Is the AL Cy Young Still Up for Grabs?

Six weeks ago, I wrote that the AL Cy Young race was wide open, with Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, and CC Sabathia all excellent candidates. I ended that analysis with “I expect one of these three pitchers will create some separation between now and the end of the season”, and Verlander seems to have done exactly that. But is it really that simple?

Verlander leads the American League in wins (for what they’re worth) with 22, in innings pitched with 229, in ERA at 2.44 (tied with Weaver), and in strikeouts with 232. That seems like enough to make him the obvious Cy Young choice, but we live in a world in which there will always be statistics to justify an argument for another candidate. And in this case, they’re somewhat compelling.

Fangraphs calculates Wins Above Replacement based only on the three outcomes most within a pitcher’s control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. By their estimation, CC Sabathia has been a better pitcher than Verlander this season, with 6.8 WAR to Verlander’s 6.4. We all know that WAR isn’t perfect, and that .4 wins aren’t enough to definitively declare that Sabathia is the best pitcher in the league, but the numbers do suggest that we take a deeper look.

Verlander has struck out 9.12 batters per 9 innings this year, to Sabathia’s 8.67. Verlander has walked exactly 2 batters per 9, to Sabathia’s 2.21. So how can Sabathia’s FIP be better? Because the big guy has allowed just .6 home runs per 9, vs. Verlander’s .86. This is especially impressive considering the homer-friendly park in which Sabathia plays (although lefthanded pitchers tend not to be hurt as much by the short porch in right field). xFIP, or expected Fielding Independent Pitching, neutralizes the vagaries of wind and ballpark dimensions by replacing actual home runs allowed with a typical percentage of fly balls turning into home runs. Sabathia still has the edge in xFIP, 2.99 to 3.05, which suggests that Verlander gives up more fly balls, so home runs are to be expected.

I think this is where the argument for Sabathia ends. Verlander has given up fewer runs, 68 to 81, and fewer earned runs, 62 to 73. If Sabathia is better in a fielding-neutral setting, but Verlander is better at keeping runs off the board, that suggests that Verlander’s success is fueled by a low batting average on balls in play. It’s true- the league is only hitting .235 when putting the ball in play against Verlander, while they hit .313 against Sabathia. Some of that can be chalked up to defense (the Yankees infield doesn’t have much range), and some of it to luck, but as we discovered earlier, Verlander gives up more fly balls than Sabathia. While fly balls are more likely to turn into home runs, they’re also less likely to turn into hits. Verlander has succeeded not only by virtue of the defense behind him, but because those hitters Verlander doesn’t strike out tend to pop up in the infield or send a can of corn to a waiting outfielder.

Baseball-reference measures WAR based on actual run prevention, and as such gives Verlander a healthy edge, 7.6 WAR to 6.5. There is a lot of value, both predictive and informative, in fielding-independent numbers, as GMs and scouts like to know whether a pitcher is getting outs by himself or depending on his defense. But when choosing the most valuable pitcher in the league (if that’s what the Cy Young award is- there’s a can of worms to go with the aforementioned cans of corn), I’d prefer to reward the guy who actually prevented runs.

I can’t help but mention Joe Posnanski’s brilliant analogy from a recent post about WAR and wins.

“It is striking to me that wins could have such a low bar and WAR such a high one, that wins could still be of some use because — to use a GPS analogy — it can generally locate where Philadelphia might be while WAR is of no use because it might tell you there’s a traffic jam on Schuylkill Expressway when that was cleared up like TEN MINUTES AGO.”

In this case, I’m going with the guy with more wins over the guy with more WAR. WAR brought Sabathia into this conversation, which is a good thing, as he’s having another impressive season. The bottom line, though, is that Verlander has pitched more innings, struck out more batters, walked fewer batters, and given up fewer runs. That sounds like the best pitcher in the league to me.

My ballot:

1. Verlander
2. Sabathia
3. Jered Weaver
4. James Shields
5. Dan Haren

One last note: I would be remiss not to mention the common argument that Sabathia faces better hitters pitching in the AL east than Verlander does in the Central. While there’s some truth to this, I’ll let David Schoenfield rebut:

“Here’s the aggregate (opponents’) batting line for each pitcher:

Sabathia: .265/.330/.424
Verlander: .263/.327/.412

So we’re talking 15 points of OPS, which is notable by hardly sizable.
Now check out what each pitcher has allowed this season:

Sabathia: .249/.295/.353
Verlander: .192/.240/.310

Sabathia has allowed an OPS 106 points lower than his aggregate average. Verlander has allowed an OPS 189 points lower.”

This one’s not that hard.

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