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Finally given a chance to vote, statheads choose to rock the boat

Nov 19, 2009, 4:29 PM EDT

javier vazquez.jpgAs indecisive as the voters were on who was the NL’s best pitcher in 2009, there was an incredible consensus on the top three, with Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright claiming 94 of the 96 available ballot spots.
Not surprisingly, the two voters who were against the grain weren’t from the usual pool of newspaper writers. ESPN.com’s Keith Law, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and Blue Jays assistant GM, placed Javier Vazquez second on his ballot, while Will Carroll, of Baseball Prospectus, opted to go with Dan Haren third.
While I’m typically on the stathead side of these matters, I thought the conventional wisdom was correct in this case: the voting should have come down to the big three. Haren and Vazquez both had excellent seasons, but the numbers weren’t compelling enough to elevate them over the league’s ERA leaders.
In particular, I take issue with Law’s choice to place Vazquez between Lincecum and Wainwright on his ballot.
The conventional numbers clearly favor Wainwright:
Wainwright – 19-8, 2.63 ERA in 233 IP
Vazquez – 15-10, 2.87 ERA in 219 1/3 IP
Law says Vazquez should get some credit for pitching in the tougher division. However, Wainwright had the higher opponent OPS for the season, 733 to 731.
Law’s main argument, though, heavily weighs in the FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) stat to say Vazquez was the better pitcher. And there is a case to be made, as the Cardinals clearly had a superior defense to Atlanta. FIP has Lincecum at a league-best 2.34, Vazquez at 2.80 and Wainwright at 3.11.
But that’s placing a lot of weight in a stat that doesn’t translate into wins and losses. In theory, Vazquez was the better pitcher of the two. In real world results, Wainwright had an obvious edge.
The Cardinals and Braves had some remarkably similar numbers this year. The Cardinals finished the year with a 747 team OPS and a 3.66 team ERA. The Braves had a 744 OPS and a 3.57 ERA. Looking at those numbers, you’d suspect the team had remarkably similar win totals. However, the Cardinals finished 91-71 and the Braves 86-76.
Now get a load of this: the Cardinals were 68-60 when Wainwright didn’t pitch. The Braves were 68-62 when Vazquez didn’t pitch. So, the Cards were 23-11 in Wainwright’s starts, while the Braves were 18-14 when Vazquez pitched. That’s the real world for you.

  1. Bill@TDS - Nov 19, 2009 at 4:44 PM

    But if the edge in Wainwright’s “real world results” comes from having a better defense and/or luck, Vazquez was probably still the better pitcher, right?
    I didn’t have a problem with that pick at all. Liked it, in fact. Haren’s a bit harder to figure out, but still defensible.

  2. Peter - Nov 19, 2009 at 4:45 PM

    Way to encourage ignorance.

  3. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 4:50 PM

    Maybe he is. But if the conventional stats and the end results say Wainwright is the better pitcher, than maybe he is.
    Personally, I like FIP a lot better for forecasting than as an evaluator. The way I see it, it’s telling you how good they should have been in theory, not really how good they were.

  4. CA - Nov 19, 2009 at 5:31 PM

    it’s telling you how good they should have been in theory, not really how good they were.
    Actually, FIP is based on real-world strikeout rates, walk rates, and home run rates. In other words, it’s a measure of “raw” pitching ability that actually happened, not just “in theory”.
    if the conventional stats and the end results say Wainwright is the better pitcher, than maybe he is.
    Shouldn’t determining who the best pitcher is/was give more weight to things the pitcher can actually control? The conventional stats don’t do that, and neither does club record.

  5. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    Strikeouts, walks and homers typically make up one-third of a pitcher’s results. I don’t think it’s right to pretend that the other two-thirds are equal for every pitcher.
    In theory, they should be equal. But over the course of a season, they rarely are.

  6. Moshe Mandel - Nov 19, 2009 at 5:43 PM

    What about the “real world” stats of strikeouts, walks, and the triple slash stats BAA/OBPA/SLGA? Because Vazquez was better than Wainwright in all of those numbers and they were very close in ERA. Vazquez allowed fewer hits, fewer walks, struck out more batters. You don’t need FIP to make a case for Vazquez.

  7. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 5:53 PM

    And yet Wainwright got 41 more outs than Vazquez while giving up the exact same number of runs.
    The weaker WHIP and everything else is good reason to be skeptical of Wainwright going forward. But what I care about when it comes to Cy Young is that he kept runs off the board, not how he did it.

  8. Bill@TDS - Nov 19, 2009 at 5:56 PM

    But what I care about when it comes to Cy Young is that he kept runs off the board, not how he did it.
    Unless “how he did it” was purely by having the better defense and/or luck, because then you’re not rewarding him for his pitching at all. It becomes no different than picking the Cy Young winner based on wins; rather than rewarding the guy who happens to play with the teammates who score the most runs for him, you’re rewarding the guy who happens to play with the teammates who turn the most potential hits into outs.

  9. Moshe Mandel - Nov 19, 2009 at 6:13 PM

    So all you care about is ERA. Why haven’t you mentioned Jair Jurjjens? The fact is, the ERA’s are very similar, and Vazquez wins pretty much every other major category. I can see disagreeing, and I actually would have voted Vazquez 4th, but an entire article ripping a choice that chose to look at more aspects of pitching than ERA seems out of place to me.

  10. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 6:14 PM

    How far do you want to go with it, though? How much can you weigh defense when it’s still a) extremely difficult to measure and b) full of an incredible number of variables.
    Place Wainwright and Vazquez on the same team and maybe Vazquez does have the better season. But probably not if it’s a team with a stronger infield defense than an outfield defense. Also, probably not if it’s a club in a small ballpark.
    But, then again, you place both pitchers on the 2009 Mariners and I doubt anyone would be having this discussion. Vazquez’s stats would have far outstriped Wainwright’s. Hell, Jarrod Washburn managed to match Felix Hernandez for four months with that outfield defense behind him.
    Should Washburn have been considered a Cy Young contender had he kept that going for six months and there was no Greinke in the league? I think so. Obviously, Hernandez would have blown him out of the water in a neutral situation. But Washburn, FIP be damned, was still getting all of those outs and helping his team win games.

  11. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 6:17 PM

    I think RA, properly adjusted for ballpark, and innings pitched are the two most important numbers to consider.

  12. StevenEll - Nov 19, 2009 at 6:42 PM

    I’m sorry Mathew, but I think you’re digging yourself in a hole. By saying that Jarrod Washburn would have been a choice for cy young. Value is how much production you get compared to the next guy. If Livan Hernandez can do your job as well as you, then you aren’t valuable at all. A pitcher should be valued on what he does, not what the other 8 guys do. If you pitch behind better defense, yes you will be getting more outs, but is it really you getting those outs? I don’t understand how you can say that. The defense, along with you, are getting those outs. Again, if an average pitcher comes to play for St. Louis, and he automatically has a below average ERA, does that mean he’s now a more valuable pitcher? Absolutely not, because you can find another league average guy to come in and do the same job.
    Another way to look at it is dollars. When deciding how much to pay a player, they will obviously give a plus defender more money than an average defender, all else being equal. If they payed the pitcher extra for the extra outs that the fielder made, then they’d be paying twice for the same outs. It doesn’t make any sense.
    As far as the wins by the team at the bottom, those don’t really mean anything either. For example what if Livan Hernandez had taken Vasquez’s starts? How many wins would the team have then? They might have won 4 games for all we know. Posting numbers like that without context is useless.
    Bottom line – Vasquez’s value over an average pitcher (or replacement pitcher, whichever you prefer) was more than Wainwright’s. He was better at the things he can controll. The only knock against him is that he doesn’t catch enough fly balls, or drive in enough runs to even the playing field.

  13. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 7:03 PM

    There’s plenty of context there. As illustrated, the Cardinals and Braves were remarkably similar teams. And the Cardinals were far better when Wainwright pitched than the Braves were when Vazquez pitched, better than one would expect given raw run support numbers.
    I can’t see penalizing someone for taking advantage of his defense. A pitcher’s job is to get outs, and Wainwright did that better than Vazquez did. He had more help in the process, but it’s not like we’re talking by some extreme amount. The Cardinals were a good defensive team, not a great one.
    For what it’s worth, Wainwright had a .290 BABIP, compared to .277 for Vazquez. One would expect Wainwright to be higher than Vazquez, given each’s FB/GB ratio, but it’s worth nothing.

  14. Peter - Nov 19, 2009 at 7:22 PM

    “I think RA, properly adjusted for ballpark, and innings pitched are the two most important numbers to consider.”
    So, by your standard, you’d give a guy who pitches a ton of innings, walks a ton of guys, gives up a ton of hits, and gets an absurdly lucky LOB% over a guy who legitimately performed better? We all make mistakes, and writing this article was one of them for you. It’s certainly forgivable but you need to admit you’re wrong. Well, I don’t really care if you do or not, but you are wrong, so you should.

  15. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 7:36 PM

    Sure, I would. I don’t care about a pitcher’s WHIP or his opposing AVG/OBP/SLG when judging his past performance.
    If Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2008 had been spread over 230 innings, rather than 170, he could have been a legitimate Cy Young contender, no matter how much better the WHIPs of Lee and Halladay were.
    At some point, that LOB% probably isn’t luck. It’s good for explaining some early season flukes, but some pitchers truly do work differently when dealing with threats.

  16. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 7:50 PM

    And don’t get me wrong: I totally see where everyone else is coming from on this. But I’m very leary of any attempt to completely remove defense from the equation.
    If FIP really told you everything, then pitchers on the same team should have their FIPs and ERAs differ by relatively similar amounts. But it doesn’t work out that way.
    There’s a huge amount of luck or distortion or anything else you want to call it in these numbers.

  17. James - Nov 19, 2009 at 11:06 PM

    And that huge amount of luck is generally REDUCED by FIP. ERA exacerbates the luck. It’s really not that hard to figure out, it kind of seems like you’re being willingly obtuse.

  18. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 11:24 PM

    Of course there’s more “luck” in ERA. But ERA measures actual runs. FIP measures theoretical runs.

  19. Matthew Pouliot - Nov 19, 2009 at 11:33 PM

    And just to go back to Vazquez vs. Wainwright…
    Vazquez always has a better FIP than an ERA. His career FIP is 3.83, while his ERA is 4.19. Wainwright has a career 3.17 ERA and a 3.54 FIP.
    This isn’t news. Vazquez has never been as good as his strikeout, walk and homer rates suggest.

  20. Rick2009 - Nov 20, 2009 at 2:45 PM

    Interesting. You seem to be making the argument for your new favorite stat; FIP; but I don’t see a case for that here. These three top pitchers were very close in traditionaly used stats and that’s how the voting ended up. Perhaps the only change happening here is that the voters are not relying as much on games won as they have in the past. And that is a good thing. By the way; there was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie made about 1964 that used a similar or exactly the same letters; FIP; to describe a made up product. Can’t remember the name at the moment.

  21. backlinks - Feb 8, 2010 at 1:13 AM

    Very interesting read. Thanks.

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