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August 19, 2008

Prospectus Today

Picking the NL Cy Young

by Joe Sheehan

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I get so many good questions during a typical chat session that there's no way I can answer them all. Fortunately, some lend themselves to columns, like this one from yesterday's chat:

Shane (Miami): Joe, who are your faves for AL/NL CY Young at this point?

Well, half of that is pretty easy. If I'm pimping Cliff Lee for AL MVP, it's a pretty good bet that he's my choice for Cy Young in the junior circuit. There's enough time left for Roy Halladay to catch him from behind, but at this point, Lee's edge both in the metrics, and in their on-field performance-the difference between them is 20 1/3 innings with a 7.52 RA, above replacement level even in the AL East-is enough to make him my choice as of this morning.

In the NL, though, it's a crowded field. Brandon Webb was the early leader, but he's come back to the pack. Edison Volquez made a run, looked like he was going to fade in the second half-I even jumped on that particular bandwagon-but he hasn't faded at all. Johan Santana doesn't have much in the way of wins, and Mets fans don't appreciate him, but he's been fantastic. Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, and Dan Haren are all in the mix as well. Here's an exhaustive list of candidates as of August 19:


                   IP    RA   VORP  Rk  SNLVAR  Rk  WARP  Rk*
Dan Haren       167.0  3.23   47.3   4     5.5   3   6.8   4
Tim Lincecum    169.2  2.86   53.9   1     6.2   1   7.3   3
Johan Santana   177.0  3.15   49.1   2     5.5   4   5.6  11
Brandon Webb    177.0  3.31   48.5   3     5.6   2   7.4   2

Ryan Dempster   163.1  3.31   44.6   5     5.4   5   5.8   8
Cole Hamels     181.2  3.67   42.1   8     5.4   6   5.8   7
Jake Peavy      134.2  2.67   44.2   6     5.3   7   6.8   5
Ben Sheets      162.0  3.28   44.0   7     5.0   9   4.7  16
Edison Volquez  151.2  3.44   39.3  10     5.2   8   7.4   1

*among NL pitchers

This may be simpler than I thought. Other than Santana's strangely poor WARP score and ranking, and Volquez being similarly mismatched in the second group, the metrics all seem to agree on who the top four pitchers in the league are. Beyond that, there appears to be a modicum of consensus that Lincecum is the top performer. In addition to the above numbers, Lincecum leads the NL in ERA and strikeouts, has significant edges in VORP and SNLVAR, and is in a virtual tie for first in WARP.

Working against him is that he pitches for the San Francisco Giants, and therefore has just 13 wins. Meanwhile, Brandon Webb, who is clearly among the top pitchers in the league, is 18-4. We have seen NL Cy Young voters look past win totals on occasion, but they've done so when there was a huge gap between the wins leader and the clear best pitcher in the league. That's not the case in 2008, and if the voters have to choose between the best pitcher in the league who is 17-5 or something, and the second- or third-best who is 22-6, they're going to land on the latter guy. No matter how much progress we make in educating the fans, the media, and the decision-makers as to the lack of value that "wins" have in measuring pitcher performance-a category polluted by the vagaries of run support and relief work-we haven't been able to make them irrelevant in the evaluation of seasonal performance. They still mean something to far too many people, and because of that, Brandon Webb is far and away the favorite for the BBRAA Cy Young Award.

So the 2008 NL race shapes up as the 2006 AL one did between Johan Santana and Bartolo Colon, or 2002 between Pedro Martinez and Barry Zito, or 2000 between a host of guys and Roger Clemens. The best pitcher in the league and the pitcher with the most wins in the league dueling it out for attention. We know how that usually goes, and if it's a bit more palatable because the likely winner is having a great season himself and is one of the best pitchers in baseball, it doesn't change the fact that he's likely to get his award for the wrong reasons.

There's one other name that should be mentioned, if only for amusement purposes.


                   IP    RA   VORP  Rk* SNLVAR  Rk* WARP  Rk*
CC Sabathia     195.1  3.23   60.6   1    6.5    1   8.3   2

*among major league pitchers

The only pitcher in MLB possibly having a better season than Sabathia is former teammate Cliff Lee (59.6 VORP, 6.4 SNLVAR, and 8.6 WARP). It's entirely possible that Sabathia will be the best pitcher in baseball this season while receiving little to no support in the award voting.

Can he win the NL Cy Young Award? No, of course not; even if he continues to pitch at this level, his NL performance will fall in behind that of the top four guys in the league, and likely others such as Peavy and Volquez. The name "Rick Sutcliffe" has popped up a few times, but Sutcliffe was traded on June 13 in 1984, giving him enough time to rack up 20 starts for the Cubs, enabling him to go 16-1 and steal the award. Sutcliffe wasn't anything like the best starter in the NL that season, but he did have a great story, and more importantly, an unsophisticated voting pool drooling over "16-1."

No, the better comp for Sabathia is Randy Johnson in 1998. Johnson came over from the Mariners at the trade deadline and went 10-1, 1.28 in 11 starts. He finished seventh in the NL Cy Young voting that year, and at that he was a "story" vote-Johnson was 22nd in SNLVAR and 15th in VORP among NL pitchers. Sabathia, by virtue of being dealt earlier, can do a bit better than that, but he can't, in a half-season, be worthy of being called the best pitcher in the league.

He might just be the best pitcher in baseball this year, though, which is a pretty nice way to head into the free-agent market. What he lacks in hardware, he'll make up for in zeroes this winter.

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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