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August 25, 2010
Checking the Numbers
The Second Tier
In addition to being a baseball nut, I consider myself to be a movie buff. I used to work somewhat in the field and just love taking breaks from reality to watch Schwarzennegger make silly puns after beatings, Lee J. Cobb make his patented scowl, or even the wide array of characters that Richard Jenkins and Stephen Tobolowsky can play with ease. While thinking of all the wonderful pitching performances that have been on display this year, these two passions collided, and I was taken back to the 1994 Academy Awards. In that year’s ceremony—technically, it was held in 1995 to honor the movies of 1994—the best picture went to Forrest Gump.
However, any of the nominees could have taken home the prize: against Gump were The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and Quiz Show. All four of those films rank in my top 20, and choosing between them is a lot like deciding whether Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, or Josh Johnson has had the best season. Some might seem more worthy than the rest, but there really isn’t a wrong answer. Just like there were great films in 1994 that sat in the shadow of the big four, having so many superlative pitching performances has produced another effect: other starters whose numbers would normally impress the heck out of us seem mediocre by comparison. To wit, the National League quartet of Wainwright, Halladay, Johnson and Tim Hudson have ERAs ranging from 2.06-2.28 and each has thrown at least 165 innings.
These pitchers have been so durable and effective this season that other ERA marks, like Jaime Garcia’s 2.42 or even Ubaldo Jimenez’s 2.66 just don’t seem impressive. This phenomenon got me thinking about the lesser-praised pitchers, the ones that aren’t garnering the headlines this year due to it being… (resisting urge to use the phrase "Year of the Pitcher")… a really great year for starting pitchers (whew!). There are plenty of pitchers having great seasons who just are not being recognized because of others being in the midst of career years. If I don’t stand up for the little guys, who will?
To that end, I went through an exercise wherein I used my gut instincts and only the numbers I could remember off the top of my head to create a starting rotation for each league. The rotations would be comprised of the five pitchers in each circuit who have gotten the most attention with the idea that if the leagues were to play one another in a nine-game series with no days off, these would be the pitchers the majority of baseball fandom would seek to toe the rubber. I know… my mind works in very realistic ways. In addition to the starting rotation, I also used my instinct to create a second tier of starters in each league. These groups would consist of the pitchers alluded to above; the ones who are having really solid seasons but who fall short of that elite status for the current baseball season. After creating those lists, I checked the numbers (get it?) and used a simple points system based on rank in ERA, SIERA, SNWP, SNLVAR, and VORP to, in a sense, compare projected to actual.
First, a couple of caveats. This project was designed for the current season, meaning that I was not necessarily penalizing anyone for having a large disconnect between his ERA and SIERA. That does not mean I didn’t consider peripherals, because I did, but rather that those with more of a disagreement between the metrics were judged more closely in a Court of Seidman’s Mind before being included or excluded.
Statistics like SIERA do inform quite a bit about the current season’s exploits, but there is also a good chunk of predictivity associated with the value of such metrics that can cloud judgment if they are not used carefully, especially when we don’t really know the true allocation of credit between pitching and defense on balls in play. Maybe someone like Hudson has induced very weak contact this year, making a good amount of his grounders “sure-things” and therefore much closer to controllable skills. Maybe that is a reach, but I refuse to be a pig-headed analyst when there is a lot up in the air.
With the disclaimers out of the way, here is the starting staff for the NL, based more on the pitchers' reputation this year and the attention pointed in their direction. This isn’t to say that the preliminary list is wrong, but rather that these pitchers have been more of the “story” this year than others:
The first three pitchers here should elicit no discussion or debate. They have easily been the best three in the National League, regardless of the order in which they appear above. We can argue about Hudson’s inclusion, and whether or not Ubaldo would make the list given that his wins total early on inflated his perceived value, but at the end of the day, these five hurlers are the most frequently discussed when it comes to end-of-season awards. Here is the preliminary American League list:
I think I have discussed Lee more this year than his family, so his inclusion should come as no surprise. Sabathia has once again been the best pitcher on arguably the best team, and while his peripherals have taken a bit of a hit, he is also inducing a lot of grounders these days, which is definitely a positive moving forward. Hernandez might be in line for his first Cy Young award if the Mariners had an actual offense, as his numbers are simply fantastic. Lester could also vie for the award, as he is the clear ace of a potential 90-plus win team, and has the reputation of being one of the best in the game. The dark horse here is Liriano, who was going to make either this list or the second tier no matter what, but who shot up to the top tier in no small part due to the constant sabergasms of other analysts as far as his seasonal attributes were concerned. His ERA is higher than his colleagues, but his SIERA is very low, and his peripherals are phenomenal. It does not make him better than Lee, but it closes the gap.
Here is the second tier for the NL:
And for the AL:
In the National League, Latos was about as close as someone could come to qualifying for the first tier while falling short. I personally think he has had a better season than Hudson and Jimenez, but even with the Padres' surge to the top of league, his year still hasn’t been publicized. Carpenter has taken a back seat to his co-ace, but he is healthy and pitching very well. His teammate, Garcia, has been another rock in their rotation, and while his sub-2.50 ERA might not be sustained, it is easy to forget that he is shutting the opposition down this way in his first full season. Lincecum has been so bad lately that I originally forgot to include him, but he still has very solid numbers and there is no way to justify him being out of the top 10 in his league. The trade to the Phillies helped Oswalt round out this list, as he is now receiving a lot of publicity for his solid season.
Over in the American League, Buchholz leads everyone in ERA and has helped keep the Red Sox in the race in spite of their injury troubles. Weaver has arguably been as good as anyone, but the market in which he plays as well as the poor fortunes of his team keeps him relegated to the second tier. The same can be said of Verlander, who is having a very nice season and is viewed as one of the dominant forces in the league, even if his season hasn’t made people take notice. Price falls in as the best pitcher on arguably the best team in the tougher league. Cahill is debatable given the disconnect between his ERA and SIERA, but I just couldn’t bring myself to put Colby Lewis, Ricky Romero or Zack Greinke ahead of him this season.
The next step involved ranking the pitchers based on the stats I mentioned above—ERA, SIERA, SNWP, SNLVAR, and VORP—to serve as a comparison between what I consider to be the perceived top 10 and the actual top 10. In this case, the lower the score, the more effective the pitcher has been on the whole:
And the AL:
In the National League, Halladay led in every category except for ERA, where his 2.16 mark is in second place and within striking distance of the top spot. Just as was expected, there is a gap between Halladay-Wainwright and everyone else. Also as expected, the top four were clear-cut, while Latos and Jimenez duked it out for the fifth spot. In the American League, what sticks out like a sore thumb is how Lee ranks fourth. However, the main reason for this is that he missed a month of the season and therefore loses out on the counting stats, ranking ninth in this group in SNLVAR and in the middle of the pack in VORP. Had rate analogs for SNLVAR and VORP been used, Lee would have fared better. That doesn’t invalidate this “system,” but rather conjures up a discussion of rates and raw tallies when determining the value of a player.
After conducting the research and laying it out, I have some questions for my trusted readers. First, is there anybody who didn’t make the list that you think should? For instance, I considered inserting Johan Santana and Clayton Kershaw for the NL but ultimately decided against it. In the AL I didn’t really have much doubt about the pitchers included, though I did think maybe John Danks would sneak in somehow. Then again, being 10th- or 11th- best in a year when so many are pitching well is nothing to hang one’s head about. Are there other metrics you think might help shine light on the other pitchers you consider to be worthy? Or, do you think that I have made a good enough case that these are the 10 best in each league?