Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sabermetrics' D-Day

The rise of sabermetrics into the general consciousness of baseball, its fans, players, executives, and writers in the last decade has been a complete revolution in the way everyone thinks about the game.

However, today was a referendum on sabermetrics, and sabermetrics won. Even the older, crankier members of the BBWAA decided to go against the wins metric and to go with, well, every other stat. At first glance, this looks like justice is served for Felix Hernandez. He was the pitcher who performed the best in the year 2010. At least in the AL. The best pitcher deserves the Cy Young Award. Just a fun fact that I found while looking up numbers for this post: Against Hernandez, 265 batters earned their way to first base out of a league-leading 1001. John Lackey faced 71 fewer batters and let 49 more of them on base.

Obviously, the old, cranky writers would discount Hernandez because he only got 13 wins against twelve losses. Those are Matsuzaka numbers right there. On the other hand, the sabermetric guys would look at the more granular statistic, starting with traditional ERA and going all the way down to the real mathematical stuff. Sabermetrics guys have a large body of statistics to pull from, while the traditional guys will continue to look at the wins.

Here's the argument - and this is actually the one I was going to make: A pitcher that deserves the Cy Young Award needs to do something to make his team win. He could look great on the spreadsheets but just lose because they give up that extra run that otherwise is preventable. Look at Zack Grienke last year. He was on a piss-poor team and still found a way to get himself a .667 winning percentage and sixteen wins. Look at Pedro Martinez: Every opposing pitcher back during his heyday decided to take their game up a little bit when facing Pedro, and Pedro had to win with small margins of error, like 2-1 games or 1-0 games. Why didn't Felix Hernandez do it?

Well, this is why, and this is probably why this post is going to look completely disjointed. In the games he lost (and some of them, admittedly, were games in which he gave up 4 runs or 7 runs twice), his team put up these offensive numbers: 1, 3, 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0. In those twelve losses, his team scored eleven runs! That's gotta be some kind of record. So even if Hernandez gave up two runs in these games, he would have lost nine of them! He gave up zero earned in one of the losses, one earned in once of the losses, two earned in three of the losses, and three earned in two of the losses.

Pat will argue tomorrow that Hernandez was good, but he wasn't so transcendently good (like Grienke) that he deserved it over a guy who helped his team make it into contention. But he lost twelve games in which his team scored eleven runs. What's transcendent here was how freaking bad his team (RUN PREVENTION!!1) was. If Hernandez DIDN'T win, he would have been absolutely screwed. And as surprising as it is, you don't even need to do regression analysis to see why.


TimC said...

I think the biggest shift as a result of sabermetrics has been the shift in thinking away from 'how valuable is a guy to his team?' to 'how valuable is a guy independent of his team?' and to me no place is this more evident than this situation.

I think where heads clash is not the philosophy- there is a place for wins, RBI, and batting average, as is there a place for OPS+, zone ratings, and JD Drew- but the definitions of the awards. Specifically, I refer to how the public interprets the meaning of these awards. Historically, the MVP and Cy Young awards have gone to players who are the most valuable to their TEAM and this definition is generally heard from fans regardless of whether they are traditionalists or statistical guys.

I think this presents a problem because to me, Felix had just about no value to his team. In fact, given DV's stats, a rotation of Felix, Cy Young, Koufax, Pedro, and Randy Johnson, all in their primes, would have 'propelled' this offense-allergic club to a spot in the wild card chase. The Mariners needed hitting and having Felix was like buying a nice new hot tub for your house before you went house shopping. Since Felix added little value to his team- it would have been impossible to, really- his selection as Cy Young would fail in the traditional meaning of the award.

So, is it time to redefine these things? Do we now say that these awards stand for the players who would have been the most valuable, team-independent? Do we add league-independent, ballpark-independent, weather-independent, too? At some point, we get to a place where we are just ignoring what happened on the scoreboard and it seems wrong to me. Luck is a factor, no doubt, and winning is all that counts at the end of the season. Have we gone too far with the whips and dips? To make a college football analogy, handing out awards like this seems more like a BCS line of thinking than a playoff line. I guess the question is, is that appropriate for baseball's award season?

TimC said...

To simplify my entire post: Cy Young won 511 games. The award is named after Cy Young.

Ross Kaplan said...

I am a big sabremetrics hater and I will absolutely let that influence my opinion on Hernandez winning the Cy Young Award.

I despise how like RBI's, the wins stat has gone the way of the dodo. My bad for thinking that your job as a pitcher was to WIN THE GAME!!! I don't really care how good your WHIP, VORP or some other lame stat I have to reference a dictionary to figure out what it means, is.

Do we really celebrate a losing pitcher who just happened to have a great WHIP? I do not think so. That's not the country I grew up in. And that's why I hate sabremetrics, it celebrates losers.

Patrick said...

sort of along with what timc said, i thought cc/price deserved this award.

if you are going to win a major award on one of the worst teams in the game (in any sport) you should be WAY out in front statistically and BLEND IN in terms of wins. felix was neither. he was better than both statistically, no doubt, but Felix allowed 0.5 less hits per start, had 4 less walks all season, struck out one more batter per start, allowed 0.25 less runs per start, allowed 3 less homers all season, and pitched 12 more innings all season than cc. we get so excited about cumulative stats, but starting pitching is all about per game performance and what you do to give your team a chance to win. on a per game basis, felix was a hair better than cc, not way out in front. ditto price. he also did not nearly blend in in terms of wins, having 13 where cc had 21 and price who had 19. i don't care about run support because that is part of being on a bad/irrelevant team. cc/price may have had run support, but they were also charged with stopping winning streaks, facing 1st and 2nd no out in the 7th and having to get out of it in a game that matters, etc. felix was not, so those two things counteract each other in my opinion. he was better statistically, but not enough and didn't blend in in terms of wins enough to out-duel two pitchers on two of the best teams in the game who put up their stats in meaningful spots. wins and being on winning teams should not be everything, but also shouldn't be irrelevant. giving felix this award comes close to making them irrelevant. he wasn't that outrageous statistically in terms of his competition to warrant this. as doc halladay said after winning his most recent cy young, a pitcher's job is to win, no matter what. even if you don't take it that far, it should at least matter.

Patrick said...

*stopping losing streaks.

also, my idea of blending in in terms of wins would be something within range, like 16 vs. 19, as was the case with greinke last year. 13 and 19 or 13 and 21 are not in the same range.

Rocci said...

The Cy Young is supposed to be given to the best pitcher in each league.

So Hernandez's 2.27 ERA is significantly better than Sabathia's 3.18. Oh but Hernandez didn't win enough? Well, baseball is a team sport, and although the pitcher makes the biggest impact on the game, there are 9 other players out there batting which impact the result of a game as well. Obviously Sabathia's going to win more because his team scored the most runs in Major League Baseball, while Hernandez's team scored the least amount.

I mean c'mon, that's not even sabermetrics guys, that's common sense.

Patrick said...

rocci -

thanks for the comment. i disagree that it's as obvious as you make it seem. as i said in my comment, we get very excited about cumulative statistics - you referenced a 2.27 vs. 3.18 era - in baseball, but the reality is cumulative statistics are not as telling regarding starting pitchers as they are hitters. in terms of impacting games, starting pitchers have far greater control over a lesser amount of games, while hitters have a lesser control over a greater amount of games. therefore it is important to look at starting pitching on a per game basis, because they only appear in 34-35 games per year on the high end. a 2.27 to 3.18 looks really big. but when you shake it out on a per game basis, hernandez allowed one less earned run than sabathia every 2 starts or so. again, that's significant, but it's not as dramatic - and doesn't impact a team's chances of winning - as much as a low 2's vs. low 3's era makes it seem in a broader context. my point is that it is very possible, in the case of sabathia and price, that they give up that extra run every other start than hernandez because of the circumstances under which they pitch. circumstances felix does not have to deal with. so yes, the cy young award is about the "best" pitcher, and this is where i would challenge best is not all about statistics. it is possible to be the "best" pitcher without having the best statistics because of the circumstances under which that pitcher pitches. if baseball wasn't about circumstances like this, javy vazquez and carl pavano would put up the same good stats in new york they have everywhere else.

regarding the wins/losses element, i'm not blaming hernandez for not winning, nor am i under any misconception as to why sabathia/price won more than hernandez - their teams were better and scored more runs. this is a very obvious point that i think we can all agree on. my only point here is tough stuff for hernandez, or any player/pitcher who plays for a bad team. it may be out of their control, and that's just too bad when it comes to award time. i think winning, and being on a winning team, should matter. not everything, but it should be a consideration. felix winning in the landslide that he did lends itself to the notion that winning and being on a winning team are not much of a consideration at all. which in my opinion is too bad. of course this has nothing to do with felix specifically, this is just my broader philosophy on individual awards in any sport.

Patrick said...

to clarify quickly on my point regarding vazquez/pavano, they are evidence that statistics do not get accumulated on an even plane throughout the game, and vary depending upon the circumstances under which a pitcher pitches. market, division, playoff race - these things and others impact the circumstances under which a pitcher is pitching. vazquez and pavano are two of many pitchers who prove this point. the common defense i've heard to this point is that feix pitched well against good competition. but again that's only one circumstance. he was doing that for a bad team that had nothing to play for. and while he was only controlling what he could control, there is nothing to say he wouldn't have pitched with the same effectiveness if he were pitching for new york or tampa bay under the circumstances sabathia and price were. and this is why i think consideration should be given to circumstance, not just cumulative statistics in a vacuum.

Anonymous said...


Should speculation like this matter: "If Felix Hernandez played for the Red Sox he'd have been 21-4"? Now, of course this is the underpinning to every argument about who is the "best" pitcher in the league, but that type of talk is always fun and also at some point there has to be a way to figure this exact stat out.

Also, great to have a new blood on this blog, Rocci.

--the Gunn

Patrick said...

gunn -

i think on some level that is the exact kind of speculation that should take place in voting like this. it could go that way. if felix hernandez pitched to the same stats in boston as he did in seattle he's probably go 21-4. but that is where my point comes in that in the AL east, competing so regularly against those kind of offenses, competing for a playoff spot, with serious rivalries, and the pressure comes that comes with it, he may not pitch to those same stats, and therefore might or might not go 21-4 depending on his the offense when he pitches. i'd say it's just as likely he goes 20-8 with an era in the mid-high 2's, which then makes him extremely similar to sabathia and price. that's my entire point here. and there's no way to know.

and that's before any consideration that he'd be going from pitching half the time in one of the biggest pitcher's parks in the game in seatte to a hitter's park in boston. that will make the landing that much tougher when dealing with all of the above new elements of making such a switch. could he overcome all of this and dominate the way he did in seattle? of course. we just don't know. but it certainly wouldn't be as easy.

the gm in philly said...


I'd love to know the aggregate negative value of How Youz Doin Baseball to our office. Thanks for your comment. And in general, I agree with what you say. You don't even need to use obscure sabermetric values to see that this guy is a victim of how his team is absolute crap. The twelve values I have there say all you need to know about Felix Hernandez. Find a way to win? You can't find a way to win if you're getting shut out. I'd argue that almost any other CYA winner had more of a margin for error than this guy. Tim C's rotation can't do too much if the team is scoring 0 or 1 runs in fifty of their games (Felix's 10 times five starters). Even if they win the rest of the games, they still only win 112 games.

It is true that Felix did get shelled a couple of times, especially in comparison to other good performances on bad teams, like Grienke's, which helps Pat's argument and his statistical analysis.

The only place for JD Drew is in a stand in the woods with a bow in his hand. Enjoy the rest of yo weekend.