Much like the award for position players, the 2015 AL Walter Johnson Award is a two-horse race. While David Price pitched well for the Tigers before leading the Blue Jays to a division title after his July trade, Dallas Keuchel established his dominance early and pitched well all year as the Astros ended their own playoff drought.
220.1 IP, 225 K, 47 BB, 2.45 ERA, 2.78 FIP
232 IP, 216 K, 51 BB, 2.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP
There’s not much to distinguish between these two lines. Price is on top, with a few more strikeouts, four fewer walks, and slight edges in both ERA and FIP. Keuchel wins the volume award, throwing almost 12 more innings without sacrificing much quality.
Another edge for Keuchel is that he only gave up four unearned runs, to Price’s ten. This is reflected in his superior RA9, giving him a bigger edge in baseball reference’s version of WAR (7.2 to 6.0) than Price holds per fangraphs (6.4 to 6.1).
One way to reconcile FIP-based WAR to RA9-based WAR is to look at the three components of RA9 WAR that fangraphs tracks and try to allocate credit for each between a pitcher and his fielders. By giving the pitcher full credit for the strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed that comprise his FIP wins, half credit for BIP (balls in play) wins, and quarter credit for LOB (left on base) wins, we arrive at the following leaderboard:
Keuchel’s opponent BABIP of .269 was fifth-best in the American League. While much of this is attributable to his teammates and to the randomness of balls in play, Keuchel is an excellent fielder himself, so he deserves some credit for this. Keuchel also stranded 79.4% of baserunners, the league’s third-best figure. While Price’s 78.6% strand rate is close behind, his .290 BABIP is closer to the middle of the pack.
Price was better at the things I care about most- striking out batters and limiting walks- but Keuchel was among the best pitchers in the league at basically everything, including volume. That’s a Walter Johnson Award winner.
There’s at least one more conversation worth having as it pertains to this ballot. There seem to be four types of players worth considering:
1. the real contenders- Keuchel and Price
2. the high-K guys whose ERAs don’t match their FIPs- Sale, Kluber, and Archer
3. the low-ERA guys whose FIPs are uninspiring- Gray and maybe Estrada
4. historically dominant relievers
No full-time reliever pitched more than 90 innings, while every starter mentioned above pitched more than 200, so accumulated value metrics won’t support the candidacy of a reliever. Win Probability Added, though, tells another story:
A. Miller 4.22
W. Davis 4.22
Now, WPA may be as biased toward guys who work almost exclusively in high-leverage situations as WAR is toward innings-eating starters, but this is another way of looking at value and it loves three relievers. Betances threw 84 innings with a 1.50 ERA and more than 14 strikeouts per nine innings. Miller had a 1.90 ERA with an even higher strikeout rate (14.59/9 IP). Davis had a sub-1 ERA (0.94) for the second straight year, allowing 8 total runs in 67 1/3 innings. Yankees and Royals games seemed shorter than ever, particularly when a lead was handed over to these guys.
In a year with several great starters, I would be reluctant to include a reliever on a five-man ballot. This year, I’m including two.