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Monday, September 24, 2012

Picking the National League's Top Starting Pitcher Cy Young Candidate


With the regular season winding down there are few playoff spots or post season awards that have been definitively decided. One of the most interesting sprints to the finish is that of the National League Cy Young Award. There are two relievers very much in the hunt for the award, but the top starting pitcher candidates are not as easy to sort out. News that Clayton Kershaw may miss the final few weeks means that the starting pitcher candidates are likely down to three; Gio Gonzalez (Washington Nationals), R.A. Dickey (New York Mets), and Johnny Cueto (Cincinnati Reds). Closely examining the body of work for each shows who is best NL starting pitcher Cy Young hopeful.

Stat
Cueto
Dickey
Gonzalez
Wins
18
19
20*
ERA
2.84
2.67*
2.84
Innings Pitched
203
212*
193.1
Strikeouts
159
205
201
WHIP
1.19
1.04
1.12
ERA+
149*
141
136
Runs Allowed/9 Innings (includes earned runs)
3.01
2.97
3.07
Park Factor
104.7
94.3
101.8
Wins Above Average
4.1
3.4
3.2
WAR
5.5
4.9
4.6
Runs Better Than Avg.
35
30
28
Win/Loss % with Avg. Team
.633
.611
.605
 *Leads League

Cy Young voters traditionally looked at wins, ERA, and strikeout totals as primary statistics when evaluating candidates, but when Felix Hernandez won the AL Award in 2010 with a “measly” 13-12 record, it marked a changing tide to more advanced metrics in determining the most deserving winner. This evolution is a good thing because the three primary starting pitching candidates in this year’s NL category are grouped closely together with the traditional measurements, and the best of the bunch can only be picked by digging deeper into their numbers.

I personally believe that Kershaw belongs in the conversation because he compares to the others in all categories except wins. However, no matter how much advanced statistics are being used as measuring tools in award races, I expect voters won’t be willing to look past Kershaw’s 12 wins and the expectation that he will miss the final three-plus weeks of the pennant race with an injured hip. For the purpose of ranking only who I think will be viewed as the three best starting pitcher candidates, Kershaw will be left out of my rankings, though it is entirely possible that he may place above one or more of these pitchers in the final official Cy Young vote.

It is important to look at the environments the pitchers threw in this season. Park Factor is a statistic that shows through averaging offensive output whether or not a ballpark is friendlier to hitters or pitchers. 100 is average and anything less than that would be more pitcher-friendly, and anything over 100 skews towards hitters. Dickey’s average starts occurred in more pitcher-friendly parks (with his home park of Citi Field in New York being one of the best), while Cueto and Gonzalez have Park Factors that are more favorable to hitters. Taking Park Factor into consideration gives Cueto’s numbers a slight nudge due to degree of difficulty, even though he has the highest WHIP of the bunch.

Methods to measure how much better than a player is than the average also tilt strongly in Cueto’s favor. His 35 Runs Better Than Average (Runs above an average player) are significantly better than Dickey (30) and Gonzalez (28). Wins Above Average (WAA) and WAR; two ways to show how much better or worse than a player is than average, also place Cueto in the top spot by a comfortable margin.

Another interesting metric to look at is Win/Loss Percentage with Average Team. This is an advanced formula that predicts what a pitcher’s winning percentage would be if they were on a team composed of otherwise average players. While all three candidates do well under this simulation, it is again Cueto who bests the field.

External factors that are picked up by the media and fans also tend to impact how effective a starter is seen. Cueto and Gonzalez will inevitably get a bump in recognition because they pitch for playoff teams, even though the Cy Young is about who has been the best pitcher, not who was the most valuable pitcher on a winning team. Dickey will garner him support for other reasons. The 37 year-old knuckleballer erupted on to the national scene this year with not only an amazing season that was 15 years in the making, but one that gives him an outside shot of winning the pitching triple-crown (wins, ERA, and strikeouts).

Although all three have a start or two remaining, I believe Johnny Cueto has been the best starting pitcher in the National League and has a good chance to win his first Cy Young Award. He has excellent traditional stats, but in digging deeper into more advanced numbers he really separates himself from the pack. I have Gonzalez and Dickey in a near dead heat, but give a slight advantage to the Nats’ lefty for the second spot (though they could flip-flop by the time game 162 has been played). Regardless of how their stats are interpreted by the voters or if a reliever ultimately takes home the hardware, one thing is for sure; there has been some terrific pitching in the National League this year, and whoever wins will have truly earned the honor.

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