Thursday, November 18, 2010

The AL Cy Young Award: Time for Dumb End-of-Year Statistics

Note: I wrote most of this a month ago, but work and liveblogging the postseason delayed my getting back to it. The AL Cy Young Award winner will be announced later today, meaning this is the last day some of this piece applies. Apologies for tardiness.

The days leading up to and following the World Series can provide the worst part of the baseball journalism season, when daily beat writers know that their teams have been eliminated from contention, or the "hot stove league" hasn't heated up enough yet to be plausibly interesting. Without games left to play and many possible outcomes, they turn their attention to seasonal awards to fill out column space, telling feel-good stories about breakout players, ginning up nonexistent controversies or ideas "so crazy they just might work" to create dialogue and, most commonly, ladling out great chunks of conventional wisdom.

Easily the best example of the latter this year comes in the debate over the American League Cy Young Award. The leading candidates for best pitcher in the league are the Yankees' CC Sabathia and the Mariners' "King" Felix Hernandez, with some votes for the Tampa Bay Rays' David Price thrown in. This shouldn't even be a contest. King Felix beats these other two guys in every single significant metric you can think of: earned run average, walks and hits given up per inning pitched, total strikeouts, strikeouts per nine innings pitched, adjusted ERA, adjusted wins, win probability, wins above replacement ("WAR," i.e. how many more wins did he contribute than a replacement pitcher) and total innings pitched and batters faced. These last two are important. A pitcher who comes into a game and strikes out one batter and then retires would have flawless statistics. That King Felix put up these superlative statistics despite facing the most batters and pitching the most innings of any starter puts his statistical dominance beyond doubt.

If you don't have a baseball brain, that is — which is actually a gut, the point from which true baseball originates. Baseball is gutty, gassy. It's why they serve hot dogs in all the stadiums. Anyway, this distinction matters, because a plurality (if not majority) of professional baseball writers, and thus awards voters, still evaluate players from the gut or by using statistics that don't isolate player performance. This is where the arguments for Sabathia and Price come in. Baseball writers note that Sabathia led the league in games won, with 21, while Hernandez had a paltry 13. But this ignores three pretty big factors:

1. Wins calculate team success. A pitcher could have thrown seven innings of meatballs and given up 12 runs, but as long as his team scored 13 runs before he left the game and then maintained their lead to the end, he would get a win. By almost any rubric, he would be a tremendously shitty pitcher. But by one statistic, wins, he's a good pitcher. Examples like this point to only one conclusion: that wins are a really fucking stupid way of quantifying pitching ability. Yet most baseball writers still rely on it to varying degrees. That's because these people are often idiots, and hungry.

2. CC Sabathia pitched for the Yankees, who scored the most runs in baseball this season, 855.

3. King Felix pitched for the Mariners, who scored the fewest runs in baseball this season, 510, which is a historically bad number. That's a total run differential between the two teams of 345. If you go off baseball statisticians' back-of-the-envelope shorthand of 10 Runs=1 Win, that accounts for 34 wins, enough difference to propel the Mariners into first place in their division or plunge the Yankees into dead last in theirs. In short, any "measurement" of pitchers that relies on including a potential offensive differential that can make a team the best in the league or the dead last is an asinine way of evaluating a pitcher, who has no control over that run output.

Now, there are some common arguments against Felix's superior numbers, and most of those come down to intangibles of, at best, questionable meaning. CC Sabathia, for instance, played in the media crucible of New York, with the scrutiny of an intense fanbase. But he did that last year, and he helped them win a World Series, so he's kind of been playing with house money all year. Plus it's not as if he woke up in this environment, or was drafted and had few options. He signed a very big paycheck to come to New York by choice, after signing a big paycheck in Milwaukee to take that team to the postseason, after going to the ALCS with the Cleveland Indians and pitching under that scrutiny.

The other argument favors both Sabathia and Price, namely that, because both played in a tight pennant race, they both pitched more "meaningful" games. This should be pretty stupid on its face, but it's surprising how much weight people accord this thinking, because this is thinking about baseball the right way, just Jetering up the arithmetic, not being afraid to get the workbook paper a li'l dirty, slide right into the quotient and shit, bunt the 1 over to the next column. This is when numbers are more than numbers, when the True Numbers come out and add it up in the moment. Basically, Price and Sabathia's MGORP, or Meaningful Games Over Replacement Player, are unmatched this season. Using MGORP might be frowned upon these days because it only quantifies a game's GUT (guttiness) without making any allowances for the new metric of GRT (grittiness), but call me old fashioned: I still think the old ways are the best ways of doing things, and in addition to being fat, I am also drunk, which makes me double-baseball-smart.

Funnily enough, this conventional baseball argument goes against so many other baseball conventions. For one, all games are meaningful: tell a team that missed a playoff spot by one loss that they aren't. Whether that loss came in April or August, it still proved decisive. For another, supposedly the best players thrive off the tension, rise to the occasion and become bigger than the game when it counts. People make this argument every postseason, so supposedly Price and Sabathia should have improved just because of circumstance. If anything, we ought to take points off, because they were able to get fired up about games in September when someone like King Felix might have been maundering around the clubhouse, dejectedly kicking at dirty socks, wondering what the point of throwing even was, some existential loser who lacked the wherewithal to just plant himself at a buffet.

If anything, glumly not trying very hard would be reasonable behavior for Felix. His team hadn't played a meaningful game since July. He wasn't directly playing for a contract; he's locked up until 2014 as it is. So nobody could have blamed him for just taking it easy, saving his arm and not playing harder than necessary. After all, giving up a single home run risked losing the game, given that his team's offense was historically bad. How excited can you be to go to work when you know even the slightest mistake renders the rest of the day a catastrophe? And besides, Price and Sabathia could not only have slightly more fun but could also afford to take risks, knowing that they pitched in front of the #3 and #1 run-producing offenses in the league. It's easier to pound the plate and go for strikes when you know your offense can give you, as in Sabathia's case, an average of 5.3 runs per game. One mistake isn't necessarily the end.

Yet in spite of all that, Felix put up superior numbers according to practically every meaningful metric. He should win the Cy Young, and if he does, everyone can point to those numbers to justify it. On the other hand, he didn't win much, and his rate of Clutch Wins, Jeterian Wins and Gutty Wins is abysmal. Which will amply justify his losing a Cy Young bid this year, because everyone can safely rely on half of all baseball writers measuring his performance with a broken ruler, against the totally imaginary. Also, hunger.

I bring sportswriting and awards stuff like this up because I read an article the other day [again, read: last month] on the St. Petersburg Times' Rays Blog, The Heater. I know what this name is meant to evoke, high-speed fastballs blown by hapless opponents. Unfortunately it also makes me think of hot dogs. (I'm clutch like that.) They changed the hot dog offerings at Tropicana Field this year, so I have no idea if they still exist, but for the last decade or so, there were two dog options: "Hot Dog" and "The Heater." One time, during a game in which the Rays were comfortably in the lead and my friend Glenn and I were comfortably slightly drunk (i.e. really basebally), I bothered a concessionaire, "Okay, just what the hell is a 'Heater'?" Apparently it was exactly like a "Hot Dog," only longer and more expensive. My point is, when I think of something called "The Heater," I think of something that will instantly set my esophagus on fire.

Anyway, the Times' Heater blog is primarily written and managed by staff writer Marc Topkin, who seems like a good and smart guy almost all the time. If you follow the Rays at all, you quickly get used to seeing his Twitter updates, his blog updates and — if you can get the paper — his newsbriefs about the team. Some of this results in unnecessary duplication, since his newsbriefs feature The Heater content. This last line was written solely for the ladies.

Because I'm used to Topkin being smart and generally pretty hip to new statistics (which is inevitable, if you're a beat writer covering the sometimes fatally eggheaded Joe Maddon), I was really startled to see the following article headline and scroll down to the payoff:
And the team MVP is ...
That honor, as odd as it sounds, goes to a player who participated in less than 5 percent of the action.

If the team's ultimate goal is to win games, then the MVP should be the player who most helps accomplish that.

And on this Rays team, in this season, that player is closer Rafael Soriano.

He has the most impact on the team's overall success of any one player, and he has been the biggest difference in this year's team from last year's.

Yes, he pitched just 60-some innings. He has saved "only" 44 of their 94 wins. And they would have found somebody else to get some of the work done.

But if you disagree, ask yourself this valuable question: Where would the Rays be without Soriano?
This article exemplifies what I meant earlier when I talked about beat writers needing to talk about end-of-year team awards and make crazy picks to fill up column space and create interest or controversy where there might be none. This is a piece of writing afflicted with the common sportswriter disease whose symptoms are necessary daily productivity and topical novelty.

It's hardly a long piece, so you should consider reading the preface to the payoff, because the preface does all the heavy lifting of invalidating the payoff. In order to make his argument, Topkin has to handwave away all the obvious reasons why it's wrong. He notes that Evan Longoria — who is unmistakably the 2010 Rays MVP — is really great, integral to the success of the team at the plate, then gives the nod to Soriano. He's not alone in this, either: he notes that there were other local sportswriters who made this vote, which I guess nicely diffuses the responsibility of a quantitatively bad decision by noting that other people were dumb at the same time.

As Topkin notes, Soriano only pitched around 60 innings out of a minimum of 1,458 all year. It's pretty nonsensical to look at someone who's on the field for only 1/24th of the season and say, "Yeah, him. He made all the difference." As unfair as it might be, batters often contribute far more than individual pitchers to a team's success over a season. Even an ace starting pitcher only contributes to (at best) one fourth of a team's starting pitching, to say nothing of relief pitching (he's not going to finish every game he starts). Meanwhile, a team's batters are out there almost every day, with three or more chances per game to change the outcome.

But most importantly, as a guy who's used to following Maddon and getting eggheady about stuff, he should be familiar with WAR, which is "Wins Above Replacement," which is a funny way of trying to come up with a grand unifying statistic for how valuable any player was/is to his team. The number the stat yields essentially translates to how many wins that player gave the team, above the performance of a perfectly average replacement player. For the Rays, the team leader was Evan Longoria with 7.7. The pitching leader was David Price with 5.3. Rafael Soriano came in with a 2.6. (For the record, Baseball Reference and Fangraphs come up with different WAR calculations, but Fangraphs has Longoria at 6.9 and Soriano at 1.6. Neither site considers Soriano even the most valuable Rays pitcher.)

What makes this an even weirder argument for Topkin to make is that he's been watching the Rays for a couple of years and seen how they've exemplified the old sabermetricians' argument that closers are overrated. In 2008, when they went to the World Series, the big knock on them was that they lacked a shutdown closer. Instead, what they had was a kind of closer-by-committee system that stat wonks had been encouraging teams to adopt since the beginning of the decade. In fact, the Rays often brought in better relievers before the ninth inning, using them in higher-leverage situations than the traditional closer system, but this might have been less by design and more because Joe Maddon loves the immortally horrible Dan Fucking Wheeler.

The only explanation seems to be that Topkin just went temporarily crazy in the absence of regular-season baseball. He concedes both that Soriano played a tiny fraction of time during the season and adds, "They would have found somebody else to get some of the work done." So when he asks, "Where would the Rays be without Soriano?" both his experience covering the team and the numbers at his fingertips should have told them: "Not significantly better or worse off." (For instance, Joaquin Benoit performed admirably, which others noticed.)

At best, maybe he just wanted to butter Soriano up, make him feel appreciated, make him want to turn down giant "I can fuck an entire strip-club's roster on this" piles of money because he was well-liked in Tampa Bay. But that's still pretty crazy, too.

Here's to a lively offseason.

Perhaps because his ears were burning or perhaps because it's his job, Marc Topkin had this update about the AL Cy Young Award winner. First up, the good news: King Felix won! I know baseball fans hoped for this outcome, but it still seemed inevitable that it would get screwed up somehow. This is an award voted on by sportswriters after all, the same people who tell their children to imagine David Eckstein when they hear the story of Paul Bunyan.

Now for the just plain baffling news, a wandering speculation on Felix's chances, which was published before his win was announced (from the article):
Here is how NL Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay viewed it: "Obviously Felix's numbers are very, very impressive. But I think, ultimately, you look at how guys are able to win games. Sometimes the run support isn't there, but you sometimes just find ways to win games. I think the guys that are winning and helping their teams deserve a strong look, regardless of how good Felix's numbers are. It definitely could go either way; it's going to be interesting. But I think when teams bring guys over, they want them to, ultimately at the end of the day, help them win games."
This is probably just the standard dial-a-cliché word salad that almost all ballplayers speak in. (In fact, as far as I can tell, this is the only thing Roy Halladay's said that's made the slightest lick of sense, and he had nothing to do with it.) Even by those standards, though, it's still pretty idiotic. Halladay thinks teams want pitchers to help them win games, and he's right. But pitchers tend to do this by pitching. Especially in the American League, where Felix Hernandez pitches, in which special hitters are designated so that pitchers don't actually bat at all.

So, really, Halladay's comment that, "Sometimes the run support isn't there, but you sometimes just find ways to win games," is just insanely bizarre because it relies on pitchers doing something that is literally impossible, since their job is preventing the other team from scoring runs, not telekinetically inducing the eight or nine other batters on their team to hit the ball better. The best pitchers in the world can "find" whatever the fuck they want, but if it's not the team behind them already scoring more runs than the team they're throwing the ball at, they're not going to win diddly-shit.

I can't even begin to understand what value Halladay sees in making this statement: if anything, he's going on the record as supporting a kind of atavistic baseball thinking that may cost him a future Cy Young win, because it embraces bad statistics (wins) over good ones (stuff the pitcher can actually fucking control). The only possible explanation is that maybe he thinks really gutty pitchers who have the will to win and are willing to do all the little, extra things can throw a ball so hard at an opponent's bat that it fouls off it, behind him, circumnavigates the globe and lands back in the stadium for a reverse-home run. Or, as it's more commonly known, a rouge.