Thoughts on the AL Cy Young
I don't much mind groupthink so long as I'm part of the group. Well, then I don't really consider it groupthink, do I? Just a bunch of people being right. And I like being right.
So when Baseball Prospectus released its Internet Baseball Awards, I was confused. Felix Hernandez won the greatest consensus of any category. My pick for AL Cy Young was Cliff Lee. Either I'd badly miscalculated, or people have been converging on an opinion that could well be wrong.
Now, I'm not saying people are wrong. (Of course I do think they're wrong. I chose Cliff Lee.) It's just that there's no way Felix was so dominant that he deserves 80% of the vote. Lee and Price and Liriano and Lester and Weaver and Sabathia were all fantastic. So what makes Felix stand out?
Felix led the league in both innings pitched and ERA. I'm not really sure that I care about innings or ERA, though. Hold on. I obviously do care about innings pitched and ERA. But I see the numbers and I just think wouldn't it be nice if some smart people converted those numbers into a total value metric? Fortunately, the good folks at Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and StatCorner have taken it upon themselves to provide us with WAR. Felix tops the AL on B-Ref, while Cliff Lee leads the Majors in WAR according to FanGraphs and StatCorner.
The difference between the methodologies is that Baseball Reference relies on ERA, whereas the others use defense-independent metrics. And why did Felix have such a superior ERA compared to Lee's all-time great strikeout-to-walk ratio?
Cliff Lee suffered a .347 BABIP with men on base while Felix Hernandez held opponents to a .239 mark.
It's easy to attribute ball-in-play results and event sequencing to luck, but if I were to do that I wouldn't have much else to write about. Therefore I looked into Lee's and Felix's pitching approaches with men on base and nobody on.
Felix's first full season was 2006, when he allowed a .357 BABIP with men on base. Since then, he has lowered his BABIP by at least 24 points in each successive year. If you believe in such trend analysis, then this would be evidence that Felix is doing something right with men on. Cliff Lee, in the two years since his reinvention, has allowed .306 and .264 BABIPs in man-on situations, indicating this year could have been nothing more than a fluke.
Most pitchers throw somewhat softer with men on base than with nobody on. Pitching from the stretch can lead to diminished velocity. Trying to induce groundballs means sacrificing velocity for movement. Justin Verlander is one guy who pitches with another gear at times. I found that he adds over a mile per hour to his fastball with men on, while previously it was shown that he adds velocity in high leverage spots and with higher pitch counts. On the other hand, Stephen Strasburg not only went to his two-seamer more often with men on base, but he also suffers pitching from the stretch.
Both Felix and Lee throw slightly harder with men on base, and both also significantly up their groundball rates. Lee throws more cutters with men on while Felix throws more tailing fastballs. The thing is, they've kept rather constant approaches from 2009-2010. Considering that Lee has better DIPS numbers with men on than does Felix, I fail to see evidence that Felix deserves credit for achieving better results than Lee. Felix added a full win in Clutch value this year. Lee lost a win. I don't think either deserved their respective fortunes.
I've looked at the numbers for quite a while, and I'm not all too confident with my pick. But I don't see how everyone else can be that confident with theirs. The competition was really really tight. I think Felix winning the AL Cy would mark a sign of progress for sabermetric thought. Felix winning by a landslide could mark a step backwards.