Wins and Loses: A Decline in Value?

Tim Lincecum
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Congratulations to Tim Lincecum for winning the 2009 NL Cy Young award, just a couple short days after Zack Greinke‘s victory for the AL counterpart. But an even bigger congratulations is in order. A congratulations to the BBWAA voters.


Just what am I getting at, you ask? As we’re all aware of, there have been several outrageous Cy Young awards given out almost solely due to a pitcher’s run support. 1967 may have been the worst, when Jim Bunning garnered only 1 first place vote despite obviously pitching more and better quality innings than NL winner Mike McCormick. Then there was a young Tom Seaver losing to Fergusen Jenkins in 1971 when threw 286 innings for an extraordinarily low 1.76 ERA (192 ERA+ and 1.93 FIP), while Jenkins‘ only sizeable lead was in IP (325 vs. 286) and Wins (24 to 20). In 1984, Rick Suttcliffe swept all of the 1st place votes despite pitching 68 less and worse innings than Doc Gooden for the NL. In the AL that year, relievers Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry took the top two spots while Dave Stieb‘s league crowns in ERA and IP garnered him only a 7th place finish*. In the 90’s we’ve seen Bob Welch beat out Roger Clemens‘ season for the ages in 1990, we’ve seen Kevin Brown’s majestic 1996 largely forgotten due to John Smoltz‘s 7 Win lead, and again to another one of Atlanta’s future Hall of Famers two years later in an even worse voting catastrophe – Brown finished third in balloting despite facing 100 more batters than winner Tom Glavine whilst striking out 100 more! The new millennium brought us Pedro in his prime losing to Barry Zito because of 3 wins and 30 innings pitched in 2002, Randy Johnson losing to Roger Clemens in 2004 despite his significantly better totals in ERA, IP and strikeouts, all because of 2 measly wins (16 vs Clemens’ 18), and Johan Santana’s third place finish while leading the AL in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts and topping Cy winner Bartolo Colon in Innings Pitched in 2005.


But now, 41 years later, the two Cy Young award winners won just 31 games COMBINED.


Let that sink in for a second. Thirty-one wins. Zack Greinke pitched himself to 16, Tim Lincecum 15 and that equals Thirty-one! As a point of reference, Denny McLain in 1968 won 31 games by himself, and was the last pitcher to surpass the 30 win mark.


Finally, after more than 100 years since the Win-Loss record was created and widely used as a measure of effectiveness, we are seeing its perceived value die out. Sure, it’s been spited in favor of Saves on more than one occasion, but that’s no better. For decades, voters who sought out value in other measures have been silenced, even if it was just ERA. But their voices slowly grew louder. And now in 2009, they are the majority. For the first time ever, more voters than not blatantly favored other, more complete statistics to determine Cy Young Award winners. Widely speculated to be Greinke’s biggest competition, Felix Hernandez garnered 3 more wins (19) and lost the Cy to Greinke in a landslide. Lincecum had two candidates perceived to win against him, in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, who had 17 and 19 wins respectively, and defeated them with his modest 15, albeit narrowly.


What led to this? In the AL, Greinke beat out Hernandez in ERA (2.16 vs. 2.49), Strikeouts (242 vs. 217) despite 9 less Innings Pitched, and gave up significantly less home runs (0.43 HR/9 versus Hernandez’ 0.57). By traditional standards, it’s crystal clear why Greinke should have beat out King Felix. But in the NL, in addition to his lack of wins, Lincecum was behind Carpenter in ERA by nearly a quarter of a run per 9, and Wainwright also had a genuinely great season even if you do ignore his league lead in Wins. By looking at statistics that sportswriters have passed on for generations, it really was a 3-horse race. But diving into the more analytical numbers tells us a very different story…


(tERA and FIP WAR were created by Graham MacAree and Tom Tango, respectively, and can both be found on Fangraphs.com)


tERA

FIP WAR

Greinke

2.16

Greinke

9.4

Lincecum

2.32

Lincecum

8.2

Carpenter

2.55

Verlander

8.2

Vazquez

2.93

Halladay

7.3

Haren

2.99

Hernandez

6.9

tERA and FIP WAR are two metrics that encompass pitching skill by filtering what a pitcher cannot control. FIP WAR is a Wins Above Replacement model of the FIP statistic, which weighs strikeouts, bases on balls and home runs allowed and by itself presents them on a scale similar to ERA. tERA, like FIP, weighs strikeouts, bases on balls and home runs allowed, but also weighs batted ball data such as line drives, ground balls and fly balls allowed, and then presents them on an ERA scale.


(Not familiar with FIP? Ask Zack Greinke! Someone needs to tell him to move out of his mother’s basement.)


…These two statistics are as close to a “Best Pitcher in Baseball” statistic as you can get right now, at least until further development in the Hit-, Field-, and Throw F/X systems. In other words, they do what ERA and W/L record were seen as supposed to do for decades. And just which two pitchers just so happen to be at the top of the list? Why, it’s our two Cy Young Award winners!


Now, I’m certain that most voters on the BBWAA panel didn’t look at these stats – heck, I would bet that 90 percent of them never even heard of them. But voters have never hit the nail on the head with the Cy Young award like they did this year.


And that it’s happening at the sunset of the dubbed “Moneyball” decade makes it read like poetry.

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