Chris Sale and a Different Way to Look at the AL Cy Young Race
(Title photo courtesy of Keith Allison, https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/)
Awards voting is always a popular topic in September, as the teams out of contention pile up and the postseason nears. Baseball is a sport that lends itself to debates and when given formal opportunities to do so (Hall of Fame voting, comparing players of different eras, which records are unbreakable, seasonal awards, anything to do with scouting and prospects, etc.), fans and media alike tend to make the most of it.
The 2015 AL Cy Young race is viewed by many as a close race that could end up going down to the final starts of the contenders. The contenders are, in order of likely finish should the voting be held today, David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez. The race for first is really seen as a pure duel between Price and Keuchel. This is due to their advantages in ERA, innings, wins, WAR and other numbers.
Sabermetrics-citing writers often use RA9- and FIP-based WAR measurements in making Cy Young arguments. Their preference for who receives the award comes down to which pitcher has provided the most value to their team in terms of one or multiple definitions of value. Price and Keuchel lead the American League in both RA9- and FIP-based WAR. The sabermetric value stats align with the traditional views (ERA, wins, playing on a playoff-bound squad) and so most people don’t take issue with Price or Keuchel winning the award.
I won’t take issue either with one of them winning Cy Young and I believe that both are deserving, but I tend to take a different approach to the Cy Young Award. It’s not necessarily the Most Valuable Award for pitchers. It is instead awarded to the league’s “best pitcher.” The MVP can be a pitcher, so the Cy Young isn’t necessarily its pitching equivalent and it isn’t defined as such. The Cy Young is a separate award that the league’s best pitcher is bestowed. What defines “best” though? Hasn’t the pitcher who accumulates the most value proved he was the best pitcher? Not necessarily. Producing a superior amount of value and demonstrating a superior skill level are two concepts that are intimately related but not congruent.
Production is a product of both the player’s skill level and various forms of randomness that are out of his control. A pitcher can demonstrate a great level of skill during a season but be left with a non-elite ERA and win total due to factors that he may have little control over. The best statistics are ones that stabilize quickly and accurately estimate a skill that is proven to be indicative of future success. Defense-independent statistics such as xFIP and SIERA are made up of peripherals that stabilize fairly quickly and allow their composites to predict future ERA better than actual past ERA does. They predict future ERA better because they are measuring skills that are highly relevant to a pitcher’s true run prevention talent. A pitcher who posts peripherals that indicate his future ERA will be around 3.00 but who posts an actual ERA of 4.00 is a better pitcher than his teammate who posts peripherals that represent a 4.00 ERA but who has posted a 3.00 ERA. He is a better pitcher and pitched as if he was a better pitcher. This is a hypothetical example and assumes that the peripherals used are of high quality, but it contains my point.
If the Cy Young Award is to go to the “best” pitcher, that would be the pitcher who, if only 2015 data is considered, is the pitcher who teams would have most wanted pitching for their team in that season. Which team would the average team have benefited most from having: Keuchel, Price or Sale? The answer should be Chris Sale. Through leading American League starters in xFIP- and SIERA and posting amazing pitch-level statistics that show that his leading DIPS stats are not aberrational, Sale is having the superior season.
DIPS are not everything — there are real effects that lead to pitchers over- or under-performing it (managing baserunners, infield fly generation, etc.), but I do not believe that Sale’s worse ERA is a reflection of real run prevention talent differences. Sale is not a pitcher that tends to pitch worse with runners on base or with an elevated BABIP; his career ERA and DIPS paint a very similar story. Price and Keuchel are probably not DIPS-beaters who I am underrating by considering their strikeout, walk and ground ball rates so heavily.
This viewpoint does not say that only ratios matter and that a pitcher who throws more innings should not be appreciated. He should be, in the sense that he has more opportunity to demonstrate that he is a better pitcher than his competitors. It is possible that, given one pitcher who throws 175 innings of 2.80 ERA skill (consider this to be in the form of a hypothetical stat that estimates run prevention talent well) and another who throws 210 innings of 3.05 ERA skill, we may believe that the 3.05 ERA skill pitcher is better on a per-inning basis. In those extra innings, he has contributed additional evidence that he is a very good pitcher.
Chris Sale is my AL Cy Young because I believe that he has been the league’s best pitcher this season.