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August 24, 2007

Prospectus Today

AL Cy Young Race

by Joe Sheehan

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I wanted to make a follow-up point about Wednesday's piece, which focused on the Angels in the context of their lack of reliance on the home run to score. The statistic in question, percentage of runs scored on homers, is a descriptive one, rather than an analytic one. It's a numerical way of illustrating how reliant a team is on the long ball for its offense. There's no conclusions here about which side of that list it's better to be on.

If I were to make inferences, I would argue that you'd rather not be on either extreme. If you're at the top, you may not be getting enough runs in ways other than the homer, and there's a decent chance that means you have a high-SLG, low-OBP offense, or that you're a high-flyball offense that may scuffle against groundball pitchers. At the other end, the lack of home-run power usually comes with a lack of power in general-although not necessarily in the Angels' case-and that's always a problem for an offense.

This stat, though, is primarily designed to describe the shape of a team's offense, rather than its quality. Be careful about reading too much into a list of teams ordered this way absent considerable additional information.

--

In Monday's chat session, I was asked about the AL Cy Young race, which like a number of the awards races this year is far too close too call at this late point in the season. It's so close that I actually changed my mind between Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon, hanging an ESPNews producer out to dry. (Sorry, Eppy!)

There isn't a dime's worth of difference separating the top three candidates for the award:

                 ERA     RA      IP    K   W-L    WARP   VORP  SNLVAR
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Erik Bedard     2.97   3.07   176.0  218  13-4     7.3   55.8     6.3
Dan Haren       2.66   3.21   179.1  147  14-4     6.9   53.6     5.9
Johan Santana   2.88   3.19   175.0  191  13-9     8.3   53.2     5.9
Note that I'm talking about the best candidates for the award on merit. If the BBWAA coughs up Josh Beckett or John Lackey based on one of those guys being credited with 20 wins, I have no defense for that. It happened just three years ago, when Bartolo Colon stole Johan Santana's award. Santana should, by rights, be aiming for his fifth consecutive Cy Young Award, which is just a ridiculous idea.

The thing is, there's real competition this season in the forms of Erik Bedard, who leads the league in strikeouts, RA, VORP for pitchers and Support-Neutral Value; and Dan Haren, who leads in ERA. Santana has a big edge in WARP. By Clay Davenport's system, Santana holds a significant gap over the others on runs prevented, and even picks up some value with his bat and his glove. Santana, however, has a dagger through his hopes by virtue of a 13-9 won/loss record, a mark that has nothing to do with him and everything to do with lousy run support in the first half of the season. Overall, however, it's Bedard, with an average of 4.60 runs of support, who's been treated the worst by his teammates. Haren (5.42) and Santana (5.19) can't complain. (RS data thanks to ESPN.com.)

I've been pushing Santana's candidacy, in part because he's the best pitcher in baseball and a strong example of how a pitcher's won/loss record is completely useless in evaluating performance. However, I can't ignore what Bedard has done. The Orioles' lefty has a lower RA-a slightly better tool than ERA, especially in this era of lousy official scoring-with many more strikeouts in the same number of innings. He holds small leads in the two primary value metrics as well.

Haren is having a terrific season, but his ERA overstates his value because so many of his runs allowed have been flagged as unearned. He's also been more reliant on his defense than the other two, striking out fewer batters. When the race is this close, I'll give a nod to the pitchers who have stronger strikeout rates, which are more reflective of dominance and more consistent from year to year than batting average and slugging average on balls in play are.

I've narrowed the field to three, because these are the three pitchers we've been talking about all season long. However, there really should be a fourth name in here, someone getting absolutely no publicity, but whose work on the mound has been right there with the pitchers listed. Here's the chart from above, along with the fourth musketeer's stats:

                 ERA     RA      IP    K   W-L    WARP   VORP  SNLVAR
---------------------------------------------------------------------
Erik Bedard     2.97   3.07   176.0  218  13-4     7.3   55.8     6.3
Dan Haren       2.66   3.21   179.1  147  14-4     6.9   53.6     5.9
Johan Santana   2.88   3.19   175.0  191  13-9     8.3   53.2     5.9
Pitcher X       2.85   3.13   164.0  131  14-6     7.2   50.2     6.1
It's not easy to be the best pitcher on a division leader and get no play, but Kelvim Escobar has managed to turn the trick. I wouldn't necessarily argue that he deserves the Cy Young Award, but if you're going to include Haren in this list, I think you have to include Escobar as well.

Fortunately, I don't. The Internet Baseball Awards are more than a month away, and we can take that time to see what these pitchers do in their final six or seven starts. As much as I'm interested in the great playoff races we have, I'm just as curious to see who pulls away for the AL Cy Young Award. While we've had great debates over this award in recent years, I don't remember seeing this many candidates bunched so closely together this late in the year. This will be a terrific storyline down the stretch.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Erik Bedard

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