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September 12, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL East
The Phillies' Cy Young Candidacy
The Philadelphia Phillies are rolling on their way to the National League's top seed and a first-round playoff appointment with either the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Milwaukee Brewers. The remainder of the regular season is merely a formality, and for fans of NL East teams that have been roughed up by the Phillies' pitching staff (Phillies pitchers have a 3.26 ERA and 3.35 FIP versus the NL East), it has seemed that way for much of the regular season.
Indeed, if there were one thing for the Phillies to “compete” for in terms of the regular season, it may very well be the National League Cy Young Award race—a race in which they own two of the possible three dogs.
Tale of the Tape
It is ironic that Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee have had their numbers coincide so neatly with each other’s this late into the season. Neither pitcher has missed a start, both making all 29 of their scheduled trips to the mound. Both pitchers have pitched almost seven and a third innings per start, totaling to exactly 210 2/3 innings each. Finally, both players have allowed the exact same number of earned runs, resulting in identical ERAs. Halladay has trumped Lee in the total runs category, however, by allowing one run less than his rotation partner in those innings.
The similarity between the pitchers even extends into their peripherals. Lee bests Halladay in strikeouts by a thin margin, as evidenced by their close placement in the NL strikeout leaderboard. Both pitchers are notoriously stingy with walks (Lee has a career walk rate per nine innings of 2.2 while Halladay is at 1.8), and the 2011 season has been no different. Halladay was better at suppressing home runs this season, but both pitchers displayed above average ground ball rates (though Halladay posted one of the lowest rates of his career this season). When viewed through the lens of FIP, Halladay's lack of home runs and edge in walks has yielded the 11th best FIP of all time thus far, but Lee's mark of 2.59 is nothing to scoff at and continues the narrative that either pitcher would be a formidable threat in the postseason.
Despite the notoriety of the trio, it was Maddux who was the clear leader of the pack, and this was backed up not only by the numbers but by the subsequent awards voting. Only in the 1996 season did the three each have award-winning seasons as a group, with Smoltz getting the nod in part due to this relatively gaudy win total.
The situation the Braves' starters had in the 1990s stands as a stark contrast to what we see here between Halladay and Lee. Very rarely do you see two pitchers on the same team showing an almost identical level of dominance that is worthy of awards praise. The two pitchers' numbers are so similar—both in terms of traditional stats and advanced statistics—that it seems impossible for voters to determine one being significantly better than the other, and this scenario has little precedence either in the NL East or in baseball as a whole. Cy Young voters in the National League are almost certain to split votes between two of the best pitchers in baseball pitching at the highest levels of their careers; Halladay's 5.9 WARP in 2011 stands as the second-best season of his career while Lee's 6.3 WARP ranks as his best.
The Third Horse
Not only do the Phillies boast two top-notch, equally-qualified candidates for the title of “best National League pitcher” this season, but there is a third candidate with numbers so drastically similar that it would be difficult to see voters pick a clear winner from the three. This season's race may end up being as close as the 2009 Cy Young voting in which Tim Lincecum totaled a 62 percent share of voting points, defeating St. Louis Cardinals’ starters Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright by just six and 10 points respectively. According to WARP, the split between Lincecum's 2009 season—which ranked first out of the three pitchers—and the third-ranked Carpenter was around two wins. Compare that to the one-win difference between Halladay and Kershaw and the similar runs-allowed statistics, and there may yet be another three-way split of the majority of the award points, leading to another photo finish.
As an example, let us compare the three starters in terms of the three different runs-allowed stats that we use here at Baseball Prospectus. Using the 5-3-1 voting points scheme that is used in the Cy Young, here is how the voting would turn out if the award were based just on those runs-allowed stats (in this comparison, innings were ignored because of the similarity between the three pitchers).
Under this method, Kershaw would win the award with Halladay following and Lee bringing up the rear. However, the differences in the statistics are so slight that a voting system like this overestimates the gap between the three participants. With more voters and more factors being considered, the race will look significantly closer. At this point, it is too early to call, and the last four or five starts may determine the winner. If you are a non-Phillies fan, this may be the only reason remaining to watch the random Phillies game on television in September.