They all play for contenders. They're all leviathans. They all want the same award. Only one can have it.
And so now comes the fight to the death – or at least a little manly competition for the American League Cy Young Award. Justin Verlander pitches Thursday for the Detroit Tigers. CC Sabathia goes Friday for the New York Yankees. Jered Weaver throws Saturday for the Los Angeles Angels. They're in one of the most hotly contested award races in years, a three-man sprint embodied by across-the-board excellence and perhaps decided by regional familiarity. Sabathia hails from the East, Verlander the Central and Weaver the West, every division with a voting bloc that tends to skew toward what it knows best.
This is an effort to wipe clean any prejudice or favoritism and use objective measures to handicap the race thus far – and predict where it may go. I've come up with 15 categories, everything from rudimentary measures to advanced metrics to numbers that peer inside the game and try to combine statistical and common sense.
Without further ado …
(All stats through Wednesday, Aug. 10)
Analysis: After Felix Hernandez(notes) won the award last year with a 13-12 record, it became obvious that wins and losses no longer are the biggest Cy Young arbiter. It may be ERA, a statistic with faults, yes – mostly in that it's defense-dependent – but one that, taken in concert with more advanced metrics, is a good jumping-off point. And right now, the best in the AL is not even close.
Analysis: Here are two of those advanced metrics. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It evolved from Voros McCracken's theory that recording outs on balls put in play is more a function of luck than skill. Thus, the only things pitchers can control are strikeouts, walks and home runs. FIP takes those three statistics and calculates a number that sabermetricians say is a more accurate accounting of what a pitcher is capable of doing and should do than what he has done.
SIERA – Skill-Interactive ERA – was developed by the guys from "Revenge of the Nerds." Kidding. It's like FIP on steroids, giving added weight to strikeout pitchers, favoring groundball artists over flyball specialists and adjusting the raw numbers depending on the player's home stadium.
Verlander's FIP suffers from an elevated home run rate (compared to the others) while SIERA penalizes Sabathia and Weaver for their relative luck in longballs. Since the results are so close, and because these metrics are as much predictive as they are rewarding of performance thus far, it's unfair to give a full vote to one of the three, even if Verlander's numbers are the better by a hair.
Analysis: Record still matters, and all of theirs are good. Each has an ample number of opportunities to reach the magic number of 20, which could well serve as a tiebreaker for voters who choose not to plumb the depths of advanced statistics.
Winner: Whoever gets to 20
Analysis: Strikeouts remain paramount to every pitcher, especially starters who can pile them up and compound it with high innings totals. Sabathia's rate is the third highest of his career. Weaver's is back to his career average after an outstanding 2010 when it sat at 9.35 per 9. Neither can match Verlander, whose strikeouts match his overwhelming stuff.
Analysis: Fewer groundballs go for extra-base hits. Hence, groundballs are more desirable than fly balls. Sabathia is the closest thing to a groundball pitcher among the three, with his changeup and slider in particular leading to double-digit grounders most starts.
Analysis: The most underrated reason Weaver is leading the league in ERA by such a large margin. His strand rate is second to Josh Beckett's(notes) (and third and fourth are Ryan Vogelsong(notes) and Jair Jurrjens(notes), two pitchers outperforming their FIPs by more than a run). This number begs for a regression back to Sabathia and Verlander's levels, but it's unfair to penalize him for something that has happened and contributed so heavily to his success this season.
Analysis: BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is another child of McCracken's theory. The league-average BABIP is usually around .300. The biggest criticism of McCracken was that some pitchers do have the ability to induce weak contact and likely lessen their BABIP. It might be true, but coming into this season Verlander's full-season BABIPs went like this: .294, .279, .296, .319, .286. Which is to say: As good as he is, it doesn't hurt to have luck sometimes, too.
Analysis: Forget Sabathia and focus on the other two lines. Damn. It's tough. Hitters with runners in scoring position have dropped extra-base hits off Verlander … but they can't get on base much more than 27 percent of the time. Weaver limits almost all of them to singles … but he's allowing nearly 31 percent to reach base, a significant difference.
Threw this one out there on Twitter to see the responses, and it was split almost down the middle. I'm still torn. But knowing that singles don't always score runners from second but extra-base hits do, in this case I'll take the pitcher who limits those big bashes, even if it means a spare baserunner or two.
3 (1 shutout)
4 (2 shutouts)
4 (2 shutouts)
Analysis: Degree of difficulty goes to Verlander. He and Weaver each threw a complete game against Texas. Verlander's other was against Colorado, while Weaver's was against woebegone Seattle. His shutouts came against two brutal offenses, Seattle and Oakland, and Verlander blanked Toronto and Cleveland.
182 2/3 (7.31 per start)
188 (7.52 per start)
176 2/3 (7.36 per start)
Analysis: More than 7½ innings per start is a staggering number reserved for the elite of the elite. Roy Halladay(notes) did it last season. Few others even come close. If Verlander can keep it up, it's one of those small feathers in his cap that could help decide a tight vote.
|Vs. elite AL teams|
Analysis: I defined the elite AL teams as Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Tampa Bay and Texas. Though this is the category that may well torpedo Sabathia's candidacy because of his ERA, don't overlook his FIP. The lack of home runs significantly deflates it, but it's worth considering in concert with starting 50 percent more games against these teams than the other two. Fair or not, the runs did cross the plate against Sabathia, and with Weaver and Verlander's numbers essentially the same, they can share this one.
Winner: Verlander and Weaver
Analysis: Some of the more sabermetrically inclined voters will use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as their guiding light. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, the two leading outposts for baseball statistics, each calculate their own version of WAR. FanGraphs bases its on FIP and innings pitched, and ranks them Sabathia-Verlander-Weaver. Baseball-Reference uses a different formula and comes to a backward conclusion: Weaver-Verlander-Sabathia – and, actually, Sabathia ranks fourth in the AL, aside from Beckett.
If I start arguing FanGraphs WAR vs. Baseball-Reference WAR, I might as well start playing Dungeons and Dragons. We'll just play this one safe.
Analysis: This is based on pitching every fifth game the rest of the season, which, of course, is subject to change depending on pennant races, when a team clinches and any other number of factors.
Should this hold, Weaver catches the Yankees and Texas twice. Sabathia goes to Toronto and plays Boston twice. The best offense Verlander faces is … Kansas City. Really. Minnesota is 13th in the AL in OPS, Oakland 12th, the White Sox 10th, Cleveland ninth, Tampa Bay eighth, Baltimore seventh and the Royals sixth.
|Game after a team loss|
Analysis: It is here, I think, where Justin Verlander is going to win the Cy Young. All three pitchers have been stupendous following their team losing, though Verlander has found himself in that position during more than two-thirds of his starts.
In this case, FIP stands for Forget It, Please. Because the most important number for Verlander is 133, his innings total in 17 starts following a Tigers loss – 7.82 innings per. Verlander averages nearly eight innings a start after a defeat, plenty of which necessitated wearing out Detroit's bullpen and made Verlander's lengthy outings even more imperative.
Over his 12 victories, Verlander stopped three losing streaks and prevented nine others. In the five games the Tigers did lose – three on his record, two no-decisions – Verlander's ERA was 2.95.
This is just one number. If Sabathia or Weaver's No. 5 starter was as bad as Verlander's, perhaps they'd have those sorts of numbers as well. But they don't. And it's why if a voter needs a tiebreaker, this may well be it.
|Means to team|
Analysis: Each is worthy. That's the reason we're doing this exercise. Without Sabathia, the Yankees aren't a playoff team, which is why they're going to pay him silly money for a pitcher in his 30s when he opts out of his contract this offseason. Without Weaver, the Angels aren't a playoff team. Hell, they may not be with him. But he has stabilized that rotation and stands a little more than one year away from a free-agency jackpot.
Without Verlander, the Tigers aren't a playoff team, not even close. He deserves MVP votes. All three of them do. But Verlander has been better this season, winning seven categories to Weaver's four and Sabathia's one.
It's his Cy Young to lose.
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