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November 9, 2005

Prospectus Today

Mistake #1

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm working on a long report from my trip to the Arizona Fall League and Baseball HQ's First Pitch Arizona, but that's not ready to go up just yet. Suffice to say it was a great weekend, and I'll get the full story to you before this week is out.

Today, though…today, I just want to vent.

Yesterday, Bartolo Colon was announced as the 2005 AL Cy Young Award winner. The vote wasn't unanimous, but it did clearly place Colon at the top of the field; he garnered 17 first-place votes and was in the top two on every single ballot. Meanwhile, the best pitcher in the league, Johan Santana, got just three first-place votes and found himself left off of five ballots, coming in third behind Colon and Mariano Rivera.

Setting aside Rivera--comparing relievers and starters isn't easy, and closers tend to pop up in fractured votes like this one--here are the lines for the two starters:


          W-L   ERA    RA     IP   VORP  SNLVAR   K/9  K/BB  OPS  HR/9
Colon    21-8  3.48  3.74  223.2   51.1     6.7  6.35  3.65  695  1.04
Santana  16-7  2.87  2.98  232.2   73.0     7.6  9.25  5.29  594   .85
There's no mystery here. The reason for the disparity is because Colon was credited with 21 wins, while Santana did everything a pitcher can do better than Colon did. He threw more innings while allowing fewer runs (a gap that expands when you consider all runs scored against the two). He struck out men at a higher rate and walked fewer. He allowed fewer home runs. He allowed a much lower opponents' OPS, a figure only somewhat mitigated by pitching in front of a better defense than Colon had behind him.

Note the phrasing "credited with 21 wins," because that's the entire ball of wax. Pitcher wins are a scoring construct dating from the late 19th century, when pitchers completed the vast majority of their starts. They haven't been a useful statistic for at least a half-century, maybe more, or ever since relief pitching became a signficant factor in the game. If the relationship between wins and quality of pitching was once close enough to warrant using the former as a metric, it's not remotely the case any longer, as pitchers are almost always subject to the performance of their bullpen.

Even if relievers weren't an issue, run support would be, and there's no longer any excuse for ignoring it. This isn't 1975, when you had to guess; the number of a runs a team scores for a pitcher is public knowledge, and available in any number of places. We know that the infamous "pitching to the score" doesn't materially affect ERA (throwing more strikes may lead to home runs, but the lowered walk rate cancels out the effect), and in any case, neither Colon nor Santana was working with a lot of 7-0 leads. We also know that pitchers on the same team can see vastly different run support over the course of a season, for no reason other than chance. There's no connection between the quality of a pitcher and the support he receives.

Colon got 6.02 runs per game of support, a figure that was seventh in the league among ERA qualifiers. Santana got 4.70 runs per game, 30th in the league. That's 1.32 runs per game of support--stuff the pitcher has no control over, that's effectively the luck of the draw--that went Colon's way rather than Santana's. That's why Colon won the Cy Young Award, and why Santana finished third: because in 2005, the voting pool for the award can't see past the "W" column to look at the actual pitching.

If you absolutely must use W-L record to gauge pitchers, at least make an effort to do so in a manner that makes sense. I might be able to understand it if a starting pitcher's "record" was the team's record in the games he started. (The methods for assigning wins and losses to relievers are convoluted, anyway, so there's nothing lost there.) This would give us a better idea of which pitchers were contributing to winning efforts, even if the distribution of team runs and relief performances wasn't working out for them.

Reader Adam Meier did this for Colon and Santana, and found that the Angels were 22-11 when Colon started, and the Twins 24-9 when Santana took the hill. Now just look at the following chart, and tell me which column you think is more reflective of the two pitchers' performances:


          W-L   W/L2
Colon    21-8  22-11
Santana  16-7   24-9
It's not just that Colon finished ahead of Santana. It's the gap between the two. If 25 of 28 voters can't identify the best pitcher in the league, what are we doing? What, exactly, is getting through to the electorate? This argument was taking place in 1987, when Nolan Ryan went 8-16 despite being the best pitcher in the league. It was taking place in 1990, when Bob Welch "won" 27 games by throwing a lot of innings for a team with a great offense and a great bullpen. It's happened in seemingly every other season since then, when you have a good pitcher who hit the run-support lottery going up against a better pitcher who spent the season in front of some dead-ball offense and with Homer McBlownsave coming in behind him.

Getting it right shouldn't be this hard, and yet for this group of people, it is. My god, there were at least four voters who couldn't accurately identify the best pitcher in the Indians' rotation, with Cliff Lee being named on four ballots and Kevin Millwood getting just one third-place vote. The two people who called Lee the second-best pitcher in the league…there's just no explanation other than that it's a one-category award for those people, and for that, they simply shouldn't be allowed to vote.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: That the BBWAA awards have the significance they do is not set in stone. And every time the BBWAA--and, by the way, that's another problem "W," given the oddly restrictive definition of "writers" in play--gets an award completely wrong, it chips away at the credibility of all their awards. If the pool is unwilling or unable to do the work to arrive at the correct answer, if it's going to ignore all the research and evidence that clearly shows pitcher wins to be misleading, why should we take their "honor" seriously? Why not pay more attention to the Internet Baseball Awards, or the Sports Illustrated ones, or the opinion of some blogger who has at least shown he can tell the difference between Pitcher A and Pitcher B?

Johan Santana got shafted, and instead of making history as a back-to-back award winner, instead becomes just another data point in the argument for remaking the coverage of major-league baseball.

--

As long as I'm here, I have to point out that the lead in the AP story reporting Colon's victory is embarrassment to anyone who has ever used the English language:

"Bartolo Colon always had the blazing fastball, the snappy sinker, the natural look of a No. 1 starter.
"Still, something was missing: consistency.
"So he learned to pull back a bit, focus on throwing strikes and getting grounders. Now, he's the dominant ace everyone envisioned, and he has an American League Cy Young Award to prove it."
Are you kidding me?

I recognize that this is a common error in sports "journalism," and even among players themselves in evaluating their performance, but how in god's name can you look at Bartlolo Colon's 2005 season in the context of his career and decide that this is the season he elevated his game? It was his second-best year by ERA, his fourth-best by WARP, his third-worst by translated ERA. He absolutely has improved his command, posting a career-low walk rate and a career-high K/BB in 2005, but it didn't make him a significantly better pitcher than he'd been in 2001 or 2002, his peak seasons.

The line about how he learned to throw grounders in simply hilarious. Per his ESPN.com player card, this was the third-lowest GB/FB ratio of Colon's career, ahead of just his 2003 and 2004 ratios. He's less of a groundball pitcher now than he was when he was racking up innings for the Indians in the late 1990s.

The lead in this story moves past willfully ignoring the available evidence--that's the voters' area--and into outright fiction. Colon won the Cy Young Award because he pitched about as well as he does in seasons other than 2004, and the Angels scored 6.02 runs per nine innings he spent on the mound. Why can't that be the story? Why do we have to invent a fiction to explain it?

Colon is a very good pitcher who improved his command in 2005. He wasn't the best pitcher in the American League, he wasn't a vastly improved pitcher compared to anything but the worst year of his life, and if not for an accounting trick put into play 140 years ago, there's no way he'd have been at a press conference yesterday.

I can't wait to see what these people do with the MVP awards…

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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