I read for the first time today what I’d feared for a few weeks. Dave Cameron (via Rob Neyer) referred to CC Sabathia as the favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award. This angered me on two levels. On a guttural level, I hate to see any level of success or comfort go to anyone in Yankee pinstripes. On a more cerebral level, it bothers me that a pitcher could be a favorite for a major award based on one context-dependent stat. Cameron certainly didn’t mean that Sabathia has been the best pitcher in the American League, only that, after giving up five earned runs in his last outing, Sabathia overtook the AL lead in wins. And we know how baseball award voters love wins.
Why do baseball writers have such a fetish for wins? They may be stubborn. They may be closed-minded. But I don’t believe they’re stupid. Voters have used wins as a primary determinant of the Cy Young Award for as long as the award has existed. Bartolo Colon won the 2005 award based on a 5-win advantage over the far superior Johan Santana (and others). Roger Clemens’s gaudy 20-3 record handed him the 2001 award despite a 3.51 ERA and several pitchers’ better numbers. We live in an age in which the average fan (and, to be fair, the writers who correctly tabbed Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum last year) understands that wins are as much a factor of run support and timing as they are of talent. So why do we still care so much about wins?
1) Wins are why baseball is played. In an era when pitchers were expected to finish what they started, the starting pitcher almost always took the win or the loss. A better pitcher was more likely to win more games than a weaker pitcher. In recent years, starters have thrown fewer innings and games decided in the late innings often give the decision to a reliever who happened to be in the right (or wrong) place in the right (or wrong) time. Still, a pitcher like Sabathia who pitches deep into games is more likely to take the decision than a Jeff Niemann-type who often leaves with the game in the balance.
2) Wins are park-neutral. Felix Hernandez’s .67-point advantage over Sabathia in ERA is due in large part to Hernandez pitching half of his games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, while Sabathia has to deal with the short porch in right field of Yankee stadium every other start. ERA is certainly a better measure of a pitcher’s talent, but it too has its shortcomings.
3) We understand wins. Pitcher WAR may be the best measure we’ve got, but different sources have different methods of calculating WAR. Everyone agrees that Cliff Lee has 10 wins and David Price has 15. DIPS may speak more to a pitcher’s true talent than ERA does, but how many people could tell you how DIPS is calculated?
I prefer to evaluate pitchers based on ERA, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and innings pitched (in all of which Felix Hernandez has outpitched Sabathia this season). But if wins are all we’ve got, I suppose we could do worse.