Friday, November 20, 2009

Old Cy and new stats

The lede to the Associated Press story Thursday on Tim Lincecum's second straight Cy Young Award:

Talk about a freak — Tim Lincecum needed just 15 wins to bag another NL Cy Young Award. Yup, throw out those old baseball cards. Wins and losses don't mean much anymore when it comes time for voters to pick baseball's best pitchers. It's all about WHIP, FIP, BABIP and other lines of alphabet soup.

For the uninitiated — I'm sure there are some out there — WHIP is Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched (a staple of fantasy baseball for years, but Dick-n-Bert treat it on Twins broadcasts as if it were a completely novel concept); FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to remove the quality of the defense behind the pitcher from the stats; and BABIP is Batting Average on Balls in Play, which is normally stable from pitcher to pitcher. A markedly low BABIP is regarded by statheads as a sign of abnormal luck.

From the New York Times article on Zack Greinke's Cy Young win:

(Teammate Brian) Bannister introduced Greinke to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, the statistic Greinke named Tuesday as his favorite. It is a formula that measures how well a pitcher performed, regardless of his fielders. According to, Greinke had the best FIP in the majors. “That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Greinke said.

This strikes me as putting the cart before the horse. Throw strikes and keep the ball in the park, and your stats — whether they be traditional ones, such as ERA and strikeouts, or the sabermetric darlings, such as FIP and BABIP — will take care of themselves. All those numbers have the same purpose— to measure effectiveness. They're just doing it in different ways.

Bannister is a smart cookie. He understood why the stats suggested that his 3.87 ERA in 2007 overstated his effectiveness – and he didn't take it as a personal attack. It remains to be seen if his understanding of how the stats predict future struggles can help him avoid those problems; so far, the evidence is that they don't.

Greinke (and Lincecum), on the other hand, are both smart and talented. They would be the best pitchers in their leagues if nobody had ever heard of BABIP.

They just might not be recognized as such.


Greinke won his award with 16 wins; Lincecum with 15. These are historically low numbers for Cy Young winners.

Bill James has been hammering for decades at this theme: The Won-Loss stat in a given season is overrated. His analysis, repeated and echoed over the years, appears to have taken root.

I suspect that the tipping point may have been the 2005 AL Cy Young vote.

Bartolo Colon of Anaheim had a 21-8 record, but his ERA was 3.48 and he had just 157 strikeouts in 222 innings.

Johan Santana of the Twins was just 16-7 — with a 2.81 ERA and 238 Ks in 233 innings.

Colon won the Cy Young. Santana was third (behind Mariano Rivera) — and all through 2006, there was an obvious sense among baseball writers that they blew that vote. Yes, Colon had more wins, but Santana was better, and they knew it.

This year, there were obvious alternatives to Lincecum and Greinke. NL voters could have gone for Adam Wainwright (19-8, 2.63 in 233 innings) or his St. Louis teammate, Chris Carpenter (17-4, 2.24 in 192 innings).

With the 2005 mindset, Wainwright would have won.

In the AL, alternatives would have been Felix Hernandez (19-5, 2.49), or even Justin Verlander (19-9, 3.45) or CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37).

Again, the 2005 mindset, valuing victories over all else, would have gone for King Felix. Which would certainly have been a better choice than Colon was in 2005.

But Greinke was better. The right guys won.

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