Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Debating the NL Cy Young Award

Major League Baseball's seasonal awards debates are fun because there are so many differing opinions and typically at least a few candidates to win each award. This holds true for the 2011 NL Cy Young Award. Many will suggest that Los Angeles Dodgers' starting pitcher, Clayton Kershaw is the clear cut winner in the NL since he locked down the pitcher's version of the triple crown (tops in wins, ERA and strikeouts).  I think there are a few pitchers who have an argument for the award and the voters shouldn't just hand it to Kershaw. In my estimation there are three other players who have also had seasons worthy of consideration despite Kershaw's obvious credentials; Ian Kennedy, starting pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and a pair of Philadelphia Phillies starters, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. I'll detail each candidate's resume for the season and provide my opinion as to who I feel the winner should be.

Ian Kennedy
Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP SO ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
26 21 4 2.88 33 1 1 222.0 198 137 1.086 0.8 8.0 3.60
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/27/2011.

Kennedy is the dark horse of this group and was not on the short list of potential winners at the beginning of the season. But, Kennedy has blossomed into the pitcher the New York Yankees hoped he would be two years ago. Last season he showed glimpses of promise but was not given much support from his teammates. This year Kennedy has grown into a sometimes dominant starter amassing 21 wins against only 4 losses.

Roy Halladay
Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP SO ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
34 19 6 2.35 32 8 1 233.2 220 164 1.040 0.4 8.5 6.29
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/27/2011.

When Roy Halladay shifted from the American League to the National League there was a collective sigh of relief from the junior circuit clubs and moans from teams in the NL. He continues to put up spectacular numbers and he makes it look simple. His 8 complete games are best in the NL.

Cliff Lee
Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP SO ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
32 17 8 2.40 32 6 6 232.2 238 161 1.027 0.7 9.2 5.67
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/27/2011.

Halladay's teammate, Cliff Lee returned to the Phillies this season after signing a lucrative contract in the offseason. He has not disappointed with a MLB best 6 shutouts.

Clayton Kershaw
Age W L ERA GS CG SHO IP SO ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
23 21 5 2.28 33 5 2 233.1 248 163 0.977 0.6 9.6 4.59
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/27/2011.

Clayton Kershaw has always had the makings of an ace. In previous seasons he fought control problems and the inability to go deep into ballgames. This season he has snuffed both issues. His control has become impeccable and because of that he threw 5 complete games. He was a dominant force for the Dodgers a won the pitcher’s triple crown, with 21 wins (tied with Kennedy), 248 SO and posted a 2.28 ERA.

So, we see four undeniably fantastic seasons but who deserves the Cy Young award?  Kennedy and Lee rank fourth and third respectively in my opinion. The information in the tables tell us Halladay was tops in the NL in ERA+, SO/BB ratio and complete games. Kershaw won the pitcher's triple crown in the NL.  Plus, his SO/9 is highest among the four players. Halladay has a better HR/9 ratio and a better SO/BB ratio than Kershaw.  Beyond the information provided in the tables, Halladay's pitching WAR, per Baseball-Reference, was 7.4 and Kershaw's 6.9. According to FanGraphs, Halladay's FIP (2.20) was better than Kershaw's (2.48).

I would not be upset if either player won the award.  But, if I had a vote it would be for Roy Halladay. I'm fascinated and impressed by players like Kershaw who are at the top of their game while their supporting cast is far from that.  The same can be said about Halladay.  These are not the 2008 Phillies (.770 team OPS in 2008 versus .717 this season) so don't assume Halladay was helped by his counterparts much more than Kershaw was (Dodgers 2011 OPS=.695). I recently wrote that without Halladay and the rest of the Phillie's starting staff they would not be anywhere near the playoffs.  The rest of the Dodgers rotation was mediocre at best. The historic achievement by Kershaw is impressive, but I give the ball to Roy Halladay all things being equal.  Voters will end up disagreeing and that's fine because it's the debate I enjoy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Nova's Season Invokes Pettitte Flashback

New York Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova spent much of the 2011 season trying to prove himself. Since being called back up from the minors on July 30th, he has won eight games and lost zero. In fact he hasn't lost a game since June 3rd.  Nova has easily been the Yankees second best pitcher, after CC Sabathia, since that time. He has so convincingly outpitched his rotation counterparts, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes that he could start Game 2 in next week's American League Division Series.

Yankees fans may remember a young rookie, Andy Pettitte, who pitched himself into the role of Game 2 starter in the ALDS back in 1995. The Yankees were in a similiar position then to go with the most consistent of the remaining starters behind then ace David Cone, despite that fact that Pettitte was a rookie. While Pettitte did not earn the victory in the game, he pitched well enough that the Yankees were able to beat the Seattle Mariners.

Below is a quick comparison of Pettitte's and Nova's (YTD) first full season in the big leagues.

Andy Pettitte
Age W L ERA GS IP ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
23 12 9 4.17 26 175.0 111 1.406 0.8 5.9 1.81
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/23/2011.

Ivan Nova
Age W L ERA GS IP ERA+ WHIP HR/9 SO/9 SO/BB
24 16 4 3.62 26 159.0 122 1.333 0.7 5.4 1.67
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/23/2011.

Strikingly similar, and arguably Nova was better. Pettitte went on to win 21 games in his sophomore season and came in second in the AL Cy Young vote. I'm not suggesting that Nova is going to do the same next season, but the chances that this year is a harbinger of future success for Nova is fair at the least. Moreover, I'm confident that Nova will pitch well enough in the playoffs to give the Yankees a chance to win just like Pettitte did in '95. This is certainly more than I can say about Burnett, Colon, Garcia or Hughes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Phillies Clinch Playoff Berth

Thanks to Halladay, Lee and Hamels

The Philadelphia Phillies entered today's game with the Houston Astros looking to claim a playoff spot. Roy Halladay didn't waste any time delivering. Halladay threw his first shutout of the season, his 8th complete game of 2011, as the Phillies won 1-0 in a crisp two hours six minutes.

The question about this Phillies team was never about the pitching staff. Their top 3 starters consisting of Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels are a combined 48-20, with a 2.49 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 599 Ks in 629.1 IP after today's win. Put simply these guys are excellent at minimizing base runners. The Phillies have also received big contributions from NL Rookie of the year candidate Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick has provided quality innings with Roy Oswalt sidelined with injuries at different points of the season.

They are fortunate their starters have been incredible, as their offense is mediocre at best. Once considered a potent and sometimes explosive offense, the Phillies' offensive NL rankings (16 teams) are 9th in AVG, T-7th in HR and 7th in OPS.  Not exactly intimidating is it?

In addition to their offensive deficiencies, the Phillies are a poor defensive team per their UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating scaled to 150 games) ranking among the rest of the National League. Their team UZR/150 is -2.6 which is tied for 12th in the NL. The Phillies do not make a lot of errors, but the ball better be hit right at them as they have little or no range. They are unable of throwing runners out from the outfield and show little aptitude in turning double plays.

So the pressure is firmly on the starting pitching. Can Halladay, Lee and Hamels, after throwing what will amount to anywhere between 215-240 innings each in the regular season, be as effective during the playoffs? Each team they face will throw their best starters and while they may not be as talented as the Phillies' best, there is every chance that they will be able to stifle the Phillies' bats. The Phillies better hope for the same contributions from their starters because they cannot rely on their offense to carry them and when the ball is put into play the Phillies tend to have a hard time preventing runs. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Boston Red Sox to Break the Bank in 2012?

The Boston Red Sox spent big money in 2011 with one goal in mind, a World Series title.  First they signed OF Carl Crawford to a 7 year $142 million contract last winter.  Then they made a bigger splash by trading for 1B Adrian Gonzalez and subsequently inked him to a 7 year $154 million deal this past April.  They spent another $68 million on a 4 year deal with SP Josh Beckett.  So far, Gonzalez (5.9 WAR) and Beckett (4.1 WAR) have held up their end of the deal and Crawford (0.5 WAR) has been a major bust.

Whether they reach the pinnacle in 2011 remains to be seen.  What is interesting is that the go for broke decisions were made with two major uncertainties in their lineup, David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury.  Ortiz started 2010 slow and then picked up the pieces to turn in a respectable season. Ellsbury missed most of 2010 with an injury.

Now, Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein, has some big decisions to make for the 2012 club.  He has over $120 million committed among 10 players on the 25 man roster for 2012.  David Ortiz's contract ends in 2011 and the Sox will try to keep the fan favorite.  Ortiz, who has had a strong season start to finish (4.4 WAR YTD), has already stated that he expects a multi-year deal, which will cost the Red Sox plenty of money.  Do not expect Big Papi to grant a hometown discount.

The Red Sox have several players arbitration eligible in 2012.  Each of them will receive a hefty raise.  Most notably is Jacoby Ellsbury, who has put in a MVP caliber season.  At 27 years old, his peak seasons are just now arriving.  As of September 6th, Ellsbury is hitting .312, with 100 R, 38 2B, 24 HR, 85 RBI, 36 SB, and his OPS is .894.  This is all coming from their leadoff hitter!  Plus, Ellsbury is a spectacular center fielder.  His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) for 2011 currently stands at 15.8, which ranks 1st among all MLB outfielders and 3rd overall.  His year to date WAR of 7.8 is 2nd in MLB, just one tenth of a point lower than Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays.  In addition, Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client, so it can be expected that Boras will fight hard if needed in arbitration or score Ellsbury a very large multi-year deal somewhere in the neighborhood of Crawford's deal.

Epstein will definitely have some tough decisions to make this offseason, which is coincidentally the last of his contract with the Red Sox.  Does he give Big Papi a two or three year deal worth $15 million per year AND pay Ellsbury for a long term deal?  Does he hedge his bets and let Ortiz go?  Can Epstein take his chances in arbitration with Ellsbury or does he offer a long term deal?  One thing is for certain, whichever way the Red Sox proceed, they will spend to contend.  They have no choice so long as they are in the same division as the New York Yankees.

*All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and payroll figures were researched using Cot's Baseball Contracts.