at Fangraphs. They're doing great work, and fans, media members and Cy Young Award winners alike are taking notice.
OK, how great was Greinke in 2009? First of all, he eclipsed the 200 ERA+ mark. Let's just go ahead and put that one into perspective. Since 1959, it has been done 13 times by starters who have tossed at least 200 innings.
Here is the complete list of 200-inning, 200 ERA+ or better seasons in the last 50 years. Zack's at the bottom, but he is also one of the youngest on the list. I bet we see him back on here in the next few seasons.
But, as Tyler Kepner told us, yesterday was about pitching independent numbers. ERA and ERA+ both have quite a bit to do with the defense behind a pitcher. So let's stick with the same parameters as the last table, seasons where starters have thrown at least 200 innings since 1959 only this time we will sub in K/BB ratio for ERA+.
As you can see from the company Greinke is keeping in the tables above, his 2009 campaign was truly one for the ages. That the voters recognized this, or that they at least looked past his win total and saw that he was the AL's best in 2009, is a great sign of progress. That Greinke himself, in the pages of the country's most famous newspaper, confessed to pitching to keep his FIP as low as possible, makes yesterday even more remarkable. And the cherry on top of it all is that Greinke is a genuinely modest and curious young man who has overcome incredible mental health struggles to get to where he is today. Baseball fans and suckers for compelling personal stories alike can get behind a story such as this one.