We’re approaching the deadline for the Baseball Bloggers Alliance‘s next two awards: The Goose Gossage Award for the top relief pitcher in each league and the Walter Johnson Award for the top starting pitcher. I like that these awards are segregated and we don’t have to consider whether a great reliever is as valuable as a great starter (hint: unless he throws 175 relief innings, he isn’t).
Choosing the best relief pitcher in each league is no simple task. Any numbers accumulated by relievers, particularly in this age of one-inning closers, LOOGYs and ROOGYs, are limited to small samples. If a starter threw 75 innings in April in May with an ERA and a WHIP far below his career norms, we would give him a few more starts before declaring that he had turned the corner and become a different pitcher, since we know 75 innings isn’t enough to reasonably measure his effectiveness. Relievers rarely throw significantly more than 75 innings in a season, yet we rush to christen Joel Hanrahan the next great closer if he keeps his ERA near two for a full season of ninth innings.
Saves and holds are almost entirely worthless, as they’re confined to certain situations and can be achieved with very innefective pitching or blown despite effective pitching. To wit: Pitcher A enters a 4-1 game in the ninth inning with no outs and no runners on base. He walks the first two hitters he faces, then gets a fly out to deep center, gives up a two-run double, then gets bailed out when the shortstop catches a scorching liner and doubles the runner off of second. Pitcher B enters a different game, his team leading 4-3, with one out in the eighth and the bases loaded. He gives up a sac fly on a medium-depth fly ball to right field, strikes out the next batter, then pitches a 1-2-3 ninth to win the game after his team scores in the top of the inning. Pitcher A is credited with a save despite drastically decreasing his team’s win probability before getting the final outs. Pitcher B gets tagged with a blown save despite not allowing a baserunner or a run.
Furthermore, the two keepers of WAR, fangraphs and baseball-reference, rarely reach a consensus on a relief pitcher, since small sample BABiP can drive huge variances between a pitcher’s fielding independent numbers (on which fWAR is based) and runs allowed (on which rWAR is based).
So where does that leave us? With strikeouts and walks, mostly. No numbers can be trusted in such small sample sizes as most relievers accrue, but strikeouts and walks in small samples correlate better with long-term trends than hits and runs allowed. I’ll focus my picks for the Gossage Awards on innings pitched, strikeouts, and walks allowed.
National League Goose Gossage Award
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves – Kimbrel’s season ended ignominously, as he blew saves in two of his last three appearances, the last one failing to win a game that would have forced a one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card. In fact, of the 19 earned runs he surrendered on the season, six of them came in the last 7 1/3 innings he pitched, all amidst the Braves’ historic collapse. But just as we can’t ignore Kimbrel’s role in the Braves’ season falling apart, we can’t ignore his role in the 89 games the Braves won. Kimbrel struck out a remarkable 127 batters in 77 innings. He probably walked too many (48), but he gave up just three home runs. When you keep the ball in the yard 99.1% of the time and out of the playing field 52.2% of the time, a few walks are unlikely to hurt you. And they didn’t, as Kimbrel finished the season with a 2.10 ERA despite opponents hitting .315 on balls in play. The eight blown saves hurt, but the Braves felt good handing the ball to Kimbrel with small ninth inning leads all season. And at 23 years old, I think he’ll be in this role for a while.
2. John Axford, Brewers – Let’s see how long I can write about Axford without mentioning Randy Johnson’s name. Eleven words. That might be the record. Axford may not be quite as imposing as the Big Unit, but 86 strikeouts and 25 walks in 73 2/3 innigs would make even Johnson proud. Axford stranded 82.9% of runners who reached base against him in 2011, resulting in a 1.95 ERA and 46 saves in 48 attempts.
3. Joel Hanrahan, Pirates – Please don’t surmise from my Hanrahan comment above that I think he’s overrated. I considered a non-closer here, like Sean Marshall, Kenley Jansen, or Eric O’Flaherty, but Hanrahan’s numbers were too similar to Axford’s to pass up. 1.83 ERA, 2.18 FIP, one home run surrendered in 68 2/3 innings. Had he pitched ten more innings, he might have been at the top of my ballot.
American League Goose Gossage Award
1. Jonathan Paplebon, Red Sox – That’s right- both closers who blew saves in the final game of their teams’ respective collapses were the best relievers in their leagues all season. Like Kimbrel, Papelbon also blew another save in late September, and gave up four of the 21 earned runs he surrendered all year in his last 4 2/3 innings. Prior to that meltdown, though, there wasn’t a blemish on Papelbon’s resume. In 64 1/3 innings, he struck out 87, walked a remarkable ten, and gave up three home runs all year. Had Papelbon stranded more than 70% of the runners he allowed, he would be the consensus choice for this award. As it is, I imagine he’ll miss more than a few ballots entirely.
2. David Robertson, Yankees – If there’s a Craig Kimbrel in the American League, it’s Robertson. So why didn’t I give this award to Robertson when he struck out more batters (100), gave up fewer home runs (just one, despite pitching half his games in Yankee Stadium), and had a better ERA (1.08) than Papelbon? Walks. Robertson walked 35 batters, relying on an 89.8% strand rate to achieve his remarkable run prevention. I’ll be perfectly happy if Robertson wins this award, since it means that voters are looking beyond saves and focusing on run prevention, but while Robertson’s 2.86 to one strikeout/walk ratio is impressive, it’s not Papelbon’s 8.7 to 1.
3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees – Since he was saving games for Old Hoss Radbourn’s Providence Grays, Rivera has put up the same numbers every year. A strikeout per inning, very few walks, very few homers, 2 ERA, lots of saves. Sure enough, in 2011 he struck out 60 batters in 61 1/3 innings, walked just eight batters all year, and gave up just three homers. He doesn’t strike guys out at Robertson’s or Papelbon’s rate, but the league hit just .275 on balls in play off him and he stranded 83.3% of baserunners. Just another year for Mo.
As for the Walter Johnson Award, I gave you previews here and here, so I won’t go into too much detail candidate-by-candidate, but there were a few weeks of baseball after I wrote the aforelinked posts, so a few things have changed, particularly in the National League, which I’ll save for last.
American League Walter Johnson Award
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers, of course.
2. Jered Weaver, Angels, by a hair. I can’t ignore his 2.41 ERA, regardless of park effects.
3. CC Sabathia, Yankees, who is very brave to pitch with the right field wall 20 feet behind him.
4. Dan Haren, Angels, who quietly struck out almost six times as many batters as he walked.
5. James Shields, Rays, because he pitched as effectively as Josh Beckett for 56 additional innings. Shields was Beckett and Mariano Rivera.
National League Walter Johnson Award
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers – In terms of run prevention, Halladay (2.35 ERA in 233 2/3 innings) and Kershaw (2.28 ERA in 233 1/3 innings) were the same guy. Kershaw struck out an extra batter per inning, while Halladay walked three quarters of a batter less and gave up five fewer home runs. I don’t see any big advantages for Kershaw, but I do see Halladay having pitched half his games in Citizens Bank Park, which played run neutral this year, while Kershaw played in Dodger stadium, which suppressed scoring by six percent. The guy who pitched with the fence closer behind him gave up fewer home runs. Hardly significant, but that’s all we’ve got to separate these guys.
3. Cliff Lee, Phillies – If I could rig my ballot to give second-place points to all three of these guys, rather than separating Halladay and Lee, who were nearly identical, by the distance between a first- and a third-place vote, I would. 2.40 ERA in 232 2/3 innings, 5.69 K/BB. Just a remarkable season. And remarkably similar to the two guys ahead of him.
4. Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks – Kennedy had an incredible second half. If the Cy Young were up for grabs, he may have won it. And, as my dad noticed the other night, he looks like Mitchell from Modern Family, yet is still a professional athlete.
5. Cole Hamels, Phillies – Only because the league hit .318 on balls in play off Zack Greinke.
One more award to come. Kemp or Braun? Bautista or Ellsbury? Stay tuned.