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.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cardinals 7, Nationals 6: As you may have heard, Washington lost on a walkoff grand slam Sunday night. Last night things weren’t quite as dramatic, but they lost on a walkoff once again, this one via a solo homer delivered by Paul DeJong after some wild, see-sawing action on the final couple of innings. Washington’s bullpen has blown saves in three of its past four games. It’s almost as if, maybe, sending off two relievers a couple of weeks ago because the team thought they had attitude issues was not the wisest move. The Nationals have lost five of seven.The Cardinals have won six in a row.

Giants 5, Dodgers 2: Clayton Kershaw pitched his best game of the season, allowing one run on four hits, striking out nine and not walking a soul in eight innings of work. Didn’t matter, though, because, like the Nats relief corps, the Dodgers’ bullpen is a trash fire. Scott Alexander poured the, well, whatever accelerant one uses for a trash fire, by loading the bases with two singles and then hitting a batter with a pitch, after which Nick Hundley singled in two, Gorkys Hernandez knocked in a third and then Hundley scored on an error by Max Muncy at first. Muncy, by the way, had been put in the game that inning as a defensive replacement, so not only is the bullpen killing the Dodgers, but irony is too. In any event, that’s four straight blown saves for the Dodgers, who fall one game behind the first-place Diamondbacks.

Here’s the game in photo essay form. First, the Dodgers were all like:

(Getty Images)

Then they were like:

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Royals 3, Blue Jays 1: Brad Keller of the Royals gave up a homer to Devon Travis in the first inning but that’s the only run the Jays would score all night. Ryan O’Hearn provided all of the Royals’ runs with a two-run homer and by drawing a bases-loaded walk. The loss went to Sean Reid-Foley, who was making his big league debut for Toronto. How did it go, Sean?

“I couldn’t really feel my body because I was so nervous. I felt like my legs weren’t really working. That’s why a lot of my misses were way out of the zone. I was still nervous in the fifth. Every pitch, still nervous.”

Is that bad?

Braves 9, Marlins 1; Braves 6, Marlins 1: As we wrote yesterday, here and here, it was the Ronald Acuña show, with the Braves rookie hitting leadoff homers in both games of the twin bill. In game one Acuña finished 2-for-3 with two walks, a double, three RBI, and three runs scored along with the homer. In the nightcap he was 3-for-5 with the homer and two driven in. Acuña is the first player to hit leadoff home runs in both games of a doubleheader since the Orioles’ Brady Anderson did it on August 21, 1999 against the White Sox. He is the youngest to do it in the live ball era. He is only the fourth player to do it ever. Overall he has homered in four straight games. The Braves sweep of the doubleheader gives them a one game lead in the NL East over idle Philadelphia.

Athletics 7, Mariners 6: Oakland’s insane surge continues. They built up a 7-1 lead and almost frittered it away in the end, but it was only a partial-frittering, resulting in their tenth win in their last 12 games. Jed Lowrie drove in four and starter Sean Manaea pitched into the eighth inning, allowing two runs on five hits before the normally stout A’s bullpen did its best to blow it. Oakland extends its lead over the Mariners for the second Wild Card slot to two and a half games. They are now two behind the Astros for the division lead.

Mets 8, Yankees 5: Jacob deGrom added to his unconventional Cy Young case by striking out 12 Yankees batters in six and two-thirds while allowing only two earned runs. That moves him to 7-7, which is not exactly your typical Cy Young record, but in all other respects he’s basically the best in the NL this season. For the second straight outing he had a lot of help too, with eight runs backing him, aided by five Mets homers, with Amed Rosario Jose BautistaTodd FrazierBrandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto doing the honors.

Tigers 9, White Sox 5: Nicholas Castellanos had a career-high five hits and drove in five runs, including a go-ahead two-run homer in the seventh inning to power the Tigers to victory. It’s the second time he’s driven in five runs against the White Sox this year alone. Detroit is 9-1 against Chicago on the season. They really enjoy these matchups.

Indians 10, Reds 3: Cleveland rode a seven-run sixth inning to victory, with Yandy Diaz breaking a tie with an RBI double. Jose Ramirez hit his 35th homer, he, Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes had three hits apiece, and Melky Cabrera and Jason Kipnis each drove in two. It was Cleveland’s fifth win in six games. They likewise even-up their season record against the Reds at two wins a piece. With two games left, the Ohio Cup is up for grabs. Having lived in Ohio for over 25 years, I can tell you with reasonable certainty that the Ohio Cup is filled with “pahp.”

Rangers 5, Diamondbacks 3: Robinson Chirinos hit a three-run homer in the fourth and singled in a run in the eighth to help Bartolo Colon and the Rangers beat Zack Greinke and the Snakes. Colon walked one dude. It was his 22nd straight start with two or fewer walks, which sets a Rangers record. At 45 there aren’t a ton of things that Big Sexy does super well anymore, but not issuing free passes certainly is one of ’em, and that will get you pretty darn far in Major League Baseball.

Angels 6, Padres 3: Andrew Heaney and Clayton Richard basically matched one another’s performances in regulation, and the game was tied at two heading into extras. In the top of the tenth Kole Calhoun knocked in one with an RBI double, David Fletcher tapped in Shohei Ohtani with a squeeze bunt and then Justin Upon put an exclamation point on the rally with a two-run homer. Eric Hosmer hit a dinger in the Padres half of the tenth, but that’s all the home team would get. Hosmer almost hit a dinger earlier — an eighth inning blast that, had it gone out, would’ve prevented extras and given the Padres the game — but Upton played a part in that one too: