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: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 12, White Sox 0: The Indians gave Corey Kluber 12 runs of support which, c’mon, that’s a bit of overkill, innit? To make it fair they should be forced to begin all Corey Kluber starts with, like, negative three runs. Or make him pitch with his left hand or something. As it was, he allowed one hit over seven shutout innings. Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez each homered and drove in three. The entire Cleveland team was then referred to The Hague for crimes against compassion.

Yankees 7, Mariners 5: Seattle had to feel pretty dang good being up 5-0 after their half of the fifth inning. They shouldn’t have. New York clawed back with two on an Aaron Judge RBI single in the bottom half, got one more with a Didi Gregorius sac fly in the seventh and then Gary Sanchez tied things up with a two-run shot in the eighth. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and extras looming, Gregorius reached base and Giancarlo Stanton reached for the lumber:

Ballgame.

Note: if you get annoyed at the concept of who is a “True Yankee” and who is not a “True Yankee” or the larger notion that players who join the Yankees don’t really become part of the team until they’ve delivered some sort of signature moment, you may want to avoid all coverage of the Yankees today, because it’s only 6:30AM and I’ve already seen like five different articles and video features playing that jazz.

Blue Jays 5, Braves 4: J.A. Happ‘s audition for contending teams continued, as he wins his fifth straight start, almost going the distance in doing so. He wasn’t sparkling — he allowed four runs and six hits — but he didn’t walk anyone and struck out eight dudes. Between that and the long start, it’s as if Toronto is showcasing him in a window display with the words “traditional workhorse, nothing flashy but built solidly” written on the glass. “Go ahead, take him for a spin,” the salesman says. “I’ll be talking to my manager to see if I can get you his best deal!”

Phillies 4, Cardinals 3Odubel Herrera hit a go-ahead solo home run off of Cardinals reliever Sam Tuivailala in the bottom of the seventh inning and the bullpen actually showed up to hold that lead, allowing the Phillies to go home with the W. Herrera has now homered in four consecutive games and in five of his last six. Which, if my experience with Philly talk radio is still up-to-date, means that only 60% of the callers will be complaining about Herrera’s “work ethic” and “hot dogging” today instead of the usual 85%.

Cubs 4, Dodgers 0: Jon Lester was fantastic, twirling seven shutout innings. Kyle Schwarber went deep and a couple of RBI singles and a fielder’s choice later this one was in the books. Javier Baez had two doubles and a triple, scored a run, stole a base and flashed some decent leather. He just needed to get hit by a pitch and, I dunno, sing the National Anthem to fill up every column of the scorecard. They have that on the scorecard, right?

Reds 5, Tigers 3: The Tigers led early and held the Reds to only two singles for the first five innings, but back-to-back homers from Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez, followed by a later dinger by Adam Duvall, put Cincy over. Tyler Mahle won his fourth start of the month. It’s not a riveting competition, but he’s been the Reds’ best starter this year.

Athletics 12, Padres 4: Petco Park in San Diego is known as a pitcher’s park, but the ball flies there during day games before that marine layer rolls in. That was the case yesterday as the A’s hit five homers, going back-to-back twice. Franklin Barreto, Josh Phegley, Mark CanhaMatt Olson and Jed Lowrie all went deep for Oakland. Barreto and Phegley went back-to-back in the second, each hitting their first dinger of the season. Canha and Olson went back-to-back in the third.

Giants 6, Marlins 5Brandon Belt had three hits Gorkys Hernandez hit a two-run single during San Francisco’s five-run sixth inning and no one threw at anyone and no benches cleared. How refreshing. The Marlins behaved themselves and it’s almost as if the Giants realized that it’s not worth getting players injured just to protect the misguided notions of honor espoused by notorious red-ass Hunter Strickland.

Orioles 3, Nationals 0: Andrew Cashner and four relievers combined on a five-hit shutout and Mark Trumbo hit a two-run blast. There was a long rain delay here which chased Cashner after four and, if it had been longer and wetter, might’ve washed out the game entirely before it was official. The Baseball Gods have not smiled on the O’s much this year, but they at least did them this one solid and let this one resume.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Lance Lynn allowed only an unearned run in five innings and four relievers allowed the Red Sox bupkis over the final four. Max Kepler hit a two-run homer, Robbie Grossman hit a solo shot and Brian Dozier doubled in a run. The Twinkies have won four of five.

Astros 5, Rays 1: Charlie Morton allowed only an unearned run in six innings and three relievers allowed the Rays bupkis over the final three. Jose Altuve hit a homer, Jose Altuve also hit a solo shot and George Springer and Alex Bregman each homered. The Astros have won four of five.

Yeah, the games sometimes blend together for me. Sorry.

Rangers 3, Royals 2Austin Bibens-Dirkx — pitching to similarly hyphenated catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa — pitched excellently into the seventh inning and Rougned Odor homered to give the Rangers their fifth straight win. The Royals lose for ninth straight time.

Rockies 10, Mets 8: Same score as Tuesday night. In this one New York led 3-0 at one point but such leads are meaningless at Coors Field, especially early. After blowing that they led once again — 8-6 in the fifth — but Ryan McMahon‘s three-run homer put the Rockies back on top to stay. These two teams have combined for 50 runs in three games. They still have one more to play in this series today. Everyone be aware of the location of your nearest fallout shelter.

Brewers vs. Pirates — POSTPONED:

The rain is falling through the mist
Of sorrow that surrounded me.
The sun could never thaw away
The the bliss that lays around me.

Let it rain, let it rain,
Let your love rain down on me.
Let it rain, let it rain,
Let it rain, rain, rain.