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On the American League Cy Young Award debate and open-mindedness…

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“Loyalty to a petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.”

Mark Twain wrote that. And now I’m stealing it to head up a blog post about
baseball stats. That’s either really cliche or really stupid. Or
both. Yeah, it’s both.


My name is Drew Silva. I contribute here on Hardball Talk during the
weekends and on a couple of weekday nights. This piece is not about me,
nor is it about my way of thinking. It’s a call for open-mindedness
toward new advancements in the understanding of baseball and new
technologies that help in the evaluation of baseball players.


Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer has covered the Indians beat for
over 20 years. He’s seen hundreds of blown saves and plenty of anemic
batting lineups, as has any other beat writer. But on September 11 of
this season he published a column on the Plain Dealer‘s website
that stated:

In pitching, the only thing that really matters is wins.

Hoynes wasn’t taking about team victories. Everybody knows that a team must collect wins in order to reach the playoffs, and then must win in the postseason in order to be awarded the World Series title. That’s obvious. It’s what everybody plays for. But Hoynes wasn’t talking about those kind of wins.

Hoynes was talking about the kind of victories that show up in a pitcher’s win-loss record and he was making reference to this year’s debate about the American League Cy Young Award. Hoynes believes that Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia should be given the highly-coveted hardware because he is a 20-game winner and that Mariners ace Felix Hernandez should be denied the award because he stands 13-12. Hoynes came to this conclusion because he is under the belief that a win, as he writes, is “the most important stat” a pitcher can accumulate.

Hoynes is … well … wrong.

He’s not wrong about Sabathia being deserving of an award — CC is great, and would take the Cy most years with the numbers he’s put up — but Hoynes is wrong about using a win-loss record as a barometer for pitching success. Those “wins” rely too heavily on outside factors.

Hernandez is the ace on a team with a historically pitiful offense. Sabathia pitches on a club with a $200 million payroll and a lineup built to mash. There should be no bias either way. The Cy Young Award, after all, is meant to be given to baseball’s best pitcher. Not the most fortunate.

This all got me thinking — and, whether right or wrong outlet, I tweeted my thoughts:

If the BBWAA’s awards are to be taken seriously, there should be a
requirement that all members understand baseball’s advanced statistics.

Relying on win-loss records as a means for player evaluation is foolish and beyond outdated. A win-loss record might have indicated something about a pitcher back in the 1920s, when starters finished games, but the stat is essentially useless in this modern era of seven-man bullpens and six-inning starts.

My tweet caused a small stir in a pocket of the online baseball writing community. C. Trent Rosecrans of CBSSports.com suggested that I was demanding that all writers think like me. Will Carroll of SI.com and Baseball Prospectus said I was doing myself a “disservice” with my “jihad” on the baseball establishment.

There is no jihad, and I couldn’t care less about hurting my reputation in the eyes of national baseball writers who still rely on win-loss records for a means of handing out Cy Young Awards. I’ve never written for the pursuit of fame and I didn’t start following baseball as a toddler with an eye on turning it into a career path. I started following baseball because my Dad taught me to revere Cal Ripken Jr. And because I thought Ken Griffey Jr. had the sweetest swing. And because, as a St. Louisan, Albert Pujols shaped my summers. Then Matthew Pouliot, Gregg Rosenthal and Aaron Gleeman asked me to write about baseball for Rotoworld and Tim Dierkes asked me to contribute at MLB Trade Rumors.

So I dug in. I gathered all possible knowledge — all possible data — on the game of baseball and will continue to do so until someone decides that I’m not cut out for it.

But, again, this is not about me or my way of thinking. In fact, it has nothing to do with who I am or what I’m about. This is a request that writers, who are paid to cover baseball, begin to embrace advancements in the understanding of their sport. Especially when it comes to evaluating players for the purpose of handing out awards. What I’m asking for is open-mindedness and a couple of hours of reading, really.

Want a stat that tells you more about a pitcher than a win-loss record? ERA, WHIP and K/BB ratio are a fine starting point and can all be computed in about a second. But why stop there? Why not bring in all possible data? FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is an ERA estimator that aims to keep pitchers from being punished by bad defense. Even better is xFIP, which takes into account the size of different ballparks and normalizes home run rates. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) spits out a simple number that expresses a player’s value in terms of wins. King Felix has a 6.4 WAR this season, meaning he’s meant 6.4 more wins to the Mariners than a run-of-the-mill starter. He ranks third among all major league pitchers in WAR, behind only the Phillies’ Roy Halladay and the Rangers’ Cliff Lee.

The formulas behind those more advanced stats involve some fairly complicated math, but nobody is asking for elaborate computations on the part of writers. That’s what a site like FanGraphs is for. Or Baseball-Reference. These numbers are readily available to the masses and yet some baseball writers and award-voters are choosing to ignore
them. Which brings me to my next tweet
:

It’s hard to understand why developing a better understanding of new
technology, new ideas would be seen as a negative. In any field. Ever.

Writers that prefer to avoid advanced baseball statistics often revert to calling those that do “statheads,” or “nerds,” or “geeks.” ESPN.com’s Rob Parker did it last week. Will Carroll did the same. While hardly offensive, name-calling stunts civil discourse. And last I checked, nerdy is rarely a bad thing once a person steps outside the halls of high school.

Why are a number of national and local baseball writers opting to ignore tools that aid in the evaluation of players? Some have suggested that it’s about a fear of math. Some think it’s intellectual laziness. Others have suggested that embracing new data would be seen as a form of selling-out by the old guard in the world of baseball journalism.

To me, this debate has become far too polarized. There’s no need to term this a clashing of belief systems and no need for politics to play a role because new data and new technologies need only to be seen as a positive. A dose of open-mindedness toward advanced baseball statistics and a willingness for progress is what this industry needs badly.

Then we have the issue of fan involvement, or, as Will Carroll calls it, “marketability.”

Carroll, who I respect and read often, suggested in a post on Press Coverage last week that stats like OPS and WAR bear little merit because they aren’t properly designed for mass consumption. 99% of baseball fans, as he says, don’t care about such metrics.

But here’s my question: why should they? Fans are allowed to view the game and follow the game as they please, because it’s not their job. Nobody is relying on Joe Cubs Fan to determine baseball’s Most Valuable Player or baseball’s top pitcher.

All of my friends are baseball fans, big baseball fans. But I don’t think any of them care enough about the sport to read up on WAR or Ultimate Zone Rating or something like xFIP. And that’s their prerogative, because they are not paid to write about baseball and are not asked to hand out awards that often mean big-money bonuses to the winners and shape the legacy of the game.

One last thing. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus suggested during this debate that we should all “stop caring about the awards so much” because the system is flawed and because the “concept of value or best is subjective.” He’s right about that second part.  Voting is always going to be left up to a select group of people and they have their own biases. But why is it so appalling to ask those voters to consider new data? Better data. Then the system might not be so flawed and then we might see votes that aren’t based on win-loss records.

As for the “stop caring” part, I heartily say NO. I won’t stop caring. Baseball fans and baseball writers shouldn’t have to. Because this industry can do better.

It’s May 4 and Daniel Murphy is still out-hitting Bryce Harper

Washington Nationals' Daniel Murphy hits an RBI single during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday, April 30, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
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Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy flirted with the cycle in Wednesday afternoon’s 13-2 drubbing of the Royals, as he went 4-for-5 with a pair of singles, a two-run double, and a solo home run. That brings his triple-slash line on the season up to .398/.449/.663. Comparatively, teammate Bryce Harper — the defending NL MVP and arguably the best player in baseball — is currently hitting .266/.372/.649.

Murphy has always been an above-average hitter, but this level of hitting is something else. Of course, he flashed it in the post-season last year when he homered in six consecutive games, helping the Mets advance past the Dodgers in the NLDS and sweep the Cubs in the NLCS.

The Nats signed Murphy to a three-year, $37.5 million contract in January. If Neil Walker, acquired from the Pirates to replace Murphy, wasn’t hitting so well, the Mets would probably be jealous. Walker is hitting .296/.330/.582 with nine home runs and 19 RBI.

Video: Jon Lester tosses his glove to get the out

Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
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It’s always fun when this happens. Cubs starter Jon Lester snagged a grounder hit back up the middle by Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli in the bottom of the second inning. The only problem was that the ball got stuck in the webbing of his glove. Rather than fight to pry the ball out, Lester just lobbed his glove over to first baseman Anthony Rizzo to get the first out of the inning.

Lester has had issues throwing baseballs to first base, so maybe it was a good thing the ball got stuck in his glove.

Lester did this last year, too, by the way.

Alex Rodriguez lands on the 15-day DL with a strained hamstring

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez follows through on a single to right off a pitch from Texas Rangers' Shawn Tolleson in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Arlington, Texas. The Yankees lost 3-2. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez strained his right hamstring running out a ground ball in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s loss to the Orioles. The club announced it has placed him on the 15-day disabled list and recalled pitcher James Pazos from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Rodriguez lands on DL hitting .194/.275/.444 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 80 plate appearances.

Dustin Ackley replaced Rodriguez in Tuesday’s game, but the Yankees will likely cycle a handful of players in and out of the DH spot while Rodriguez heals.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Wednesday evening’s action

Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Nola pitches to a Milwaukee Brewers batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, April 22, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)
AP Photo/Tom Lynn
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We were treated to a handful of games this afternoon but we still have eight night games left. Let’s talk about the Phillies.

I wrote this preview of the Phillies just before the season started, predicting them to win only 65 games, which would mark only a marginal improvement over their 63-win season last year. In my defense, I wasn’t alone, as almost every expert as well as the projections had them finishing under 70 wins. And yet, here they are 27 games into the season with 16 wins. That’s on pace for a 96-win season. What the heck.

Aaron Nola pitched seven shutout innings against the Cardinals in a 1-0 victory on Tuesday, marking the Phillies’ sixth shutout of the year, the best mark in the majors. Even as the Phillies prepared to draft him, Nola was described as “major league ready” but no one expected him to be quite this dominant. In his first 19 major league starts, Nola has a 3.37 ERA with a 112/26 K/BB ratio over 117 2/3 innings. This year, not only has Nola been extremely stingy with the walks, but he’s been missing bats at an elite level. He’s only 22 years old.

Nola is joined in the rotation by Vincent Velasquez, the pitcher who highlighted the return from the Astros in the Ken Giles trade. The right-hander made headlines in April with a 16-strikeout performance against the Padres and currently stands with a 1.44 ERA with a 39/10 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Unlike Nola, Velasquez was billed as a future ace or a dominant eighth- or ninth-inning guy.

Then there’s Jerad Eickhoff, who came over in the Cole Hamels trade last year. Though he has a ho-hum 4.15 ERA, Eickhoff is occasionally dominant as evidenced by his 32/5 K/BB ratio over 30 1/3 innings. He has a pretty curve. Look at it. Eickhoff probably won’t be an ace, but he wasn’t considered to be a future mainstay in the rotation when the Hamels trade went through. All he’s done so far is exceed expectations. Nola-Velasquez-Eickhoff makes for an outstanding start to a long-term starting rotation.

The offensive tools aren’t quite where the pitching is yet for the Phillies, as third baseman Maikel Franco has wavered between looking like Mike Schmidt and looking completely lost at the plate. He has only five hits (zero home runs) in his last 37 plate appearances. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford isn’t there yet, nor is outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro, and outfielder Cornelius Randolph. There’s certainly a lot of hope on the horizon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Phillies fan, but wearing rose-colored glasses isn’t a crime of which I’ve been often accused over the years. It has been one headache after another being a Phillies fan between 2012-15. The front office under former GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. was stubborn and out of touch. Now, under new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak, the team has a goal and is seeing it through. No, the Phillies won’t win 96 games this year — they probably won’t even win 80 — but they’re certainly further along than a lot of us gave them credit for being.

The Phillies play game three of a four-game set in St. Louis tonight at 8:15 PM EDT. Lefty Adam Morgan will oppose the Cardinals’ Mike Leake.

The rest of Wednesday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Cleveland Indians (Corey Kluber), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (CC Sabathia) @ Baltimore Orioles (Tyler Wilson), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Rubby De La Rosa) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Fernandez), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Alex Wood) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Drew Smyly), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz) @ Chicago White Sox (Carlos Rodon), 8:10 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Phil Hughes) @ Houston Astros (Mike Fiers), 8:10 PM EDT