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"The stats geeks win" and other bits of Cy Young idiocy from ESPN's Rob Parker

Sep 24, 2010, 8:24 AM EDT

At no point in your rambling, incoherent column were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

I’m sure some of you are tired of our seeming fixation on the commentary surrounding the AL Cy Young race, but when you see something as aggressively stupid and as hostile to rationality as the column ESPN New York’s Rob Parker posted in the wee hours this morning, you’ll understand why we go on like we do.

Indeed, the piece is so bad that I have no choice but to fisk the sucker. And it starts out with a bang:

The stats geeks will win.

Yay! Wins! That’s the most important thing, right? If we win, we’re better!  Parker proves that himself beyond the shadow of a doubt and with geometric logic! In your face, dude!

Matched up against Rays ace left-hander David Price,
Sabathia could have made it nearly impossible for the guys who value
stats over wins to deny him the league’s best pitcher award. Sabathia, however, picked the wrong time to be flat-out awful.

Last I checked, “wins” were a stat. One definition of the word “geek” is a person with a strong, near-fetishlike fandom of some narrow thing or another.  Parker obsesses on wins more than anyone at GenCon obsesses over Magic: The Gathering. How does that make him less of a stat geek than someone who looks at multiple metrics to analyze a pitcher’s value?

Over the past few weeks, some potential voters have been making a
statistical case for King Felix, who leads the AL with a stingy 2.31
ERA. He also has the most innings pitched and the most strikeouts. He
hasn’t won more often because his team has a woeful offense, one of the
worst in a long time. Still, Sabathia, who entered the game as the
AL’s only 20-game winner, had to be the favorite. Those other stats are
fine, but they should never be more important than winning.

See, if you simply say “wins are teh awsum!” I can at least forgive you because, hey, maybe you’re just ignorant and you don’t know any better. But if you actually acknowledge that win totals are at least in part a function of the run support a guy gets — and if you acknowledge innings pitched and strikeouts — yet you still make wins the determining factor in your analysis, it shows that you are simply unable to comprehend the game of baseball. Not just stats, mind you. It shows that you really do not understand what is going on on a baseball diamond. It’s the equivalent of watching Payton Manning go 40-44 with 500 yards passing, 6 touchdowns and no picks and then saying he sucks because the Colts lost the game 53-50 in overtime.

It would be one thing if Sabathia had 20 wins and a 5-plus ERA. By any
standards, that’s not a good ERA, and it would signal to you that that
he’s won games despite mediocre pitching. But that’s not the case.

No, it’s not. He’s pitched just fine, in fact. But the Cy Young isn’t about whether someone has merely pitched well or if he has avoided mediocrity. It’s about whether he has pitched better than every other pitcher in his league. To judge CC Sabathia’s actual performance against some hypothetical CC Sabathia performance is to totally miss the point. And why the hypothetical Sabathia’s ERA is more relevant to Parker than Felix Hernandez’s actual ERA is beyond me.

Plus, Sabathia is pitching in the toughest division in baseball with the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. 

Dan Levy pointed out this morning that the Yankees’ AL East opponents have an average of 78.25 wins while Seattle’s AL West opponents have an average of 78.7 wins.  Hernandez didn’t get to face the dreadful first-half Orioles. Sabathia never had to face the Yankees. There are many ways to slice this argument, but there’s no way to slice it that shows Sabathia facing significantly tougher competition than Hernandez over the course of the season.

He’s also on the biggest stage in the game.

Note: Henceforth every Yankees player automatically gets a three-length “big stage” head start in postseason awards voting.

And let’s not forget that
Sabathia has pitched in games that matter.

I would like for a writer to once — just once — ask a player from a losing team how he feels about playing in games “that don’t matter.”

And for all those geeks who believe Sabathia’s success is based on run
support by the mighty Yankees’ lineup, they couldn’t be more wrong. If
that were the case, A.J. Burnett would have 20 wins, too. But he hasn’t pitched well enough to win.

There is no American League starter with at least 140 innings pitched who has had worse run support than Felix Hernandez. There is no American League pitcher with at least 140 innings pitched who has had better run support than CC Sabathia. The difference is over three and a half runs per game. We can quibble about what it would take to get A.J. Burnett 20 wins (Radioactive spider bite? Tainted cold cuts in the opposing team’s pregame spread each time he starts?) but if Parker cannot grasp that the difference in run support accounts for Sabathia’s advantage in the one stat in which he bests Hernandez — wins — he’s either dangerously stupid or sickeningly dishonest.

If Sabathia, indeed, lost the Cy Young on this night, Price should
become the front runner. He has 18 victories, and he won the big game in
a big spot on the biggest stage. That’s what Cy Young winners do.

If wins are truly the measure of a pitcher, why doesn’t Parker acknowledge that Sabathia still has more wins than Price? Doesn’t that matter? Is this one game — last night’s game — more important to the Cy Young race than the 30+ starts each man had before it? I mean, applying a preposterous, willfully ignorant standard for the Cy Young Award is bad enough as it is. Applying that preposterous, willfully ignorant standard unevenly just compounds matters.

But despite all of the stuff above, my biggest beef with Parker’s piece is not its logical flaws. I don’t care if he’d vote for Sabathia if given the chance. I know Sabathia and Price will get votes, and that’s fine. People have different standards with this stuff, and everyone who is given a vote is entitled to vote the way they choose as long as they follow the rules set down by the BBWAA.  And even though it seems like it at times, I’m certainly not going to rip apart every writer with whom I disagree when it comes to awards voting.

No, what has me so angry with Parker’s piece is that he does the two things which sabermetically-oriented writers are constantly criticized for doing: (a) fixating on a single metric — here wins instead of WAR or VORP or whatever — and letting it almost totally dictate his choice; and (b) insulting those with whom he disagrees.

The premise of the piece — that Sabathia won’t win the Cy Young Award because of last night’s game — is a perfectly defensible one. I agree, it almost certainly cost him votes. The premise could have been supported, however, without the ill-informed and mean-spirited swipes at writers who look beyond wins in their assessments. Indeed, it could have been supported without reference to Felix Hernandez at all.  If Parker truly thinks it came down to Sabathia and Price, great, write a column about how Price bested Sabathia. It would have drawn no ire from me.

But he didn’t do that. He decided to go after people. I and many others have been taken to task by mainstream writers for such an approach countless times over the years. Will anyone besides the sabermetrics guys hit Parker for doing the same thing?

I’m not holding my breath.

  1. Kevin R - Sep 24, 2010 at 10:21 AM

    “Parker obsesses on wins more than anyone at GenCon obsesses over Magic: The Gathering.”
    Excellent analogy, though as a Columbus-ite I would have thought you’d go with Origins over GenCon.

  2. Craig Calcaterra - Sep 24, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    Good point. I have a good friend who comes into town every year for that (though I don’t go myself), so I should have used it.

  3. heiniemanush - Sep 24, 2010 at 10:38 AM

    Parker was hired and fired at the Detroit News because he liked to stir up controversy. He is a lousy writer and a knucklehead. I’m surprised to see he still has a job, somewhere.

  4. tbliggins - Sep 24, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    Craig – do yourself a favor before you get all worked up like this again. Check to see if the writer ever worked for a Detroit newspaper first. If so, then just ignore it. They have churned out some deplorable writers in the past decade – Parker, Drew Sharp, Terry Foster, Mitch Albom, Michael Rosenberg, et al. If you read anything by them expect ignorance and you won’t be disappointed.

  5. Mr. Heyward - Sep 24, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    Man, am I so happy you cited Magic: The Gathering. I was waiting months to reference a Vesuvan Doppleganger or a Craw Wurm or a Polar Kraken or a Lightning Bolt or a Pestilence. Aw man, I’m so excited I can’t even think of how to reference these awesome cards. All I know is that I wish I was a Gaea’s Liege so I could tap myself and turn Rob Parker into a forest. Haha, he wouldn’t even no what to do as a green mana. Why don’t women want to hang out with me? I’m so damn cool.

  6. Jonny5 - Sep 24, 2010 at 11:13 AM

    This is the guy who called two college kids not to make it anywhere in the NBA because they were white right?? The names of the kids still escape me. Wiki time… Wow, this dude is a serious piece of work…. Mr. “Hank Aaron is a coward for not attending games where Bonds would break his record….” Oh the kids were, Kevin Love And Tyler Hansbrough. White kids have no place in the game I guess… He was wrong though because Kevin is doing great. Tyler, not so great.

  7. The Steve Jeltz Experiment - Sep 24, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    Great post, but what I really appreciate are the subtle things. For example, Craig references a radioactive spider bite in his throwaway joke about A.J. Burnett, while dissecting a column by a guy named Parker. The comic geek within the baseball stat geek gets to take part in this as well.
    Yeah, he probably didn’t intend it, but it’s just further proof of his brilliance.

  8. RickB - Sep 24, 2010 at 11:55 AM

    Maybe someday we can have a
    G A L L I M A U F R Y
    in Hardball Talk.

  9. Old Gator - Sep 24, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    Craig, thanks for the warning. I’m just too close to resolving unified field theory once and for all to be sidetracked by reading some dumb sports column.

  10. williemayshaze - Sep 24, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    Amen brotha.

  11. doctorfunke - Sep 24, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    In regards to asking players about being on a losing team; on the Twins broadcast the other day, Robbie Incmikoski from FS North asked Capps what it was like to now pitch in games that matter and Capps didn’t seem to like it too much. He said something like “any game that I am in is a game that matters because it’s my job to get the save.” Seems these professionals take their jobs seriously after all.

  12. Chicago Doug - Sep 24, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    Here’s a good math problem for you “geeks”:
    What would King Felix’s record look like if he had the Yankees run support? Or even league average run support?
    Conversely, what would Sabathia’s record look like if he had the Mariners’ run support? Or again, league average run support?
    I would do the math myself – but it’s past noon on a Friday and I am already dreaming of Happy Hour.

  13. IdahoMariner - Sep 24, 2010 at 2:17 PM

    Felix was brilliant against the Yankees each time he faced them this year.
    also, consider that CC never has the pressure of being required to pitch a shutout every time he goes out in order for his team to win (or for him to get a win). Felix, every time he goes out there, knows he has to be perfect — perfect! — for his team to have a chance. Screw that “pitching on the biggest stage for games that matter” nonsense. CC just has to go out and be good to above-average — he never faces the best team in his league, he has the best team in the league backing him up, and he faces offenses like…the Mariners. seriously. how is that pressure?

  14. fuzz - Sep 24, 2010 at 2:42 PM


  15. avg joe - Sep 24, 2010 at 2:48 PM

    /also a Magic nerd digging the GenCon reference.

  16. Jonny5 - Sep 24, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    Do it Doug. Just do it. like Nike. And Tiger. I would bet Felix is just better. of course nobody would take my bet because it’s pretty clear already he really is just better. I really like CC so don’t think I’m harshing. facts is facts. Who doesn’t like CC? he’s like a big teddy bear that’s the size of a grizzly.

  17. Bugmenot - Sep 24, 2010 at 9:21 PM

    Well the average AL team scores 4.46 runs per game. Seattle has scored 3.16 runs per game. New York has scored 5.31 runs per game.
    CC Sabathia has allowed 91 runs (both earned and unearned) in 33 starts over 229.3 innings. Therefore he allowed 2.76 runs per start, and averaged about 7 innings per start.
    Felix Hernandez has allowed 79 runs (both earned and unearned) in 33 starts over 241.7 innings. He has allowed 2.39 runs per start, and averaged about 7 1/3 innings per start.
    If we assume that teams are equally likely to score runs at any point in the game (which is probably not true), then the average differential when either pitcher left the game would be as follows:
    CC Sabathia Felix Hernandez
    Average Offense +.71 +1.24
    Yankees Offense +1.37 +1.94
    Seattle Offense -0.40 +0.18
    If I plug those numbers into the pythagorean expectation, it gives the following team records (NOT individual win/loss records, but the end result of whether the team ended up winning the game or not) as:
    CC Sabathia Felix Hernandez
    Average Offense 20-13 23-10
    Yankees Offense 23-10 25-8
    Seattle Offense 15-18 18-15
    so by this quick and dirty calculation Felix has been 2 or 3 wins better over this season.

  18. Mrsteve - Sep 25, 2010 at 7:47 PM

    Shouldn’t Veerlander be the CY Young then?
    I don’t think Grienke or Lincecum twice were the deserving winners but stats said they should be.
    But do those stats take into account the win/loss, runs, batting avg, on base % of their opponents?

  19. Trevor B - Sep 27, 2010 at 11:48 AM

    It is as if he thinks Hernandez is sitting behind a playstation controller and he cannot get his offense going even though he is pitching well.

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