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September 12, 2006

Prospectus Today

Dueling Righties

by Joe Sheehan

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Is anyone else following this "IT" thing on XM Radio? I picked it up when they reached the early 80s, and I haven't been able to let it go since. I was pretty aggravated last week when I had to do ridiculous things like sleep or go to the opening of a friend's new business last Thursday. I'm completely uncool when it comes to my musical tastes; I was an unabashed fan of Top 40, CHR, whatever you want to call it, growing up, and listening to some of the random songs I liked from 20 years ago, stuff that was only marginally popular, has been a real treat. How about an "IT" channel?

Anyway, in between songs I've been watching a little baseball. You know, the Twins' chase of the Tigers isn't the only great comeback going on. Last night, Chris Carpenter threw his second shutout in six starts, and despite his missing a few weeks to a sore shoulder, he's now making a serious run at his second straight NL Cy Young Award. Carpenter has a 2.54 ERA since the All-Star break with a 67/10 K/BB and an average of more than seven innings per start.

For most of the season, the frontrunner in this race has been Brandon Webb, who himself is coming off of a shutout of the Cardinals over the weekend. There are a handful of other pitchers in the mix as well, although all fall in behind Carpenter and Webb. Here's the field:

                     ERA      IP    K/9   K/BB   HR/9   VORP   SNLVAR
Chris Carpenter     2.84   199.2    7.4    4.2    .86   65.7      7.3
Brandon Webb        3.00   207.0    6.7    3.3    .65   62.9      6.4
Bronson Arroyo      3.29   213.1    7.0    3.2   1.22   59.0      6.8
Roy Oswalt          3.15   191.2    6.8    4.5    .75   58.6      6.4
Roy Oswalt, of course, has no realistic shot at the award. With just 12 wins and maybe four starts remaining, it's a long shot that he'll even be named on a handful of ballots. Nevertheless, he's been one of the top starting pitchers in the NL this year, once again taking the ball every fifth day and generally shutting down the opposition. His lack of wins is entirely about run support and bullpen support, both sorely lacking in Houston this year.

I left wins and losses out of that chart because they should not have any bearing on the discussion. It's frustrating to see won-loss record still play such a significant part in the mainstream evaluation of pitchers. This isn't some kind of advanced sabermetric concept that requires a two-day conference to explain; pitchers' single-season records in the modern era are so heavily influenced by teammates that they have no value as analytical or evaluative tools. You can get a complete picture of performance by looking at run prevention, at peripherals and at value metrics. Won-loss records just muddy the waters, introducing bad information into the discussion and increasingly the likelihood that the wrong answer will be provided. (See last year's AL Cy Young Award voting for details.)

Like RBIs and saves, however, W/L records retain their inflated place in the discussion even after a decade or more of explanation as to why they should be ignored. So it happens that in a year like this one, where no NL pitcher is going to reach 20 wins and it's quite possible that none will reach 18, the voting populace is left to stand around scratching their heads. It's years like this that often lead to peculiar Cy Young picks, such as 1987 in the NL, where Steve Bedrosian won a fractured vote ahead of a pool of starters not unlike the one above, or 1982 in the AL, where the voters somehow landed on Pete Vuckovich. It's fairly clear that the two best pitchers in the NL this year are Carpenter and Webb, but if, say, Brad Penny were to run the table and finish with 19 wins as no one else got to 18, you can see the potential for weirdness.

In seasons like this, voters often turn to the top closer in the league as a fallback. Padres' GM Kevin Towers advocated for just that over the weekend when he pushed Trevor Hoffman as an alternative candidate. Hoffman is having a fairly typical Trevor Hoffman season, nothing out of the ordinary, although he might actually crack the 60-inning mark for the first time since 2001. He hasn't been the best right-handed reliever in the division (Takashi Saito) or the most effective closer in the league (Billy Wagner), but he leads the league in saves with an ERA below 2.00, so he will get some attention. His WXRL is on par with Saito's and Wagner's because he has the highest Leverage in baseball. If you have to have a one-inning closer, Bruce Bochy's use of Hoffman is probably the model for doing so.

Nevertheless, Hoffman shouldn't be placed on a ballot ahead of pitchers who will throw close to four times as many innings as he does. Closers can win the Cy Young Award, but I think they have to either have Eckersleyian effectiveness or high innings-pitched totals for the class. Hoffman has neither, and he gets no bonus points from me in the balloting for possibly setting the all-time saves record over the next couple of weeks.

I can't pick a winner at this point. Carpenter and Webb are extremely close in value, enough so that their final three starts will make the difference. There's some chance that Arroyo would leapfrog one or both of them, but it's slim one. Oswalt, Saito, Wagner and maybe someone like Jason Jennings or Chris Capuano are in the mix for downballot votes. Like any competition with no dominant party, this is going to be a very interesting race that goes down to the wire and could possibly produce a surprise winner.

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

Related Content:  Trevor Hoffman,  Award Discussion

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